How Amazon’s ‘Tumble Leaf’ Keeps Stop Animation Going

Kelli Bixler, the co-executive producer of Amazon's 'Tumble Leaf' would rather make kid shows that you can physically touch.

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Stop motion animation is beautiful, but it isn’t a medium for the impatient. To make it look like everything and everyone is moving, a team must continually adjust the physical characters and scenery inch-by-inch as they film. Compared to all the cutting-edge animation techniques available, the process is painstaking and tedious. Those who utilize it do so because they adore both the process and the unique way in which it allows them to tell stories. And Kelli Bixler, the co-creator and co-executive producer of Amazon’s award-winning stop motion series Tumble Leaf, is all about that love.

“For me, maybe age has something to do with it. I didn’t grow up in a computer world,” says Bixler, a veteran of stop motion animation who also worked on SNL‘s Saturday TV Fun House. “I was an adult when that happened. I had dolls, and I moved them. That’s sort of where it was at with me.”

Tumble Leaf is approaching its third season. The show follows the adventures of Fig, a curious blue fox, and his best friend, Stick, a caterpillar, as they explore the island of Tumble Leaf. It’s an imaginative, brilliantly scripted and beautifully rendered show that looks different than nearly every other children’s program on television today and has won two Emmy awards for Outstanding Preschooler series.

Fatherly spoke to Bixler about the show, the origins of Fig, and how she plans on keeping the art of stop motion alive in an age of computer animation.

When did you decide to pursue stop motion?

I went to college for live-action producing and directing. And I worked on live-action producing for the first 15 years of my career. I loved it. It really was only when I was directing a children’s live-action piece where the actors were supposed to do what these stop animation puppets were going to do that I started looking at the form. The gentleman animating the characters was sculpting these little puppets in his basement during his off time. I remember saying, ‘It’s like Gumby!’ I just thought it was incredible to take plastic or a lump of clay and animate it in a way that can make you feel a connection.

Was it a natural progression to go from producing humans to producing puppets?

Production people are problem solvers and you have to be a person who likes challenges to work in this world. I think stop motion is no different than finding ways to make a TV show cost effective.

The puppets in Tumble Leaf look amazing. What sort of tech goes into creating each one?

In stop motion, the puppets are your life force. The best puppets you can build are ball and socket puppets. Inside every one of our puppets, there’s an armature, which looks like little pieces of steel screwed together with little joints. All of these are in the body parts that move. You have to put those in there to have that range of motion so you believe that character is really jumping and moving. It’s really the artistry of how an animator animates a puppet that connects you to the character.

Nearly every form of children’s content is computer animated. What do you think stop motion brings that CGI lacks?

CGI is lovely and they do a lot of the same things that we do in stop motion. Basically, we both build models. Stop motion just takes up more real estate than computer generation. So we’re not just an office sitting behind a computer. We actually have shops where we build all the sets, all the props, all of the puppets so that you can physically touch what we do. That’s really the only difference. They’re both extremely detailed orientated art forms. I love all animation, so it’s just a matter of choice.

Do you think children resonate more with stop motion than computer animation?

I would think that’s the case. There’s an awareness from watching 2D animation to watching stop motion. It’s subtle, but I think it’s there. What you’re watching really does exist. It’s just a different connection than watching something that exists on a computer screen.

There must be some subtle effects you can’t do practically, like the water on the beach near Fig’s home. Is Tumble Leaf 100 percent stop animation?

It’s the purest form of stop motion animation there is. Our show, every bit of it, if possible, is done on camera. All the tricks—like water— is CGI, but we do mix it with real water. We try to do that with everything because it lends itself to the coolness of stop motion. Plus, we love figuring out, ‘How do we do this physically?’ But we do have some computer elements. Our fireflies and the flapping of butterfly wings are definitely enhanced with computer animation.

Tumble Leaf had a long journey before it became a series. What was the hold-up?

The show comes from [creator] Drew Hodges. In 2002 he came up with the design of Fig, but the idea of the show came in 2007. Fig was not a fox then, he was a blue boy. There was something about him that was very different. He was curious, and it melted my heart. It just resonated with my childhood. He has a similar childhood, where he didn’t have a schedule of events. He woke up, went outside and didn’t come home until it was time for supper. The course of your day was curiosity: seeing what the kids on the block were doing, what trouble you could find and that’s the essence of Tumble Leaf.

With kids surrounded by computer animation, what do you hope Tumble Leaf inspires in its viewers?

Hopefully, our character’s curiosity has led them to be curious about their world and they want to go outside and have fun. The stop motion community is small but we’re all dedicated to always one-upping ourselves. Every season in Tumble Leaf we step our game and tackle something that’s never been done in stop motion before. I want people to say, ‘Wow! How did they do that?’ And I want to say, ‘We actually made it move. It wasn’t CGI.’

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