CMA Event: Problem Solving with “Peg + Cat”

Question: How long does it take an animated show to go from script to screen?

Answer: 1 episode delivered every 2 weeks + a 33 week production cycle = Peg + Cat.

Creators Billy Aronson and Jennifer Oxley spoke to CMA members in New York and Boston (thanks to our first ever live stream!) on Monday, August 4th. They were both giving, generous people, and walked us through every bit of the show’s development from pitch to becoming a PBS hit.

But first, they told a bit about themselves.

IMG_6349HINT: they’re wacky

Billy was a playwright with a quirky sense of humor and a knack for writing musical lyrics, so naturally kids TV was a perfect fit. Apparently, Beavis and Butthead was, too. He ended up on The Wonder Pets! and ultimately met Jennifer. Jennifer was born in Hollywood and made her way to NYU. She found herself drawing and directing all sorts of lovely things like Little Bill and The Wonder Pets! where she met Billy. Linda Simensky approached her for a math show and she thought of Billy immediately. They came up with the idea for Peg + Cat and pitched it – alongside 34 other companies responding to the PBS RFP for a math show .

Peg + Cat was chosen, and the rest is history.

Before they walked us through everything that makes Peg + Cat special, they showed us an un-aired episode (yet another reason why you need to come to these events!). Then they walked us through all of the steps they go through to make one.

There are 11:

  1. Treatment
  2. Script
  3. Testing
  4. Production Design
  5. Composer
  6. Beat Board
  7. Storyboard/Animatic
  8. Voice Record
  9. Rigging & Animation
  10. SFX Final Mix
  11. Music

The hardest step? Step 1—The Treatment. All the major plot points for the episode are outlined in 2-4 pages. And the math. “The drama has to teach the math,” Billy explained, and since math is fundamental to the plot of every single episode of Peg + Cat, the math needs to be integral to the story – as in, the story needs to be one that teaches a math concept and uses it successfully to accomplish the plot. Which isn’t easy for one episode of a series, let alone the entire thing. Yet, if they can’t find a story to demonstrate a math concept they’ll shelve it until they can. That is how seriously they take the math component of this show.

Which is really handy given that the next step is sending the treatment to math experts to make sure it meets PBS’ curriculum standards.

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They brought a whole slide to prove it

Once that’s all approved, they’re on to Step 2 – The Script. Each is 25 pages long, and while that sounds like a lot for an 11-minute episode those 25 pages need to fit a whole plot. And 3-act structure to support said plot. And lots of song lyrics. Phew! They streamline everything they can, then send it off to PBS for notes.  After they get it back, they move to Step 3 – Testing. A tester tests the script by screening a rough animatic of it to school kids, annotating how the kids react to the concepts taught in the show. If something’s unclear, or the kids are confused, the tester reports that back to Billy and Jennifer and they rework it in the script.

After the script is solid, they go into Step 4 – Production Design, which is Jennifer’s favorite part.  While the characters were designed to be as simple as possible in order to allow kids to draw them, the world of Peg + Cat was designed to look like math: the graph paper background pattern, infinity sign clouds, advanced equations hiding in the backgrounds. And since Peg and Cat can go anywhere, every single location has its own distinct look.

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Even 18th Century Vienna — and yes, that’s the actual score to Beethoven’s 5th as the background

Next is Step 5 – The Composer. This is WAY earlier than most shows, but that’s because Peg + Cat has a ton of songs. About math.  And are trying to make learning math cool. They need the extra time. The process starts when the writer supplies lyrics, the lyrics go to the composer, and there’s a lot of back and forth between the composer and both Billy and Jennifer until they’re all happy with the song’s sound and purpose. Jennifer checks to make sure the song helps the plot flow and is long enough to properly fill its chunk of the story. And the composer even sings all of the parts himself for the demo.

The script is timed out with all of these songs to give Billy and Jennifer an accurate approximation of the episode’s runtime, and then they move on to Step 6 – The Beat Board. A Beat Board is a series of rough storyboards timed out to the music.  This is another unusual step since most shows don’t get a locked board before the storyboard/animatic stage, but Jennifer pointed out that using these boards helps the animators visualize the show before storyboarding, saving time, money, and their sanity.  Then they move into Step 7 – The Storyboard. The Beat Board is fleshed out into a full storyboard, with about 135 scenes boarded to music and presented in Quicktime.

