Face To Face — Magnus Scheving

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Creator of LazyTown

Magnus Scheving has just turned 40. He's Icelandic, a world-class athlete, an entrepreneur, a carpenter and father of two. And he's on a mission to motivate children with a concept he has created, called LazyTown. Magnus has been honing and testing LazyTown for eleven years in his home market. In January he went into production with the first LazyTown television series, which is now airing daily on Nick Jr. in the US. One Nickelodeon mum e-mailed the show saying her kids loved the 'LazyTown Movement'; an unwittingly apt description of this concept, which is so much more than a TV series. We met Magnus Scheving, the high-energy creator, producer and star of this brave new show.

The LazyTown studio sits in a field of inhospitable, craggy black lava. About 130 people work on the show, a quarter of them from overseas. Like many highly persuasive people, Magnus has gathered around him old friends, colleagues and people who understand him in order to achieve the impossible. In November 2003 the building was an empty shell. Six weeks later the studio was built and filming had started, a 'can do' possible only in Iceland, Magnus suggests. As well as the world-leading technical facilities in-house there are teams of puppeteers, wardrobe fixers, designers, marketers and the most stylish staff common room you could hope to encounter. Called The Hudson Room, it's based on the Hudson Hotel in New York and has a pink felted billiard table, animal-skin cushions and oversized clocks. The attention to detail is consistent with everything at LazyTown and everything about Magnus Scheving. Having 130 employees doesn't stop him overseeing every detail of the production. But life in-house isn't at all tense or puritanical. There is even ice cream in the restaurant on Fridays.

We talk in the evening after a full day's filming, a shareholder meeting and other engagements are over. Magnus rarely finishes at the studio before midnight. His conversation is punctuated by swoosh, vroom, k-pow noises and I realise these noises are identical to the special effects we hear in the series, another example of the LazyTown team replicating exactly what Magnus asks for. He jumps up frequently to scribble on a white board or reaches for a video to illustrate a point. He is wearing a Superman t-shirt. 'Terrible logo slapping,' he says. 'But it makes me feel like him!'

How did you create the concept of LazyTown?

When we began to devise LazyTown we analysed other kids' shows. In general they have emotional storylines involving friends, or they are about conflict, good vs evil. We wanted to combine these two elements, as well as being useful and entertaining. This is very difficult; if you put up on a shelf all the qualities a kids' show should have and then try to add an educational element, something important always falls off.

Why is it called LazyTown?

If we'd called it HealthyTown or HappyTown no-one would have watched. And because we have all been in LazyTown. LazyTown is a lifestyle. It's about choices and children learning that choices have consequences.

Why has it taken so long to evolve?

Eleven years ago we had the right message but it was the wrong time. Health wasn't an issue. Everything healthy was boring and tasted bad. I was working in the health industry and realised there was something missing. A role model for kids.

Why is the idea still potent, 11 years later?

Because how you raise your kids won't change over time. All parents want their children to be healthy and happy, to share, to sleep well and so on. The other thing is that over these years we have tested LazyTown on two generations of young children. We have been involved in 3,800 events for children. It's important to know your audience.

But you have only tested the concept in Iceland

Iceland is the perfect test market. You can't sell to kids without integrity here people know where you live! Only the very biggest brands survive here. And I also believe that you can't win the world championships before you win at home.

Robbie Rotten isn't much of a baddie, is he?

Robbie is going nowhere. He's the status quo. We all know some-one like that, who says "no let's not go out, its too cold/expensive/whatever."

You said it was hard to write LazyTown stories. Why?

To write stories involving a human athletic hero you need to be a world class athlete. Most writers are not sporty and most athletes don't write. It is very difficult to communicate the get-up-and-go.

LazyTown is actually very old-fashioned, isn't it?

Yes, it is very traditional. It's not about fashion. We wanted to get back to right and wrong. When you take your kids to see a Pikachu movie, what do you talk about in the car on the way home? We wanted a show that provided tons to talk about and discuss with your kids.

Is there too much obsession with children's weight and fitness?

