Take two producers from different countries who speak different languages, possess disparate cultural values, and have unique programming needs. Maybe even add a third or fourth producer into the mix, each from yet another country.
And ensure that no two of them are ever awake at the same time.
Throw millions of dollars into the pot (quick, can anyone tell me how many Euros that is?), and jointly set off to war: Namely, producing a series. Just imagine the complications to the already immense financial, creative and logistical challenges of mounting 26 or more half hours.
Welcome to the world of international co-production!
Truth be told, it’s rarely as bad as logical analysis portends (which should come as little surprise, since logical analysis is not exactly a staple of the kids business). In the era of globalization, the reality is that there are more entertainment values in common amongst cultures than ones that are different. The immense power of storytelling by means of moving images is certainly more of a human phenomenon than a cultural one; it transcends all borders.
Furthermore, certain aspects of child development and cognition are biologically determined and thus cross-cultural-making children’s programs a natural choice for co-production. More often than you’d expect, co-pro partners actually agree on what is funny, suspenseful, powerful, emotional, engaging or, conversely, offensive and inappropriate for children.
I’ve been involved in many wonderful co-productions from which emerged creatively satisfying and commercially successful series and lifelong friends. (That is, until they read this.)
Still, incumbent in all international co-productions are creative conflicts, challenges and just plain goofs…and perhaps it would be instructive to share some of them. Names have been omitted to protect my safety in Las Vegas-as if that were sufficient.
One recurring complaint from co-production partners is that we Americans are obsessed with linear thinking and analysis, and are constantly making lists.
Anyway, the remainder of this column has been organized into a list of three categories so as to provide for clear analysis.
1) Language barrier: Some of the most common co-production problems stem from faulty script translations. Specifically vulnerable are idioms in scene descriptions. Here are three such examples from actual productions.
Script description: Joe storms into the room.
Resulting animation: Joe has a mini storm cloud over his head, complete with lightning bolts.
Script: April cries her eyes out.
Result: April’s eyeballs literally fall out of their sockets and roll on the floor.
Script: This guy looks like a real butthead.
Result: Yep, you guessed it.
2) Too many partners/Challenged logistics: Sometimes co-productions are like black holes-they can implode from their own mass. One such occasion was to be a live-action series with an international spy motif-a joint Malaysian, French, U.K. and U.S. co-production, spearheaded by a toy company. We would shoot in all four of those territories. Twelve of us representing the four partners and the toy company gathered at the most expensive restaurant in Cannes. We toasted our ambition and audacity like generals plotting to conquer the world. One partner had access to his country’s army, and could provide tanks, planes, etc. One partner had access to incredible castles. One partner had big government subsidies to throw in. And we had…well, we were centrally located halfway between Malaysia and Europe.
Smash cut to: Two months later and production commenced-with just a slight difference. It was now strictly an animation series produced solely by us. Everyone else had dropped out, overwhelmed by the logistics. I mean, what were we thinking?! And the toy company representative who spearheaded this whole thing? He left his job shortly after he was advised that it would take two to three years simply to recoup the price of the meal in Cannes.
3) Culture clashes: One of the oldest tricks in the ‘animation playbook’ is to cut down the number of fingers on the human hand from four to three in order to save on pencil mileage. The only problem is that in Japan, the tradition of the Yakuza (their Mafia) in real life is to cut off the finger of their enemies. So in a Japanese co-production, we were asked to go back into every scene and draw another finger on our hero-at the threat of losing one of ours. We felt we had no choice but to give in on this one.
The moral here can be safely generalized to all co-productions: Always try to compromise. But when you can’t, well…sometimes you just have to give them the finger.
As well as being a regular KidScreen columnist, Robby London is executive VP of creative affairs at DIC Entertainment.