Flixclusive Interview: Kenn Viselman (Oogieloves)


You read that right. This is an interview with the man who created and produced a movie called The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure. Yea, I wasn’t that excited to conduct the interview either. The movie, which prompts the children watching it to participate in the film instead of keeping the story a passive experience, isn’t really geared towards me or the Flixist audience.

You may not have heard of Kenn Viselman, but if you grew up in the past twenty years than you’ve probably been affected by him. A quick run down on the shows he’s worked on include Teletubbies, Thoms the Tank Engine and NiNi Treehouse. Needless to say, the guy knows kid’s films. Still, not exactly up Flixist’s alley.

Then something happened. Viselman started to talk about the state of children’s cinema in general and began tearing into pretty much every child’s movie out there — including Pixar’s. Since Pixar films get almost nothing but universal praise this caught me completely of guard. Here was the man responsible for bringing the Teletubbies to most of the Western world and producing a plethora of popular children’s programming telling me that Pixar was crap for kids.

Read on for one of the most interesting takes on the state of animated movies and children cinema you will hear in a while.

The movie sounds like almost more of experience than a movie in that you’re trying to have the children involved with the film instead of simply watching it.

Kenn Viselman: Definitely. We didn’t set out to make a Pixar movie. A whole series of things happened while we were contemplating what we wanted to do with this film. Things like childhood diabetes and obesity and other health risks. For us it was much more about active versus passive viewing and we tried to make an experience that is normally a passive one and turn it into an active one. As a result you end up with something that is more than a film. So it is a film and there is a story that has a beginning and middle and end. In fact it has several beginning, middles and ends, which is how we keep the youngest child involved. Then the over arching storyline keeps the older child and caregiver involved. It was designed to be a get up and dance, scream and yell thing. I’ve been saying if you take Pee Wee’s Playhouse and combine it with Rocky Horror Picture Show then you get The Oogieloves.

Talk about keeping that youngest kid involved. When I go to children’s films I always notice that the really young children lose interest in about ten minutes. They’re just gone.

Kenn Viselman: That’s because we don’t make movies for kids. We make movies for adults and we market them to kids. That’s not my business. The idea was to be as honest as possible. When I decided to come back to work I wanted to do something as real as possible. If we’re going to make something for kids it’s going to be for kids. I don’t have any problem with the idea of making a lot of money and making great stuff, I just think you should be honest about it. To make a movie for eleven-year-olds and make toys for four-year-olds when you know that the base entertainment has nothing to do with them is not right. This film was designed to include the youngest of possible viewers as well as their siblings and their adults.

So what do you see in the theater from the interaction point of the children?

Kenn Viselman: We have patents on both visual and auditory cues that occur on the screen. What we do is we give the child the option. If they want to sit like an adult in the movie they can. If they want to get up and be a kid than go on. We give them lots of opportunities. We have butterflies that come across the screen and tell kids to stand up and turtles that come across to tell them to sit down. Then the characters are on the screen breaking the fourth wall and telling the kids to come dance and sing and help. It’s every three minutes or so and we find that kids of all ages are pretty cool with it. The kids are entirely engaged throughout the film. We’ve had children who can’t sit through a film be able to enjoy the entire movie.

So what are the benefits of a movie getting kids to interact?

Kenn Viselman: Active participation is so important. The average child gets 11 minutes of outdoor play per week, but gets 54.3 hourse of screen time for that same period. If we don’t find a way to take the screen and make it an active experience we’re screwed. This is the first time in history that this generation is expected to have a shorter lifespan than the generation before. We’re dealing with obesity on a grand scale. It’s because of the sugar intake that kids get and the lack of physical entertainment. We have to take the initiative to get kids to get up and moving.

The movie also has a variety of different musical sounds. And schools are removing music programs all over the place so I wanted to stress that too. The two most important things to aid a child’s education are physical education and music appreciation and its ridiculous that we are removing them. We wanted this film to be embedded in that.

One of the goals then was to have children actually playing in the theater?

Ken Viselman: When we got involved with the Teletubbies I wanted to make sure caregivers had a choice. At that time something like 98 percent of all kids two and up were watching an hour of television a day but there actually was no television show aged appropriate for them. With the Teletubbies we were saying if you want to give your children television here’s something age appropriate for your children. In the case of Oogieloves what I wanted to do was give children the opportunity to do what children wanted to do. It’s their choice to run around and have fun. Before this movie there was never a film that was designed to allow children to be children in the movie theater. It’s quite an experience.

How about moving forward? Could this interactivity be moved into films for adults?

Kenn Viselman: Interesting. If you think about Rocky Horror Picture Show or even sing-alongs now people go to them. There’s something about reliving their childhood as an adult. People do like interacting. I go to all the Madea movies and I’m very entertained when the audience talks to the screen. Or in a horror film when people shout at the screen. The interaction is there. I haven’t thought about what my adult interactive film would be like, but it’s there. As adults we close down a lot of doors so it would make it harder to interact like that.

