Special Agent Oso
"Special Agent Oso" creator and executive producer, Ford Riley was working out on the treadmill at home watching a James Bond movie, when his young son, Quinn, walked in, saw the television, and became completely enthralled with the movie.
"James Bond is on a train and he's trying to diffuse a bomb while the train is going 100 miles an hour, and my son is just totally sucked in," remembered Riley. "I couldn't have him watch this, but I thought - what if I could give kids the fun of a Bond movie, but still have it be safe and age appropriate?"
And with that, "Special Agent Oso" was born. The show stars Academy Award-nominee Sean Astin as the voice of Oso, a fuzzy, lovable, bumbling special agent-in-training who enlists the help of viewers at home to complete his missions.
Paying homage to special agent classics, the series follows Oso, a teddy bear who works for U.N.I.Q.U.E. (United Network for Investigating Quite Usual Events), an international organization of endearing stuffed animals charged with helping kids accomplish everyday tasks such as cleaning their room, brushing teeth or planting flowers.
"Watching how my daughter would get so excited mailing a letter or getting a book at the library gave me the idea to explore everyday tasks," Riley said. "Looking at what my kids were watching, there were no real shows that addressed dealing with daily challenges."
"Our stories range from cognitive skills – how to put a puzzle together – to more emotional skills – how to make a friend at school," said Nancy Kanter, Senior Vice President, Playhouse Disney Worldwide. "What's important is to present them in a practical way, to take away the mysteriousness of a task like tying a shoe."
Initially, Riley pitched the show to Playhouse Disney when he heard they were looking for interstitials. They liked the idea, and in 2004, he started developing 2-3 minute shorts while Disney hired director and co-executive producer Jamie Mitchell to develop the visual look of the show. As Riley was writing, Disney kept asking him to add more and the scripts kept getting longer and longer. By the end of 2005, the decision was made to move forward with a full-length series.
"We thought the concept of a preschoolers guide to life was a really interesting, intriguing idea," said Kanter. "And three minutes was just not enough time. Even if we followed only three simple steps, we wanted to make sure preschoolers would have time to understand and respond to Oso's need for their help, so we moved to the longer format."
A longer format meant the ability to cast a star – Sean Astin – in the lead role.
"We knew we wanted someone who would have a kid's energy and playfulness. Someone who would come across as endearing and warm since the character was fuzzy and adorable," said Kanter. "Sean's gentle, friendly voice quality really brings Oso to life. He delivers the perfect balance between naiveté and bravado, creating a lovable character who realizes that by putting one paw in front of the other, he's on the verge of becoming the next world famous special agent."
When Astin received the offer, "I was predisposed to say yes just because Disney's a great brand name," he said. "I have three daughters, 11, 6 and 3 and they live on Disney Channel. I was in England and they sent me some animation of Oso and the second I looked at them I thought, 'That's me!' If someone else would have ended up doing Oso's voice after I had that feeling, I would have cried."
As for the animation, Mitchell's main goals for the look of the series were tangibility, texture and authenticity.
"I was trying to break the barrier between the audience who's watching and the characters on screen, so viewers feel like they can reach in and pick the characters right up," he commented.
The animation is a mixture of digital-cut out, 3D Photoshop and Flash animation, with a bit of collage, paper machée and food (yes, food) thrown in.
"When we started on the pilot, we were going back and forth about the texture of a sidewalk. It was just like this sidewalk you'd see in New York City and I thought it was cold. I said 'it needs to be edible,'" said Mitchell. "A couple of days later, we came up with the idea of using a pie crust. We photographed it, digitized it and now all of the sidewalks and all of the buildings are edible foods."
In addition to pie crust, the production team used all sorts of treats like whipped cream for snow and burnt toast to portray a mountain. They also used historical elements in the show; for example, Dotty's airplane is based on the jet Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier in 1947. Action adventure and musical elements are also peppered throughout the series.
"Oso has gadgets and rocket packs and trains and helicopters," said Riley. "And our music is reminiscent of the classic spy genre. We have a special assignment song, where there's swirling colors and silhouettes - not of weapons and women, but of toasters and toast and apple pies."
"It's an educational action-adventure ride for the preschool set," added Astin. "I should probably be embarrassed by the fact that I feel that by some extension, secret agent status has now been conferred upon me, personally."