Toronto-based visual artist Warren Brown and composer Adam Goddard (aka Goddard/Brown) are the craftsmen of an animated series called Big Block Singsong. Their catalogue of videos includes fun 2-minute episodes featuring colorful singing blocks, each one having its own distinct personality: A block with a german accent singing about hair, a monkey singing about a “Two Banana Day” and a cave man pointing out that an erupting volcano is a hot mess are just a few of the priceless gems you’ll find in their collection.
Touching upon topics such as animals, sleep, and social emotional themes like conflict resolution and being brave, these highly original and well-produced shorts are aimed at educating and entertaining preschoolers. Although, their clever sense of humor will quickly catch the attention of older kids and adults, both lyrically and visually. They also integrate musical styles such as hip hop, funk, classic rock and even European techno. The first episode I watched with my 6-year-old was the undeniably awesome Princess and from that moment on we have been completely hooked!
Since these episodes currently air on the CBC, Disney Jr., and Nick, Jr. in the UK, some of you may already be familiar with the magic of Big Block Singsong. For the rest of you, let me introduce you to the supreme rulers of this big block empire.
In our interview below, Warren and Adam discuss the creation of Big Block Singsong, how their production process is unlike that of a traditional TV show, and why humor is an essential part of their process.
Make sure to read through the interview to find out about their Vol 1. DVD and Greatest Hits album.
KCG: What is your background and how did you come into the concept with Big Block Singsong?
Warren: Adam and I both grew up in Grimsby, Ontario. Even though we went to the same nursery school and high school we didn’t really know each other back then. I left Grimsby and ended up being a creative director, animator and designer at an animation studio in Toronto. I worked on commercials and motion graphics, and also developed kids’ TV shows. Adam and I reconnected after a mutual friend invited us out to lunch and we talked about the need for some solid music for the kids’ shows I was working on. We ended up working on a couple shows together before I left that studio. Adam was already a freelance composer so we continued to work on things and eventually found a studio space together. We came up with this idea for a simple singing face character shortly after. That was the beginning of Big Block Singsong.
Adam, what is your musical background?
I would say I have an eclectic musical background. As a kid I took piano lessons but also picked up as many other instruments as I could. I played in a band and eventualIy went to university where I studied classical composition and orchestration.
How did you decide on the final concept of singing blocks?
Warren: At first, the idea was a fullscreen singing face. We did a couple of small tests to see if it would work, and found a real connection when this big face sang directly to viewers. We wondered what would happen if we put the rectangular face on a block character. It opened up the possibility of a world, and became the concept for Big Block Singsong. The faces are always the same dimension, the blocks are the same dimension and working with those parameters opened up a lot of possibilities.
Tell us about the first episode?
Warren: Our very first episode features a monkey singing about having a hard day in the jungle. The idea came to us when Adam and I were in the studio. I brought in two bananas for my lunch and asked Adam if he wanted one. He declined and as I walked out of his recording studio I said, “I guess it’s gonna be a two banana kind of day.” Later that day Adam came back with a guitar and played the “Two Banana Day” chorus. It all made sense.
How do you work together to develop the songs and the characters?
Adam: It’s a pretty homogenous process. We start off conceptualizing together. We come up with a lot of funny ideas and cool words that make sense and work well with the concept. There is a certain point where I’ll go off and write some lyrics and maybe come up with a rough idea with the guitar. Warren then takes it and animates it. We do everything back and forth the whole time until we are both happy with what we’ve got. Our process is unlike the traditional way of making a show where things are done separately.
Warren: An idea comes maybe from a song or band we’ve been listening to or an era of music we like. We could be into funk one week and want to do something with ‘70‘s funk or we start with a concept like feelings, hairdos or body parts. Sometimes we’ll think about a character first, like an octopus, and work out what an octopus might sing about.
How does this differ from your previous experience in kids’ TV production?
Warren: My experience in traditional kids’ TV production is that you do everything first except the music, which is typically left for the very end, and then someone comes in to score it. Adam and I wanted to see what kind of project we could come up with if we brought the composer in right at the beginning.
When you had this concept developed did you test it out before releasing it?
Warren: We made about five test episodes with different characters. It was an interesting concept that was making us laugh.
One day we were contacted by a curator we knew who was putting together a group art exhibit based on animation as art. Adam and I jumped at the opportunity to put up these test episodes of Big Block Singsong we were working on. We mounted some TVs and headphones to the walls and played Big Block Singsong off of DVDs. People would put the headphones on and stand a foot away from these big singing faces. We were right there in the gallery and could see people’s reactions. Everyone seemed to laugh and smile, both kids and adults.
Later that year one of those test episodes screened at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. At the festival, we showed someone from the CBC the idea and they really liked it and wanted to see it as a kids’ TV series. We didn’t really have an audience in mind back then. That’s when we decided to focus on making music and animations that speak right to preschoolers with hopes that parents enjoy it too.
Are you working with different networks or just with the CBC?
Warren: We’re an indie studio. Adam and I produce the show. Adam makes the music and I design and animate. Big Block Singsong is commissioned by the CBC in Canada. The creative head of kids’ programming there, Kim Wilson, approves our episodes for broadcast but she’s really more than that. She’s our editor, guiding us, making sure we’re speaking to kids. We also have distributors who took the show to Disney Junior in the US and and Nick Jr. in the UK. That was a big leap.
So you have a good amount of creative freedom?
Warren: We do all the creative and production work in our studio which is really nice. We have a long schedule which lets us produce the episodes more like an album rather than a traditional TV show. That way we get to really develop each episode.
