Tag Archive: Interviews


Jan Fleming is a seasoned executive creative director, producer and brand builder who works in diverse media for some of the world’s most influential entertainment companies and lifestyle brands. Her clients include Sundance, The Walt Disney Company, Nickelodeon, Live Earth, Transworld Media and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Jan works in film, television, advertising, marketing, web/digital, publishing and consumer products.

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Notably, Jan served as VP/chief creative officer for Robert Redford, developing, designing and producing media and branding for many of the Sundance entities, including Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Institute, Sundance Channel and Film Series, Sundance Resort and Farms, Sundance Cinemas and Sundance Catalog.

As an executive at The Walt Disney Company, Jan led creative development for a major educational initiative, participated in the development of a learning channel for Disney ABC Networks, directed architectural/interior design and programming for Disney’s premiere regional entertainment initiative and collaborated with Walt Disney Imagineering on several innovative projects.

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Jan began in television, at Children’s Television Workshop in New York. She went on to create and produce a preschool series for Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr., serve as head of creative/content for Sundance Channel and participate in the development of LazyTown, the Nickelodeon/Sprout series and lifestyle brand focused on health/fitness for kids. She is currently in development on a series with MTV/Fox Digital.


What in your background/education/life experience prepared you to do the work you are doing now?

“Growing up in a small town. Traveling out and away from that small town. A deep understanding and questioning of religion. Working from a young age. Working. Working. Working. Doing it.

Small town life can be very narrow-minded. There’s a lot of insular behavior. I was fortunate that my family was inherently creative and open-minded in ways that were important. My parents were/are both creative, in their own ways. They could just do things. They were artful, but not purposefully. They just were/are. 
I was very close to my grandmothers and my great-grandmothers. All these strong women were important in opening up my heart and mind to the world. They were survivors. They had been through depression and war and death of husbands and family, yet they went on and were happy.

My Granny Opal was a born teacher. She taught in a one-room school house in the 40s/early 50s in Northwest Arkansas. She also loved to travel, learn and experience. She took me and my other siblings/cousins with her. But, I think that I traveled with her the most.  She took us to see and experience things around us – naturally beautiful things, history, our roots and museums, theater, art, ballet – things that create imagery and magic in the mind of a child.


I mention religion, because it definitely played a formative role in my life, and the way I see the world, in many ways. I realized, that when I was introduced to the world of “branding” – maybe during the days of Nick/Disney –  that branding is all about creating religion. The same patterns and methodology existed in what I’d seen growing up and in what “branding experts” were doing.


Humans can create and direct thinking of other humans by sending and packaging messages. Branding is about creating an image and “systems” that support that image and keep it intact.  Even if the image/system is made to be “unsystem-like” it’s a system. Religions have created and managed image/systems for centuries.

Systems are comforting. Believing in something and it’s way of thinking/system, provides a certain security. Systems help us to make sense of the world. They create values. They have rules. They set boundaries. They are logical. When they are good, they behave as you would expect. They are made to control in ways that are healthy, but can be unhealthy at times – if taken too literally or to extremes. You start to understand that inconsistency within a system of thought and/or deed can destroy any system or way of thinking. The rules then have to be expanded and changed and manipulated to reframe the image/system. When a brand/religion doesn’t walk the talk, then you have issues..

Religion also taught me that it’s healthy to question everything. Question why you believe what you believe, and who you believe. Question the strength, validity and consistency of any brand or system. I did, from a very early age.  It can be disconcerting to question what is human-made, but also freeing.”

 In creating Allegra’s Window, what were your chief concerns, stylistically? And how did those meld with your intentions for the viewers?

“Allegra was born out of opportunity. Nick Jr was just beginning and they were looking for a music series. I was head of development for Jumbo Pictures at the time. Such a youngster, doing all kinds of stuff. Jumbo had a relationship with Nickelodeon, because we made DOUG for NickToons.


John Hoffman. a producer I’d met working on a series for HBO/Children’s Television Workshop (Encyclopedia), came to me at Jumbo and said, let’s develop something. We started working on ideas together and Allegra was the result.”

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“Originally, we liked the idea of using puppets and also having a live characters, so that they could sing. I had gotten to know Marty Robinson, originally because of Sesame Street, but also because he had a workshop/loft near the Jumbo offices, which I’d visited.  He is an amazing puppeteer and it’s hard not to want to incorporate that magic, once you’ve been introduced to it. As the lead puppeteer on Allegra, Marty brought us the best of the best. The puppeteering team on the series was top-notch amazing. All those folks are A-list: Kathy Mullen, Anthony Asbury, Pam Arciero, Tim LaGasse, Heather Asche…Isabel!”


“We believed – and I still do believe – that puppets, used in artful ways, would add a certain warmth to the effort. Now that you can do so much with animation, it’s changed the game. Everyone want to use animation, and it’s beautiful. But, I still think that there is something new and fresh to do with puppets. Puppets rule.”  


What kinds of considerations do you bring to a project when thinking about an intended audience? Do you want kids to see things in a new way? Think outside the box? Or is it more about pure entertainment?

“Looking back, I think of Allegra as very rudimentary, in many ways, an experiment, really.  Nick Jr was doing a lot of experimenting then.  As we were making the series, they were doing quite a bit of research on preschool viewing habits. They were thinking more and more interactively about tv for preschoolers, so we were playing with that as we got the research – trying to incorporate new thinking and information as we went along.  Obviously, we all wanted the kids to feel an affinity with the main character, Allegra and see the world through her eyes (Allegra’s Window).  It was about helping little kids through little kid things – feeling small, going to daycare for the first time, making friends, learning how to play with others, dealing with siblings, having fun, family – just the normal stuff. ”

If you were creating Allegra’s Window today, what would you do differently?

“A million things!  First, my style/tastes have changed DRASTICALLY. I’ve grown as a creative director/designer/thinker. There would be a radical shift in the way things were designed.  The look and feel was way too busy!  Oy. 

