An inside look at Sesame Street’s animated Christmas special with A Productions

Member News  |  02 May 2023

A Productions developed the animation and design look for Sesame Street: The Nutcracker Starring Elmo and Tango for the non-profit educational organisation Sesame Workshop.

Sesame Street: The Nutcracker Starring Elmo and Tango

The classic story of The Nutcracker is re-told Sesame Street-style in a new animated special that aired in the US last Christmas. It follows Elmo and his puppy Tango on a fantastical adventure filled with new music and friends – where Tango speaks for the very first time. UK-based award-winning animation production studio A Productions developed the animation and design look for the special, Sesame Street: The Nutcracker Starring Elmo and Tango, for Sesame Workshop.

This followed on from the studio’s work animating Sesame Workshop’s first ever animated special, The Monster at the End of This Story, a subsequent animated special, Furry Friends Forever: Elmo Gets a Puppy, where Elmo first meets stray puppy Tango, and segment animations for Series 52 and 53 of the iconic Sesame Street series, named Elmo and Tango’s Mysterious Mysteries, with work underway on Series 54.

Jo Hepworth, Director at A Productions

Jo Hepworth, a Director at A Productions, has worked on all the Sesame Street projects including the latest special.

The idea came from Sesame Street who wanted to make a Christmas special cementing the relationship between Elmo and his puppy, Tango, through an adaptation of The Nutcracker.

We had the opportunity to build on our established 2D house style – that we created for the previous specials and segment animations – as well as make things feel more special by adding a bit more detail and giving it more energy. We wanted to make this world feel rich and fantastical, and were able to play with depth, making it feel like a massive world. This exciting opportunity gave us a lot of creative inspiration and it was a great natural progression.

Jo Hepworth, Director at A Productions

The 30-minute festive feature is a celebration of the greatest gift of all: friendship. The holidays are here on Sesame Street, and Elmo is determined to make it the best Christmas ever for Tango. At Elmo’s family holiday party, friends and family sing about how wonderful this holiday will be. After a fun-filled day, Elmo and Tango fall asleep listening to Elmo’s dad, Louie, read them the story of The Nutcracker. Elmo drifts into a dream sequence where Tango can speak, and that is when the adventure to magical lands begin.

Tango is well established as a Sesame Street character now, and whilst the intention was always for her to become part of the puppet cast, she was originally introduced to audiences in Season 53 as an animated character. With Sesame Street, A Productions created the animation and design for Tango.

One of the most exciting elements of the special was that Tango was able to talk. In the series, Tango acts like any normal dog would, but in the special she is given a voice, so that made it extra special and allowed us to focus more on her.

Jo Hepworth, Director at A Productions

The ice skating scene is a particularly magical moment for Elmo and Tango – and provided the biggest visual effects challenge for the A Productions team.

Our compositing team used After Effects to create depth of field to emphasise the size of these worlds compared to Elmo and Tango, as well as, to sell the transition from Sesame Street through to the dream world. The emphasis was on the magnificence of it all.

We needed it to feel like they were authentically skating on ice. The difficulty with using a lot of visual effects is you can do almost anything you want to, but you want it to feel like part of this world and reflective of the existing style. It all needs to blend together.

Jo Hepworth, Director at A Productions

Made using animation software Toon Boom, the goal for the special was to maintain a traditional 2D animated style in creating these advanced technical rigged characters.

We wanted to ensure they didn’t look like rigged puppets as they quite often can do if you’re rigging a 2D character. We used master controllers to control expressions and head movements. They were really advanced rigs that still allowed us to maintain the traditional painterly style.

Jo Hepworth, Director at A Productions

Sesame Street: The Nutcracker Starring Elmo and Tango features a brand new song “Best Christmas Ever,” from TV and film composer Paul Buckley, which was unveiled with a performance by the Sesame Street cast at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade®.

The music is such a big part of the special. Of course, The Nutcracker is an existing score so it was about trying to ensure it fitted into the show and into this new world. All the songs are inspired by The Nutcracker songs as are the worlds.

Jo Hepworth, Director at A Productions
Sesame Street: The Nutcracker Starring Elmo and Tango

The response to the special has been hugely positive since it streamed in the US in December last year on Cartoonito, the pre-school block on HBO Max. It will air on PBS KIDS in 2023.  

Everything feels so big in the special, it takes audiences on a magical, festive adventure that has already been embraced by so many families. I hope that kids and grown-ups want to watch it every Christmas, not just the once – that would be really wonderful.

Jo Hepworth, Director at A Productions

Sesame Street: The Nutcracker Starring Elmo and Tango recently won a Royal Television Society (RTS) West of England award at the gala ceremony hosted in Bristol in April 2023.