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.
There are huge challenges writing scripts for young children and I think many of them come from the simple reality of what we are doing – working with just words. Words can very quickly become abstract, lose meaning. As I went through in an earlier post, descriptions can fall away until you have just talking heads in a void and they all sound like the writer.
I think a good test of character is whether you would know who is speaking if the names were removed. Do the characters think and act differently? Do they speak differently?
We engage different parts of our brain when dealing with spoken word than we do when reading and writing. So just because something looks okay on the page doesn’t mean it’s going to sound okay when recorded. I write my stories out loud, saying each sentence over and over in different ways until it sounds right. I have done that since the very first Fluffy Gardens story and do it to this day. I’m not the only one. Ken Levine and David Isaacs (of Cheers/M.A.S.H. fame) dictate their scripts, working them out verbally as someone else types them out.
But saying them out loud in your voice may not be enough.
Writing in character voices is key to making those characters sound different, to get their personalities to come through in the dialogue. Because their voices will greatly affect the choice of words you settle on. If you’re just writing in your voice, you will pick words you will use. If you try words you would never use, they’ll sound awkward and weird. Put on a the voice as you write and you’ll very quickly find yourself putting sentences together differently.
For example, I recently rewatched an episode of Planet Cosmo and found myself laughing at Lifter’s choice of words – “Are you sure, sweetie? I can rustle up quite a breeze!” I thought, oh that’s good, I would never use the phrase “rustle up”. Then I had to remind myself that I wrote those words. But in a way, I guess Lifter said them. I just listened and wrote them down.
So it’s really important to write in character voices.
But I would take this a stage further and say that those of us reading scripts (script editors, producers, directors etc.) should try to read in character voices. You might not yet know exactly how they should sound but give it a go based on what you know of the characters. It will make those lines read very differently. For example, Cranky in Punky (written by the wonderful Andrew Brenner) has lines that can look very harsh and not age-appropriate on the page. But Cranky’s voice (Paul Tylak) gives her a comic quality that completely disarms the lines and makes them work beautifully. They become very funny. Similarly when I wrote Dad in Planet Cosmo, some of his lines looked rude, selfish and sometimes even mean. But say them in Dad’s voice and they become light and funny, losing their weight. How those words sound out loud in a character voice is what counts – that’s what children will hear.
It is always a challenge to make characters work and a greater challenge to make them work well. Working with the character voices is a way of helping their inner personalities and differences come out, and a great way of getting those words on (and off) the page.
On Monday, I attended the launch of RTÉjr, Ireland’s new dedicated children’s channel. Broadcasting twelve hours a day, the channel brings content directly to Irish children, expanding what was once a block on RTÉ2 into a full channel sitting along with all the other children’s channels on Sky, UPC and Saorview. Now I should point out that I have five shows currently airing on the channel so it’s likely I would say some pleasant things about it – I have been referring to the channel as my ‘showreel’, after all. But there is more to RTÉjr than just being a place to catch some of my shows.
RTÉjr is a big positive step for all Irish children. An important step. Here is why -
It is a dedicated children’s channel focusing on children aged seven and under. I have previously expressed my appreciation for dedicated children’s channels on this site. I feel they give parents more control, lessen the risk of inappropriate content and they simply make it easier to pick and choose what our children watch.
It is a channel focusing on delivering specifically to Irish children. Local content is so important to children. Each country has its own culture, its own ways of looking at the world. That unique point of view should be represented in the shows kids watch. Anyone in children’s content will know just how difficult that is to achieve ‘ most shows need to be sold all over the world to stand a chance of breaking even so how can they be culturally specific? Well, that’s why local content in any country needs support.
RTÉjr has, yes, content bought in from abroad but it also currently carries a large amount of content created here in Ireland for Irish children. For example, one of my own shows now airing on the channel, Ballybraddan, is about Irish children playing hurling, an Irish sport. That show just couldn’t be made anywhere else. And it is wonderful now to see it sitting in the schedule, seeing it among the NickJrs, the Disney Juniors and all the other juniors. And RTÉ’s own produced content (of which I am not involved with) has jumped in quality recently and the level of talent has risen. So it is not just content tailored for Irish children, it is better content for Irish children.
