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