Science, Puppets and TV: An Interview with Halle Stanford of The Jim Henson Company

BlogHer Original Post

Halle Stanford is in charge of children's television development at The Jim Henson Company -- a job so cool Fast Company once interviewed her for an article on Dream Jobs. She shepherded shows like Dinosaur Train and Sid the Science Kid to children's screens around the world, and is part of the reason your preschooler may know more about science than you do. She is also the mother of two boys: one teenager, and one infant -- a scenario she finds both wonderful and wonderfully challenging.

Halle Sanford

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How does somebody get to be you? How did you break into the industry, what was the arc that got you into the position you are in now?

I started out knowing that I wanted to do children's television. I was pretty focused. And I also was a huge, huge Jim Henson fan, so I put my sights on The Jim Henson Company. I worked at a couple of other places in animation, but then I had the opportunity to be a writer's assistant at The Jim Henson Company. I've been here a long time, almost twenty years -- which is unbelievable for me to think about, considering that I was 23 when I started. The executives at the time were incredibly nurturing, willing to teach you, and have you involved in meetings. The creative and production process wasn't a mystery. So when it was time to step up into a new role, you had been trained by the best. I feel like I had a really great learning ground -- but I was also highly motivated.

I constantly have to immerse myself in the world of kids -- and that's something I have to do on my own. Walking down the toy aisles, being really involved with my son Max's school and what he's into, and obviously getting onto the Internet and learning all about where kids go. Getting to where I am now involves watching a lot of TV, a lot of kids' movies, a lot of DVDs, reading a lot of kids' literature, playing a lot of kids' video games, so that I can really think about what should be next for kids.

As the Executive Vice President in charge of Children's Entertainment, my job is basically overseeing the development and production of all the kids' content. What's incredible to me is how that role has expanded, because now -- of course -- we have online programming. We have a show that I adore called Wilson and Ditch: Digging America on PBS Kids Go!

How long have you been in your current position, and what would you consider some of your major accomplishments?

I've been at the company since 1993, but left for a couple of years. When I was asked back in my current role in 2003 -- which was so thrilling -- we rolled up our sleeves and got busy.

I feel the shows we have on the air are a culmination of my career here at Henson. They include Sid the Science Kid and Dinosaur Train; the online show Wilson and Ditch: Digging America, which I am particularly excited about because it's for older kids and it's educational, which is a pretty rare combo to get made; and then a BBC series called Me and My Monsters, which was really fun to work on; and now we're working on a show for Sprout called Pajanimals which is really sweet. I'm an Executive Producer as well on all of them -- and they're all really thrilling, and all incredibly different! Sid the Science Kid was pretty ground-breaking and uses our Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, which is a combination motion-capture and digital puppetry animation system, Dinosaur Train is the first 3D animated series our company has ever produced, and Me and My Monsters is a Creature Shop show.

Does Creature Shop mean like the characters in Fraggle Rock?

Fraggle Rock is soft puppets, hand and rod puppets -- it's a puppet show. Me and My Monsters is a Creature Shop show and the puppets are usually more firm, more latex, more realistic looking -- as if they actually live and breathe in the real world. Think Dark Crystal, or Labyrinth. And Pajanimals is soft puppets, so we get to do a traditional puppet show, which makes me so happy. It's fun to do soft puppets again! The last time we did puppets was Bear in the Big Blue House, The Hoobs, and Animal Jam for Discovery Kids.

Wilson and Ditch, which is again, online -- and uses the Henson Digital Puppetery Studio -- we shot live action back plates, so the characters actually look like they're in San Francisco, or Montana. It's pretty hilarious.

So they're all different. All exciting. We're very proud.

So what exactly does "Executive Producer" mean? Is your role fairly similar on each show? And what is the genesis of these shows? How are you involved, creatively?

Executive Producing means I'm going to help take that idea that we developed, and sold, and make sure the creative vision stays true for the entire series. I help staff the show, make sure the people on it are the best they can be, and am involved every step of the way creatively. From a production standpoint I make sure that we're on schedule and on budget.

But you wanted to know about the genesis of the shows -- and the truth is they come from everywhere. Sid was different, and what I love about it is that it really came from a lunch between Lisa Henson and myself. We both have kids the same age -- my son Max and her son Julian – and at the time they were in preschool. Preschoolers are so incredible, and hilarious; they're so curious, and so outgoing. We started thinking about doing a show about real preschoolers. We talked about our Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, and how it would be so funny to have that sort of live interaction with preschoolers through the live puppetry. And then we got a call from Linda Simensky at PBS, asking if we had a science show, and at the time we didn't -- and it all sort of clicked! We said, "Wait a second, maybe this funny preschool show could become a science show!"  

And I will tell you, every project has a special magic about it, you can just feel it building and growing. There's this excitement behind it and everything clicks into place -- and that happened for Sid. We teamed with KCET, and they just happened to be working with this preschool director, Moises Roman, who was working with an assistant research professor at Rutgers, Kimberly Brenneman (who has an amazing blog for parents and teachers about the series), on this brand new preschool science curriculum called Pathways to Science. We hooked up with them, and with them created a really compelling television curriculum. Together we did an animation test for PBS and basically from that, we were green-lit.

