Interview with Josh Weinstein

5th April 2013

Tell us about Strange Hill High – what inspired the show?

Strange Hill High sprang from the brilliant mind of Kat Van Henderson.  She came up with the original idea as well as the designs for the puppets and the whole idea of ‘Hypervynorama’ – it’s an incredibly exciting process of animation that’s never been done before, combining rod puppetry with CGI and stop-motion filming techniques. It looks incredible, like nothing anyone’s ever seen before. Oh, it’s also hilarious.

I went to a weird old gothic-looking school in Washington DC, so Strange Hill High really struck a chord with me. I was also the new kid at this school so I can really relate to Mitchell. Kat created Mitchell, but I think I ended up pouring a lot of myself into him, just ’cause I so identified with him. I also write him as I wish I could be – really funny and not afraid to speak up and not afraid in general.

How would you describe the main characters of Mitchell, Becky and Templeton?

We call them Our Trio and if you keep watching the show, and look for certain clues, you’ll discover there’s an important reason they become friends. But that’s sort of a secret for now.

Mitchell is the main character and he’s new to the school. He got in trouble in his old school – probably for something he didn’t do – so he’s hoping to start fresh at Strange Hill. But that’s really hard when strange things are happening all the time and you’ve got a headmaster like Mr Abercrombie who refuses to see these things and often ends up blaming Mitchell.

Mitchell also happens to have ADHD – it’s something we casually mention but don’t make a big deal of. I know a lot of kids that can relate to Mitchell in this way.  So Mitchell’s a good guy and really smart, but it’s hard for him to pay attention. Especially ’cause he’d much rather have fun than do schoolwork (and who wouldn’t?).

Becky is full of enthusiasm. What she may lack in actual skills and talent, she makes up for with her genuine gusto about life. She also wears her emotions on her sleeve and is likely to be the one to call Mitchell on his shenanigans. But she’s also glad to have Mitchell as her friend.

Templeton is the third member of the Trio. He looks like a super-nerd but he’s not always right. In fact, he’s often wrong and his crackpot ideas can sometimes get them in more trouble. Sometimes, he’s blissfully unaware of the strange things happening around them. Other times, he’s insanely, rigidly – and wrongheadedly – logical about something. On some level, he’s glad to have Mitchell and Becky as friends, but you wouldn’t always know that.

What kind of secrets and mysteries do the trio come across at Strange Hill High?

Everything from discovering an ancient knight guarding an ancient lavatory (walled up behind the school’s restroom) to ghosts who have been in eternal detention). They also explore nightmares and time travel and discover ink that causes the school newspaper to predict the future. They discover a boy who was lost in the Lost and Found 100 years ago and they also meet the real life Tooth Fairy (who is not at all like the legends say) and is actually quite bad. And they also get stuck inside a Health and Safety film from the 1970s. Plus other stories of art projects coming to life, robotic teachers bent on world domination and the most boring book in the world, which happens to be in the school library and you really, really should not read it.

How does Strange Hill High differ from other children’s animation?

In every way ever! There’s never been a show like Strange Hill High.

The process we use of rod puppets with CGI and stop-motion techniques has never been done before. And it looks incredible. We have an amazing technical team of designers, puppet makers and puppeteers, artists and directors and they’re the very best people I’ve ever worked with. There’s a real spirit of camaraderie on this show and you never know where a brilliant idea might come from. Our puppets are built by MacKinnon & Saunders, who are the same puppet builders who build all of Tim Burton’s stuff. They are the best in the world.

But this show is also different in another important way. We never write down to kids. It’s an important thing I learned on The Simpsons from Matt Groening – kids are smart. They get things. And they know if you’re condescending to them. So we write Strange Hill like we wrote The Simpsons – it has to be a great story nobody’s ever told exactly like we have and it has to be really funny. If it doesn’t make us laugh, it’s not going in the show. There are jokes that kids will love but there are also jokes their parents – and frankly adults without kids – will love.  But most importantly, we’ve seen from showing episodes to kids that they really love it.

We write every episode like it was a motion picture, a full-on, high-budget action adventure fantasy. Of course, we don’t have a huge budget, but our technical team always tells us “You write it, we’ll try to make it.” And they’ve come up with some amazingly brilliant solutions.  Every episode really looks like a mini-movie. There are effects that will blow you away and make you wonder “How in the world did they do that?”.

What is it like working with puppetry?

For me, it’s a thrill. I’ve spent 20 years in standard 2D animation so to be able to write for actual physical characters is a thrill. Everything feels new and fresh and because this process is literally new, it is! It’s also thrilling to see the puppetry in action. The sets are huge and intricate and beautifully designed. Each set pretty much could fill a room. And what people don’t realize is under every set is a group of five master puppeteers working the rods of these puppets. They are huddled together for hours on end, so I think they all have to get along! And wear deodorant. Luckily, everyone on the show loves it so much that there’s a real spirit of friendship and cooperation on the set. And that friendship comes across on screen.

We are also lucky to have some of the most brilliant animation directors on board this show. The scenes they film are as brilliant as those on any full-length animated feature and sometimes, I would argue, even better. There’s true craftsmanship and skill here.

Did you have a different approach when writing for a younger audience?

