Movies

Craig Bartlett on the Dinosaur Train Movie

Earlier this week, PBS Kids and Universal premiered Dinosaur Train: Adventure Island, a feature-length animated film based on the long-running animated series, which will screen again tomorrow at noon ET/PT, and Friday at 8 a.m. ET/PT and again at 3:30 p.m. A chance to bigger, spend more time and money on the animation, and for fans of the series to enjoy it in a different way. It’s hardly the first time that Craig Bartlett, the series’ creator, has brought one of his shows to the world of features (remember Hey Arnold!?), but given the audience this show is intended for, it’s a whole different thing.

Could we get more of these movies? According to Bartlett, there’s a decent chance.

Bartlett joined ComicBook to discuss the movie, why he felt it was time to expand, and what’s next.

Obviously, Dinosaur Train has been around for years at this point? Is it possible this is really the first feature film?

Yeah, this is the first Dinosaur Train movie. And you know that Dinosaur Train has been around since, we went on the air in September, of 2009. So we’re in our 12th year, and this is a project, the Dinosaur Train movie, that was started a couple of years ago. And we made it with Universal, who plans to stream it after the PBS window.

So I guess the obvious question, whenever something like this happens is, what is the impetus for getting it out of the comfort zone of what you do every week, and into this bigger format?

That is what it is. It is a bigger and bolder format. And always the question is, “Why would you take that from the small screen, and go big?” And it was because Universal, in their wisdom, declared a Dinosaur Train to have been around long enough and with a large enough audience that knows it, to be a “classic property.” The meeting, when I first met with Universal just to talk about the fact that they were interested in us making a Dinosaur Train movie, I was just so happy. I was like, “Oh my God, something that I’ve created is now a classic property.”

Having been around for 12 years, that is one of the fun things. We record the show up in Vancouver, very near where I grew up on the Washington State side of Canada. We’d go up to Vancouver a lot, and so going up there to record, it’s kind of like going home for me, because I’ve been living in LA now for more than 30 years, for my career. And so, I love going back to Vancouver. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.

I went to my high school in Anacortes, Washington for a Career Day. They invited me, they said, “Would you come in and speak at our Career Day, and talk about your career?” And I got up there and the principal gave me a little intro, and was kind of reading my resume to the kids. She said, “Well, he’s probably best known for a show on Nickelodeon called Hey Arnold!” And then she said, “More recently, he created a show called Dinosaur Train.” And the crowd went wild. The high schoolers, the Anacortes High schoolers were much more tuned in to Dinosaur Train, than Hey Arnold! So I thought, “Oh great. I just need a few more years and we can finally go down to Comic-Con and have panels for these guys.” We’re just sort of waiting for that audience to grow up, old enough to be following that stuff.

Hey Arnold! is already like that, right? I’m old enough that I missed it on broadcast but became familiar with it via Comic Con and all the fans.

Wow. There you go. When you think about it, that’s sort of after-market, isn’t it? I can’t believe how interactive it is now, with the fan base of Hey Arnold! that are ranging in age from 20s to 30s.

When we made it in the first place, of course that was in the mid ’90s, when we went on the air with it, but our audience was too young, and the internet was in its infancy. There wasn’t a lot of interaction; I didn’t hear from the fans. And now, people who are 30 years old went through, got their educations, maybe became animators or journalists, and are incredibly articulate. So, it’s really fun to talk about these things, as the audience grows up.

Dinosaur Train comes from the Jim Henson Company. I have to assume, even though you have had, just a spectacular degree of success in your career, I have to assume that there had to be something special about going in and getting a show green-lit at the Jim Henson Company.

It absolutely was. The whole thing was such a, kind of a sweetheart deal, because I had come to work for the Hensons. And I don’t know, have you ever been to their lot, in Hollywood? They’re on the old Charlie Chaplin lot, which then, after it was the Charlie Chaplin Studios, A&M Records bought it. It has an incredible story, history, of being the lot where all kinds of great ’60s and ’70s and ’80s records were made. And then, the Hensons bought it about 2000, and they used the stage — it has the original Chaplin stage — to do their motion capture and stuff. So, it’s a great, such a cool space. I love it so much. It’s kind of haunted; there’s ghosts there. It’s just, it’s a wonderful place.

I was already there, and I knew Linda Simensky from PBS, I’ve known her for about… A long time. Since the beginning of Rugrats, when she worked for Nickelodeon. And Linda said, “I know you have an idea for a preschool show, Dinosaur Train.” I had told her that much.

And she had set herself up at PBS, and said, “I’m finally, kind of got the lay of the land here. And the shows that are being made now at PBS, are going to be my shows. And so I’m ready for you to bring me your Dinosaur Train idea. You’re already at Henson.” Henson was already doing Sid the Science Kid for PBS, and so, they were really happy to have the Henson Company back with their brand. And so, it was a really beautiful collaboration, between all of us.

