Thursday, May 08, 2008
Hollywood North: Producers hope to help kids
Ward Perrin / Vancouver Sun
Sanjay is a kid who has just moved to North America from Mumbai. He is a sarcastic comedian who loves Bollywood. He also wants everybody to agree with him.
Damaris is Cuban and Spanish-speaking but she has been living outside of Cuba for most of her life. She is a shy loner who escapes this world through books, making her the exact opposite of the typical Spanish cartoon character.
These are two of the eight lovable characters from around the world who make up the eclectic, colourful cast of a new animated television show for kids being produced here called Mixed Nutz. Its aim is to make kids curious about different cultures through entertainment.
"This business is something we believe can help change the world," said Shabnam Rezaei, who launched it with her husband, Aly Jetha. The pair, who have just moved here from New York City, come from as diverse backgrounds as their characters.
Rezaei, who speaks five languages, was born in Iran, but moved to Austria when she was 10 to attend an international school. She and her brother were sent there to avoid the Iran-Iraq war.
At the age of 18, she moved to the U.S. to get a degree from the University of Pennsylvania in computer science and literature.
"When I graduated, I went to New York to get a good job like a good Iranian girl would in a good solid field with a good salary. That was in financial software," she said in an interview in a trendy Yaletown warehouse where the pair have set up an animation studio.
She cruised through various companies like Deloitte Touche, also setting up shop for a company called Exis in London for three years. Each company tried to hold her interest but she quickly grew bored each time.
Jetha was born in Ndola, Zambia. His family lived in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, for two generations. His forefathers are Indian from Gujarat and Ismaili. He moved to Vancouver when he was two.
Talk about multicultural.
Like his wife's, his professional background is about as far from the entertainment industry as Bambi is from hip-hop. His curriculum vitae sounds more like a high-flying serial entrepreneur than a maker of film: graduation from St. George's private school, an undergraduate degree in political science from UBC, two years with the United Nations as a representative of the Canadian government on various international political matters, law school at Berkeley, a member of the California bar, management consulting for Bain & Co. which is a consultant to Fortune 100 companies, launching a semi-conductor computer chip company in 1998, becoming a founding member of a New York-based telecommunications and transaction processing company called Via One. He remains that company's chief executive officer.
In 2003, he married Rezaei and moved to New York, putting a new spin on life.Despite the pair's heavyweight business backgrounds, their passions obviously lie elsewhere.
That became clear when Rezaei, while working for a company that produced trading and operational accounting software for banks, started a website called the Persian Mirror. It was phenomenally successful, drawing around five million hits a month.
Because there was so much interest in Persian culture, she and Jetha aimed to make the equivalent of a Charlie Brown's Christmas for Persian kids. But instead of Christmas, which has no status in that culture, they settled on the Persian new year.
The result, Babak and Friends, which has both English and Farsi versions, screened in more than 30 museums in the world. The response was great from Persians and non-Persians alike. Non-Persians wanted to know where they could buy special goat cheese and bread to feed their kids for breakfast. The kids were asking for it. They had seen it in the show.
The success of Babak and Friends just fuelled the fire. The couple wanted to do bigger and better things. That drove them down the nutty road of making Mixed Nutz.
By the fall, they hope to have completed 26 22-minute episodes that will be dubbed into five languages to be shown around the world. It's all originating from here.
The pair hastily set up shop over a two-week period over Christmas and New Year's. Big Bad Boo Studios, as their headquarters is called, has a makeshift look about it but it is a cauldron of creativity. You can hear the faint squeak of pencil on paper and the steady click of computer keys as this mini animation factory works out the nuts and bolts of Mixed Nutz.
A glimpse into some of the episodes show a delightful romp into the lives of a group of fictitious children from around the world who the animators bring to life. The show turns the daily stuff of a kid's life - schoolyard squabbles, food issues, fights with parents, trying to fit in - into grist for a grander message about everyone from everywhere getting along.
Norooz Productions, as the couple's company is called, has 20 people working here, four in Los Angeles and two in New York. Why, you might ask, did they set up shop here?
Jetha has no problem answering that. Having grown up here, he loves Vancouver. Both he and Rezaei found that in Canada, pluralism and multi-culturalism are a much greater part of daily life than in the U.S. "When I moved to the States, I realized people were not as geographically or culturally aware of anything outside their borders," said Jetha. In that sense, locating the studio here has helped raise the bar for Mixed Nutz. While many here might not realize it, the Vancouver area is a world hub for animation.
Finally, the government's tax credits proved a powerful magnet. They made setting up shop here viable.
On a recent trip to their studio, Rezaei and Jetha played snippets of their show. Each has their favourites.
For Jetha, it's one where Sanjay gets a childhood crush on his teacher. He envisions her in a Bollywood film.
For Rezaei, it's when the character Sousanne has a fight with her mother and decides to run away from home with Damaris who lost her mother when she was very young. Damaris wonders why Sousanne is running away when she is so lucky to have a mother.
"I really identify with Damaris because I think anyone who has been displaced or has had parents missing from their lives can really identify with her situation," said Rezaei. "She is a very sweet character."
To avoid getting cheap laughs on the backs of ethnic stereotypes, the pair have brought in cultural advisors. "That makes the show smart," said Jetha. "We don't want to portray cliches. We want to stay away from on-the-nose lessons."
The pair have taken a decidedly different route than the makers of most animation productions who usually go to a network and pre-sell to fund the show. "We are pretty passionate about what we are creating," said Rezaei. "We wanted to just fund it ourselves. So we raised money from private investors as well as some foundations."
The pair knew, too, that their success depended on getting the right people into place and creating a team.They brought on board Emmy award winner and composer Randy Rogel, who has written music for shows like The Legend of Tarzan and Batman.
Alfred Gimeno, a real icon in the animation industry, has won three Emmys, worked on shows like Madagascar and the Smurfs and for companies like Disney, Warner Bros. and DreamWorks. He, too, was brought on board.
The animation director is Glen Kennedy who trained under Hanna-Barbera, the old Hollywood behemoth that produced many successful cartoon shows like The Huckleberry Hound Show, The Flintstones, Top Cat, The Yogi Bear Show and The Smurfs. He has been running animation production studios in Asia for about 22 years.
Together with their talented staff, Jetha and Rezaei are on a mission. "Anything that brings people together, especially kids, is a good thing," said Jetha.
"It's important to realize," said Rezaei, "that at the end of the day, we are all the same."