Jurassic Choo Choo

Creator Craig Bartlett talks about his new animated creation Dinosaur Train, a Jim Henson Company project which is scheduled to pull into PBS KIDS this fall.

It’s always great news when a new show by an animation veteran gets the greenlight. That’s why fans of Hey Arnold! had a big smile on their faces when they heard that Craig Bartlett, the talented creator of the popular 1990s toon has a new CG-animated series in the works. The fact that the show is a joint venture with PBS and the Jim Henson Company was the icing on the cake.

The Seattle-born artist, who is married to Lisa Groening (that’s Simpsons creator Matt’s sister!) tells us that he first thought about the idea behind the show when his son Matt was four. ‘You can say the idea has had a long germination process. We used to take my son to this Travel Town [a miniature railroad ride in L.A.'s Griffith Park] and he just loved it. He was all about Thomas the Tank Engine and the Brio train tracks and he had this bucket of toy dinosaurs that he loved to play with. I thought, man if we had a show which put dinosaurs on trains, four-year-old boys would really flip for it.’

These days, Bartlett’s son is in his second year of college’which says a lot about TV animation’s development process’but the show has finally become a reality. Bartlett says he first chatted about doing a dino-themed preschool show with Linda Simensky a decade ago, who was the development exec at Cartoon Network at the time. She kept in touch with Bartlett after she left Cartoon Network for her new post as senior programming director at PBS KIDS. ‘Linda called me up a year after she got the new job and said ‘I’m ready for your show now,” recalls the animator, who has worked on numerous shows including Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy, as well as recent Henson projects such as Unstable Fables: 3 Pigs and a Baby, The Skrumps and Sid the Science Kid.

The 40 x half-hour toon, which is also offered as an 80 x 11-minute show, is told through the eyes of Buddy, a preschool-age T-Rex, who is adopted by a family of Pteranodons. Together, they get on a special time-traveling Dinosaur Train, where they learn about all kinds of dinosaurs and their habitats in different eras. As exec producer Lisa Henson explains, ‘Based on input from paleontologists, science educators and early childhood education experts, the show has developed an ambitious and creative curriculum that harnesses children’s enthusiasm and curiousity about dinosaurs, sparking their interest in life science and natural history.’

Bartlett says he welcomed the opportunity to work on a show that is CG-animated. ‘It’s different from Sid the Science Kid, because we’re not doing motion capture,’ he notes. ‘The animation is done by Singapore’s Big Communications (with participation and assistance of the Singapore Media Authority). It’s just wonderful to see how our sketches and drawings are translated into CG. Plus, it would have been murder to do all the trains in 2D!’

Praising the show’s top-notch team, which includes producer Sue Bea Montgomery, story editor Joe Purdy, art director and CG supervisor Terry Izumi, songwriter/composer Mike Himelstein, storyboard director Karl Toerge and production manager Travis Gates, Bartlett says he couldn’t have been happier about the way the show looks and sounds.

‘One thing you’ll notice that although our kid dinosaurs are pretty adorable’they are about two-heads tall and have these big eyes’the older dinosaurs are depicted quite realistically,’ adds Bartlett. ‘Four-year-olds want their dinosaurs anatomically correct. They’d be busting us if they didn’t look real. The wow factor about dinosaurs is that they were these monsters that roamed the earth. I think that’s empowering for kids to be play with toy dinosaurs’because they have these huge, powerful things under their control.’

Since Bartlett has been involved in so many influential shows in his career, he can also give you a wealth of advice about the evolving nature of the TV animation business. One thing he’ll tell you is that these days toon producers have a lot less money to play with, and have to deliver the goods in a ridiculously short amount of time. ‘I definitely feel that the business has changed a lot,’ he shares. ‘Back in the ’90s, when we were making Rugrats and Hey Arnold!, we had no idea how much time and money we had. Just to give you an idea, we will be delivering 80 11-minute episodes of our show by the end of summer and I’m 25 shows into it right now. We’re blazing, man! We used to do the audio (AMRs) in a week back then. Now we do them in a day and they get the storyboards done within hours.’

Of course, working in this fast-paced environment has its unexpected advantages. ‘Joe Purdy and I are writing so fast that we get into this trance,’ says Bartlett. ‘I have recorded 25 episodes with the talented kids who do the voices of the dinosaur family. I can hear their voices in my head as I write. We were on such a roll last month, we did eight episodes in one week. A side advantage is that when you’re working with child actors, it’s great to capture their voices all in a short period of time. When I was doing Hey Arnold!, I went through five Arnolds, from the pilot to the movie. It’s a heartbreak when their voices change!’

More than anything, Bartlett says it’s been a blast to create this beautiful show with a fantastic cast and crew. ‘I’m meeting some great new people’I realize that it’s such a great opportunity to be able to do this show. I’ve done several projects with the Hensons and it’s been a great partnership. Plus, we get to do this in this historic Henson studio, which is kind of an oasis here in the middle of Hollywood. And they feed us a lot of pies!’

The Henson Company will bring Dinosaur Train to the MIPTV market this month. The show will premiere on PBS KIDS in the fall.