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Mitchell Kriegman - The Book of Pooh

The Book of Pooh is an all new, feature length movie from the creators of Bear in The Big Blue House, featuring unique blend of Japanese Puppetry and computer animation which brings Pooh and his friends to life in a while new way.

We had an opportunity to sit down with series creator Mitchell Kriegman and talk about The Book of Pooh DVD, the future of puppets, and the role of eduction in children's programming, and the role of eduction in children's programming.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule today to talk about The Book of Pooh.

No problem.

First of all I have to say my 2-1/2 year old absolutely, thoroughly enjoyed it. She's the harshest critic when it comes to this.

Really?

She's also an extremely big fan of Bear in the Big Blue House.

Oh, good.

So your stuff is watched a lot in our house... In The Book of Pooh you use a very fascinating the mixture of ancient Japanese puppetry and computer technology.

Right.

How did this all start? How did the concept for doing a puppet-driven show with computer animation come to be?

Well, I had thought a lot about the possibility of the techniques. I had created Bear in The Big Blue House and I had worked with the Henson company. I had thought a lot about the future of puppetry - where does it go and how does it relate to things like Shrek and Toy Story and CGI, and where can you go with puppets? What takes you to the next level? So I had been toying with a lot of ideas along those lines and then Disney came to me after the third season of Bear and asked me if I'd be interested in taking a look at Pooh and finding some way to tackle it.

So, the first thing we did was just to see if we could build Pooh. And I honestly was also thinking in the back of my mind of Tigger, because the idea of Tigger as a puppet, a hand-puppet jumping up and down, just seemed so strange to me. I just couldn't imagine how that would work. I knew I'd have to get a full body of a character in there. All the characters in Pooh are so expressive in their bodies more than anything else. They're all such body-types.

I knew about Bunraku and I had studied it a little bit. I thought, "Well, let's see if we can find a way to marry Bunraku puppetry with virtual sets", which I knew about, but no one had really cracked the method of doing that. First thing we did was we built Pooh and just put him on black to see if he could walk around and look great, and he did. People loved the way he looked. And we actually presented it to everybody in the company and people were very happy with it.

Then we just went about doing basically a pilot or a demo that showed how the virtual sets would be put together. After that, it's like we've had a breakthrough every two weeks basically, where we come up with how to make all the different problems you have to solve go away, in combining an ancient technology and a contemporary one. But the bottom line is that this marriage or this method of Bunraku and virtual sets is a really creatively rich and economically viable way to do this. And it becomes really exciting because if Pooh were CGI, he wouldn't be warm and you wouldn't feel like you could reach out and grab him. You know? Our goal is to be like a living View Master, you know?

Yeah.

And the virtual sets give you such a sense of dimension and 3D. As my 9-year-old says, "It's cool. It's 3D. It's like Play Station." So, that's a long answer, I guess, but it just is a very rich way to go. We've had a lot of luck in solving all the problems and a very kind of normal production just happens to exist in a giant green room.

For people who don't know what Bunraku is, what exactly is it and were there sources that you drew on for inspiration to do Pooh that were of Japanese origin?

Well, here's how it works. Bunraku is actually, like everything in Japanese culture, a very specific discipline. So we are using the Bunraku-style, but we're not really Bunraku. Bunraku was actually I think the name of a man, and the puppets were named after him. He had a puppet theater 300 years ago that used this style. The style specifically is a puppet that is puppeted by a team of people rather than a hand puppet, so there are three people standing behind the puppet, making it work. It's an extremely creative, rich way to do puppetry because it's three creative minds that are puppeting that puppet. There's another variation of it called Czech Black Theater, which is a Czechoslovakian adaptation of Bunraku. In Czech Black Theater, they do an interesting thing - if you remember Topo Gigio?

Yes.

Topo Gigio was Czech Black Theater.

Oh.

What they do is they create a black backdrop that's usually Duvatine, and then the puppeteers wear black. They shoot a lot of light on the foreground of the puppet and that makes everybody disappear. In a funny, primitive way, that's what we're doing, in the sense that we're making everybody disappear; we're just using computer technology. There wasn't any specific version of this ever done for television - it's never been done for television. It's one of those ideas you have sitting at night, you know, at home, going "Gee, couldn't you do this, this and this together? Wouldn't that work?" And it turned out that it did.

