Barbra J. Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: As one of the writers on Tumble Leaf, what first interested you about the project?
Shane Portman: I loved the spirit behind the show. Tumble Leaf is this incredibly imaginative world filled with quirky characters. And, the goal of the show from its very beginning was to make exploration and learning fun and to do it in a way that doesn’t belittle children. I liked that very much.
I also really loved that the show is animated with stop motion. When I first saw some of the sets and characters, I was blown away. The stop motion world is very magical, and to see the animators create and work was really something special. I love being in environments where talent is pooled together and everyone is leaning on each other. There’s a trust and an understanding that every cog in the machine is important.
BD: How would you describe the show’s premise?
SP: The main character, Fig, is a curious and explorative blue fox who lives on an old beached ship with a family of quirky chickens. Each episode, he finds a new object in his finding place and figures out (through a mix of science, quirkiness, and fantastical elements) how it works. In the process, he helps his friends out. An oft-used phrase of Fig’s is, “Let me figure this out.” And, that sums up the show pretty well. It’s about exploring and having fun in the world around you and figuring things out both on your own and with others.
BD: Tumble Leaf is Amazon’s first original series for kids. Do you find writing for a younger audience to be a challenge?
SP: Kids have this really wonderful paradox about them. On one hand, they have a willingness to imagine really mind-blowingly bizarre and funny things. So, in turn, they are absolutely able to wholeheartedly step fully into new worlds. That makes them an incredibly receptive and appreciative audience. And, there’s nothing quite like getting a child to really laugh at something. They laugh with their whole body.
But, on the other hand, they’re quick to call you out on (or get distracted and walk away from) anything that’s dishonest, untruthful, or ill-fitting in whatever world they happen to be involved with. So, it’s a challenge. But, it’s a pretty noble challenge, because they’re the best kind of audience - the kind that keeps you honest.
BD: What do you hope that audiences will take away from the show?
SP: Kelli Bixler, the executive producer and co-creator of Tumble Leaf, was recently interviewed and asked this same question, and I think she gave a fantastic answer. She said that she wants kids to take away the idea of “wonder and play and asking questions. Being excited about something you don’t know about . . . I want them to see the beauty of the show and go out into the world and discover the world’s beauty.” I think that sums up my feelings on what I’d like children to take away from Tumble Leaf, too.
I think I’m always shooting for a wonder. We get enough cynicism and skepticism in this world. And, oftentimes, those qualities are seen as preferable, more intelligent, and more en vogue. But, it’s important to have a sense of wonder, too. Wondering leads to compassion and a bigger understanding about why we’re all here, which leads to new ideas and new ways to make this world better.
BD: How many episodes will be available in the show’s first season, and can viewers anticipate further episodes in the future?
SP: There will be 12 total. Each episode is broken up into two 10 to 12-minute story segments. There are 6 available now, and the next 6 will debut sometime in June.
BD: Given that Tumble Leaf is an Amazon original series, what are the possible ways or mediums for viewers to watch the series?
SP: The first episode is available for free to stream on Amazon.com. So, you can preview it and see if you or your kids like it. After that, right now, the only way to watch all of them is to get an Amazon Prime membership. Then, you can stream the entire season like you would Netflix shows. And, there’s also a slew of other shows available for free streaming (including a bunch of HBO programming) once you’re a Prime member.
BD: In addition to your work on Tumble Leaf, you are also the writer of Allister Cromley’s Fairweather Belle (Bedtime Stories for Grownups to Tell). What can you tell us about the book, your inspiration for the project, and the various mediums used to share your stories?
SP: The Allister stories began as a blog and bloomed into a live storytelling series, a book, and a podcast. They’re based around an early-twentieth century introverted protagonist who sees pockets of excitement in mundane places and atomic explosions of awe in life’s bigger events. He’s a malleable sort of fellow who can change from story to story. Sometimes he’s big, sometimes he’s small. Sometimes he’s young, sometimes he’s old. Always, though, he has a mustache. The idea is that they’re short, whimsical bedtime stories for grownups to read to each other to invoke those childhood feelings of safety, wonder and even excitement in the face of all the questions that lay in the dark. And, I really do like to encourage the idea of grownups reading the stories aloud to each other when possible. It may seem quaint and old fashioned. But, there’s something very meaningful in sharing a moment together and hearing the voice of someone you know reading to you.
While living in New York, I worked with a rotating cast of actors, musicians, and directors to hone the stories into a live show that used music, voices, movement, and simple lighting and shadow tricks to bring the stories to life. The first set of those live stories became the book.
The book was illustrated by 13 different artists (one for each story) to play on Allister’s malleability. It can be found on Amazon.
I also did a podcast that can be found on iTunes. Each episode was directed by Sam Rhodes and features a different musician’s soundtrack underscoring the story (you know, for the malleable theme).
On FairweatherBelle.com, where you can find all things Allister, Sam and I also collaborated on a series of comedic slideshows called Historical Assumptions. Using public domain photos and the voices of comedian and actor friends, we mangled some moments from history.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects in the works that you are able to share with our readers?
