In an era of 3D and iThings, less is often more in the animated realm of preschool programming.
While many networks use the web and visual effects to enhance their content, producers of kid shows say that even in a visually advanced world, creating engaging characters trumps the pressure, if any, to make use of new technologies.
Finding a balance between entertaining, engaging and sometimes educating young viewers, with or without a 3D spaceship, will always pose a challenge.
“In a good show, everything blends together,” says Lesli Rotenberg, senior veep of children’s media at PBS. The cabler, home to shows including “Sesame Street,” “Curious George” and new-for-fall “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That,” often includes an educational component to their series, walking a fine line between visually arresting and distracting animation.
On top of that, many of their programs have roots in children’s literature, so the creative teams took pains to tweak familiar characters, like Dr. Seuss’ cat, so they’d fit into an animated world while maintaining their integrity.
“(Animators) worked really hard to get his fur right and to get him to move the right way,” PBS Kids programming veep Linda Simensky says.
The show’s many cartoon animals, too, had to look realistic enough to be educational but not too realistic that they stuck out from a 2D Seussian world.
“In a way, you end up simplifying the design but keeping all the attributes,” says Simensky.
Many networks are taking these designs to the web and, in some cases, to the tiny palms of their viewers. PBS has released iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch apps for “Super Why!” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” with app releases for “Dinosaur Train” and “Sid the Science Kid” slated for later this fall. The network, along with Nickelodeon, also offers children’s programming online.
“Kids have a more sophisticated palette now,” says Rotenberg. “The bar is higher.”
“Dora the Explorer,” now entering its 12th year on Nickelodeon, proves that advanced effects on television don’t make or break a show’s appeal.
“We haven’t really seen a dip in our ratings,” says show co-creator and exec producer Chris Gifford. “Our show entertains the audience, and a lot of that is because of the love for our character.”
One way to connect auds with characters, and the thing Gifford says his team gets the most notes on, is “eyes to screen” — making sure it appears that Dora’s looking right at the viewer. Eye size, it turns out, can also distract more than any other visual.
“If it was the real world, Dora would keep running into rocks and trees,” says Gifford.
In addition to eyes and fur, creative teams must also consider pacing, timing and transitions, the latter of which can be difficult for young viewers. The “Dora” creative team works with groups of kids in the show’s animatic stage to make sure the animation doesn’t rush or slow down the story and that scene changes, whether simple or elaborate, won’t confuse them.
“We really have checks and balances all along the way,” says fellow co-creator and exec producer Valerie Walsh Valdes.
Valdes and Gifford agree that they’d only experiment with 3D or other visually advanced technologies if it would be an interesting expansion for the “Dora” brand.
“I don’t think (we) feel as if it’s something we’re pressured to do,” says Gifford.
The Jim Henson Co., which produces “Sid the Science Kid” for PBS, uses CGI on its famous puppets for the show. CEO Lisa Henson says this allows them to retain the immediacy and interactiveness of a puppeteered performance while adding realistic physical movements.
“No matter what kind of new media comes along, or new distribution system, we think our shows are going to live or die based on how great the characters are,” Henson says.