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Animfx 2011: Josh Selig on DIY

Animation company Little Airplane`s Josh Selig promoted a DIY approach to content creation, suggesting gut instinct was of more use than market research when it came to deciding what to make.

He laid out the stall early on in his presentation, claiming that he doesn`t much care about what a broadcaster wants (or thinks it wants) when considering whether or not to develop an idea. He preferred to use a more personal yardstick. “This is what we think a kid will enjoy and why.”

“Don`t rely on all the market research,” he recommended. Why? Because everyone else is reading the same research and trying to come up with material that ticks the boxes. Better, he reckoned, to work on something you have confidence in and passion for.

Selig got his start “in the biz” early on. As a child, his mum worked as a graphic artist on Sesame Street, where he (along with several other employees` kids) was a performer. Having been to college and worked for a while as a busker, he returned to Sesame Street, armed with a bit of advice from actor Dom de Luis who had happened to see him performing on the street outside a theatre.

“Everything matters,” de Luis told him, pointing out that Selig`s shirt was untucked. It`s advice Selig has taken to heart. “If someone is going to invest in you, they look at the details.”

At Sesame Street he worked as a writer and – eventually – got to make a short for the show, Little Airplanes.

He also worked producing a number of the show`s overseas editions, including a Palestinian-Israeli one, which led to a greater interest in international content. In 1999, Selig set up Little Airplane, named for his first short, with another Sesame Street alumna, Jennifer Oxley, as creative director. The company has gone on to create a number of popular and award-winning pre-school shows.

Selig noted that, when he creates a show, he doesn`t expect it to be picked up immediately. “We expect to get 20 or 30 rejections before it finds a home.” He also acknowledged that he spends a lot of money on international travel, meeting with broadcasters all over the world – and preferably not at markets.

Increasingly, the international broadcast market matters, as “the old US model” of making an expensive animated show and expecting the returns to come three to five years down the track from merchandise sales is broken.

The international markets, however, have different standards to the US. Language is an obvious one, although not an enormous problem to overcome with animated content; different cultural requirements and expectations can be more tricky.

Selig worked for a while with the idea of “photo-puppetry”, animating a series of still shots to make short animations, often interstitials, for Sesame Street and others. He produced a couple of series of Oobi (2003) for Nick Jr and the Noggin channel; then The Wonder Pets (2006), which last year won three Emmy Awards, and 3rd and Bird (2008). He also did Go Baby (2006) in the same way, using babies not animals, although he felt it was less successful.

While it was relatively easy to get the right look with the animals, including a duck rescued from a foie gras farm, and “cutify” them a little by enhancing beaks, eye size, etc., the results when applying the same principles to babies were a little more disturbing.

Whereas some of the other shows Selig had created were easy to produce merchandise from, some of the photo-puppetry subjects weren`t. Photos don`t easily translate to toys.

Selig`s company also makes “traditional” hand-drawn interstitials, which are funded by donations and then made available for free.

Thinking outside the box has also led to Selig`s latest show, although not all the thinking was his own. Returning to where he`d started, talking about following your own ideas, he worked up an idea all the way to creating a trailer because “Nobody on the planet was looking for a show about four singing potatoes.”

However, others liked Small Potatoes and Selig sold it to broadcasters in several countries including Disney for the US, CBeebies in the UK and the ABC in Australia, but not – as yet – including NZ. The show began broadcast earlier this year.

But what has really helped the show grow and build a big, engaged community before the show began broadcasting was a request one of the users of its Facebook page came up with: will you make me into a potato?

The idea took off, and the show`s Facebook page is now bombarded with daily requests to be turned into a potato. Finally, something to keep the interns busy!

From a page with a few hundred friends, Small Potatoes has now picked up almost 250,000 little mates, quite impressive for a pre-school show on a site that supposedly has a 13+ age limit. Happily, it`s also provided a route into monetising the brand through licensing.

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