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Toon Zone Interviews Nick SVP Teri Weiss About "Ni Hao, Kai-lan"

Teri WeissIn her 9 year tenure at Nickelodeon, Teri Weiss has been involved one way or another with some of Nick Jr’s biggest hits, including Dora the Explorer, Blue’s Clues, Go, Diego, Go!, and The Backyardigans, which have earned her a Peabody Award and multiple Emmy nominations. Her success comes as little surprise, considering her string two Emmy Awards and three Parent’s Choice Awards in her prior position as a producer at Sesame Street. As Senior Vice President, Production & Development, at Nickelodeon Pre-School Television, she is currently responsible for overseeing all production and develoment for Nick Jr. and Noggin.

Last Thursday, Nick Jr. debuted their newest pre-school animated series, Ni Hao, Kai-lan, which aims to teach aspects of Chinese language and culture to the audiences that have already taken to Spanish thanks to the efforts of Dora and Diego. We got to speak with Ms. Weiss via telephone to talk about the development of Ni Hao, Kai-lan.

TOON ZONE NEWS: Wasn’t Ni Hao, Kai-lan originally announced as Downward Doghouse?

TERI WEISS: Yes, it began as a series of shorts that we did.

TZN: What happened to turn it from those shorts into Ni Hao, Kai-lan?

WEISS: Well, I think that when we do a series of shorts, it’s always a great opportunity to see illustrations and concepts come to life on a small scale, and to get a sense of how much we will fall in love with something. I think once those shorts were complete and we saw this little girl come to life, we just thought there was something there that we wanted to explore in a much deeper way. We just felt like the designs were so beautiful and unique, we thought that the spirit of the character was infectious, and we wanted to see what else we could do with it.

TZN: It seems like you kind of shifted emphasis a bit, because the original show was supposed to have a bit more of a yoga theme, is that right?

WEISS: She was supposed to be a physical character, and yoga was a personal interest of Karen Chau, the creator of the show, so that was integrated into the shorts. At the time we were doing the shorts, we weren’t thinking “series,” so we weren’t thinking whether the yoga concept would sustain itself over a 20 episode series or anything like that. It was just felt right in the context of those 2 minute shorts. Once we made the decision to go to series with Ni Hao, Kai-lan, we brought in curriculum experts and pre-school consultants, as we do with all of our shows, to talk about what type of curriculum we could do for Kai-lan that would really feel special.

TZN: The original debut was scheduled for October, and then it got pushed to February. Was there a reason why it got delayed that long?

WEISS: You know, the more we thought about Chinese New Year, the more we started to get excited about it, and once that Chinese New Year’s episode was close to final, it just became contagious within the company. We felt it was worth it to delay the launch just a little bit to take advantage of the excitement of the cultural richness of the Chinese New Year. We just all decided we could hold our breath for just a little bit longer and just ride the wave of excitement. It’s amazing because with the added awareness and familiarity with the Chinese culture and with the Chinese language in general, more and more pre-schools are celebrating Chinese New Year in their classroom. We thought, “Well, what a great opportunity!” Little kids, our audience, is more aware of what Chinese than ever before, so why not deliver them a brand new friend in that context?

TZN: That actually touches on another question: what were the drivers that got Nickelodeon to consider a show about Chinese language and Chinese culture in the first place?

WEISS: I think with the success of Dora and Diego, certainly, we recognized how much pre-schoolers responded to new languages. I think the fact that Karen Chau is a Chinese-American and is bilingual, and the fact that bilingualism is really just a reality in kid’s lives today. There are more and more bilingual people in their classrooms and in their gyms and their neighbors, and our world has become so much more global and multi-cultural in that way. Ni Hao was an opportunity to introduce a new culture and a new langauge in the same way that we had done with Dora and then Diego.

Roar like a dragon!TZN: Did the rise of the number of parents adopting Chinese girls in North America figure heavily into the decision at all?

