Daniel Tiger continues the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood legacy in a beautifully mounted, new animated series on PBS.
It’s not easy to follow in the footsteps of beloved children’s media figure Fred Rogers, but this fall, a friendly animated tiger cub will bring back some of the old neighborhood magic to the PBS Kids lineup. Billed as the first TV series inspired by the iconic, award-winning Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood features the adventures of four-year-old son of the original show’s Daniel Striped Tiger.
To bring Daniel Tiger to animated life, Kevin Morrison, COO of The Fred Rogers Company, and Angela C. Santomero, co-found and CCO of Out of Blue Enterprises spent many months researching how to reintroduce a new generation of preschoolers and their parents to the classic elements of the long-running PBS series. To animate the show, they went to Vince Commisso and his talented team at Toronto’s animation house 9 Story Entertainment (Wild Kratts, Almost Naked Animals) and relied on game designer Schell Games to create online entertainment for the property.
Santomero, who’s a veteran of top children’s shows Blue’s Clues and Super Why!, recalls beginning work on the pilot of the show about five years ago.
“When we presented the animatic pilot to PBS, they actually greenlit the show based on that presentation, which is not something they usually do,” she recalls.
“The vision was to create these handmade objects that we could shoot in camera and work on them in After Effects and Illustrator. We worked with Traci Paige Johnson (Blue’s Clues) to give us that special handmade look. The goal was to pay homage to that plush puppet world and the cozy Neighborhood set, and we were lucky to have Traci and the team at 9 Story realize that vision.”
Morrison also sings the praises of what the animators were able to do using Flash technology.
“We shopped around to find the right company to produce the animation,” he says. “I was a bit suspicious of Flash 2D, because I used to think that it didn’t offer enough fluidity and texture, but when I took a look at the work that 9 Story had done, I was really sold. They used the technology in a very clever and artistic way and pushed it to the limit. The grass green carpet, the real knitted fabric on Daniel’s sweater, they all had such a real vibrancy, that we were very pleased with the results.”
The show creators realized that animation was a great way to bridge the gap between the classic Mister Rogers’ show and a new preschool series that engages young viewers. “
We knew from the very start that there’s no replacement for Fred,” Morrison says. “We played around with various ideas, mixing puppets and live-action, and the best one was to take one of Fred’s characters and animate the show. That really resonated with us, and we were fortunate to have Angela, because she really shares Fred Rogers’ sensibility. She had actually met Fred in the past, and has the vision to channel those ideas for a 21st century show.”
Each episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood offers two separate stories that center on a common early learning theme such as dealing with disappointment. The show uses catchy, musical strategies that reinforce each theme and that preschoolers and parents can incorporate in their daily lives. Another key ingredient is an “imagination moment” in which Daniel plays out a preschool fantasy set to music. At the end of each show, the day’s strategy is reprised in a full song.
Just like Mister Rogers, Daniel talks directly to the viewers at home and begins each day by putting on his read sweaters, tying his sneakers and bringing preschoolers to his Neighborhood of Make Believe. Here, kids get to meet Daniel’s best friend O the Owl, Katerina Kittycat and Prince Wednesday, who are all second generation Neighborhood residents. And yes, the producers have also made sure the old red trolley is also part of the toon’s amusing ingredients.
“Our show uses a 40-year-old-plus social and emotionally driven curriculum, which was used to create the original Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” says Santomero. “We take all of themes that are are most crucial to the life of preschoolers and create active strategies that help parents and their kids solve their daily problems. We use music to help kids remember these solutions. Let’s say one of the show’s characters is disappointed. Daniel is their friend and feels this great empathy and shows them how to deal with their problem and turn things around. I think what sets the show apart is the way we incorporate songs to really drive the message home about a wide variety of things, like going to the doctor, sharing, being scared, etc.”
Santomero admits that it was a daunting task to write a spin-off of a series that played such a huge part in her own childhood.
“I was that four-year-old who wouldn’t miss an episode and would sit really closely to the TV set and listen to every word and every song,” says the exec producer. “We have lots of nods to the old show, and there are some nostalgic moments. If you remember the old show, you’ll feel good watching it with your child or grandchild. If not, it still resonates on its own.”
Morrison agrees, “At the Fred Rogers Company, we are very concerned about keeping that gentle pacing that the original series offered viewers, and I have to tell you we are very pleased with what we ended up with. The stories are engaging, the animation is beautiful, and parents are going to feel good about introducing their children to this world. It has been very satisfying to see how the team has kept the quality going all the way through the 79 episodes.”
“Fred Rogers created what children’s TV is today,” concludes Santomero. “That was it was so important for us to honor that legacy and create a show that reached today’s audience, while promoting his values. It wasn’t easy, but it’s a passion project of which we can all be proud.”
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood airs weekdays on PBS Kids. For more info, visit www.pbskids.org/Daniel