The ELECTRIC COMPANY
While I was working on the Echo Park Time Travel Mart with writer Mac Burnett, he was in close contact with 826 founder Dave Eggers. Who was, at the time, consulting on the reboot of the classic kids’ television show, The Electric Company, with executive producer Karen Fowler.
Mac thought that the Daily Monsters would be a good fit for the program, and encouraged me to send a link to Karen. Which I did. She got back to me the same day. She loved the idea. “Yes!” she said. “I want this for the show. Let’s do it!” And that’s all it took. It’s good to be the executive producer!
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The Electric Company is produced by Sesame Workshop, and Sesame—they don’t rent ideas, they buy them. Licensing was off the table, but I wasn’t willing to sell them the Monsters outright. (Nor did Karen want me to surrender my baby.) We came up with a great alternative instead.
I created The Daily Letter in Monster-style animation, conjuring the mysterious beings that live in the negative space between the letters. I drew up fifteen 15-second spots as bumpers between video segments. They typically open sequences, and feature letter pairs, phonemes, and sometimes punctuation marks. At the end of each clip a voice—Karen Fowler’s voice—demonstrates how to pronounce the letters.
This was the first time I’d worked in HD Broadcast Quality video, and let me tell you: Doing something 100% right takes disproportionally more effort and equipment than doing it 90% right. For one thing, you need proper lighting. The necessary key lights—Kino Flos—were so bright that I actually had to wear sunglasses while drawing. There was so much glare coming off the white paper that I couldn’t see what I was doing without them. Take a look at my glamorous movie set:
The blue tape marks the edge of what the camera would see. Another side effect of filming in HD was that I’d have to do a pretty meticulous home manicure. Hence the hand lotion. In Hollywood you can never be too thin or too well moisturized.
In contrast to the Monsters, which are entirely improvised, each of these spots was plotted out in advance. I kept a small cheat sheet sketch just outside the view of the camera that showed the combination of characters that comprise each phoneme. I’d then shoot each drawing in one take. Which is only to say that each drawing was done in one continuous shot from beginning to end. For several of these drawings I did film a few takes, because I’d either make a mistake, or I’d think I could do a better version.
For the punctuation mark sequence we needed a few seconds of animation: The period grows into an exclamation point, which bends itself into a question mark. As I was drawing away I thought, “How am I ever going to animate this and make it look good?” The HD video files were gigantic, and my computer couldn‘t have handled the task. Not that I had any real idea how to animate the sequence in the first place. This all happened before I learned to use Adobe AfterEffects, which would have made it laughably easy.
It occurred to me that I could just do the whole thing in stop motion. I drew a rectangle and a question mark shape in Adobe Illustrator, made the rectangle grow from a sliver to a full exclamation mark, and then morphed that into the question mark across another dozen steps. Next I traced each step with a Sharpie pen, and cut it out.
Once I was done filming the drawing of the period, I carefully placed the first cut-out on the drawing with tweezers and shot a few frames. I’d remove that piece, add the next, and shoot a few more frames. Remove, replace, shoot. Remove, replace, shoot. Repeat as needed. All while being very, very careful not to move the piece of paper with the filmed drawing. I’d consciously breathe out away from the paper while I was working. I didn’t want to have to do it all again. I jostled it the tiniest bit at the very end, but the final time-lapsed moves so quickly that you don’t really notice it.
A curious thing about the whole HD process was that the audio somehow kept getting botched in the time-lapse. I had to teach the TV guys to time-lapse the clips with my ludicrously jerry-rigged Quicktime method. Their gear kept filtering out the marker sounds as errant noise. In some of the final clips the audio is still out of synch and it drives me nuts. Nobody else seemed to mind, though, so I’m just going to come to terms with it. Eventually.
Another sequence deals with the silent e, placing me side by side with the then still very much under-the-radar Lin-Manuel Miranda:
I’m not identified as the creator of these spots, except in the end credits of each episode, but kids recognize my Electric Company hands as the Daily Monster hands all the time. What can I tell you? I have charismatic hands. You can see the whole set of clips on YouTube.