The Confab: Getting Animated with ‘Wallykazam!”s Dave Palmer

Monday, March 17, 2014

On Thursday, March 20, MMM turns 4! To celebrate the blogiversary we’ll be hosting Four Days of Fab Giveaways, kicking off today. Up for grabs will be products (from people) I came to know through blogging these last four years; ergo, some good stuff, yo! Stay tuned to the blog and MMM’s Facebook page for updates, announcements and info.  You don’t want to miss this. Trust.

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I met Kristin Wald almost immediately after the launching the Ms. Mary Mack blog in 2010, and she’s been squarely in my corner ever since. She’s a mother of two, a (now not-so-new) Brooklyn transplant in Montclair, NJ, and a woman unafraid to stand up and raise her voice about the important and sometimes controversial things.

K-Dubs, as I often call her, is smart, compassionate and genuinely kind. I’m glad I know her (and actually got to meet her in “real life” at BlogHer ’12!). She’s also one of those people always willing to help connect you with other good eggs in this world.

Exhibit A: Dave Palmer. He’s a multiple Emmy nominated director, animator, writer and illustrator, best known for his work as Director of the breakthrough preschool series Blue’s Clues, and the hit animated children’s series The Backyardigans.

K-dubs knew I wanted to bring back The Confab feature on MMM , and she also knew Dave, so doing what she does best, Kristin made the email intro and here we are, interviewing the man about being the Supervising Producer of Nick Jr.’s new show Wallykazam!, which premiered in February to the highest ratings of any preschool show on Nick Jr. in almost a decade. (It’s currently number one rated preschool show on Nickelodeon.)

So thanks, K-dubs! And welcome back to The Confab, friends. Time to chop it up with the talented Mr. Palmer.

Dave Palmer headshot | Ms. Mary Mack

Q:  You’re a director, an animator, a writer, an illustrator — plus, Emmy-nominated many times over. How did you even get started in this line of business? Is it something you’ve wanted to do since childhood, coming up watching cartoons on Saturday mornings?

Dave Palmer: Well, everything in my bio — spanning almost 20 years in the animation industry (egads!) — really stemmed from not being able to get a job in animation after I graduated from Ithaca College in 1991.  I moved to New York in 1994 to attend NYU’s Graduate program in Film Animation, with the specific goal of making contacts in the industry.  And thankfully, that’s what I did almost right away, which led to some brief freelance work on commercials before I stumbled on the opportunity to work on the Blue’s Clues pilot in the summer of 1995.

As to what led me to pursue a career in animation — like most kids, I watched a lot of cartoons on Saturday morning, and at any and all other times that I could.  My favorites were the classic Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny shorts, as well as the Pink Panther, Jonny Quest, the Charlie Brown specials, and others.  And of course, I loved Disney films.  My parents would take my brother and me to see movies at the local drive-in, where we’d see Disney double features — Herbie The Love Bug or Escape to Witch Mountain, paired with an animated film like Robin Hood or The Aristocats, which I adored then, and still do.

I was always interested in drawing as a child, and had some facility in that area at an early age — I remember moving to a new school in the 2nd grade, and having kids rave over something I was drawing, which was a great ice breaker for a shy kid, as I was.  So I kept drawing, and took classes where I could, and had some aspirations of being a classically trained artist when I got older, but I don’t think I ever associated drawing with the cartoons and films that I loved until I was about 11 years old, when I saw Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings at the local second-run movie theater.  It blew my mind.  It was so different from the polished, kid-friendly, funny Disney films that I loved — so raw and violent and rough around the edges.  The mixture of paintings and rotoscoping and hand-drawn animation, for me, really revealed that you could turn art into film.  And that’s what started me thinking about animation.

Living in the suburbs of upstate New York, however, I didn’t have any clue about how to break into the industry. For me, saying I wanted to make movies was like saying I wanted to be an astronaut — I just saw no path that would lead me to my goal.  Years later, as I was applying to colleges, my Mom pointed me toward Ithaca College, which has a wonderful film program, because she heard that they had (and still have) a robust internship program in LA.  So that’s where I started my journey, although I didn’t take that LA internship back in 1990 — it took me another 23 years to get here!

Wallykazam on Nick Jr | Ms. Mary Mack

Q: How did the new show Wallykazam! come about? Is it a long process to go from show idea to the actual program airing on network TV?

