Bears for adults and kids

Daniel Chong’s (above) We Bare Bears shows a grizzly, a panda and a polar bear stacked on top of one another.
Daniel Chong’s (above) We Bare Bears shows a grizzly, a panda and a polar bear stacked on top of one another.PHOTO: CARTOON NETWORK

American animator Daniel Chong, whose parents were Singaporean, talks about his hit cartoon We Bare Bears

Award-winning animator Daniel Chong, the son of Singaporean immigrants to the United States, has created a hit with We Bare Bears, a charming new animated series that has become one of the top shows on the Cartoon Network.

The 36-year-old is one of several up-and-coming Asian American animators who have risen through the ranks at Pixar - the powerhouse behind Toy Story (1995), Finding Nemo (2003) and Wall-E (2008) - to helm major new animation projects this year, among them the Pixar movie The Good Dinosaur by director Peter Sohn, which opens in Singapore this week.

Chong's We Bare Bears is a comedy that follows three bear siblings - a panda bear, a polar bear and a grizzly - as they awkwardly attempt to fit into human society.

Daniel Chong’s We Bare Bears (above) shows a grizzly, a panda and a polar bear stacked on top of one another. PHOTO: CARTOON NETWORK

The show, which debuts on the Cartoon Network in Singapore today (6pm, Singtel TV Channel 226 or StarHub TV Channel 316), will see the Grizz, Panda and Ice Bear wrestling with modern dilemmas, such as how to handle online relationships, attract more "likes" on social media or get their paws on the latest foodie fad.

Speaking to Life at the Cartoon Network studios in Los Angeles, where he is now based, Chong - whose resume includes stints at Disney, Nickelodeon as well as Pixar, where he worked on this year's critically acclaimed feature Inside Out - reveals that the bears and the way they stack on top of one another while walking were borne of an attempt to make a little girl laugh.

"How it began was a little arbitrary. I was in a library with my girlfriend's niece and I was trying to make her laugh, so I was doodling and that's just what came out. I don't know why it was bears, that's just the idea that made her laugh the most," says Chong, whose show was picked up for a second season after it topped US TV ratings for children aged two to 11 in July.

As for why the bears move around in a stack, "again, there's really no reason for it, I was just desperately trying to get a kid to laugh".

But like many successful contemporary cartoons, We Bare Bears has appealed to adults as well, and now has an enthusiastic and age-diverse following online, with "a lot of fan blogs or Tumblrs that have been created by people just screen- grabbing weird images of the bears".

I was in a library with of The Life e-magazine: my girlfriend’s niece and I was trying to make her laugh, so I was doodling and that’s just what came out. I don’t know why it was bears, that’s just the idea that made her laugh the most.

DANIEL CHONG on how he created his cartoon show

He adds: "One of the nice things, too, is seeing how people are slowly trying to understand what the show is about. It can be about technology but it can also be about relationships and emotions, and can get very broad and go into different genres.

"When we aired an episode called Burrito, which was a very emotional episode for the bears, the fan response was great. I think all of a sudden they realised, 'This show can make me cry'.

"They now know this isn't just a show with goofy jokes but something they can hang on to emotionally. I knew that was going to be important for the longevity of the show."

The series also stands out because it juxtaposes a somewhat mature sense of humour with a visual style that recalls the hand-drawn illustrations from children's books.

Aesthetically, Chong found inspiration in his favourites from the genre, particularly the original Winnie The Pooh series.

He says: "I looked at that artwork a lot and the charm and warmth brought by the illustrator definitely had an influence on the show."

It is no accident that the bears' ages are somewhat ambiguous.

"They're not kids even though they have childlike dispositions. But I don't want to say they're adults either. So they're kind of in this amorphous range where they do adult things, but like kids."

The idea was to create a show for all ages, which is something Chong learnt from his days at Disney and Pixar.

"The goal was never to create a show just for kids, we never wanted to do something limiting or that felt like it was talking down to any children," says the animator, who last year won an Annie Award for his storyboarding work on Pixar's first television special, Toy Story Of Terror!.

"One thing I brought from my experience in feature animation at Pixar and Disney is that neither of those studios makes things just for children either. They're making things for general audiences that everybody will relate to, and I think I brought that same sensibility," he says. "So I'm very happy we're getting a nice range of fans that come from all ages."

He reports that fans are also responding positively to the fact that the human communities the bears find themselves in are ethnically diverse ones.

He says: "They live in  the Bay Area around San Francisco, which is very multicultural, and I wanted this show to represent a lot of different cultures and show all the different kinds of people you see in the city. So far, the reaction's been pretty good to the diversity on this show."

The animator is an American citizen who was born in the US, where his Singaporean parents moved in 1973 so that his engineer father could pursue a different career. He says that while most of his influences are American, his exposure to Asian cultures, including a lot of time spent in Singapore when he was young, has undoubtedly shaped his work.

He admits to having a soft spot for the Japanese "kawaii" or cute aesthetic, which he says has grown more popular in the US.

"Cute culture in general is a huge thing right now. The Internet embraces it wholeheartedly, the number of cat blogs tells us that," he says.

"That whole thing is now really huge in American culture, and it's something I embrace - it definitely influences our show."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Bears for adults and kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe