“A good story starts with a character, someone the audience can relate to,” explains 20-year FableVision veteran John Lechner. “If the audience cares about a character, they will follow them through any journey, and cheer when they succeed.”
For this story, May’s FableFriday, the main character is John – art director, children’s book author, nature enthusiast, animator, puppeteer, and co-founder of FableVision. He recently shared a bit of about his journey to FableVision, family life, and creative passion.
What's your journey to FableVision story? How did you meet the Reynolds brothers?
After college, I worked at a few different jobs doing graphic design, but I really wanted to do more with illustration or publishing. I sent resumes and samples everywhere, with few results. A friend told me about an educational technology publisher company called Tom Snyder Productions. I had an interview there, and also at their new satellite office that Peter had started, which he called FableVision. It was located in the offices of CF Video, a company run by Bill Churchill and Paul Reynolds.
Peter hired me as a freelancer to work on animated software for schools. The FableVision office had five people and one dog in a small room, and I used a program called Autodesk Animator. (This was years before Flash came along.) About a year later, FableVision became part of CF Video, and I became a full-time employee. I didn’t know much about animation at the time, I was mainly an illustrator, but I learned as I went. I realized over time that I was part of something special, a studio that would survive several recessions and many changes while keeping true to its core vision. I'm proud to have helped build such a wonderful company.
As one of FableVision’s co-founders, how have you seen FableVision grow? What has it changed? What has stayed the same?
Physically the company grew in size, and became independent of its parent company CF Video (later Cosmic Blender.) We started as an animation company, but then began to build our interactive capabilities, doing our own in-house software development, and publishing our own educational products. Our office expanded a few times, moving to a bigger space in Watertown and then a bigger space (where we are now) in Boston, above the Children’s Museum.
Through all this, much has remained the same. Our tagline from the early days was Stories That Matter, Stories That Move – that’s remained intact and at the core of what we create. We still strive to create projects that make the world a better place, that inspire creative learning, and help everyone achieve their true potential. We have a collaborative team, and everyone is allowed to give their creative input. And we still have many of the same toys on the shelf as we did twenty years ago!
What connects you to FableVision's mission?
I love to create stories, so I love the storytelling approach to many of our projects. I also share the learning philosophy of FableVision, that children are natural learners and we should tap into their natural curiosity, rather than force information upon them. I also like how FableVision does so many different things, from animation to websites to software, and we’re always pushing the boundaries of what we do. That makes it a very exciting place to work.
You come from a big family! How do you think that influenced you as a creative person?
I grew up as one of seven children, each with our own creative interests, so we all inspired each other. My parents encouraged all this creativity, and they didn’t mind art projects everywhere. There was always music in the house, and I learned to play the violin and guitar. We put on plays, concerts, and puppet shows. I think it inspired me to think creatively, to be open to a world of possibilities.
What's your favorite project you've worked on at FableVision and why?
It is hard to single out a favorite project, but one that stands out is the animated film of The North Star, based on the picture book by Peter H. Reynolds. It allowed our team of animators to shine, and it truly was a story that mattered, and also moved people. We animated it using Flash and After Effects to bring Peter’s watercolors to life.
Tell us a bit about your creative process!
That depends a lot on the project. When I’m creating designs, illustrations, or storyboards, I usually brainstorm in my head – I imagine different possibilities, and sketch out the ones that seem the most plausible. Those are refined later. For my books, I usually write story ideas in a hardcover sketchbook, then work on various drafts and revisions.
I’m not always objective about my own work because the vision in my head is often so strong it overshadows what actually gets down on paper. So I often like to take time away from a project, then come back to it and see it with fresh eyes. With my illustrated books, I usually end up doing the final illustration twice (or more) because I inevitably think of ways to make it better.
Do you have a creative workspace at home? What’s it like?
My workspace changes depending on the project. I have a studio where I can write or paint, but I often work on the floor, or the dining room table, or any open space. Since I work on many projects at once, I tend to fill up all my available spaces. And I also do different kinds of projects, so I’ll often need to move a pile of research books to work on an ink drawing, or push aside my watercolors in order to cut out shadow puppets.
How does puppetry play into your passion for storytelling?
For me, puppetry is another medium for telling stories. Creating a puppet show is much like creating a book or animated film, you get to bring a story to life in a way that's totally unique. There is something magical about seeing the characters in a story moving in front of you, in the same room. It really builds a strong connection between storyteller and audience that’s different than a book or film, and very unique.
Can you tell us about your involvement with Puppet Showplace Theater?
Puppet Showplace Theater is a unique little theater in Brookline, MA, that was started in 1974 by an educator and puppeteer named Mary Churchill. It is still going strong today, presenting live puppet theater for all ages. I am currently President of their Board of Trustees, and I have also performed there several times.
As one of the few permanent puppet theaters in the country, I think it’s a vital cultural institution that helps preserve a unique art form. Especially in this age of electronic devices, live theater can inspire young minds like nothing else, and puppet theater incorporates multiple levels of learning and storytelling that make it truly special. Like all nonprofit arts organizations, Puppet Showplace Theater is supported by donations, and you can learn more about the theater here.
Who is Sticky Burr?
Sticky Burr is a character I created for a webcomic in the 1990s. He lives in the forest and has adventures with other burrs. He was inspired by the burrs in our backyard when I was a kid, and I created the webcomic to help inspire children to look at nature more closely. The stories often include insects, birds, and other animals that live in the forest. I’ve also created books and animations based on the characters. You can learn more at the Sticky Burr website. www.stickyburr.com
What’s your favorite piece you’ve created for a FableVision Creative Juices art show?
It’s hard to say, but a particular favorite was a 3D paper sculpture that I designed for one of the shelf spaces. I’ve always liked shadow puppets and silhouettes, which are so different than my usual style of illustration. This is something I would like to do more of.