SP: I’ve got a couple projects in very early stages. One is a children’s book about a firefly and the other is a one-woman sketch comedy show that I’m writing with and for my talented and funny fiancé Ruth Gamble.
On the Allister front, I’m traveling to Delaware for a live show on Saturday, June 14th, to help raise money for a new library in the city of Smyrna. I’m lucky enough to have the voices and acting prowess of Ruth and Paul Pakler along with the live music of banjo extraordinaire Mark August Spitznage. And, we’ll be bringing the stories to life in a historic opera house. I’m very excited about it.
I’m also continuing the BookDrop Project by sending 5 books to operatives in each of the 50 states. The operative leaves each book in strategic locations, takes pictures of the book, and leaves it there to be found. The pictures are posted on Twitter and Instagram. The books are all registered at Bookcrossing.com, so anyone can track their journeys. One book that was left at the Bethesda Fountain in NYC’s Central Park was found and taken to Valencia, Spain! You can follow the pictures and see a map of where the books have been on Allister’s Instagram or Pinterest.
Eventually, I’d also like to publish the second set of Allister stories.
BD: Being that we focus on all things “geek” at Fanboy Comics, would you care to geek out with us about your favorite animated shows or movies?
SP: I think everyone and their mother (and father) should check out Jim Henson’s Storyteller series. It was a short-lived series from the late '80s that is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know a single person who saw this or knows of it that doesn’t speak highly of it.
It’s a collection of European folk tales. But, that’s not all! Oh, no. There’s narration and really meaty vignettes from John Hurt and a muppet dog voiced by Brian Henson. And, this is the time of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, so the stories are populated by these dark and mysterious monsters and lovable creatures from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
The tales are timeless, humorous, heartfelt, mesmerizing, and a bagful of more adjectives!
Seriously, get your friends, some hot chocolate (or go the hot toddy route), a fire, and cozy up together to watch these ASAP. You’ll be gushing with warmth and nostalgia you never knew you had.
Sidenote: There’s a second series about Greek myths that’s narrated by Michael Gambon. It’s all right, too. But, the first series is, by far, the better of the two.
BD: What is the most important piece of advice that you can offer to our readers who aspire to become writers?
SP: I’m really still learning, too. But, the advice I would give younger writers also applies to younger actors, painters, poets, sculptors, musicians, and anyone who hears that tickle of a whisper in their ear to create something.
Find, hone, and believe in your voice. But, don’t be afraid to detour.
I think it’s important for all creative types to not be so quick to define what we’re doing right away. I went to college for theatre and was fortunate enough to have an early mentor there who encouraged me (and my entire class) to be more than actors. Her philosophy (and, from what I’ve seen, it’s a truth) is that the arts all bleed into each other. So, while we all wanted to be actors, it was important for us to write, to dance, to sing, to play music, to paint, etc., etc. and more etceteras, because it’s all connected and you’re just looking for a way to get your foot in the door.
I like the idea of calling everyone who creates artists. It gives us clarity in purpose, but also leaves us an openness to explore. Sometimes you know right away what you want to be. But, it’s hard to know if that’s you being too stubborn to detour and try something new.
No matter what medium we use, we’re all cut from the same cloth. We’re all tied to those ancient ancestors who entertained and protected our history and culture and created wonder by performing in front of fires and painting on cave walls. If we keep that in mind, I think we won’t be afraid to detour. We may even be excited to detour. And, I think that’s immensely important because, I can only speak for me, but I rarely hear clear messages about how to create or what to create. It comes in whispers. And, if you’re open to detouring, you’ll be open to following those whispers and seeing where they lead you.
Sometimes, you create something that looks exactly like what you always thought it would. But, in my experience, the majority of the time you have no idea where you’re going and you can barely hear the whisper. But, you know it’s there and you follow. You may even find yourself in an entirely new career. And, that’s okay.
No matter what, those detours and experiences are going to shape who you are as an artist and they’ll spice your writing packet, your audition monologue, your demo tape, your portfolio, and your life with originality and honesty. And, that’s really what everyone is looking for. New, fresh voices. Fortunately, we’re all born with one. Be true to it.
BD: On that same note, which creators have inspired your work?
SP: I’d say the big two are Jim Henson and James Thurber. James Thurber really had a wonderfully unique way of looking at the world and a wonderfully unique way with words (Check out my favorite book of his, My Life And Hard Times.), and Jim Henson was just an incredible world-creator. His characters all had humor and heart, and he, himself, always surrounded himself with talented people who loved being together. He’s the first famous person I remember passing away and feeling sad that I’d never get to meet him. I’m also a big fan of and draw inspiration from The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Wes Anderson, Pixar movies, Maurice Sendak, and Lynne Reid Banks.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Tumble Leaf and Allister Cromley’s Fairweather Belle?
SP: For more about Tumble Leaf, check out its homepage on Amazon or follow Bix Pix Entertainment, the production company that created it, on Facebook.
For Allister Cromley’s Fairweather Belle, check out FairweatherBelle.com or your favorite social media outlet: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest.