Chloe Lang is the name of the ten-year-old American actress who plays Stephanie in the next season of the TV series about LazyTown, which is currently being filmed. Chloe is a great athlete who loves to sing and dance. She is excited to see herself on screen. What is your full name and how old are you?My name is Chloe Lang and I am 10 years old. Where are you from? I live in Connecticut,...
It did not go well when a 5,000 sqm studio was furnished in Hafnarfjarðarhraun at the beginning of the year. Icelanders did not pay much attention to the fact that over 130 artists worked hard indoors to create a 40-episode TV series for some of the largest television stations in the United States. Now that the show has been unveiled in the United States, who knows if Nickelodeon’s prediction, that all children in the United States and Europe will know LazyTown, will soon come true. Anna G. Ólafsdóttir met Magnús Scheving, the man behind the biggest film project in Icelandic history.
“Once when I was complaining to a friend that I was so tired that I could hardly crawl up the stairs in my block after work, he said to me: ‘My Maggi – you know that the kite of success can only fly high against the wind of adversity.’ I think that’s where he hit the nail on the head as far as LazyTown is concerned. If the wind of adversity had not been as strong as it actually is, I am sure that LazyTown would not have as safe a flight towards success as we are witnessing today” says Magnús Scheving, entrepreneur and director of the largest film project in Icelandic history, that is creating 40 TV episodes about Sportacus, Robbie Rotten, Stephanie, Ziggy, Pixel and all the other colorful inhabitants of LazyTown.
The first episodes have received a very positive response from the public and critics in the United States. Magnús received the Nordic Public Health Prize for his contribution to improving public health in the Nordic countries this week.
Twelve years of struggle
The struggle for the spread of the LazyTown message has been both long and hard. “The idea for LazyTown came to light 12 years ago” says Magnús and fits in well in the spacious living room in LazyTown’s 5,000 sqm studio in Garðabær. “I was always giving lectures for children, teenagers and adults about healthy living. For natural reasons, the youngest children often had difficulty sitting still and concentrating on long lectures. Gradually, I began to try to bring the lectures to life.
After Karl Helgason, the editor of Æskun – Godfather of LazyTown, got to know what I was doing, he asked if I wanted to write a book in the spirit of the lectures. I did not have to think twice. I saw in my mind that in a book I could reach more kids and answer the most common questions from the kids in the lectures in a fun story” says Magnús and informs that in fact he did not take the time to write the book. “I recorded it on a recorder and my friend typed it into a computer” he continues. “Otherwise, it’s nice to say that according to my calculations, I have given a total of 3,866 lectures in 11 years.”
But why LazyTown? – “The answer is simple” says Magnús with a smile on his face. “Smoking was the leading cause of death 11 years ago. During my research, I found that everything indicated that inactivity and malnutrition would be the leading cause of death for people within a few years, as it turns out. So I decided to take a step back and started educating my children through entertainment, like LazyTown. The first task was to create a healthy model. Of course it is very strange that such a model has never been created except maybe Popeye The Sailor Man. But then again, he also doesn’t quite fit in because he drinks alcohol with the spinach and doesn’t set a good example in various other ways.”
Magnús says that everyone understands the basic elements of Sportacus. “Everyone understands caring and movement. A happy child jumps like Sportacus. I wanted to be able to imitate myself in the role model. Therefore, I had to learn all kinds of new skills, e.g. I learned to do the ‘split thirties’ and thus had to become even more flexible than I was before. Sportacus is positive and encourages children to live life to the fullest. The counterbalance to Sportacus is Robbie Rotten. Who has not met Robbie Rotten? He always looks for the easiest way, is lazy and makes us believe that we can not achieve our goals in life. The other inhabitants of LazyTown are in between and create endless material.”
Magnús recalls that he often had to answer why LazyTown was called LazyTown and not HappyTown. “I can not answer that other than that in LazyTown there is a certain challenge. We have all visited LazyTown, i.e. having to choose between sitting and standing up and moving in a constructive way. Lazytown is about choice. You have the choice to live a healthy life. “
One step at a time
Magnús says that the idea of LazyTown was further developed between 1992 and 1998. “I can actually say that the process was in two parts. On the one hand I was accompanied by Snorri Frey Hilmarsson, set designer, Máni Svavarsson, musician, Guðmund Þór Kárason and Stefán Jörgen Ágústsson, puppet makers, to design a kind of Bible for LazyTown, in addition to making puppets for the main characters. We gathered in one book information about the main characteristics, background and appearance of every single person in town. As you can see” says Magnus, picking up the Bible. “We drew every single person, every single house, and all the surroundings of LazyTown as accurately as we could, based on three-dimensional, cartoon, and puppet-making results.”
