Freaky Stories a first on many fronts

Feature this. Row upon row of munchkins sucking back their milk portions out of maggotsÉ? Unfortunately, you'll have to wait a while before Maurice the maggot thermoses flip out of Freaky Stories lunch boxes at a cafeteria near you, - with...

Feature this. Row upon row of munchkins sucking back their milk portions out of maggotsÉ? Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait a while before Maurice the maggot thermoses flip out of Freaky Stories lunch boxes at a cafeteria near you, – with the airdates looming, shooting just wrapped and animation still to surface from Seoul, the licensing campaign plans are on a back burner. But that’s all that’s on hold pending a u.s. pickup, everything else is all systems go for a unique and ambitious new Canadian series which the international market is primed to take a look at.

Freaky Stories’ premise sees each episode take one theme, which is introduced through cockroach and maggot puppet antics, and then further explore the topic in four animated four-minute shorts, which are all stylistically distinct renditions of urban legends. It’s being produced as 13 30s and is also being packaged as 52 by 5 1/2 minutes, English and French.

While Freaky Stories was being touted at mip, back in a Toronto studio over three weeks at the end of September, the action was about strapping on the cockroach, shoving a hammy mitt up the maggot and getting the bug host segments in the proverbial can in time for Freaky Stories’ ‘Dark Night 5′ debut on ytv, when a one-hour special leads off the Oct. 24 Halloween soiree.

Well, it’s a return engagement actually. The pilot premiered during Dark Night 3. The Freaky Stories premise has been seething in producer Steve Schnier’s urban myth-raddled brain for nine-odd years. He brought the concept of taking urban legends and presenting them in a new way to executive producer John Delmage in 1994, and the pair navigated the live-action/animated concoction screenward

Freaky Stories, produced by decode and Schnier’s Vujade Entertainment, is a firstborn for Schnier’s new company, as well as the first original series out of decode principals Delmage, Neil Court and Steven DeNure’s fresh venture, which is distributing the $350,000-per-episode show which was financed with the help of ytv, Telefilm Canada and Britain’s Flextech Television.

Freaky also marks the first foray into original production for Flextech, which holds the u.k. satellite and cable rights, and decode has another development deal with the u.k. company. decode is also producing the newest season of half-hour live-action youth series Ghostwriters with the Children’s Television Workshop and cbs.

Freaky was also funded by the Independent Production Fund, Rogers Telefund and the Canada Television and Cable Production Fund lfp.

Every episode opens with live-action shots of the deliciously dingy miniature diner set (replete with Delmage Shoes on the main drag), with v/os of Maurice the maggot, Larry the cockroach or Rosie the waitress (who – a la Norm’s wife on Cheers – we never see).

The scene shifts to the retro diner’s nostalgically detailed life-size interior (the one-to-one scale set), and for the bulk of the bug interaction, the action shifts to one of three hero locations which are built on an 18-to-one ratio. The outsize sets include an absurdly looming toaster, an electrical outlet as big as a barn door, and a perspectively larger-than-cockroach-sized section of the counter (where a Brownie snap of show creator Shnier as cook can be seen). Set design was by art director Ted Bastien.

The puppets are animatronics employing a fabrication approach akin to the horror movie monster method. Jim Rankin is the talent behind Larry, Dan Redican is Maurice, and Stephen Brathwaite is the puppeteer.

A 25-year production veteran, Delmage’s most recent involvement with puppetry has been with the massive cast on Groundling Marsh, so two main characters are a snap.

There are seven root styles for the animation, branching off into 20 different looks. Basic design concepts come from Schnier, who is director of animation on the series and splits the live-action directing with Steven Wright. Ottawa-based Funbag is doing the key animation, design, layout and color work, and the computer ink and paint is being done in Korea by Toon Us In.

The long incubation period gestated some weird – but well-developed tales – designed to ensnare on two levels: little kids will dig the bugs bits (‘they love bugs and gross stuff’); big kids (a.k.a. adults) will pick up on the truly madly Mel Brooksesque incongruity of the animated treatments (such as doing the urban myth of the hook-handed escaped lunatic as a musical).

Schnier, who has been in the animation trenches for 20 years, is taking it as a very good sign that the Freaky storyboards are disappearing at Funbag and ytv, where they get passed around like comic books.

The series begins to air mid-November in the 8 p.m. Tuesday night slot on ytv and repeats at 6:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The producers are convinced that the show will utilize its primetime window to cut a cross-generational-eyeball swath. The pithier package version commences airing on Canal Famille on Halloween.

As to the topics, one episode explores the four basic food groups (which, incidentally, are not those recommended in Canada’s Food Guide), while in the dating episode, Larry dresses in drag to enlighten the maggot on the finer points of courtship.

Schnier says one reason a wider audience will be captured is the different approach they’ve taken to the writing – it’s all live-action comedy writers, not animation writers. ‘It’s all done as urban myths, `it happened to a friend of a friend’ ‘ and will be narrated as such by ‘characters, not caricatures,’ talent the ilk of Jayne Eastwood (Rosie), Nigel Bennett, Chris Wiggins and Don Francks.

It’s written on two levels with gobs of physical humor for the kids – the maggot emotes by exuding a lot of goo – yet provides social satire fodder for more mature humor palates. As to how far that envelope is pushed, Schnier says, ‘there’s nothing I wouldn’t want my three-year-old to see.’

Delmage describes the visuals as ‘traditional animation, but the design and style is untraditional.’ As to the authenticity of the live-action sets, ‘they’re lit to look stylized rather than real,’ and they’re matching the lighting to the animation. Barney Stewart is dop.

‘What makes them stronger is they’re shorter,’ says Schnier, explaining the strategy behind the four separate animation segments route, which quadruple the original design prep necessary.

The ‘present another story, another style’ motif is deemed desirable to keep kids glued, and also to hold the similarly distracted attention quotient of their elders.

One story is narrated by a hard-boiled Philip Marlowe-style detective and the animation has that ’40s hard-edged feel. In a quintessential Schnier twist, it’s set in the future, but it’s a very retro future drawn in black and white and delivered widescreen.

Each segment is also individually scored, with Tambre managing about 10 composers. Marvin Dolgay and Glen Morley are the supervising composers.

The day Playback was on set a spaceship came to the diner, and was after one of the bugs. In the works in the model shop: a giant olive, a ramp for the spaceship (‘we’re just keeping up,’ says Delmage), and a giant macaroni and cheese meat sandwich is being constructed out of Styrofoam, as the studio dog loiters underneath. And from the annals of unpure science, in keeping with the urban myth theme, the ’50s journal Space Gravity and the Flying Saucer yielded the spacecraft design.

Due to the three different set ratios, the place is lousy with strange-sized (and just plain strange) things like a giant Bic and every kid’s dream of an Oreo (would do nicely as a side table), not to mention the flea circus built on a Ritz cracker.

Wardrobe is equally Alice in Wonderland, wee Sherlock Holmes hats, Hawaiian gear for the maggot (who also owns a backpack despite an absence of discernible appendages), a six-armed/legged tap outfit for Larry, and a satin cape for Maurice.

And that’s not Freaky as in horror, it’s Freaky like weird.