DP: Wallykazam! was created by Adam Peltzman, who is an extremely talented writer.  He and I met on Blue’s Clues, and worked on The Backyardigans together as well, and we had spoken over the years about working on something together.  Around the time The Backyardigans was wrapping up, Adam sold the Wallykazam! pitch to Nick Jr., and got the opportunity to make a five-minute short, so he asked me to direct it.

Nick Jr.’s plan at the time was to produce shorts for a few select pitches, air them all, and then decide which would be further developed for series.  We did the short in New York in 2010, and that’s where Adam started to develop the voice of the show, and we really developed the look and animation style of the short.  We played with some pure 2D styles, but the animation studio we were working with suggested working in more of a 3D space.  We then started to experiment with CG characters in a world that was made up of flat cards, arranged with depth — like a kid’s shoebox diorama — with a shallow depth of field so only the area right around the characters would be in focus.

Those ideas evolved throughout production, and we eventually settled on a mixture of 3D characters and 2D elements.  We finished the short that summer and waited until the end of the year before we heard that the shorts wouldn’t actually go on the air.  That was the bad news.  The good news was that Nick Jr. really liked the short, and wanted us to produce a longer pilot. So in 2011 we went into production on a 16-minute episode, which was produced at the Nickelodeon animation studio in LA.

The pilot, which I directed, took a few months to produce.  We were already getting the feeling that Nick Jr. liked the show even before we finished the pilot, which was nice, but it still took another few months to get a series pick up and it was probably a year later we were fully in production.

Long story, short: yes, it was a long process. But our story isn’t the longest or most difficult development story I know, so I consider us lucky to go from first short to series premiere in about 3-4 years!

Q: How incredible is it to have a firm hand in creating a world in which kids immerse themselves and fully believe? Would you say that’s one of the best parts of your job?

DP: Creating a world and characters that our viewers can immerse themselves in is definitely something we work really hard at on Wallykazam!, and it’s something that’s very important to me personally. The greatest strength of TV as a medium is that you can spend so much time with the characters (and in the worlds) you create and really develop them deeply over many seasons.

For a Preschool show like ours, we don’t really get to do long character arcs like you can for older demos, where the characters age and change over time, but you can (and should, I think), still develop well-rounded characters by reinforcing their personalities and revealing additional layers over time.

The goal for me from the beginning of my career has been to create characters that kids identify with, and fall in love with, and become completely invested in, the way I was invested in Bugs Bunny and Charlie Brown in my day.  I heard something while working on Blue’s Clues that’s stuck with me: the acme of character-based comedy is when your audience knows the character so well that they laugh before they even see the punchline.  The idea that the mere set-up would cause the audience to imagine what the character would do and start to laugh, and that we could create such strong characters, really resonated with me.

Q: What makes Wallykazam! different from some of the other quality kids’ shows on air now?

DP: That authentic, living-world feel we’re going for is one thing that sets Wallykazam! apart, for sure.  The delicate balance between character and curriculum is pretty rare, and to be honest, not appropriate for every preschool show, but it’s right where we want to be.  Something else that’s pure Wallykazam! is its sweet, funny and weird tone.  We go to some odd places in our show, and create some strange and silly situations, and I love that we get to play in a world where those things feel like they truly fit.

Internally, we’ve often referred to Wally’s world as Middle Earth for Preschoolers — a place where there is something amazing to discover in every dark forest, or over every mountain peak.  The world should feel vast but safe, unexplored but oddly familiar, and every episode should ideally feel like we’re getting a glimpse of one piece of a much longer narrative about Wally and his friends.  And in that world there is this amazing artifact that can create words, and those words have weight and heft and power in that world.

Q: Do your three kids think that you are the coolest dad in the world? I know your children are young, but do you see the “animation bug” in any of them yet?

DP: Our twins don’t get it yet — they just turned 3 — but my oldest is 6, and he understands that I work on Wallykazam!, although I don’t think he understands exactly what I do every day. He actually draws beautifully, though, and has a terrific eye for color and spatial relationships.  (I must sound like every proud parent whose child brings home drawings, but I love his them so much.  We have his drawings up on the walls all over the house, and I hung some in my office at the studio, too.)  He seems to have some interest, but the other day he asked me if someone could have two jobs when they got older. I said, “Well, some people do. Why?”, and he said, “Because I want to be a soccer player and an animator when I grow up.”