Form. I think it would truly be a mixed media series and incorporate more animation and interactivity. The writing was truly great, but I know we could think smarter with another go at it. The music. I would get some of my music industry friends to help and pump that up, make it more energetic and poppy. I just know so much and have had the opportunity to become acquainted with such talented people.  We had amazing artists working with us on the show before. They have all grown way beyond that point in time as well…maybe they’d come back. We’d super team it.
There are much cooler, less hand-made ways of incorporating a mix of media now — but I’d still want to keep it warm and tactile and little-kid inclusive. It would be incredible to do it again, knowing what I know now. Really fun.


As a Creative Director, what do you need to know from a client before you feel ready to plunge in and start working on a project?

“A lot of things, but at the heart of it is, what is it that they really want? Finding that out takes time. Listening. I have become a good listener. Sometimes I have to listen and look for what’s not said overtly.”


 What brands are effective re: kids?

 “Kids. Hmmm.  Apple. iPhone, iPad — all the smart phone/tech brands are doing pretty well.”

Sundance has become a gargantuan brand – how did you go about creating themes that would emerge through the clutter of hundreds of screenings and thousands of people?


“Well, when you say “Sundance,” I assume that you mean Sundance Film Festival. The Sundance brand is something other.  Sundance is a family of related entities or brands: Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Institute, Sundance Channel, Sundance (the place) & Sundance Resort,  Sundance Cinemas, Sundance … etc.

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People should understand that Sundance is a real place.  It’s where everything started. That place is a mountain and canyon (Provo Canyon) that Mr. Redford stumbled upon in the late 50s. He bought 2 acres there in 1961 (for $500) and he preserved more land there over time and as he could. In the late 70s/early 80s, he and some industry colleagues started the Institute. He suggested that they do workshops up there for budding filmmakers, as he had this place and some land. That’s how it all came to be in Utah.
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The Film Festival came a bit later – to support those filmmakers and help to give smaller films a way to show up and possibly get out there. Sundance Film Festival is mainly held in Park City, which 40 miles away from Sundance.


“I have worked on most all of the Sundance organizations and I worked on the Festival for 10 years. Over time, the Festival has become the best known. It’s the most famous, for many reasons, a combination of what was happening in the world/film industry and what Mr. Redford and others cared about and were doing.

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The Festival is a gigantic event. It’s like the Olympics of Film, so thematic, branded design for this event has to be both beautiful and very functional. When I started working with the Festival, one of the main things that we did was “clean up” the information design and create some clear forms for communicating with Festival audiences. That was done interactively with the Festival/Institute staff to help to not only present solid, well-designed pieces, but to make sure that all media served a purpose.  There is now very little superfluous junk. Everything you see or hear or touch or use works better as a system to help people get excited about, understand and navigate the Festival.  I believed that cleaning it up was very important and that work paid off.

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 Over the years, developing the “themes” to skin that infrastructure of information design became an interesting challenge. At its core, the big idea underlying the Festival/Sundance brand is the same each year. I found that it was about finding a new facet of the big idea and focusing on that.”


Topping yourself is hard. It was always a process that Mr. Redford had a say in, but he let us fall or fly in the end. 


I recently went through my attic and looked at the span of the Festival work. There is some smart, beautiful work there, done by amazing designers. The thematic ideas were solid and they carried through. Some of my favorite themes where the most abstract. One year, I had the wild idea of using FIRE. First, I love looking at fire because it can be amazingly beautiful and it’s a part of that landscape and the mountain lifestyle, especially in winter, when the Festival is held.  

I liked that fire was symbolic of many things about Sundance and The Festival:  the incredible passion and drive of the Festival and filmmakers; the elements of heat, danger and risk-taking; the drawing effect that fire has in the cold; and that Sundance is at the iconic, fiery, molten heart and hearth of it all.  

So, for me, seeing FIRE, interpreted in all the ways we could throughout the media and design of that year’s Festival, juxtaposed to the frozen white of that place….well, it just worked. And it popped. The other challenge is that Park City is a cluttered landscape of buildings and signage. Whatever is done there, has to stand out, but also fit in and make sense…so, yeah, good luck with that.”


If there’s a Hollywood creative job that Doug Wood hasn’t done, it’s because that job hasn’t been invented yet. He was born in Chicago, where he acted in productions at The Next Theatre Company, The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, The Forum Theatre and The Second City, among others. He formed a comedy duo with Cheryl Rhoads, entitled The Fine Line, playing comedy clubs and theatres in Chicago and later L.A., including The Improv and The Comedy Store. Wood has worked as the creative executive for the Annie Award-winning films The Iron Giant and Cats Don’t Dance. He also served as the creative executive for the Emmy Award-winning TV series Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs. Wood has created two successful animated television series: Little Einsteins for Disney and Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies for National Geographic (for which he also authored the children’s book, “When Mama Mirabelle Comes Home). In addition to his work for Disney, he has written television shows for children at Nickelodeon, PBS, Discovery Kids, the BBC, Fremantle Media and more. At the Motion Picture and Television Fund he volunteers his services instructing senior citizens on the craft of Improvisation. In 2011, Wood directed, produced (with Jennifer Clymer), and wrote (with Maureen Kelly) a live-action short, Hi, Lillian, which stars veteran actor, Pat Crawford Brown, an improv student of Wood’s at the MPTV Fund. The film has won the Audience Award for Best Short at three film festivals: Dances With Films 15, Prescott Film Festival, 2012 and the 12th Annual Valley Film Festival. Wood also won an award for Best Emerging Filmmaker at the Prescott Film Festival. Hi, Lillian  is an Official Selection at the AWEsome Film Festival in San Jose, CA, the Reel Recovery Festivals in L.A., NY and American Independent Film Festival and the Legacy Film Festival in San Francisco.

You started out in the theatre, with all of its high highs and low lows – auditioning, finding the heart and soul of a character, receiving audience approval. Eventually you turned toward stage comedy; why did you make that transition and do you think comedy was always a driving force? 

“It wasn’t an intentional choice—it just happened, as is the case with many careers in this strange industry.  I was acting in serious plays in Chicago– I had done a show with Steppenwolf, then got my Equity card when I was cast in the Midwest premiere of The Shadow Box.  When that show closed I formed a comedy duo called The Fine LIne with a woman I had met during my two-year improv program at Second City under the great Josephine Forsberg.

