An unlikely media mogul: FableVision founder Peter H. Reynolds

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“Leave this world a little better than you found it,” is how FableVision founder Peter H. Reynolds summarizes his philosophy. The approach permeates his extensive multimedia operation, which partners with broadcast networks, museums, educational publishing, and a host of other institutions.

Reynolds is also a best-selling children’s book author and illustrator, having sold over 20 million books in more than 25 languages. His latest book, Playing from the Heart, is a tale about a son’s desire to console his ailing father with music.

Reynolds’ comportment as he sits in his quaint Blue Bunny Bookstore in Dedham is far more the jovial artist than the shrewd commercial magnate. He radiates a youthful enthusiasm when he recounts how he learned the “Leave the world a little better” maxim as an eagle scout. The phrase was coined by Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scouting movement.

"Aha! Math" K-5 program for

“Aha! Math” K-5 program for

Putting the ideal into practice, Reynolds founded FableVision in 1996 with the goal of creating “stories that matter.” While his imaginative side is evident, it cannot disguise his savvy business acumen. With the help of his brother Paul, FableVision’s CEO, the venture now partners with major organizations such as PBS, the Jim Henson Company, Nick Jr. cable network, National Geographic Society, MIT, and the Smithsonian. The company is headquartered at Boston Children’s Museum in the city’s Innovation District.

Besides the media network, Reynolds has also founded a K-12 educational publishing company and the non-profit Reynolds Center for Teaching, Learning, and Creativity.

Despite its phenomenal potential for growth, Reynolds is committed to retaining the company’s altruistic ethos. “We create animation, mobile apps, interactive experiences for museums, publishers, and especially for organizations doing good in the world,” Reynolds said. “We are a decidedly biased company when it comes to whom we’ll work with. We seek collaborators who are trying to make the world a better place for every citizen no matter what age. Our clients include Jim Henson Productions, Smithsonian Institute, United Way, Trustees of Reservations, and many other mission-driven organizations.”

“We are a decidedly biased company when it comes to whom we’ll work with. We seek collaborators who are trying to make the world a better place.” — Peter Reynolds

Reynolds is also dedicated to providing schoolchildren with creative audiovisual products that encourage learning. “We design and distribute learning applications for schools worldwide via our FableVision Learning division. Our new digital fabrication software, [email protected] MakerStudio invites boys and girls to become engineers by exploring digital fabrication. Every project, every client brings a new challenge to FableVision, and through that we are always kept fresh.”

The challenge to explore and improve media technology provides plenty of impetus for Reynolds and his colleagues. “We’re in a constant state of discovery,” he enthused. “I pinch myself that I get to work in such a wonderland of creativity. Oh yeah, and being located on the top floor of the Boston Children’s Museum — and a book and toy store in our new satellite location in Dedham, MA — makes it all the more dreamy.”

(Credit: FableVision)

(Credit: FableVision)

In recent decades, animation has evolved tremendously through technological innovations, many of which FableVision created. Reynolds reflected on how the industry has developed since his career began. “Technology has made animation make huge leaps in the past three decades. When I founded FableVision in 1996, computer animation was in its genesis, so we got clever and developed techniques that would squeeze a lot out of a little.”

Reynolds and his collaborators envisioned a way to enhance storytelling by essentially animating the animation. “I was co-creator of a technique called SquiggleVision, which I developed with my mentor, friend and innovative educator, Tom Snyder. It involved looping 3 frames of an illustration traced imprecisely to give the sense that the art had come to life,” Reynolds recounted.

That creation led to further developments, but the team was resolute in their quest to preserve the human element at the heart of the product. “At FableVision, we kept pushing the envelope and employed what we call ‘jazz animation.’ Animation can be expensive, but if you think in a ‘jazz’ way, you can still get a lot of storytelling done with just a few ‘notes,’” Reynolds observed. “Our success has less to do with the technology and more to do with the art of telling a story. FableVision’s clients love that we embrace story as the core of what we do. Technology is cool, but humans are cooler.”

Peter Reynolds at his studio (Credit: Peggy Rose)

Peter Reynolds at his studio (Credit: Peggy Rose)

Like animation, Reynolds maintains that books should appeal to all audiences, and not just children. “Running parallel to my world of media-making is my picture book career which I launched at the same time as FableVision with a book called The North Star, a story to inspire readers to dream big and craft their own, original journey. Since then, I have created many books that focus on creativity and mindfulness, including The Dot and Ish. I refrain from saying that I make ‘children books’ and prefer instead to say ‘picture books’ because I feel that a really good story speaks to all ages.”

“I wanted to remind readers that the joy children so naturally possess shouldn’t be left behind as we become older and often times too serious, too busy, and too stressed.” — Peter Reynolds

Reynolds recently launched a book that he hopes will inspire children and adults alike. “My latest book, Playing from the Heart, might be my most personal book yet. It is about a boy, his piano, a proud father and their evolution together. Years of formal training on the piano separate the boy from his original joy of discovering and exploring the sounds of the piano. It is not until many years later that his father, who is not well, requests a song to comfort him,” Reynolds explained. “The son realizes that it is not the scripted classical music his father needs — rather it is the songs he played as a child — with no sheet music — music from the heart.”

Civil War interactive app for the National Museum of American History (Credit: FableVision)

Civil War interactive app for the National Museum of American History (Credit: FableVision)

This simple, yet powerful message is meant to have a broad appeal. “I wanted to remind readers that the joy children so naturally possess shouldn’t be left behind as we become older and often times too serious, too busy, and too stressed,” Reynolds expounded. “All my books are ‘gentle nudges’ to be a bit braver — and a bit more ‘you.’ This blessed journey is far too short, so why waste any of it?”

As to the future, Reynolds plans to develop the company’s television presence and to continue producing books. “FableVision has added Tone Thyne, an 11-year veteran of Walt Disney Feature Animation, to expand into original television development. That’s an exciting next chapter for us. I am also busy on several new books. One is written by Susan Verde that I illustrated. It’s a lovely book about an African girl in search of clean water to drink in The Water Princess, due out September of this year,” he said. “Next spring, Scholastic will launch the first of three books written and illustrated by me. The first title Happy Dreamer is a celebration of the creative mind and a reminder that even if you take a tumble, with the right attitude, you can bounce back.”

Reynolds has no intention of slowing his pace. Instead, he plans to explore new conduits of inspiration that will stimulate his creative output. “In the next decade, I’d like take a break from picture books and try my hand at storytelling on Broadway and the big screen,” Reynolds said. “But before that, I think I’ll hit the road with my family, which includes 29-year-old Sarah and 5-year-old Henry Rocket, and travel the world to get inspired by this amazing planet.”

"Ripped Apart" Civil War mystery for Smithsonian Museum (Credit: FableVision)

“Ripped Apart” Civil War mystery for Smithsonian Museum (Credit: FableVision)

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].