Wow. Pooh has such an amazingly rich history. When putting together the series, how much of what has existed with Pooh did you draw on and how free did you feel to kind of chart new territory for the bear?

Our goal actually was to do the most quintessential version of Pooh for Disney as possible. The way I approached it was to look at the history of Pooh as a whole, including the Milne version, obviously, which is the original creation of Pooh, and by the way, there are stories about how Milne's original inspiration was watching his son play with his dolls as if they were puppets. So it was in keeping with what we ended up doing. There's the whole history of the characters and the styles and the look, the E.H. Shephard drawings to begin with. Then there are the Disney films that were made by Disney early on, and then there's the animation series. Our goal was to embrace the whole thing as one giant version of Pooh and then see what was most quintessential throughout. What things could you generalize as, you know, absolutely Pooh, and to try to bring them together in the richest way.

So basically I feel like I dug into Pooh more than I changed it. I feel like I really just went in deeper. I did feel like the book was a really important tradition and that was a concede, but it's very close to the original because it's such a literary property.

Then we added Kessie, who was in the animation series briefly and was really loved by a lot of people in a very memorable way, though she only existed in two episodes as a little blue bird. I was adamant that there be a girl character. I mean Kanga is a girl, but she's really a mom.

So in terms of the core property, we really tried to be as authentic as we could. It really relates as much to the Milne as it does to the early Disney films which were so great with the book and the characters walking across the book.

If you look at Pooh, there's a Pooh for the 60's, there's a Pooh for the 70's, 80's and 90's. These characters sort of adjust to the times in a really amazing way. So Eeyore, who used to be just a mopey nihilist, sort of becomes the pragmatist. You know? And Kanga, I think, used to be kind of old and scratchy and we wanted to make her more contemporary and loving, so that occurred. But other than that, really they sort of adapt themselves to the times. You see them in a new light. I think that's what sort of happened most.

Now Kanga and Roo aren't in the DVD, but are they on the show?

I think they weren't in the DVD because they weren't in the first season. We built only I think seven of the full nine characters in the first season. In the second season, they're on the show. They've been built. They're not in the DVD, it's true. I forgot.

How long does it take to create a typical show and then conversely, how long did it take to put together The Book of Pooh for the DVD?

The DVD took a little bit longer just because it's substantial. I think 70-minutes or something like that.

Yeah.

And there are six stories in it. So you know, on the average story, it takes us a couple of days to shoot. One of the things that's so neat about this is that it's like you're really in the Hundred Acre Woods and you're really talking to Pooh. It's all right there in front of you. It's not like you have to make it up. It's live. You know? So it's kind of the normal production. It's like Bear. It takes a couple of days to shoot a show. It takes some time to post it.

The thing that's neat about the DVD that I think we really broke even more new ground on was this whole thing of Christopher Robin's room. That's really fascinating to me. We really didn't know we could do that either, which was that we actually built a room, a physical room, and then we took pictures of it and made a virtual set out of it. Then we put pieces of the room back in so there's this mixture of reality and virtual in that room that people would be blown away if they knew that the wall behind Christopher Robin's mom is not there. You know? And this piece is real and that piece isn't. It's really a fascinating process. That was a big challenge since Christopher Robin lived in a real room, and the characters really have to exist in this green virtual world.

When I watched it, I never really even thought about it because it was so convincing - it felt like "Oh yeah, here's a puppet in a room. I've seen that. That's just like Bear in the Big Blue House. We see that all the time," but to understand that that's a real photographed room replaced virtually is incredible.

Yeah. It's like that baseball glove is never there. There's no baseball glove there. It's just a green wall there. You know? And the bed most of the time is not there, and there's no window or window seat. We just did it all in virtual.

Now, Bear is extremely educationally focused. Pooh seems like it's a different kind of education. What is the key to creating a show that's really both entertaining and educational?

