The new year is quickly shaping up to include a new array of book and TV titles to look forward to. Leading the pack is a gang of geometric buddies. The new television show Shape Island is based on the Shapes trilogy of picture books by frequent collaborators Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. The show features eight episodes, which will premiere globally and exclusively on Apple TV+ on January 20.
The stop-motion animated series follows a trio of best friends living on a fictional island: Square (voiced by Harvey Guillen; Puss in Boots: The Last Wish), Triangle (voiced by Scott Adsit; Big Hero 6), and Circle (voiced by Gideon Adlon; Blockers) as they go about their daily lives and navigate the differences in each other’s personalities. Yvette Nicole Brown (Disenchanted) serves as the narrator. The series is directed by Drew Hodges (Tumble Leaf) and executive produced by Mac Barnett, Jon Klassen, Kelli Bixler (Tumble Leaf), and Hodges. Ryan Pequin (Regular Show) is the head writer.
Barnett and Klassen were heavily involved in the page to screen adaptation, beginning with the early stages of development, from establishing how they wanted their characters to be portrayed to getting the series greenlit and casting the voices for their characters. “These books are important to us and we wanted this series to land a certain way,” Barnett told PW. “At the heart of it, it’s just Jon and me wrestling with the story trying to get it just right.”
Toying with a new storytelling medium proved to be a welcome challenge for the duo. “With a picture book you have a known quantity of what you're dealing with, and your problems are ‘this page doesn't relate to this page’; it’s very specific to the end product,” Klassen said. “With a show, especially in the early stages, when you’re setting it up, you don't even know the places you want it to go, but you kind of have an idea of the places you don’t want it to go.”
A brief tussle with the mathematics community even surfaced. “We thought from the start that it’s going to be a triangle, circle, and a square with eyes. This is one of the greatest things about translating to stop-motion; [in the book] they are simple [2-D] geometric forms. We are aware for all the geometry heads out there,” Barnett said. “We’re already getting grief about it.” Klassen said with a laugh, “We did know from the start [of the show] that they were a tetrahedron, a cube, and a sphere, and we decided that they should be named Triangle, Square, and Circle. We’d just like to say for the record that we don’t care.”
Barnett and Klassen’s close bond and self-described “telepathy” was a big benefit even off the page. “There’s so much unspoken with us, it’s all so deeply felt and deeply idiosyncratic. We would act as translators for each other,” Barnett said. “So many times it would be like, ‘What Jon was trying to say—.’ And the other one would be like, ‘What Mac is mad about,’ but in a nicer way,” Klassen interjected. “It would happen a lot of the time.”
The challenge was learning to work with a larger team beyond their duo. “With us, I feel like we’ve known each other for so long, we have such a shorthand. We understand each other so well that it was almost a detriment at the beginning,” Klassen said. “We don’t have to go out into the wide world with our ideas very often until they’re finished. And in the infancy stages, to not have that same understanding with eight other people [was hard]. We would make phone calls [to each other] after the [group] call to be like, ‘Did we get that across? I knew what you were talking about and you knew what I was talking about, but do you think that [they knew what we were talking about]?’ There was a lot of that. And then we slowly [learned] how to communicate outside of our little universe.”
Expanding the bubble and working with the cast proved to be an enjoyable experience. “Our actors are all such gifted comedians,” Barnett said. “One of my most vivid [memories] is Scott Adsit, who plays Triangle, was doing a ridiculous auctioneer slash barn-dance-caller character. That day he had on a black turtleneck and could not have looked more serious and respectable. But then he would just flip.” Klassen added, “We would be on the ground laughing at what he was doing and while you were trying to put yourself back together, he’d be like ‘let me try one more time,’ and then he would do this crazy thing again,” Klassen said. “You have this insecurity that you have these serious people doing these voices and you wonder whether they’re going to take the show seriously or just sort of chuckle and walk off. Everybody in the room was really trying and thinking about the takes; it was really nice to see.”
While voice acting may not be in the immediate future for the two, Barnett would “love to get their voices into something.” Klassen has already voiced a character in a short animation by Weston Woods of his picture book I Want My Hat Back. “I’m the deer that comes in at the end and I say, ‘What does your hat look like?’ I’ve got no charisma in a microphone at all.” So if fans hear Klassen’s voice in a future cartoon, “just know that I have strong-armed him into it,” Barnett quipped.
Fans of the duo can look forward to a new picture book, How Does Santa Go Down a Chimney?, a Candlewick fall release. Barnett is also collaborating with illustrator Christian Robinson on the picture book Twenty Questions, due out in March from Candlewick.
“One of the things Jon and I are proudest of is that kids who love the books will feel like the characters they see on screen are the same characters as the ones in the books,” Barnett said. “We always think that the most important time kids spend with our books is after they close the covers and think about it afterward. And we hope for the same thing with the show.”
Klassen said they hope that audiences laugh and that they see some of themselves in the characters with “the feelings they’ve felt or questions they’ve wondered.” He added, “We’re not interested in teaching kids’ lessons. We want to tell grounded stories about what it means to be a human through three shapes who live together on a magical island. That sounds pretty straightforward, right?”