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Toonzone Explores “Tumble Leaf” with Tara Sorensen and Drew Hodges

by on June 16, 2016

Tumble LeafTumble Leaf is a multi-Emmy award-winning Amazon original preschool series.  Amazon Studios hosted an event in celebration of the premier of the second season of the series.  Toon Zone News was able to speak with Tara Sorensen, Head of Kids’ Programming for Amazon Studios, and Tumble Leaf creator and executive producer Drew Hodges, for interviews.

TOONZONE NEWS: As the Head of Kids’ Programming, what is your role?

TARA SORENSEN: I came to Amazon four years ago and basically started the division.  At that point, it was really trying to figure out what type of content we wanted to put within Prime Video as original kids’ programming.  We started with preschool and moved up from there, but I oversee all the creative production.  We have, obviously, infrastructure so there’s a Head of Production, but I’m making sure that we choose the right shows, we get customer feedback, we deliver the shows on time, and we have messaging behind all of our shows outside of the preschool.  There is a curriculum on the preschool side, but we’re really trying to create great programs that our customers love but also trying to put forth positive role models for our audience.  So we’re making sure that great content is available to our customers.  I have a bunch of executives, but we’re a really small team, so I have my hands in everything, trying to ensure that there’s quality and substance behind everything we do.

TZN: Is it difficult because all of it is so new?

TARA SORENSEN: It’s new-ish.  I came to Amazon four years ago because I didn’t think that linear television was as sticky as it once was.  That kids were consuming contents in different ways and not just television.  Ever since tablets were introduced, I saw my own kids interacting with media in a different way.  The streaming platform really enables kids to be in the driver’s seat, so they can watch when they want to watch where they want to watch, and the beauty of our preschool programming is that we are encouraging kids to go outside.  Especially after a show like Tumble Leaf, there are active messages at the end of the show and so the streaming capabilities allow kids that freedom of stopping, rewinding, repeating, coming back to it when they’re ready.

Tumble LeafTZN: It sounds like there are a lot of advantages, are there any challenges with it?

TARA SORENSEN: We’re a new platform.  Prime Video is newish in the space, so I think the challenge is just making sure our customers know they have streaming content within their Prime membership and trying to draw in new kids, to make sure they know that it’s available for them.

TZN: And the core demographic is preschool?

TARA SORENSEN: In Prime Video we’re doing everything for 12-and-under for kids.  We start with preschool at three-ish and we’re growing up from there.  I break all of the demographics up into smaller buckets.  A 3-year-old is different than an 8-year-old, and a 6-year-old is different than a 10-year-old, so I want to make sure within each of those brackets there’s something there for everyone.  After Tumble Leaf and Creative Galaxy and Wishenpoof! there are older shows like Gortimer and Just Add Magic.  We have some animated 6-11 content coming out, but you’ll see a broader demographic than just preschool.

TZN: How do you find the talent you work with?

TARA SORENSEN: We have an online system that sources projects.  It’s crowd sourcing for ideas, so there are a couple of things that came in through that channel.  Gortimer is one of them.  We also have relationships with established creators in the industry, so we’re talking to them.  Always trying to uncover new writers and creators as we’re working on shows. There’s a team behind them, so oftentimes we’ll find talent within an established team, and then we’re also looking at established intellectual properties, like book properties or something with a built-in awareness.  Tumble Leaf was wholly original but another show that we have coming out, Stinky and Dirty, is based on a series of books by Kate and Jim McMullan, so we have a lot of different sources really just trying to focus our attention.  That’s one of our challenges with a small team, we’re just trying to find the right offerings for our customers and something that we know has great storytelling potential.  And we’ll look visually different in the landscape.  As we look at a show like Tumble Leaf, it’s distinctly different, than I think, a lot of stuff that you have at your fingertips right now.

TumbleLeafTZN: Did you have a hand in the creative process of Tumble Leaf?

TARA SORENSEN: I actually knew the show before it was called Tumble Leaf because I knew Kelli Bixler and Drew Hodges from my previous job where they were developing this character.  This character has lived with Drew for a long time, so I’ve been tracking it since when I was at National Geographic. When I came to Amazon, we could be completely experimental.  I think a lot of networks had already seen the show, and it wasn’t quite right for them.  I think the beauty of Amazon in its infancy is that we can take risks and experiment a little bit more because we didn’t have a brand yet that had been fully established.  So we piloted Tumble Leaf, we put it up. It was an animatic at first when we put it up to our customers.

