The Big Picture
Taking a long-term view pays off for Bix Pix Entertainment with the success of its award-winning Amazon Studios preschool
stop-motion series By Tom McLean.
Several years ago, Kelli Bixler was pitching a stop-motion children’s series created by Drew Hodges, her colleague at Bix Pix Entertainment, with no deal emerging and nearly every exec who saw it saying “it’s very unusual” and “it looks interesting.”
“We were loving that,” says Hodges. “We knew we were playing a long game if we wanted to do something new.”
And that game plan has worked out extremely well for Bix Pix, resulting in the award-winning series Tumble Leaf, which begins its second season Dec. 11 streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.
To say the first season of Tumble Leaf was a hit is an understatement. Not only was it a hit with viewers, it began to rack up an impressive display case worth of awards: four Daytime Emmys, including Best Preschool Series; the Jury Award for a TV series at Annecy in 2014; last year’s Annie Award for Best General Audience Animated TV/ Broadcast Production for Preschool Children; and a 2015 Parents’ Choice Gold Award. Christopher Downs, who voices the lead character, Fig, also won a Young Artist Award for best voice-over performance for the under-10 age group.
The success of Tumble Leaf, which follows Fig, a curious blue fox, and his caterpillar best friend Stick on nature-filled adventures, has elevated the profile of Bix Pix to a level unseen in the company’s 20-year history.
Bix Pix got its start in Chicago in 1995, when Bixler fell in love with a stop-motion animator and took one of his ideas to pitch at NATPE, landing Disney as a client. Early success in stop-motion included Miss Twiggley’s Tree, and the company became a local hub for the stop-motion community.
Among them was Hodges, who attended Columbia College in Chicago, and joined the company as an entry-level puppet maker.
Hodges developed Tumble Leaf over several years. “I had been developing a short film and I had a lot of ideas, but nothing for a TV show,” he says. “But out of that I just started to think: What if that element or some of that design was made for younger kids? I started goofing around with (the idea of) could I make a kids’ show and what would that look like?”
Among the executives who saw the original pitch — then titled Miro — was Tara Sorensen, then with National Geographic, who Bixler says loved the project but wasn’t in a position to pick it up. They later connected in a hallway at a conference just after Sorensen had joined startup Amazon Studios in 2012 as head of kids programming and began talking immediately about making Tumble Leaf Amazon Studios’ first original children’s series.
Getting the greenlight for a series meant going through Amazon’s pilot season process, where pilots are presented online for feedback with the shows getting the best response advancing to series. The process was unique, but exciting, with Bix Pix presenting a color animatic that made the grade with viewers, says Hodges.
Growing Quickly The series order in May 2013 from Amazon Studios transformed the company, which within weeks moved into its current 20,000-square-foot facility in Sun Valley, Calif., and started production shortly after that.
“At our biggest, we’re about 75 to 80 people, and that’s with storyboards and post,” Bixler says. “There’s probably at least three to four months where we’re at full capacity.”
In addition to Tumble Leaf, Bix Pix has kept on some of its longstanding work-for-hire clients on projects such as commercials. It also has been working on a project for Curious World, an app for children that encourages reading and is run by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
That project is using paper animation to create an interstitial series based on Aesop’s fables with a stop-motion framing sequence. Kevin Kidney, a former Disney art director, was hired to create the simple paper puppets at his studio in Anaheim.
Bix Pix also has been partnering with individuals to develop and pitch original content, with two show proposals currently making the rounds.
Bix Pix is now hip-deep in production on season two, scheduled to wrap in April. Bixler says the entire company enjoys working with Amazon and appreciates the support from a relative newcomer in the production game. “They’ve been really good to us, in letting us really champion the uniqueness that Drew wanted to bring to this project and giving their support,” she says. [
Five-time nominated, Emmy Award winning team Pam Hickey and Dennys McCoy began writing animation together thirty years ago. Guys, how’d you break in?
Pamela Hickey & Dennys McCoy ( Jakers!, Growing Up Creepie): Pam was pregnant and we expected the end result would be a baby. We needed an air conditioner and changing table, therefore, we needed money. We were trying to break into TV writing, not animation, when our agent told us DIC had an animated series based on the Heathcliff daily comic strip. We thought we’d take a stab at it. A Barney Miller spec script got us in. We quickly learned it was for very little money – but that was more than we had, so what the heck! We wrote our first 11-minute script. Since it was based on the comic strip, it was silent (Heathcliff doesn’t talk!). Luckily they loved it … except … they had just hired Mel Blanc to be the voice of Heathcliff! We had to go back in and write dialog for a character that was formerly mute.
So the lesson is, unless you want to end up an animation writer, use protection? Nedra Gallagos, tell us about your entry into the writing biz. Is it a young person’s game?
Nedra Gallegos ( Angry Birds): an actor and kids’ theater teacher. One day I ripped my Achilles tendon playing a cop in a film. Like you do. Not working, and limping around was really boring, so I asked my dear friend, a head writer, if I could intern at his animation company. He said sure, so it’s just me — at 44 — with one other intern, who was 18.
I would watch the writers having fun while I did office stuff. I finally asked the head writer, “Please let me write something!” He threw me a couple of scenes from a feature that were flat and asked me to make them funny. Seventeen years of working with kids, writing and creating plays turned out to be a great way to learn how to write cartoons. That, and having a serious case of arrested development.
Since he could see my comedy chops, I guess, I got asked to pitch ideas for Angry Birds Toons, and I sold an idea. I think not being too proud to intern, and not being afraid to ask him to try some writing — that gave me that first break that opened the door.
You had an accident and then turned the lemons into lemonade. Good thing you didn’t injure your squeezing hand. Aron Dunn, what was your story?
Aron Dunn ( Kate and Mim-Mim, Truck Town): I landed a gig as an executive assistant. I was terrible at it and only lasted a year. The experience showed me that there is so much more to learn than what they teach you in film school — like you’re not cut out to be an assistant. So I spent some “wilderness years” figuring out what skills I needed. I read scripts. Lots and lots of scripts! I even tried to write them. I seized every opportunity I could to network with creative people. When the second break rolled around, I was prepared. I knew my audience: kids! I knew the skills I had to offer: understanding story, character, and design. These proved to be exactly what the company was looking for. I landed a development coordinator gig. I stayed with them for five years and rose to become their director of development.
By then I felt I really knew what made a good script so I tried writing my own and got hired on a couple of great series.
So the lessons so far: Be open to redefining yourself; turn adversity into opportunity; build those relationships; and write a Barney Miller spec script. Pretty straightforward. Tune in next issue for interviews with more great Baboon writers, as they share their scintillating secrets to success. See ya! Baboon Animation is a U.S.-based collective of award-winning animation writers with credits on dozens of the most iconic animated shows worldwide.