Cover Story: <I>Sesame Street</I> turns 50
Issue: March/April 2019

Cover Story: Sesame Street turns 50

It started with a simple idea — to somehow use television for something more than simply entertaining viewers. In 1968, TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie Corporation vice president Lloyd Morrisett, who were both disillusioned with the poor programming options that were available to preschool viewers, decided to create a show they felt held genuine value. They launched the Children’s Television Workshop (later renamed Sesame Workshop in 2000), funded with grant money from Carnegie, the Ford Foundation and the US government. The new show, Sesame Street, was developed from a study that Cooney had conducted and aimed to better prepare preschoolers for the classroom by focusing on the alphabet, counting and overall good social behavior through music and entertainment.

Sesame Street made its television debut on PBS in 1969. Still going strong, the show is now commemorating its milestone 50th anniversary with a year-long celebration that includes an upcoming primetime, star-studded TV special later this year. Not to mention, that it’s already the longest-running children’s show in US television history.

Only a few things have changed since the show’s early days. For instance, Sesame Street, which featured a mix of actors and colorful characters called Muppets from visionary puppeteer Jim Henson, exploded with new creatures over the years to go beyond Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, who were there from Episode 1. And, while the show’s overall vibe of taking place on an inner city street, filled with brownstones and multi-racial neighbors, remains to this day, Sesame’s format changed from hour-long episodes to half hour, and are more theme-focused shows. But the emphasis on ABC’s and 123’s through music and comedy, and learning to be “smarter, stronger, kinder” is more solid than it’s ever been.

Today, those same messages are reinforced with celebrity guests such as Anne Hathaway, Alicia Keys, Josh Groban and Gwen Stefani, among many others, as well as beloved Muppets, such as superstar Elmo and his BFF Abby Cadabby, Cookie Monster, Grover, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Ernie and Bert, and an ever-growing list of characters. Episodes are filled with actor/Muppet segments, full animation and CG/reality mixes.

Perhaps the biggest change has been Sesame Street’s address. For years, families knew to find the show on their local PBS station. However, in 2016, the series moved to HBO, where there was more funding to keep the show going. The new episodes air there first, and then several months later, make their way to PBS. On the technical side, the show more recently began recording in UHD, though is still broadcasting in HD.

With a curriculum that evolves to meet the needs of each new generation, Sesame Street is now in more than 70 languages and 150 countries.

“This is a remarkable milestone for kids, for education and for television,” says Jeffrey D. Dunn, Sesame Workshop’s CEO in an official statement noting the show’s anniversary. “Sesame Street has now brought the life-changing benefits of early learning to children around the globe for 50 years. Our mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger and kinder knows no geographic boundaries. We’re everywhere families are and we never stop innovating and growing. That’s what keeps us timeless.”

“We’re often asked what Sesame Street’s legacy will be,” adds co-founder Cooney. “To me, a legacy is when something’s over…and this isn’t over.”

Indeed, Post recently had a chance to drop by the set while the team was shooting an episode for its upcoming 50th season, which will air this fall, and speak with the post and production teams, including post production supervisor Todd E. James and supervising editor Memo Salazar, about what it takes to pull off one of television’s most beloved shows.


Sesame Street has two goals: First is to meet our curriculum objective, and second to entertain,” explains James. “Sometimes it is challenging to meet both requests. We walk a fine line of trying to maintain our younger viewers’ attention enforcing an educational concept. Most episodes feature engaging songs that encourage viewer participation.”

Todd E. James and Post's Linda Romanello

Sesame Street is shot at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NY, home of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and NBC’s New Amsterdam. Each day, three Sony HDC-4300 4K cameras (a fourth handheld is sometimes used for tighter or trickier shots) handle the acquisition of nine-minute opening “street scenes” for new episodes, while the rest of the show is typically filled out with re-occurring footage, such as the familiar “Letter of the Day” and “Number of the Day” songs, the “Elmo’s World” animated sequences or pre-produced learning segments that typically feature children completing daily tasks, such as getting ready for school, going to bed or getting dressed. Musical performances by celebrity artists, such as Sia, Pentatonix or Bruno Mars, are often repeated in multiple episodes as well.

According to James, after the episodes are shot and preserved in UHD (though still broadcast in HD), the files are exported to post. He says the proxies are in [Blackmagic DaVinci] Resolve, where colorists do the grading and editors cut the show in Adobe Premiere Pro. Self-described as a “Premiere house,” James says the post team does its compositing in Premiere as well.


