‘Slumberkins’ EP Halle Stanford Introduces Her New Puppet Pals to Apple TV+

***This article originally appeared in the December ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 325)***

Back in 2016, Halle Stanford, TV president for The Jim Henson Company, was attending an event where young kids were encouraged to ask a leading political figure any question that was on their mind. The children had many questions about climate change, political leadership and their overall safety in schools. That’s when Stanford realized that she needed to create a show that helped kids manage their own fears about the future.

“I was on the lookout for an idea, creator or property that could help us imagine this type of series, as I was an anxious child myself,” says Stanford. “Lo and behold, the universe delivered! I was so lucky to meet Slumberkins creators Callie Christensen and Kelly Oriard at Alt Summit, a conference for female influencers and entrepreneurs in creative fields. I fell in love with the intention and design of Slumberkins and brought on board the dream team of Alex Rockwell as our showrunner and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to realize the series.”

Slumberkins
Slumberkins

Mixed-Media Magic

The result of their efforts can now be seen on Apple TV+, in a charming new mixed-media (puppets and 2D animation) series featuring five leading characters (Bigfoot, Unicorn, Sloth, Sloth, Yak and Fox) as they explore a world of feelings. The show is a joint effort between The Jim Henson Company and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in Hollywood, Christensen and Oriard, who are based in the Pacific Northwest, and the show’s award-winning animation studio Factory, which is based in the U.K. The top-notch voice cast includes the likes of Pamela Adlon, Jason Ritter and Yvette Nicole Brown.

The series’ eye-pleasing visuals were inspired by the designs of the original Slumberkins board books. “The Slumberkins team has a fantastic sense of style and palette in their books, and the toys are at ‘maximum snuggle capacity,’ so it was easy for our production team to use all of this as a starting off point,” says Stanford.

Halle Stanford
Halle Stanford

“Our Creature Shop realized the character art from the books into performable and engaging characters, and their work reminded me of the type of puppet work we did on Bear in the Big Blue House and Fraggle Rock. But for the overall look, Mark Caballero, our supervising director and producer, brought his keen stop-motion animator eye to our series. He wanted it to feel alive, warm, playful, beautiful and cinematic.”

Caballero pulled imagery and inspiration from the 1970s Moomins stop-motion series, the soft pastels and painting of Czech animator Jiří Trnka, the playfulness of Mary Blair and early Jim Henson framing of simple compositions. “Mark, along with the animation production designer, Matt Forsythe, worked together to find a look that would create an organic integration of puppets, 2D environments and 2D creatures,” says Stanford.

The Emmy-winning producer, who has worked on some of the best children’s shows of the past 20 years — The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Dinosaur Train, Sid the Science Kid, Fraggle Rock and Bear in the Big Blue House, to name a few — knew that the best medium to for the project was a mixed-media approach with puppets in an animated world. “Puppet therapy is a tool that many teachers and therapists use to help very young children manage big feelings,” she points out. “It only seemed right that we bring the Slumberkins characters to life in puppetry — to create safe, sensitive and fun characters for the kids at home.”

Slumberkins
Slumberkins

“I also love how, in trying to capture the authentic kid voices of the Slumberkins, we decided to give them real kid voices!” she adds. “We had had success on The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance with voice-over ADR, so we felt we could deliver a seamless puppet performance with kid voice-over casting. Mostly, I love how Alex Rockwell took these board books and created compelling characters and a world she likes to describe as a ‘21st century Hundred Acre Wood!’”

Farewell to Anxiety

Stanford says she counts Rankin/Bass, Walt Disney, Hanna-Barbera and the geniuses at ILM as her childhood heroes. She adds, “My adult heroes are Hayao Miyazaki, Henry Selick, Brad Bird, Craig Bartlett, Jennifer Lee, Phil Tippett and, of course, Mark Caballero!”

She says she hopes children will embrace the Slumberkins characters as a new set of friends who entertain them and encourage them to love themselves. She adds, “And for those children, and their parents, who are really struggling with anxiety, my wish is that Slumberkins will give them the tools they need to find peace within and face whatever challenges come their way.”

Slumberkins premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, November 4.

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