Tag Archive: Sportacus


Saying goodbye to Sportacus

To match feature FINANCIAL/LAZYTOWN

It’s the end of an era. Magnus Scheving has announced he will no longer portray Sportacus, the heroic character he created many years ago. LazyTown will continue, and another actor will step into the role. But for multitudes of fans, Magnus will always remain the definitive realization of the blue-suited hero.

As Head Writer for LazyTown, I’ve spent hundreds of hours with Magnus, brainstorming, revising, tweaking – endlessly manipulating story and dialogue in order to create a blueprint for our technically complex production. We have worked around the clock – in offices, at his home, in cars, on planes, and in many countries.

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Magnus insisted on change after change, never settling for what he felt was only good – he wanted great. That didn’t mean we agreed on everything. But at the end of the day, he was the man who had to carry the larger burden of transforming the script into a television show. There were so many moving parts involved, and his responsibilities didn’t end on the last page of the scripts, as mine did.

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One of the more impressive things I witnessed was in watching Magnus give epic recaps of our long story sessions. We would work on script beats for three, four, even five hours. Mind numb, brain exhausted, all I wanted to do was go listen to music or otherwise clear my head.

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But Magnus would say, “Okay, let’s go through it again.” And he would launch into a microscopic breakdown of every single detail – even elements that were only mentioned casually or tossed around as asides. What I wrote down to remember, he kept in his head. And he did this for dozens of scripts simultaneously. It wasn’t unusual for him to bring up an element of a script six months later, that had been considered but rejected at the time. He was able to keep that detail in his data base for future reference – after I had long since deleted it from mine.

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Another important skill he possesses is an ability to maintain a constant connection to the big picture. By that, I mean as the creator of LazyTown, Magnus had plans in mind for live shows, movies, props – even theme parks – that our script writing needed to support. If we threw around an idea about a new gadget, he considered its use in the context of what our needs might be, brand-wise, three years down the road.

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Sportacus is a superhero and thus, a man of action and not necessarily words. The last thing a superhero needs to do is talk endlessly about what he’s going to do. He simply needs to do it. So his character wasn’t always given the most interesting lines of dialogue. Still, a quick review of past episodes will demonstrate that Magnus always instilled his on-camera time with energy, superhero savvy, and kid-relatable wisdom.

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The most challenging aspect of writing for Sportacus was in coming up with the opening sequence of the show – Sportacus alone in his airship. There, he would go about his home life, preparing food, cleaning out his sports closet, etc. But our mandate was to create mini-stories that would show how inventive and sports-related his actions were. So we would turn a Christmas tree decoration into a manic gymnastic display. Making fruit salad became a master class in juggling and vaulting.

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For every story idea that eventually became an episode, we pitched dozens that were rejected. Some of them even made their way to script stage but for one reason or another, they were deemed unworkable. And some scripts needed dozens of rewrites – the most being 47 drafts (I won’t mention which show required that many revisions). We created tales of dragons, moon landings, snow monsters and birthday parties. Sportacus has been made invisible, sent into sugar meltdowns, trapped in a trash compactor, and he has come face to face with a menacing robot. In bringing these stories to life, Magnus has done thousands upon thousands of jumps, spins, kicks, flips – and he has done his “signature” Sportacus move uncountable times.

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So while he will no longer wear the costume of Sportacus, Magnus’ time as the blue elf will endure. The other Sportacii that will take on the role will be amazing and entertaining, no doubt. They will each bring something unique to the character, and will find a way to make it theirs. LazyTown will continue, in one form or another, for a long time.

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But there’s only one first of anything. In creating and defining the role of Sportacus, Magnus Scheving has given kids around the world a role model for good health and fair play. His efforts will resonate for years to come – wherever there are kids who love to laugh and play, along with a slightly above-average superhero.

 

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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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2005: Iceland – It was another long day of production on the LazyTown sound stage. In fact, it was the start of the next day, as we continued our creative brainstorming session past midnight. Everyone was packing up their belongings and heading home for a few hours’ sleep. There would be yet another early call for the crew and cast to assemble for that days’ shoot.

The phone rang. Usually, the answering machine would pick up the call, but for some reason, this time it didn’t. A colleague, Dean Koocher, picked up the phone.