Salazar agrees that editing in Premiere “makes the most sense. We do a lot of graphics and are constantly going to After Effects and Photoshop and compositing. If this were a long-form documentary, I’d say we should be on Media Composer, but for what we do, Premiere streamlines our workflow. It’s been great. It works well for going in and out of all the Adobe apps. It’s worked well for sending stuff to animators who are also working in Adobe or sending to our mixer, because Premiere uses those adaptive tracks for audio. We have 16 channels of audio that they record on the floor. Premiere’s adaptive tracks have been a godsend.” 

Once in post, each episode makes its rounds. After the first pass with the editor, the director has a pass, and then there’s a “Muppet captain” who “does his review of the cut to make sure the muppets’ heads all look correct, and that they’re not looking off camera,” says James. “The episode then goes to the producers so they can take a pass. Once the producers lock it, then it goes to the mix house, to our media director, sound effects director, vocals, and so on.”
James says that in all, it takes around nine months to produce and edit an entire season of Sesame Street.


Sesame is a magazine format,” explains Salazar who, along with one other full-time staff editor, an assistant and one permanent freelancer, cuts the show. “We start cutting as soon as we’re done shooting. But all the individual segments — some animation or CGI — there’s a long time before an episode is locked in and mastered. So at the same time that we’re shooting the upcoming episodes for the next year and starting to cut them, we’re assembling the current year’s segments into full, 30-minute episodes and adding transitions, getting them to time, reviewing them with producers and so on. We’re all working on two seasons at once, plus digital projects that come down the pike as well as other things. There’s so much always going on simultaneously.”

According to Salazar, editing Sesame is a very collaborative job, explaining that during shooting, he or someone from the editing side is typically onset. “One thing that’s really helped is to have someone onset digitizing the footage as its being shot and stringing out a rough assembly,” he says. “That way, if things don’t cut together or if they miss something, like a puppeteer’s head, I can point it out right there. It also helps to have the editor there because when we leave that day, we have a strong rough cut rather than having to piece footage together from square one. Also, a lot of times things get changed on the floor as they’re shooting, for logistical reasons, and if we weren’t onset, we’d have no idea what happened. If we’re looking at the script, we’d be like, ‘Wait, this doesn’t match up.’ It’s very collaborative.” 

When not at Kaufman, which is just a few weeks out of the year during production, the editors are in the New York City offices near Lincoln Center.

On the technical side, Salazar says shooting is in Sony S-Log, ProRes HQ. “We couldn’t find a good LUT that looked good, so our colorist created a custom LUT, so when we run all the footage through Resolve, it will spit out proxy files, 1080 versions of ProRes LT, and then we’ll edit off of those, but then the colorist will receive the flattened S-Log for 4K versions and color that.”

With regard to shooting in UHD, Salazar also points out that, for anyone who’s watched Sesame Street, half of the segments that appear in an episode are older, from pervious seasons. “If you’re constantly using footage from a few years ago, it becomes increasingly obvious that you’re mixing old technology with new technology,” he explains. “One of the things that I’ve pushed for is for us to be as future proof as possible, so that when someone wants to use a segment from this year, five years from now, it doesn’t look dated. Now, there’s more demand for 4K or HDR, so it became really important for Sesame to transition to UHD.


When asked if editing a TV show for children was any different from editing other types of programming, Salazar responded with a sort of, yes and no answer. “At the end of the day, you’re still trying to tell a good story and so many people still don’t realize how much the success of something is the editor,” he explains. “Or the failure sometimes. You can take terrible footage and make it into something halfway watchable if you’re good at it or conversely, you can take a great show, if you’re not a good editor, and piece all the pieces together and it’s just boring to watch. So, much of these little intricacies in crafting a story that flows and is easy to follow and not confusing is really important and that basic principal is the same, no matter if it’s a reality show, a documentary, a music video, a scripted drama or a kid’s puppet show — I’ve cut all of those and all the lessons I learned through those experiences definitely feed into what I’m doing now. In the end, if you’re not telling a good story, it’s not going to work.”

For the regular season episodes, new material is created mainly for the nine-minue opening “street stories,” while longer, more extensive cuts are required for the 45-minute specials, such as The Magical Wand Chase and Once Upon a Pickle. “The specials are very different,” Salazar adds and “require much more of a narrative pace.”

