BROTHERS GONE WILD

Chris and Martin Kratt have turned their love of an­i­mals into a made-in-Ottawa suc­cess story. Meet them.

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - PETER ROBB

Chris and Martin Kratt grew up in sub­ur­ban New Jersey nearby the woods, the fields and the streams. Like many lit­tle boys, the Kratt brothers were fas­ci­nated by creepy crawly things. And they were of­ten in those woods and streams pick­ing up frogs and sala­man­ders. Many chil­dren grow out of that fas­ci­na­tion. Chris and Martin made a ca­reer out of it.

The brothers are the brains be­hind sev­eral pop­u­lar pro­grams for chil­dren, start­ing with Kratts Crea­tures, to Zoo­boomafoo to the cur­rent se­ries, Wild Kratts. The show airs on TV On­tario, the Knowl­edge Net­work and Tele­bec in Canada and PBS in the U.S.

That’s pretty well known to the thou­sands of kids and par­ents who watch the pro­gram, which blends an­i­ma­tion and live-ac­tion film of the brothers with an ar­ray of an­i­mals, from ele­phants to skunks.

What may not be that well known is that Wild Kratts is made in Kanata, at an an­i­ma­tion stu­dio that em­ploys about 60 peo­ple.

But that’s not the be­gin­ning of this ad­ven­ture. Let’s go back, way back al­most 30 years.

“We were al­ways in­ter­ested in an­i­mals as kids,” said Martin, the older Kratt. “There were deer and rac­coons and frogs and in the back­woods in sub­ur­ban New Jersey, that’s where we had our first wildlife en­coun­ters. Just like a lot of kids we were nat­u­rally at­tracted to an­i­mals and all the cool things that they can do.”

That in­ter­est ul­ti­mately led the brothers to ma­jor in zoology and biology in col­lege. Martin went to Duke in North Carolina and Chris went to a small lib­eral arts school called Car­leton Col­lege in Min­nesota.

Both were on track to be­com­ing sci­en­tists, un­til ...

“I was tak­ing a course on am­phib­ian ecol­ogy at Duke — there’s more species of sala­man­der in North Carolina than any­where else in the world — this was a great class,” says Martin. “It was about go­ing out ev­ery weekend and find­ing sala­man­ders. I was tak­ing a video course at the same time just to get another credit.

“I made a film on Hell­ben­der sala­man­ders, which are gi­ant three­foot long sala­man­ders, right be­fore I grad­u­ated and that’s when I changed my mind.”

And along came another op­por­tu­nity. Martin hooked up with another Duke sci­en­tist study­ing howler mon­keys in Costa Rica.

“He was do­ing DNA anal­y­sis so we had to tran­quil­ize the howler mon­keys. He would tran­quil­ize them with a dart gun and me and another as­sis­tant would have to ... catch them ... be­fore they hit the ground.

“I had a video cam­era with me. Chris came down af­ter his se­mes­ter fin­ished and we just ba­si­cally hitch­hiked around Costa Rica with our back­packs and our surf­boards and the video cam­era, and filmed ev­ery wild an­i­mal we could and started mak­ing our first videos.”

“This was a great op­por­tu­nity,” Chris said. “The hook was how we could help en­dan­gered species. We could make the first wildlife show for kids.

“It’s a much more fun way to do some­thing for con­ser­va­tion. I did a stint at Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional in Wash­ing­ton D.C. for awhile. It’s a lot of pol­icy work. You don’t get to go out into the field. Martin and I also grew up spend­ing ev­ery sum­mer in Vermont. We were camp­ing in the fields with our fam­ily. All we did all sum­mer long was go out hik­ing in the woods and see­ing if we could find por­cu­pines and stuff.”

The brothers came back from Costa Rica with five short films. And they tested them on their tar­get au­di­ence — ele­men­tary school­child­ren in Vir­ginia and New Jersey. The stu­dents loved them. The producers did not.

