Sesame Street just might be the most famous brand in the world when it comes to television programming for children. And having a film produced for the venerated show on your resume can be just the thing as Ottawa filmmaker Christopher Redmond is finding out.
His short film B is for Bus Driver will air on the HBO Kids network on Sunday. Along the way it might bring some welcome positive exposure to Ottawa’s beleaguered public transit system. That’s because the film was shot in and around the Vanier area and featured one of OC Transpo’s articulated buses and some drivers.
How Redmond got his ticket punched for Sesame Street is a journey in itself.
“Five years ago I was selected by TIFF Kids to be part of a group of 15 Canadian filmmakers invited to the festival to pitch Sesame Street” on a project.
The show uses short films to bridge segments featuring characters such as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Redmond was being asked to pitch one of those interstitial segments.
“It was like one of the early auditions for American Idol where you go into a room and they are there behind a table and you pitch your idea.”
In these short bridging films Sesame Street wants to feature letters and numbers.
“I had written out a whole song and dance for them and they loved it. They were clapping at the end and I made it to the second round the next day. They brought four of us back and asked to see samples of our work.”
At that point in his career, Redmond was a documentary filmmaker making movies on some pretty serious subjects such as the Rwandan genocide.
“They were just looking at me sideways. They couldn’t put my pitch together with the other work I had done.” He didn’t get the commission but it was a lesson learned.
Fast forward four years.
Redmond now has a children’s show under his belt. He has filmed 40 2 1/2-minute episodes for a TVO Kids series called Are You Ready? It was all shot in Ottawa.
“Each episode features a kid talking to the camera and teaching the audience how to empty the dishwasher, how to get dressed or how to make your bed.”
He was in Toronto and bumped into someone from TIFF Kids and they got to talking. He told her he would like to get another shot at a Sesame Street commission and it turned out his colleague was the person was the one who picked people to pitch them.
“She said: ‘Send me your info’.”
He was invited to pitch again but this time it was more like an audition for America’s Got Talent where you are on stage in front of 100 people. There were seven filmmakers and he had eight minutes to pitch the film.
This time they were asking for a pitch for B is for Bus Driver, D is for Dog Walker and P is for Paleontologist. For the bus driver pitch they wanted three different kinds of buses considered: a long distance bus, a city bus and school bus.
Sesame Street commissions these short films around the world. As a result, they get pitches from New York to New Zealand. So making the grade isn’t easy. But Redmond, with a year’s worth of kids TV under his belt, was well-positioned.
“I got up there and started my pitch with an anecdote about my son Ridley. He had just started school last year and it was really tough for him. He cried every day he went to school. And when he was finally getting more comfortable about going to school I said, ‘How about we start taking the bus now?’
“He looked at me, started balling and said ‘Now it’s even more scary’. So I wanted to make a short film to make taking the bus a lot less scary for a kid.”
Redmond just started his anecdote and he got completely choked up.
“I couldn’t talk. I don’t know what it was but I got emotional thinking about my kid and how hard it had been to take bus. I lost a good chunk of presentation time standing there blubbering and not getting any words out.”
But he did manage to finish the pitch. And it worked.
He credits the first experience: “I had learned that it’s not about the razzle dazzle. I did the razzle dazzle the first time and it only gets you so far. I know what these shows are looking for and it’s a curriculum they are teaching. They have a principle of ‘Say it and see it’. It’s not about being overly cutesy.”
Everyone else did razzle dazzle, Redmond said, including one guy who did his pitch in drag.
“I knew that on paper, mine checked all the boxes.”
Ridley has overcome his concerns about school and buses but the Redmonds live near his school, so he walks there. Ridley and his three year old sister Odessa have watched the film “100 times.” They are the film’s best critics, Redmond says. Both children have names that are film references. Odessa is named after the most famous scene in the Sergei Eisenstein Battleship Potemkin in which a baby carriage with a child inside rolls down the Odessa Steps.
Redmond got the go ahead for the film last March and it was shot in May in partnership with Ottawa-based GAPC Entertainment. The producer is Hoda Elatawi. B is for Bus Driver stars seven-year-old Talia Aversa who was in the Are You Ready? series which was also produced by GAPC. In addition to the film, Redmond was commissioned to shoot B-roll of various forms of transportation for Elmo’s World.
Getting OC Transpo on board was paramount, he said. So he pitched them too.
“They were really good about it. I think they saw it for the opportunity that it was.”
They even put up with some of the Sesame Street rules for the films.
“There are rules when you do a Sesame Street film, a lot of rules. One is that you can’t have any letters in the film. That’s because they broadcast in so many different languages.
“So that meant masking all the branding and even covering up the words around the dashboard of the bus and even words like watch your step. But if you are from Ottawa you will recognize the OC Transpo bus.”
The compensation for a commission with Sesame Street isn’t the money. Redmond received a budget of $10,000 US. That doesn’t go very far when you are making a film.
“But I am now lined up with kids shows for the year because of this gig. I’m on contract for shows in French and in English with TVO and TFO.” He also has some pilots to film and some web series.
“I knew that would be the ultimate benefit.” The Sesame Street stamp of approval it goes a long way.
When Redmond started out as a filmmaker he dreamed of winning an Oscar for a feature film. But he has discovered that’s not the only path.
“You start realizing there is a whole other world of things I watch and enjoy and could be making. When I had the opportunity to make kids shows my children were three and five. A few years earlier I might not have felt comfortable doing it.
“But now I have watched kids shows and have developed an awareness of what should be in them. I grew up watching Sesame Street and to get to work for them is a childhood dream come true.”
B is for Bus Driver will air on Feb. 23 on HBO Kids which now owns Sesame Street. PBS still has residual rights to the program so it will air some nine months later. It will also appear online and on demand, Redmond said.
These days, he is making a documentary on people who convert to Islam for the CBC’s Documentary Channel.