Posted on Thursday 17 January 2013 by Ulster Business
The man largely responsible for reinvigorating the children's television production sector in Northern Ireland will be spending 2013 working on a new animated series called Driftwood Bay.
What was already apparent from its successes in the world of children's television was that the team behind that business is one of the most innovative to come out of our creative scene for some time.
Colin Williams, the Creative Director and founder of Sixteen South, initially set the company up in 2007 as a side project to his post-production company Inferno after seeing an advert to pitch to Sesame Workshop in New York to produce a local version of their iconic show Sesame Street.
After success with what became Sesame Tree his team developed Big City Park, which was shot on location in Ormeau Park and aired on CBeebies. It followed that by bringing production of established show Big and Small to Northern Ireland and most recently produced 52 episodes of another puppet show, Pajanimals, in partnership with The Jim Henson Company for US network Sprout.
In a departure from its success with puppets, 2013 will mostly be spent producing Driftwood Bay, a mixed-media animated show about Lily, a five year old who lives in a beach hut on the shore with her Dad. The concept of the show is that every day, the sea washes up a curious new treasure, which sparks Lily's imagination about what might be happening across the way on Driftwood Bay. The show's design features characters, sets and landscapes that have been created from real things that have been found washed up on the beach.
It is a project for which the company owns 100% of the IP and which Colin is clearly immersed in as production of a planned 52 show series gets underway.
"Driftwood Bay will be a series about making your own fun and adventures from the things that you find. It's about using your imagination and creativity to inspire an adventure or tell a story," he said. "It has an organic feel. We wanted to create a show with the potential to air in every country across the world."
The show came to life when children's artist Joanne Carmichael began to create characters from things that she found washed up on the beach outside her cottage on the Scottish Island of Arran. Colin liked the concept so much he decided the programme would be funded by advanced sales, rather than as co-production with a broadcaster. It was a brave move, but so far the show has been sold to 20 broadcasters around the world.
That statistic is all the more remarkable as those sales have been made on the basis of a two minute trailer for the show and presentations by Colin. Normally broadcasters don't commit before seeing a couple of episodes. Colin further elaborates that there are 25 countries with a couple of broadcasters each who will pay a fee for a show, perhaps 60 in total. Those broadcasters who buy content usually have three slots a year and 2,000 people pitching to them.
"It has been picked up by pretty much all of the big players, which is amazing because it is very hard to get into their schedules. They only commission a handful of new shows each year," said Colin. "It is really competitive so it is insane to have got 20 of them on board."
Those broadcasters include the likes of RTE, ABC, Nickleodeon and Sprout. Merchandising and publishing deals are also being discussed and a high profile worldwide distributor is set to be announced later this month.
"It was very risky because there were lots of times when we thought it could fall apart and we could lose something that has the potential to be so magical," said Colin. "The finance side is a head-wreck, but it is better than giving a broadcaster editorial control."
Every aspect of Driftwood Bay has been carefully thought through. The music is described as "modern acoustic folk" which takes its inspiration from Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling."
In keeping with the other shows SixteenSouth has produced for pre-schoolders, the show will encourage children to be creative, to use their imagination and to develop their observation skills, as well as showing the importance of their communities.
Colin said it will deal with real themes, with a focus on how children navigate life and how they feel about things.
"We want to make an interesting show but also one with some depth and heart," he said.
"And I hope it will break some of the stereotypes by showing that every little girl doesn't have to be a princess. There will be no pink! Lily will be a real little girl. She will have sand under her finger nails."
The realness extends to the voicing of the main character, with most English speaking countries which have bought the show agreeing to keep the voiceover provided by a young Belfast actress for Lily.
Colin has also chosen to keep the animation work here in Northern Ireland, when it might have been easier to outsource it to countries like Singapore or India. Over 60 people were employed for a year on Sixteen South's last production and its founder expects around 30 will be employed on Driftwood Bay.
He said that while there are some good animators here, there are not enough and Sixteen South will be looking to help grow and develop the talent pool.
"We will bring in local guys at a lower level and they will learn from the top guys who have worked on big shows like Peppa Pig, Little Princess and Thomas the Tank Engine," he said.
If you don't know those names, you haven't got children!