I am also of the age where I have kids who not only have watched and enjoyed Dinosaur Train, but my oldest son was born like six months after you premiered. So, my kids don’t know a world where this show didn’t exist. Does that make the idea of a movie feel kind of inevitable?

There is something to that. I think what happens is, you make kind of a critical mass of shows, of TV. And then that usually is the question, “Well, where do we go from here? Do we just keep trying to figure out a way to keep making episodes, or do we take it to the next level?” So, that is what happened. And it did seem inevitable. It was really fun too, for our studio. It’s animated in Singapore, by a company names Sparky, and they’ve done it since the start. And we have a great relationship with them. And they were always asking that of us, too. Like, “When are we going to make a feature?”

That idea, where we can kind of just crank it up a little bit, and make the level of lighting and art direction and resolution that much better? The characters are all just a little bit more refined, just a notch higher resolution than they had before. And we got to do a lot of really fun stuff with the movie that it was possible because you can take your time telling a story. Telling long form stories is a treat, if you’ve been making 11 minute cartoons for years.

So not to go from “what’s next?” to “what’s next?” PBS has a decade of experience with Curious George and stuff, where making a feature doesn’t mean you leave the air; they can coexist. It’s not a state change.”

You’re right. And that’s a really good example, when I had my first meeting with a Universal, the Curious George model was what our conversation was even based on. And you’re right. It means you get to expand. You can even have both of them happen simultaneously, and have a unit of people working on each one. To us, it was, each time we get another season order, we’re hoping, “What can we do to keep Dinosaur Train going for years? Things for the kids to keep tuning in, to see. That will keep interest up, in the show?”

So, this movie is a really big deal. I think we have maybe one more episode, a Father’s Day special, from Season Five. This will be the hundredth half hour of Dinosaur Train, that’s been aired. That will air in June, but other than that, for now there’s nothing new. So this movie will be one of those things that helps keep the franchise alive.

And as somebody who’s been doing this for a while, do you ever get the feeling that like, “Okay, maybe it’s time to start wrapping up?” Or do you feel like, with kids’ stuff, especially you can kind of go more or less indefinitely?

The latter, because also, it’s a science show. And I love that aspect of making educational TV for PBS, for the little ones, because unlike say, Hey Arnold!, Dinosaur Train is based on a solid paleontology curriculum, which is a very active… We’re right on the bleeding edge of dinosaur discoveries. Our science consultant, Dr. Scott Sampson. Man, he’s out there digging up new species of dinosaur. In the time that we were making the show, we have featured at least five or six of Scott’s own discoveries, and turned them into cartoon characters. I mean, can you imagine how fun for Scott?
And he, [inaudible 00:12:28] summer, he was usually… Usually we work, we kind of work year round, but Scott usually in the summer, would kind of disappear. And go, usually in the Badlands, he likes to dig in Utah around Grand Escalante and in the Badlands of, I think Montana, the Dakotas. And, he dug up, in Utah, a kind of Ceratopsian called Kosmoceratops that had 15 kind of curving horns around its head. It’s insane, it was the most decorative animal, ever, because they considered those horns to be decoration. And so, it was a kind of, it was a superlative. And he dug up something that was completely superlative and shocking and new. And, it was intact. I mean, they pulled this whole head, fossil, out of the ground. And that was just like, happening.

And I said, “Well, how soon can we turn them him into a cartoon?” And so, he said, “Well, wait until September,” because they have to write a paper and present it. That’s how it becomes official. He said, “You’ve got to wait until September, and then you can do it.” And so, we started designing it, and we made him the mayor of Laramidia. Mayor Kosmoceratops. So, it’s very fun. It keeps it alive. It keeps me in it. And I feel like it’s still, as long as there are new discoveries, there’s always going to be something to write about.

And I also, it’s just in my nature, the stuff that I created, Dinosaur Train and Ready Jet Go, and Hey Arnold!, they have that advantage to me that there’s something personal in it. There’s always a character that I really identify with. In the case of Dinosaur Train, it’s Buddy. And it’s fun to write. I do not get tired of it, and I don’t really see an end to it. It’s really more, I’m always waiting for the next order of these things, for me to just keep going.

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I feel like Hey Arnold! was a show that was very much of its time. And it felt like conflict was the engine. A lot of the time, a whole episode could be driven by these kids having conflict. You don’t really see that as much on your newer shows. Is that just a matter of prefereence? Or was that something that you exorcised, or am I overthinking?

No, I think it’s a really good point. I don’t think you’re overthinking it. When you think about it, the worldview that we presented in Hey Arnold! was a more conflicted worldview. It was a little darker. Disappointment was one of the through-lines, and the idea that kids can try to make a difference, but it’s going to be a tiny difference. And when I went to make preschool shows, Dinosaur Train and Ready Jet Go, we were playing for a younger audience, and so we purposefully made it a sunnier worldview, where the conflicts are lighter because it’s a younger audience.

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