It was something to keep me busy until I got cast in another play.  But after performing in comedy clubs, we started getting gigs in fancier nightclubs and within a few months I was able to quit my job at a bookstore and actually make a living as an actor.  I wound up doing The Fine Line for seven years.


But I should mention that The Fine Line was not stand-up, it was sketch comedy—short vignettes on male-female relationships.  So we treated each sketch as a mini-play and had the awesome opportunity to explore different characters and different themes.  As The Fine Line moved from nightclubs into Equity theatres and television, the sketches were able to tackle more substantive subject matter, so in a way, I never strayed too far from my theatrical roots. 

I’ve never been able to see a clear break between comedy and drama. To this day, in all my writing, I aspire to find the humor in serious material and explore darker themes in the funny stuff.  And the choices I make are generally based on trying to keep things as real as possible, even the kids cartoon shows I write.  My favorite films (by Robert Altman, Nicole Holofcener, Alexander Payne, to name a few) shift effortlessly between comedy and drama because those directors acknowledge that life itself is a dramedy. 

And my favorite TV series (Taxi, Enlightened, The Comeback, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Larry Sanders Show, Friday Night Lights, The Sopranos to name a few) are all tonally mixed and character-driven.  As a kid The Dick Van Dyke Show was my favorite series because it was so much more real than other shows.  I usually find really broad material grating and unsatisfying.”

Improv is an innate skill that can be developed and mastered, but can it be learned? It seems like it requires a particular kind of freedom and/or daring that may not be natural to some people. 

“I don’t think one can learn to be a good actor or a good writer if one doesn’t already have natural-born talent in those areas, although, studying can certainly improve one’s skills.  But I genuinely believe that anyone can learn to be a good improviser.  It’s so much simpler than most people expect—it’s all about turning off the critical left-brain and being instinctive—acting from the gut instead of the mind.  I believe this because I’ve seen it over and over again with my own eyes.

For the past nine years I’ve been a volunteer at the Motion Picture and Television Fund (“the Old Actors Home”) where I teach improv to the senior citizen residents once a week.  The class includes both professional actors and non-actors and after a while I can’t see any division between the two.  It’s really satisfying to see my students learn to be “in the moment” and become playful children again.  When that happens, the words just fly out of their mouths and they give no thought at all as to what their next line of dialogue will be.  I should add that nothing is off-limits and more often than not the seniors take the material into R-rated territory.”

As an improv performer and teacher, do you find yourself giving a running mental commentary to most encounters in your daily life? And is this a potential source for what you may transform into written material at some point?  

“I don’t do this intentionally, but I did learn early on the importance of observing, so yes, I quietly soak everything in and am a huge people-watcher.  Sooner or later some of it is bound to wind up in my work.

Careers in Hollywood aren’t planned so much as they emerge over time – and you have become one of the prominent creators and executives in the world of children’s entertainment. Have all your roads naturally led you to this place, or did you make a wild left turn at some point?

“Lots of wild left turns.  I can honestly say I never even remotely intended to become either a studio executive or a writer/creator of family entertainment.  Opportunities present themselves and you sort of go with the flow.

 I feel fortunate to work in an industry that allows one to jump from one thing to the next– alternating writing, directing, producing, developing, acting and consulting.  Experience in one discipline often informs the others so the shifts aren’t at all counterproductive. 

What do you look for in a property that tells you kids will enjoy it? Whether it’s one of your own creations or a product you are being asked to shepherd, are there key elements that are personal must-haves for you to be interested?

“Humor and relatable characters are the most important ingredients for me, and there has to be genuine emotion in the storylines otherwise the shows just aren’t about anything.  

Unfortunately, the current trend in preschool programming is for curriculum-driven shows that can be didactic and condescending.  Executives are uncomfortable with conflict and emotion, which, of course, is what writers are always drawn to.

The note we get most often is that the characters have to be completely likable and “aspirational,” so displaying insecurity, anger, sadness or fear is pretty much off-limits.  Not only does this make for bland and humorless entertainment, it also doesn’t provide kids with the tools they need to exist in the real world.  It also explains why many parents no longer want to watch TV with their kids.  Sadly, smart and witty shows like Sesame Street and the Peanuts specials are a thing of the past.”


As an executive, did you think like a writer? And as a writer, do you think like an executive?

“The most fun part of my job as an executive was working hand-in-hand with writers and artists.  Nothing makes me happier than being surrounded by talented people.  I love working collaboratively with writers in a room, beating out a story with note cards on the wall.  Most executives, however, don’t have creative backgrounds so they’re often baffled by the creative process.

I remember being horrified the first time I was asked to compile a writers list for a project on which we hadn’t yet received the original writer’s first draft script—in other words, it was just assumed the first writer would be replaced and totally rewritten even before anyone had even read one page of the script.  And this turned out to be a common practice, not an anomaly.  

So, in answer to your question—yes, I did think like a writer while I was an executive but that trait often put me at odds with other executives which is why I ultimately decided to return to my writing.

As a writer, I try not to think like an executive until I at least get a first draft down on paper.   Trying to please people while creating isn’t a good idea.  But thinking like an executive is useful when I’m consulting on someone else’s screenplay because they usually want to know how to write something that will actually sell.”

You have found success as a hyphenate writer-producer-director on a live action short. Has it whetted your appetite to continue on that path?

 “Yes.  When I made my first short film, Hi, Lillian (which I co-wrote with Maureen Kelly), I did it mostly as a learning experience.  I was a little embarrassed by some of the technical flaws so when it began to win awards for Best Short at film festivals, I was pleasantly surprised and strongly encouraged to make another film.  Mostly because I was eager to apply what I had just learned (and to avoid a lot of the mistakes I had made.) 

