Emily S. Whitten: Nickelodeon, Squishy Seats… and Me!

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Nickelodeon Animation Studio and their new Entertainment Lab in Burbank, CA. I chatted with Chris Young, Senior Vice President for the Entertainment Lab; Chris Savino, creator of The Loud House; and Farnaz Esnaashari-Charmatz, creator of Shimmer and Shine. I played around in their newly developed immersive and interactive VR experience; sat in on a recording session for Shimmer and Shine; stopped in to say hi to Ciro Nieli, executive producer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and see his cool office; and viewed all kinds of creativity in progress during the studio tour.

And let me tell you: the experience was awesome.

As in, so awesome, I’m wondering how Alternate Me could get a job there. Because let’s be honest – there are office jobs that look like The Office, and then there are workplaces like Nickelodeon, which has slime stairs, a SpongeBob wall, weird egg-cup like chairs that tip you in circles until you feel like maybe you’re going to fall backwards but you don’t, full-sized versions of cartoon characters just sitting around, rotating art exhibits, squishy seats shaped like the iconic Nickelodeon Splat, outdoor creative collaboration areas, and walls and walls of stills from their shows and white boards filled with creative notes and doodles.

And in the midst of all that is the Entertainment Lab, a new unit that will spearhead long-range research and development efforts around new technologies for Nick and its audience. There, I met with Chris Young, who invited me in to the immersive multiplayer virtual reality game they’re developing right now, the VR Slime Zone. Since it’s VR, the game requires a headset through which you view and hear the action. It also uses left and right handheld joysticks that you can walk around with. Once in the game, you can pick a Nickelodeon character to be, and then there are several activities to try.

When I played, first I got used to moving – both walking around on a real-world area of carpet to walk in the game, and teleporting my character to different spots using the controls. Then we were shown the slime gun, which can be used to – you guessed it – slime other players for points! Super-fun! In addition to that, you could use the slime gun to play a shooting gallery game. And if you wanted some variety, there was also a basketball court where you could shoot hoops (I was decent with the gun but throwing the weightless basketballs took some getting used to – I never did make a basket!); and for the more creative types, tubes of different-colored paints you could pick up and use to paint in the air.

What’s really cool about this game-in-progress – beyond the endless varieties of interactive activities the lab could potentially design for it – is that it’s a real-time VR interaction with other players. Some of the Nickelodeon folks hopped into the game with me to show me its features and interact; and Chris envisions that friends could play with each other in this space from their individual homes, in a more immersive experience than you can get from, say, playing a regular video game together.

After the demo, I sat down with Chris and he shared with me more of his thoughts about the new Lab and his goals for it:

“As Senior VP for the Entertainment Lab, my focus has been looking at new technology and how we can use it to create new forms of content or the tools that we use to create that content. One thing I do is look at using game engine technologies to create a real-time universe that uses virtual reality and mixed reality. …In the last half-year, we’ve been looking at the Lab with a more entertainment focus; to look at new ways of connecting some of this technology to live-action or to games and our recreation and consumer products business. There’s a cool opportunity right now around location-based technology – out-of-home experiences that might work in a retail or recreation-type setting.”

Chris also talked about the more future-focused aspect that exists for this Lab:

“The Lab really looks two to three years out, identifying new technology and cool ways we might use it to entertain our audience. It’s hard to predict what the future of entertainment is going to look like. The real opportunity right now is to experiment around with different ideas. For instance, the Slime Zone VR is a suggestion for what a Nick metaverse might be in the future, where you could connect with your friends and your family, and have these shared experiences around Nick IP. In the VR, you can interact, you can make art, you can watch cartoons, and you can run around with a slime blaster and slime each other…”

But Chris noted that the Lab is not just about bringing this interactive entertainment to the masses:

“A big focus of what we are trying to do here as well is to give these tools to the artists who work at Nickelodeon and help them see the potential for different ways for seeing things, or maybe unlock an idea.”

I bet a lot of cool ideas will come out of the Lab! You can listen to my whole interview with Chris Young here.

And speaking of cool ideas, I then sat down with Chris Savino and we talked about his show, The Loud House. The Loud House follows 11-year-old Lincoln Loud as he gives an inside look at what it takes to survive in the bedlam of a big family, especially as the only boy with 10 sisters. The show came about as after it was pitched as a two-minute short during Nickelodeon’s annual Animated Shorts Program. It was really great hearing Chris’s insights into working in animation for the last twenty-six years and on his show, which happily, I can share here!

We first discussed how things have changed with the internet, and how new talents can be discovered via that sharing.

“I am impressed with how much bravery kids have in putting their work out there and showing it, regardless of all the competition. But as much as things change they stay the same. I think it all boils down to talent – if you’re on the artist side, you kind of have to have it. And there has to be an awareness when you’re looking at other people’s work regarding whether they have a talent. Talent aside, there’s a need for understanding what the job entails; and the bigger picture of what your part of the job is giving to the whole. Sometimes it’s hard to get a perspective on that. But circling back around, the things that stay the same are that it’s all about storytelling and character – that is key. It’s also about using your role to make the story better than it was before you got it.”