Well, it's really interesting because perceptions of these things change a lot. It's funny because when Bear first started, we thought it was just entertainment and not education. Now people see it as very educational. There's actually more "education" in some ways in Pooh than there is in Bear, because Bear is more about socialization and about learning to live with each other or learning to use the potty or problem-solving and things like that, although it has some information in it as well, whereas Pooh is about literacy and pre-literacy, and reading and those things. The good news and the bad news about how good we are at our job is that we pretty much weave education and entertainment together so deeply that a lot of times people don't realize how educational the show is, but the kids do. In season two, we've done these little recaps at the end to remind parents as much as kids what they're learning in the show, but what we've done is just integrated it in. See, the idea of a book itself is such a powerful thing - both the idea of reading and the idea of watching a book. In focus groups, we've had kids say, "Oh I was watching a book," you know? I've heard them say that they want to read right afterwards. The idea of them watching these characters try to read or using lists or calendars - parents don't realize that learning how to use a calendar or make a list or a journal are big literacy ideas. You know? Kids really adapt to them and they get a lot of out of it.

So what seems like kind of integrated storytelling is actually extremely educational.

So for both Pooh and Bear, what do you see as your key age range?

They're both really three to six. but Bear has really captured the younger ages incredibly well in its first three seasons. So you know, I would say that the slightly younger kids just love Bear. And when we started to do Pooh, we really wanted to make sure we reached slightly older kids because we knew that the younger kids would love it just because it's Pooh. So we've done a lot of work to reach the four, five and six-year-olds and sometimes even seven-year-olds in that range. A lot of the reading stuff, and as my son says, "You know there are a lot of big words in there." We've really tried to push that because we know we can still capture the younger viewers, but also push the older range. And then Bear is coming back for another 26 episodes.

Oh, fantastic.

When it does, our big mandate is to do the same thing with Bear, to age it up to fill, comfort and appeal to the younger crowd, but to hit those four, five, six, seven-year-old kids with some more challenging things. For instance, Tutter is going to go to mouse school where he has to learn the different kinds of cheeses. We're going to do some great stuff that way. I think that's the future for both the franchises - to really continue to comfort the young ones, but to give challenges for the older kids.

My daughter Hannah, who is 2-1/2, is a Bear fanatic.

Great!

I think it's her Sesame Street. What my wife and I grew up on, the equivalents were The Electric Company and Sesame Street. For her, Bear seems to speak to her in the world that she lives in much more clearly.

That's so great.

It's something that we love to sit down and watch with her and see that she's really picking up the learning.

In both your properties, you have a lot of music. I was curious, why does music play such a strong role in children's programming and how do you use it?

There's a kind of an entertainment aspect - music gets you up on your feet and dancing. But the other thing that we found that we do more of than Sesame Street or any of the other shows ever did, although I thought Barney kind of did it in a way, was that the music really satisfies the emotional life of a kid. A lot of times people underestimate the emotional life of children. They don't think that the child needs to have that kind of catharsis that music brings. And that's not to say that we're sitting here with weepy operas and stuff like that. All of our music is a lot about the aspects to it and it always ends some place positive. But kids love great emotional songs. That's why that Good-bye song is such an important song in Bear. You know? There's also educational stuff that you get out of music that you can't convey. I mean, it's so funny. We did a song in Bear about gravity. We just couldn't believe that kids like to sing that song. They know something about gravity afterwards. It's amazing. I guess it's that Schoolhouse Rock thing, you know, that works so well.

So music is key because it's the life of a puppet, but it's also the inner life of the character. A lot of times we'll tell a story and we'll get the emotional point across in a song.

So picking up with Bear and your connection with Jim Henson Company, and then now going onto Pooh, you seem to be taking a mantel that has really been vacated by the absence of the passing of Jim Henson. Do you feel a connection to that? Is there a sense here that you're furthering that goal of entertaining, educational children's programming?

Totally. I mean I've always had sort of my own tradition. I created "Clarissa Explains It All" back at Nickelodeon, which was the first show that featured a girl. I developed Ren and Stimpy, Rugrats, and Doug for them. I wrote the Elmo in Grouchland movie, and the Sesame Street movie. So I've always had a great interest in this. I think what happened is it was such a great experience to create Bear and to really kind of get down to what was quintessential about that kind of puppetry, and I feel like Jim Henson brought puppets to television and made them work for television in a way that really enriched everybody's lives. Now I'm looking to take it into the digital age and to the next level of that, and to further that kind of tradition of things appealing to kids, but also to their parents. It's an exciting thing to do.

