Dreamworks Animation's Turbo FAST made its debut last December as Netflix's first all-new animated series for kids, and was the first of a mega-300 hours of programming arrangement between Netflix and Dreamworks. It is produced by Glendale's DreamWorks Animation Television with production services provided by Hollywood's Titmouse Inc.
The initial five half hours in December were supplemented by five more in April - and the series shows no signs of slowing down. I spoke with Dreamworks Animation's Television head Margie Cohn and Titmouse topper Chris Prynoski about the show.
Martin Goodman: Margie, Congratulations on Turbo FAST's Daytime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program. After only a handful of episodes, that’s quite impressive.
Margie Cohn: We were very, very pleased. It showed that Netflix is a destination where kids and viewers go, and we were excited.
MG: How was Turbo chosen to be the pioneer show for your first team-up with Netflix?
MC: Well, that preceded me, but I would assume that they were gearing up for the movie and they knew when the show needed to premier, so it was probably a windowing opportunity when Turbo the movie would still be top of mind we would premier Turbo the series. They loved the IP (intellectual property) and thought there was a lot of opportunity to do something different and fun.
MG: Chris, This isn’t your first go-round with an ensemble racing team. You had a series for Disney called Motorcity. Was working on that series helpful in getting Turbo FAST going?
Chris Prynoski: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, Turbo initially came to me as a special before they planned to make a series, and the executive at DreamWorks, Peter Gal, referenced Motorcity and said, "Hey, can you use a similar technique? It was pretty cool." I told him, "Absolutely, we have a crew that can nail it!" So yeah, that was definitely referenced when we started out.
MG: Margie, joining up with an Internet television network for a sizeable production commitment - something like 1200 original episodes in five years - that’s a very big, very novel move. DreamWorks and Netflix already had a deal to distribute filam and specials, but original programming is a different venture. Was it ever felt by DreamWorks that there might be an element of risk involved, or was this a very firm decision from the start?
MC: DreamWorks is very anxious to diversify and get into the kids business and television business. We have such great IP and such a strong brand, but we didn’t have the daily engagement with the fans that we really wanted.
I think this ended up to be a perfect partnership because for Netflix to start their kids business they also needed a strong brand that was known globally and had some recognition to it. Our movies open and are popular around the world, so our characters are known. If you think about flicking through a Netflix home page, you’ll recognize the characters and be drawn to them, so the partnership actually makes a lot of sense.
MG: You know, Chris, the look you’ve chosen for the series recalls those old Saturday Morning animation shows. A couple of times I caught myself thinking about Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch. Was it intentional to capture that sort of look, the reason you went with 2D Flash animation rather than CG?
CP: It was a directive from DreamWorks out of the gate to do a 2D series. There’s a lot of characters and locations and new villains, so it would be a more expensive and time-consuming show to make in in CG. Personally, I’m a fan of 2D animation, and we still use some 3D techniques for the snail’s shells and the camera moves, so it’s kind of a hybrid technique.
MG: One thing I especially likes was that the focus of the show is on the racing team and their personalities and relationships. The human characters from the original film seem to be almost entirely absent. You’ve also got the snails in their own city, and that removes them from humans even further. Was that intentional so that you could play up the snails more?
CP: Yes, absolutely. You’re going to see that even more often. On June 27 there’s going to be some new episodes launched . We’re going to be making a bunch of these. As we progress and learn what works from both a storytelling and a production perspective, we’re deciding to focus as much as possible on the "Critter World" as we call it, as opposed to the human world.
MG: Margie, Three new shows will roll out by the end of the year - King Julian, Veggie Tales in the House, and Puss in Boots. Will these be produced and aired using the same strategy as you did for Turbo FAST, as batches of episodes?
MC: Yes, that is the plan right now.
MG: With the acquisition of Classic Media, you now own some of America's most iconic animated characters. Is there a roll-out plan in place now for producing them into future series? Might they be in the next wave of releases to Netflix?
MC: Yes, there is definitely a plan to develop and produce episodes from the IP and the Classic Media Library.
MG: Care to comment on which ones?
MC: Everybody asks that, but we announce our titles in conjunction with Netflix.
MG: One thing I especially liked, Chris, was that the focus of the show is on the racing team and their personalities and relationships. The human characters from the original film seem to be almost entirely absent. You’ve also got the snails in their own city, and that removes them from humans even further. Was that intentional so that you could play up the snails more?
CP: Yes, absolutely. You're going to see that even more often. On June 27 there’s going to be some new episodes launched . We're going to be making a bunch of these. As we progress and learn what works from both a storytelling and a production perspective, we’re deciding to focus as much as possible on the "Critter World" as we call it, as opposed to the human world.
MG: Margie, will you be contracting any of these new series out, as you did with Titmouse Studio for Turbo FAST, or are some of them going to be produced in-house at DreamWorks Animation?
MC: Well, we have just built a studio in Glendale separate and off the DreamWorks campus, and within the space of the five or six months that we’ve been in operation, we’ve hired 300 people. We also have three floors of an office building. We are up and running doing a lot of the pre-production , and the animation is going out to Canada and other various places. So we're working the way a lot of other kids businesses work, but the up-front creative work is kept locally and the animation is exported.
MG: I wanted to ask, Chris, having all your characters, heroes and villains alike introduced with those power indicator bars gave me good chuckle. Who came up with that idea?
CP: That was actually something that I pitched out. At a certain point in the series, we decided to start making jokes on the power bars. We started playing with that conceit and then pushing it even further. That idea gets stretched and even weirder as the series goes on.
