Keeping it Compelling

Mar 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As kids become increasingly sophisticated television viewers, animators have to up the ante with their craft. Computer-generated images, Flash animation and innovative combinations of two-dimensional and three-dimensional creations are the state-of-the art animation tools used to keep the little eyeballs glued.
But programmers emphasize that no amount of gee-whizzery can ever replace good characters and a compelling story. The technology of animation, they say, should remain the icing on the cake.
Interesting and inventive animation is an added value, said Cyma Zarghami, executive VP and general manager with Nickelodeon. First and foremost, though, kids want characters they are passionate about, she said.
Popular Nickelodeon show Jimmy Neutron-the first CGI show with human kids-works so well because kids like the character, she said. The animation is the wrapper.
Nonetheless, Nickelodeon will continue to develop more CGI shows. Staying on the cutting edge of technology is important because kids have so many more choices now and know how to use computers at a younger age. “We want to know what the next thing is. Maybe it’s CGI and cell [animation] combined. It looks different and really cool,” Ms. Zarghami said.
Disney Channel launched Rolie Polie Olie, the network’s first CGI show for preschoolers, in its Playhouse Disney preschool block four years ago.
“What CGI did was make it more alive. Animation is generally a flat art,” said Rich Ross, president of entertainment for Disney Channel. “The sophistication of little kids is amazing-and we want the show to be interesting for the parent/caregiver watching with them.”
Another form of animation growing in popularity is stop motion, in which figures are moved and shot frame by frame. Disney Channel plans a fall 2003 introduction for Joe Joe Circus, which will be created completely in stop motion. The technique has been around for a while, but now possesses a more fluid, updated look since digital cameras are used to shoot each frame, Mr. Ross said.
Walt Disney Television Animation plans to develop shows in stop motion and CGI as well as programs that integrate 2-D images with 3-D computer-generated images in the vein of the movie Treasure Planet, said Barry Blumberg, president of Walt Disney Television Animation. “We would look for our own ways to do that,” he said. “It allows you to expand your world. In the 2-D world you work in a flat plane. This allows you to go into the third dimension and move around in a way you couldn’t before.”
Disney programs created in these new styles of animation will likely make it to air in late 2004 or 2005, Mr. Blumberg said. “A lot of [animation] is eye candy and catches a kid’s attention initially, but the reality is our primary focus here is great characters and great stories with heart, humor and theme,” he said. “If we can bring those elements together you can have a successful show with animation as simple as what you think of in something like [Cartoon Network’s] Powerpuff Girls or as complicated as something like [Disney’s] Lilo and Stitch.”
Flash animation, a type of simple animation pioneered on the Internet, is generating attention. Kids’ WB’s Mucha Lucha is done entirely in Flash, which has a quick turnaround time and is flexible. The technology has allowed the network to pursue some unusual brand extensions for the show.
Kids can create online their own masks for the show’s wrestlers and about three to five of their designs appear in each episode, said Suzanne Kolb, executive VP of marketing for The WB and Kids’ WB. The Internet submissions can be quickly converted into Flash for the show, she said.
“Animation helps to make a show unique. If animation style is unique or distinctive it can be one more way for the show to stand out,” she said.
The challenge in serving a young audience is keeping them interested in kids shows rather than adult programming, said Linda Simensky, senior VP of original animation for Cartoon Network. Animation tools can help.
Cartoon’s Courage the Cowardly Dog, for instance, boasts some innovative animation combinations, she said. The artists scan actual bits of real material for the backgrounds, so they appear almost “photorealistic.” Several of the network’s “Adult Swim” programs are created in Flash.
The network has yet to carry a CGI show. “It’s not important to push the envelope on animation if you make good shows with good characters that kids like,” Ms. Simensky said. “To me technology is just a tool.”