Punky won the Best Children’s Film award at the 7th International Disability Film Festival. This is a really big deal for me. Why? Because it is recognition that we got it right. And for me early on, that was my biggest concern.
A cartoon by its very nature becomes a caricature. As soon as the idea of making Punky was floated in the studio at Geronimo Productions (Monster Animation back then), this thought was shouting loudly in my head. Could we possibly create a cartoon kid with Down syndrome and have that look anything other than offensive? Would it work in the writing? I did a huge amount of research and came across a company that made children’s baby dolls that looked like babies with Down syndrome. It seemed like the most well-intentioned idea so that kids with Down syndrome could have a doll that looks a little like they do and there were huge numbers of parents who loved that. But there were also some parents who didn’t. They felt it was highlighting the differences and not the similarities. And one thing that was abundantly clear is that, when dealing with children’s media, you’re reaching parents at a time when they are still just getting used to having a child in their lives so anything (be it colic, Down syndrome or other traits) can hit raw nerves.
I’ll admit it – I was nervous. For me, if we were to make a show with a main character who has Down syndrome, it would have to be right. It would have to right for children who have Down syndrome. It would have to be right for the parents of children with Down syndrome. It would have to be right for kids and parents who weren’t remotely touched by Down syndrome so that they would have a better understanding. All while still being entertaining for everyone. That’s a tough brief.
Gerard, producer at Geronimo, was not remotely nervous. He recognised the challenges but had faith that we could meet them and overcome them. We had made a lot of children’s television at this point and he knew we had a great team (we did) and that the fact that I was so clear on the potential pitfalls was a positive – we would work to get it right. And so Gerard believed strongly that we would do something good with this show.
And so we went ahead with it. We took what was initially quite a raw but energetic idea, created by Lindsay J. Sedgwick, which had the aims in place and we stripped it back to its core characters – a family. We pulled the age of the show to preschool for many reasons and simplified it for clarity. We focused on Punky but not in a way that would mean we were making a Down syndrome show. We very quickly realised that it was just about Punky and one thing among many about Punky is that she has Down syndrome. It’s just part of who she is. That approach for the show was right because that’s really also the message we wanted for all kids. Punky is Punky. She’s a kid. I guess in a way, I had to get over my own prejudices and stop seeing Down syndrome as this big barrier. You have to take people (and characters) for who they are.
As we fleshed Punky out we got to know her and, as it turns out, she’s an adorable kid with lots going on. The designs were a challenge and we knew they would be but again it was about treating Punky as her character not a condition. We had Ciara McClean designing on the show who arrived at the look of the family, Punky included, and they just felt right. When we got into the writing, we had Andrew Brenner who brought so much to the show. Andrew was perfect for Punky because he has a wonderful honesty about the lives of children in his storytelling. His inspiration comes from real life, not just some saccharine hopes for what real life should be. He got the family dynamic working brilliantly and brought so much humour in the process. Simon Crane directed the episodes, visually telling Andrew’s stories beautifully. And Punky herself came alive when Aimee Richardson was cast as her voice – so much fun and life and personality.
One production later and it was clear: Gerard was right all along. We were doing something good with this show. And it was entertaining for all kids. Everyone at Geronimo Productions brought their best to Punky and that’s why it worked.
And so now this award. Anyone who knows me well will know I’m not much of an awards person but this one means a little more because this one feels like it is saying something to my early nervousness. My fears. It’s like it is saying: maybe those early fears weren’t unfounded but you always need to have faith that you can overcome them. Good things don’t always come easy. So I’m happy to have been one part of that process and I hope that everyone at Geronimo, especially Gerard himself and Lindsay as Punky’s creator, is proud of this award because they earned it. Well done, everyone.
I met a spaceman at the weekend. More importantly, my two little girls met a spaceman. Astronaut Chris Hadfield, who I posted about last May when he both entertained and inspired the world, taught my youngest daughter to shake hands for the first time at the age of five.
And he was awesome.
I have no doubt that Chris Hadfield has completed many important tasks out there in space but one of the most important things he has done, in my opinion, is excite the people down here on Earth. And especially the children.
