University of Rochester

A Big Audience of Small Fans

By Katina Antoniades

MULTITALENTED: Composer Belinda Takahashi ’01E (PhD) created the sketches a puppet builder used to create the “Juno Baby” characters.

When composer Belinda Takahashi ’01E (PhD) was pregnant with her first child and watched one of the wildly popular “Baby Einstein” DVDs, she heard the synthesized classical music and thought, “We can do better.”

Juno Baby, the resulting company Takahashi and her husband, Adam Adelman, formed and named after their daughter, has garnered praise and awards for its DVDs and CDs for young children that combine animation, puppetry, and music. The couple currently runs the company out of their home in Fairfax, Calif., coordinating a small army of consultants and freelancers.

In this excerpted interview, Takahashi talks about her journey with Juno Baby.

When did you decide to start the company?

I was probably five months pregnant, and it was kind of like, “Oh, we can do this.” My husband and I kind of just jump right into something, and before we knew it, we were talking to people about [our idea]. We didn’t know anything—I mean anything—about the process, about filming. I mean, people go to film school for stuff like this, and [have] some kind of background ability, or whatever—but we just learned everything completely from the ground up. Everything! About writing for children, producing, directing, shooting, all the aspects of the camera work—and there are millions of them.

Did you have any mentors when you started Juno Baby?

No—no advice. I look back on it now, and there were moments when we were so deep into it, like, “What are we doing? Oh, my god, what have we gotten ourselves into? This is such a can of worms!” And now I can look back, and things are going really well, and I’m glad that we were that—maybe, stupid—initially, just to do something this, you know, ridiculous.

How many hours did you put into this at the beginning?

Oh, god. Oh, my god—it was all day from morning till night, I’d say, when we were building that up. And then we were shooting, and when we were doing the filming of it, we did it in the studio in Sonoma, and I had my daughter with me when she was little—she’s in some of the videos, actually—and so it’s just trying to balance everything with a family. And now I have another child, so it’s getting harder.

What were the weaknesses in children’s media that you saw?

Basically for children, what we found is there is the rock ’n’ roll kind of kids’ music, or this classical, “your child’s going to be a genius”–type music. And we kind of wanted to have something where children could really appreciate the music and the instruments. And bottom line, it’s also for the parents, because the parents have this in their car or on their TV. So the music is just real, orchestral-sounding, wonderful music that has these character voices on it that really makes it fun for the kids to listen to. And on our CDs, we have the instrumental tracks, so if the parents just want to tune out the kiddie-voice stuff, they can also listen to the pure, unadulterated music.

What has been easier than you expected?

I think what’s been really the most thrilling, or just better than I anticipated, is the response to the videos. I’m more shocked than anyone, I think, at the fact that people really like them. We have so many people that write us and are just asking, “When are the next ones coming out?” And someone was a Juno character for Halloween; they sent us the pictures, and I’m totally amazed by that. That’s definitely better than I ever anticipated.

Looking back, is there anything that you would do differently?

Probably not. Because I think that even though it was really hard to do and make for those couple years, that’s how we learned how to do it, so we needed that learning curve. We needed it to give ourselves this education.

What’s it like having your husband for a business partner?

It’s great. It’s fantastic. Because it really has coalesced both of our abilities and our skill sets. We complement each other, and we also have the same taste, so when we see something or we hear something, we have the same sensibility, and we both agree on that. But he’s very much the business guy who does the PR and makes all the relationships with the distributors and our licensing agent and all that kind of stuff.

What do you keep in mind when you’re composing for very young children?

The form is more simplified, because they’re songs; however, my personality as a composer is still completely in that music. It’s not watered down at all; it’s still mature music. And it’s something that I believe that children are capable [of listening to] and love to hear.

Why is it important to expose kids to music from a young age?

When children react to music, it gives them so much joy, and [for] classical music, with our audiences getting older and older, it’s nice to introduce young children to this kind of music so they can be our future audience.