Regarding how Chris came up with The Loud House, he shared:

“I’m a guy who admittedly has very few ideas; and when I have an idea that I like, it is with me for a long time. It could be years before I even show anybody anything about an idea… Over the years I have pitched a number of shows, but with this particular show, I was guaranteed a short after pitching three ideas to Nickelodeon’s Animated Shorts Program. The Loud House was originally a pitch about a boy rabbit with twenty-five sisters. I think Nickelodeon gravitated toward that pitch because it was about a big family, and they were looking for a big family. And the notion of me being from a big family – five boys and five girls – intrigued them. I think they thought it could bring authenticity to the project.

When it was suggested that the characters become human, I did start connecting the dots and pulling from my life. As they became human characters I started to connect with them more, and I realized that was what the show needed to get the audience to connect.”

Chris and I also talked in great detail about the development and growth of the show:

“For the first thirteen half-hours, I wanted to try to stay in the house as much as possible, because it was created like a microcosm of the world around them. That hallway was designed to feel like a street that they all lived on, but then you could go into their different domains and experience whatever their character is experiencing. But we knew eventually we needed to venture out. So we slowly expanded outwards from there.

While keeping Lincoln in the forefront, we were able to tell stories where even when he was the main character, the character who had the emotional arc was one of the sisters. And of course they had friends, and we started to show them more. Another thing that changed was showing the parents’ faces, which we didn’t show in the beginning. If the parents’ faces were shown, the idea was they’d have more of a role in the episode, and the kids could run to them and say, ‘I’m telling,’ and the episode would be over. I wanted to make sure that the kids, in all of their wisdom, were forced to solve their problems on their own. That was a rule up front.

One thing that happened that we didn’t expect is that we hired two super-talented voice actors for the parents, Brian Stepanek and Jill Talley, and the writers would come to the recordings and say ‘I want to write more for these people.’ So they started writing more dialogue, and the parents gained a bigger role, and it became something where we had to show their faces.”

We also chatted about what to expect from the next season, and branching out into other families:

“In the show, we ended up developing that Ronnie Anne, who likes Lincoln at school, turns out to be Bobby’s little sister, and he is dating Lincoln’s sister Lori. And then we kind of didn’t know what else we wanted to do with those characters, and I had this crazy idea to have them move away into the city with their grandparents, aunt, and uncle, and their kids, so it’s a multigenerational family. I think doing things like that also gives us new perspectives that we can look at, with generations, and culture, and heritage.”

Chris shared a lot of other fun tidbits, and you can listen to all of them here.

What was really fun about the studio visit was getting to talk to several show-runners in one day and hear their unique experiences. I next sat down with Farnaz Esnaashari-Charmatz to talk about her show, Shimmer and Shine. Farnaz shared that she started working at Nickelodeon fifteen years ago as an intern and came back after finishing her degree to work on a multitude of shows. During that, she started pitching to Nick Jr., and after multiple pitches and tries, she landed Shimmer and Shine in 2013. Speaking of the show and her inspirations, she said:

“My little girl and boy inspire me in so many ways every single day. For example, Shimmer’s catch phrase is ‘My favorite color is glitter.’ That is something my little girl said when she was about three – she’s turning six now. Ever since they were little I started watching, ‘What makes them laugh?’ ‘Why are they laughing?’ ‘What is it about their favorite cartoon that they like?’ And then I try to apply that so that the show appeals to both boys and girls. A fun fact is that 60% of our audience is actually boys. I often have parents come up to me like, “My little boy watches Shimmer and Shine…!” and they’re so confused by it! But it’s all about fun characters, and action adventure, and magic – so why not!

I developed the show out of things that I like. Everybody always asks me, ‘are you Shimmer or Shine?’ And I say, ‘Well, I look like a Shimmer and act like a Shine.’ I’m the girl who likes to get dressed up but also climb the mountain before she comes in to work. So it’s a balance, which is what’s in the show too.”

Farnaz also talked about balancing message and entertainment in a show for young kids:

“If I wouldn’t let my kids watch it…I do try to keep it where the morals and the messages are always good, the girls are always supportive of each other, they never put each other down, and they always work together as a team to accomplish what’s going on. That’s always in the back of our heads. And one thing we keep an eye on is Zeta, our bad guy, to make sure she’s not too bad because we don’t want her to just be mean. We’re very conscious of those things as we’re writing and developing.”

We also discussed resilience, which is a theme of the show:

“It’s a huge quality that I have; I just didn’t realize that I had it! If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be here. Because development is not easy. I always say, ‘You’d better be prepared to get knocked down, punched while you’re down, and then get up and say, ‘Absolutely, what’s next?” Because it’s never easy. Getting to this place was a lot of work, and it was very difficult, but I’m grateful for every minute of it. It made me stronger and it made me wiser, and it made me tougher. That’s just who I am.”