“We were try­ing to do funny things. We were fall­ing off logs into rivers. We were rid­ing our bikes off a cliff into a lake to make it fun and show the fun of the ad­ven­ture,” Martin said.

It took two more trips — to Mada­gas­car and the Peru­vian Ama­zon — be­fore they got a bite.

In 1993, a man named Leo Ea­ton from Mary­land Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion watched one of their shows with his five-year-old son Alex. And the rest is Kratts his­tory.

They pitched it to PBS. “We were hop­ing to get an or­der for 13 episodes to have a se­ries that would air weekly. And they asked can you do 40 episodes in 18 months?”

That be­came Kratts Crea­tures, which ended up be­ing pro­duced in Toronto, as was the next se­ries, Zoo­boomafoo.

They moved pro­duc­tion to Ottawa for Wild Kratts. “We de­cided Ottawa was a great place for an­i­ma­tion,” said Chris. “Al­go­nquin (Col­lege) pro­duces a lot of great an­i­ma­tion stu­dents.”

And for about six years they’ve been here. This is now the third sea­son of Wild Kratts. And they plan on stay­ing awhile.

“It’s a great place to raise our own kids,” said Chris. “Ottawa has all the green space. It has the river over here and the Gatineau Hills. We like be­ing out­doors, moun­tain bik­ing and cross-coun­try ski­ing, so Ottawa is per­fect for that and it’s got re­ally ex­cel­lent an­i­ma­tion tal­ents.”

Wild Kratts is the brothers’ at­tempt to go where no chil­dren’s an­i­mal show has gone be­fore. Both write and di­rect their share of shows, and both ap­pear on cam­era.

“The rea­son we de­cided to do Wild Kratts is be­cause, in our early ex­pe­di­tions, no mat­ter how long we spent in the wild we knew there were an­i­mal be­hav­iours we could never film,” Martin said. “So we thought if we could de­sign an an­i­mated show we could show any­thing. We could show sperm whales fight­ing gi­ant squid 6,000 feet be­low the sur­face of the ocean.

“Sud­denly the en­tire crea­ture world was open to us. That was the real mo­ti­va­tion to do an­i­ma­tion.” In the an­i­mated seg­ments of the show, the brothers trans­form them­selves into var­i­ous an­i­mals, dis­play­ing var­i­ous “crea­ture pow­ers” unique to that an­i­mal.

And let’s face it, th­ese guys are just plain fas­ci­nated by weird­ness.

“We love to do an­i­mals that peo­ple have never heard of, but the other thing about do­ing this show Wild Kratts is that with this show we look at an­i­mals in terms of their crea­ture pow­ers and so ev­ery an­i­mal has th­ese amaz­ing abil­i­ties that no other an­i­mal has,” Martin says.

“Pere­grine fal­con, the fastest flyer; chee­tahs the great­est run­ners. You have the platy­pus that can see in muddy wa­ter be­cause they have elec­tro-sen­sory bills.”

They some­times stay in their own back­yard. The first sea­son of Wild Kratts, they did eight episodes in north­east North Amer­ica. They even did an episode on beavers — an­i­mals that change whole en­vi­ron­ments. That’s some­thing any cot­tager prob­a­bly has a good idea about.

Now that the stu­dio is up and run­ning, Chris and Martin are plan­ning new ven­tures. Ear­lier this month they tested a live stage show on an Ottawa au­di­ence. That went well and it will hit the road next fall on a na­tional tour with two more shows in Ottawa to kick it off. At the same time, Wild Kratts toys are com­ing out. What’s re­ally scary in­ter­est­ing is the fact that all the an­i­ma­tors in their Kanata stu­dio grew up watch­ing Kratts Crea­tures. It’s a Kratts cult. But they seem to only use their crea­ture pow­ers for good.

Chris and Martin Kratt are re­al­iz­ing their am­bi­tion of help­ing cre­ate aware­ness of con­ser­va­tion through pro­gram­ming aimed at chil­dren.

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