I have never been to space and maybe I’ll never get there but all the way back in 2010, I began my own mission: to inspire and excite children about space. Through a funny cartoon show, I wanted to introduce very young children to the planets in our Solar System. The real planets, all of which are completely mind-blowing. Whole other worlds. And, for me, that was just the beginning. The idea behind Planet Cosmo is that it would spark questions. That kids could go back to their parents and ask, why is Mercury so cold at night? How many moons do other planets have? What other suns are out there? What other planets are there?
The hope was that an interest would be ignited and that parents would recognise that and feed that interest. The show launched last year.
And you know what?
Planet Cosmo has worked. It hasn’t yet spread internationally as quick as I would have loved (it is, however, already it is making its way to Finland, Portugal and Iceland). But wow, it worked. Right here in Ireland, I have had some of the most amazing mails and feedback from parents. The ones that make me smile the most are those where the parents got involved – made Solar System mobiles with their kids, for example. When it isn’t just about a kid but a whole family sharing in interest in space.
Those are our future astronauts. Our future technicians, engineers. Even right here in little Ireland, software and equipment is being developed for space missions. In the future, who knows? Today’s kids could very well be astronauts. It’s more than just a dream. And right now, they are little astronauts. We are on a planet. In our Solar System. We are all in space. Making that known and igniting the imagination is so important.
Our little astronauts are wonderful.
So I thank Commander Chris Hadfield for doing a far bigger, better job than I could have ever done. I hope he has inspired your children, as he has inspired mine. His book is excellent, by the way. And if you haven’t yet checked out Planet Cosmo, give it a look. It’s often on RTEjr here in Ireland and there is a whole episode on YouTube below for anyone to watch. From here, I would love to continue that mission – to inspire and educate kids about space exploration and the awesomeness of it all. And I know it is a mission many others share so, who knows, there could be new partnerships, new concepts, new forms.
I suspect I shall end up doing a lot more work for all our little astronauts. I certainly hope so.
While doing some housekeeping, I came across some old Fluffy Gardens development work. Fluffy Gardens had a somewhat unconventional visual beginning and was then refined in several stages until it was ready for screen. I have put this design process together in some collected images in my GALLERY, including a few explored yet unproduced ideas that have never been seen before outside of the Geronimo Productions (then Monster Animation) studio. I do hope you find it interesting!
I also found my notes to the new animators on series 2 of Fluffy Gardens and among the notes is something that struck me as relevant in any area when you are getting to grips with something new, whether that’s learning a new skill, new software, writing outside your comfort zone, etc. It is written about animation but, if you’re not an animator, consider how this can be applied in your own area. So here it is, a thought from the animation notes of Fluffy Gardens:
1. Don’t get creative!
At least, not at first. The first thing to focus on is just getting basic movement looking as if it came straight from the most controlled scenes of the first series. Walking, picking stuff up, showing different expressions and that sort of thing. They are surprisingly easy to get wrong. So don’t go in attempting anything fancy. Keep everything grounded and just try to get it all working.
But… when you have got that (and be sure that you have first)…
2. Get creative!
Add little touches. Try something unexpected. It may not always work. That’s okay. But look at some of the more special scenes in series 1. You’ll see they’re always simple and never go crazy (well, except for Poppy the Tiger’s dream sequence) but, every now and again, there is an extra touch in the animation. A hidden smile from George the Mean Yellow Dog, a close hug, wet fur, that sort of thing.
Do be careful and certainly go sparingly. But when it’s right for a scene, have a think about what extra you could do. Add something special. Surprise me!
So there it is. First, know your field and know what you’re doing. Then get creative and deliver something special, something exceptional, something unexpected. That’s where the magic lies.
This is my last week at Geronimo Productions. A chapter ends and a new adventure begins. I can’t help but think back to what we have achieved over the years, how much has changed and of all the little moments that defined not just the studio but who we have become.