I raised money via Indiegogo so my second film, Entanglement, (which is almost complete at the time of this writing) is far superior in terms of production quality, and a little more ambitious in terms of story.  Making it was an incredibly satisfying experience, mostly because of the level of talent involved including the actors, producers and crew.  I still have a lot to learn as a director so I’m hoping I’ll have the opportunity to do another film, although I don’t think I’m capable of forcing myself to go back to all my friends and family who donated money and ask for more. 

The most satisfying aspect of directing an indie film for me (and I suspect a lot of filmmakers), is that it’s a rare opportunity to have some control over your own material, to be able to say what you want to say.  I recently had lunch with a former writer who had enjoyed some success in the industry.  When I asked her why she gave up writing for television she said, “the n-word:  notes.””

Vikas Kumar is CEO of Digitoonz, an animation house specializing in Flash, 2D, 3D and and motion-comic animation from its home base in Noida, about 12 miles outside of New Delhi.

Your company, Digitoonz, works on many international properties. Are there some themes or story lines that are common to most countries? Do you find that children are children pretty much the same, with similar interests and concerns?

“Digitoonz works on entertainment content for all age groups. We are developing the content for different countries and cultures. These shows are based on almost same themes, aiming to provide knowledge with fun & entertainment. About kids interests and concerns, I would like to say that yes, kids are kids and they love humor and fun. The stories may relate to their own unique environments and things around them so that they can relate themselves to the story, but the basic ingredient  is always fun and humor.”

When Digitoonz starts working on a new show, do you sit down with the creators and discuss things like culture, humor and style?

“Yes, actually this is very important. Our creative team communicates with Creators and Producers of the show to understand their thoughts behind the story, the key points of the story which we will need to keep in mind while working on it. Producers of shows also visit the studio during the production and spend time with whole team.”

Does every show have to be watchable in every country for it to be successful? Or is it possible for a show to focus on a particular region and still find global acceptance?

“Shows should be acceptable globally to be successful worldwide if it will relate itself to audience world e.g. kids’ fantasy world, which remain almost same irrespective of place, region & boundaries. Then it would be acceptable globally — even though some shows gain huge success in one country or region and still find overall success. A show featuring a soccer player will get good audience in soccer playing countries.”

Do you find the tastes of global broadcaster is shifting toward more diversity?

“Yes, broadcaster taste is shifting toward more variety. There was a time when most of the shows were based on traditional stories and on specific style, but now we can see shows based on many unique themes. You can find lots of shows with sci-fi stories and more interactive shows. You may also find the medium of content from 2d & 3d to mix media. We are watching these varieties in content & medium now because of their wide acceptance by broadcasters.”

What, in your opinion, makes for a solidly entertaining show for kids?

“Story and representation of the story are key point to make a entertaining show. The other features which are also very important are characters, colors and music. Music keep the kids connected with the show.”

Do you see Digitoonz developing its own projects in-house? Or do you prefer to tackle the production tasks for outside projects?

“Yes of course! Digitoonz is planning to develop its own projects. We are working as co-producers also on two shows and we will continue the production task for outside projects too.”


With a degree in Fine Arts, the animator Ennio Torresan, born in Rio de Janeiro, has been living for over ten years in Los Angeles, where he currently works as head of the story department at DreamWorks. Following his award-winning El Macho (1993), he became director of an animated series created by Ralph Bakshi for HBO, called Spicy City. Later he was screenwriter and storyboard director for SpongeBob Squarepants, for Nickelodeon. His next step was directing Disney’s Teacher’s Pet, for which he won an Emmy in 2003. At DreamWorks, he has helped to create Madagascar (1, 2 and 3), Kung Fu Panda, Megamind, and, most recently, Turbo. He has also found time to continue working in Brazil, on projects like the 2D feature animation Até Que a Sbornia Nos Separe, produced by Otto Desenhos Animados. He also still nurtures the passion for comic books that began it all, and has participated in the Scrambled Ink collection, by Dark Horse Comics, with an autobiographical story called The Guy from Ipanema.

The success of SpongeBob hit Nickelodeon like a tornado – no one seemed to anticipate how hugely popular the show would become. How hard was it to scramble and assemble episodes in the wake of such media and audience attention?

“Steve Hillenburg (creator of SpongeBob), who came from doing his personal short animated films, wanted to hire artists who’d had the same kind of experience and drive as himself. He wanted independent filmmakers on his show. I was free at the time after my show being developed at HBO, “El Macho,” was canceled.

The artists who first worked on SpongeBob were unlikely to succeed in other more conservative, script-oriented shows. The top management at Nickelodeon didn’t care much about SpongeBob so they left us alone to “try out” the script-less approach. Shows like CatDog and Angry Beavers were more in tune with what Nick’s top management wanted. However, the Sponge became an uncontrollable hit after being let loose. I saw Steve fight many battles to keep its integrity (including one executive who hated Southern accents!). Steve fought hard like he always did and Sandy remained a squirrel from Texas. That executive is no longer there, and Steve today has an estimated net worth of $90 million dollars.

Please don’t be naive, this kind of success doesn’t happen frequently. I’ve seen wonderful charismatic shows crash and burn more often than not. There are so many things that have to happen in the right order for a show to hit this big.”


What does it take to connect to the mind of a child? Do you maintain a strong connection to your own feelings and point of view as a small boy? Do you find kids are similar in what they want to see, no matter where they live and grow up?

“Kids are kids. Regardless of ethnicity, origin, background. They will laugh at the same jokes and are scared when the scary music cues happen. Making them laugh and engaged in a particular story becomes much easier once you have kids yourself, as I found out. Before having kids I was digging deep into my earliest memories.”

Your work is seen all over the world, and your personal projects have a distinctly international feel. Are all markets opening up to more diverse cultural themes in cartoons? Or is the industry divided between English and non-English speaking stories and types of characters?

“It seems that now more then ever, kids are in charge of what they want to watch. There are fantastic shows being produced straight to streaming video. Tinga Tinga and My Big Big Friend are just two of the most creative and well-realized shows these days. The first one was produced in Africa and the second was a co-production with Canada and Brazil. The world has become a much smaller place and great shows can be created and produced anywhere in the world.”


