Brooke-Nevin.com

The New York Times

5 TEEN-AGERS MEET AN ALIEN, AND THEN...
-- Laurel Graeber

THEY don't trust anyone, over or under 30. They are convinced that there is a vast conspiracy against them, one that may include members of their own families. They believe that only they can save the world. And when threatened, they easily turn into a bunch of wild animals.

Sound like typical teen-agers? Well, yes and no. These have more than raging hormones putting them through changes, and when they snarl, it's not just a bad hair day. They are the heroes of "Animorphs," a science-fiction book series by K. A. Applegate about five young friends who have the power to transform themselves into animals. But the concept isn't another "I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf"; the morphing is for a higher cause, namely saving the planet. And now the characters have come to television, with the recent premiere of "Animorphs," a half-hour prime-time series on Nickelodeon, the cable network for children.

"Everyone said, 'Oh, you're going to animate these, right?' " said Deborah A. Forte, the division head of Scholastic Entertainment and the executive producer of the series. "But I thought that for the audience to buy into the reality of the series, it had to be live action. Otherwise, it's just another cartoon."

What Ms. Forte has envisioned is more like an "X-Files" for children. Like that series, this one features aliens and a global conspiracy. And just as "The X-Files" has an enormous cult following, the "Animorphs" books are staggeringly popular: although Scholastic, which also publishes the novels, will not release precise figures, Ms. Forte acknowledges that sales are in "the millions of books."

Just recently, a novel in the series broke into the top five on USA Today's paperback best-seller list, which includes all fiction and nonfiction books, including those written for adults. If Ms. Applegate can hold her own with the likes of Sidney Sheldon and Nicholas Sparks, who wouldn't want to make her work into a television series?

But for all the executives' wishes to be faithful to a literary phenomenon, skeptics can hardly be blamed for seeing the material as too challenging for a production company without a megamillion-dollar budget.

Consider the plot, which was just unveiled in this weekend's premiere: the teen-agers are off to spend an evening at the local mall when they stumble upon Elfangor, a noble alien prince whose space vehicle has just crash-landed. Elfangor, an Andalite, is no E. T. The Andalites have hoofs, bladed tails, multiple hands, two sets of eyes and no mouths. (Their speech is a form of telepathy.)

The Andalites' chief enemies are the Yeerks, evil, sluglike creatures that crawl into the ears of hosts and take over their brains. Just before dying, Elfangor tells the teen-agers of the Yeerks' invasion of Earth, which is already under way. (Humans make excellent hosts.) He also gives them the Andalite power to morph. But morphing isn't a magical, instantaneous transformation; it is multistage and somewhat uncomfortable and has a catch: to morph into an animal, one must first acquire its DNA by touching it.

"I wasn't hesitant to do 'Animorphs,' but I was a little scared by the complexity of it," said William Fruet, who has directed several of the coming episodes. The series's creators, he said, have had to deal not only with making Andalites (Axel, a young Andalite who spends a lot of time in an adolescent human morph, becomes a major character) but also Visser 3. Visser 3, the only Yeerk to inhabit an Andalite host, can morph, too, and his morphs aren't restricted to the species seen on Earth.

"The Visser 3 has to go through three stages of morphing," Mr. Fruet said. "He has to go back to an Andalite before he becomes something else. We're still trying to figure out how much to show at a time and what morphs work the best."

So far, the series has used three Andalite models: a moving animatronic head, a partial costume and a fully detailed puppet, about two feet high, "that needs a couple of operators to manage it," Mr. Fruet said.

For the morphing sequences, the series has relied heavily on computers. A software program called Elastic Reality enables images of the young actors and of various animals to be manipulated and blended at different rates of speed. "You can have the eye morph and not have the ear morph at the same time," Ms. Forte said. The way the series uses the technique, she added, has never been seen on television before.

To portray the heroes interacting with animals, the television makers often use a more common device, dubbed "green screen," in which the actors are filmed against a blank green backdrop and their images are then inserted into scenes shot with wildlife. But this computer wizardry by no means accounts for all the animal sequences. Because Tobias, one of the teen-agers, disobeys the fundamental rule of the process -- he stays in animal form for more than two hours -- he is forced to remain the creature he has morphed into.

As a result, the series's cast, like the books', includes a hawk. This presented a challenge for the actors, who were chosen not only for their dramatic talent but also for their resemblance to the literary characters and their willingness to work with animals.

"I'm often stuck with a bird on my arm, doing this intimate scene," said Brooke Nevin, 15, who plays Rachel, Tobias's closest confidante. In fact, all the teen-age actors have had to become amateur falconers. They have also co-starred with cast members ranging from crocodiles to wolves.

These four-footed actors are residents of the Bowmanville Zoo, a 42-acre zoological park in Bowmanville, Ontario, where much of "Animorphs" is filmed. Michael Hackenberger, the director of the zoo, has become a kind of auxiliary director of the series, guiding cast and crew through sometimes hair-raising filming, like the scene in which Jake, the Animorphs' unofficial leader, gently strokes a Bengal tiger to acquire its DNA.

"My hand was on its head," said Shawn Ashmore, 18, who plays Jake, "and all of a sudden something caught the attention of the tiger. It moved its head really fast, and my fingers went up its nose." Mr. Ashmore followed Mr. Hackenberger's instructions to move back slowly, and the take was actually used; it appears in Friday's episode. (The mishap is not visible.)

With its wildlife adventures, special effects and science-fiction fantasy, it would be easy to imagine "Animorphs" as Saturday-morning fodder. But the series's creators stress that it is prime-time drama, which they hope will draw not only the 6- to 11-year-olds that are Nickelodeon's staple, but older children as well.

"I've heard people compare it to 'Power Rangers,' " Mr. Ashmore said, referring to Fox's "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" series. "But this is much more character-oriented. We don't just turn into Ninjas and fight."

Network executives believe that the approach will appeal to parents, too. The series is suspenseful, but never violent. And the Animorphs, who come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, are wholesome leaders.

"It's like the typical Nick show," said Marjorie Cohn, senior vice president of current series at Nickelodeon. "Five kids who want to save the world and still get their homework done."

To be sure that viewers get their homework done, too, the network has scheduled "Animorphs" on Friday night, during what Nickelodeon calls its Nickel-O-Zone, a nightly block of entertaining at an hour at which children are usually ignored: 8 to 9 P.M. "We felt 'Animorphs' would do well on the weekend," Ms. Cohn said. "It's a little scary, and it seems like real weekend viewing."

Scariness, however, is not the point, as it very much is for "Goosebumps," another Scholastic production inspired by a popular book series and produced by Ms. Forte. (Broadcast on Fox, "Goosebumps" is based on the spooky novels by R. L. Stine.) What makes "Animorphs" different, Ms. Forte said, is its emphasis on story as well as suspense.

"Very much the way each book is from one character's point of view, that's what we're doing with the series," she said.

Just as the series premiere, "My Name Is Jake," was a two-parter, other "Animorphs" episodes will also feature continuing story lines. No one has tried an evening soap opera for children before, but Ms. Forte clearly believes it's possible.

"We want to produce something that will look and feel unique in this very crowded landscape of children's television," she said. "TV has largely been an imitative business. We want to create the original."


The New York Times