Adventures with "Eigo de Asobo": The Illustrator's View
Guest post by Ross Wiley, Japan
A six-year-old girl named Emily, a teddy bear named Henry of proportions that could only work in pictures, and a parrot named Jack who has far more colors than he would if I had really thought through how many times I’d have to draw him. These are the characters that we settled on to star in a series of TV picture books to be aired on NHK’s “Eigo de Asobo.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it is a fifteen-minute English broadcast that has been a long-standing part of NHK’s weekday morning lineup. The show is targeted at children aged three to five, but we are told that it is also viewed by elementary school students and occasionally used in classrooms. The aim of the program is to expose Japanese-speaking kids to natural English they can use in their everyday lives.
The picture book corner is meant to be first and foremost entertaining. This is TV land after all, and if itchy remote control fingers are not stopped, the show certainly will be. I think the stories have come out rather well, and the goal seems to have been accomplished. The secondary goals are where the picture book hobbling hobgoblins start laying their traps. Each story, that is one week’s worth of episodes, must have a unified language topic, for example, talking about the weather, greeting friends, or making simple requests. Each episode should, in only four or five pages and about twenty words, have a repeated key phrase that suits the language topic of the week; function as an extraordinarily short stand alone part of an overall story; be funny, ideally; oh, and should also teach some kind of socially redeeming values. Time to get out the picture book chemistry kit, start mixing, and see what doesn’t melt a hole in the desk.
As could well be imagined, the pictures have to carry a lot of the story since the text is limited to dialogue. Coming from a background in illustration, I usually think quite visually anyway, and have a pretty clear idea of how the pictures and text should support each other. The challenges came when the production team from the show would send back my draft scripts and they were often edited and altered to such an extent that the story had taken quite a different turn. I had to rethink how things would look, and what would be possible to show in the pictures. Since we can’t rely on our viewers to understand all of what is being said, the pictures need to show pretty much everything. From the beginning, I had understood that the illustrations would be put through a kind of animation, but what I had initially imagined was much simpler than what has often resulted. I think the desire to make every detail of the text and story explicit in the illustrations has led to a few busier pictures that have more jumpy wiggly bits than I would make myself, but I hope that it means the audience is better able to understand what is going on and enjoy the story more.
I was actually a bit surprised how easy it was to fit illustrations to Gerri Sorrells’s stories. She obviously has a great imagination and put in lots of things that were fun to draw. I was especially excited to see that one of her stories had dragons. I have always loved drawing creatures with plenty of horns and mouths full of teeth, and I had just submitted a story where the main characters visit a land inhabited by dinosaurs. I would not have thought I would be able to get a dragon story in as well, so you can imagine my delight when I saw a script full of fire-breathing, wing-flapping, talon-brandishing goodness. Seeing that another of her stories had an octopus and a shark, I was reminded that one of the things I love about being an illustrator is working with other creative-minded people who have exciting ideas. In Gerri’s stories, the shark is the hero and the dragon is a baby in need of care. Had I been the one writing the characters, I probably wouldn’t have made the same choices, so it was truly fun drawing subjects that I could enjoy in a fresh way.
All in all, the project has been eye-opening. We’re still in production for the second half of the season. The demands for extra frames for animation and further separation of elements within a single image have increased, which means an increased workload for me. But the time frame is also slightly more relaxed than it was for the first half. We made six full weeks of episodes start to finish in just over three months. That’s about 108 pages in full color! With the second half, I think I may even be able to return to something approximating normal sleep habits and pull the coffee IV out of my arm.
To view the script for the story that aired June 29–July 7, click here. http://www.nhk.or.jp/kids/eigo/text/re_n0001.html
The program page (in Japanese) also links to the picture book corner scripts:
Ross Wiley lives with his family in Mie Prefecture where he illustrates, writes, teaches, and spends as much of the remaining time outdoors as possible. He is an American ex-pat who has lived in Japan for about eight years.