TZN: How long was it?

TARA SORENSEN: It was an eleven minute animatic, and it had a little bits of finished animation, so it wasn’t something that you would typically put out for a wide audience because I don’t think they are accustomed to watching incomplete programs, but at that point, we wanted to get customer feedback and we wanted to make sure that shows were available to our customers sooner rather than later and so this was a way for us to expedite the pipeline.  So the answer is I’ve been involved since the very beginning, and now I have executives that are working on the show in its second season and beyond.  Monica Dennis is the lead executive on it.

TZN: It’s a charming program and has won several awards.

TARA SORENSEN: It’s been our Emmy darling.

TZN: Why do you think that is?

TARA SORENSEN: Part of it is definitely the way we approach storytelling for this age group.  It’s not about core curriculum, it really is about talking to kids as they are learning and growing through play.  So that’s very relevant to them right now.  I think part of it is obviously the visual style and that it was different.  As we look to break out from the clutter, this was a program where after you see it, you want to know more and understand what it’s about. There are other things too.  If you listen to the music even.

I’m constantly trying to think about what the child’s experience is, but also what parents think about the show.  Co-viewing.  While some people may think it’s completely unrealistic, and I was one of them before I came here, it seems to be something now that kids are watching with their parents.  Outside of the screen, they are playing with their parents and their grandparents.  We’re hearing stories about them building, finding places at home, so they can recreate these Fig and Maple adventures on their own, so that interactivity, that authentic interactivity, I think is something that is compelling and unique.  That would be my guess.

Tumble LeafTZN: Have you gotten feedback from the audience?

TARA SORENSEN: We are constantly seeing feedback.  You can see that feedback, too, in the form of star ratings and comments from parents and kids through social channels.  We’re talking about how kids are interacting with the program.  There was this great tweet from a parent talking about how they hope the show redefines a generation of kids.  Because there is a curriculum across all of our preschool, again that is infused into the older demographic, but it is about creating lifelong creative learners so that children understand larger concepts that will take them through life, not just through a kindergarten.  So Tumble Leaf has a thought leader, Scot Osterweil, who is an expert in play from MIT.  We’re working with Dr. Alice Wilder, an educational specialist who focuses on preschool.  We’re doing formative testing and then throughout each season, we’re going into traditional focus groups so we’re getting feedback there and then, obviously, the online system which is visible to you as well, so we’re constantly looking at customer feedback and trying to figure out how we can improve the stories and the shows and the experience for families.

TZN: What can you tell me about the future of Tumble Leaf or what you’re doing in general?

TARA SORENSEN: We’re creating more programs.  We’re constantly in development.  We’re constantly in production.  We’re working through pilots, trying to iterate on what we’ve done in the past, but also looking for new experiences.  I think the response to Tumble Leaf and other shows, Gortimer and Just Add Magic, has been really overwhelming in terms of how it touches not just the child but other family members.  Whether it’s a broader child demographic or whether parents are fully embracing these shows and taking them outside of the screen, so we’re looking to grow that experience, and I think that’s what we have to look forward to in the future.

Tumble LeafTOONZONE NEWS: Congratulations on pulling everything off.

DREW HODGES: Thank you, thank you.  It’s very unusual.

TZN: Tumble Leaf is your brainchild.  Could you talk about where the idea originated?

DREW HODGES: It came from seven years ago just starting really small.  I had never done a TV show or anything, I’m just an animator, and I just had this crazy idea to do this very abstract show with a little blue character who wears a tie. Over the course of trying to pitch it and sell it and all that kind of stuff, it eventually evolved and grew into this.  So it’s the product of many years of trying all sorts of different things and combining a whole bunch of different ideas.  It wasn’t just a lightning bolt, “Oh, here’s the show!”  I think that’s sort of the way I like to work anyway.  It’s just not give up and keep trying, keep working on it until it turns into something.

TZN: Did Tumble Leaf being geared towards preschool age come later?

DREW HODGES: A little bit later.  I didn’t really know it was going to be.  I really didn’t expect it to be preschool.  Like I said, I had no real ambition; it just started as an idea at first and just kept trying stuff.  For the most part, it was going to be a nonverbal sort of thing, and just sort of a beautiful little way to get ideas out.  So luckily, it evolved into a preschool show.  And I had to learn what that even is, which was interesting.  Just trying to get a curriculum in place and understand in life what this age group can understand and how to lay things out in a way that they can enjoy it the most.  So that was a fun and interesting evolution.