On the other line was a gentleman named Rob Stock, calling from Belleville, Illinois. Rob didn’t know it was the middle of the night in Iceland. He had tracked down the office number and simply called, hoping to connect with someone. He said that his young daughter, Jenny, was a big fan of LazyTown. He had scoured the local stores, and had checked online, but was having a hard time finding any merchandise for sale. In particular, he was trying to find a “Stephanie” costume for Jenny to wear.

Dean knew that my home in the US wasn’t far from Belleville, and he put me on the phone with Rob, thinking I might be able to help.

But LazyTown had only debuted on Nickelodeon a few months earlier, and there was simply no merchandise available at the retail level just yet. Rob asked if there was anything else we might have – photos, or possibly even autographs.

Rob explained that Jenny had been diagnosed with leukemia. She was in the middle of long months of chemotherapy sessions. They were prolonged and brutal, and young Jenny’s energetic, normally upbeat personality was being drained.

One of the few things that made her smile – a bright spot on chemo days – was watching episodes of LazyTown. She was charmed by the stories, the silly humor, its can-do spirit. Most importantly, it gave her something to look forward to. Instead of dreading the hours spent having toxic medicines course through her body, she could find some relief by focusing her attention on the antics of Sportacus, Stephanie and the LazyTown gang.

As it happened, I was due to make a trip home, which was fairly close to where Rob and his wife Greta took Jenny for chemo treatment. I gathered autographs from the cast members, took tons of photos, and found some props that the production graciously allowed me to have. And I took the whole package to Jenny.

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She greeted me with a tremendous hug that belied her fragile physical state. The smile on her face lit up the room as her parents and nurses watched her unwrap one-of-a-kind mementos from her favorite show. She thrilled at the personal notes from the cast, and she seemed to gain energy not from the gifts themselves, but from the kindness of those who had given them.

Rob and Greta beamed, filled with joy at seeing their daughter so happy. They had been through grueling months, and there would be many more to come. But in that moment, their weight seemed lifted.

Eventually, Jenny’s strong will and her unbreakable spirit – along with top-notch medical care and the loving support of her family – beat back the leukemia. Jenny grew healthy and was even able to travel to Iceland where she met her heroes on the very sound stage where the episodes were produced. Jenny returned to school and, last year, she graduated from high school with top honors, well on her way to what will surely be an amazing life.

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Because of the persistence and dedication of Rob Stock and her whole family, Jenny found the strength to survive her illness. And LazyTown played a small part in her recovery, thanks to a Dad who wouldn’t give up until he found a way to make his daughter smile.

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No doubt there are many stories of children connecting to their favorite shows during times of crisis. But this one feels special; it’s almost unbelievable the good that came from what might otherwise be considered a run-of-the-mill kids’ TV show. A production shot in the middle of a lava field somewhere in Iceland went halfway around the world, into the heart of a little girl with a desperate illness. That, combined with a very determined and loving father, produced something that feels an awful lot like a miracle.

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Hidden lessons in LazyTown

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By now, most viewers know LazyTown for its messages of healthy living, balanced meals and positive attitude. Kids around the world have responded to these messages and have incorporated new behaviors into their daily routines. There are measurable increases in the amount of water that kids drink every day, motivated by the show’s hero, Sportacus.

But we also strive to include helpful messages to kids within the context of story lines having nothing to do with being healthy. We scatter those messages in a way that is hopefully seamless; kids can spot preaching a mile away, and we can’t afford to be heavy-handed with those ideas.

I chose a random LazyTown episode – “Scavenger Hunt” – and pulled out several key lessons that kids can learn simply by watching. They’re simple and not terribly deep – but because they’re delivered with basic honesty by trusted characters, they have a chance to be incorporated into the everyday lives of young viewers.

1. Turning an activity into a challenge can make it more fun

By example, Sportacus shows kids that any kind of household chore can be transformed into a game. His attitude is positive, he has a smile on his face, and he throws himself into his activities with enthusiasm. Parents can entice kids into brushing their teeth by inviting them to do it while standing on one leg, or while humming a tune. Suddenly, a boring chore brings a smile.

2. Recycling saves energy and helps keep your home clean

The Mayor of LazyTown and Stephanie explain – in a non-preaching manner – what recycling is and why it’s good for our environment. It’s a brief moment in a very busy, active show, but it presents recycling as a routine behavior that we should all adopt.

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3. Develop strategies toward an objective

The show demonstrates that, just because something is hard, or even seemingly impossible, kids can find a way to achieve when they think things through and adapt to new challenges.

