|NEW YORK — If there’s a pre-schooler in your household, you probably know all about The Wonder Pets, a trio of classroom animals that come together after school lets out to save fellow baby animals in need.
“Teamwork” is the theme for every storyline, and the stars: “Linny, Tuck and Ming Ming too” — a guinea pig, turtle and duckling, respectively — sing their way through each animated episode, donning superhero capes and using collaborative thinking to figure out how to rescue their new friends.
And like the program itself, the show’s production also relies on teamwork. New York’s Little Airplane Productions (www.littleairplane.com), located in lower Manhattan, is home to The Wonder Pets, which recently entered into its third season of production. The show airs on Nickelodeon here in the US, but is seen worldwide.
Josh Selig is the creator of The Wonder Pets, which spun out of two interstitials the studio created for the network. Little Airplane’s Jennifer Oxley is the show’s creative director and explains that the two interstitials led to the studio creating a “pitch bible” that was well received by Nickelodeon. [Listen to Josh Selig explain the concept of a pitch bible in Post’s exclusive online Podcast] ”They liked the bible, and they commissioned a pilot,” Oxley recalls. The rest is history, as they say.
The show’s quirky-yet-cute look is the result of a combination of photographic elements that are animated using Adobe After Effects. Little Airplane calls the unique animated style “photo puppetry,” whereby photographs of real animals and backgrounds are used to create colorful and realistic animation that is grounded in reality.
“Our visual style is based on photos,” says Oxley, “so — except when they go into a clay world or pop-up book world — the majority of the worlds they go into are photo-based. We acquire these photos ourselves. We have a production photographer on site that does photo casting for the backgrounds and the characters.”
Little Airplane will then select the best photo of a guinea pig, duckling, or in the case of Tuck the turtle, Oxley’s own Red-Eared Slider, and run it through their “cute-ification” process. “We take the photos to the next level and make it into a character that they can animate. We make it cuter, we clean it up, but we still stay true to its original look.”
The studio has the photos of the actual animals on display, and it’s pretty amazing to see how closely the on-screen characters resemble their real-life counterparts.
“That’s where the photo casting comes in,” says Oxley. “You really don’t want to work on it too much, because once it gets overworked, it starts to not look real anymore.”
Little Airplane is a multi-level, Mac-centric facility, though each floor has an open floor plan that allows designers, storyboard artists, blockers, compositors and animators to work along side of each other. There’s an estimated team of 50 in-house, including full audio facilities [see our News section], and as many as 12 episodes are in production at any given time.
It takes around 35 weeks to complete each 11:30 program, and that includes writing, research, storyboarding, design and animation.
The program’s production pipeline came together six or seven years ago, Oxley explains, and relies on Adobe’s toolset. “When Josh called me and said he wanted to do the two interstitials, all he said was, ‘I want them to be based on real photos and I want to animate.’ That’s where I came in and started thinking about how this would actually get animated. At that time, I had been working in After Effects and knew that the program would be perfect. There [were] a lot of other ways that we could have done it. We could have done it in CG, and I’m sure we probably could have done it in Flash, but at the time, After Effects seemed like the way to go.”
And while photos play an important role in each episode, other media is occasionally tapped, as was the case in the “baby parrot” episode, which takes place in a clay world that’s based on artwork displayed in the classroom. “We actually modeled all of those characters in clay,” notes Oxley. “We sketched out what we wanted them to look like and we had somebody fabricate them in clay and photographed them in those positions, kind of stop-motion style. But we did the final animation in After Effects and it gave us a lot of control.”
The team was careful not to overly clean up the photos too. “We kept a lot of those fingerprints and things that make it feel like real ‘claymation.’”
Little Airplane created 40 episodes for each of the show’s first two seasons, and the same will be done for season three. The studio is simultaneously working on a new series, 3rd & Bird!, which just debuted in the UK, and a new London location has come online to help with production.
Little Airplane has two file servers for central storage. One is an Apple Xserve with two 2TB RAID volumes. The second is a custom file server with two 5TB RAID volumes housed in a Promise Vtrak RAID storage enclosure. Dedicated render systems are also in-house. Servers are backed up on a nightly basis to an IBM Linear Tape-Open (LTO) four-tape storage library and these tapes are rotated to offsite storage each week.
With other technologies now available, will The Wonder Pets evolve into a CG program at some point? “They are doing such amazing things with CG these days that I’m sure it could translate into CG,” says Oxley. “But there’s something about the real photos that sets it apart, visually, from other shows, and I would hate to lose that because it gives it its quirky charm.”