Monday, November 26, 2007

The long shadow of Little Bill and a Little Blue Puppy.



Working a long stint at Blue’s Clues between 1997 and 2004, I was able to witness an interesting movement in talent that would come to dominate the NYC TV series community. Some time in the late 90s, we Blue’s Cluesers were informed that Mr. Bill Cosby would be stopping by for a tour of our operations. He had inked a deal with Nick Jr. to turn his line of children’s books, featuring a character called Little Bill, into a preschool TV series. For this new series, Nick Jr’s second done in-house in After Effects, it was a natural idea to seed its staff with experienced Blue’s Clues veterans. Among those that made the show-to-show switch were Jen Oxley, Nancy Keegan, Michael Dougherty, Chris Boyce, Adam Osterfeld, Chris Gelles, Jane Howell, and Olexa Hewryk. Not before long, the fledgling crew exploded to occupy two floors in a brand new studio at 1633 Broadway. With most of Blue’s Clues staff staying put, where would Little Bill find it’s large crew?

The answer was partly, SVA. Their graduating class of 1999 was the first to jump right out of school and into steady employment. In this wave came some of today’s top talents, including such names such as: Celia Bullwinkle, Rob Powers, Bob Wallace, David Heiss, Dan Cardinali, and many others. Most would find their seminal work experience at Little Bill. By some accounts, Little Bill was an expensive show to make and perhaps that contributed to why it wrapped production just short of January 2001. An insider at Nick Jr recently told me, “It didn’t work to have such a fearful character at the center of a series. He was always sad.”

In contrast, Blue’s Clues enjoyed three more years of continued production. So, as circumstances had it, the Little Bill crew were first to venture out and seek employment elsewhere. This pushed them into serving as gatekeepers on series work all over town. Among Little Bill alum’s, Blue’s Clues long had the reputation as the simpler of the two shows. I remember Steve Connor, who worked on both Little Bill and Blue’s Clues having difficulty convincing his Little Bill pals just how challenging Blue’s Clues actually was to make. By season six, it had gotten quite sophisticated; far more so than most people realized.

The migration pattern, dominated by the movement of the ex Little Bill artists is easy to track. First, they landed at Spike TV, when it emerged with two short-lived original flash animated series; Gary the Rat and This Just In. The shows turned out to be huge flops with their intended audience, but the crew was stellar. This could have been the birth of a new digital MTV-style animation studio. Instead, the whole enterprise fell flat on its face. Little Bill alum Mark Salisbury helmed these shows and hired up many of his former co-workers. By the time of the second Spike series, Blue’s Clues was finally on hiatus, so it’s crew was free to apply for a position on the new show. This would mark the first great mixing of the two preschool crews. Sadly, in the hey day of Blue’s and Little Bill, when the two shows occupied the same floor for a two year period, there was virtually no interaction among their staffs. Each crew had myopically gone about their business.

Once Spike ran it’s course, the flock migrated to join director Jen Oxley at Little Airplane where they were employed to animate on short and long form series work, including Nick Jr’s The Wonder Pets. It was at this time that animators Bob Wallace and Rob Powers first got the chance to direct. By all reports, season one was a bumpy ride for the crew, but what made it to the screen was spectacular and took the show to number one.

Post Wonder Pets season one, many of the original crew landed at Curious Pictures Little Einstein, a series that combined flash, drawn, and 3D animation in equal measures. Olexa Hewryk directed season one of Little Einstein and the technical director was Sang-Jin Bae, both formally of Little Bill. Little Einstein remained the home base for many of the former Little Bill and Blue’s Clues crew until Nick Jr announced a new series starting full production in Fall 2007.

Incidentally, this new show was created by Soo Kim and Michael Smith, a pair of ex Blue’s Cluesers. On this new series, Blue’s Clues and Little Bill alumni are now co-occupying the 4th floor at 1633 Broadway once again. Its fitting that Steve Connor is at the helm as the director, because he really deserves the credit for bridging the gaps between the two old crews. This time, you can bet that they are enjoying a collaboration and comradeship that seemed to elude them nearly ten years earlier. For a community of artists existing from job to job and moving from place to place, this sure sounds like a family to me.

3 comments:

Michael Sporn said...

What was different about the "Little Bill" situation? Haven't there always been students that jumped right from graduating into production? On to "Blue's Clues" - even before graduating from NYU - were Michael Dougherty and Chris Boyce. This was also true of the staff of "Beavis & Butthead" and/or "The Head" designed/directed by NYU student, Eric Fogle.

Dave Heiss first came to my studio and did much of the animation in my film, "Yo Yes" before moving to "Little Bill." For that matter, you came straight from school to my studio before going to "Blue's Clues."

David B. Levy said...

good questions!
1-Little Bill was different because of the size of the student graduating class. When I went to school (around the time Dougherty and Boyce were also in school) we graduated with tiny classes of under 10 people.. and most of those people would not find employment in animation. So, by the time of Little Bill, schools like SVA were graduating 35-40 students a year and many of them found jobs right away, working in the new digital shows, such as little bill.
2-The Beavis crew was made up of lots of people that, for the most part, already had working experience. Since Beavis represents the old way of production (2D/outsourced to Korea), they are not part of the new wave of digital artists my blog was about.
3-What I'm really trying to do is track the migration pattern of a group of artists that have come to dominate the NYC series community. The Beavis crew, for the most part, is scattered these days, with many of them not even working in animation anymore.

Chris Gelles said...

Hey, jerkface!
I was animating that stinking blue dog before I even graduated too!

You tell 'em, Sporn!