The biggest part of this whole channel for me as a parent?
RTÉjr carries no advertising. None.
It was so encouraging to hear RTÉ’s Director General, Noel Curran, focus on that point at the channel’s launch on Monday, calling the lack of advertising a strong statement and positive for parents, while expressing his and RTÉ’s commitment to children and the new channel.
So what we have now with RTÉjr is an ad-free channel, focused on children aged seven and under, delivering some uniquely Irish content that children just can’t get anywhere else.
As a creator, a producer of content, RTÉjr offers a home for existing content and makes it much more accessible for our audience. With the channel sitting in the Kids section, it is now far more likely that children and parents will see our shows, take a chance on them over some of the more international content. It also creates a need for new content. The challenge laid down by the channel and the commitment is to keep it relevant, keep it current. Oh there will be budgetary constraints (there always are), but this channel will need content as it evolves. And with such a strong start, I am looking forward to seeing the channel grow.
The launch event was tons of fun. I got to meet Reuben and Bó Donie (who, as a children’s presenter, I was very impressed with ‘ this guy could be the Irish Justin Fletcher) and almost got to pet a hedgehog before his minder told me he gets a bit bitey. And my girls have been testing out the channel for the last couple of days and have been enjoying it immensely. So congratulations to Sheila DeCourcy, RTÉ’s Cross-Divisional Head of Children’s Content, and all her team on a great launch, a strong schedule, and for giving something really positive to Irish children.
If you’re in Ireland, you can find RTÉjr on Saorview (Channel 7), UPC (Channel 600) and Sky (Channel 624). For my own shows, you’ll find Fluffy Gardens at 1.15pm and 4.55pm, Planet Cosmo at 9.05am and 1.40pm, Roobarb & Custard Too at 11.05am, Punky at 8.40am and Ballybraddan at 6.15pm. But be sure to check out some of the other excellent Irish content on there too ‘ Beo Show, Garth and Bev, Why Guy and more.
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.
When my daughter Daisy was younger, TV shows were real to her. They were like whole other worlds and the characters existed, albeit behind a layer of glass. At five, she still loves TV but now knows they are created, acted, drawn and produced. She has a pretty clear understanding of the process and what I do for a living. And yet the characters are still alive to her.
The other day, she was watching Punky – Monster Animation’s show about a little girl with Down syndrome – when she came out with a question: “Daddy, why did you make Punky have Down syndrome?”
In a way, the answer was very easy. There are children who have Down syndrome and they should be represented on television and it’s good for children and parents to see a little girl like Punky. But the way the question was phrased gave it a specific spin – why did you give Down syndrome to Punky? Not making a particular positive or negative judgement on it but aware that, if you were Punky herself, this decision would be a pretty big deal.
Not long after, she asked why I made Cranky so grumpy. This question came from a different angle in that Daisy very much disapproves of Cranky’s biting one-liners. This one was a decision that affected Daisy herself.
Of course I could point to creator Lindsay J. Sedgwick and writer Andrew Brenner, who both had a big part to play in defining these characters, but that would have been wrong because she could have been asking about Cosmo or anyone in Fluffy Gardens. What was important about the question was the very clear sense of responsibility.
We create characters.
We give them life and we make them who they are, for better or worse. We make decisions on how they’ll act and react, whether we’re writing words to put in their mouths or even just animating a single scene. Everyone involved in the process plays a role in bringing these characters to life. And then we show them to children.
Different people will take away different things from that life we create and some characters, lines and even whole shows won’t suit some children. That’s to be expected and it’s why it is important that parents play an active role in choosing content for their children. Nevertheless, we are responsible for who we create and what we show to the world. We’re responsible for the scenes we animate, the lines we write, the details we add to a background, everything. And what’s more, we’re not just responsible for what an audience might take away from the show. We also have a responsibility to these characters. In some way they’re like teenagers screaming “I didn’t ask to be born!” but we brought them to life anyway. Are we doing that with honesty? Sincerity?
It all comes down to us and the choices we make. That’s what makes content creation so amazing. All of us involved in even the periphery of the process can make a difference and contribute. And then we own that responsibility, both to our audience and the little lives we create.