For one particular moment, I go right back to the beginning, so many years ago…
It was the end of my second year in animation college. Sullivan Bluth had just closed down. But there were new studios popping up. I gathered my portfolio and turned up to one of these – Monster Productions. I met a young, pleasant yet intimidating producer (I was young – everyone was intimidating to me), Gerard O’Rourke. He was running the show and one would expect him to know what he was doing except he had this crazy idea about starting me off as an animator. Did he not realise I was still in college? How new I was?
Well it was a struggle, I’ll admit. But I got better. I had to. Cut to many years later and I am working side by side with Gerard as a children’s content specialist, forming and moulding shows with an impressive catalogue behind us.
Maybe he knew. Perhaps that is why he gave this nervous young student a chance? Was he thinking, I’m going to give this kid a shot because one day we’ll build a studio and we’re going to make great things together? Could he possibly have known how long we would be linked and what we would achieve?
No. He couldn’t have known. He didn’t have to know. What Gerard did on that day was create the potential for all that to happen. He took a chance on a person and suddenly that path came into being. It led to great things. Over the years, I have seen Gerard give so many people their start and, each time, he creates a potential future. It doesn’t always lead to anything. That potential is not always realised but the opportunity is there and, so often, interesting and unexpected things are the result of those chances taken.
When we take a chance on a person or even take a chance on an idea, we create a new potential future. It is like planting seeds that, one day, could grow to be something wonderful. We can’t know the results and it would be wrong to constantly look for them, but we can create the potential. And so we should.
This is just one of the many things I have picked up from Gerard as we built what would become Geronimo Productions and I will always be grateful for the opportunities. I have a long list of personal achievements filed under the heading “if it wasn’t for Gerard…” and, at this stage, I am hoping he has a similar file with my name on it. Gerard and I will, no doubt, work together on many projects in the future and will always be linked by our strong catalogue of shows.
At the end of this week, one phase ends and a new phase begins. What am I doing? I am taking a chance on an idea. New aims, new missions. Interesting things are coming. And in the meantime, I am always here to talk projects, content, scripting, preschool and more so do feel free to get in touch.
I have been Creative Director of Geronimo Productions (formerly Monster Animation) for well over ten years. During that time, we took Monster from being a small studio making commercials to being a studio with a mission, with a drive that reflects my need for the highest-quality children’s programming and an impressive catalogue of shows – Roobarb & Custard Too, Fluffy Gardens, Ballybraddan, Punky, Planet Cosmo and more. Along with producer, Gerard O’Rourke – who I have worked with for eighteen great years – I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved with this studio, what we have built and all the content we have created and produced.
And now I announce my resignation as Creative Director of the company.
Why? Well, the short answer is simply that it is time.
It is time to explore other avenues. Time to build and manage new content within new frameworks. Time to open myself up to different collaborations. Time to make a new leap.
With Geronimo Productions, I have achieved what I set out to achieve all those years ago. It is now a studio that is very different to the one I took on when I stepped into the role of Creative Director. One with tried and tested methods, a strong catalogue with so many success stories and new shows that I have no doubt will become the next success stories. The studio has its own momentum and drive and will flourish.
And for me, on top of the business of building a studio with Gerard, creating and refining production methods, guiding the creative vision and choosing and managing projects, I have seen more than five shows – over 23 hours of television – shaped, pitched, produced and sold. My own Fluffy Gardens went to over 100 countries and Planet Cosmo is now building its own sales with a wonderful reaction from the industry and, more importantly, from children and parents.
I have been and will continue to be a champion for positive preschool entertainment across all areas from creation to screen and beyond.
And so it is time.
I will be with Geronimo Productions for the next month, making sure that the current Geronimo projects are all in good hands and will support them and lend my expertise after I leave. Geronimo Productions will continue to deliver great shows for children and I wish them every success in the future. Thanks to Gerard and all Monsters and Geronimites past and present for being with me on this journey.
We did it. Last week the final tapes for Planet Cosmo left the building, the completed series. Mission complete. Wow, what a journey.
It began early 2010 with just a wish and a doodle. That’s one of the very first images of Cosmo below, drawn with my finger on an iPod Touch using the old Brushes app. I didn’t know back then that it would be a cartoon show.
