The Big Pic­ture

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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.

Ne­dra Gal­le­gos

Aron Dunn

Pamela Hickey

Den­nys McCoy

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