There are so many requirements for a cartoon’s global success – merchandising, ancillary products, etc. Is it possible for a smaller, simpler idea to find an audience these days?

“There is more competition now. There are more creators realizing their projects now than let’s say ten years ago. Streaming is changing the way we watch TV.


The way an idea goes viral these days depends on how much energy the creator can exert, and how persistent they may be. It took me five years to make my first short, which I had started in ’87. It was all animated on paper and shot on a 35 mm camera. There weren’t that many places to screen it afterwords. Today I could accomplish that in a fraction of the time and with much better tools, and it would be accessible to the whole world instantly.”


What are your hopes for the future of the animation industry?

“I wish there were directors as important as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, PT Anderson, Francis Coppola, Luc Besson, Roman Polanski, William Friedkin or Jonathan Demme who would be doing new kinds of animation. I wish animation would grow up and venture in the world of adulthood. That’s my wish for the future of animation.”


David B. Levy is Manager, Animation at Disney Publishing Worldwide. Over his career, Levy has directed animated TV series and pilots for Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Scholastic, Disney, Sesame Workshop, National Geographic, and the Fox Broadcasting Company. As a writer, Levy has been engaged by major companies such as Garan, Inc., Kidville, and Classic Media to create animated projects based on existing properties and by Disney, which optioned one of his original creations. As an author, Levy has penned the three essential books on the animation business (Your Career in Animation, Animation Development, and Directing Animation) and is the co-author of the upcoming Independently Animated: Bill Plympton (2011), published by Rizzoli press. “Grandpa Looked Like William Powell,” Levy’s recent indie animated short, was in over 55 film festivals worldwide including the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, Athens International Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, L.A. Film Festival, and the Atlanta Film Festival.


As the saying goes, you’ve written the book on animation, having immersed yourself in all aspects of the industry for many years. Why animation?

“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life. My father was a big art director in Advertising in NYC, so I grew up knowing one could make a living in the commercial arts. But, my passion was animation so I grew up making cartoons on the family super 8 and video cameras. I couldn’t wait to get home from school to work on my own cartoons each day. And, all these decades later, I still have that passion, only I love my day job (working for Disney) too! I am of the belief that animation is a very special art form with unique abilities to tell stories like no other way. It’s so much fun to push at the medium and see what it can do.


You have been a show creator, a writer, a director and an executive – what role do you find is the most natural for you, and how does it serve as a foundation for the others?

“For me, its been a gradual build up to the point where I now head an animation team at Disney. This current role has me using every skill that I’ve learned along the way, so all those old roles are still a part of me. The directing/supervision work is the hardest won because you have to know what it’s like to do all the jobs in the pipeline before you can effectively lead a team or supervise a production. Teaching at the university level for ten years has proven a big help to me because it required that I learn how to hold a class room of 50 students together. When you’ve succeeded at that, managing a team of 9 people doesn’t seem as daunting.

Do you prefer to work on original material or existing properties?

“It’s always fun being the first to figure something out. For instance, I am very proud that I supervised the animation for the Bob’s Burgers TV pilot, the very one that scored the series pick up. Opportunities like that are amazing. But, it’s also neat stepping in to something already in spin. My work at Disney, in app creation/production has me and my team interacting with all the classic properties and we take that responsibility very seriously. You feel the obligation and weight of that legacy.”

Have you been able to interact with your core audiences much, like attending market research sessions? Do you find street-level feedback valuable?

“When I was a director on Blue’s Clues I went to quite a few research testing sessions where our show concepts and rough animations were tested on classrooms full of preschoolers. That was eye-opening to see just how young our audience was and what level of development they were at. It definitely changed the way I thought about our product. I’ve had similar opportunities to see app user testing and it was just as enlightening.”

Sometimes young people want to jump into a creative career, but they’re not sure about how to develop their own unique voice and point of view. Following your gut instincts as a creative person – is that a skill you are born with and develop, or is it something that can be learned?

“If only! The first 10 years of my sideline indie filmmaker career are best forgotten because all I was doing was trying to ape other creator’s styles and failing miserably at that. I only discovered what my “voice” as a creator/filmmaker was when I ignored all that outside influence and just made what I wanted to make. Surprising things bubbled up when I allowed that to happen and I sure wish I could have tapped into that starting from college. The same pattern happened with my series pitches. None of them quite connected, until I made my own youtube series on my own terms, and then… POOF!… suddenly I got a distribution deal. Go figure! haha…

Cartoons are so much more than half-hour TV shows – does it ever concern you that a truly great piece of work might be overlooked because it doesn’t naturally extend itself to ancillary markets like theme parks and games?

“I can’t imagine how anything could get greenlit anywhere if it has to prove itself on all those fronts from the get go. More often it just needs to show potential to attract an audience. I think the smart execs know how to nurture that little seed. A whole forest can grow from the right little seed.

The animation industry is high tech, with digital connections linking companies from many different countries. Does this give smaller, less globally-dominant cultures a leg up into the mass market? Will it help level the playing field?

“I think social media and Youtube, etc, have leveled that playing field, along with how cheap and accessible it is to produce content. That won’t make content automatically worth watching, but it means more people have access to try at creation and I think that’s a great thing. And, the old guard entertainment companies are profiting from this new leveled playing field too because they get to use Youtube as a virtual applause meter to monitor trends or to pick up hot new projects from unexpected places.”

The stakes are always high in animation because of the cost. That same dilemma has forced the movie industry to rely on franchises. Do you see cartoons heading in the same direction, making it harder for quirky projects to gain a foothold?

“I think the onus is on the little guys and gals, for us to make our own passion projects. We need to believe in them first and prove it with actions. The big studios and entertainment giants need some level of franchises to develop brands and retain the audience. I don’t think creators should distract themselves with that reality. Just make what you want to make. Say what you want to say. Get it out there. Promote it yourself, and make more! Learn, grow, improve! There’s nobody stopping us.”

Are there cartoons from your childhood you wish you could work on now?

“I’m getting that opportunity at Disney. I wrote an app script/concept for Mickey Mouse with my awesome team and when I heard Mickey speaking our words it was quite an emotional moment. In a career we don’t usually have the time to stop and revel in moments like that. But, I’m okay with that. It’s fun to just keep on chugging to the next thing!”


