Playing with puppets is serious business for Jason Hopley and Jamie Shannon, co-founders of The Grogs Creature Shop in Toronto.

The two passionate artists have done projects for heavyweights like Disney, Nickelodeon, Teletoon and the CBC and have set their sights on feature films next. Their pre-school series Nanalan, which runs on the CBC and PBS networks, won a Gemini Award and their newest series Big & Small is already a fresh hit on Treehouse TV.

Hopley believes the popularity of The Grogs’ distinctive characters comes from the humanity they try to infuse into the puppets.

“We try to make things real — we’re not going for that saccharine quality. We strive to bring a real humanness to the characters,” Hopley said.

Best friends since they attended the Claude Watson School for the Arts in Toronto’s Willowdale neighbourhood, Hopley and Shannon embody a fairytale story of two self-taught artists who have found success creating, writing and producing all their own work.

After leaving school, Hopley and Shannon spent two years at YTV, starting in 1993, creating dozens of puppet characters and performing live three-minute short bits while building up their skills on the fly.

“We just learned from doing, on live TV. It was the best learning ground,” Shannon said.

The whirlwind years at YTV were instrumental in developing Hopley and Shannon’s skills since they had no formal training and Hopley is still amazed at the level of responsibility and creativity YTV allowed them to have.

“We were just two 19-year-old guys doing improv live-to-air across Canada — I still can’t believe it,” Hopley said.

Wanting to do their own thing, Hopley and Shannon left YTV to start The Grogs, spending the first few years developing characters, building puppets and trying to break out professionally.

At the start they had to scrounge cash together for glue, felt and other materials while building puppets in an ex-girlfriend’s mom’s basement. Hopley admits they even nabbed a thrown-away foam mattress or two for spare parts.

“We were broke. A lot.” Hopley said.

Nowadays each puppet their studio creates costs no less than $2,000 to produce and budgets for their projects can run in the millions.

Nurturing each other’s artistic vision and being honest with each other are both big parts of why the creative partnership works and being best friends for almost three decades also helps.

Hopley admits living his creative dreams every day is a highly satisfying career.

“I wake up every morning and play with toys. If I died tomorrow, I’d pretty much be a happy man,” Hopley joked.