When Terry Thoren took the stage for the inaugural TEDxSnoIsleLibraries in 2015, he’d been retooling his long career in animation for a decade.
“ ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ and other cartoon anarchy films that kids love put our shows, ‘Rugrats’ and ‘The Wild Thornberrys,’ out of business because we had our moment with family-values animation, and then it shifted,” Thoren told the first TEDxSnoIsleLibraries audience. “But every crisis has an opportunity.”
He said his father suggested a shift in focus.
“My dad said to me, ‘Listen, here’s the challenge. I want you to stop using cartoons to sell Happy Meals and toys to kids. I want you to work with your sister (a special needs teacher in Denver) on telling stories in the classroom to model appropriate behavior because she’s having such a tough time,’” Thoren said. “So I sat down with my sister and we began writing out one-minute scripts for simple behaviors, like don’t talk when the teacher’s talking, keep your hands to yourself, use your inside voice. And it worked!”
Over three years, Thoren’s company produced more than 200 social-emotional short learning cartoons, primarily aimed at kids with autism. It struck a nerve. He said teachers told him their students with cognitive disabilities and inability to remember simple rules could recall most details from a cartoon character named Marcus.
The revelation helped him realize that these simple animations could connect with children who face difficult situations like the young lead character Thoren saw in a subtitled French film when he was 12.
“When I saw this film, it was so intense because it had a sad ending. It was about a 12-year-old boy who was beaten by his stepfather and bullied by his teachers, and he was beginning to drift into petty crime. And the film ended with a dead end. And I decided at that moment that I wanted to be a filmmaker,” Thoren said during his TEDxSnoIsleLibraries talk.
“So at 12 years old, people say, ‘Well, what kind of films do you want to make?’ I want to make films that have a powerful emotional contact with my audience. The funny thing is that 50 years later, the animation that I’m making is having the most powerful connection with kids that I can imagine.”
Thoren created Wonder Media LLC with creative partner, Ryan Cannon. They started making animations that tackle tougher topics older children face, such as addiction, hunger, mental and sexual abuse, even suicide.
Wonder Media formed a partnership with Skype so that cartoon characters can call up a classroom or auditorium and talk directly with students and interact seamlessly with them. Thoren showed the 2015 audience how that works through Maria, a cartoon character who asked them to get up and dance.
“You can imagine how much fun it is for a child to participate in this way in the classroom, because Maria can see you and hear you and she’s one with you,” Thoren told the crowd.
In 2015, Wonder Media had just released its Story Maker software to the Snohomish School District and four other districts in the United States. Running with Animation Now software, Story Maker allows students to create their own cartoon characters and stories in a virtual animation studio.
By the end of 2019, 172 school districts in 24 states were using Story Maker, Thoren said.
“We’re looking for the storytellers of the future, which is why we’re giving it away to these students, and it’s my hope that these storytellers of the future will create the same kind of emotional impact that I had when I experienced my (first) film at 12, and that we’re making on children today,” Thoren said in 2015.
Today, Story Maker has proven itself.
In 2019, Wonder Media had students from 24 schools across the country, including Snohomish, use Story Maker to reimagine “The Wizard of Oz,” using their own voices with animated characters they created. The collaboration, “WonderGrove Wizard of Oz,” debuted in August at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
“TEDxSnoIsleLibraries was a great kick start for us,” Thoren said. “We announced Story Maker on that stage in 2015. Then we had to deliver, and we did.”