With a host of wildlife shows aimed at younger viewers to their credit, nature documentary filmmakers and brothers Martin and Chris Kratt have become a combination of David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau for the pre- and elementary school audience. Their current series, WILD KRATTS, is now in its second season on PBS (check local listings for days and times), with a one-hour special, WILD KRATTS LOST AT SEA, that aired Monday Jan. 21 and is now available on DVD.
Martin, wearing a blue shirt, designates himself as “the swimming one,” and Chris, in a green shirt, refers to himself as “the climbing one.” Talking to them, however, it’s clear that both love everything that swims, climbs, flies, runs or otherwise moves about our planet.
AX: What age group is this for?
MARTIN: WILD KRATTS is for kids. I would say five to eight is the sweet spot. We’re getting younger kids and older kids watching it, but that is really the age where they’re so excited about animals, and that’s what the show is geared towards.
AX: Have you been interested in animals your whole lives?
MARTIN: We grew up on one of those exotic wildlife locations – the wilds of suburbanNew Jersey. We had some orphaned possums that we took care of when we were little. That was one of our first wildlife experiences.
CHRIS: Garter snakes, box turtles – we always had box turtles in the spring
MARTIN: Wherever you live – we’ve gone to the Northeast, we’ve gone to the deserts out West, and we’re trying to show kids what the animals are in their very own backyards. And in cities, peregrine falcons, pigeons.
AX: When did guys decide that you wanted to get into filmmaking?
MARTIN: I think we were always interested in animals as kids, went to college, both of us studied zoology and biology, and we started going on trips with professors, and then at some point realized, ‘Hey, there are no wildlife shows for kids,’ and we started making these home videos, and we went from Costa Rica, came back, edited them in the basement in New Jersey, showed them to kids at schools, and then we went off to Madagascar with another professor and did the same thing again, and then we went off to the Amazon with another professor, filmed giant otters and wild peccaries and came back and then that film, THE KRATT BROTHERS’ AMAZON ADVENTURE, won an award at the International Wildlife Film Festival. The kids at the schools encouraged us. Because we kept getting rejected by broadcasters, and producers were like, “Oh, that’s not going to work,” but the kids loved it, so we just kept going, and ultimately, Alice Cahn at PBS, based on that AMAZON ADVENTURE, she greenlit KRATTS’ CREATURES, our first series.
AX: Then you had ZOBOOMAFOO, and then BE THE CREATURE …
CHRIS: BE THE CREATURE was all on location. We went and lived with different animals for three, four weeks at a time, we were with them twenty-four/seven, like reporters embedded into their lifestyle, and we’d follow them around and really try to get a sense of what it was like to be that creature. And so we spent three weeks following around a pack of African wild dogs and really understanding how they hunt and how their society works, how they work together by leaving babysitters behind when the rest of the party goes off on hunting forays –
MARTIN: And one of those babysitters was killed by a leopard. You never know what’s going to happen and the story unfolded the way it does, every day.
AX: If you’re aiming at four-to-eight-year-olds, are you okay with showing a leopard killing a wild dog?
MARTIN: Well, no, we didn’t show that. You have to be careful, because we don’t want to upset the audience, but it is also nature, so we just try to find the right balance.
CHRIS: Yeah, and with our new series, WILD KRATTS, which is designed for six-to-eight, six-to-nine-year-olds, every time we do a new episode, we’re constantly finding the balance of what’s appropriate.
MARTIN: Especially because it’s really popular with four-year-olds, too. We’ve got to keep everybody happy [laughs].
AX: What is the format of WILD KRATTS?
MARTIN: Chris and I start out in live-action with an animal. We give the kids some background on the animal, the habitat it lives in. And then we ask that question – what if? What if we could discover all those other things? What if we could get the abilities of the animal? And then we launch into this animated adventure where we can see things and do things you can’t really do in a wildlife documentary. [People know about] the sperm whale and the giant squid and how they battled beneath the sea, but we could never see it. Just last month, the Japanese got the first footage of giant squid. Basically, you can’t see it too well, but they got a picture, because it’s so hard to work [at that depth in the ocean], but that’s one of the reasons we do animation with WILD KRATTS, to show all those amazing things that animals do that you just can’t see. One of the fundamental things that happens in each episode is, we discover the creature powers through the creature power suits and we get the abilities of the animals. Like for example, you do a cheetah episode with the cheetah power suit, you can run like a cheetah. Kids of this age, they want to fly like a peregrine falcon, they want to swim like a dolphin. And so it’s a bit of experiential learning in WILD KRATTS, where the main character gets these abilities and gets to do what the animals do.
AX: So are the Wild Kratts animated versions of the two of you?
MARTIN AND CHRIS: Yes!
MARTIN: We do our live-action thing and then we say, “Imagine if we could swim like dolphins.”
MARTIN AND CHRIS: “What if?”
MARTIN: And then [makes transition noise]. We turn into animation.
AX: Are you wearing dolphin suits in the animation?
CHRIS: No, we wear power suits. Once we go through the scientific process of observing and learning how these animals do what they do and what the secret to their abilities is, then Aviva [played by Athena Karkanis], this engineer/inventor character, she develops these suits and they’re her best invention yet, so she can put that knowledge into creating the suit. And the suit doesn’t make us change, we’re still human beings, but the suit grows around us, giving us these powers.
