***This article was written for the March ’23 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 328)***
When the three main characters of a show are a serious Square, an intrepid Circle and a tricky Triangle, you know you’re in for lots of fun adventures with, well, shapes! That’s the premise of Shape Island, the clever and addictive new stop-motion series, which premiered on Apple TV+ last month.
The show is based on the best-selling Shapes Trilogy (Triangle, Square, Circle) by the award-winning duo of Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. Set on a fictional island, the series centers on Square, voiced by Harvey Guillen (Puss in Boots: The Last Wish), with Scott Adsit (Big Hero 6) as Triangle and Gideon Adlon (Blockers) as Circle. Yvette Nicole Brown narrates the series, which will focus on the three friends as they embark on their day-to-day activities. Barnett and Klassen are also the show’s co-creators and exec producers. Close Enough and Regular Show alum Ryan Pequin is series head writer and co-executive producer, along with multi-award-winning stop-motion veterans Kelli Bixler and Drew Hodges (Tumble Leaf).
“Like our books, the show is character-driven,” says Barnett. “There are no heroes or villains — our episodes are driven by our characters’ different personalities. The stories and humor come from the complications that crop up when three people hang out, misunderstand each other, and want different things. So, the first and biggest part of development was writing three scripts, each one focusing on a different member of our trio, but also showing off the versatility possible with this character-driven approach to storytelling.”
Greenlit for Stop-Motion
Barnett says he and Klassen created an extensive show bible that — in addition to delving into characters and visual rules — also contained a lot of their philosophy about making stories for kids. “It was about that time that Jon and I became convinced that the best way to tell these stories would be in stop motion,” he recalls. “We were a little nervous when we first told the team at Apple that we wanted to go stop motion and were surprised — beautifully surprised — when everyone nodded, agreed and said, let’s do it!”
The animation was produced at Burbank-based Bix Pix Entertainment, the acclaimed indie shop best known for producing the multi-Emmy and Annie Award-winning show Tumble Leaf. “The studio came with so much talent that we immediately felt spoiled,” says Barnett. “Drew Hodges was the director, and you can really see his affection for and knowledge of character animation everywhere in the show. The art direction team, the fabricators, the camera crew — everyone was just top, top shelf. We’re very, very lucky!”
“We just think stop motion suits the characters and the world perfectly,” says Klassen, an award-winning artist who has worked on features such as Coraline and Kung Fu Panda 2. “If handled the wrong way, the characters, physically, might seem too surreal. The viewer would spend time wondering about what they were, exactly, and the rules of how things are designed or presented would be really sensitive because stop motion has the unifying force of the same camera and light on everything. It forgives and sweeps away a lot of questions, and just lets all the pieces breathe at the same time.”
The creators thought of Shape Island as a good combination of simple and complex elements. As Klassen elaborates, “The character designs are outwardly simple, but the puppets themselves are hugely complicated, made and animated by very skilled people. The sets and the elements look simple, but up close they are full of texture and interest and they are hit with light that casts unpredictable shadows. And our characters themselves appear to be simple reductive shapes, but as soon as the stories get going, they are complex personalities who react in messy and relatable ways.”
Barnett believes that kids are the keenest, most thoughtful and attentive audience you can have, so making stories worthy of their attention is always the first and biggest challenge. “Jon and I both have some experience in film and TV — Jon spent years working for LAIKA and DreamWorks — but for years we’ve spent most of our time making books,” he says.
“And, at the risk of saying the most obvious thing ever printed in Animation Magazine, making a series is very different to the experience of making a book! When Jon and I are making a book together, most of it is just the two of us on the phone, looking at the pages, trying to tell a good story well. Creating a show, you’re obviously part of a much larger team and are trying to be useful to the larger organization in any way you can.”
Kelli Bixler says Shape Island represents one of the best book-to-series leaps. “It never is or should be an apple-to-apple translation, yet Drew and our Bix Pix crew really brought these books to life, capturing the essence of Jon’s gorgeous artwork and finding just the right movement for animating Mac’s brilliantly written characters,” she says. “You can see parts of yourself in each of these extremely distinct little Shapes, as well as in all the friendships you’ve ever been lucky enough to have. Also, and maybe more importantly, I love that it’s funny.”
Showrunner, exec producer and director Drew Hodges adds, “The focus on only three distinct characters who are so different and yet so complementary to each other makes Shape Island such a special and hilarious show. The visuals feel fresh and timeless because of their unique blend of texture, detail and simple forms.”
So, why do the original creators think their books were so popular worldwide?
“I think and hope it’s because the stories are funny and philosophical,” says Barnett. “They’re comic reflections on human behavior, underpinned by some big questions that a lot of kids (and adults) ask. Ultimately, the Shapes books are about what it means to be a human in the world, but hopefully done with a light touch.”
Barnett also gives a lot of credit to his partner’s artistic talents. “Of course, a big part of the appeal comes from Jon’s art. His work is beloved worldwide (because it is very good and beautiful). But this time, by putting eyes on basic shapes, Jon deliberately set out to design characters that didn’t come pre-loaded with expectations for an audience. Even animals can mean different things in different cultures. Depending on where you grew up, a wolf might be a symbol of menace, or freedom, or intelligence—but a triangle with eyes? You have to watch him, to pay attention to the story, to learn who he is!”
When asked about the show’s visual influences, Klassen responds, “The bulletin board for this show was all over the place. Stylistically we looked at a lot of older stuff — Yuri Norstein, Jiří Trnka, Dick Bruna, Aardman (naturally). Some really beautiful stop-motion work came out during the course of making the show, even This Magnificent Cake! and Robin Robin were amazing to see. There’s so much beautiful CG happening in TV now, too: Go! Go! Cory Carson and The Octonauts series — They offer simple shapes, but there’s such a great feeling to the worlds. In terms of the writing, Adventure Time and The Simpsons, Looney Tunes came up a lot. We had Seinfeld in the pitch deck, just because they had a cast of characters that didn’t almost ever learn much from their mistakes, and that was what fueled so much of that show, and we wanted that, too. “
Barnett says he hopes audiences will laugh and recognize feelings they felt, people they’ve known and questions they’ve wondered about. “Maybe this is because of our background in picture books, which are read by adults to kids — we hope that the show is widely appealing: little kids, older kids, and adults,” he adds. “Jon and I like to make stories that people talk about afterward, and we hope families watch and discuss this show together!”
The first season of Shape Island is now streaming on Apple TV+.