The second part concerned the business side of the project. “After we turned to the business side, Ágúst Freyr Ingason joined the group. We must not forget two good women either. My wife Ragnheiður Melsteð has been my right hand from the beginning. I have sometimes said that the only reason why the financial side worked out was that I slept with the CFO” says Magnús and smiles. “The other woman’s name is Magdalena Guðmundsdóttir or Lena, what her name is. She started taking care of the children during the working time of Ragnheiður. Now she has become a full-fledged business graduate and has started working for us in LazyTown.”
“We always made sure to take one step at a time – make business plans and acquire knowledge. Honestly, I can say that I made a conscious decision to spend more time educating myself and my people than to buy knowledge from outside. We were actually for 3 years in rigid study in how we should achieve good results, e.g. we attended 260 meetings with our competitors at that time” says Magnús and states that they have been very well received everywhere. “I think one of the main reasons for that was that people underestimated us and didn’t realize what we could and were going to do.”
At the same time, two plays based on stories about LazyTown were premiered, videos, board games, music CDs, books with CDs were published, as well as clothing and shoes. “In the end, we developed the Lató economy and set up our own radio station” says Magnús, explaining why the radio station was established. “Máni Svavarsson and I began to wonder why so little music for children was played on the radio, and in fact we witnessed and blushed completely when we found out that Vitinn was the only children’s time on the radio. We therefore decided to establish our own radio station with the support of private parties. After some struggle, that radio station has been established, e.g. with support from vegetable farmers, Búnaðarbanki, Orkuveita Reykjavíkur, Toyota and Cheerios.”
After testing LazyTown in Iceland, the group decided that it was time to introduce the product abroad in 2002. “Before that, however, we had to make some changes in view of the fact that we were going to a foreign market. We designed a new costume for Sportacus to make him look like a superhero, Trixie became Asian, Pixel became dark skinned, Ziggy was Swedish and so on. After some deliberation, we decided not to start in Europe because it was rare for material to reach from Europe to the United States. We thought it would be better to go straight to the largest television market in the world in the United States and got Icelandic investors to invest in making a three-minute introductory video to promote LazyTown in the United States. “The video was ready in November 2002.” After we had the video in my hands, the wheels began to turn for real” says Magnús. “In September 2003, we signed an agreement with the American television station Nickelodeon to make 40 episodes. Nickelodeon covers more than 86 million homes in the United States and has a 51% market share in children’s content.”
“The management of the television station were at first skeptical that we could produce the television programs in Iceland. This attitude is perhaps not strange in view of the fact that Icelanders have never embarked on such a large-scale film project before. In the end, we got through to the fact that the shows would be made in Iceland. Now 20 episodes have been completed and another 20 will be ready by the end of the year. Each episode is 24 minutes long and takes an average of 5.7 days to complete, compared to 8 days in the United States.”
Studio in 50 days
The production of 40 TV shows in a combination of the usual TV movie, puppets and cartoon is an extensive project. Magnús says that the preparation went incredibly fast, e.g. it has only taken 50 days to set up the studio in Garðabær. The studio is not only wonderfully well equipped, but all the facilities for employees are exemplary. The building includes a gym, sauna, spacious dining room, spacious living room with pool table and fireplace.
A total of 130 people, including 40 people from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Greece, are working on the episodes and live in rental apartments in the capital area. “I do not know if everyone realizes what kind of geniuses are working on the production of the show, for example my assistant director Richard Patrick has been both Woody Allen’s right hand man in most of his films and in some of Oliver Stones’ films. The puppet maker Neal Scanlan won the Oscar for the Babe puppet, Richard Welnowski received the Emmy Award for special effects in 1990 and so on” says Magnús.
