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NYCC2009: W!LDBRAIN on "Team Smithereen" and "Yo Gabba Gabba!"

(l to r) Bob Higgins, Mike Polis, and Marge DeanThe W!LDBRAIN panel at the 2009 New York Comic Con was hosted by Chief Marketing Officer Mike Polis; Marge Dean, head of W!LDBRAIN’s animation studio in San Francisco; and Bob Higgins, head of creative in New York City.

Higgins began with a quick rundown of his career from his start at Warner Bros. Entertainment to his current position at W!LDBRAIN. He was brought on to define a general creative philosophy for the studio from properties like Yo Gabba Gabba! and Kidrobot, which was summarized (in much more direct and unprintable terms) by Kidrobot’s Frank Kozik as: “I like cute stuff and messed up stuff, and Kidrobot makes both” (Click here for the complete, unexpurgated quote from Higgins, which is definitely not something you’ll hear DJ Lance Rock saying). Higgins aptly described Yo Gabba Gabba! as really cute and really messed up, avoiding what other shows like Dora the Explorer do and not being afraid to be different, and added, “If you see something on TV that’s a little screwed up, hopefully it says W!LDBRAIN at the end of it.”

Higgins showed the audience a few shorts from “Team Smithereen,” a new series of Internet shorts that will be attempting to use the same business model as Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Comedy project. “Team Smithereen” was created by Dan Clark, and Higgins described the teen/tween series as “Mr. Bill Meets Jackass.” The audience quickly found out what he meant with three separate shorts of little hand puppets daring each other to do really stupid stunts. The series will be hitting computer screens this Spring.

Entertainment products was the next topic discussed, starting with the designer toys and vinyl collectible art of kidrobot. Polis discussed the many collaborators with Kidrobot, and also mentioned that the great thing about having an animation studio and Kidrobot under one roof is that it leads to lots of fabulous collaborations between the two.

They Hurt!Dean showed off a reel demonstrating the versatile work that the animation studio has been doing in advertising. W!LDBRAIN’s animation studio is still largely known as an animation style, although they do get some feature film work and always have some TV works in progress at the time. Dean commented that the commercial work meant that the studio had a wide variety in style, ranging from traditional hand-drawn animation, CGI, stop-motion, and even the puppets of “Team Smithereen.” Among the many ads that were showcased at the panel were an entertainingly flippant Virgin Atlantic safety film, an Erin E-Surance ad, and a Lunchables street derby ad. Dean also showed off Zombie World, their entry into motion comics.

The rest of the panel was almost entirely about Yo Gabba Gabba!, the kids show on Nick Jr. that has been acquiring a following of kids, teens, tweens, and adults, thanks to its manic energy and aesthetic sense to it. The panel took pride in noting that Yo Gabba Gabba was the only kids’ show in Time‘s Top 10 New TV shows in 2007, right next to Mad Men and Flight of the Conchords. New episodes will debut in April, with guest stars including Jack Black and Amy Sedaris, with music provided by the Shins, Sugarland, the Roots, and Supernova. A montage of season 2 highlights and a behind-the-scenes video was screened for the audience.

New initiatives for Yo Gabba Gabba! include a toy aisle blitz and a comic-maker application on-line, and they hope to have a comic book deal in place by this year’s San Diego Comic Con. They are also setting up a YouTube channel for behind-the-scenes videos. The big news is that they are also beginning work on a Yo Gabba Gabba! feature film, which will have a full 90-minute narrative following Brobee, Foofa, Muno, Toodee, Plex, and the very orange DJ Lance Rock as they explore the backgrounds of all the characters and bust out of the 4 worlds on the tablethat have been seen on the show. W!LDBRAIN is also hoping that they’ll be able to pack the movie with celebrity cameos as they do on the show. A soundtrack CD is available on iTunes, as well as all the TV episodes produced so far. 2 more DVDs are slated for this year, and a soundtrack CD has been in discussion for some time, but iTunes has been very popular and easy for Yo Gabba Gabba! fans seeking to own music or TV episodes.

At this point, the panel paused for a dancing competition to see who could out-dance DJ Lance Rock, with a DJ Lance magic hat hanging in the balance. There were two brave takers: Melissa (below left) and Francis (below right), the latter of whom writes for DVDTalk.com and is a Friend of Toon Zone. Francis clearly loves his daughter very, very much. The two got a big hand from the audience, and both went home with a magic hat.

The following subjects came up during the Q&A session:

  • Danny Antonucci started working with W!LDBRAIN on January 1, 2009, and is developing a few shows to be pitched for the teen and adult space.
  • In response to the statement that the best way to make kids’ animation was not to make animation for kids, Higgins said that his 20 years in the business have taught him, “Kids are not stupid small people.” They have personalities and really good taste, and will tell you very fast when they don’t like your show. He said his philosophy was not to make a show that you think kids want to watch, but that you needed to make a show that’s funny and entertaining and age-appropriate.
  • Dean said that the down economy is affecting them, since there is less money coming in from ad dollars, but they are getting more requests for Internet animation and games. Polis added that W!LDBRAIN’s diverse skill set was helping as well, since they can deliver for the web as well as TV.
  • In response to a question whether they do commercial stuff to support their personal projects, Dean said that work-for-hire is the studio’s bread-and-butter that keeps the lights on and the 50 staffers paid, but that they care about everything they do and put in the same talent and energy no matter what the project is.
  • Kidrobot does not have a formal solicitation process for finding new artists, and that they often meet new artists through older Kidrobot artists.
  • When asked about season sets of Yo Gabba Gabba! rather than the mix of 4 episodes per DVD, Polis commented that iTunes was just more convenient for parents and that kids don’t buy season sets of anything. DVD producers are reluctant to put out a DVD boxed set until there’s nostalgic demand for it, which is why all the episodes are available on iTunes.

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