John McKinley studied Fine Art and Illustration at Denison University in Granville Ohio, and at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He specializes in character design and humor, and has illustrated the Ready, Freddy book series for Scholastic. The series has more than 3 million copies in print. John’s work has appeared in diverse media, from Popular Science magazine to the LA Times to the famed Children’s Television Workshop.


Much of your work contains more than the simple illustration itself – I mean it often conveys ideas, wordplay, humor that stretches reality. Have you always been interested in extending the meaning and ideas in this way? Have you ever drawn a simple basket of fruit?

“Being an illustrator, I have to be able to draw anything and everything.  Knowing how to draw a bowl of fruit is important to me. Much like having gloves is important to a mountain climber. But extending the meaning is what it’s all about.  If I’m not employing wordplay, then I’m focused on the character’s unique expression. It’s never just the fruit bowl with no other message. That’s what art school is for.”


There’s a animated cartoon quality to some of your drawings – something akin to the old Tex Avery kind of va-voom! eyes, or the classic Warner Brothers hyper-reality. Were you a fan as a kid?

“I liked Warner Brothers cartoons, but my real inspiration came from the illustrators at MAD Magazine. Some of those guys, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Don Martin, Norman Mingo, Al Jaffee, Jack Rickard, all knocked my socks off. I wanted to be as good as them.  They were my heroes.”


When you brainstorm new ideas, are you chiefly interested in the words first (to create a visual pun) or is it more that you see or hear something and it strikes your mind in a way that tells you: this could be something interesting?

“Mostly it’s the words that come first.  A funny play on words will pop into my head then I’ll go to the drawing board and work it out.  I’m much more productive starting with a solid mental concept, than when I drift along drawing, trying to arrive at something. Of course I do spend tons of time drawing with no clear destination in mind.  I save ALL of my sketch books,  and will go back and look at them, because they are filled with funny ideas.  Things that didn’t strike me funny when I was drawing them.”


Your characters have a kinetic aspect to them, they are often captured mid-motion. But even when they are simply looking at the viewer, they seem to be ready to do something that could get them arrested. Do animals know more than they are telling us?

“Yes, definitely. I love the knowing stare…the eyes that lock onto the viewer.  I am endlessly amused at drawing animals looking right at me.  There’s plenty going on in animals heads that we don’t know about.   But the perfect, energetic, dramatic gesture is always successful in picture making. People like lively.”

What’s your favorite type of illustration? Do you prefer the one-off, stand-alone funny ones? Or would you like to get into more longform media like graphic novels?

“That’s easy, the stand alone drawing. Maybe it’s my short attention span,( I can barely follow a movie plot) but I prefer the impact of the single image.  I illustrate long stories, but my preference is short and to the point communication. I do love creating characters and whole universes of creatures. Instead of writing a script about what they say and think, I put it all in their faces.”


You have perfected a “John McKinley” style — did you start out drawing with this flavor or was it something that developed over time?

“The flavor has always been there but my technique has become more refined over time. I feel I draw better every day, which is a gratifying thing.  I am at a point now where “how to draw it” isn’t the challenge anymore.”



What do you hear from parents and kids who’ve seen you play the Grinch? Are they scared of him or do they pretty much get the joke?

“It’s up to two factors – the text has to tell a story that even the youngest kids can understand, and the production crew and the actors must deliver an atmosphere and a performance that finds the central message and communicates it. So with that in mind, we all know the Grinch is a grumpy guy, he frowns, he sings about being annoyed with Christmas. But kids know he is broken in some way. They see his silly behaviors, and they understand that the Grinch isn’t scary, he’s sad.


It’s a fine line, but Dr. Seuss created a character with real emotions, it all started with his book and the values in it. The book was a reaction to the way Christmas was changing after World War Two – the commercialization of the holiday, the emphasis on material things. We dress up the story with music and dancing and a lot of silly fun. But the foundation was set in stone many years ago.”


Now you’re playing a role that kids will remember forever.

“It’s what helps get me on stage sometimes three or four times a day. Our first director, Jack O’Brien, encouraged us to remember that we are telling a simple, honest story to a new generation of kids. For many of them, it will be their first experience in a large theatre, seeing a big production. So not only will they carry a Christmas memory with them, in many cases they’ll take away a larger-than-life experience that might encourage them to go see live theatre throughout their lives.”


Two of your signature roles, Robbie Rotten and the Grinch, have you wearing a lot of makeup, yet you are able to communicate emotion to the audience. How do you use your body to do that?

“It’s the same old story, it’s not about the makeup. That’s just the cherry on top. As an actor, makeup is just one of your tools, like dancing ability or a nice singing voice. Audiences watch an actor’s eyes, that’s where we’re able to get a message across. And kids do that too, they watch an adult’s eyes to see where they stand, in the home or in the classroom. And kids in the audience, they know when something isn’t real or authentic. No amount of makeup will fool a kid. Kids are the most difficult and also the most rewarding audience. They keep performers honest.”


You’ve become known for your physical comedy, much like Charlie Chaplin. Have you studied him?

“Oh yes. My university thesis was on Charlie Chaplin and his art. One of the stories that really touched me the reason he created the character of the Tramp, it was a key to so many things he did later. When Chaplin was a boy, his mother was sick and his father had to find work far away. Charlie and his brother Sid would play, but when they got hungry, there was no food. So Charlie and Sid would sit in the alley behind a neighborhood bakery. They couldn’t afford to buy bread so they would just close their eyes and smell the freshly baked breads and pastries. They would imagine that they were eating it, and for a short while, they felt full! They could go back and play with their friends until they felt hungry again, then it was back to the alley to imagine some more delicious food. That’s the power of imagination, and the power of Charlie’s connection to who he was before he found fame. People at their most basic. And so you show your imagination on stage – if you do it properly it’s like doing research on the human condition. How far can we go here?”


Obviously you’re very comfortable on stage. Do you manipulate your performances to match what’s going on with the audience? Do you get a sense of where they’re at and then use that to guide you?

