If you look at a map of Maryland, you won’t find a town called Herkleton, or a Herkleton County. But if you’ve watched Cartoon Network in the last few years, you might have caught a glimpse of the fictional Maryland town on “Craig of the Creek.”
The series, about a 10-year-old boy named Craig’s adventures in the woods in his suburban hometown, has proven reliably popular with kids of all ages — especially Craig’s — and has aired 170 episodes since its debut in 2018. “We just animated these shorts out of our apartments in Queens, and that got us the attention of some folks to kind of get us into the TV world,” co-creator Ben Levin said over Zoom in a recent interview alongside co-creator Matt Burnett and longtime “Craig” storyboard artist Tiffany Ford, who helped create the new spinoff, “Jessica’s Big Little World.”
When Burnett and Levin, who met as New York University film students and were both writers on Cartoon Network’s critically acclaimed animated TV series “Steven Universe,” decided to pitch their own show, they drew heavily on their childhoods — Burnett’s in New Jersey and Levin’s in Maryland. It was Levin’s hometown of Olney, Maryland, that became the basis of Craig’s life in Herkleton, including a creek that Levin often played by as a child.
“I feel like Jersey wasn’t on the table,” Burnett said with a laugh. “I made a joke once about New Jersey on ‘Steven Universe’ and people got really mad.”
“When we made the show, we were trying to draw upon that place in our childhood that was magical to us. I’m in California now, I love California, but there was a period where everything felt like it was set in California, like ‘Saved By The Bell’ and stuff,” Levin said. “I wanted to try and do something that had touches of specificity to one place. And so I took a lot of reference photos of the creek and worked with the background designers to base all the houses off of a specific house I knew in Maryland. So Craig’s grandparents’ house is based off my grandparents’ house that they had in Towson.”
Portraying Maryland foliage accurately became something of an obsession for Levin. “I had a big thing about pine trees, which I was very annoying about. I was like, ‘I only want pine trees in certain areas,’” he said. The duo also had to make sure their California animation team understood differences between East Coast and West Coast architecture trends. “We always ran into problems showing stores and strip malls and stuff, because we were like, ‘No, they feel different on the East Coast, they don’t use that kind of roof,’” Burnett said.
Levin and Burnett both voice characters on the show, and Ford also got an opportunity to voice the character of Cariss that she helped create. “That was a character based on my sister, and my sister has a very specific cadence. I was very excited to do that voice,” Ford said. “The core of ‘Craig in the Creek’ is the storytelling, and the team aspect of it is that Matt and Ben really invited all of us to share ourselves.”
When the network expressed interest in a spinoff, Craig’s little sister Jessica emerged as a favorite character to make the center of a new series. Ford, one of the storyboard artists they hired for “Craig of the Creek,” became their obvious choice as showrunner for “Jessica’s Big Little World,” which began airing on Cartoon Network and streaming on Max in October.
“In the pilot, Craig had a little sister; we didn’t really know much about her, she had a few lines. And we wrote this episode where we could learn more about her as Craig takes to the creek,” Levin remembered. “Tiffany storyboarded that, and immediately it brought a lot of life to that character, just really gave her a personality. And as we continued through Season 3 do more stories with Jessica, Tiffany brought a lot of very specific things to the character, even kind of like creating this doll, Small Uncle, that she carries, and a whole backstory for that.” Ford voices Small Uncle, who speaks to Jessica in fantasy sequences.
Just as Levin and Burnett brought autobiographical aspects to “Craig,” Ford brings her own perspective to a portrait of younger childhood on “Jessica’s Big Little World” for an adorable, but funny and relatable, show aimed at preschoolers.
“I felt inspired to really take in my own experiences, the experiences of everybody in the writers’ room, to build on what Jessica could be when she’s not around Craig,” Ford said. “Jessica’s too little to go to the creek on her own, so her special space right now is her home and the grocery store with her family. So she is seeing everything through a different lens.”
The way characters are drawn and voiced is consistent across both shows, but “Jessica’s Big Little World” has its own slightly more colorful, more magical aesthetic to reflect Jessica’s perspective.
Burnett and Levin are now winding down “Craig of the Creek” with a prequel movie, “Craig Before the Creek,” which will begin streaming on video-on-demand Monday. The movie will air on Cartoon Network on Jan. 13, 2024, with a sixth and final season of the series following later in the year.
“We work with the entire crew to populate the world with kids that felt like they represented who was making the show,” Levin said. “And then I think we kept being intrigued each season by learning more about those characters. In the final season of ‘Craig,’ there are some episodes where we get to see more of characters’ home lives and inner lives that we didn’t get to see. And there are some special stories that we’d kind of been holding onto, and that we finally are telling. So I think that people will be excited to see those.”