Q: What do you hope kids — and by extension their parents — come away with after experiencing Wallykazam’s world?

DP: First, I hope kids laugh. I hope they laugh their tiny socks right off! And their parents, too.  I’d also like them to really connect with Wally and Norville, and truly think of them as friends.  And if those two things happen, I know kids will come back to our show again and again, and they’ll learn about a lot of specific phonemes, but if they take away any one thing from Wallykazam!, I hope they’ll adopt Wally’s love of words and language.

Q: This last question may be a little prickly, but do you think that kids today are spending too much time in front of screens (TV and iPads, etc.)? Is there a “too much” when it comes to animation and TV shows for our kids?

DP: Absolutely, yes.  That goes for everyone, not just children.  We’re becoming very screen-centric as a culture, with communication and entertainment and information at our fingertips 24 hours a day.  I personally find it really hard not just to avoid looking at my phone for an extended period of time, but I do try. And my wife and I are diligent about limiting our kids screen time.

The bottom line is that I love making TV shows for kids, and someday I hope to make movies for them, and after that TV shows and movies for older kids and adults, as well.  I love the visual storytelling of TV and film, both as a creator and a consumer, but I know that the things I create and consume should be enjoyed in moderation.  I’m sure the same could be said of folks in other fields.  The great pastry chefs of the world would love as many people as possible to enjoy their work, but I don’t think any of them would suggest that their desserts should be eaten at every meal, day after day.

I understand how alluring what we create is for kids, and I hope that the children who enjoy our show are balancing their time with us with plenty of outdoor play, imaginative play, building toys, and drawing, and reading books, and playing games with their family and friends.

It means so much to us that folks are watching, and we know that those few hours a week that our viewers spend with us are precious, so we really work hard to provide a show that is as funny, warm, engaging, and smart as possible, to really justify that investment of time.

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Catch Wallykazam! weekdays at 1 p.m. ET on Nick Jr. And read more about Dave Palmer on his website here

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Release the doves and rainbows, people — it’s Giveaway Time! So, for Day 1 of Four Days of Giveaways, the prize will be a 30-day supply of Honest Kids juice pouches.

Honest Tea is another fantastic company that I have been so fortunate to meet (in person too!) in my four years of blogging. Shout-out to Jordan over at HT for always being so generous with his time and help! Looking forward to keep the fun rolling with these folks.

To be entered to win, just leave comment below about your animated show faves — could be something your kids enjoy now or a cartoon from the way, way back that you could not miss on Saturday mornings. The randomly-selected winner will be announced Thursday, March 20. Good luck!

8 Comments
  • 1

    I always loved G-Force, and I hate to admit it, but The Smurfs. With the kids, I think I’m one of the only adults in the world who likes Caillou, and I was disappointed when the kids got too old for Blue’s Clues and Wonder Pets. I really like them!

    • 1.1
      Ms. Mary Mack says:

      Ha! I was into the Smurfs too. I also watched Super Friends with my brother. There wasn’t a real “can’t miss it” animated show for me, but I was ALL about shows like Electric Company, Zoom, Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and a Canadian show called Mr. Dressup.

      And, yes, you are THE ONLY PARENT WHO LIKES CAILLOU! Even though it’s a Canuck show, and you know I like to support my countrymen, that show (the whining) is plain old annoying.

  • 2
    Linda Chan says:

    All time favorite is Bugs Bunny! What an attitude!
    The cartoons today are very different then years ago. Life just seemed simpler.

    • 2.1
      Ms. Mary Mack says:

      Bugs was pretty funny. But there were some not-cool-bro things that happened in those earlier Looney Tunes shows. Controversial, inappropriate and totally racist crap. We unsuspecting kids… man, we didn’t know the half!

      Thanks for the comment, Linda!

  • 3
    maya says:

    i loved maya the bee – was impressed there was someone, something else named maya. now the name is everywhere, but it wasn’t always that way!

  • 4

    When I was younger, Jem and the Holograms was by far my favorite cartoon!

  • 5
    Logan duVon says:

    I could not miss Recess or Hey Arnold! Shows today just aren’t as quality Spongebob is too inappropriate but luckily my son still loves Jake the pirate and Mickey mouse so I don’t have to worry about the older cartoons just yet!

  • 6
    Andrea says:

    I also enjoyed the smurfs. And Snoopy.
    My kids really like Team Umizoomi.