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Dreamworks TV’s Margie Cohn and Titmouse’s Chris Prynoski talk ‘TURBO FAST’

Dreamworks TV's Margie Cohn and Titmouse's Chris Prynoski talk 'TURBO FAST'

Dreamworks Animation’s Turbo FAST made its debut last December as Netflix’s first all-new animated series for kids, and was the first of a mega-300 hours of programming arrangement between Netflix and Dreamworks.  It is produced by Glendale’s DreamWorks
Animation Television with production services provided by Hollywood’s Titmouse
Inc.

The initial five half hours in December were supplemented by five more in April – and the series shows no signs of slowing down. I spoke with Dreamworks Animation’s Television head Margie Cohn and Titmouse topper Chris Prynoski about the show. 

Martin Goodman: Margie, Congratulations
on Turbo FAST’s Daytime Emmy Award
nomination for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program. After only a handful of
episodes, that’s quite impressive.

Margie Cohn: We were very,
very pleased. It showed that Netflix is a destination where kids and viewers
go, and we were excited.

MG: How was Turbo chosen to be the pioneer show for
your first team-up with Netflix?

MC: Well, that
preceded me, but I would assume that they were gearing up for the movie and
they knew when the show needed to premier, so it was probably a windowing
opportunity when Turbo the movie
would still be top of mind we would premier Turbo
the series. They loved the IP (intellectual property) and thought there was
a lot of opportunity to do something different and fun.

MG: Chris, This isn’t your first go-round with
an ensemble racing team. You had a series for Disney called Motorcity. Was working on that series
helpful in getting Turbo FAST going?

Chris Prynoski: Absolutely. As a
matter of fact, Turbo initially came
to me as a special before they planned to make a series, and the executive at
DreamWorks, Peter Gal, referenced Motorcity
and said, “Hey, can you use a similar technique? It was pretty cool.” I
told him, “Absolutely, we have a crew that can nail it!” So yeah, that was
definitely referenced when we started out.

MG: Margie, joining
up with an Internet television network for a sizeable production commitment – something like 1200 original episodes in five years – that’s a very big, very
novel move. DreamWorks and Netflix already had a deal to distribute filam and
specials, but original programming is a different venture. Was it ever felt by
DreamWorks that there might be an element of risk involved, or was this a very
firm decision from the start?

MC: DreamWorks is
very anxious to diversify and get into the kids business and television
business. We have such great IP and such a strong brand, but we didn’t have the
daily engagement with the fans that we really wanted.

I think this ended up
to be a perfect partnership because for Netflix to start their kids business
they also needed a strong brand that was known globally and had some
recognition to it. Our movies open and are popular around the world, so our
characters are known. If you think about flicking through a Netflix home page,
you’ll recognize the characters and be drawn to them, so the partnership
actually makes a lot of sense.

MG: You know, Chris,
the look you’ve chosen for the series recalls those old Saturday Morning
animation shows. A couple of times I caught myself thinking about Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch. Was it intentional
to capture that sort of look, the reason you went with 2D Flash animation
rather than CG?

CP: It was a
directive from DreamWorks out of the gate to do a 2D series. There’s a lot of
characters and locations and new villains, so it would be a more expensive and
time-consuming show to make in in CG. Personally, I’m a fan of 2D animation,
and we still use some 3D techniques for the snail’s shells and the camera
moves, so it’s kind of a hybrid technique.

MG: One thing I
especially likes was that the focus of the show is on the racing team and their
personalities and relationships. The human characters from the original film
seem to be almost entirely absent. You’ve also got the snails in their own
city, and that removes them from humans even further. Was that intentional so
that you could play up the snails more?

CP: Yes, absolutely.
You’re going to see that even more often. On June 27 there’s going to be some
new episodes launched . We’re going to be making a bunch of these. As we
progress and learn what works from both a storytelling and a production
perspective, we’re deciding to focus as much as possible on the “Critter World” as we call it, as opposed to the human world.