WEISS: No, it was really more about the culture and the language. I can’t say that that was a piece of it. It’s certainly wonderful — there was that wonderful article in The New York Times about a month ago about Chinese adoptions. I think that it’s a wonderful thing that you know there’s an opportunity for kids to learn more about the Chinese culture, but it was not an element to kind of making the decision.

I think that any time there’s an opportunity on television, particularly with pre-schoolers, to have children to kind of look at the screen and go, “Oh my gosh, she’s just like me. She’s like me. She reminds me of me,” I think that is a wonderful thing, because I think that when kids feel and see themselves reflected on TV, I think that they really get a kind of sense of being part of a community. I think that that’s part of Nick Jr. in general, is the level of diversity that we have. That kids watch our air and invariably, every child who watches our air is able to say, “He or she is a lot like me!”

TZN: Dora and Diego are teaching Spanish, but Chinese is a very different language, so I wanted to talk about what kinds of challenges that presented to you from an educational perspective. Am I correct in assuming that the show is going to be focusing a lot more on spoken language skills rather than written language skills?

WEISS: Yes, that’s true. It’s true of all of our pre-school shows, because our kids are pre-readers anyway. So, most of our linguistic experience is that auditory experience in any event. But you’re right, we are focusing on spoken language. I think we all learned a tremendous amount in our journey with the language on Kai-lan. Our whole team took Mandarin lessons here at the company, and we all just jumped into it with two feet. It was really, really wonderful. I think that the pronunciations, the nuances within the language are so complex and rich. We had a language consultant for the show, and all the scripts and radio tracks were reviewed. We would have somebody on site when the kids recorded the languages to make sure that all the pronunciations were correct. It’s been quite the journey, and wonderful.

The other great thing about the show is that there are two components to the language. There is the “target word” aspect of Ni Hao, where there’s one particular word that’s repeated many, many times within the context of an episode, and there is also more of the immersive experience of the language, which is mostly Yeye and Kai-lan speaking maybe one sentence and sometimes, on a rare occasion, two sentences of Mandarin that are not translated. The reason for that is I think that kids are fascinated when they hear a language in context and really take away a lot. We certainly set up the scene with that fluidity so that kids can follow along and pretty much understand what that back-and-forth conversation is without having to hear a literal translation. And it gives them an opportunity to see how different that language is from the language they speak, and how beautiful it is.

TZN: Jumping back briefly to the written aspect, that means you’re not going to be addressing things like simplified vs. complex characters on the show?

WEISS: No, we won’t tackle that.

TZN: Are you going to be addressing the fact that the language is tonal? Will you address that specifically on the show, or are you just going to use the children’s mimicry skills to pick up the right tones for the right words?

WEISS: Yes, I think that second one is our initial approach. That’s definitely what we did with the first 20 episodes. Should we move forward with more episodes…I think that the simple approach is really what’s ideal for our audience. I mean, I think that once you start getting into a lot of the nuances within the tonal aspect of the language, I would imagine it gets a little complicated for our viewers.

Cast of 'Ni Hao, Kai-lan'TZN: Are there any plans to expand a little bit into that the website or other distributed materials?

WEISS: I think that there certainly will be games that we do on the web connected to Ni Hao, Kai-lan. Like I said, I think the approach is to really allow everything to feel very acceptable for our kids, I think that the playful nature of the site and our show is to really invite kids into her cultural world, and have the language piece be a compliment to that.

TZN: Speaking about the culture, would you say that the plotlines of the show and the stories that are being told are affected at all by Chinese values or things that are emphasized in Chinese culture? Or were you aiming for something a bit more universal?

WEISS: We have a combination of both. I think that there are certainly universal pre-school themes that are integrated into the series, but the cultural piece is definitely part of all of the script brainstorms that we have. We have a cultural consultant, and there are a number of people working on the show that are Chinese-American that share their experiences, I think that the relationship between Yeye and Kai-lan is very much supposed to be a reflection of that type of cultural relationship. It is at the top of our minds whenever we go to write a script.