TZN: And visuals play a part in making it keep the attention of the audience.

DREW HODGES: For me, and the whole team really, we didn’t really think too much about what would a preschooler necessarily enjoy.  We just wanted to create a world that we would want to go visit.  So I wanted to stylize realism.  Since we’re doing stop-motion, it’s got real textures and all that stuff.  I didn’t want to make it too stylized.  The characters are stylized, but we just try to put as much detail as possible in it, as much color as possible and I think, hopefully, that’s one of the things that people enjoy.  Thinking that this place could actually exist.

Tumble LeafTZN: It’s a really great setting.  And you have a history with stop-motion?

DREW HODGES: Yeah, that’s pretty much all I wanted.  Not all I wanted to do, I started out doing live-action, but I realized I don’t like dealing with live-action people very much (laughs). Puppets are a lot easier to manage.  I like making all the stuff.  I grew up making these little movies the whole time, so I am a stop-motion animator, didn’t really have any ambition to make a show.  I always wanted to direct something, so it was kind of nice to apply all these skills that I’ve learned over my career all in one place.

TZN: You get to exercise your directing and producing muscles on this show.  What are some of the challenges you’ve had to face?

DREW HODGES: We do 26 eleven-minute episodes in a season, and they are at various stages at all times. So I’ve got 26 stories, for the most part, in my head.  And at any one time, we’re shooting about maybe five different episodes on 20 different stages, so trying to make sure that everything looks consistent.  And then we are constantly surprising ourselves.  I usually don’t pre-plan too much beyond the general story, so each shot is an unknown, so we’re talking to the animators and what has come together to build the shot and discover a new piece of the story.  So a big challenge is that working under the normal constraints of television, but trying to do as close to feature quality work as you possibly can, so you never really thinking to yourself “Oh, it’s just a television show”, you’re trying to make it as absolutely as best as you can and always pushing things to the very end of the limits.  So it’s a constant struggle.  But it’s also so much fun, especially after doing two seasons now.  We’ve gotten into a rhythm.  It’s always new and always fresh every single shot, but I’ve learned to embrace any challenges that we have.

TZN: What would you say is the most fun part of the process?

DREW HODGES: I think seeing a completed shot.  You have some expectations you kind of know where it’s going to go, but just through the course of stop motion, because it’s one frame after the other, new things come up every single frame.  New ideas that the animator may have, new directions it might take, so it’s always super surprising because once that shot is done, now it’s alive.  It’s there.  There’s no tweaking, there’s no going back, it’s just a moment that’s captured, laboriously, but it is captured.  It’s there, it’s part of the fabric of the story, so it’s always exciting to see that new thing for the first time.

Tumble LeafTZN: And critics like it.  Why do you think it’s gotten so much Emmy attention?

DREW HODGES: Probably because it’s a little different.  I don’t watch that much preschool television or animation really, I don’t have that much time for it, but I think it is sort of unique, I haven’t seen too much like it.  We didn’t set out to make anything that has to be unique, that is what it is, it came out that way.  So hopefully it’s just that it’s new, it’s different, and I hope they feel all the love and work and the effort that we put in it.  I think a lot of that does make it to the screen.  It’s just a show that we enjoy, and we hope mostly that kids that are watching it enjoy.  It’s an added bonus that the industry seems to appreciate it.

TZN: What do you want parents and kids to take away from Tumble Leaf?

DREW HODGES: Probably that we show that all of our characters play every day, and that’s how you learn.  So play is a big part of it, and I think also that there is magic and cool things in our world under every leaf, under every rock.  Kids do all that stuff naturally, so I think encouraging if there’s a puddle and a kid naturally jumps in it, take it farther.  That’s a good thing.  That’s always a good thing.  It’s a natural pull to play, and that’s what we celebrate and explore every day.

Toonzone News would like to thank Tara Sorensen and Drew Hodges for taking the time to talk with us, and the Amazon Studios PR team for setting up the interview time. Tumble Leaf season two is currently available on Amazon Prime Video, and the new pilot season of episodes premieres on Amazon Prime on June 17, 2016.


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