MARTIN: We have a platypus, for example. We have a scuba suit-type thing, but it’s got that bill with the electro-receptors on it so we can swim in the dark without seeing anything, but sense the electricity coming off objects and animals.
AX: Do you have a favorite animal or type of animal to observe?
CHRIS: You know, a lot of kids ask us what our favorite animal is, and it’s pretty much impossible to pick one [laughs]. The animals that I really like a lot are the Mustelids, the weasel family – wolverines, otters, badgers. It’s just a really diverse family.
MARTIN: It’s funny, when I’m writing a script, I’ll start with an animal, and even an animal I might not be too excited about, like, “Okay, we’ve got to do an episode on pigeons,” doing the research, I find out that pigeons are the only bird that feeds a milk-like substance to their chicks. And they secrete it from their esophagus and the chicks have these straw-like beaks when they’re first hatched, and they drink the milk from the mother and the father. It’s crazy – it’s pigeon milk [laughs]. I never knew about that until last year when we started writing the scripts, and I thought, “Wow, it’s not just the homing instincts that are amazing, but there’s this hidden thing.”
AX: Do WILD KRATTS episodes have plots?
MARTIN: Absolutely. The animals that we encounter, they’re often characters – we have an episode about Slider the otter that we’re writing right now. And we have three villains, Zack, Gourmand and Donita, who have different kinds of villainous endeavors that kind of get animals in jeopardy, and then we’ve got to go help them, and do creature rescue and activating creature powers to help save the animals, so that’s a part of it, too. Other times, there could be a storm, or somebody loses the keys to ourTortuga, our big ship, and we have to find them down at the bottom of the sea. What’s fun about this show is, the ideas for stories and the content for stories – they’re almost infinite, because there are over eight million species of animals, so you never run out of new characters, and there’s always something new to learn about them, and it’s been really fun to write scripts for the show.
AX: With the possible exception of pigeon milk, what’s been the most surprising thing you’ve found out in your research?
CHRIS: Just some of the things we’re doing right now. We’re doing a show on possums. Opossums have this collection of really bizarre creature powers. They have that ability to play dead as a defense. It’s involuntary. If they’re in trouble, they just suddenly collapse. And then the predator doesn’t get them – predators don’t like to eat dead things. And also, and a lot of people don’t know this, they’re also totally immune to snake venom. If one [snake] strikes and bites one [possum], it’s only like a bee sting to them, it’s hardly anything. And they can carry things in their tail – they can coil up and carry bundles of leaves and branches back to their nest to make their dens.
MARTIN: The other thing is cheetah cubs, when they’re really young and they’re left hiding in the grass by their mothers, their coloration might mimic a honey badger that’s white on top and black on the sides, because they’re a really fierce Mustelid that nobody really wants to mess with in Africa, so if predators see that color in the grass, they think, “Whoa, it’s a honey badger, we’re not going to mess with it,” and it’s really a cheetah cub.
CHRIS: There are some cool animals in this hour-long special that’s airing January 21. One of the amazing things about dolphins is, they have a well-developed language. Scientists have now catalogued hundreds of different types of clicks and whistles that dolphins make that basically form a language, and even more incredible than that, each individual dolphin has a very specific click and whistle that is his or her own. So they basically have names. And the other dolphins call them by that name, and they use that name when referring to themselves.
AX: When you shoot your live footage with animals, do you actually go to a location?
MARTIN: Right now, we go to a location. We did six episodes in the rain forest, we went to Belize, and we did an episode on hummingbirds, spider monkeys, jaguars, and so we filmed there, and then for “Lost at Sea,” we went to the Bahamas for dolphins, blowfish, sea horses, sea turtles, frogfish.
AX: What’s a frogfish?
CHRIS: Oh, they’re crazy, awesome fish. They’re all mouth. They can swallow something two times their size and it just somehow fits in their mouth. They have the fastest strike of any animal in the creature world. It’s like a combination of a gulp/suck. They jut their jaws forward and their jaws expand so fast, in such a short amount of time, that it creates a suction with the water, and they launch their jaws out toward the animal and it gets sucked in at the same time. They’ll walk on the bottom on their fins [laughs].
AX: How do you deal with topics like endangered species without upsetting younger viewers?
MARTIN: We talk about endangered species, but it’s not like a real focus. We’re more focused on introducing kids to animals, how great all the animals that share this planet with us are. Through looking at their creature powers, we’re also looking at a lot of science concepts. For example, when you’re doing something on skunks, you’re really getting into chemistry. When you’re dealing with peregrine falcons and how they achieve those speeds of two hundred miles an hour, you’re dealing with how they harness gravity, so you’re working with physics. The aim of this show is to introduce kids to science and introduce kids to the amazing animals that share the planet with us. Every episode has a science concept. Math, too.
CHRIS: Yeah. We have a series of games online at PBSKids.org/wildkratts that are all math-based games, and so they teach math as you play them. We also have our first WILD KRATTS app called “Wild Kratts Creature Power app,” and there are three mini-games in the app. That’s for the iPhone and the iPod Touch. When you really think about it, any scientific concept that you want to teach, there’s an animal connection, there’s an animal that uses that concept in its daily life. Physics, chemistry, even something as far out there as electricity – there are electric eels who have three organs in their bodies that are basically batteries, and they set off an electrical charge and when the circuit is completed, they stun their prey. It’s amazing what you can teach kids through animals and kids love animals.
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Article: Exclusive Interview: WILD KRATTS hosts Martin and Chris Kratt go animal