But I had more than just that doodle – I had an aim. A mission. I wanted to introduce the planets to children. Whole other worlds, real worlds, some of which can be seen by children just looking up at the sky at night. How amazing is that?
First, however, I had to entertain. I had to give children reasons to watch the show regardless of any prior interest in space. This would be a show for any and every child, boys and girls alike. And so slowly ideas became concepts, then characters, methods, structures and stories. Eventually, I knew I had it ‘ a show that delivered what I felt children both wanted and needed (not always the same thing!).
Humour. Lots of humour.
Curiosity. I love to spark questions.
And finally, the core of the show’s direct educational goal ‘ focused facts about our Solar System. Real amazing things that kids can share. If kids aren’t interested in that? No problem, the show has fun, humour, songs and adventure! It exists as entertainment and can sit on any preschool schedule, even without an educational remit. But soon, children may find themselves asking more questions, realising that beyond the fictional stories there are real planets out there (and we directly state what’s real in each episode). They may find that interest in space grows. And the more we feed that interest, the more likely it is that it will continue to grow. Wouldn’t that be something?
So here is the result of that long development. Planet Cosmo:
I knew production would be hard work. We were aiming high and our resources were limited. That just means you either find places to cut corners or everyone pushes that bit harder. Guess which one I went for? Yes, we pushed. We pushed hard.
Two things happened: Firstly, we had some problems early on. Secondly, the quality was pushed even higher (mainly due to some of our excellent animators exceeding our expectations ‘ you guys rock!). So now we were dealing with even higher standards and were playing catch-up as we dealt with our early production difficulties. There were times our deadlines seemed impossible. Everyone on the show stepped up and put in their all. Some found their limit and the cracks began to appear. Others could have kept on going, showing a level of support I will always appreciate and never forget.
Amazing on such a tough production to have people who are an absolute joy to work with.
And a very special mention for Simon Crane. Simon and I have worked together for years. He’s a good friend and an exceptionally talented animator and director in his own right (Simon is directing Geronimo Productions’ Punky) and he was my directing animator on Planet Cosmo. Simon’s level of enthusiasm and support kept me going, gave me energy when I needed it. This show probably just wouldn’t have happened without him. Thank you, Simon.
Everyone did great work. You should check out the credits when Planet Cosmo launches because one of the things I am most proud of is that we were able to make this show with so few people. You’ll find a tiny crew list at the end of our show. No hidden credits, no outside studio. That was it. Just us right here in Dublin. And you’ll even find quite a few names repeated in different jobs ‘ multitasking was an essential on this show! And even with such a small crew, the show is exactly what we wanted. I could never, ever use our lack of resources as an excuse for anything on this show. Planet Cosmo is actually a better show than the one I set out to make.
How often does one get to say that?
There are two other people I will mention here though. One is my script editor, Hilary Baverstock. These episodes only worked because the scripts were right to begin with. Without good scripts, we would have been working hard to make a show that looks pretty and does little else. So, as script editor, Hilary’s influence was felt throughout the entire production. And the other person is the producer of Geronimo Productions, Gerard O’Rourke. Gerard showed faith in this project from the second I showed it to him and he pulled the financing together to make it happen. The importance of that part is obvious but the immense work that goes into it is often never seen by those either making or watching the show. And Gerard now takes on phase three of what it is to make a show ‘ going out there to sell it. Find him at Kidscreen in New York and ask him to show you some full episodes!
So there you have it. We have completed Planet Cosmo. Fifteen episodes of animated fun and adventure, bringing the planets to children. The show launches on RTE2 in Ireland on the 18th of February and international broadcasts will follow. Find the show on Twitter at @PlanetCosmoTV for clips and images. I hope you all love the show.
