Big Nate is coming to Nickelodeon on Monday, September 5th and we were lucky enough to get some interviews with John Cohen and Mitch Watson, the executive producers of the show.
BSCKids: Tell us a bit about how you got involved with the Big Nate cartoon project?
MITCH – Ramsey Naito, the President of Nickelodeon Animation, is an old friend who I have worked with many times. She is a huge fan of the books, and fortunately for me she thought I would be a good fit. She set up a meeting between me and John Cohen who had the rights to the books. John and I clicked, but at the time I was working on another project for DreamWorks. When that was delayed, it gave me an opening and the rest is happy history.
JOHN – I’ve been a huge fan of the Big Nate comic strip and books for years and reached out to Lincoln Peirce a while back. I’m lucky to get to read a lot of comic strips, books, and scripts every day – and Big Nate is so genuinely funny with a level of sophistication that I don’t often see – so I was very excited to be able to help bring these characters to life in animation.
Did you read the source material before working on the cartoon?
MITCH – No. It wasn’t on my radar. I have two girls and they had not read the books which is usually how I become aware of stuff for younger audiences. Of course, now we are all huge fans.
JOHN – Yes, and since I’ve been working on the series, my daughters have also become huge fans. My oldest daughter has now read all of the chapter books (and several of the comic compilations) multiple times.
How was it decided on what style that cartoon would be in?
MITCH – That was a long process. What we finally decided on was three styles to encompass Nate’s world.
The show was always going to be CGI, so we knew we would have to adapt Lincoln’s style for it to animate correctly. DAVID SKELLY our art director, ROB BROWN our character designer, and I went through many iterations of the designs until we hit the right feel. Lincoln then did his own pass and adjustments, and that is what ended up in the show.
Once the CGI portion of the show was dealt with, we then decided that when we went into Nate’s imagination – which is a big part of the show – it should be in Lincoln’s original 2D BIG NATE STYLE. We hired a woman named VICKI SCOTT to mirror Lincoln’s style – which she did to perfection. We also use 2D to emphasize action, smells, music, and thought bubbles.
The third style, which we call DREAM STYLE is used whenever anyone besides Nate goes into a fantasy. The style was conceived and is animated by our current art director SAM KOJI HALE.
JOHN – Lincoln always knew that he wanted Big Nate to be an animated series. But what we found was that a lot of studios we talked to could only envision it in live action, like the original “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movies, for example. But we felt strongly that these are cartoon characters – like “The Simpsons” or “Peanuts” – they don’t age, Nate is always in sixth grade, and they have designs and a cartoon physicality. Working with Nickelodeon and the amazing team on the show has been a dream. Mitch Watson, David Skelly and Sam Koji Hale have created an incredible style for this series that beautifully incorporates all kinds of animation into one very unique vision.
How often do you talk to Lincoln Peirce about the project?
MITCH – Lincoln is heavily involved. He goes over and punches up every script, so the voices of the characters are uniform with the books. He also weighs in on all the character designs and the general look of the show.
Is there a favorite story from the books that just won’t work for the cartoon? Do you have any movie ideas?
MITCH – We are always mining the books for ideas. Most of what we have used from the books is the character relationships. There have been a few instances – Nate’s love of baseball and hockey, Winter episodes – where we lifted actual storylines, but for the most part the books have served as great material for building out the lives of the characters and finding the tone of the show.
JOHN – Lincoln has been writing and drawing this comic strip for 31 years, so that’s a lot of world building and a wide breadth of characters. As we’ve been developing the show starting with Season One and throughout Season Two, we have continued to expand the world with a combination of characters that Lincoln created as well as brand new characters that have been developed in the show itself. We have so many ideas that have been seeded into the series that are setting up stories and places that we plan to go in future seasons. There’s a lot of exciting stuff coming up that we’re not yet able to talk about, but can’t wait to share with you very soon!
How hard was it to come up with original stories but still sticking to the source material?
MITCH – Not hard at all. Stories for this show have always been relatively easy to generate because the characters and the world are so rich.
How involved were you in the voice casting for the show?
MITCH – I was involved every step of the way.
JOHN – The same for me. We have such an incredibly talented cast, led by Ben Giroux as Nate, who brought our characters to life with such great comedy and appeal. Bryce Charles, Arnie Pantoja and Daniel MK Cohen have all created wonderful characters, as well as the hilarious Rob Delaney, Dove Cameron (who just won the Video Music Award for Best New Artist!) and Jack Black, who plays the legendary Brad Gunter. We are very lucky to have such an amazing cast.
Any fun stories from things behind the scenes that have gone on while working on the show?
MITCH – Well we did the whole thing from our basements in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and India. Because we recorded all episodes over ZOOM, we had as many as 14 actors on screen at any one time recording mostly from their closets which were soundproofed by coats and jackets. At one point or another most of our kids and significant others wandered on screen, as well as cats, dogs, and hamsters. More than once takes were ruined by flushing toilets and electric lawnmowers. Not long ago when the crew actually met each other in person, after working together for over two years, we didn’t recognize one another because no one knew what anyone else looked like from the neck down.
The other fun thing is the fan art and videos that have been generated since the show started airing. Within a few days of us showing up on Paramount+ there were dozens of fan generated videos, some of which got upwards of a million views.
Why should everyone tune into Big Nate on Nickelodeon?
MITCH – This show was made entirely during a pandemic by people who were united by one goal; to make something really entertaining for families. Big Nate owes its legacy to the Nickelodeon shows of the 90’s. Shows that were not afraid to push the envelope – with both storytelling and design. Big Nate’s sole purpose is to make you laugh, which after the last couple of years, seems like something everyone can get behind.
JOHN – Big Nate is a labor of love for us – and it’s truly made for everyone in the audience. Whether it’s kids or parents, this show is the definition of all-audience. The comedy plays just as well to me as it does to my 8 and 5-year-old daughters. It reminds me of the experiences I had in middle school, while also bringing to life the experiences I have as an adult. The sensibility and comedy are very much cut from a similar cloth as shows I love like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Simpsons,” especially in the way that comedic situations escalate and continue to twist and turn. Working with Mitch, our writers, Lincoln, and our incredible crew has been a great joy and privilege. And the passion is shared by all of the amazing people at Nickelodeon including Ramsey Naito, Brian Robbins, Nathan Schram, Claudia Spinelli and Eryk Casemiro. We hope to continue telling stories in this universe for many years to come!
Special thanks to John Cohen and Mitch Watson and make sure to tune into Big Nate!