TZN: Was there a particular instance where your consultant, Li-hsiang Shen, suggested a particularly interesting change, or anything where you didn’t do something she had suggested?

WEISS: You know, I can’t think of anything at the moment. I think that the biggest challenge with the show was really to always be mindful of the audience that we’re serving, and they’re so little…like 2, 3, 4, 5-year olds. This show has a lot of wonderful layers to it. We have the language layer, we have the cultural layer, we have the emotional intelligence layer, and we have all of those friendships and great stories that we want to make sure that we tell. So I think that above all, whenever there was an idea that couldn’t be executed, it was really, I think, in the name of simplicity more than anything else.

Hula Ducks are AwesomeTZN: Where did the hula ducks come from?

WEISS: (laughs) You know, Karen I believe designed the ducks. They were always part of her initial world, and the writers would look at those design palettes. Then they became part of the “Dragonboat Festival” episode once they had to do the countdown. It’s my understanding that it was a joint effort in terms of the designs to seeing them and they were just so unbelievably adorable that the writers made the most of them.

TZN: Right, I think they show up in the second episode as well.

WEISS: (laughs) Yeah, they’re hard to leave out.

TZN: Even in the very very early reports about the show, it was mentioned that you would be working with Chinese animation studios. Was that a goal that you had up front to build that relationship?

WEISS: Yes. Yes, we definitely were looking to find a way to build a relationship with a Chinese animation house. It was part of the plan. I mean, I think that we’re always looking for new people to work with, and this was an opportunity that seemed like a perfect fit.

TZN: I know that Nickelodeon’s Avatar, especially, is known for giving the outsourced animation studio a lot of leeway to contribute to the show. Do you have that same kind of relationship with the Chinese studios that you’re working with?

WEISS: You know, I think in terms of leeway, the only thing that makes our situation a little bit more rigid than perhaps the big Nick shows is that because we have that interactive component to the show, timing is pretty crucial. The way that the boards are laid out, I mean those games are researched with kids and the pacing of the show is researched with kids, so there is a lot of structure to what’s sent overseas.

TZN: I guess because of the demands of the show, there’s not a whole lot of room to play with.

WEISS: No, not as much. I can’t say that there isn’t ANY, but if I had to hazard a guess, just based on that, probably not as much.

TZN: Are there any stories about hiccups or amusing misunderstandings with the overseas studio you can share?

WEISS: We haven’t had any. I haven’t heard any, in terms of hiccups or anything. I think that we have a really strong team out there at NickToons, managing the boards and managing any kind of language differences, and I think that we’ve worked with a lot of overseas studios, so our goal was always to make sure that it runs as smoothly as possible.

TZN: I imagine the number of bilingual people who must be working on the show probably helps too.

WEISS: Yes.

TZN: Now I know that you guys are also always on the lookout for good animation from foreign markets, like the acquisition of Peppa Pig. Are you doing that with the Chinese animation studios to bring a Chinese cartoon to America as an import?

WEISS: I would say we are always looking for material. In the Nick Jr. world, we are always looking for stuff. I can’t speak for big Nick in terms of how far other deals have gone. They may, in fact, have some stuff in motion on their end. Like I said, I work exclusively in the pre-school world, but yes, we’re always looking for new opportunities to work with international partners.

TZN: Also touching on some globalization concepts, international markets are becoming more and more important for a lot of media companies. Has you guys given much thought to if or how Ni Hao, Kai-lan can be exported?

WEISS: The show hopefully will do well domestically, and I know that there is a plan for it to go to a number of our channels globally. You know, we kind of start small and then grow depending on demand of the other channels. Certainly the advantage of Nickelodeon having channels all over the world is that all of our international partners have a chance to look at shows as they get developed.

TZN: Switching over now to the voice cast, a lot of the actors on the show are Chinese or Chinese-American. Was that a conscious choice on your part when you were casting?