He himself plays the role of the Sports Elf or Sportacus as he is called in English. Stefán Karl Stefánsson plays Glanni glæpur (Robbie Rotten) and Julianna Rose Mauriello plays Solla Stirða (Stephanie). “Julianna is a 13 years old girl from New York and was chosen from a large group of girls her age. She moved with her mother to Iceland to be on the recording – does distance learning for school on the Internet and is doing extremely well, both at school and in the role. She and Stefán Karl are sure to become world famous for their performance in LazyTown” says Magnús and sits back when asked if he does not expect world fame for himself. “You have to understand that I’m not an actor. I’m more of an athlete” he adds thoughtfully. The other inhabitants of LazyTown are puppets and need up to three people to control the movements of each puppet. The background is then designed in one of the most perfect three-dimensional studios in the world – in Garðabær.
Lazytown in Time Square
The first LazyTown episode premiered on Nick Jr. television in the United States on August 16, 2004. Four episodes have now been shown on the television station and it is expected that the episodes will be shown 511 times a year for three years on the station. It was also expected that the shows would be broadcast on CBS television on 18 August, 2004. Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and CBS are all owned by the largest media company in the United States, Viacom International, and have broadcasting rights to LazyTown in the United States.
“We are extremely pleased that CBS is preparing for the show. Equally popular television stations rarely decide on shows with almost unknown content. The nice thing is that the episodes are shown at the best viewing time while most of the kids are home on the weekends. We are talking about the show going into every home in the United States, i.e. where there is a television.”
Magnús is asked how the shows were received in the United States. “The shows have been extremely well received, both by the general audience and critics. Initial viewership is much better than people had expected, and Nickelodeon had expected the episodes to be a “hit”. Hundreds of thank you letters have been received by email and no game on Nickelodeon’s website (www.nickjr.com) is as popular as the LazyTown website at the moment. About 70,000 people visit it every day. As an example of the critics’ views, I can mention that the largest newspaper in San Diego, the Union Tribune, gave the show the highest rating for television content.”
The shows on the West Coast shows have been followed by a lot of media coverage. “I especially enjoyed the fact that two Icelanders were covered in the Sunday Times last weekend, i.e. me and Björk Guðmundsdóttir” Magnús admits, and mentions that interviews with him have appeared in other major newspapers such as the New York Times and L.A. Times. LazyTown was shown on a big screen in Time Square in New York on the day of the premiere on 16 August.
The question arises as to whether Icelandic fans of Sportacus can expect to see him on Icelandic television in the near future. “I expect that there will be some waiting for the shows to be shown on Icelandic television. On the one hand because the Icelandic television stations have not bought the shows. On the other hand because we are producing the shows in English and dubbing in other languages begins to take over now.”
10 week flow line
Although the material is sufficient, Magnús often says that it is quite a struggle to build up the LazyTown episodes. “Children’s material is usually based on either the struggle between good and evil or some kind of subjective / emotional message. LazyTown is not only based on both, but also there must be enough time for movement. We must also not forget that the episodes must be exciting without violence. The script writing of the episodes is therefore often quite a line dance” he says and explains that the draft of each episode will be created in his conversations with several American screenwriters. “We sit down and often think about 100 ideas over the weekend. Finally, we select and simplify one idea into a script on one page. After that, a 24-page manuscript is written, simplified and rewritten twice before the final version is available. After the costumes have been designed and the set has been completed made to the smallest detail, it is finally possible to start rehearsing and recording the show. Last but not least, the episode is cut from the final material. Each episode goes through a 10-week flow line in this way. “
Magnús says that the project is financed by Icelandic investors and that their identity is confidential. “I can not give you figures other than that the entire project, with the studio and all, costs well over a billion ISK” he says and states that Íslandsbanki has secured the offer after the contract with Nickelodeon was entered into. “As an entrepreneur, I feel good about how much responsibility I have towards being responsible for other people’s money. In fact, we are all extremely aware of this responsibility and we strive 100% to live up to our own and the investors’ expectations of the quality of the shows.”
Magnús has hardly had a minute to himself since the show started in January. “I think I work as 10 people” he says, but denies being overactive. “Overactive people do not have the same focus as I have in this project. I know exactly what I’m doing and I’m focused on my goal of completing the episodes as agreed before the end of the year. I do all the work myself if it’s needed and I do not ask my employees to do something I do not trust myself to do myself.”
