***This article was written for the November 22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 324)***
This week, young viewers tuned into Apple TV+ will discover the colorful world of Harvey the dog, Jinja the cat, Jack the rabbit, Robin the bird and many more bright-eyed, bushy-tailed residents of Mini Sago Friends. The show, which is inspired by the hugely popular Sago Mini World app, is produced by award-winning kids toon veterans Jennifer Dodge (paw patrol), Ronnen Harary (paw patrol), Dustin Ferrer (Esme & Roy) and Uncle (Pets!, Go! Go! Cory Carson). We caught up with Thyne to find out more about this charming show, produced by Spin Master Entertainment and hosted by 9 Story Media’s Emmy Award-winning studio, Brown Bag Films in Toronto:
Animation magazine: So, first of all. How did you get involved in this show?
Ja Thyne: As VP of Creative at FableVision Studios, I both create original properties and collaborate with top studios and broadcasters on their existing projects. Two years ago, I was simultaneously writing scripts on an Apple series while developing a different show with Spin Master. It was completely a case of “three great tastes that taste great together” when Spin Master Entertainment and Apple decided to hire me as showrunner on the world’s most delicious series!
What do you love about the original app and the show it inspired?
I love that the beloved Mini Sago The app sparks playful exploration, imagination, and discovery with a beautifully simple design, lovable characters, and tons of spontaneous whimsy. It evokes pure joy.
In addition to each episode gently highlighting the importance of Acknowledgement, I love the way the series makes great use of the playfulness of the app. I’d still say it’s not a Sago story unless it presents a day-to-day scenario shot on its ear. Among other things, a talking milk jug, a problem-solving journal and a pair of garden gnomes (who get married every Wednesday) join the adorable Harvey as he builds a hot dog car and races it around across town, sing a lullaby to a sleeping loaf of bread and use a giant toothbrush to free a piece of broccoli from Jupiter’s teeth!
What was your biggest challenge when you set out to adapt the property?
In the end, the hardest part of the job became the most rewarding for me. Working with Apple, our team had designed an overarching instructional goal of emphasizing “gratitude” in every episode. What a magnificent quality to inspire young viewers to adopt! The challenge was figuring out how to present gratitude other than by characters just saying the words “thank you.” I worked very hard with the brilliant writing team, amazing songwriter, educational consultants, and changemakers at Apple to find a wide variety of ways for simple characters to express their gratitude. In addition to using words close to “thank you”, our characters show their gratitude with facial expressions, actions, body language and even tone of voice!
What about the visual influences and style of the show?
I love how the colorful Mini Sago The application features such attractive simplicity and full of visual charm. Me and our extremely talented partners at Brown Bag Films were vigilant in paying homage to the app’s signature look and winning visual style. We have carefully avoided reflections, shadows and depths of field that could even hint at a 3D technique. The clean simplicity of the character and background art emulates a bygone style of flat 2D animation while giving the show a fresh and striking look.
Can you tell us a bit about who is producing the animation?
Spin Master has teamed up with the extremely talented team of artists at Brown Bag Films in Toronto. I was thrilled to work (virtually) side-by-side with the incredible 95-member team led by director Chad Hicks and art director Sladjana Samardzija. Harvey and his friends were able to run, jump, roller skate, sip tea with turkeys, and dance to the tune emitted from a musical shoe thanks to Brown Bag’s expert use of Harmony.
Why do you think the original franchise is so popular?
As I mentioned earlier, the Mini Sago The app sparks playful exploration, imagination, and discovery with a beautifully simple design, lovable characters, and tons of spontaneous whimsy. All games are designed so young children can confidently explore on their own and truly inspire open-ended play.
What works are your biggest animation influences?
Obviously, I’m a big fan of simple visual storytelling. My biggest personal influences are the first animated shorts shown on sesame street in the 1970s, the beautifully musical school rock segments and just about every drawing and poem that has fallen from the pen of Shel Silverstein.
What do you hope new audiences will take away from the show?
I know that preschool viewers are growing up in a turbulent world, and my sincere hope for Mini Sago Friends is to be a ray of sunshine to them (or a bright, colorful rainbow spewed from the horn of a singing unicorn). I sincerely hope the show will playfully instill the importance of gratitude in a perfectly delightful way, and I sincerely hope the show will spark the imagination and emulate the five important Cs so beautifully presented in the Mini Sago app: Curiosity, Creativity, Communication, Collaboration and Creative Problem Solving.
The first season of Mini Sago Friends premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, September 16.