Toonarific Interview – Yanna Kroyt Brandt

Originally posted: 4-15-2004

The Executive Producer/Creator of Vegetable Soup!! Yum!

While we were going about getting the Vegetable Soup series together for our archives, our main source was actually able to get ahold of some of the people who actually worked on this ground-breaking series. Here are the questions that he managed to ask the Executive Producer of the show.

When you were younger, what were your favorite shows? (tv/radio/theater/etc)
I didn’t watch tv. I was a theater addict and saw every thing dramatic there was to see. My favorite was seeing Lawrence Olivier onstage in Shakespeare.
As you were growing up, what influenced you to want to be a producer?
I had no dreams of being a producer. I wanted to direct in the theater but there were almost no opportunities for women at the time. So I thought the opportunities in TV might give me what I loved, a marriage of drama and news. I became a producer overnight at 21 when the woman I was working for was fired and my boss asked me if I could do her job. I was an arrogant young kid and said yes. Fortunately, I had a supportive, helpful mentor as a boss.
How did Vegetable Soup come about?
When I started there was nothing and I created all the content ideas for the show based on a lot of research I did which dealt with how to prevent racism in children. I then hired different producers I knew or who were recommended to me to carry out the execution but everything was tightly scripted and very specific. We were dealing with material that not only went out on the air but was going to be the schools, so it had to be carefully vetted. We had a lot of people looking over my shoulder. This show was carefully supervised at every stage and in the end, I edited and re-edited many segments that didn’t quite make it.
How did you pick your crew when creating this program?
My goal in hiring was to give opportunities to minority filmmakers who were having problems getting work. So I would say, about 80 percent of the people who worked on the show were people of color, including black, latino, Native American and Asian-American–Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Many of the people we worked with have gone on to big careers in Hollywood, I am happy to say. I’ve lost track of Jim Simon, who was Wantu Animation, when he moved to LA, but I heard he went to work for Disney or Spielberg. Our editors, dps, producers, writers were mostly all people of color.
Did you do all the casting for VS?
No. A lot of it was done by the individual segment producers. I did some of it.
What was it like working with Bette Midler and James Earl Jones back in the 70s?
I’ve know James Earl for a long time and it was always wonderful to work with him–he’s so intelligent and sensitive as a human being. I didn’t work directly with Bette Midler, but my producer said she was terrific–and funny–to work with.
Is it correct that, compared to most of your other projects, Vegetable Soup does seem unique in that it was series of episodes? With that in mind… was it a longer, more drawn out project than what you’d ever been and ever since been involved with?
Not really. The last project I worked on took four years which is about the length of time I worked on Vegetable Soup. Vegetable Soup is unique because of its content–it is the only children’s show to deal directly and exclusively with issues of race. The show’s format was what is called a “magazine format.” The segments are actually related and each show had an underlying theme. There is a student-teacher guide which goes into some detail about the theme of each show and how it could be used in the classroom to enhance the learning experience.
Were you just as involved in series 2 as you were with series 1, or did you delegate some of your tasks to someone else since you “knew the ropes”?
I was absolutely as involved in series 2, as series 1. I did not delegate any tasks. Series 2 was quite different than series 1 in many ways, except for the Outerscope Series. What we learned from the testing and feedback on series 1 helped inform the content of Series 2.
Did you make any broad changes to the content of the segments of Vegetable Soup that your co-creators came up with? Did you make any big changes to it or any of the other segments that was either missing or, that you felt inappropriate?
The answer to this question is a complex one. Creating this kind of series is of its nature collaborative. However, when you are dealing with subject matter as delicate as this, and subject matter that is going to be used in the schools, the supervision has to be intense. Basically, I (with input from my staff) presented the producer with the blueprint, read the scripts, sometimes rewriting the scripts, looked at rough cuts, fine cuts and sometimes re-edited what the producers did. And all the scripts and rough cuts were watched by the Advisory Board members who were most closely attuned to the subject matter. Remember we had a very strong Advisory Board made up primarily of educators–3 African-Americans, 3 Asian Americans, 3 Hispanic-Americans, 3 Native Americans and 3 Caucasians. One of the big differences in Series 2 was that we had a slightly larger budget, a larger staff and that a larger percentage of the segments were produced by my staff members who were an outstanding and talented group. Just to mention two: George Bowers, who went on to be a leading film editor and director in L.A., and Alyce Myatt, who is now one of the six people in charge of programming PBS. Some of our field producers included Victor Nunez, who is the director of the acclaimed film, Ulee’s Gold, Hiro Narita, prize-winning director of photography and director in features, Moctezuma Esparza, who is a major producer in Hollywood, Preston Holmes, who was a producer of Spike Lee’s MALCOLM, as well as countless other features. That’s just a partial list. And all of these people contributed their talents to Vegetable Soup but in a very tightly controlled situation. It is a testament to their talent that they were able to bring so much creativity with such limited budgets and with so many content caveats. Yes, I had to make a lot of changes but I would say that I never had to drop any segment. Redo it, maybe, but not drop it. Too much early planning helped make that possible. The only area where planning is tricky is in animation. But we lucked out there. Our animators were terrific.
Besides Vegetable Soup, have you worked on any other children’s shows?
HIGH FEATHER, which was also on NBC and PBS and was intended to teach good nutrition habits to 6-12 year olds.
What have you been up to lately, project-wise?
My latest show on PBS was THE CRUCIBLE OF THE MILLENNIUM, about the 15th century and what happened them and how it impacts today, and I also produced segments of the AMERICAN MASTERS show on Ralph Ellison. Have also just directed my first feature, EVERYONE’S DEPRESSED, which is out there with a Rep looking for a distributor.
So it seems you have remained in the business and true to PBS! How did you first get involved w/ PBS specifically, as opposed to any other network and… have you ever done any work for any other network or studio/film?
Actually, I have worked at all the major networks. Started at CBS and have worked on and off half for PBS and half for the commerical networks. I got involved with PBS just before Channel 13 became a public TV station. My boss and mentor was the first President of Channel 13. By the way, I have a web site and also if you key in my name on your search engine, a lot of s%#t comes up about me.
Did you manage to get to work with all the people you wanted to? If not, who else would you have liked to work with?
That’s an impossible question. There are many people I would love to work with. I met my idol Elia Kazan but unfortunately he was retired and ill by the time I met him. I have dealt with Arthur Penn whose work I much admired. There are actors I would like to work with and perhaps I will.
From all of your various productions, what was your favorite and why?
Impossible. They are all my favorites in different ways.
What are your views on children’s television of today, compared to what you managed to watch and work on in previous years?
I don’t watch children’s TV these days–no reason, too. Thank God for Nickolodeon and PBS. Because since the FCC abdicated its role, there has been no one watching what the networks are doing. They’re used to be Action for Children’s TV, but they seem to have disappeared.
Do you have any words of encouragement to future producers/writers who want to “reach the stars”?
Don’t give up. Don’t become involved in a project unless you are passionate about it. Passion, ultimately, is what sells. If you believe in it, you’ll be able to convince others.
Thanks again to Jude Barnes for getting this interview. It is definitely one for the archives!