If you’ve ever felt that your life suffers from a distinct lack of cute cartoon bears, Cartoon Network’s new original series ‘We Bare Bears‘ might be just the thing for you. The show’s protagonists, Grizzly, Panda and Ice Bear, are undeniably bears, and undeniably adorable; they travel around stacked upon each other and spend their time trying to fit into human society, with, uh, mixed results. ‘We Bare Bears’ is created by Daniel Chong, who previously worked at several big-name studios including Pixar, and won an Annie award for storyboarding their ‘Toy Story of Terror’ special; the voice cast is appealing, the theme song (by Estelle) is very catchy, it seems like all the right ingredients are there. The show is already on in the US, but European audiences are yet to meet the bears, so here’s their creator telling us a bit more about them before the Old World premiere:
Now, we are having this chat because your show is just being launched in Europe, but it is, of course, primarily an American show made for an American audience. Where do you think lies its cross-borders appeal?
Daniel: The show takes place in a huge metropolitan city, and it showcases a diversity of not just people, but also different cultural things that the bears engage with. I think international viewers will find a lot of common ground. You’ll see in it different kinds of foods, there’s a character who speaks different languages- there’s a little bit of everything. I think it will be relatable, but also, more than anything, I think people will see the cute, charming designs of the bears and be drawn in- hopefully!
So why bears? What is it about bears that makes them so appealing as characters in cartoons and children’s books, and what made them appealing to you?
Daniel: If you look on the Internet, you’ll find that people see them in a sort of anthropomorphic way… it’s just funny to see them posed doing things that we would do, bear sitting on a bench, bear reclining on a log, you know…in a lot of ways, it looks like a human in a costume, and we find those things really funny, particularly on the Internet! And I think that is one of the things that keeps the bears fun to watch. For me, creating the comic strip (which is how the show started originally) was just a goofy little thing to make my girlfriend and I laugh at when I was doodling. Then it became something that I wanted to keep developing, because there is something about bears that is just so charming and funny, and I think everyone just kind of adores them when they see them.
How do you keep a balance in the writing between humanising the characters enough so that they’re relatable, but also not too much, not to the point where they could be replaced by humans and not make a difference?
Daniel: I think one of the main things that the show will do is highlight how much they stand out when they’re next to people. People will definitely give them the side eye! They still have some bear in them, they’re not completely domesticated, and the show explores different themes in dealing with how the bears cope with being a sort of weird hybrid, human/animal. I think that is the joke, and it’s a tricky balance, but we use it to our advantage, in writing a story that accentuates how they cope with those things.„The show will wholeheartedly embrace Internet culture- this is who we are now, this is what our world is like now”
What would you say are your favourite fictional bears- apart from your own creations, of course?
Daniel: So many great bears have been created in the past! I’m a huge Winnie the Pooh fan, I love the books, I’ve read them over and over again, I love the artwork in Winnie the Pooh children’s books, and the charm of those stories is something I’ve carried with me, even into this show: it has been a big influence. But I love other bears too. I love Paddington too, I remember reading that when I was a kid.
In previous interviews you talked about the involvement of the bears with modern technology. They even have mobile phones! Nowadays, there is a lot of talk about the influence of technology on kids: some people say they spend too much time with their eyes stuck to a screen, they’re addicted to their mobile phones, they don’t go outside to play anymore, etc. What is your take on this? What side of the debate does your show fall on? Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing?
Daniel: I don’t try to judge Internet culture too much, I am involved in it probably just as much, and probably just as guilty of wasting time on the Internet. I don’t think the show is meant to be judgemental, but there are definitely still lessons to be learned on how you utilise it, or how it can turn bad in a lot of ways, and how to balance your life. But we’re definitely not going to be preachy about it! The show will wholeheartedly embrace Internet culture and how our lives have changed with technology. I don’t think it’s something for us to judge, I think it’s more something for us to embrace. This is who we are now, this is what our world is like now. Popping new characters into it and seeing how they play off each other- that is more the goal to me than anything else.
So what’s it like to run your own show? Do you feel the pressure for it to do well? Do you read reviews?
Daniel: The only think keeping me from becoming neurotic (because I imagine how you can go crazy over concerns with rating and stuff like that!) is that we’re in the middle of production and still working on a bunch of episodes as we’re airing, there’s no time to worry about that sort of thing right now, just because we’re so busy. I don’t have a minute to over-think things like that. One thing that Rob Sorcher, who runs the studio here at Cartoon Network, told me is to just be patient, that we could build an audience. This was before we even started. I’ve been working on movies for the last ten years, and films, especially animated feature films, depend so much on the opening release day, or the first couple of weeks after it comes out… It’s just so detrimental to the film; whereas a television show can build an audience and grow, and slowly gain a following. I’m trying to keep that in mind, but I’m so busy I can’t think about it too much.„Trying to fit in and trying to find your place, being a minority… I think the bears will experience that kind of struggle in the same way.”
What are the differences between working on a 3D movie vs a 2D cartoon for television?
Daniel: It’s very different, and we learned the hard way for sure! Our first episodes got very ambitious, a lot of crowds, a lot of different new scenes and new locations, and I found out much later in production that you have to curb those things for TV, just because budget, time, and the animation studio’s ability to execute those things are limited in a lot of ways. It was something that I had to learn, and I had to teach the production and my storyboard artists how to scale down things. It was a huge education. In CGI films, you can have a crowd just by duplicating a bunch of people, it’s super easy! But with 2D, especially with the TV schedule, and how fast we’re moving, and how quick things need to be turn around, there’s just not enough manpower to support those ambitious stories. We’re trying not to sacrifice that too much, it’s just a balance, sometimes you have small stories, sometimes you have big stories. That’s how you help your art department not…die, basically. Those are some big learning curves that I have to adjust to, for sure.
I’ve read a review of the show where the reviewer compared the situation of the bears trying to fit into human society with real-life situations of cultural minorities trying to fit in. Is that something you had in mind at all when conceiving the show?
Daniel: Definitely! Being Asian-American myself, I came from a perspective of being a little bit of an outsider in America. I think there are those kind of undertones to the outsider quality: trying to fit in and trying to find your place, being a minority. I think the bears will experience that kind of struggle in the same way. We tend to stack the deck against them, and people are a bit meaner and a bit more dismissive to them than it would seem warranted. But I think that’s sometimes the way the world is, the bears are goodhearted people, they will try to brush the dust off their shoulders and keep trying. But yes, those are definitely some themes that will be pervasive in the show. And I think that makes it relatable. It doesn’t necessarily mean that only a person who is a minority will appreciate it. I think we are all still trying to find our place or sitting into this world, trying to find our identity, or a group of people that understand where we’re coming from… The show will continue to explore those things.