Puppets go for gold

YouTube selects Victoria creator of web-based Pancake Manor for Olympics-themed clips

Billy Reid is preparing for the Summer Olympics, though not by lifting weights or gorging on a 4,000-calorie-a-day diet.

The 35-year-old filmmaker, who was born and raised in Victoria, is busy crafting new adventures for Zach and Reggie, the puppets who star in his web-based children's series Pancake Manor.

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YouTube has selected Reid, along with about 100 of its other users, to produce original Olympics-themed clips for its Live in London promotion. The Google-owned video-hosting site will feature the works on a special channel devoted to the most illustrious tournament in amateur sport.

"It's a great opportunity to get more eyeballs on it, because the Olympics is huge," says Reid, who moved back to his hometown in the spring after living in Toronto for four years.

He plans to release one new Olympics-themed video a week from July 16 until the end of August. Each of the six instalments will feature some kind of tie-in to the London Games.

In the first episode, Zach and Reggie board a cardboard box the duo's preferred mode of transportation - and take off on an aerial sightseeing tour.

"They're going to fly over the buildings like Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London," he says. "You're going to see Big Ben, and maybe the Queen will wave at them, too."

Though some of the Olympics videos are still in the planning stages, later entries will reference the competition more directly.

Releasing a new episode every week presents a big challenge, says Reid, who produces the series by himself in his basement, just steps from Royal Jubilee Hospital.

"I have to write the songs, shoot the video, edit it, do the green screen, draw the artwork," he explains.

"Now because of this, I'm learning how to do this quicker. I can't just do one a month."

Reid, who moonlights as a freelance videographer and songwriter, debuted Pancake Manor in 2011 while he was living in Toronto.

Zach, the orange guy with messy teeth, and Reggie, his purple, eyebrowless sidekick, had been lying unused in Reid's apartment since he had acquired them about three years earlier. A Toronto puppeteer had fashioned them for Reid in exchange for the Victoria native's songwriting services.

With no master plan, Reid brainstormed ideas about how a web-based series featuring his feltfaced buddies could look and feel.

"I was like, 'Well, what do I want to do with these things? How do I want to entertain people? Is this for kids? Is this for adults?' "

He settled upon gearing the videos toward youngsters, then devised a theme for the pilot.

"I threw a really simple song together about salsa. And I thought, 'OK, now that's silly. Little kids might like it, but I could see older kids liking it, too.' "

In July, Reid uploaded the clip to a new YouTube channel he'd created specifically for the series instead of hosting it on his Very Tasteful channel, which already boasted thousands of followers.

"Pancakes are fun and were things I loved as a kid," he says of the inspiration for the series' title. "It's just a silly, fun name that I thought would be interesting."

The trial run possessed all the goofy elements that would come to comprise the Pancake Manor formula. Each episode features Zach and Reggie singing a sunny surf-punk tune about a simple thing or concept. (In the case of Salsa, the boys belt a loving ode to the title condiment.)

Subsequent clips touched upon such weighty topics as eating bananas, finding dinosaur bones and drawing cartoon monsters.

Reid says it took until the end of the year for the videos to garner more than a few thousand hits each.

"Around Christmastime, the Shapes video really took off and I'm not entirely sure why."

But the puppeteer has his theories about the popularity of the piece, which has clocked more than 1.75 million views. (The channel now has 6,000 subscribers, and cumulatively, its 14 videos have received about three million views.)

He speculates parents are drawn to the segments about geometry, the alphabet and counting because of their educational content.

"More and more, parents are using iPads and tablets with their children in the car or in the living room. That market's untapped."

The appeal of Pancake Manor, Reid adds, also lies in the fact that adults find it less grating than other children's programming.

"It's for kids, but like Sesame Street, adults are allowed into it."

This isn't the only quality Pancake Manor shares with children's television's best known burg.

Like Sesame Street, Reid's series has a bouncy, fast-paced esthetic and its puppets occupy both animated and real-world environs. (Also, it should be noted that Zach bears more than a passing resemblance to Bert, Sesame Street's yellow fuss-budget.)

These similarities are no coincidence. Reid openly cites the 42-year-old PBS series as a major influence on his work.

He's even reached out to Caroll Spinney, the septuagenarian puppeteer who has played Big Bird for Sesame Street's entire run.

Reid said Spinney has invited him to visit the show's New York set, but no date has been confirmed.

Reid hopes the meeting will translate into his equivalent of Olympic gold.

"I definitely imagine myself working for Sesame Street. That's been a dream of mine for years."

cruf@timescolonist.com

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