You might want to serve a few drinks beforehand.

Kenn Viselman: (laughs) Yea, something like a rock concert comes to mind. You might want a few drinks to break down those walls. There are ways, though. I think you could do it.  

Talk a bit about the tech behind the film.

Kenn Viselman: What’s unique about this film is that we took a lot of things that aren’t generally done and merged them into a new medium. It’s the way that we create the icons and the way we found a way to utilize everything. The idea of interactivity isn’t new, but the idea of interactivity in a theater is. It’s about how we created that experience.  

You mentioned Pixar earlier. What do you think about children’s cinema currently?

Kenn Viselman: To be honest I’m kind of revolted by it, which is what got me back into working. I was pretty happy just hanging in the house watch Jerry Springer (laughs). I saw a preview the other day for an animated movie that’s doing well in the box office; one character slaps another and everybody laughs. I thought, “What’s wrong with our society?We’re dealing with bullying and all these issues. Don’t the creators know that a child is going to see this action in a movie theater, hear everybody laugh, and go out to the park the next a slap someone. Then everybody’s going to scratch their head and wonder why that happened?

We don’t understand that children mimic adults in their lives. We don’t understand impact that negative images have on children. We don’t understand why shootings happen in movie theaters. We don’t understand why we have these crazy events going on in the world. It’s because we aren’t taking any responsibility for them as adults. It infuriates me.

The other day I’m on a panel and the guy next to me, a lovely guy, makes a comment about how brilliant Pixar is for children in particular. I think the Pixar people are brilliant, but he makes a comment about how Pixar is great for children because good always wins over evil in the end, and the audience applauds him. I’m sitting there going, “What’s wrong with all of you idiots?” Doesn’t anybody understand that we don’t need to show evil in the first place. Why can’t we show children at an early age that love is love for love’s sake. Be good because good is good. We don’t tell need to tell you to be good because if you don’t you’ll fall into a trap and be eaten by an alligator. We don’t need to show them the negative responses, we just need to show them the positive responses of positive behavior. It really upset me.

The Oogieloves — whether you like the movie or you don’t like the movie, I don’t care — children like the movie and I made this for them. And I made it for their parents so that they can have an opportunity to hang out in the same space having the same shared experience. The thing you will see at this movie is that you can have drama, you can have consequence without having bad. I wanted to show that you don’t need to have evil to in your movie to make your movie work for kids.

If you look you’ve got Madagascar, you’ve got Brave, you’ve got Ice Age. Every one of those movies has a scene that is too scary for young children and it’s completely unnecessary. It doesn’t move the story forward, it’s not a necessary component to the film we just do it so we can up the rating to a PG or a PG-13 and get an older audience in there. Knowing, full well, that the caregiver of young children are going to bring their young children to the movie because there is no other movie offered for those children. It’s infuriating to me.

If you take our movie and back date it to when the last wide release G movie was it was 130 days before the Oogieloves came out. It was a movie called Chimpanzee, which was a lovely documentary, but it wasn’t a children’s movie. If you back that up you’ve got The Arctic, which was on IMAX and a limited number of screens. And if you back it up to then you’ve got Beauty and the Beast in 3D. There hasn’t been one original story, done for kids, that’s G-rated this entire year. I think that’s revolting.

Wow. I actually went to a screening of ParaNorman last week, which I thoroughly enjoyed as a 20-something, but I was thinking that parents would bring kids…

Kenn Viselman: It’s appalling to me. They’re marketing their movie to children. If you look at how violent the trailer for that movie is. That’s what were offering children? And we want to know why we have this extraordinary violence in this country? We breed it at a young age and we desensitize our children to it. Instead of trying to find a way to extend childhood we decide to create monsters. I think it’s revolting and I am revolting it. I am starting a revolution to try to make some sense of the world that we live in.

So where do you think the age cut off is for children to see movies like this?

The one point I’ve always made is never telling a caregiver what age to do something. You’re the caregiver and you know your child. There are very young children who are very capable of dealing with cause and effect and consequences … there’s some nuance depending on the child. However, with that said, I don’t see any kid under 13 or 14 going to ParaNorman and getting it. I haven’t seen the movie, I just know the bits that I’ve seen of it and I’ve been like, “Really?”

You know the movies like Up, which did a crazy amount of business. Look at Up. We’ve got a miscarriage and then a death, and then the bad guy with rifles shooting at people. Pets getting shot at, nasty scary dogs. If that movie wasn’t animated what would it have been rated? R? But we say that somehow because it’s animation children don’t perceive it the same way and I disagree … You just believe when you’re a child. You know, you’ve got a crazy guy shooting at your dog and we give that a PG because it’s animation. We should treat animation the same way we treat live action and give it the same rating.

Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Flixist. He has worked as a critic for more than a decade, reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and videogames. He will talk your ear off about James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.