This is Part 1 of a story about Spiffy Pictures. Part 2 explores David Rudman’s career as a puppeteer and the origins of Spiffy.
In a middling-sized suite on the second floor of a brick strip mall, above a health club and a jeweler, two brothers, their childhood friend, and a young recruit work to inspire children to go outside and explore the delights of nature. The office, nondescript except for some colorful cartoon decals slapped onto the walls, is in the northern Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Although the only greenery visible from its windows is a grassy curb and some planted trees and shrubs, this is the home of Nature Cat, an animated show that aims to teach kids about the natural world.
Nature Cat follows the adventures of the title character, a house cat eager to leave the confines of his home and learn about the world beyond. As he bumbles his way through forests and up mountains in his Robin Hood outfit, he is accompanied by a redoubtable mouse named Squeeks, an innocent dog called Hal, Daisy the fact-ready bunny, and Ronald the snooty cat.
“We were looking at our kids, and they weren’t going outside as much as we used to when we were that age,” Adam Rudman says. “Then there was that book written by Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods, which coined this term ‘nature-deficit disorder’ – a generation of children growing up with no connection to nature. We started thinking, ‘This would be a good idea for a show.’ But who would put on a show encouraging kids to get away from TV? PBS!”
Adam, along with his brother David, is a creator of Nature Cat and a founder of Spiffy Pictures, the production company behind the series. The Rudmans had produced other children’s series, such as Jack’s Big Music Show for Nickelodeon and Bunnytown for Disney. Both brothers had worked on Sesame Street, David as a puppeteer (he still plays and voices the role of Cookie Monster) and Adam as a writer. But they and their business manager Scott Scornavacco had never before created a major animated series – their previous ones had used puppets and live-action – or produced a show for PBS, which operates differently from commercial networks.
But after they had created a pilot and before the show had been greenlit, serendipity intervened, bringing Spiffy someone with experience in both those areas. “I was in Boston at WGBH for five years, working in animation on Martha Speaks and Arthur,” Caroline Bandolik recalls. “But I’m from Wilmette,” a northern suburb of Chicago. “I just missed my family and was ready to come home. I had told my parents, I just have to leave Boston, I know I’m not going to have a job, I’m saying goodbye to children’s television, my life’s over,” she says in a mock-dramatic lament.
Luckily, a mutual acquaintance at PBS Kids connected Spiffy and Bandolik. “We were sold right away,” Adam remembers. Bandolik says that, “To be able to work on this show with these guys, all the stars just lined up perfectly.”
“For both sides,” Scornavacco chimes in.
Bandolik quickly emailed back the contact at PBS Kids and says she wrote something along the lines of “I just met the guys at Spiffy, they’re great! I really hope Nature Cat gets a greenlight. Smiley face!”
While they narrate the origins of Nature Cat, all four Spiffy team members constantly interject with jokes, reminiscences, playful jabs, and other flashes of humor and geniality. They probably make each other laugh every other minute. So it makes sense that the series is full of comedy and slapstick. “One of the greatest criticisms of our show that PBS got early on was, “It’s too funny! Tone it down!’” Adam recalls. “But they turned to us and said make it even funnier.
“We just do what we think is funny,” he continues. “We want children and adults to look at this and laugh. Especially because with this curriculum, parents need to be taught as much as their kids about the environment and how important it is to go outside and do stuff with your kids.”
Bandolik adds, “If the parents like it, they’re going to want their kids to watch it.”
A lot of the comedy originates with the voice actors, who are all comedians. Nature Cat’s pilot featured three of the main characters, voiced by Saturday Night Live stalwarts: Bobby Moynihan as Hal, Taran Killam as Nature Cat, and Kenan Thompson as Ronald.
“Then an agent called and said, ‘I keep hearing people on the SNL set talking about Nature Cat, would you consider one of my clients?’” David recalls. “This happened to be Kate McKinnon.”
“She was new on SNL,” Adam explains.
“We were in the process of trying to cast other people,” Scornavacco continues. “But Taran and Bobby kept saying you should look at her.”
“When we finally saw her, you could just see how great she was,” David remembers.
“We had tried other people, and it just never made sense,” Bandolik says. “As soon as she walked in with a couple ideas for voices, it was like, there’s the character.” McKinnon became the voice of Squeeks, and the cast was filled out by Kate Micucci as Daisy. (“I always loved her voice,” David says of Micucci, “so we just asked her.”)
Because the cast members all live in New York or Los Angeles, they record their voice tracks through Skype. While the actor is in a studio on the coast, Spiffy records them in an audio booth in Illinois, giving feedback and direction. “Skype has come a long way,” Bandolik says.
“The cast is just coming up with the funniest ideas ever,” Scornavacco says. “Half of them we can use, the other half we could never use, because it’s kind of crazy for kids’ TV.”
“The cast brings so much that you couldn’t write if you wanted to,” Bandolik says. David adds, “And they know their characters so well now. The characters just keep evolving.”
But Nature Cat is not just a comedy. It’s also meant to teach. So how does Spiffy ensure that the episodes do more than simply entertain?
“Frances and Jesse,” Bandolik succinctly states, and everyone laughs. “Frances” is Frances Nankin, and “Jesse” is her daughter Jesse McMahon, the series’ curriculum advisors and content producers. Frances, with whom Adam had worked while writing for the PBS Kids show Cyberchase, came out of retirement to work on Nature Cat because of her love of nature and her belief in the show’s mission. Each episode begins life as a brief written by Nankin and McMahon that outlines the lessons that should be taught.
Spiffy and a writer then collaborate on story ideas, and the writer sketches an outline. (Spiffy wrote the first twenty or so episodes to “establish the tone and characters,” David says, but now they use outside writers.) As the fledgling episode goes through several drafts, PBS advisors review it. A Toronto-based media group called 9 Story then receives the script and designs characters, props, and backgrounds, all of which is overseen by Spiffy. The cast records the scripts, and 9 Story produces increasingly detailed animated mock-ups. Finally, about a year after work started on the eleven-minute episode, it is ready to air.
Spiffy manages the entire process, juggling up to eight scripts in different stages of the process at once. Their production schedule sprawls across an entire wall of Adam’s office like a massive, horizontal game of Tetris. But somehow they stay on top of it all, filling numerous roles. “I’m doing voices!” Bandolik exclaims. “I’ve never done that before. I’m now a digital expert. I do audio, if you need help with that,” she offers, tongue-in-cheek. “I get to do everything.”