MG: Margie, Three new
shows will roll out by the end of the year – King Julian, Veggie Tales in
the House
, and Puss in Boots.
Will these be produced and aired using the same strategy as you did for Turbo FAST, as batches of episodes?

MC: Yes, that is the
plan right now.

MG: With the
acquisition of Classic Media, you now own some of America’s most iconic
animated characters. Is there a roll-out plan in place now for producing them
into future series? Might they be in the next wave of releases to Netflix?

MC: Yes, there is
definitely a plan to develop and produce episodes from the IP and the Classic
Media Library.

MG: Care to comment
on which ones?

MC: Everybody asks
that, but we announce our titles in conjunction with Netflix.

 MG: One thing I especially liked, Chris, was
that the focus of the show is on the racing team and their personalities and
relationships. The human characters from the original film seem to be almost
entirely absent. You’ve also got the snails in their own city, and that removes
them from humans even further. Was that intentional so that you could play up
the snails more?

CP: Yes, absolutely.
You’re going to see that even more often. On June 27 there’s going to be some
new episodes launched . We’re going to be making a bunch of these. As we
progress and learn what works from both a storytelling and a production perspective,
we’re deciding to focus as much as possible on the “Critter World” as we call
it, as opposed to the human world.

MG: Margie, will you
be contracting any of these new series out, as you did with Titmouse Studio for
Turbo FAST, or are some of them going
to be produced in-house at DreamWorks Animation?

MC: Well, we have
just built a studio in Glendale separate and off the DreamWorks campus, and
within the space of the five or six months that we’ve been in operation, we’ve
hired 300 people. We also have three floors of an office building. We are up
and running doing a lot of the pre-production , and the animation is going out
to Canada and other various places. So we’re working the way a lot of other
kids businesses work, but the up-front creative work is kept locally and the
animation is exported.

MG: I wanted to ask,
Chris, having all your characters, heroes and villains alike introduced with
those power indicator bars gave me good chuckle. Who came up with that idea?

CP: That was actually
something that I pitched out. At a certain point in the series, we decided to
start making jokes on the power bars. We started playing with that conceit and
then pushing it even further. That idea gets stretched and even weirder as the
series goes on.

MG: There seems to be
a theme to most of the Turbo episodes – Be true to yourself, believe in yourself, always be loyal and help your
friends – is that the message you try to stress for your younger viewers?

CP: Yeah, we’re
definitely trying to set up a teamwork thing. I don’t think you’ll find anyone
who won’t agree those are good values. To teach kids. We try not to get too
preachy, but sure, there’s a little bit of a message in these episodes.

MG: Now, the villains
you’ve got, they’re egotistical, grandiose braggarts who are quick with a
put-down.  Did you model them on Guy
Gagne, the original villain from the movie?

CP: A little bit. And
in the future you may see him come back in the series.

MG: Margie, you’ve
been on the job for about a year now since coming over from Nickelodeon, and
you’ve had fantastic results. What would you say the greatest challenges have
been so far?

MC: Getting so many
shows up and running at the same time and not having a traditional pilot
process. We only want A-plus talent, and we’re getting fourteen shows up at
once so it’s been a little challenging finding all the people, but we can
always say that every single person in the studio has been hand-picked  and is the best in the business; we’re very
excited to show the world the work they’ve been doing.

MG: How about some of
your challenges, Chris?

We’ve got a really
brutal production schedule in terms of the time we have to execute these
episodes, but the execs, especially Margie have been awesome. Turbo is a fun project, and we’ll be
working on it for the next couple of years, so I’m glad we’re having this much
fun.

MC:  I have Mark Taylor, who opened the Nickelodeon
studio and was there for fifteen years, and Peter Gal who I also worked with.
These are people who’ve built relationships all across the animation industry
in every function. There’s a lot of respect and loyalty that goes back and
forth.

MG: Chris, I know
that DreamWorks has creative control over Turbo.
Did they send you a bible for the show? Are you free to play around with it a
little?

