Based on Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s best-selling trilogy of “Shapes” picture books, the new stop-motion children’s series from Apple TV+, Form island, follows Serious Square, Intrepid Circle and Tricky Triangle on silly adventures as they dig up some fun, search for answers and build on their friendship – while learning how to handle each other’s differences. The show can be seen on the streamer last Friday, January 20.
Barnett and Klassen always envisioned their “Shapes” trilogy as ripe for development into a children’s series. Though packaged in simple forms, the books’ characters are complex, with the stories offering glimpses into their shared histories, if only moments, in much larger lives.
Series development meant more expanded storytelling capabilities; the writing duo produced three scripts for three episodes while showing off the versatility of the characters. They then put together a show bible in which they not only included the “stuff” about the characters and visual rules for the show, but also summarized their philosophy of telling stories to children.
“We wanted each episode to be driven by our trio’s authentic personalities — rather than defined by a conventional plot, theme, or lesson,” explains Barnett. “There are no good guys or bad guys on our show, and each character can be right or wrong depending on the episode (and the viewer’s perspective). That approach requires a strong sense of who these characters really are.”
Once the series was underway, head writer Ryan Pequin stepped in to oversee the writing of the script. He immediately synchronized with the authors’ visions and understood what they were trying to achieve.
At the first writers’ meeting, Barnett describes a marked shift “in the room” as they moved from pitching stories from what he calls “an outside-in approach — stories about a theme or lesson” to “an inside-out approach.” . ‘, as the team shares vivid childhood memories, victories, embarrassments and injustices.
“There’s wisdom and meaning in the stories we still think about from when we were kids, the things we still haven’t figured out decades later,” he says.
Barnett said that in the series, as in the books, the storytelling had to begin with respect for children’s intellect, sharing: “the greatest sin in children’s storytelling is to give a simple answer to the complex question of a child…. It also had to be very funny.”
Stop-motion was selected for the book adaptation, Klassen shares, because “we knew we wanted the show to exist in three dimensions, rather than be flat. These characters, once you make them three-dimensional, should feel toy-like and small. If they felt bigger, say the size of a person, things get a little weird and you start to wonder what they actually are. If they look small, you don’t really wonder anymore.
Klassen noted that the book’s illustrations were simple to keep children engaged and make them feel they could draw these characters or places as well. felt, materials that children recognize and can see how they use them.”
Emmy and Annie Award-winning animation studio Bix Pix Entertainment (Tumble leaf) came on board to bring the writer’s ideas to fruition. While they put the writing team’s visions into practice without restriction, the stop-motion studio’s animation team brought with them the knowledge of what would and wouldn’t work best in the medium. “I picture the pained smiles at Bix Pix as we airily reaffirmed our firm grasp of what was fair to ask a stop-motion studio to perform,” Barnett muses. “It’s evidence from Drew [Bix Pix Entertainment animator Drew Hodges] flexibility – and the skill of the whole crew. He adds, “Bix Pix never said, ‘We can’t do that,’ and executed some very wild ideas with finesse.”
The design of the characters in the book was intentionally neutral, explains Klassen, adding: “We knew we wanted a sort of atmospheric approach to the lighting and visual vibe of the show, and the more plain and simple the characters are, both in silhouette and in their expressions, the more we thought there would be license to obscure them a bit with light or weather, etc. without losing them in the blink of an eye.
With no villains in the stories – just heroes – neutrality was important. All characters make mistakes, so portraying them as basic forms with a relative lack of complexity allows viewers’ loyalties to shift fluidly depending on the story or episode.
“Square’s house and its furniture etc. are made of cubes and the approach is simple and somewhat structured,” continues Klassen. “Triangle lives in a pyramid, etc., but outside of that we also wanted naturalism. Forests and rougher mountains and stuff, to make the island interesting and unpredictable, but never dangerous.’
As for the actual animation, despite the graphic simplicity of the characters, their design required complex engineering and 3D printing. In addition, the props were also modeled and printed using SLA printers, maintaining consistency with the smaller scale of the puppets.
“We modeled thin interchangeable panels that fit snugly together on an inner core structure using full color PolyJet and FDM printed parts,” explains Hodges. “Switching panels allowed the dolls to grow arms and change expressions while maintaining a consistent watercolor texture inspired by the illustrated books on which the series is based. Each puppet set had nearly 100 different panels.”
The Bix Pix team wanted to design a world that felt cozy, warm and rich in texture, while remaining simple, to keep the focus on the characters’ faces and emotions.
“Nature was rendered with cut paper ivy, dead sawdust and glistening sand,” Hodges explained. “Everything is painted with multiple layers of texture to give the feeling of a painting coming to life. Once we had this visual language, we could quickly mix and match elements like building blocks to take the adventures to new places.”
He continues: “The puppets required the longest R&D period because their designs break almost every rule of stop-motion puppetry. The resulting puppets also required new animation approaches.
To keep the graphic design simple, the puppets had no knees and a limited number of ball joints that made up the armatures. Square and Triangle had legs, but no feet or toes, and Circle always floated.
Hodges adds, “In the end, we found that these simplifications allowed us to create more complex and detailed performances by not being distracted by a lot of secondary movements and normal human mechanics.”
The decision to shoot in-camera HDR images presented photographic challenges, Hodge shares. “During the early development of the look, we found that in-camera HDR images produced much more, producing subtle details and enhancing the painterly textures in our characters and world. Our team developed a completely new workflow to handle the different exposures of each animated frame and create HDR-merged images that define the unique look of the series.”
Hodges further notes that computer-controlled motorized projectors created the lighting effects, with programmable RGB LED tubes illuminating the sky, allowing for mood swings without having to replace bulbs or gels.
“Those skies were later replaced or enhanced, but the ambient light was passed through for more seamless compositions,” he adds. “Effects like rain, water and snow are built by VFX artists based on practical elements like falling glass beads.”
According to Barnett, the project’s biggest challenge was creating something that would appeal to the audience. “Children are the most enthusiastic, thoughtful, and attentive audience you can have, and crafting stories worthy of their attention is the first and greatest challenge.”
Debbie Diamond Sarto is News Editor at Animation World Network.