plaid

You Can’t Animate a Plaid Shirt

Putting book characters like the Berenstain Bears on TV is fun–
but you could call it hard fun.

This article was published in the February 27, 1981 issue of Publishers Weekly.

In our travels around the country on behalf of our eponymous bear books (27 titles, all from Random House), we have fielded many questions. These range from the straightforwardly curious (“Why do you draw just bears?” Answer: “We don’t–we also draw rocks, sunny dirt roads, trees, flowers, rainbows and even, on occasion, people.”) to the curiously straightforward (“How do you get along being together all the time?” Answer: “Ours is an old-fashioned Mom and Pop operation in which both partners do whatever needs to be done–writing, illustrating, cooking, bottle washing.”).

We find our work (and our bears) tremendously stimulating and enjoyable and, while we don’t always agree on every dot and line, we have managed to harmonize successfully over 34 years of working together as cartoonists-writers and for the past 18 as author-illustrators of children’s books. We do have one rule–a sort of unilateral veto–which has helped us over the humps. If one of us strongly objects to some point, project or approach, it is dropped without argument.

Not long ago a child asked us an interesting question, as children so often do: “Is it fun to do the bear books, or is it hard?” Our answer, after pondering a moment, was that it’s both–or to coin an evasion: it’s hard fun.

One of the more persistent and intriguing questions we have been asked over the years is, “Why don’t you put the bears on television?” The answer is that we finally have. After about eight years of trying with various degrees of unsuccess, we managed to make the jump from printed page to glowing tube with an animated special called The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree, which was shown on NBC in December 1979.

The process of getting on television is very different from that of getting published. Stories abound of books which were submitted to 10, 20, even 30 publishers before finding acceptance. Not so in television. In the world of network television, it’s three strikes – NBC, ABC, CBS – and out. A curious aspect of our experience was that after we had proposed for years and had networks, producers and potential sponsors dispose, the TV situation opened up so abruptly that it was disconcerting – rather like reaching to open a door you didn’t know was automatic. In fact, our first bear special “happened” so quickly that the usual order of events – first the book, then the show based on the book – was reversed.

The experience of moving our bears from the relatively controllable world of print, where there are only two of us involved in the creative process, to the multitudinous world of animation was also somewhat disconcerting. The production of a half-hour animated special (a little more than 23 minutes of air time, actually) involves not only producer, director, composer and their associates, but phalanxes of animators, background artists, designers and such graphically named practical operatives as in-betweeners, inkers and filler-inners.

The first order of business after writing the show was casting the voices. To cast the four actors who would portray our Bear Family – overbearing Papa, forbearing Mama and Brother and Sister, the two bright little cubs who bear (ouch!) with both of them – we auditioned a grand total of 28 voices. One difficulty with casting voices is that there are people attached to them – most of them talented and appealing (the kids were especially delightful: composed, professional, with not a stage mother in sight) – and with more candidates than roles, there is a large rejection factor built into the audition equation. One of the things that made casting tricky was that our show was a kind of minimusical requiring actor-singers in all roles. The decisions, as it turned out, practically made themselves. There was a positively outstanding candidate for each role, and the show was cast.

Adding to our bemusement was the fact that all the kids who auditioned knew the Berenstain Bears books and in some cases brought – along with their tapes, photos and resumes – old battered books to be signed. Eight-year-old Gabriela Glatzer, who became Sister Bear and who is nothing if not frank, explained to us in a charmingly condescending manner that while she read at the fifth-grade level, some of her little friends were familiar with our books. When Ron McLarty, our Papa Bear-narrator and a real-life papa, informed us that our books were family favorites at his house, it restored our confidence just a bit.

One of the things that had gotten in the way of our earlier efforts to put our bears on TV was our determination that, for good or ill, success or failure, we were going to retain what in the entertainment world is called “creative control.” Our earlier discussions with a succession of tanned and powerful animation moguls left us with the clear impression that, while they were interested in the Berenstain Bears and their potential for attracting a TV audience, they were not very interested in having the bears’ overprotective parents looking over their shoulders.

Not so the talented experts of Perpetual Motion Pictures, the studio which is animating the bear specials. They seemed to understand our concern lest our bears not put their best face forward on TV and worked very closely with us in interpreting our characters for animation. Some minor changes were necessary – Papa’s yellow plaid shirt presented a problem; animating a plaid apparently presents horrendous technical problems and likewise the polka dots on Mama’s dress (though we did save the dots on her hat).

While the storyboard (a sequential picture version of the script showing all the principal scenes and actions) was being done by director Mordicai Gerstein, composer-musical director Elliot Lawrence was writing the music for the show’s three songs. Hearing our lyrics sung for the first time – in the stereotypical show biz scene in which the hoarse-voiced composer rasps out the song while pounding on a battered out-of-tune piano – was at least as big a kick as seeing the bears “come to life” on the Moviola machine.

Having operated as a Mom and Pop store for so long, it took us a little while to get used to the collaborative complexities of what is essentially a film enterprise. There were meetings, story conferences, character drawings, color tests, network approvals and – yes – artistic differences. In the case of the latter, all we can remember is one occasion when we overreacted to a suggestion that Papa wear a bow tie and suit at the Christmas dinner which closes the show. (The very idea of Papa even owning anything so effete as a bow tie!)

After about nine months (surely an appropriate gestation period for our bouncy new animated baby), 15,000 drawings and prodigious applications of TLC by all the collaborators, The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree aired on NBC December 3, 1979. The show “won its slot” by a substantial margin, The New York Times said, and NBC said: “Let’s have three more shows.” And we and our partners are especially pleased and gratified that our first show has received two prizes: an international award from the Milan film and television festival, and a silver medal from the 23rd annual International Film and Television Festival of New York.

Our second special, a Thanksgiving story called The Berenstain Bears Meet Bigpaw, aired last November 20, again with gratifying results. Easter and Valentine’s specials are in production. Though our experience in helping to turn our printed page bears into talking, singing and dancing animated bears has been fun (hard fun), books remain our first love. With four new titles scheduled for fall publication and more being planned, we are absolutely married to the Berenstain Bears book series.

Television does make an interesting mistress, though.

http://www.berenstainbears.com

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