INTERVIEW: Talking Nickelodeon’s Animated Christmas Special “Albert” – Animation Scoop

INTERVIEW: Talking Nickelodeon’s Animated Christmas Special “Albert”

Albert, Nickelodeon’s first original, animated made-for-TV movie, tells the story of a small Christmas tree with a big dream. It premiers on Friday, Dec. 9th, at 7:00 pm, with the voice talents of Bobby Moynihan in the title role and Sasheer Zamata, Judah Friedlander and Rob Riggle in lead roles. I spoke to Chris Viscardi, Nickelodeon’s SVP of Content Development and David J. Steinberg, SVP of Production for Nickelodeon Animation, about the how this project took root at the studio and grew into what they hope will be a new holiday classic.

Jackson: Happy Holidays – and I have to say you’ve already made my Holiday Season very bright because “Albert” is a lot of fun. What inspired Nickelodeon to get into the very competitive Holiday Specials game, especially with an original concept?

Chris: As is often the case at Nickelodeon we start with the story – what the creative idea is. We (David and myself and my exec. producer partner Will McRobb) had heard this story by Will and Aaron Eisenberg, the original writers of the movie. They had this great idea – a Christmas story about a little tree that wanted to be a bigger tree.

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Chris (continued): In fact he wanted to be the biggest, most famous Christmas tree in all the world. So there’s a very unlikely, very underdog element to it, there’s a real sweet, sentimental holiday element to it, and also a great journey that he goes on, both as a character and also a physical journey that he has to go on to try to make this dream come true. So, once we heard that pitch from the guys, and it was a very, very simple pitch, we fell in love with it, presented it to the folks at Nickelodeon who make the decision to green light things, and they fell in love with it as well. And very, very quickly we were off and running with our very first, animated made-for-tv movie.

J: How long was the process from the concept to people seeing it on TV on Friday night?

David: About two and a half years. A very good friend of ours, Joe Stillman, who wrote the first two “Shrek” movies, “The Beavis and Butthead Movie” and a bunch of other things for Nickelodeon, came on board and did a pass on the script. Once we had that version we were ready to jump into the animation.

J: There’s a conveyor belt sequence (in the paper mill) that must have been one of the most challenging scenes to put together.

C: Absolutely. When that scene was animated it was way better and more dramatic and interesting and cool and funny and heartbreaking and kinda scary at time – way more than we ever thought it was going to be in the script. And that’s a real testament, not only to the overall crew that we had, but to the vision of our director Max Lang, who was really wonderful in so many aspect of the movie, but mostly, from the story side, bringing it to life character wise and bringing set pieces that you wouldn’t expect to see played beautifully and profoundly through the movie.

D: The Oscar nominated Max Lang! We had an amazing, amazing team working on this project and I’m glad you recognized the shots you’re talking about in that scene. There’s a lot of production value and a lot of complexity that we were able to achieve on this film with a fairly small crew and a very tight timeline as compared to features being done theatrically. I’m so proud of what the group was able to achieve.

C: We set the bar pretty high for ourselves. We knew we wanted to do more than 2D. We explored CG and we explored stop-motion for awhile. And then discussing it with David and his team and Max Lang we decided to use CG in a way that looks as much as possible like it’s stop motion. Not in terms of the way that the characters move, but more of that very tactile way that the world looks. Some of my favorite parts of the movie are those moments when you can see all the grain in the wood, the grain in the bark of a tree, or the cactus scars. It’s really, really beautiful.

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J: This is a friendship story and a road picture. You’ve got Bobby Moynihan (Albert) and Sasheer Zamata (Maisie, the palm tree) from SNL and Rob Riggle (Cactus Pete) leading the voice cast. Were all three on your “wish list”?

D: And I would throw in there Judah Friedlander (Gene the Weed) and Tom Kenny, who’s a little famous around Nickelodeon, and many others who have been part of the world of voice here for a long time. Part of the fun of this sort of project is that you have a wish list in your head of the people you want to work with and we had the great fortune of being able to get the people we had on our list. All those you mentioned were actors we had in mind when we started crafting the characters.

J: A lot of the classic holiday specials have classic songs – and I really believe that “The Best Thing That Can Happen To Christmas” is going to go right up there with the really fun Christmas songs.

C: We worked with Michelle Lewis, the composer and the lyricist. She was just amazing. We knew what we wanted to do, but we didn’t know how to achieve it. Michelle came on board and brought her creativity and her expertise. The songs started coming in and they were way more than we ever thought we would have.

J: You both have backgrounds in making movies about heroes: – David – “Tarzan” and Chris – “The Tale of Despereaux”, two films that I love. What role did your background play in you guys wanting to make this new hero’s journey?

D: At Nickelodeon we had never made an original, made-for-TV animated movie before. We have made many live-action movies, which have played very well for the network. So this was a big deal. We wanted a great story. We wanted something compelling. When Chris and Will happened upon this story about this little hero tree there was something about that, in it’s simple hero narrative, that really did resonant. It felt like a classic – a character that’s got a clear “I Want”, and something we could play out with a great journey, but in a fresh way. So it did tap into all of those great stories that we’ve either been lucky to be a part of or have seen over the years.

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C: For me I was drawn to it as a kid story, and that’s what really makes it a Nickelodeon story. There’s a real kid perspective in the movie, a real innocence with the way (Albert) sees himself and the world, and there’s a lot about the world that he doesn’t know about that he certainly finds out about as he heads-off on his journey. But also there’s a real element to the story where he feels like a shrimp, he feels too small, he feels like he’s not important enough or that he’s going to be taken seriously. And a kid often times feel that way – that they’re not big enough or cool enough. That’s what made it a real kids story which made it a real Nickelodeon story.

J: Kids are going to love this, but also millenials, and parents and grandparents, everyone gathering around, because there’s a lot of sharp humor and a little bit of edgy humor as well.

D: When you have Bobby Moynihan and Sasheer Zamata from “Saturday Night Live” and Rob Riggle and the others – these are people who are know for very smart, sharp comedy. We knew we wanted that and we knew those actors would be able to deliver that as well. We’re really big here at Nickelodeon at telling stories that work on two levels – a level for kids and a second level for adults. We want parents and families to sit down together and watch something like this. In order to succeed at that, you need it to play on two levels so the parents and adults watching will get a enough of a kick out of it to want to watch it every year.

C: I have very fond memories of being a kid, sitting in front of the TV and watching “Rudolph”, “Frosty”, “Charlie Brown” of course, and years later you find yourself at a place like Nickelodeon that wants to make a holiday movie you realize you’re playing on a turf that many have played on before and succeeded on such high levels that the bar is very high. Hopefully 10-20 years from now people are still talking about “Albert” the way they talk about Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. We’re really excited about what we’ve made and we feel it can be an evergreen – pun intended!

“Albert” premieres this Friday night (12/9) at 7pm ET on Nickelodeon and airs twice more over its debut weekend: Sat. Dec. 10 at 8:30pm and Sun. Dec. 11 at 2pm.

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy is a movie critic and entertainment columnist. He is the creator of the website Lights-Camera-Jackson.com, and has made numerous appearances on television and radio.
Jackson Murphy
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