City Island creator gets short with musical spinoff series City Island Sings

Civic engagement-centric songs take the spotlight in this short-form series from Future Brain Media and PBS Kids.
City Island Sings - credit: PBS
City Island Sings - credit: PBS /

For some people, singing and civic engagement don't sound like a typical pairing, but the PBS KIDS music video series City Island Sings proves to viewers that it's okay to be anything but typical!

City Island Sings is a music video series from the same minds who created City Island, which also currently airs on PBS KIDS. City Island takes place in is a living city where the citizens are objects. One of the lead characters, Watt the lightbulb helps everyone in town with his big ideas and centers on how kids can be engaged and active in their own communities through civic activities such as voting, understanding city planning, and being a positive neighbor. The cast includes Kimia Behpoornia (Abbott Elementary, Reboot), Kimiko Glenn (Kiff, Hazbin Hotel), Ellen Cleghorne, Michael-Leon Wooley (The Tiny Chef Show), James Adomian, Branson Reese, and James III (The Fairly Odd Parents: A New Wish).

City Island is the inaugural series from Future Brain Media, a new company under Aaron Augenblick of Augenblick Studios. Augenblick is responsible for many adult animated favorites but his foray into kids animation with co-founder Daniel Powell, speaks to the range that the studio has in terms of both story and style. The series also features music from Tunde Adebimpe, an actor and musician of the band TV on the Radio. With a wide range of musical inspirations in this slate of videos including Dua Lipa to David Bowie, this is definitely a show for the whole family to enjoy while learning more about civic engagement.

We sat down with Augenblick to learn more about why City Island Sings was created, what's in store for future episodes of the series, and which City Island inhabitant he relates to the most! All this and more in the interview below. Check it out!

The Parent Watch: I know your background lies in adult animation. You've been a director, producer, founder of Augenblick Studios. I wanted to know, from your perspective, some of the major differences that you saw in the development stage as you brought City Island to life under Future Brain Media.

Aaron Augenblick: You are starting with a really good question! I mainly did primetime animation at places like Adult Swim, Comedy Central and Netflix. I decided to expand our company into kids' entertainment as well, just because I got so excited and impressed by what was happening in the kids’ space. I had an interest in, to be honest, doing something a little more meaningful for our viewers. 

When you're developing something for PBS KIDS, specifically, they have a very incredible team of people to make sure that every message, every piece of information, and all of the curriculum is very, very carefully checked. When we are developing a show with a primetime network we ask, “Is it funny? Are there characters there that we want to hang out with?” What's interesting is that this doesn't change when we're doing City Island. The mechanisms of making a cartoon are still important to us. Are there characters that we like? Is it a place that we want to be at? Is the show funny? Is there good storytelling? All of those things are virtually the same in creating City Island and City Island Sings except there are these added elements: Is there a message? Is there information being transmitted that's going to be meaningful for our viewers? It’s just one of the most thrilling moments in my career to be able to do something like this.

I got to watch the episode "Let's Vote." Super catchy, funny, and love the pop culture references right from the beginning. I think a lot of families will recognize them. I know there are some shows that have been done in the past discussing civic engagement, what do you think sets City Island and City Island Sings apart from those shows?

All along, even before I had fully researched the curriculum, the show was always about community. It was always about engaging with the community, conflict resolution, and city planning. It's about what goes on when people are working together and meeting together for a common goal - which in a lot of ways is just to have a good life and a good safe place to exist. What's unique about City Island is we can be very symbolic because the city itself is alive. You can talk to a subway car, and they can tell you about what it's like to transport people. You can talk to a plane. You can talk to a road. A road can tell you what they do. To be able to reveal the workings of a city by talking to the city itself is really cool. In City Island Sings, we got this incredible opportunity to do it to music. Nothing is catchier and more engaging than when you're hearing information that's powerful in music. We're creating these songs that are telling you how communities operate. And hopefully these songs are catchy and fun as well as informative!

You touched upon the themes of cooperation, conflict resolution, city planning, and making it digestible for a child audience. I wanted to know, from your perspective, from the adult perspective, did you find yourself learning or even discovering new perspectives about civic education as you developed the show?

I will be honest, when we started making a civics show, I had to learn all about civics. I'm an animator. I have a degree in animation. Isn't it exciting to learn about something new that you didn't expect you would find so interesting? I didn't realize until I started digging into civics and social studies, how accessible it is, because in the end, it is about community, and it's about people. As a person who runs an animation studio, the majority of my career has been spent finding ways for people to collaborate, getting the best out of people, and making a happy work environment for people to do their best. That's essentially a microcosm for what a city does. You're trying to make a place that runs smoothly. One where people can do their best, and feel safe, happy and collaborative. 

