Sesame Workshop’s Olexa Hewryk ­on giving Cookie Monster, Elmo and Abby a robotic revamp for Sesame Street Mecha Builders

Olexa Hewryk ­­– VP & Head of Animation at Sesame Workshop – talks us through the origins of Sesame Street Mecha Builders.

Olexa, it’s great to catch up. Before we dive into Sesame Street Mecha Builders, what was your path into animation?
I studied animation at university and have always been passionate about content that’s beneficial for kids, so the pre-school space was a natural fit for me. I’ve now been in it for over 25 years. I started as an animator, then a series director, then a producer and then an executive producer.

Do you think the world of pre-school kids’ content is in a good place at the moment?
There’s more content than there’s ever been, which is great, but some of the content – and the motivation behind it – is lacking. One of the reasons I’m at Sesame, and have been for so long, is because we’re so focused on creating content that’s beneficial to kids. We always have a clear curriculum goal; everything we produce includes that as an intrinsic piece from the beginning, through to the end of production.

“When we have a series concept, we always look to pair it with an appropriate curriculum.”

Let’s talk Mecha Builders! For anyone new to it, how would you pitch the premise?
Sesame has always been great at spoofs – Super Grover is a spoof of Superman, right? So at its core, Mecha Builders is a superhero spoof, but with our beloved characters. And it was vital for them to feel exactly the same to our audience as they do on Sesame Street, although this is geared a little older – for three to five year olds – because of our STEM curriculum.

Olexa Hewryk, Sesame Workshop, Film & TV

How did the show come about?
Three or four years ago, we were having conversations internally about ways to push Sesame characters in new dynamic ways for today’s audience. We have an annual Halloween parade here at the company that people take very seriously. That particular year, one team came as a giant cardboard robot Cookie Monster… I think they won the prize that year! That take on the character really struck everyone, so we took that concept and ran with it. As we started developing the idea, everyone’s reaction was really positive. And the robot take made the project a great fit for CG animation.

“The big ‘aha!’ moment was that when it moved – even if it looked like metal – it was Cookie Monster.”

We wanted to create a show that feels like Sesame – so it’s a natural transition for kids that love our characters – but also fresh enough to appeal to kids looking for something a little different. It was an opportunity for kids that might be growing out of Sesame Street to continue to enjoy and learn from their favourite characters in a different series.

I love that the office Halloween party was key to how Mecha Builders came about! Imagine the slate of content that might come from this year’s shindig!
Haha! It really was a memorable costume!

Olexa Hewryk, Sesame Workshop, Film & TV

The show sees Cookie Monster, Elmo and Abby given the ‘mecha’ treatment. Considering their usual soft, furry, cuddly aesthetics are intrinsic to these characters, was it a tough process to reimagine them as robots?
Well, we have a fantastic animation studio partner in Guru, based in Toronto. We both share a real passion for these characters. Everyone came to the project with an earnest appreciation for the brand and a sensitivity to do things the right way. That was the important first step; we were all pulling in the same direction.

How we practically did it is that we looked to the muppets, their performance and how they’re constructed. We then used that as our guide in CG. The real turning point came in a test that the studio did based on a Cookie Monster video. It wasn’t verbatim, but the animator was really referencing how Cookie moves, and it made it clear that the animated characters in Mecha Builders needed to move in a similar way to the muppets.

For example, look at movement… In Mecha Builders, the head leads character action, similarly to the muppet, because that’s where the hand is in the muppet. Everything moves from the head. It also retains a little bit of the disjointed feel that’s intrinsic to our characters. Movement was really key… The big aha moment was that when it moved, even if it looked like metal, it was Cookie Monster.

Great insights. And we’ve put in a mini-episode there so folks can check out Cookie Monster and co in action. Expanding on that, were some characters easy than others to translate to metal?
Cookie was the easiest. He’s such a clear character, he often has impulse control issues, he’s very easy to write to. The other characters were a little more challenging. We needed to keep Elmo feeling young and Abby is a fairy with a complex costume, so translating them into metal posed some challenges. To help with that, we focused on their key traits. We then expanded from there to look at what their Mecha characteristics could be.

Cookie Monster has impulse control issues and he’s the biggest of the three, so we gave him a hammer hand. It also lends itself to a lot of physical comedy, which is what Cookie does so well. He also has a cookie timer in his chest which is a nod to his love of cookies.

Olexa Hewryk, Sesame Workshop, Film & TV

Elmo is the heart of the team and he loves problem solving. What tool could we give him that showcases that? An arm that has every type of tool! He’s still learning though, so he doesn’t always know what the right tool to use is…

Then there’s Abby; she’s a fairy and can fly. We don’t do that as much in the live action show because it’s challenging, but in animation she can zoom around because she has jets! There’s also unfortunately a stereotype that girls aren’t strong at math or science, and we really wanted to push against that. It’s why we made Abby the leader of the Mechas – she’s the brains of the organisation. She usually comes up with a solution; she narrates the STEM curriculum and articulates the STEM concept at the heart of each episode in a clear concise way.

Olexa Hewryk, Sesame Workshop, Film & TV

One other thing worth mentioning is that on Sesame Street, humans have the answers to the muppets’ questions. We’ve flipped that on its head on Mecha Builders – our adult ‘anything muppets’ – our classic secondary characters – are quite hapless, and look to the Mecha Builders for help in solving their problems.

Olexa Hewryk, Sesame Workshop, Film & TV

STEM learning is key aspect to the show. How do you approach creating educational content for the show?
Well, when we have a series concept, we always look to pair it with an appropriate curriculum. With Mecha Builders, we met with the Sesame curriculum team and they said: “STEM would be an amazing fit – robots, building, great!” We had a STEM curriculum consultant work with us throughout the entire production process, and this is unique to our productions. It means we can imbue the curriculum organically into every scripts.

“There’s a stereotype that girls aren’t strong at math or science and we wanted to push against that.”

A big piece of the show is showcasing the scientific method – coming up with a hypothesis, trying it, testing it, adjusting it based on that, and trying something else and again, until you succeed. That perseverance is baked into the entire series. The group highlights this in a repeatable chant: “Plan it, Test it, Solve it!” That’s a kid-friendly way of describing the scientific method.

And what’s the key to ensuring the educational content lands in a way that doesn’t compromise the entertainment factor?
You need really appealing, engaging characters that kids can relate to. You also need relatable storylines. Without those elements, kids won’t really watch a show and they won’t get the lesson. In production, sometimes the launching point for a script is a story idea, and other times it’s a curricular concept, but in either case you have to get the balance right – and everything starts with character.

Olexa Hewryk, Sesame Workshop, Film & TV

You’ve worked with lots of different animation studios across multiple shows – what’s the key to a successful creative collaboration between brand owner and animation studio?
You have to find a partner that’s passionate about the project – and we definitely have that with Guru Studios. Animation takes a long time, so building a rapport is huge. You also need a very strong director who recognises what you’re going for and is able to deliver on that.

Olexa, this has been great. My last question is: How do you have ideas? What fuels your creativity?
First thing in the morning, I try to carve out 20 minutes to just write or sketch. That’s usually when I’m most creatively uninhibited. I do my best to keep that time open for free thinking.

Thanks again Olexa!

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