Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pajanimals - visiting the set of Sixteen South's new puppet show filming in Belfast

Local independent production company Sixteen South is currently hard at work in a studio in Belfast shooting the children’s show Pajanimals. Working in partnership with The Jim Henson Company, puppeteers and crew are cracking through the filming of two 11 minute shows a week which will start to be transmitted into 50 million US homes by Sprout (a 24 hour pre-school cable channel) in early October 2011.

The cast and crew halted work on Monday afternoon for fifteen minutes to watch the company’s previous production – the third series of Big and Smallpremière on BBC CBeebies.

Recently ranked at number 53 in Televisual magazine’s top 100 chart of Indie Producers, Sixteen South has made a mark in children’s programming in recent years: working with Sesame Workshop to make two series of Sesame Tree (and giving me the opportunity to meet and interview Oscar the Grouch and his puppeteer Caroll Spinney) and filming Big City Park in Belfast’s Ormeau Park.

On the set of Pajanimals in Belfast - Sixteen South producing for US pre-school cable channel Sprout

Walking into the studio late Tuesday afternoon, I was amazed to see that the set was built so high off the ground. As you pass through the black curtain, you come across a puppet-sized bedroom, cloakroom and even a slide raised up at eye level. The puppeteers stand, holding the puppets at shoulder height or above to keep human heads out of shot of the camera.

The current show, Pajanimals has a cast of four: Sweetpea Sue the pony, the excitable duck Squacky, the creative cow CowBella and the optimistic puppy Apollo. The show’s producer Colin Williams explained the background to Pajanimals.

[Colin] A number of years ago the Henson Company made a series of eleven short music videos – interstitials [clips played between other programmes] – which were designed to help kids get to sleep. So based on the success of that and the online following … that spurred on a series.

We’ve extended their world of the bedroom into an outside and created eleven of these dreamlands which you can see today. This is the land of play. It’s a fun place where the Pajanimals go.

The puppeteers don’t just act, but also provide the voices, and even get to sing the songs – three or more per episode – in harmony!

It’s very much a musical show in that each eleven minute show has an opening song, a lullaby to close with and two songs within it. So because it’s very much a musical show we’re really focussed on good quality music. They’re great songs and our four leads sing them. We brought in a musical director to write proper four part harmonies.

While the programmes they produce will be aired in the US, it’s being made with local Northern Ireland talent.

The crew are pretty much all local. We’ve had to hire the best puppeteers that we can find and people who can perform and great at characterisation and also great at singing. So two of the puppeteers are Henson puppeteers from LA and two are local.

Local puppeteers from Sesame Tree – Paul Currie (Potto) and Sarah Lyle (a Weatherberry and Samson the bookworm in the second series) – are back working together on Pajanimals. Sarah has graduated to play one of the main four characters, CowBella. She described a typical episode.

[Sarah] An episode will open with the four characters in an activity or a game or having fun or reflecting on something they’ve just done. And then it’ll be time for bed, but one of them will have an issue or something that they need to clear in their head. They may be scared, or angry, or mad, or something like that.

They’ll try to help each other. They’ll get on one of their beds and go to a land, like the ‘land of play’ or the ‘land of hush’ or the ‘big friendly forest’ and they’ll meet a character there who will help them sort out their problems. And then they’ll travel home and sleep safe and sound.

When I arrived the cast were dancing around in a tight circle with the puppets miming to a pre-recorded song. Assistants helped steer the lead puppeteers and work extra arms. After a minute of action, they’d stop, go back to their starting positions and then do their merry dance again to get the next camera angle.

[Sarah] There’s four main puppeteers and then you’ll have the dreamland character and you sometimes have an assist[ant] with you. So altogether there you had ten puppeteers in a tiny four by six foot space.

platforms shoes to raise puppeteer up

The cast wear trainers and silently move around the set. All except Sarah who is wearing what one crew member described as ‘Spice Girl shoes’. Sarah elaborated:

Geri Halliwell things! I’m only five foot one and a half. Everyone else is five foot six and above. So to save me having to walk on boxes and them having to walk around boxes, I’ve got a pair of baseball boots with about a five or six inch platform on them.

Sixteen South is unique in Northern Ireland. As an independent producer, Colin explained that they’ve been pitching, writing and producing children’s programmes for the last three years or so, bringing work to Belfast and training up local talent.

[Colin] We’re the only company who specialise in children’s TV in this part of the world. It was born out of a passion … We worked commercially for the last nine years and made lots of commercials and promos but wanted a bigger challenge and wanted to create great shows for kids because we thought we could contribute to that industry. It’s been a short three and a half year journey, but we’ve done a lot in that time. And we’re having a ball. We love it and it really is our passion.

Once in the studio, the passion was obvious. It felt like a big family with fifteen or more people in front of and behind the camera. Lots of banter in-between the filming of each sequence.

[Sarah] I suppose you never think wee Belfast will get opportunities like that. It’s really good for it to be on my doorstep. Twenty minutes in a car and I’m here working on a job of this scale. So yes, it’s great … Getting to do the songs and the choreography and working along with the American puppeteers who are just so experienced and getting to learn from them. It’s so hard to pick out a highlight. Every day is just so brilliant to be coming to do this every day.

Filming a programme for the US in a Belfast warehouse with the rain beating down on the roof, Colin ruefully commented “we’re a long way from LA – eight hours of time difference if nothing else”.

Despite the puppets and youthful set, it’s a sophisticated production, with a tapeless workflow, capturing the video and sound to hard drive, editing it, and uploading the completed programmes to Sprout’s servers in the US without ever being dumped onto physical media.

In a couple of week’s time, Colin will be heading over to Cannes to pitch Sixteen South’s programmes at the two day MIP Junior event before the international television market MIPCOM. As well as promoting existing shows, Colin has ideas for new shows, an animation as well as another puppet show:

… we’re pitching two of our own two properties [programme formats] and they’re two things we’re really excited about. It’s stuff we’ve developed ourselves, so we’re keen to get those off the ground.

What about the future for Sixteen South?

[Colin] The three year plan is that we’d like to make a feature. Childrens or tweens. Whether it’s puppet based or live action, not quite sure about that. But that’s the medium term plan.

But we love puppetry because it’s so tactile and the performances are super. One of the new shows we’ve created is an animation show, so it’s a slight departure from puppetry but the second one is a puppet show.

Having recently finished editing and delivered the first set of Pajanimals episodes to Sprout, the team were relieved to hear this afternoon that the first one episode had passed their stringent quality checks. One down, fifty one to go. It’s the stuff of dreams ... sweet dreams.

My thanks to Colin, Julie, Sarah and Sarah for making the set visit possible.

UTV were on set yesterday too and filed the following report in which you can see the characters and cast in action.

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