CP: Actually, we’ve
had a fair amount of creative leeway. The original premise, of course, was
passed along to us from DreamWorks, they’ve allowed us a lot of creativity at
the studio, and it’s pretty rare that we get a story shut down entirely. Most
of the time they’re happy to hear our ideas. You know, it is a cartoon, so we
can get silly and odd, and as we progress into the next batch of episodes, we
push even further towards comedy. There’ll be racing, of course, but that’s not
going to be the main focus. It’s going to be the character comedy.

MG: One for you,
Margie. Do you feel the type of arrangement you have with Netflix is the
eventual future of all network media? Will there be a generation that looks
back at, say, an old paper issue of TV
Guide
the way we look at dial telephones today?

MC: Well, TV Guide is already electronic. I do
think that patterns have changed, but I think that kids are still watching
linear television as well as accessing Netflix and watching on their smart
phones. At least for now, they like curated programs but they also like
on-demand. Where things will end up in the future is anybody’s guess, but I
believe the on-demand model is absolutely here to stay.

MG: One quote of yours
I keep coming across is: “We could not be having more fun as we create this
content for Netflix.” What is the most fun aspect of this for you?

MC: I think it’s the
start-up, pioneer phase we’re in right now. Being able to get all these great
people into the studio, hearing all their great ideas, seeing all the beautiful
art and watching everything come together. There’s nothing better than to see
the creative process from start to finish and be really proud of the work, and
that’s what we’re seeing across the multitudes of shows we’re putting into
production. We’re having fun doing what we’re doing, but we want kids to love
the end result.

MG: How about you,
Chris?

CP: I really love working
on the show, the cast is great, and I’d like to give a shout-out to some of the
crew: Antonio Canobbio is our Art Director, who’s just phenomenal. I think the
show looks better than any other TV show out there. Jen Ray is our Line Producer,
and she’s got the hardest job, getting 
the show on track and delivered on time , she’s been great.

MG. Chris, I look at
some of the stuff Titmouse has produced for Adult
Swim
, and I think it must be tough to hold yourselves back, sometimes.

CP (Laughs) Because this is Netflix and not
network television, there’s  no Standards
and Practices department, so myself and the writers and the DreamWorks
executives kind of have to be our own Standards and Practices department. We’re
always trying to figure out, how far can we push it? Usually we err on the side
of not going too far over the line or pushing as far as we could if we had a
Standards and Practices Department. we have to make ourselves happy, too. We
would never do anything inappropriate for kids, but if we can throw a few jokes
in that makes adults laugh, that’s always a good thing.

MC: Yeah, when you go
to the studio, it’s fun. On one desktop you’re seeing an Adult Swim show and on another one you’re seeing Turbo.  It’s funny. Chris a great creative person, and
runs a great studio that attracts top-level talent. He’s a great personality,
too.

MG: You directed the
first few episodes. Were there any characters you really enjoyed working with?

CP: I really like
White Shadow, he’s my favorite.

MG: Star of the
Dungball Derby.

CP I thought that was
a really great character episode, too.

MG: How about a peek
ahead to the next episodes?

CP: In the next
batch, there’s going to be a 90s throwback where the team finds these cicada
bugs who’ve been hibernating since the 90s. There’s a song called “The Mucha
Cabra” in it that pays homage to the Macarena.

MC: It’s a takeoff on
the Macarena, it’s very funny.

We do a joke about
how everyone gets mesmerized by the Macarena. It’s a pretty funny episode, and
I think adults will really enjoy that one. There’s a lot of referential humor
to the  world of twenty years ago.

MG: You now have unlimited creative freedom over your
content, Margie. Is it possible you might even have crossovers between your
most popular characters?

MC: We could, we
absolutely could.

MG: Of all the
properties and characters DreamWorks now has available for a potential series, if
you had your choice, which one do you wish you could personally take the reins
on?

MC: Well, I love all
my babies equally. Let’s just say that all the libraries are open to us and we
can jump in on whatever we think would make a great television show.

 MG: So, Chris… is Turbo ever going to make a
snappy comeback to one of the villains without totally mangling it?

CP: Nope! He’s going
to mangle it every time!

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