Dinosaur Train was different. It came to us as an illustration by Craig Bartlett, and it was just a little T-Rex and a little pteranodon standing in front of a train. A dinosaur train!  And that was it. Craig had the notion that this little T-Rex, Buddy, was adopted by a Pternadon family and they loved to go on the Dinosaur Train.  We sat with Craig Bartlett and tried to figure out, how do we make this a show? How do we create a curriculum around paleontology, and make it feel relevant and not so niche?

Then we met Dr. Scott Sampson at the Museum of Paleontology through connections in the museum world, and basically learned that paleontology is the study of living animals, as well as the fossils. As soon as he told me that, everything clicked, and I knew that this show would be about animals because dinosaurs are animals too! This show would be about nature, about the natural sciences -- and we will teach it through dinosaurs.

For the storytelling, Craig and I made sure we brought on writers who knew how to tell fun, character-driven stories. We needed actual fun adventures! A couple of the writers we trained had never written for preschool before; they had only written for older shows for the Cartoon Network, or Nickelodeon. But they all had little kids, and they were all really excited about the idea. Lisa and I made sure that the characters felt like real kids, that they had a mom and dad and that they had a home (a nest!). And I think it really paid off, and is one of the reasons preschoolers really tapped into it -- they like the mom and dad, and they love the education -- they're not afraid of it.

I know! My six-year-old daughter keeps giving these tirades about the proper names of dinosaurs like Dienonychus and Cryolophosaurus -- these huge scientific names just trip off her tongue! I like that you're not underestimating kids.

No. We don't. And we do work with curriculum advisors who also work with preschoolers, and so we know that it's not whether kids can take in information, but how they can take it in, and how we can deliver it. There was a debate about this in the scientific community about whether or not it was valuable to teach children these long words, and gorgeous concepts -- and we just said, "You know what? We're going for it!" And I'm glad we did.

And also, by watching Dinosaur Train, kids are learning about the natural world -- even if all those long names aren't registering, they're still learning about the diversity of life, and scientific concepts.

We just had our first Dinosaur Train movie: Dinosaur Big City. And our new season starts in November, and it's all about getting out into nature and playing -- of celebrating the wonder of the natural world!

What sorts of challenges are you facing, now that you have not only a thirteen-year-old son, but a six-month-old infant? What kinds of things have changed for you?

What's changed for me definitely is my time is stretched, to the point where I sometimes wonder -- do I exist within this space and time, anymore? But it's actually incredible, I love it so much, I'm so happy to have a baby, Theo, at this point in my life. I have the energy for it, I'm much calmer -- and I can't believe how much has changed since Max was a baby! Especially the Internet, which is my saving grace, I feel like I'm in touch with the real world, whereas with Max I felt like I was aloooone in the house, and I would go into Staples just to see people.

Max is a teenager now. And it's an age where they're trying to individuate and move away from you and think you're gross but also love you. So for Max, having a baby brother was really challenging for the first couple of months because he was thinking, "Wait a minute, that's my mom! But, wait, I don't want to be around my mom. But wait! I do! But hey, I'm the baby." Now, having gotten through the six months, it's pretty terrific. Max is in love with the baby, he will strap the Baby Bjorn on and go hiking with us, yet he's also his own person.

But being the mom of a teenager and a baby means this kind of stuff: when I met with the rabbi, I had to meet with him about Max's bar mitzvah, and Theo's bris. In the same meeting! When I sent out baby announcements, I had to send out bar mitzvah invitations the next day. When I go to The Gap, I go to the baby section, and then I go to the teenage section -- and I can dress the baby however I want, but Max is very specific. There's one pair of jeans, and that's all I can get, or forget it. It's very surreal, going to the same place but having a completely different experience with each one of my guys.

Is it making things more challenging at work, because of all the extra coordination?

Yes, definitely, but it's also exciting, because I can say to myself, "I can't believe I'm going to have a little guy who's going to watch Pajanimals!" I kind of thought that was done, even though we also develop older kids' programming. Although since Max is thirteen, I think the stuff we develop online is more to his taste. And since Max and all the kids in my life inspire the programming, I will have more inspiration and will get to see what comes out of it.

At Henson, there's been a baby boom. All these new babies, new parents -- some second time, some first time -- and we're all really supportive of each other. The company is very kid friendly -- you can bring your kid if you want to, if you need to. I've brought Theo quite a bit.

For the future of what we're doing at Henson, one of the things I'm most excited about is I really believe we will be doing a lot more international productions. My whole job, my whole dream, is to do programming for kids -- all kids, whether they're here, in China, or in Australia. Me and My Monsters and Pajanimals and Dinosaur Train are all co-productions with other countries around the world.

The other frontier is online. We've had so much fun with Wilson and Ditch, and we also did a program for Disney.com called The Possibility Shop -- aimed at moms. It's a creativity show starring Courtney Watkins.

I'm interested in pushing in this arena and hopefully, one day, doing quite a bit in that space, because that's where my older son goes when he looks for entertainment.  I think it is where all kids will be going. 

I'm excited about the future.

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Bloggers on some of Halle's and The Jim Henson Company's shows:

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Shannon Des Roches Rosa writes about her children's TV viewing habits at ThinkingAutismGuide.com, BlogHer.com, and Squidalicious.com. She and her family are currently laughing their way through the second season of Fraggle Rock.

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