We’re used to coming across a fascinatingly diverse array of animation but little of it is as eagerly devoured as those aimed at children. From yesterday, the Cbeebies channel is broadcasting Numtums, an engaging, educational series of shorts produced by the Beakus studio. To mark the launch, we spoke to producer/director Steve Smith to find out how you begin to make a programme aimed at one of the most demanding demographics around…
Where did the initial inspiration for the show come from?
The show was developed in-house by Barry Quinn at the BBC. He became obsessed with small Australian critters called numbats, who are endangered and have some unusual characteristics (like hiding in holes with just their bums blocking the way in, eating 20,000 termites a day, and having hugely long sticky tongues…).
He thought they’d make interesting and unusual stars for a kids show and the link with numbats and numbers suggested itself. This meant there had to be 10 characters, and adding numbers on their tummies gave the name Numtums.
The show was devised as a series of funny, silly, and bonkers set-pieces featuring this troupe of adorable critters. How kids begin to understand numbers is a very delicate thing – number recognition, their shape and uniformity, their position in a number line, and how they are written all play a part, and every module in the show focuses on one of these important aspects of learning about numbers.
How do you develop/test a series like this?
It’s a long process. We were initially approached to design the characters, to see if we could make them appealing. Then a draft script was written which we turned into a pilot. It was a first stab with little money, but we tested out an interesting new technique that enabled us to make 3D characters using a 2D technique.
The pilot was then taken to focus groups of kids, giving the BBC feedback as to whether they understood what on earth was going on! They did, which meant the BBC could go raise the money to make the series by showing our pilot.
When the series got green-lit a whole lot more research began, with involvement from child psychologists and teachers, and the scripts became tighter and tighter.
I’ve never seen such thorough research for a project, which we matched with a quick, manic but extensive creative development period at our studio, directed by BBC Worldwide.
You mention the technique fuses 2D and 3D elements – how does this work? What is the effect?
The technique we used was created by a great friend Sylvain Magne. Essentially he took original 2D artwork of the Numtums and mapped them to ‘barely’ 3D shapes, which could then be animated in cut-out using a morphing technique.
What you see on screen are characters that look absolutely 3D, but without bones, rigging, IK, and skinning to worry about we can make the animation a whole lot quicker. It’s quite amazing!
What is it like pitching to/working with an organisation like the BBC?
Despite their size the BBC are, honestly, an amazing bunch. I really admire the crew that worked with us, for their attention to detail and commitment to the project. I’ve worked with the BBC many times, but never on such a large, long-term project.
Ironically, the BBC’s producer had never worked on an animated series before, so both of us held each others hands a lot! They placed a lot of trust in us, which we lapped up. They know what they want, what they’re aiming at, and it’s up to us to interpret that and deliver each day.
It was demanding, but there were lots of laughs and we relished the experience, and importantly delivered a great show on time and on budget.
What advice would you give animator who would like to work in children’s television?
Children’s TV is a major part of our industry in the UK. There are usually a half-dozen series being made at any one time, so with the right skills and patience there are jobs out there. We used a very unusual technique which required animators with adaptable skills and technical know-how, but more usually animators need to know software like CelAction, Flash, or ToonBoom.
Unlike features, or commercial work, animators need to be prepared to work fast, and often take control of a whole scene, or character. So you’ve got to go for it, think on your feet, and be prepared to re-do work at the directors/producers’ whim.
Everyone seems to think they have an idea within them that could be a great kids’ show, and working on Numtums has shown me just how much goes in to crafting a programme from conception to delivery. It really isn’t for the faint-hearted!