4. Toys should go back where they belong when playtime is over

Parents can relate!

5. Garbage goes into the bin, not on the floor

Again, this idea isn’t presented in a preaching manner, it’s something that simply makes sense. No one wants to live in a messy environment, and the show demonstrates that taking an extra moment to clean up is well worth it.

6. You’re never too old to play

Spoken by our resident hero, Sportacus – the idea gives kids an important foundation they can carry with them their whole lives.

7. Balance your sweets with healthy food

Of course, this is a standard LazyTown message, but it’s important to restate it often. We are not attempting to demonize any particular behavior, especially for kids who have a hard time controlling themselves at younger ages. We want them to keep in mind that sweets are fine – in moderation and when balanced with healthy, energizing foods. Kids really can learn to find as much joy in healthy foods as they do in candy.

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8. Fruits and vegetables give us energy

Every episode delivers the unmistakable message that Sportacus gains his powers from eating “sports candy.” Our version of Popeye eating spinach, Sportacus tells the kids at home, again and again, he increases his strength from healthy foods. This gives parents a perfect opportunity to bring that message into the home’s daily routine.

9. Teamwork makes every task easier and more enjoyable

The kids in LazyTown show this simple message in nearly every episode. Teamwork is a concept that must be developed – working with others who may see the world differently, combining conflicting agendas, finding a way to agree on a goal. We hide the messages within the story but we always make sure to complete the circle by explicitly stating: difficult things can be achieved when everyone works together.

10. Go outside!

It may seem counterproductive for a TV show to encourage kids to leave their televisions to go outside, but that’s what LazyTown does. A typical episode of LazyTown takes place in exterior locations for least 90 percent of the time. Being locked up in a room, playing video games, on a beautiful sunny day is discouraged. We try to show that there’s a lot to do and see outside, things that no TV show or video game could match for variety and beauty.

Take a seat and watch a random episode of a kids’ TV show with your child – see if you can find some of the positive, hidden messages, and then talk them over. Your child may have spotted some that you missed!

Writing for Robbie Rotten

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A rubbery face. Physical grace. Comedy gold all over the place.

That’s Stefan Karl, the gifted actor who plays Robbie Rotten in the global hit series LazyTown. Stefan is a classically trained actor who has appeared on stage in dozens of serious roles, as well as performing the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in sold-out theatres all over the United States.

But he’s best known for his antics as the lovable villain, Robbie Rotten, whose only goal is to return LazyTown back to its formerly lazy ways. To accomplish this, Robbie employs a menu of outrageous, Snidely Whiplash, bad guy behavior – from sending his nemesis, Sportacus, into outer space in a rocket, to hauling the town’s apple supply away in the belly of a flying dragon.

But Robbie must never be seen as evil. Toddlers watch the show, and so whatever trouble he causes, it must be comedic, first and foremost. In lesser acting hands, that could easily produce cliched mugging to the camera and repetitive (and boring) faux-menace. But Stefan possesses an extraordinary capacity to find those details that transform a silly monologue into a thing of beauty.

As head writer for LazyTown, I’ve been lucky to create many fun disguises for Robbie. And the real satisfaction comes from knowing that, whatever I come up with, Stefan will bring it to life with panache.

One role in particular is a good illustration of his talent: in 2004, we produced over 30 episodes of LazyTown. Each show contained choreographed action sequences, a music video, dance numbers, special effects and puppets mingling with live actors. There was barely time to breathe or think straight. Our schedule was brutal, and the actors were asked to learn scripts that were constantly being revised – often at the last minute.

We found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to cancel a planned shoot for the following week. After spending the entire weekend attempting to solve our problem, we realized that we had no material to shoot on Monday morning. An entire crew, assembled and waiting, would have nothing to do. That’s an expensive dilemma.

I came up with a quick solution – one that could only be realized with Stefan Karl on the team. I stayed up all Sunday night writing a new script called Miss Roberta. By 7 a.m. on Monday, the script was copied and distributed. The costume department designed a fast – and brilliant – disguise, transforming Robbie into the very proper and very funny Miss Roberta.

Stefan quickly digested the script, found its core, and proceed to play the hell out of that part. If you ever get a chance to watch the show, you may have a greater appreciation for his skills, knowing how little time he had to prepare. It’s a delightful, hilarious turn, and it’s a role I hope we can one day revisit.

Here are some classic images of Robbie Rotten in his various disguises, as portrayed by Stefan Karl:

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