As the digital world continues to offer increasingly immersive entertainment options, many TV producers are exploring new ways to match that level of involvement on-screen. It’s all about empowerment these days, and at least two new projects in the works are hoping to forge a stronger connection with kids by bringing them into the development and production process.
When veteran kids TV writer Kate Barris (Peep and the Big Wide World, Timothy Goes to School) was hired as head writer for Halifax Film’s new series Mighty Jungle, she was intrigued by the studio’s unique plan to work with a battery of kid co-writers. In fact, the producers have gone one step beyond running their scripts past focus groups – they actually take their story direction from preschoolers. ‘They drive the show and we take a back seat,’ says Cheryl Hassen, COO at Halifax Film. ‘The only thing we bring to the table is our expertise in television and putting it all together.’
To kick-start the script-writing process this spring, Halifax brought 29 different groups of three- to six-year-olds into the studio and filmed them finishing story seeds such as, ‘Once upon a time in the mighty jungle…’ And then the real challenge for Barris began. Using the motley collection of random kid-generated ideas that included wizards, dinosaurs and pizza-delivering monkeys, she set about shaping Mighty Jungle’s 26 x 11-minute episodes.
The writing team was challenged with guiding the stories into viable plots, while at the same time developing the three strong lead characters – gregarious meerkat Babu, goofy gorilla Bruce and diva rhino Rhonda. Putting creative control in the hands of kids, who don’t tend to think in terms of story arcs and character consistency, made Barris nervous initially, but she says the wacky plot lines that came out of the process are funnier than anything she’s seen lately from adult writers.
In the completed episodes, which will debut on the CBC next year, puppet scenes are interspersed with the original footage of kids sharing their story ideas, so it feels like the preschoolers are influencing the action in real time. And as for dealing with the more fantastical bits that the core set can’t really accommodate – like ‘then they go to Hawaii’ and ‘then a space ship comes down from the sky’ – Halifax came up with the solution of using cut-outs with a crayon-drawn style that the characters interact with. So the characters wear scribbled leis and grass skirts for the Hawaiian excursion, and cut-out palm trees adorn the set.
Every episode also features an original song performed by the Mighty Jungle characters, and true to the show’s form, these ditties are also straight from the mouths of babes. For example, one child’s explanation of how an alien would greet the puppets by saying, ‘Abugga bugga bugga’ led to the musical number, ‘Abugga Bugga Bugga Means Hello.’
‘A lot of people are trying to break the code of how to incorporate children’s ideas in television,’ says Colleen Fahey, SVP of audience development at Star Farm Productions. ‘We found a great middle ground – we let kids give us the inspiration and then use professionals to do the storytelling.’ Producing its own brand of kid-created content for older kids ages six to 12, Chicago, Illinois-based Star Farm’s Edgar & Ellen gets 10% of its narrative content from young fans.
When the 26 x 22-minute show bows on Nicktoons this month, every episode will include a two-minute short inspired by kid input solicited online through leading questions about the two main characters. For example, ‘What’s in Edgar’s Satchel?’ inspired a short based around three items – fire ants, shaving cream and toothpaste – put forth by a girl named Isabelle. Edgar mentions her by name before he plays a prank that gives the Mayor of Nod Limbs a nasty surprise during his morning shave. Naturally, the joke backfires on Edgar, who ends the scene shouting, ‘I’ll get you for this, Isabelle!’
Fans will have an opportunity to inspire each episode’s title screen, and they can also read upcoming plots and send in drawings to the site, which cartoonists working on the show may develop further. Fahey sums the approach up like this: ‘Producers who allow kids to bring their fearless creativity to the process are going to grab their attention more quickly and satisfy them better.’