No, like I mentioned above, The Simpsons taught me never to write down to kids. Of course, we make sure they can easily understand what’s happening, but I never want to talk down to a kid. I’ve always found that kids are smart and they get it. And they know what’s funny. We might throw in some references that adults will get, but funny is funny. You can’t fake it. And good storytelling is good storytelling. I think Strange Hill really is a show that can be enjoyed by anyone from ages 5 to 105. As long as they’re not too cranky.

Something that is important to me and was important to us on the Simpsons and Futurama is that we’re never crass. You don’t need to be rude or horribly inappropriate to be funny. And like we had on The Simpsons and Futurama, there’s an underlying feeling of kindness. Our main trio genuinely like each other. I really hate meanspiritedness and don’t like when it’s used as an excuse for comedy.

What do you think kids will think of the show? How is it different to what they’ve seen before? 

We’ve shown it to kids and they really love it. They love the stories. They especially seem to like Mitchell and his attitude, which is cool ’cause that’s something I really love, too. They also really, really laugh and that’s the most important thing of all.
Also, every episode is like a mini-movie.  Not just with the story, but with the action and FX and even the music. We score each episode like it was a movie and it helps make each episode pretty thrilling. Our composer Paul Lovatt-Cooper is brilliant. He can write any style of music.

And one other thing about music – Ben Smith, the voice of Mitchell, also happens to be the awesome rapper Doc Brown. We had him write words to the theme song and a song for another episode and we loved them so much, we wondered, “What if he wrote a song for every episode?”. So for every episode, whether it’s over a montage or during the closing credits, we have a Ben Smith-composed and -performed song that relates to that specific episode. There’s too much good stuff in this show, I tell you!

Tell us about the casting process – how did you find your voice talent?

Some interesting stories here. When we were developing the show early on, we hired a core team of three other writers. One of them was Emma Kennedy. She was someone whose sample material I had read and loved and said, “Let’s see if she’s available.” She’s a brilliantly funny writer. So, as we were talking about characters and stories in this very early stage – it’s nearly a couple of years ago! – Emma kept sparking to Becky. There was just something in that character Emma connected with and, consequently, there’s a lot of Emma that she and we put into Becky. I think from that early point, when casting was still a long ways off, we felt that Emma had to be the voice of Becky.

Mitchell is the hardest character of all to voice and that’s why I’m so thankful we have Ben Smith (Doc Brown).  Mitchell has to be funny, smart, a genuinely good guy, but also be brave enough to speak out when something is wrong. Ben is all that and more. He was our very top choice for this and I feel so lucky we got him. Mitchell also needs to have a distinct sounding voice – I hate in animated shows or movies when the main character has a bland ‘average guy’ voice. Average guy voices are boring. The voice Ben does for Mitchell is fantastic and distinct. When I show people Strange Hill, they always ask, “Who does Mitchell? I love that voice.”  Ben also does some other characters including one of the crew’s favourites, Safety Toad. Ben did that as a temporary voice during a record, but we loved it so much we kept it.

Templeton is also a tough voice to get right. It’s easy to do a stereotypical nerd, but where’s the fun in that? I’ve seen too many animated shows with stereotypical nerds and I’m sick of them. Richard Ayoade is one of my favorite people in comedy ever. He’s like my idol – a brilliant writer and performer. He also happens to have a wonderfully distinct voice. Like we did with Ben, we crossed our fingers and said “Do you think we can get him?” and we did.  There’s no one else who can do Templeton like Richard can.

To round out our cast – and we have a HUGE cast of characters – we assembled a dream-team of voice talent including Caroline Aherne, Jon Thomson, Jonathan Keeble, Marc Silk and Melissa Sinden. They do so many of the voices on Strange Hill and every single voice I just love.

What’s important to kids and any viewer, really, is that the voices on an animated show are good and really distinct and really funny. But to me, I also get the added benefit of being able to work with some of the most brilliant people in British comedy.

What was it like working with the Strange Hill High team?

I do want to say that as someone who’s worked in America and American animation for the last 20 years and with some of the very best talent there, nothing and I mean NOTHING equals the talent I’ve seen in England on the Strange Hill Team.  The writers, the designers, artists, directors, actors, puppeteers, musicians, producers and the executives who oversee the show – every single one of them is so creative – and funny – and everyone gets along. And that spirit – and the feeling that we might be doing something really great and that we’re all lucky to be on such a show – that comes across on the screen.  It’s a giant team effort. And it’s the best team I’ve ever worked with. A large part of this has to do with Factory Transmedia and our main Producer Phil Chalk. He assembled a huge part of this team and he clearly has a brilliant touch for making animated shows.

There’s also a great openness among everyone. You don’t have to be a writer to come up with a great joke. If someone has a great idea, it doesn’t matter what their minute-to-minute job is. They’re part of Strange Hill and therefore an equal contributor to the show. It may even just be the way a character moves their hand. That little touch can make all the difference in a scene.

You’ve worked in comedy animation for a long time, and have been involved in new forms of animation such as that used in Strange Hill High. How do you see animation further evolving in the future?

Strange Hill High is the future of animation. I don’t see it getting better than this, but that’s being short-sighted, isn’t it?