“What goes on between an actor and the audience, at its best, is a dialogue. Sometimes you watch an actor on stage and somehow the performance isn’t getting through. The fourth wall is not only closed, it’s soundproofed. That’s because the actor isn’t connecting with the living and breathing human beings in the room with him. The audience feels the distance and they react accordingly.”


As an actor, you have to fire up your sensors at 100 percent all the time. You have to be in touch with all those heartbeats in the audience, connect with them. Sometimes during the Grinch performances, a child will shout out something. And I’ll turn right around, look them in the eye and respond to them. They light up like a Christmas tree – the Grinch talked to me!”


Do you see yourself as a role model, since many of your roles are geared toward children?

“I’m sure I am to some kids, but it’s the characters I play, they’re really the point, not me personally. I work to be a good role model to my own kids, that’s what parents do. But my public life is about the characters I play, and what kids can take away from those performances.”


Tell us about your anti-bully project.

“I’ve always been interested in promoting the anti-bullying effort, and my organization, Regnbogabörn, has found many successes. Recently we started a web site, which is sort of like TED.com. It’s called Lectures.is, and we present speakers who deliver helpful messages, no longer than seventeen minutes, on a wide range of topics that will help parents, teachers and victims of bullying. The web site is designed to give people more information about various conditions like ADHD, Asberger’s, and others, so that we can recognize our differences and understand them. We think that will help to decrease bullying to some degree.”


How do you feel about the state of live theatre these days?

“It means so much to me, this work we do. You know, every time there’s a recession, the first thing that goes on the budget chopping block is the arts. People question why we should pay for something we don’t need. It’s just people playing around, indulging themselves.

But I ask: can we not afford beauty? Is something that elevates our lives, raises our awareness, increases our humanity, is that worth preserving? One member of the Icelandic Parliament put it very well, I thought. He said those who think that money gives you all the wealth in life, they’re actually quite poor. And I agree with that.”

 * For tickets and more information about Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! see: http://www.grinchmusical.com/buy-tickets



Back in 1939, when Bob Kane and Bill Finger created the Batman character, no one could have anticipated the global phenomenon it would become. Comic books, TV shows, cartoons, movies – they have been a staple of kids’ lives for over 70 years. The movies alone have become a billion-dollar industry, with everyone from George Clooney to Christian Bale to Ben Affleck donning the cowl.

But something truly incredible happened this week, you may have seen the news article or watched the video. A young boy from San Francisco, in remission from leukemia, was granted his heart’s desire from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Five-year old Miles Scott’s wish was to battle bad guys with Batman – and the city of San Francisco came through with an amazing display of generosity – and melodrama.

Patricia Wilson, of the Foundation, arranged to have Miles save the city, now transformed into Gotham City, alongside his caped hero. Hundreds of people volunteered to help, and many more turned out to cheer Miles on as he swooped from one dilemma to the next, saving damsels and arresting villains.

The pictures tell the story: a little boy’s wish came true, thanks to some incredibly good people, and a cartoon that was created a lifetime ago. 


Becky Fisher works as an independent education consultant for various organizations including Edutopia, EdSurge, and Drawp. She loves building things that promote creativity and believes that education technology should be cultivating a generation of passionate learners. Becky has a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and currently resides in San Francisco.


Can you describe the mission of Edutopia?

“The mission of Edutopia is to improve the overall K-12 learning process for all stakeholders. We want to be a place where teachers, administrators, parents, and community members can come together and both learn and talk about education. Edutopia has a rich community, which makes it very unique. Anyone can ask questions and receive advice, bloggers receive multiple responses to their posts, and teachers have a wide array of resources at their fingertips. It’s a great blend of learning, sharing, and community building.”


What role does entertaining kids have in the world of education? Have kids grown up being entertained so much that they have a hard time learning without that component?

“Learning should always be entertaining. This is a huge problem in education because traditional learning and school have always had a reputation for being “boring”. But growing up, and I bet many people can relate, my most effective teachers made material come to life in an engaging and entertaining way. As a teacher I tried my best to uphold this methodology.


These days there is more emphasis placed on making learning fun, entertaining, and interactive. Somehow, these adjectives have become synonymous with technology and gamification, but we often forget that the path of the learning entertainment industry, sometimes referred to as ‘edutainment’, was originally forged by the groundbreaking show in Sesame Street. Back when TV was the only method of entertainment and edutainment, and Sesame Street was one of the only sources of learning in the media, there was little worry about the effect it had on children in the classroom.”


Now that students can access learning and games on multiple devices, that worry has increased significantly. Will students have a hard time learning in the classroom without the presences of “edutainment”? Do students need an iPad to be able to focus? Has this type of entertainment increased the presence of ADD? Without the proper research, these questions are hard to answer.


I argue that the increase in available learning technologies is a good thing. Maybe the way we entertain children has changed, but children have always craved this type of learning. Learning should be playful, fun, and exciting, no matter its form. Ultimately, it’s a teacher’s job to deliver the material in an interesting and relevant way. There’s no denying that students can learn without iPads, videos, or gamifying lesson plans. However, these things are not necessary to ignite wonder within a child. At it’s core, learning should always strive to be entertaining, no matter what form it takes.”


What can kids learn from multimedia storytelling?

“Storytelling is arguably the most important skill that one will acquire in their lifetime. And multimedia storytelling is especially significant because it allows for stories to be relayed in whatever form the teller is most comfortable with. In our modern age, everyone needs to be able to tell a story. From resumes, to TED talks, to concerts, to coding, storytelling is a ubiquitous part of our lives, and the ability to tell a complete, relatable, and coherent story is an important life skill.


Kids are currently consuming media at a higher rate than any previous generation, and the content creation that is occurring is by far the most exciting. Kids as young as 4 or 5 can create videos, cartoons, code, and more, and there is a growing emphasis on this culture of creation. With proper education kids can not only create content, but generate effective and educational material that is consumed by others. In the future, I predict that personal YouTube channels are going to tell as much about a person as their Facebook Page, with content collected over years of making.


