***This article was written for the November ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 324)***
This week, young viewers tuning in to Apple TV+ will discover the colorful world of Harvey the dog, Jinja the cat, Jack the rabbit, Robin the bird and many other bright-eyed and bushy-tailed residents of Sago Mini Friends. The show, which is inspired by the hugely popular Sago Mini World app, is executive produced by award-winning kids’ toon veterans Jennifer Dodge (PAW Patrol), Ronnen Harary (PAW Patrol), Dustin Ferrer (Esme & Roy) and Tone Thyne (Wonder Pets!, Go! Go! Cory Carson). We caught up with Thyne to find out more about this charming show, which is produced by Spin Master Entertainment and animated by 9 Story Media’s Emmy-winning studio Brown Bag Films in Toronto:
Animation Magazine: So, first things first. How did you get involved with this show?
Tone Thyne: As VP of Creative at FableVision Studios, I both create original properties and collaborate with best-in-class studios and broadcasters on their existing projects. Two years ago, I had been simultaneously writing scripts on an Apple series while developing a different show with Spin Master. It was completely a case of “three great tastes that taste great together” when Spin Master Entertainment and Apple decided to bring me on as showrunner on the world’s most delightful series!
What do you love about the original app and the show it inspired?
I love that the beloved Sago Mini app sparks playful exploration, imagination and discovery with gorgeously simple design, adorable characters and tons of spontaneous whimsy. It evokes pure joy.
In addition to each episode gently showcasing the importance of gratitude, I love how the series beautifully harnesses the left-field playfulness of the app. I’d always say that it’s not a Sago story unless it features an everyday scenario turned on its ear. Among others, a talking milk jug, a problem-solving log and a pair of garden gnomes (who get married every Wednesday) join the lovable Harvey as he builds a hot dog car and parades it through town, sings a lullaby to a sleeping loaf of bread and uses a giant toothbrush to release a piece of broccoli from Jupiter’s teeth!
What was your biggest challenge as you set out to adapt the property?
In the end, the toughest part of the job became the most rewarding for me. Together with Apple, our team had conceived an overarching curricular goal of showcasing “gratitude” in each episode. What a magnificent quality to inspire young viewers to adopt! The challenge was figuring out how to feature gratitude in ways other than characters simply saying the words, “thank you.” I worked really hard with the brilliant writing team, amazing songwriter, educational consultants and changemakers at Apple to figure out quite a variety of ways for the simple characters to express gratitude. In addition to using words that are relatives of “thank you,” our characters show their thankfulness with facial expressions, actions, body language and even tone of voice!
What about the visual influences and style of the show?
I adore how the colorful Sago Mini app showcases such an engaging simplicity bursting with visual charm. I and our extremely talented partners at Brown Bag Films were vigilant about paying homage to the app’s signature look and winning visual style. We carefully steered clear of reflections, shadows and depths of field that could even hint at a 3D technique. The crisp simplicity of the character and background art emulates a bygone style of flat 2D animation while giving the show a fresh and striking look.
Can you tell us a little bit about who produces the animation?
Spin Master partnered with the wildly talented team of artists at Brown Bag Films in Toronto. I was thrilled to work (virtually) side-by-side with the amazing 95-member team led by director Chad Hicks and art director Sladjana Samardzija. Harvey and friends were able to run, jump, roller-skate, sip tea with turkeys and dance to the tune emitted from a musical shoe thanks to Brown Bag’s expert use of Harmony.
Why do you think the original franchise is so popular?
As I mentioned before, the Sago Mini app sparks playful exploration, imagination and discovery with gorgeously simple design, adorable characters and tons of spontaneous whimsey. All of the games are designed so that young children can confidently explore on their own and really inspire open-ended play.
Which works are your biggest animation influences?
Clearly, I’m an enormous fan of simple visual storytelling. My greatest personal influences are the early animated short films featured on Sesame Street in the 1970s, the magnificently musical Schoolhouse Rock segments and just about every drawing and poem that ever fell out of Shel Silverstein’s pen.
What do you hope new audiences will get out of the show?
I know preschool viewers are growing up in a turbulent world, and my sincere hope for Sago Mini Friends is to be a ray of sunshine (or a bright and colorful rainbow spewed out of a singing unicorn’s horn) for them. I sincerely hope the show will playfully instill the importance of gratitude in a seamlessly delightful way, and I sincerely hope the show will spark imagination and emulate the five important Cs so beautifully showcased in the Sago Mini app: Curiosity, Creativity, Communication, Collaboration and Creative problem solving.
The first season of Sago Mini Friends premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, September 16.