Animation Inspiration

Animation Inspiration

Trademarked production process encourages reading, writing for at-risk kids

Accomplished TV veterans Terry Thoren and Ryan Cannon are using their talents to turn the magic of animation into a powerful EdTech tool. Governors, educators and STEM centers throughout the United States are jostling to find funds to get Wonder Media Story Maker® into their schools.

“Research shows that lessons taught to children by an animated character are retained 80 percent more than a lesson delivered by an adult.”

—Terry Thoren


Primary school students from across the United States fidgeted, giggled and chatted nervously with teachers and parents as they sat inside a historic California site, preparing to witness some history of their own.

Inside the revered Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, the kids awaited the premiere of the first all-student-produced, animated, feature-length film in early August. It was their interpretation of perhaps the most popular movie of all time: “The Wizard of Oz,” which premiered at Grauman’s 80 years ago that month.

Most of the students had never set foot in Los Angeles, least of all this hallowed ground of American cinema.

Before the lights went down, Hollywood animation icon Terry Thoren and his partner in Wonder Media, LLC, Ryan Cannon, took the microphone.

The crowd cheered.

Thoren, the former CEO of Klasky Csupo, Inc.—the studio that incubated “The Simpsons” and produced “Rugrats” and “The Wild Thornberrys”—was elated and inspired. Cannon, an American Film Institute movie maker and content producer for “Sesame Street” and Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat,” beamed.

The two who transformed the magic of animation into a powerful EdTech tool spoke to the students whose contributions had been stitched together into this national premiere. To make the movie a reality, students used Wonder Media Story Maker®, the production process created by Thoren and Cannon.

After the partners spoke, the “WonderGrove Wizard of Oz,” a collaboration of 24 schools across the United States, flickered onto the screen. As it rolled, various sections of the audience exploded into squeals of delight when their schools were recognized. They heard their own voices, saw their drawings, animation moves and witnessed—on the big screen—something that bonded them into a tight-knit community of storytellers.

This fraternity of kids, those who often don’t know how to express themselves, might not be doing so well with traditional classroom curriculum. But they are flourishing with this tool, used in 172 school districts in 24 states.

Governors, educators and STEM centers throughout the United States are jostling to find funds to get Story Maker into their schools because of the profound effect it’s having on student reading and writing skills. Students are learning to collaborate and complete authentic filmmaking tasks as a classroom antidote to the enormous amount of free time they spend on electronic devices outside of school.

Pivotal influencers

Los Angeles-based Wonder Media—which says it offers “the best edutainment solutions for children”—is building a global team of storytellers to connect with children at risk. The company uses animated stories to address teen suicide, hunger, sex abuse prevention, emergency preparedness, social emotional learning, critical thinking, autism, nutrition, children with disabilities and those living in a home with an addicted adult.

At a time when the word influencer has become a hair-brained notion of self-celebrity, Thoren and Cannon have compelling influence under their wings: The Institute for Habits of Mind, the Betty Ford Center Children’s Program, the Hero in You Foundation, and Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts USA.

The Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center is also included; its animated lessons to teach sexual abuse prevention have been viewed by more than 150 million students worldwide. The lessons have been adopted by Education for Justice, an initiative of the United Nations; and The Boys Scouts of America, to name some of the prestigious global partners. The Sinatra center’s “Protect Yourself Rules” educational videos and lessons plans are now required viewing for every Cub Scout in the world!

A greater purpose

This bountiful marriage of animation and education began when Thoren walked away from the red carpets of the entertainment industry to dedicate his life to a more meaningful purpose. One of his first projects was the application of animation for children with autism.

He underscores the importance of animation as an EdTech tool by explaining: “We discovered long ago how animation is a powerful teaching tool for young children.

“When children believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, they also believe that animated characters are real. As such, they form an emotional bond with animated characters and will mimic their behavior.

“Research shows that lessons taught to children by an animated character are retained 80 percent more than a lesson delivered by an adult.”

As often happens with the best ideas, Story Maker in schools happened by accident. Thoren said that after a school superintendent from Columbus, Mississippi, visited the Wonder Media studio, the school began experimenting with implementing an animation studio back home. The superintendent discovered that teaching at-risk students to make animated stories had a profound effect on their reading and writing skills, and dramatically decreased absenteeism.

Productive pairing

People tend to say that Thoren is the brains of the company, Cannon  the heart.

The film-loving Cannon was a childhood fan of “Star Wars,” “Batman” and “Rugrats.” He was overwhelmed by the emotion that Pixar was able to express through the first piece of digital computer animation called Luxor, Jr.

The father of two young daughters notes: “If you think about the stories that have been burned into your memory, they are full of strong emotions. Memory is directly tied to intense feelings, which is why I infuse each project I work on with both humor and heart—two strong, positive sensations.”

Cannon is inspired working with Thoren. The two are on a mission to effect change.

With more than 100 million views of their WonderGrove lessons on YouTube and on their subscription website, they are building a legacy around the idea of providing social-emotional learning and critical thinking skills to children before third grade.

Cannon says that creating true change is a formula: “care + confidence + contributions = change.”

“When kids care about a cause, are confident they can do something about it and are given a chance to contribute, change is bound to happen. Children are our future, so it’s fitting that Story Maker shows them how to start affecting their future now by teaching communication, teamwork and compromise.”

Cannon speaks of Thoren as a “gardener for good” as they spend each day planting seeds of hope for a better future for children.

Invention inspiration

When asked the standard but compelling question, “If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be?”, Thoren unequivocally says: the late John Wooden, legendary coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team. Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is a roadmap for excellence that he has followed religiously throughout his life.

The son of a hard-nosed, ultra-conservative father who was a Cornell Hall of Fame baseball coach, Thoren says he was tossed out of the family home at age 16. Feeling discouraged as a “free thinker” laid the foundation for who he is today. For 40 years, he has pushed the boundaries of animation, continually innovating its use to bring positive change on a large scale.

Thoren is tenacity to the 10th power. Unlike the not-so-healthy family experience he had, he rates the time with his three grown and incredibly adventuresome sons at the top of his list of happiness factors.

He makes the cozy town of Snohomish, Washington, his home, where he and his wife have nurtured a storybook farm into existence. He commutes to Los Angeles and steers the Wonder Media ship with staggering vigor, his ideas fueled by the grandeur of the Northwest.

Cannon is an Angeleno, where he and his wife are raising their daughters amid the hustle and bustle of the big city. He has his own family in mind when trying to tackle the toughest issues facing families today.

Cannon is an Angeleno, where he and his wife are raising their daughters amid the hustle and bustle of the big city. As a father trying to guide and protect his family in today’s world, he strives to equip families everywhere with better tools to combat the potential issues before us.

Together, the dynamic duo are fueling the intellect and hearts of youths everywhere, keen to pierce the veil of trauma that any child might experience—via a safety net of age-appropriate animated stories.