Regarding advice for those wanting to get into the business, Farnaz advised:

“Be humble. Be eager. Soak up as much as you can. There are things to learn all around you every day. You just have to be open to it. Never stop growing. I always hope to not be the smartest person in the room. I want to be surrounded by people who know more than me, because that’s exciting!

It really comes down to you. You’re going to hear no more often than yes. You need to be able to not take it personally. I think that’s a big thing for a lot of artists. You put so much of yourself into everything that you do, so it’s hard not to take it personally. But you have to be able to disconnect yourself from what you submit, take a step back, and try to understand, ‘Okay, they don’t like this. Why don’t they like it? What is it about it that needs to adjust? What are they reacting to?’ And to be able to look at it as an outsider, not as yourself looking at your work in a precious manner.”

Finally, Farnaz shared that the show has been picked up for a fourth season, during which they plan to explore some new locations within the Shimmer and Shine world. We had a great chat, and you can listen to the whole discussion here https://soundcloud.com/emilyesse/2017-nickelodeon-studio-tour-farnaz-esnaashari-charmatz-interview.

While I was in Shimmer-and-Shine-land, I also got to actually sit in on part of a recording session. It was so neat to see some behind-the-scenes action as one of its lead voice actresses recorded different inflections for script lines and the folks in the recording booth selected which versions to use. And although I’ve always known that being a voice actor must be a lot of fun, this gave me a first-hand look at the patience that is also required as the actor goes through lines several times, and the way that she has to be continually “on,” performing in the booth for long stretches. And, of course, it gave me a first-hand look at how amazing the voice actors and directors are – because all of the readings were good in their various ways, and yet once the director had chosen a reading I could see why that variation was the one chosen. It was clear just from the short time I was sitting there how uniquely talented these folks who create the Nickelodeon shows we love really are.

But much as I loved watching the live recording, we had to move on eventually, because what would a visit to Nickelodeon be without stopping in to see one of my favorite executive producers, Ciro Nieli of TMNT? Since TMNT is in its last season (noooooo!!), Ciro may soon be moving on to other projects (which are currently unknown, but I’m sure whatever he does next will be excellent), but his office was still packed with Turtles merch (including a manhole-cover pillow I coveted), horror movie posters, and an actual spinner-rack of comics (I wonder if anyone would mind if I planted one of those in my office…). The halls around were plastered with Turtles posters, concept sketches, and other cool art (including little Mousers someone had drawn on the white boards). And down the hall was a full-sized version of the actual in-show arcade game that the Turtles have in their lair. How freaking cool is that??

Visiting the studio was such a blast. It was a real experience to pull back the curtain a bit on how great cartoon shows and interactive experiences are developed; and as always, a pleasure to speak with some of the talented creative minds behind it all. Thanks, Nickelodeon, for giving me a little peek into your world (and check out my full set of photos here!

And fortunately, for anyone who is going to San Diego Comic Con this week, you can get a little bit of this experience too. Nickelodeon’s nostalgia-themed San Diego booth and panels were a favorite part of my SDCC experience last year, and I’ve been wondering what we’ll see from them this year. It turns out this year’s experience will focus on Rocko’s Modern Life, Hey Arnold!, SpongeBob SquarePants and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

Every day of the convention, Nickelodeon’s booth (#4113) will feature a 23-foot-tall pineapple, housing an interactive gaming experience which will allow fans to step inside the world of SpongeBob SquarePants, TMNT, or The Loud House (after my recent VR experience, I definitely want to try this!); a life-size replica of Helga’s shrine from Hey Arnold!; a retail area featuring a custom t-shirt station and one-of-a-kind, exclusive collectibles (I need the sepia-toned Avatar Aang statue!); costumed-character appearances; and autograph signings with the voice casts and creators from Rocko’s Modern Life, Hey Arnold!, SpongeBob SquarePants and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Nick animation creators Butch Hartman (The Fairly OddParents), Chris Savino (The Loud House) and Billy Lopez (Welcome to the Wayne), and more.

Nickelodeon will also present four panels during the convention: Rocko’s Modern Life: Return to Earth!, a reunion with the original voice actors and sneak peek at the upcoming TV special (Thursday); Hey Arnold!: From Hillwood to the Jungle!, celebrating the return of the beloved characters in the upcoming TV movie with past and present casts and a live musical performance (Friday); Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a dive into the thrilling story arcs in season five (Friday); and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Legend of Boo-kini Bottom, a behind-the-scenes look at the new stop-motion Halloween special, along with a live table read of a classic episode picked by fans via social media (Saturday). The panels will feature the likes of Carlos Alazraqui, Tom Kenny, Charlie Adler, Ciro Nieli, Stan Sakai, Sean Astin, Rob Paulsen, Greg Cipes, Eric Bauza, Carolyn Lawrence, Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, and many more.

Whew! So much excitement had, and so much more coming up. I can’t wait to get into some more Nickelodeon fun at the San Diego Comic-Con. If you’re going, check it out, and maybe I’ll see you there! Be sure to say hi!

And until next time, Servo Lectio