Multimedia storytelling teaches kids that they can be who they are and express themselves in a medium that they are most comfortable with. It empowers youth to share their voice, whether through dance, music, abstract art, photography, writing, doodling, poetry, cooking, or any other medium through which a story can be told (and there are many). If a student wants to compose an etude or an R&B song to share their story, shouldn’t that be as relevant as a story that can be read from a book? In this way, multimedia storytelling can open up a world of creation to students who identify with any means of expression.”

Since kids are growing up immersed in technology, often by themselves playing a game or a hand-held device, is the future of learning headed toward a solo school experience?

“Education and learning throughout your lifetime is a holistic experience. It does not happen at one time, in one place, or with one person. Nor, will it ever. Therefore, I do not believe that the future of learning will ever be a solo school experience. However, I do believe that the way students learn in schools is changing and the classroom of the future looks very different from the classroom of today, though there are glimpses of it in the present.


A ‘one size fits all’ education is no longer relevant. Students learn at different paces, in different ways, and it is our job as educators and education influencers to be sure all students’ needs are being met. I believe that a blended learning model is the future of classroom learning. This model assesses each child in all subjects and allows teachers to meet each student where they are. Blended learning allows students to learn at their own pace through a variety of methods include online and offline, in-class instruction and tablet learning. Peer-to-peer learning can also be a strength in this type of classroom. The flexibility in this methodology is intended to reach every student and give him or her the greatest chance for success.

There are many different classroom techniques that are currently seeing lots of success, including project-based learning, game-based learning, flipped classrooms, and even the old-fashioned chalk-and-talk (in some circumstances). Though I believe the future of classroom learning will be vary from school to school, the blended learning model can be applied to a variety of schools from public to private, large to small, and urban to rural. No matter where you are from, there will always be students with differing needs and abilities. Though I can’t picture the future of learning headed towards a solo school experience, our current path indicates that learning will be much more individualized.

How can music play a role in a child’s’ education?

“Music, along with the rest of the arts, is crucial to a well-rounded education. Just as multimedia storytelling is arguably the most important skill to learn, the arts are arguably the most important way for students to find and channel their voice. Although kids should always learn that it’s okay to fail, the arts provide a safe space in which to do so.


When I taught music I used a Hungarian methodology called The Kodály Method. Essentially, it uses games and folk songs to teach students how to read, sing, and play music. My goal was to teach music as a language and have all students fluent by grade 5. Ultimately, I wanted to teach music as a hard skill that could be used in the future when they sign up for their college choir or play in a band. But in practice, the take-away is much deeper than that. Students took ownership of their work and pride in their creative failures and successes. I learned many things from my students, but the most important lesson was how the arts help develop soft skills like empathy, creativity, teamwork, confidence, and responsibility. These skills build character and provide the tools for students to transform into who they want to be.”


Bússi Sigurðsson is at the producing helm of one of TV’s premiere brands – LazyTown. He oversees several hundred dedicated production staff members, ensuring that thousands of moving parts somehow come together to create the hyper-kinetic series.

Where does your core responsibility lie in producing a show for kids?  

 “Making sure that we remain true to the core concept of bettering the lives of children. A show like LazyTown has a special responsibility. We’re an entertainment property for sure, but we’re more than that. We’ve asked parents to believe in us as a safe, responsible partner in helping to educate their kids about healthy choices. That’s something that every one of us feels, from the show’s creator to the newest employees who join us. It’s a personal mission for all of us.”


How do you balance the needs of budget and schedule with the creative content of the show? 

 “It’s not easy. If we had our preference, we’d probably like to take a few weeks to create every episode. They’re simply that complicated, on a production level. We have established a certain look and feel that audiences have come to expect, and we don’t want to lower our standards, regardless of budgetary and schedule restraints. We have a first-rate team who can come up with a solution to any problem that arises, and often the most creative answers come when we’re in a pinch and we need a way to reach the goal line. We love big ideas, we love telling larger-than-life stories – but we also want to be good partners with Turner, bearing in mind that this is, after all, a business.”


What is your proudest achievement in the entertainment industry?

 “Lazytown is the top – it is hands-down the premiere project of my professional life. I´m really proud of being a part of this fantastic show with such a great message. And the team is the best I’ve worked with.”


There are so many platforms that present kids’ TV shows – laptops, Ipads, etc. Do you take these things into consideration when producing a show?

 “Yes we do – especially here in Iceland, where we’re all pretty mad for new technology. But a good story is still the key. The show has elements that can be tailored to different platform needs. but it’s not our main concern. That said, we are always trying to think ahead, to anticipate where the entertainment industry is headed. We produce live theater shows, apps, music CDs, talking books, and many others. LazyTown is a brand that really lends itself to multiple platforms. But again, without a good story, well told, we’d be lost. We place enormous emphasis on our story development – and we have gone nearly fifty drafts of some scripts, in an effort to make sure they are just right.”


You work on shows that are seen all around the world. Does that ever seem incredible to you, or is it all just part of the industry now?

 “It’s something that a kid growing up in Iceland would never really imagine. This is a small market, and despite the fact that there are world-class production facilities and exceptionally-trained professionals, LazyTown’s penetration into the global market has exceeded anything I could have imagined.”


What are your biggest surprises about producing a globally-viewed show?

 “Having such an active fan base in all age groups. Our fans are incredibly loyal, they start online forums about the show, they are in contact with us here, they incorporate our healthy message into their own lives. It’s hard to imagine another show that both kids and parents willingly accept into their homes on this level.”


Do you get many chances to exhale and say, “That’s a perfect show,” or do you always feel that there’s something else that needs to be done?

 “We haven’t done the perfect show yet and not sure we ever will. You can always do better, there’s almost always another detail, another edit, another special effect you wish you could have time for. Part of being a producer of a show like this is learning that, at some point, I have to make the call to send the product out the door. We have partners and obligations, and in order to continue to keep making these shows, we will always honor our commitments.”

 A favorite kids’ show from your childhood?

 “Felix the Cat” really early on but then “Tom & Jerry.” I still love them!”



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