Now, on the DVD for The Book of Pooh, it's the first DVD that I put in that seemed to speak to a child to actually navigate it. Pretty much all the other DVD's I put in for my daughter when we sit down and watch, I'm the one driving. This was the first one where she felt like she wanted to grab the remote. Even though she wasn't capable of doing it, it still very much spoke to her. What went into designing the navigation and what would be on the disk in relationship to a child?

Well, I think that the Disney folks just deserve huge credit. I mean they really thought this through and thought about how DVD's are used, what level they're used at and who was the audience. So really they're the ones that deserve the credit for that. I mean, my goal was to give them great material to do that with. And I'm really glad to hear that because I know that's what their aspiration was, and that really is who did that. I think their thought has gone into making sure it works for the audience that way.

We got a tape of a short "making of" that showed the process that didn't make the DVD. Was there a thought about showing the "man behind the curtain" to kids and dispelling the reality?

There are a lot of opinions about that. I personally think older kids especially would love to see how we do it. And I find it doesn't spoil what you see on the screen. We've seen it time and time again. But I think there's a real desire not to. You know the amazing thing to me about this is that this show has only been on like six months or something. You know?

Wow.

The same thing happened with Bear. We've done 91 episodes. My daughter was born when I was posting the pilot of the show. That means the show has only been on three years and look at how huge it is. Pooh has only been on six months. I'm excited about the technique and I think people would love to see the technique, especially older kids, but I think it's important that people have the chance to really see and appreciate what it is first. Frankly, appreciate it on its merits because otherwise it's a little gimmicky, you know? I learned a long time ago when I did Clarissa that it's not about the technique, it's about whether you have fun watching the show. And if you're sitting there thinking about the technique the whole time, then you're not watching. You know?

Right.

So I think it makes sense. I'm sure once the show has been on for a year or so, we'll definitely see. We've done a lot of documentary footage of how the show is made and everything. I think they will love seeing that, but I think the show needs a chance to really grab people first.

Are there any plans to put out more Book of Pooh episodes on DVD and also more Bear?

Well I know Bear continues to be put out and there's a lot of interest on where we go with Bear. We're planning to do a Bear movie and a whole bunch of stuff like that. On Pooh, I don't know what the exact plan is in terms of releasing episodes or not. I would be really surprised if there's not quite a bit of it.

Are you planning on taking this technique that you've developed for Pooh and bringing it back to Bear or creating any new series with it?

Yeah. You know, just in terms of me and my company, I developed Bear and produced Bear with Henson and that was done through their company. I set up with Disney, took my company and built this technique and produced a set of projects in the name of the company. Shadow Digital built the puppets and does the virtual sets and the animation, so we have this group of companies that do this. We think this is a technique that has a lot of future and hopefully we'll do lots of shows for Disney and movies and features. We think we can do it in high definition. We can do it on film. There's just really a great future for this. One of the things that's come out even with the success of Shrek and Toy Story is that the characters still don't quite have that tangible warm quality that a puppet does. This represents a chance to bring that warm quality to characters in features, in Pooh and anywhere. So we're hoping to do lots of great stuff with it. Bear's next season is a very distinctive show. I think it's going to have a lot of surprises and neat things happening in the second season. It's not going to try to be Pooh. I mean, it has its own techniques that it can draw on.

When does the next season of Bear begin airing?

I don't know. We start in the fall, producing it. So I don't know whether it airs the following fall. I don't know what they have planned.

I know our family will be tuned into both.

That's so great.

Well, thank you so much for your time. I think what you're doing is fantastic. I mean, not to bash some of the other programs that are mindless that we don't like our daughter watching (Dragon Tales... hmmm hmmm), but it's so nice to be seeing children's programming that is engaging for our daughter and that she comes away with something, rather than kind of plugging her in and just keeping her occupied.

Well, thanks so much. That is the end result that I'm looking for, so I'm really happy to hear it.

Terrific. Well, good luck with it. I'm sure this DVD will do really well. My daughter brought back the Happy Meal toy yesterday and immediately sat down and watched the DVD again.

Is it out of McDonald's now?

Yes.

Oh cool.

Thanks again for your time. I really appreciate it.

Buy The Book of Pooh DVD

- Geoffrey Kleinman

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