LazyTown is not about being fit or losing weight. In fact some of the least healthy people I know are in the health business. It's about living life to the fullest. It's about being motivated. Happy kids move. Unhappy kids don't. So with LazyTown we're saying Go! Go quickly! Go slowly! It doesn't matter where, just GO!

Why is Sportacus a man in costume?

Well, this morning I got a letter from some kids in a school near here. They said they loved eating sport candy (what LazyTowners call apples) and danced and sang along to the show. There is only one thing to do when you get a letter like this you get in the car and drive to the school and do some jumps for them. That's why Sportacus is a real person. If you put Superman and a costume character on a stage, what can they do? We go to kids and get them jumping around. We show them it is humanly possible to do these things.

Why did you choose to use puppets for some of the characters?

We trialled all the options live action, CGI and puppets. Puppets work because each of these characters has a flaw. Stingy, for example, won't share. This would be hard with a real child actor. Also you can do slapstick things with puppets, like have things fall on their heads.

Stephanie looks quite like Barbie, doesn't she?

She is half human, half puppet —or rather half make-believe. She sits in the gap between Barbie and Britney, and I believe parents do want their daughters to make a transition between the two.

You created LazyTown before your own children were born. Why have you got this mission?

Because I believe you can change things. If you push, things move. When you don't have kids you drive differently, you aren't afraid of flying. You know? We went to 260 meetings with entertainment companies and were surprised at how many people we met didn't have kids.

What did you do before LazyTown?

I wanted to be an architect, trained as a carpenter, built houses (including my own) and then became a world class trainer. I even trained air stewards. When I started to invent LazyTown, that's when I decided to travel, research and became an aerobics champion.

Why do you play Sportacus?

We tried to find someone else. Interviewed a lot of people. But in the end there was always something missing.

Doesn't it make the character vulnerable, depending on you?

There will be other Sportacus characters. I hope there will be a girl. Perhaps the next Sportacus will approach us perhaps it will be some-one watching now.

A Nickelodeon mum emailed the show and referred to the LazyTown movement. Do you agree it's a movement?

It's definitely more than a TV show. When we started we wrote down all the possibilities: radio, health centres, products, movies, promotions, toys, TV, etc and made sure that LazyTown could do them all.

The LazyTown Economy is a unique concept. Can it be exported?

I hope so! It took four years of hard work to get the deal. I wanted to tackle the attitude that you get everything for free, which it's easy to have as a child now.

Was the Energy Book project as hard to get off the ground?

Yes, we had to distribute it to some parts of Iceland where the authorities didn't cotton on. In the award we've just been given for the project, the government said we had changed the diet of a generation. Fizzy drinks sales dropped by 16% and fruit and veg sales rose by 12%.

How have you funded the last nine years?

By jumping up and down a lot. And by persuading people to come and work for very little money to begin with. And by not over-stretching. When we have an idea like the LazyTown recipe book, we go to partners who can help and then to retailers, get the money together and then make the product.

Now the show is airing on Nick Jr. in the US and being licensed, how does it feel to be letting someone else in?

Fortunately Nickelodeon is a great believer in the creator so we have been very lucky. As well as kids liking it, the ratings reveal that 260% more mums are watching in the same time slot.

What will you do next?

I am going to launch the GO! Campaign, a world live tour of LazyTown. There will also probably be a movie. And I'd like us to be involved in the Olympics. These are all ideas we have tested in Iceland.

How does it feel to be getting close to the end of shooting the series?

It's been a hard year. Being world champion was nothing compared to this. It's easy to lose balance when you work this hard. So as soon as filming is over I'll take some time off with my family.

Did you predict that children's health would become a critical issue?

When travelling I met children and parents who shared the same concerns about well-being. Now that it's on everyone's agenda it's the perfect time to launch LazyTown. The good thing is that as other people are just coming to the subject we have 11 years experience behind us.

Do you have a message for licensees?

That LazyTown can fill all the boxes. But it also means something. It's a stamp of approval. We have to be careful. Nothing is too good for kids.

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