Another reason why our show remains so varied in our topics is because there's so much to cover. Within these 10 music videos that we're going to be premiering on May 29th, we have an economics episode, an episode about media literacy, an episode about social studies, and one about how voting works (which you saw). We're able to cover all these different topics, but in the end, it's all about community.

Honestly, what I admire about the City Island series itself, and also in addition City Island Sings, is that every character is unique, and they mirror people that we know as well. When it comes to the music videos, you have media literacy and all of those, with the songs. How much of a hand did you have in the development of that part? I would love to learn more about it.

The blessing and the curse of the way I run my studio is I am involved in everything. I love it because it's my favorite thing to do. Another thing I love to do is to make animations with my friends. From the initial brainstorming, PBS KIDS was gracious enough to say, “Wow, we think it'd be really cool to make music videos for City Island because the music is so strong”. They gave us this opportunity largely because we have our incredible composer, Tunde Adebimpe, doing all the music. The first thing we did as a creative team is brainstorm what would be the coolest, most fun, most interesting music videos that we could do  based on curriculum cues. But from brainstorming the initial concepts, we needed to decide what the music would be. “Oh, it'll be really cool to do a country song.” ’‘Oh, let's do a Dua Lipa pop song!’ We're all just throwing out ideas. My lyricist, Daniel Powell, who is interestingly enough the co-owner of my company, Future Brain Media, wrote the lyrics for these songs. He would write rough lyrics based on what we were going for and then collaborate with Tunde, who would shape the lyrics and put them into a song. We would talk a lot about music and inspirations, and what type of tempo and feel. Then Tunde would come up with a rough [cut]. Next, we would start designing, storyboarding, animating, and then compositing, adding effects and everything like that for each episode. This was a real opportunity to do an animated short series completely in-house. We did the whole thing in Brooklyn from beginning to end. 

From your vantage point as a producer and also an executive, as you own your own studio, specifically why is this the right time to put out City Island Sings?

Well, another great question. So at the risk of sounding corny, it's an important time for these kinds of messages about community, and feeling safe about the world because our target audience is having a challenging time. Much of our audience has been growing up during the pandemic. For some of them, their formative years were spent in lockdown. They couldn't even go to school. They couldn't go out to play with their friends. There's a fear about the world. It’s important for us to be able to put out music videos that put you in a good mood, and also foster this idea of a friendly, safe community that you want to explore. These are the people at your school! This is what the city does! This is what's going on out there. Let's vote. Let's do stuff. It's a very proactive series that really is meant to make kids feel good about the world through good songs. I really hope that if there are kids out there who are feeling a little anxious or nervous about the world because they've grown up in an uneasy world, these music videos will make them feel a little better and a little positive about the future.

What's your favorite character in City Island?

At work, they call me a “Watt Head”. To be very honest, Watt was the autobiographical character for me when I created the show. A lot of my inner child went into Watt. I was a kid pretty much exactly like Watt -  very excited about doing things, very excited about the world and my friends, but having no idea what I was doing. The kid who would decide to start a club, make a comic book, do music, make a movie or do any of the wild things that Watt does while having no actual knowledge to back it up, to me, is very relatable. I love people and I like doing things, and I don't always know how to do those things. I like learning along the way. I love Watt. I think he's a cool character. I think he is a rare character to see. I like optimistic characters that enjoy the adventure of life, if that makes sense, without having to know that much or be good at anything. I get inspiration from the movie Rushmore or Pee-wee Herman or characters that just want to do things.

Watt is interesting because he likes people. He likes doing stuff. He just needs to learn how to do it. I think Watt is my favorite, but I like everyone in City Island a lot.

You're able to say that you identify with the character. I think that's amazing.

A lot of the stories, I will admit, stem from things that happened to me when I was a kid. Not only do we have the City Island Sings songs coming out on May 29th, we also have a new season of City Island premiering on July 5th. We have 20 new episodes in Season 2, as well as the 10 new City Island Sings music videos. So we're going to have 30 new episodes of City Island this year! I will admit a lot of stories come from things that happened to me when I was a kid, like making a comic book that people don't want to buy, or learning how to make a movie because it seems like fun. 

Well, that's amazing. I'm super excited to watch those episodes when they come out. We have to wait a while, but I think it'll be well worth the wait. ‘Let's Vote’ already was good. So if that's setting the tone, then I think it's going to be really, really good.

"Let’s Vote" is our tribute to David Bowie, who is all of our favorite musician. You will see with the music videos, we get to change up the style every episode. That was something we were excited to do because we're artists and cartoonists, and we like playing with styles. This one was our tribute to Pop art, and people like Lichtenstein and Warhol, so we gave it this really big, bright Pop art look with our David Bowie sound. I think it's pretty fun! 

Warhol, that's definitely a New York staple!  

You got it! We do a little Keith Haring too!

City Island Sings premieres across streaming platforms every Wednesday and Friday beginning May 29. New episodes of City Island will begin airing every Friday beginning July 5.

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