Creative Keynote: Rebooting Blue’s Clues


Traci Paige Johnson and Angela Santomero discussed the process that goes into making Blue’s Clues & You!, a reboot of the iconic preschool show for Nickelodeon, at the TV Kids Festival.

The co-creators and executive producers of Blue’s Clues and Blue’s Clues & You! were interviewed by Kristin Brzoznowski, executive editor of TV Kids and World Screen, as part of the first of the day’s creative keynotes at the TV Kids Festival. The duo began contemplating a reboot of the beloved preschool show—which debuted in 1996—back in the summer of 2016. They knew they wanted to bring something fresh to the reboot, especially as it came at a time when a generation that had grown up watching the original was now having children of its own. And while the media landscape has changed since the show first came out, Paige Johnson and Santomero—who have both studied child development—feel that the fundamentals of what kids need from entertainment have stayed the same.

“For Blue’s Clues, we wanted kids to be heard; that’s why we started the interactivity,” said Santomero, who is also chief creative officer at 9 Story Media Group. “That feeling of wanting to be heard, wanting to understand the world, being asked for your opinion makes you feel smart and empowered. That’s been the mission from day one and we believe 100 percent that it’s still true today.”

As for what to keep from the original and what to adapt, Paige Johnson—who voices Blue—noted, “We knew we wanted to keep the clues, the interactivity, the building the self-esteem of preschoolers, and a live-action host. We wanted it to feel fresh look-wise, so making Blue 3D while still keeping our 2D cut-out aesthetic. And then the biggest thing was the notebook. We had millions of conversations: do we go digital, do we not go digital? It was the perfect kindergarten compromise of, let’s do both!”

Santomero added, “That back to basics of being able to draw something but then also have it so we can have e-mail. And that changed what Mail Time was. We had to keep it, but how could we refresh it? Traci had designed an old-fashioned phone that was so stylized for the world; we didn’t think kids would even know what that was! So the idea of video calls made so much more sense. And then, of course, the music changed. We wanted to have that refresh and give kids something that was their own with also keeping some of the standards there.”

Finding Josh Dela Cruz to serve as host of the reboot was critical. “Nickelodeon did an amazing job casting,” Paige Johnson said. “They got over 3,000 people. We did an open call. They were incredible in helping us find Josh.”

Steve Burns, the first host has also been part of the reboot. “He’s a director on the series, he’s a writer, he started brainstorming with us, helping us get feedback on finding the host, he’s a consulting producer,” Santomero said. “His voice is how we all started.”

Paige Johnson added, “Steve worked with Josh, handing over the baton, all the tools in the toolbelt for how to connect to the camera and feel like you’re talking to the preschooler at home. And the famous pause and the eye blink. It’s so wonderful to have Steve on board as part of the family.”

Brzoznowski then asked the co-creators to break down the production of an episode. “We start with the writing brainstorm,” Santomero said. “So it all starts grounded in what we want as creators. We sit with other exec producers, the network and our writers to figure out what we want from the season, and then work directly with 9 Story and Brown Bag Films to create that mix of Blue in CG and then the 2D world.”

That mixture is key to why the reboot works so well, Paige Johnson added. “The mixed media of live action, 2D, 3D, that had never been done before. It takes a lot of planning. Once we have the script, we go into storyboard for the live-action shoot and we compose each shot as if Josh were an animated character in a storyboard. Then we shoot. Then we start building the designs and animation building around Josh. And then at the same time the 2D characters are animated, the 3D animators are working with the Josh footage, acting to Josh, and then it all comes together in the compositing and rendering.”

The process takes nine to ten months, they said. “We do multiple episodes at one time,” Santomero explained. “Sometimes, the process can go faster. There’s a lot of prep, so the more buttoned-up we are in prep, the faster and smoother the process can go.”

COVID-19, of course, provided some hiccups. “We weren’t allowed to shoot live action for a long time,” Paige Johnson said. “But we wanted to keep on schedule, so we started animating and then when we went into the studio, Josh would act to the animation, which was a new way of working.”

Brzoznowski asked Paige Johnson how she became the voice of Blue. “Angela and I were doing the pilot and we didn’t have a lot of money to do it. Blue didn’t talk and we just went around the room of who could bark. And I could bark! We said, when we go to series, we’ll get a real voice actor. But then, to my delight, everyone just got used to my voice. We auditioned a lot of people and Angela and Nickelodeon said, you’re the voice! It’s my favorite part of the job.”

The discussion then moved to all the multimedia extensions to the show. “We’re looking into the camera and reaching out to kids and making sure they realize how smart they are,” Santomero said. “It works in so many different areas,” leading the team to make podcasts of bedtime stories, play-along videos and more.

“We were so excited when the iPad came along,” Paige Johnson said. “We wanted to do interactivity. We were doing faux interactivity with the classic Blue’s Clues. To have the true interactive episodes where Josh asks for help and you actually choose the right one and you draw your own clues into the notebook, it was amazing!”

There’s also a YouTube channel, a range of consumer products and a presence at events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and amusement parts. “Experiencing Blue together as a family is so important to us,” Paige Johnson added.

Amid the COVID-19 era, Dela Cruz has been hosting virtual playdates that preschoolers can access on Nick and its social media channels, with the host filming direct-to-camera segments from his home. In addition, Burns and his successor as host, Donovan Patton, teamed with Dela Cruz to make the podcast Story Time with Josh & Blue.

“Our themes for new episodes come out of what we think kids need” at this time, Santomero added. “The idea of emotional resilience and feeling that sense of community is really important.”

The core tenets of Santomero and Paige Johnson’s approach to content creation remain unchanged. “We want to empower and challenge and build the self-esteem of preschoolers while making them laugh.”

Paige Johnson added, “Both of us as kids were so inspired by TV. It spoke to us. Wanting to have that impact on others and spreading good messages of creativity and self-esteem. More than just the show, it’s what happens when you turn off the show. What are you inspired to do to make, create, be? We’re so excited to be able to talk to kids and families and spread the message to the world.”

Both Santomero and Paige Johnson have new projects as well. Santomero is working on Karma’s World, created by multi-award-winning American rapper, actor, producer, entrepreneur and philanthropist Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges. Paige Johnson co-created Gabby’s Dollhouse for DreamWorks Animation. “We’re so excited that there are more amazing shows that came out of the work we have done together,” Santomero said. “There are so many creators of hit shows that started working with us as writers [on Blue’s Clues]. Having shows that are promoting and respecting kids is exciting to us.”

“It’s a wonderful family of all of us who worked on Blue’s Clues,” Paige Johnson added. “We drank the Kool-Aid and are marinated in all the goodness that Blue’s Clues brings and it’s spreading more thousands points of light to different shows and talking to kids and reaching families and inspiring creativity.”