MG: There seems to be a theme to most of the Turbo episodes - Be true to yourself, believe in yourself, always be loyal and help your friends - is that the message you try to stress for your younger viewers?
CP: Yeah, we're definitely trying to set up a teamwork thing. I don’t think you'll find anyone who won’t agree those are good values. To teach kids. We try not to get too preachy, but sure, there's a little bit of a message in these episodes.
MG: Now, the villains you've got, they’re egotistical, grandiose braggarts who are quick with a put-down. Did you model them on Guy Gagne, the original villain from the movie?
CP: A little bit. And in the future you may see him come back in the series.
MG: Margie, you’ve been on the job for about a year now since coming over from Nickelodeon, and you’ve had fantastic results. What would you say the greatest challenges have been so far?
MC: Getting so many shows up and running at the same time and not having a traditional pilot process. We only want A-plus talent, and we’re getting fourteen shows up at once so it’s been a little challenging finding all the people, but we can always say that every single person in the studio has been hand-picked and is the best in the business; we’re very excited to show the world the work they’ve been doing.
MG: How about some of your challenges, Chris?
We’ve got a really brutal production schedule in terms of the time we have to execute these episodes, but the execs, especially Margie have been awesome. Turbo is a fun project, and we’ll be working on it for the next couple of years, so I’m glad we’re having this much fun.
MC: I have Mark Taylor, who opened the Nickelodeon studio and was there for fifteen years, and Peter Gal who I also worked with. These are people who've built relationships all across the animation industry in every function. There’s a lot of respect and loyalty that goes back and forth.
MG: Chris, I know that DreamWorks has creative control over Turbo. Did they send you a bible for the show? Are you free to play around with it a little?
CP: Actually, we've had a fair amount of creative leeway. The original premise, of course, was passed along to us from DreamWorks, they've allowed us a lot of creativity at the studio, and it’s pretty rare that we get a story shut down entirely. Most of the time they’re happy to hear our ideas. You know, it is a cartoon, so we can get silly and odd, and as we progress into the next batch of episodes, we push even further towards comedy. There'll be racing, of course, but that's not going to be the main focus. It’s going to be the character comedy.
MG: One for you, Margie. Do you feel the type of arrangement you have with Netflix is the eventual future of all network media? Will there be a generation that looks back at, say, an old paper issue of TV Guide the way we look at dial telephones today?
MC: Well, TV Guide is already electronic. I do think that patterns have changed, but I think that kids are still watching linear television as well as accessing Netflix and watching on their smart phones. At least for now, they like curated programs but they also like on-demand. Where things will end up in the future is anybody's guess, but I believe the on-demand model is absolutely here to stay.
MG: One quote of yours I keep coming across is: "We could not be having more fun as we create this content for Netflix." What is the most fun aspect of this for you?
MC: I think it’s the start-up, pioneer phase we’re in right now. Being able to get all these great people into the studio, hearing all their great ideas, seeing all the beautiful art and watching everything come together. There’s nothing better than to see the creative process from start to finish and be really proud of the work, and that’s what we’re seeing across the multitudes of shows we’re putting into production. We’re having fun doing what we’re doing, but we want kids to love the end result.
MG: How about you, Chris?
CP: I really love working on the show, the cast is great, and I'd like to give a shout-out to some of the crew: Antonio Canobbio is our Art Director, who's just phenomenal. I think the show looks better than any other TV show out there. Jen Ray is our Line Producer, and she’s got the hardest job, getting the show on track and delivered on time , she’s been great.
MG. Chris, I look at some of the stuff Titmouse has produced for Adult Swim, and I think it must be tough to hold yourselves back, sometimes.
CP (Laughs) Because this is Netflix and not network television, there’s no Standards and Practices department, so myself and the writers and the DreamWorks executives kind of have to be our own Standards and Practices department. We're always trying to figure out, how far can we push it? Usually we err on the side of not going too far over the line or pushing as far as we could if we had a Standards and Practices Department. we have to make ourselves happy, too. We would never do anything inappropriate for kids, but if we can throw a few jokes in that makes adults laugh, that’s always a good thing.
MC: Yeah, when you go to the studio, it's fun. On one desktop you’re seeing an Adult Swim show and on another one you're seeing Turbo. It’s funny. Chris a great creative person, and runs a great studio that attracts top-level talent. He’s a great personality, too.
MG: You directed the first few episodes. Were there any characters you really enjoyed working with?
CP: I really like White Shadow, he's my favorite.
MG: Star of the Dungball Derby.
CP I thought that was a really great character episode, too.
MG: How about a peek ahead to the next episodes?
CP: In the next batch, there's going to be a 90s throwback where the team finds these cicada bugs who've been hibernating since the 90s. There's a song called "The Mucha Cabra" in it that pays homage to the Macarena.
MC: It’s a takeoff on the Macarena, it’s very funny.
We do a joke about how everyone gets mesmerized by the Macarena. It’s a pretty funny episode, and I think adults will really enjoy that one. There’s a lot of referential humor to the world of twenty years ago.
MG: You now have unlimited creative freedom over your content, Margie. Is it possible you might even have crossovers between your most popular characters?
MC: We could, we absolutely could.
MG: Of all the properties and characters DreamWorks now has available for a potential series, if you had your choice, which one do you wish you could personally take the reins on?
MC: Well, I love all my babies equally. Let’s just say that all the libraries are open to us and we can jump in on whatever we think would make a great television show.
MG: So, Chris… is Turbo ever going to make a snappy comeback to one of the villains without totally mangling it?
CP: Nope! He's going to mangle it every time!