Audience

We’re furiously taking notes

Step 8 – Voice Record is next, and that honor belongs to Hayley Negrin and Dwayne Hill.  They’re Peg and Cat, respectively, and recorded at the 9ate7 Brooklyn soundstage. It was really important to Jennifer and Billy that they find a girl who could carry the show and still sound authentic rather than too polished. They found that in spades with Hayley, whose audition video 4 years ago was both authentic and adorable.  In order to get that authentic performance out of Hayley, Jennifer gets in the booth with her and does equal parts inspire, cheerlead, and direct. Recording for swing voices and other incidentals are done in Toronto.

After the voices are recorded, it’s on to Step 9 – Rigging and Animation. Jennifer was very clear about the character design looking like traditional animation. She also wanted to make sure the characters moved in a way that had a “squishy blob feel” rather than the super clean look of CGI. She spoke to rigging artists and they mocked up a rig in After Effects that was better than she hoped.  She showed us a demo of it, and it made the characters as easy to move as paper dolls – and saves money in getting movements right the first time.

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Jennifer is SUPER happy with this rig

Step 10 – SFX & Final Mix is next, and involves lots of back and forth. They work with the good folks at 9Story Entertainment in Toronto on this, making sure the mix helps to tell the story without leaving characters just standing around talking. They showed us a clip of an episode with just the sound effects to prove it. They do this all the time during this stage, to make sure that the animation is working. 9Story also heads up the community outreach content for the show, as well as providing them partial funding, which Jennifer admitted was both a huge blessing and a dream come true.

The very last step is Step 11 – Music. It’s all recorded live at the Brooklyn soundstage, on live instruments. And after this stage is finished, THE EPISODE IS DONE!

But now what?

Billy

Billy jumped right in to answer

“Nowadays, it’s not just the show. It’s what you do with it,” Billy and Jennifer shared. Transmedia is a big deal now, and because the show lives on lots of different platforms, new Peg + Cat content needs to be put on all of them. Website games, music app, DIY projects, ALL of them. All with math concepts.

It’s a lot of work, and both Billy and Jennifer admitted they were initially taken aback by It, but they think it’s great the characters live in so many different places. They were just cautious about finding a company that could build a web presence without aping or ruining the style.

They found it in CloudKid – and THIS is where the Boston folks came in.

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See?

Dave Schlafman, Creative Director of CloudKid, sat front and center on the live feed to tell us about the process of creating a web world fitting Peg + Cat. They started working with show when Billy and Jennifer were creating the pilot. They too found that making math fun as an interactive experience was a big challenge, but they did their best to do it – and the web gave them direct access to their audience in a way television did not. They created the very first web games for Peg + Cat and they’re amazed by how the technology has changed since then. And what it’s allowed them to do. “It’s been really rewarding,” he said, “and awesome to see [the show] come to life” online.

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Hi Dave!

Audience Q & A was next. It was lively and generous. Here are some of the things we learned:

  • Rewrites happen at every stage of the process, and they try not to have pickups since their production schedule is incredibly tight. They do their best to get what they need out of each voice session so they don’t need pickups, and since Billy and Jennifer are present at each step of the process, it’s easier for them to get things right the first time.
  • The differences between working on The Wonder Pets! and Peg + Cat are profound. There’s more overlap between departments, for one thing. They have to raise money themselves, for another. And, the biggest change of all, they’re responsible for their own transmedia outreach.  Also they have to write to curriculum, which is EXTREMELY different.
  • Integrating additional STEM elements into each episode gets tricky. Billy clarified that the show focuses on teaching math more than the other sciences, but they will use common sense and good judgment to do their best to incorporate others. It’s all about setting and clarifying the rules of the each place Peg and Cat visit.
  • Teenagers write in to tell Billy and Jennifer how much they love the show. And they’re finding all those hidden higher-level equations. Yes, really.

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AMNH’s Carl Wynter, asking the STEM question

Lastly, Billy and Jennifer generously offered a tour of their 9ate7 studio as a raffle prize – and the bidding was fierce! Folks were chiming in fast and furious in both Boston and New York. A New Yorker ultimately won, netting a nice chunk of change for a future CMA event, and showing us that we TOTALLY need to do more raffles.

And get more showrunners in to chat. Billy and Jennifer were incredibly gracious, encouraging people, and they made us all feel like we could make our own Peg + Cat. Billy even encouraged me when I chatted with him about being a frustrated playwright. That spirit of genuine helpfulness is what I love best about children’s media – and Billy and Jennifer have it in spades.

Thanks, guys. And keep up the great work.

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And the albums!