As many of you will have seen, it was announced last week that Monster Animation & Design has changed its name to Geronimo Productions. Monster Animation, started by owner and producer Gerard O’Rourke, has been going for 17 years and I joined very early in its history, taking the position of Creative Director of the company more than ten years ago. From there, we took Monster Animation from advertising into broadcast television, starting with us producing Roobarb & Custard Too and then creating Fluffy Gardens and moving us through Ballybraddan, Punky and now our new show and my latest creation, Planet Cosmo. All the while, I have been overseeing the creative vision of the company, building the studio methods and systems and creating, moulding, nurturing and producing shows.
We have come a long way together.
The name change is something Gerard and I have discussed for many years (mostly because of international confusion with another Irish Monster) and, with a brand new show launching, the time finally seemed right to make the switch. So this week, we’re working hard as Geronimo Productions to finish Planet Cosmo and you’ll be hearing a lot about that very soon. The studio at Geronimo is gearing up for more Punky (I’m serving as script editor at the moment with Andrew Brenner writing) and everything is moving forward with a new name and a new identity.
Will it bring exciting things? I think it will. It’s going to be a big and rather interesting year for all of us.
2013 is going to be an exciting year for me. Many of us at Monster Animation have been working hard over this little holiday season to get the last few episodes of our new show finished and 2013 is the year it gets released to the world.
For me, Planet Cosmo is more than a new cartoon show. This is the culmination of everything I have worked on and worked for since I began making children’s shows. It is the result of years of practical experience, years of research and so many intentions, goals and dreams. A preschool show full of laughs, smiles, songs and fun that introduces children, boys and girls, to whole other worlds, each one amazing in its own way. And not just fantasy ‘ these worlds are real. A show to entertain and inform. And hopefully inspire.
All in just fifteen episodes. That’s almost three and a half hours, a Peter Jackson feature, so not that insubstantial.
I always count myself lucky that I get to form a show from nothing, a blank page, and take it all the way to the finished picture across every part of the process. Yes, it’s a heavy work load but it comes with so many advantages. A unified vision for one thing but also each step always has the other steps in mind. I don’t write without picturing how we in the studio actually make it happen on screen, for example. I don’t think a show of this type could be made on the budget we have without that. Our resources were tight and we aimed high.
Thanks to the amazing people we have working on the show right now, we reached even higher.
So, yes, I’m excited about letting Planet Cosmo out into the world in 2013 and, once we finish the show, I will be putting my faith in Monster Animation’s producer, Gerard O’Rourke, who should be shouting about about it from the rooftops, getting it to the right broadcasters and having it seen by as many young children as possible. Because I know from our testing already that children are going to love this animated series and it’s really good for them. So if you see him, or indeed me, at an event, ask to see some Planet Cosmo. And if you’re a parent, keep an eye out for it.
So what of the rest of the year? Well, we at Monster will be making series 2 of Punky, written by Andrew Brenner and directed by my very good friend and colleague, Simon Crane. I have an awesome little collaboration between a fantastic electro artist and my daughter, Daisy, to work on (more on that when Cosmo is finished). And I will of course be busy working to create the best, most fun and good children’s content that can possibly be made. And, on my little blog here, I will continue to write every Monday. So if you have any questions or topics you would like me to cover, feel free to let me know.
I hope that 2013 brings you exciting things, progress, fun, new projects, and all things good for children everywhere. Have a fantastic year and, as always, thank you for stopping by my little corner of the web.
Last week as the Curiosity Rover landed successfully on the surface on Mars, at Monster Animation we were battling the odds hoping to achieve our own Martian victory – to finish our very first episode of Planet Cosmo, in which Cosmo and her Dad climb the mighty Olympus Mons on Mars. Being honest, getting that episode together often felt like climbing a mountain and there were times it felt like we would never get there. So often we looked up but the peak was out of sight. And so we carried on.
Well, we made it.
We didn’t just conquer that one episode. We finished two, adding an episode in which Cosmo finds herself on the surface of Mercury. Two episodes. What we have now is no longer just a collection of elements – animation, backgrounds, voice recordings, songs, effects. We have a show. A real show.
