‘Miikshi,’ a Toronto couple’s dream puppet series about a sheep scientist, takes flight on TVOKids.com
Married puppeteers Justin and Lindsay Lee are bringing stories to life with handmade puppets and elaborate sets right here in the GTA.
Blame “Thunderbirds.” It was while working on a documentary about, and a new miniseries based on, that ’60s British science-fiction TV series (filmed “IN SUPERMARIONATION”) that the Lees dreamed up a show of their own.
The couple met while studying radio and television arts at Ryerson University. A few years later, in 2015, they were sent to London, England, to work on “Thunderbirds” — Lindsay as a puppeteer and Justin as director, editor and puppeteer.
“Lindsay and I like to corrupt English words for some reason,” Justin says. “One night, we were at home between filming days, and I just said to her (to the tune of ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’), ‘Meek sheep, meek sheep, have you any confidence?’ And she replied, ‘No, sir. No, sir. I have no confidence.’”
From there, came the idea for Miikshi — a shy sheep scientist whose brilliant inventions lead her on adventures. But once the Lees returned to Toronto, they resumed their day jobs — Lindsay as a book publicist and Justin as a visual effects artist in advertising — and put Miikshi on hold.
That was until Lindsay’s mother Wendy, at 58, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2017.
“Having her in that situation made us reflect on how we wanted to spend the rest of our short lives,” Lindsay says. Before she died, Wendy insisted they use her life insurance funds to realize their dream of creating their own show. “When my mom passed away, it was the kick we needed to do it.”
In July 2017, Lindsay quit her publishing job and Justin went part-time to help bring Miikshi to life. Their first task was locating a cheap studio space to rent. “We ended up finding a space in Whitby, which happened to be the back room of a pizza shop,” Lindsay explains. “Often, the pizza guy, our landlord, would be running through to get to his car to do a delivery.”
The 400-square-foot space was tight, but the couple, along with their friend Jeffrey Mackey, toiled for months, building puppets and elaborate sets. “We wanted everything to have a lot of dimension to it,” Justin says. “In Miikshi’s apartment, when she pulls a lever on the wall, her kitchen table would flip over from looking like a dining table to a laboratory.”
Filming began in January 2018, and by December the couple had completed five episodes, each about seven minutes long. They organized a screening at Little Italy’s Monarch Tavern and posted about it on social media, figuring 20 people would attend. But close to 200 people showed up, packing the house and cheering Miikshi on as she stopped a runaway train with her science skills and saved her town from a cosmic potato.
As it happens, someone in the audience had a connection to Shaftsbury, a Toronto-based media production company, which came on board to shop the series to broadcasters. Meanwhile, the Lees applied for and received money from the Independent Production Fund and the Shaw Rocket Fund to create 10 more episodes.
By late 2019, TVOKids signed on to stream them. The network requested the new shows take an educational approach, so the Lees reworked them to introduce simple science concepts, like solar power and weather, to its target audience of preschoolers. The Lees found a larger production space near Downsview Park and were about to begin shooting when COVID hit, stalling production until September 2020. A year later, those 10 episodes launched on TVOKids.com. “If you go on TVOKids.com, they’ve got ‘Arthur’ and ‘Paw Patrol,’ and ‘Miikshi’ is right next to them,” Justin says. “There’s something really wild about that.”
The Lees have received great feedback so far both from kids and parents. “We’ve got all these bits in the show for the adults watching,” Justin says. “Miikshi has a farm-ified NPR magnet on her fridge that says, ‘This Agrarian Life with Ira Grass.’” There are also homages to Lindsay’s mom. “On Miikshi’s jet, the tailfin has a ‘58’ on it,” Justin says. “Wendy was born in 1958 and she lived until the age of 58. Miikshi’s robot is also called 58.”
Justin, a Korean Canadian, and Lindsay, a Chinese Jamaican Canadian, are also proud of the cultural details they’ve been able to incorporate. “In the third episode, Miikshi’s snacking on dumplings,” Justin says. “We can call that a win because there was some apprehension about having dumplings in there instead of something like a sandwich.”
That same episode ends with Miikshi reading a book alone at home, which is what she had wanted to do all along. Having an introverted protagonist who feels like she doesn’t belong is something that resonated with the couple. “Making a show about a character who was different felt very natural to us as minorities,” Lindsay says.
With the success of “Miikshi,” Justin and Lindsay now have two series in production. One, for CBC Kids, is “Power Lines,” about a new subway train that learns the “lay of the tracks” from turnstiles, traffic lights and other trains. The other, “The Shapeshifters,” follows a robot that travels around Canada and learns how artisans make soap, clocks, dollhouses and more.
Meanwhile, the audience for “Miikshi” has been expanding to unlikely places. “We discovered that there’s a Japanese Wikipedia page for ‘Miikshi,’” Justin says. “It’s very detailed. It has all the episodes and character descriptions.”