“Choose Your Own Adventure” DVD Is Brainchild of Jeff Norton and Michelle Crames

by Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation

The animated family adventure, “Choose Your Own Adventure®: The Abominable Snowman,” has been approved by The Dove Foundation for family viewing, won a 2006 iParenting Media Award, and was named a “Kids First All-Star” by the Coalition for Quality Children’s Media., and it has just been released to the public!

“It is the story of three siblings who set out in the Himalayan Mountains to search for their uncle, famed explorer Rudy North,” said Jeff Norton, the co-founder of Lean Forward Media. “Benjamin, Crista and Marco North go on an adventure to the Himalayas to find their Uncle Rudy who has gone missing in his quest to find a mythical Yeti creature,” he said. “At every crossroad a decision has to be made,” he continued. “Will they survive avalanches, keep away from evil poachers, and escape hungry tigers? With over eleven possible endings, the story is all up to you.”

Lean Forward Media was founded in the summer of 2003 after Jeff Norton and Michelle Crames, who had written the business plan while attending Harvard Business School, committed to forming a company with the mission of providing family friendly content that would “entertain, engage, and educate” kids around the world.

Norton had previously worked as a marketing executive at the Procter & Gamble Company and in various capacities in Hollywood, including a stint with The Jim Henson Company. Michelle Crames was formerly a consultant for McKinsey, and had worked for Disney. Both founders, like millions of kids in the early 1980’s, grew up reading R.A. Montgomery’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels.

If their first release is any indicator, the DVD series should do exceptionally well. “The response to the title (Abominable Snowman) has been phenomenal,” said Norton. “Not only do kids enjoy the characters and the adventure, but they also love having direct control over the storyline. The pleasant surprise for us has been that ‘The Abominable Snowman’ has become a title that kids and parents enjoy watching together. Because the movie is interactive, allowing the kids to make choices that affect the direction of the story, it also promotes interaction and discussion between kids and their parents. It’s something that the whole family can enjoy together, and parents are interested in learning how their kids make decisions.”

Norton’s enthusiasm burned brightly as he spoke of the creative process in bringing “Choose Your Own Adventure” to life. “The creative process began by looking for the right story to tell. We were inspired by R.A. Montgomery’s classic interactive novel to weave a tale of adventure set against the backdrop or mountain climbing in the Himalayas. One of the biggest challenges in adapting the novel into a film was that the novel was written in the second person where ‘You’ were the protagonist. We wanted the film to have a trio of young characters that kids could relate to.” Norton developed the first character outlines for an initial prototype of the DVD in the summer of 2003. “From there, we worked closely with three talented writers, Shawn Tanaka, Doug Wood (Scooby Doo and the Monster of Mexico), and Elise Allen (Barbie Fairytopia) to finesse the characters and make them feel like real kids. To bring the script to life, we assembled some of the finest talents working in animation today. Bob Doucette (Clifford’s Puppy Days), the director, had a real vision to make the movie feel big and cinematic, even though it is being released on DVD.”

Norton’s enthusiasm continued as he spoke of the cast he worked with. “We were also very fortunate to attract an extremely talented cast. William H. Macy (Seabiscuit) performed the role of Uncle Rudy. Frankie Muniz (Malcolm in the Middle, Agent Cody Banks) voiced Benjamin North. Crista North, the eldest sibling, was played by Lacey Chabert (Party of Five), and Marco North was played by Daryl Sabara (Spy Kids, The Polar Express). Felicity Huffman (Desperate  Housewives) does a cameo role as Neema, the fearless helicopter pilot.”

“The aspect that makes the “Choose Your Own Adventure” DVD so special is that the viewer actually makes decisions and influences the story. To accomplish this, we developed a patent-pending technology to make it easy for viewers to make decisions using their DVD remote control. To make a choice, you highlight one of two icons that appear on the screen when the characters are faced with a major decision. We’ve even built in a ‘randomizer”, so the DVD will make a decision for you if you’ve lost your remote control in the sofa!”

Although the creation of the DVD was smooth sailing for the most part, Norton did speak of a few challenges in completing the project. “I think one of the challenges that we faced, right from the beginning and almost all the way through, was how to create choices that were not only compelling in the story but also compelling from a user experience. Our objective was to simulate what decision making would be like in the real world, under pressure with a ticking clock. What we didn’t want to do was simply freeze the action, and put text up on the screen that would say, ‘If you want to do this, press this button and if you want to do that, press that button,’ because in the real world people and kids will have to make decisions without the benefit of pressing pause. The technology to do that was something we had to develop. That was one of the bigger technical challenges but it was also a creative challenge.”

Norton elaborated on the creative challenges as well as the technical challenges. “I think the creative challenge was in having to keep the DVD feeling like a film while also giving the viewer a real option to interact. Another challenge that comes to mind is the sheer complexity of being able to have eleven unique story paths, each of which has its own story development and character development, and on top of that, to make the universe that the characters live in, in the movie, completely consistent instead of random. For example, what we didn’t want to do was if the characters made one choice that they would meet an individual who would be bad, and if they made a different choice they would meet the same individual and he might be good—that’s completely arbitrary and random. We wanted to have a consistency to the universe.”

“In our movies, we actually have three main characters, the North siblings. We had to create those characters from the ground up. We had to develop them and we had to work with writers. We had to know, ‘Who are these people? What are their likes? What are their dislikes? What are they afraid of? What do they love? What are their interactions and relationships among one another?’ None of that was in the book.”

As Norton and the folks at Lean Forward Media have overcome the various challenges to produce this award-winning DVD, he looks ahead to the future with eagerness. “We have over one hundred novels to adapt into interactive DVD’s,” he said. “Our aim is to expose our viewers to all parts of the world through these DVD’s. We have two more titles in pre-production. The Lost Jewels is a caper film that takes place in France and Africa. Mystery of the Maya is a time travel mystery that takes the North kids back to ancient Mayan times.”

“We are working on other projects at Lean Forward Media, all with the aim to provide high quality content for families to enjoy together. We want to entertain, engage, and educate kids around the world.”

In having already won several awards, it would seem that Jeff Norton and Lean Forward Media have gotten off to a great running start.

Read Dove’s Review of “Choose Your Own Adventure®: The Abominable Snowman”