You guys are both dads. How old are your kids?
Adam: I’ve got a 10-year-old.
Warren: I got a 4-year-old and a 5 month old.
Have they inspired ideas for the show?
Adam: Oh for sure! Both of us are inspired by our kids in a lot of ways. There has been a few specific things that my son has said that’s really stuck. Warren and I will be laughing about the idea and then it ends up finding its way into an episode.
You balance the humor nicely in a way that appeals to both children and adults. Do you make each other laugh when you are working through ideas?
Warren: It has to be funny to us. If we’re not laughing when we’re working on something, kids probably won’t find it funny either.
Adam: It’s quite surprising because we’ll sometimes get to a point where our lyrics are looking pretty good. We’ll go off and record them and realize that there’s just something in the delivery that’s missing or when it’s paired up with the music it falls a little flat. Then there are other times when unexpected things we’ve just taken for granted are the funniest part of the track.
Warren: I also want my 4-year-old son to get the jokes or words we use in the lyrics. If he doesn’t understand it I want it to be interesting enough that he’ll ask about it. I’ll hear him using those little jokes or wordplay in his own life when he’s playing with his friends or talking with us at dinnertime. Music connects with a lot more people and a broader audience than just regular TV. I think that’s why we have kids and parents who like our music, grandparents who like it and why we have 30-somethings that tell us they have our album on their phone.
You address social emotional topics in an accessible way that doesn’t feel preachy. “Better Way,” for example, encourages talking it out to resolve conflicts because “taking a frown and spreading it around won’t solve a thing.” What is your approach when touching upon feelings or social emotional topics?
Warren: Adam and I naturally go to sillier characters when we’re coming up with ideas. “Better Way” was a challenge. It was suggested to us that bullying was an important topic for everyone, especially kids. We always want to be fun and want kids to feel happy watching the show so we thought about how to flip it so that it has an empowering message.
The same approach applied to “Brave.” That song was originally about being scared. We wanted to present it with a positive message, encouraging kids to be brave, instead of presenting something frightening like a boogeyman in the room. We think about what we’d say to our own kids or what we tell ourselves quite frankly.
Are there plans to create more of a narrative where the blocks talk to each other or is the focus going to remain on singing?
Warren: There will always be a focus on songs for sure. In some episodes there are moments when the characters have a little back and forth, just a couple lines during a pause in the song. We see those moments and think about what having dialogue between the characters would look like. Right now, we approach the show like a band makes an album. We create a bunch of songs and that ultimately makes up a season of the show.
When you’re developing these characters, do you relate to or envision yourself as each one?
Adam: I have to. It’s funny, once in a while Warren will come up with a sketch and right away I’ll hear a certain voice or delivery or attitude that just comes naturally. It’s a bit embarrassing when Warren comes into the studio and I’m belting out in full blast “I’m a spider!”
Warren: We’re in character because of the voice, we’re in character because of the attitude of the music and that helps a lot compared to my other animation experience. Once we know the personality and quirks of a character they end up with a certain way in which they present themselves, whether it’s a monkey or a kooky spider.
Adam: Well I did the first take on that one but I didn’t do the final voice.
Warren: We worked with a female vocalist, Stacey Kay, for the tracks where Adam’s voice just can’t get up that high.
You made her a tough princess instead of a super girlie princess. How did that decision come about?
Warren: Adam and I were juggling the idea of a princess for awhile but knew we wanted to do something different, something with attitude.
Adam: At one point Warren used the words “electric pink” and I thought “Ok, it’s done! ‘Electric pink’ is so cool it has to be in the lyrics.” An electric pink tutu had to be in there.
Surprisingly Adam you have a much lower voice than I expected.
Adam: (lowers voice) Really? (Warren laughing)
Adam, are you the voice(s) in all of the songs, with the exception of the ones Stacey sings in?
Adam: That’s right, yeah.
How did you decide on a German accent for that guy?
Warren: We were talking about ‘80‘s European techno music and laughing about the concept and after looking at our list of topics we said “Hair!” out loud. Adam put on the accent and all of a sudden we had the song.
You’ve been compared to Flight of the Concords. I also hear a little Tenacious D and David Bowie in “Space Friends.”
Warren: I’m just reflecting on that now. We’re both fans of Flight of the Concords and Tenacious D and obviously music in general. I guess what we like about Flight of the Concords and Tenacious D is they sing humorous songs with a certain determination and intensity.
Here in the studio Adam sings the same way.
What are your musical influences and how do they filter into the music in Big Block Singsong?
Adam: I definitely love all kinds of music and often the styles themselves inspire where we end up in Big Block Singsong. We have a tendency to stick towards tried and true Pop and more classic genres of music. The songs work well when people can identify with them to a certain extent. As far as my own personal influences, I grew up on the songwriting and harmonies of the Beach Boys and the Beatles. I have a soft spot in my heart for a lot of that classic stuff so that definitely finds its way selfishly into the music. I also like the challenge of trying something that maybe I wouldn’t normally gravitate to. It’s a lot of fun to dive in and try something that’s way out of left field.
So what’s next for you guys?
Warren: We’re almost finished 20 new episodes for Season 2 and they’ll be airing soon on CBC and Disney Junior. The biggest thing for us right now is seeing how the audience reacts to them. We’ve tried some new genres and new characters and new topics so we’ll see if this new mix is going to be received the same as our first season. We hope people find their favorites in this one too.
Click here to watch Season 1 episodes of Big Block Singsong.