When singer-songwriter Alicia Keys wanted to create an animated children’s television series about the exploration of music, she turned to Burbank animation firm Bento Box for ideas.
Bento’s producers suggested an alternative: Instead of a TV show, how about an interactive storytelling app?
That idea became “The Journals of Mama Mae and LeeLee,” which was released through the iTunes store last fall for $3.99 and expands to Android mobile devices and tablets this month. Featuring original compositions from Keys, the animated series uses music, games, rewards and a journal to tell the story of a relationship between a young girl and a mystical grandmother.
“I feel it’s so important to tell the story through this interactive universe because it can be ever-evolving,” Keys said. “Each time you get into another story, specific to that story there are games, music and so many special things to discover and interact with.”
Taking a novel, multi-platform approach to animated storytelling has been a calling card for Bento Box, a fast-growing animation company that is now a $20 million-plus-a-year business.
Like the traditional Japanese box lunch after which it is named, Bento Box prides itself on presenting an assortment of offerings in one package.
“We didn’t want to be just a traditional animation studio,” said Scott Greenberg, president and co-founder of Bento Box Holdings. “We saw it as an opportunity to do a lot of different and interesting things in the entertainment space, each one building on the other.”
Capitalizing on the popularity for adult-oriented animated shows such as “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “South Park,” Bento partnered with Fox on “Bob’s Burgers,” a popular comedy, now in its third season, about a family that runs a restaurant, and on “Murder Police,” a dark Sunday night police drama that is expected to air on Fox this fall. Bento produces “Brickleberry,” which follows a group of hapless forest rangers and a talking grizzly bear, for Comedy Central.
“The Awesomes,” an animated superhero series from “Saturday Night Live” star Seth Meyers, will premiere this summer on the Hulu online streaming service. Bento is also producing “Out There,” a new IFC series about a teenager growing up in a small town.
Bento Box has also partnered with National Geographic Kids on a three-hour morning block of Spanish-language children’s programming on the new U.S. broadcast network MundoFox, and on developing characters and programs tied to National Geographic brands such as the popular book series “Weird But True.”
“We see animation as a fantastic interface between the kids audience and our factual, nature-oriented documentary content,” said Adam Sutherland, senior vice president of corporate strategy and development for the National Geographic Society.
To handle the growing business, Bento Box next month will open its third location in the Burbank area, moving into a 25,000-square-foot facility. Bento also has a studio in Marina del Rey that handles interactive projects, including the one with Keys, and last year opened a studio in Atlanta to take advantage of that state’s film tax credit. Bento expects to add 50 to 80 workers to its Los Angeles workforce of 150 by March. The Atlanta studio employs 80.
Greenberg, the former president and chief operating officer of Film Roman, founded Bento Box in 2009 with Joel Kuwahara, a former producer on “The Simpsons” and production executive at Film Roman, and Mark McJimsey, supervising producer on the animated Fox show “King of the Hill.”
Bento’s mission was to create a more efficient system for producing expensive and time-consuming animated television series — such as “King of the Hill.” A single episode of the hand-drawn show can take 10 months to produce.
Greenberg and his partners teamed up with Toon Boom Animation Inc. in Montreal to develop a proprietary production software that allows animated shows to be produced digitally from start to finish. Artists “draw” each frame on digital tablets, instead of paper, allowing Bento’s animation partners in South Korea to see the work in progress in real time.
As a result, each episode of “Bob’s Burgers,” which costs about $1.5 million to make, takes eight months to produce instead of 10.
“When Joel and I first met on the first season of ‘The Simpsons,’ we realized the system was very inefficient and those inefficiencies created much more work,” McJimsey said. “What we’ve accomplished is to make it cheaper and faster but still maintain the quality that everyone is looking for.”
That appealed to 20th Century Fox Television.
“They have tons of great people and artists, and they are one of the companies that is looking into how to do things with new technology and how to push the envelope,” said Marci Proietto, senior vice president of 20th Century Fox Television Animation.
Bento also develops its own projects for television and digital outlets, including “Gajillionares,” an animated pilot for Comedy Central with Principato Young Entertainment, and “Glove & Boots,” a popular puppet series on YouTube that averages more than 1.5 million streams an episode.
True to its name, Bento offers a variety of styles in its menu.
“We work in 2-D, 3-D, puppets and stop motion,” Greenberg said. “We look at the full spectrum of animation,”