Sure, we still have thirteen more episodes to make and there will be small things to improve even in these finished episodes (production of a show almost always reveals improvements that aren’t found in the first episode completed, it’s what I call First Episode Syndrome) but it is so important to acknowledge the victories, especially ones as important as this. It is vital to take time to really appreciate the successes, no matter what needs to be done next. Those successes show us just what we can achieve when we push ourselves further. Holding on to the victories can keep us going when production gets tough. And this one has been tough.
The victories show us why we did it in the first place.
Seeing the episodes finally come together and being able to watch them from start to finish, as they’ll be aired, leaves no doubt that this is all worth it. The Planet Cosmo team is doing an amazing job and should be very proud. And now as they work away on those individual elements, they’ll have an even greater understanding of where their pieces fit and the importance of each part of the process. For me, I wanted to deliver a fun show for children that introduces them to the planets and I can see we’re doing just that. A victory.
Every production has its own victories, big or small. Be sure to acknowledge and enjoy them.
By the way, if you’re at the MIP TV market, a Planet Cosmo episode pr two should be available to view there so check them out. If you’re not attending, it will be a while later before they make it out into the world but I can’t wait to show all of you. I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks so just a minimal update next week (assuming the schedule posts thing works). Hope you all have a fun and productive couple of weeks, full of victories.
I hear a lot of horror stories about children’s TV productions and, each time, it seems so wrong – shouldn’t making kid’s TV be fun? Happy children’s entertainment shouldn’t mask some trial of agony. It’s about smiles. Laughs. Positivity.
And so now we’re in the thick of Cosmo production. Watching the scenes begin to come together is fantastic. It is a joy.
But I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit to the stress. Much of it is down to limited resources. I have a rule about working within my means. For me, a budget only really shows on-screen if a production reaches beyond its means and doesn’t quite pull it off. The cracks appear. Work within your means, on the other hand, and you can make it the absolute best it can be within those means. The only production on which I ever broke this rule was a pretty unenjoyable one.
So what about Cosmo? It’s an ambitious show with a small budget. Am I breaking my rule?
But it requires being more inventive about utilising our means. Increasing our means. It means being hands-on with every single aspect and making sure that every ounce of energy makes it on to the screen (if energy can be measured in ounces, which it probably can’t). That’s how I’ve always liked to make shows and, on a show with as many elements as Cosmo, it makes for one very long to-do list. That list includes directing tasks, design tasks, production tasks, management tasks, even voicing a character. All at once. And that’s only what I’m doing – every member of the team is contributing.
Here’s the truth: it can be hard sometimes.
Okay so not ‘working in a mine’ hard but it’s certainly not all smiles. You see, cliched as it may be, nothing worthwhile is ever easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it and, let’s face it, not everyone is. We’re doing something worthwhile here in the studio. In my (admittedly biased) view, with Cosmo, we’re doing something pretty great. So this isn’t about self-pity for those tough days and sometimes tougher decisions. This is simply an acceptance that production can be very busy and it can be hard.
That’s okay. Not okay just as a little thing we may admit to each other at those industry get-togethers. It’s okay generally. In fact, at times, it may be a very good sign. And accepting this leads me to two thoughts –
A) Problems should never be written into a system or accepted as part of the process. It’s hard enough when a production is going right. If the production horror stories don’t in any way lead to a better show on screen, well, that’s a real horror. What we do is about making a meaningful connection with children and giving them something positive. Anything else is just getting in the way.
B) We can be so fortunate to have fantastic teams working on our shows and we should always be thankful for that, for those people who really contribute. The level of support from everyone on our Cosmo team is amazing (Simon Crane and Adam Oliver pictured above). It inspires me and it keeps me going. Right from early development, people have given above and beyond not because they have been asked to but because they chose to. I am thankful for every single person giving to Cosmo right now and I’m already seeing the results of all our work in the scenes.
This is a true joy.
Sworcery A/V Jam
On a different topic, the makers of the excellent Sword & Sworcery game held an A/V Jam over the weekend, in which people could submit music, artwork and more all themed around Sworcery. I was really glad to be a part of it, submitting a cute little image of the Scythian and Dogfella. Some of the submissions are absolutely stunning so, if you have some time, head over and have a browse – http://sworcery.tumblr.com/