Long working day
How does a normal working day feel? – “I usually wake up at 7.30 in the morning. Before I come here, I usually have read over one script. Here in the office, I start by handling phone calls and emails before I go to makeup. Usually I answer messages from about 4 to 6 people along the way, e.g. screenwriters, costume and set designers. Each person gets about 7 minutes. For example, I was asked if there are butterflies in LazyTown. No one else can answer the question because no one else knows LazyTown, but I do. If you do not know exactly how each and every structure in a house should look like, you can not build the house” says Magnús sarcastically at a glance.
After a short meeting with the staff, filming begins on one of the 40 episodes of LazyTown. “While I’m directing and of course acting in the episodes, I usually deal with messages I get from about 3 other employees. They are working on projects for me in connection with some other aspects and come to me regularly to get the necessary information” says Magnús and adds that he has not eaten alone all year.
“I usually have about 3 meetings every afternoon” he continues with a laugh. “After these meetings, I will continue to direct until 7 in the evening. Often after filming, meetings with about 10 people take place between 7 and 8. Sometimes there is so much to do that someone is standing on the other side of the shower wall talking to me while I’m in the shower. I’m not joking!
After the meeting, I have had the habit of playing all the roles on video, including for the next episode. A group of people are present at these recordings to see if any changes to the script or framework need to be made before proceeding further. After the recording, I usually arrive at the editing room at 10 at night.”
Even though it is evening, the working day is far from over. “Because of the time difference, I usually receive calls from the United States between 10 and 12 at night. These telephone conversations often revolve around the progress of the recordings and finishing of the publication of 11 books about LazyTown by Random House and Simon and Schuster in the United States. After sitting by the phone for a good while, I often have to go to the sound system and consult with my colleagues, e.g. I often have to talk to Máni Svavarsson at night.
Last but not least, I have to exercise because even though I have to jump up to 1,600 times some days in the guise of Sportacus, I have to make sure I keep up with all-round good workouts.” says Magnús and admits that in general he did not leave the studio until about 3 at night. “Then I’m talking about a normal day. Sometimes I need to stay here longer. The projects are naturally inexhaustible, e.g. in terms of the commercial side, projects such as Radio LazyTown, marketing outside the United States, the planned staging at the Paramount theme parks and so on.”
The children “shoot” in the studio
How do you get enough rest to deal with such days? – “While I was still a carpenter, I adopted a wonderful way to rejuvenate myself. By closing my eyes and completely relaxing all my muscles, I can turn a half-hour rest into an 8-hour good night’s sleep. I can even rest while standing” says Magnús and shows how he stands up and closes his eyes to enjoy rest. “Otherwise, of course, many Icelanders work enormously hard. I do not know if I work more than anyone else here. I’m not complaining either – I really just have reason to be grateful for how well everything has gone. I am working on my own creation and the work could not be more fun.”
Magnús admits, however, that sometimes the workload is excessive and there is little time for his loved ones.” I do not know how the marriage would have gone if Ragnheiður did not work so well with me in LazyTown. She has been, to put it bluntly, a great collaborator – she took care of knitting the ends, scrutinizing the small print and, despite no legal education, has rolled up explosively trained lawyers in negotiation” he says proudly.
“I have tried to explain to my children that I am working on a temporarily demanding project and hopefully there will be more time next year. I have tried to be careful not to do anything other than be with them when I am at another table at home, e.g. there is no computer in the home. Otherwise, they are busy here, with us, and were allowed to play in one of the episodes the other day.”
We’ve been standing on the sidelines long enough
“I know very well that I am not the best children’s book author in the world” says Magnús. “I take my hat off to children’s book authors like Guðrún Helgadóttir. Lazytown is just another dimension – another example. We knew we had a good idea in hand. Not because we wanted children to go on a diet or anything like that. We wanted to help children realize how much fun it is to live a healthy life. I am glad that LazyTown has had a positive effect on the lives of many children.
We’ve been standing on the sidelines long enough. Often there is only a split second between those who fall and those who succeed. If a good idea does not come with perseverance, it is worthless” says Magnús and adds that apart from perseverance, he considers it one of his main advantages to know his weaknesses. “That’s why I’m not afraid to hire smarter employees than I am, and although I always have the last word, I can always listen carefully to all points of view before I make a decision.”