WEISS: Absolutely, yes. We knew that that was something that we wanted to do from the very beginning, so it was part of the casting process.

Kai-lan and YeyeTZN: Is there a story behind how you cast Jade-Lianna Peters?

WEISS: You know, we cast a wide net. I think that finding your lead is always a challenge. You’re looking for somebody who has all those special elements that can carry a show, and I think it’s wonderful that we found someone who’s from Milwaukee. It’s like “We would not be denied!” There was no stone left unturned (laughs) to find her. So there were a lot of little girls that we saw and auditioned, I don’t know the exact number offhand, but definitely, it was a wonderful search.

TZN: Did you know that she was an adopted Chinese girl before you cast her?

WEISS: I don’t think we knew. I can’t say for a fact, but I believe that we didn’t know that initially, and then I think as she came back for callbacks and as she was cast, we found out about that. But you know, I don’t quite remember. It’s one of those things that once you know it, you can’t remember where you learned it (laughs).

TZN: Now Jade-Lianna is not actually a native Chinese speaker. Was that also a deliberate choice?

WEISS: It definitely wasn’t deliberate. We auditioned kids that were bilingual, some who had some Mandarin background, and then we also auditioned kids who didn’t have any. I think that Jade-Lianna just embodied the character in so many ways, and we knew that the Mandarin piece was something that she was committed to doing, so we just went with it.

TZN: Is it too early to talk about DVD plans or merchandising plans, or other distribution means like iTunes?

WEISS: I don’t know the plans for iTunes, but we don’t have any plans yet for merchandise. Basically what happens is that we launch the show, we get a sense of whether it’s a hit, and then the other pieces of the puzzle follow from there.

TZN: You were involved in a lot of Nick Jr’s biggest hits, like Dora and The Backyardigans and Bob the Builder. What would you say was the biggest difference you saw in getting those shows to the screen versus Ni Hao, Kai-lan?

WEISS: I think the biggest difference was that because we had the experience with our language consultants and with our cultural consultants on Dora and Diego, we kind of ironed out our processes with those two shows. Particularly with Dora. I think even by the time we were ready to do Diego, we had a really good sense of how to build the team, but I think that that made the process easier for Ni Hao, Kai-lan in that we kind of understood all the different components and all the different experts we wanted to get involved. We didn’t know WHO they would be, but we knew what positions we wanted to fill, so that was certainly an easier process. Finding the right people is always a challenge, but knowing that you want those pieces in place and knowing from a chronological perspective when you want them to enter the process always helps if you’ve done it before.

Luckily, Mr. Dragon was out of ketchupTZN: Are there any plans or discussions or anything in the works right now to do similar shows for other countries like, say, India or Korea or maybe even the Middle East?

WEISS: We’re always looking for diverse content. I think that the original Downward Doghouse shorts were part of a series that we did that were called the “My World” series, which was about all different types of cultural diversity. We did actually have pieces of a little girl who was Indian who was showing how she put on her sari. I think that that’s always at the top of mind, “How can we make our programming as diverse as possible?” On some level, part of a creative assignment is always, “How can we do something that’s new and interesting and enriching for our kids?” So, to that end, I guess the answer to that is, “Yes.” (laughs)

TZN: What would you say is the coolest thing that happened to you while you were producing the show?

WEISS: (laughs) The coolest thing that happened to me while I was working on the show…you know, I would have to say that the Mandarin language component was really the most fascinating piece. I think the tonal component to the language, as you brought up, and just how different it is to the English language was such a wild ride. I loved it. I loved hearing all these bilingual characters, I love the immersive experience that we have, so I think that was such a wonderful thing for all of us to have the opportunity to experience.

Toon Zone News would like to thank Teri Weiss for taking the time to chat with us, and for Heather Brown and the whole crew at Nick that assisted in arranging the interview. Ni Hao, Kai-lan currently airs on Nickelodeon at 11:00 AM (Eastern/Pacific). Teri Weiss headshot and all images courtesy of Nickelodeon.

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