However, Salazar also points out that Sesame Street is unique, and that along with the show’s puppeteers, writers, directors, editors and all the creatives working to make an entertaining, interesting show, there’s also a strong presence from the education department. “If you’re on the set, you’ll see them there. They are everywhere — they are on the floor, they are involved in the script stage, during the shooting stage and editing and reviews. Something might work really great narratively and creatively and you’re like, ‘That’s hilarious,’ but then they’re like, ‘No, no, this is not working from a two-year-olds point of view — the words they’re using are too complex.’ Or they think the kids wouldn’t understand or they’re trying to model certain behavior and the way the puppet delivered a certain line came off snarky and that’s not the way you want to model something…or something could be a choking hazard, so we shouldn’t show that…a million things. So, it’s not just about making an entertaining show, but they want to make sure that the educational content is of top quality. That’s an important part of it.”


According to James, there are various post challenges, but one of the biggest happens once the show moves into post production, and “everybody wants to come to post. Writers, directors, talent — and they all have notes. And the challenging part, as well as the fun part, is to accommodate those notes and still put the show forward and meet delivery on time. Things like, our music guy asking us to tweak a note, and my compositing guy asking us to go back and take another pass at compositing? Fix Big Bird, he’s on blue, we’re still seeing his feathers. They’re so light, can you guys fix that texture.”

Another challenge are the Muppets themselves. “We have a lot of keying issues in post because the Muppets have very fine hair,” James explains. “The compositing for us is a challenge. Their colors are vibrant. Even look at Abby Cadabby, she has very fine hair as well. Big Bird is on blue, Elmo is on blue, Abby is on green, Grover is on green — the fineness of the hair, you do those close-up shots with UHD, they’re still hard to composite."


Many of the animated or CGI sequences on Sesame Street, including the popular “Elmo The Musical” segments, which feature fantasy worlds from Elmo’s imagination, “Smart Cookies” and “Crumby Pictures” shorts, or certain elements in the specials such as Once Upon a Pickle or hot air balloons in The Magical Wand Chase, are completed by Nashville-based Magnetic Dreams Animation Studio, who has been working on the show for about 15 years. 

“We have a fairly broad spectrum of work we do here,” says Mike Halsey, president & founder, Magnetic Dreams. “We complete 3D and 2D animation, motion graphics, special effects and we apply all those things to Sesame Street. A lot of times we build sets. They shoot the Muppets on blue or green screen and we build the world around them.” Exactly what they did for the “Super Grover 2.0” sequences — the first major work the team at Magnetic Dreams completed for the series.

“For the show proper, we tend to do special effects,” continues Halsey. “So, if they write a script where some of the characters turn into robots or if there’s just set extensions or different visual effects, or every once in a while a CGI character, when it was something that would just be too difficult to puppet, we’ll complete that for the show. For, The Magical Wand Chase, a few seasons ago, we had a CGI bird in there. It was built to look as much like a puppet as we could get it in CGI, but it was just because of the different actions, it was more cost effective to do a CGI bird than it would have been to do the scenes with a puppet.” 

The team primarily relies on a blend of tools that includes Maya for most of the 3D, occasionally some Houdini for bigger effects or simulation and Redshift for rendering (a GPU renderer) which, explains Rickey Boyd, creative director, “we dearly love because of its speed. It’s really sped things up for us. Things that were taking 20 to 30 minutes a frame is kicking off in six or eight minutes a frame. We use After Effects for most of the compositing because it’s such a nice Swiss Army Knife of a program and we do so many different things for the show, it’s been handy to be able to do compositing work or green screen or motion graphics in the same software. Those have been our primary tools.”

With the live action, CGI and animation footage combined, there’s a large amount of assets to store.
“We use LTO tape arching and AWS archiving for storage, so we always triple and double our content,” explains James. “We have a lot of Google charts and trackers for important things like Abby’s wand — we need to have that handy — things we use every season, we have to know where to find them. The Sesame font or numbering for the show, we have local. We also have a shared-storage system called EVO NAS [from Studio Network], where we have things like repeatable segments. It’s very quick for our team to pull that asset.” For instance, the popular “Letter of the Day” song which, James points out, will be getting an update.

“The first few lyrics are ‘Jump up, get down!’ Whenever my three-year-old daughter hears it, she’s on her feet. For Season 50, we are revamping the song. I have a feeling it will be a big hit. Look out for it.”

According to James, who says he’s had the “privilege of working at Sesame Street for 19 years,” he can’t really “compare it to other productions. The feedback I’ve received from editors and post professionals that come to work at Sesame from other productions is that while Sesame does have a unique way of operating, it is a well-managed organization that has a highly efficient post process.”

Salazar agrees, “It’s a great show. It’s been a great privilege to be a part of this. There are not a lot of things in our culture we can be proud of these days. So, it’s really nice to be part of an organization that’s trying to help the world and do things for kids and make it a better place.”