Magnús admits that LazyTown has overcome the most difficult stage in the whole process, from an idea to its final target audience. “The fact is that while 1,000 producers and 5 million investors are struggling to come up with 5,000 ideas for children’s television in the United States, only 4 television stations accept such material and usually only two new series are aired each year. The fact that LazyTown is being shown on a television channel as widespread as Nickelodeon and that the intention is to show it on CBS can only mean that it has overcome the most difficult stage.”
“Nickelodeon’s management believes that every single child in the United States and throughout Europe will know LazyTown within a few years” says Magnús and states that Nickelodeon wants to go on a live stage tour with LazyTown all over the United States in the next three years. “The idea is good, even though I made it clear to Nickelodeon that I will not go on stage myself” says Magnús and laughs. “They also want to have a Sportacus puppet designed like Actionman, but I’m worried that the nose will be too big for regular packs.”
The Energy Book increased sales of vegetables by 14—16%
Now you have just received the Nordic Public Health Award. What does this award mean for you? – “Of course it’s always fun when you notice what is well done. Especially when the award is applauded by many, such as the LazyTown group and participants in the energy campaign. The award comes at just the right time. Hopefully they will help us with marketing LazyTown in the other Nordic countries. I aim, for example, to distribute The Energy Book in all the countries, based on the absolutely excellent experience of The Energy Book in this country (Iceland) of course.”
“I can mention as an example that while the children were filling in The Energy Book, sales of soda fell by 12% and sales of vegetables increased by 14-16%” says Magnús and states that the preparations for the campaign lasted for 6 years in Iceland. “It was more difficult to finance the energy book campaign than the production of the episodes. We had problems with some municipalities. In the end, however, all of them were involved, with the exception of one large municipality in the capital area. We decided not to let the municipality’s decision prevent thousands of children in the area from receiving the book and distributed it there as elsewhere. The children did not understand that politics dictated that they did not receive the book like other children.”
Magnús says he doesn’t expect to be able to take a vacation on November 10, 2004, to celebrate his 40th birthday. “For the simple reason that I have planned almost every minute of my life in advance until February 2005. On the other hand, I have decided to take a two-month vacation after I finish. Now the calendar is completely empty this month. I’m just going to rest and maybe travel somewhere this time” he says and is asked what will happen after the recordings of the episodes. “After the shooting, we will take on all kinds of other exciting projects. I aim to do a beautiful LazyTown Christmas ballet show on ice with the Canadian ice skating team, have pictures taken of famous athletes with the characters from LazyTown, make a dance video about Stephanie and so on. “
A sick person has only one wish
“It often feels like people need to be serious, to be taken seriously. Smiling people need to be taken seriously more and especially athletes. ‘… Serious people are not into sports – at most yoga! …’ These prejudices have long overestimated my ability to carry out my purpose. Gradually, I think people are struggling to understand what I have been doing and why it is so important to spread the message of a healthy life. “People are realizing that a healthy person has 1,000 wishes and a sick person has only one.”
One of the best episodes
Magnús Scheving has already started receiving letters from parents and greetings from children in the United States regarding the episodes about LazyTown and Sportacus. Here are some examples.
Dear Mr. Scheving,
I just wanted to send you a line to let you know that our five year old daughter loves your show! We’re watching it on [the station] Nick jr. in the United States. This is one of the most colorful and lively shows for kids. Thank you for your contribution to children’s television.
I wanted to write to let you know that your episodes on Niceklodeon are wonderful. My kids and I love them! It’s one of the best things about the message you send to children about health and exercise! Not to mention teaching them to give and be kind and helpful. I also find the show fascinating. Thank you and keep up the great work.
Hello, I really appreciate how you have worked out the idea of LazyTown. I’ve seen your episode on Nick Jr. It’s great. This may sound strange to a 14 year old teenager, but I watch the show with my two younger brothers and it actually encourages them to exercise more. This is amazing. You are incredible. Keep it up, Mr. Scheving!
Yours sincerely, Tier
p.s. Please reply.
I love LazyTown. The idea and framework are brilliant. I just wanted to thank you.
Yours sincerely, Lucas Pacheco
p.s. Your character is magnificent!