After years of delays and false starts, Ella The Elephant finally made the jump to television in 2014. On February 17th the show debuted on Disney Junior in the U.S., about 5 months after the show's initial launch on Canadian TV.
Ella The Elegant Elephant was the first of the Ella books and my very first illustrated book for children. Written by my wife at the time, Carmela D'Amico, it was published in the fall of 2004 by Arthur A. Levine Books and was followed by three more adventures between 2005 and 2008: Ella Takes The Cake, Ella Sets The Stage and Ella Sets Sail. By 2006 the books had attracted the attention of Cookie Jar Entertainment, a company that had a lot of success producing the Arthur, Zoboomafoo and Caillou series on PBS. We were approached by them through our agent with an offer to option Ella for a possible TV series. The option gave them exclusive rights to produce the property while they researched and explored the prospects for a show. For a couple of years we didn't hear anything, but then serious talk of producing a show began again and the option was renewed. In 2009 an animated test reel was made and shown at MIPCOM in Cannes where it drew the attention of The Disney Channel, among others. Things were quiet for a few months afterward as Cookie Jar negotiated with prospective partners. In 2010 a production deal was finally announced between Cookie Jar, Disney and Fremantle Media. Disney Junior would air the series in the U.S., while Fremantle would handle international distribution.
By 2011 production was in full swing. From the the early development stages I participated as consultant for the show. I reviewed the character designs and background art, and provided source artwork from the original books. I had originally pictured traditional keyframed animation that would mirror the look of the books, but a hybrid CG approach was settled on that used 3D models inhabiting a flat 2D world. The production team did a great job of capturing the feel of the characters in 3D, although we did have to fine-tune a few things on their original pass.
For example, take a look at this 3D model of Ella. Notice the positioning of her facial features. Not bad, but not quite "there" either.
In the books, her eyes, nose and mouth were usually positioned lower and a little closer together. So I opened up the file in Photoshop and changed the positioning. Here's what I sent back:
Nudging the features down and together created a larger forehead area and gave the final character design a more childlike, "cute" feel. Once we established the features for Ella, the rest of the cast pretty much fell into place.
Background art was another area of collaboration. Working from the original press files for the books, the production team did a fantastic job of recreating - and expanding - Ella's world. In the books, The Elephant Islands were meant to be a fantastical place with roots in the real world. The architecture was a melting pot of styles, with French cafés, Mission-style shops and Middle Eastern mosques and turrets The final artwork was just as varied and captured the feel of the books perfectly.
in September of 2013 Ella The Elephant launched on TVO Kids in Canada and MiniMini in Poland. The U.S. premiere on Disney Junior followed in February 2014. The show is now airing in over 50 territories internationally, including Australia, France, Norway, Turkey, and Latin America.
Ella's come a long way from my first doodles at the kitchen table in 2002. Because she's been with me for so long, sometimes I forget how ridiculously wonderful it is that she's being watched by millions of kids around the world. Then I'll run into somebody who says "That must be so cool!", and I have to completely agree.
Here's to more Ella adventures in 2015!