At CES this week, when DreamWorks Animation and the tech startup Fuhu introduced a kids tablet computer that they're co-developing, the most inventive feature went largely overlooked. Yes, the DreamTab, which launches the first week in June in Target and Walmart stores nationwide, will readily stream DreamWorks' content, as well as shows from the Cartoon Network, Disney, and Nickelodeon; it will wirelessly communicate with other DreamWorks toys, creating the ultimate "connected playroom"; and it will have what Fuhu and DreamWorks claim is the safest way yet for kids to IM, email, and share photos—by complying with COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. All good stuff.
But what the DreamTab will have that no other kids tablet for kids (or adults, for that matter) has is a window into the creative process of world-class talent. In a feature called "Be An Artist," DreamWorks animators lead a video tutorial, teaching kids how to draw characters from its movies and shows. The lesson can play in a small window as the child sketches, or on a larger separate display screen. "We break it down into the simple steps of how a character comes to look like that character," David Burgess, DreamWorks' head of character animation, tells Fast Company.
By showing kids how animation gets made, DreamWorks is demystifying the art form, making it more accessible, and possibly inspiring the next wave of animators. Celebrity chefs share their recipes, chart-topping musicians their chord progressions. Here, some of Hollywood's top animators teach kids how to draw their creations—Shrek, Po, the star of Kung Fu Panda, various animals from Madagascar—using the same pressure-sensitive tablet stylus that the professionals use on the job. In the second phase of the program, due later this year, children will be able to animate their creations, using the characters' voices, and share the clips.
"Any time you can inspire some creativity in someone, whether it's kids or grownups, I think it's killer," says Burgess, the head animator on DreamWorks' Turbo and Monsters vs. Aliens, and who also created the genie in Aladdin as an animator at Disney.
DreamWorks is still filming the tutorials and fleshing out what amounts to Animation for Beginners. Burgess is joined in his office at DreamWorks headquarters in Glendale, California, by a film crew for hours at a time while he sketches. He's starting with character faces before moving onto full body illustrations and eventually various poses to convey movement. Since his students are 6- to 11-year-old novices, Burgess is making some modifications. "Shrek is difficult to draw," he says. Because the character looks more realistic than cartoony, "he’s prohibitively time-consuming. You have to find a way around that while still capturing him."
From the beginning, says Fuhu CEO Jim Mitchell, the goal with the DreamTab was "to redefine what a children's tablet can be. Most of the time, you think about a tablet for a child to play Angry Birds on. We, as parents [he has two girls, 7 and 10], have to provide more than that."
Founded in 2008, Fuhu has made a name for itself in a short time. Founded by a trio of hardware veterans in El Segundo, California, in the shadow of the toy giant Mattel, the startup works with the same big-name partners—Foxconn and Intel—as far more established tech players. Last year, Fuhu sold more than 2 million Nabis, its critically acclaimed and bestselling line of kids' tablets. The Nabi fills the still relatively new niche between a parent's iPad and a stripped-down toy tablet. A child's first computer, says Mitchell, should be fully functional—"strong enough for an adult but kidified." That is, loaded with games, educational apps, and parental controls. The DreamTab will come in two sizes, an eight-inch model for less than $300, and a 12-inch model that has yet to be priced.
Previously, Fuhu had made themed tablets with Disney and Nickelodeon, featuring their existing content. With DreamWorks, they wanted to create original content and design an Android tablet from scratch as much as possible. The project resonated with Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio’s CEO and co-founder. "He sees it as an opportunity to teach kids how to tell stories and how to draw," says Mitchell. "It’s not what they all get in school."
So DreamWorks characters are integrated throughout the DreamTab, including in various interstitials. "Typically [with parental controls]," says Mitchell, "the tablet just turns off. Here it's the penguins [from Madagascar] telling you to go to bed."
When that child wakes up, he or she can learn how to draw and animate the birds themselves. "Be An Artist" is a surprising and inspiring tool for young creatives, the sort of feature that, if it delivers, could elevate the DreamTab beyond playful but exhaustive product placement to something special for budding artists and storytellers.