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On the set: Making Skatoony Canuck-style

Immersed as I am in the world of kids television production, it's rare that I actually get a chance to sit in on a live taping. So I was as surprised as anyone when I got a good shushing from the audio technician working the Toronto set of the North American version of Skatoony. I was laughing louder than the kids, but I don't think it was my fault, really. I mean who expects a show director to launch into a ridiculous, yet inexplicably spot-on impersonation of a drunken dinosaur, stumbling and crawling around the studio, when they go to a taping? Needless to say, the performance - intended to loosen up the pre-teen contestants of the hybrid game/toon series - had more than the kids in stitches that day.
June 1, 2009

Immersed as I am in the world of kids television production, it’s rare that I actually get a chance to sit in on a live taping. So I was as surprised as anyone when I got a good shushing from the audio technician working the Toronto set of the North American version of Skatoony. I was laughing louder than the kids, but I don’t think it was my fault, really. I mean who expects a show director to launch into a ridiculous, yet inexplicably spot-on impersonation of a drunken dinosaur, stumbling and crawling around the studio, when they go to a taping? Needless to say, the performance – intended to loosen up the pre-teen contestants of the hybrid game/toon series – had more than the kids in stitches that day.

Teletoon Canada recently commissioned the series from Toronto-based prodco marblemedia, which picked up North American format rights for Skatoony, with an eye to launching the localized version in March 2010. The concept – a Hollywood Squares-style game show starring real kids who are inserted into a cartoon world and interact with animated hosts and contestants – was imported from Cartoon Network UK, where it debuted three years ago and has since become one of the channel’s top-rated shows. marblemedia is recasting the Canadian format with a nod to the country’s unique culture. So you’ll find Canada-centric quiz questions, and one of the characters is a retired hockey star, which should also help to satisfy local funding requirements. The biggest difference, however, is that Teletoon has decided to employ characters from Fresh TV’s Teletoon hit Total Drama Island as the panel of cartoon contestants on the game show.

But the true secret to making the format work is getting the right reactions from kid contestants. Hilarity best describes the mood the marblemedia production team creates on-set each day to put the kids into as zany a state as their toon co-stars, which are drawn and edited in long after the live-action portion of the show has been taped.

And to get funny and real responses from the kids, marblemedia has hired actors to serve as stand-ins for the animated TDI characters on the green-screen set. They never break character and it’s their mission to keep the kids engaged in the pre-decided ‘script’ of each episode. The prodco’s partner Mark Bishop explains the kids never hear the words ‘action’ or ‘cut’ because the cameras are kept rolling continuously between takes to capture candid expressions and comments, which are later inserted into the finished episodes.

Needing a director with a special combination of acting ability, to be a stand-in for the show’s animated host, and a knack for drawing out high-energy performances from kids, marblemedia hired Second City improv coach Dave Pearce, a.k.a. the drunk dinosaur.

Turner Broadcasting SVP and GM of original series & international development Finn Arnesen came up with original show concept and had a hand in setting up the Toronto set.

‘We’ve got a production bible and a team of people who can put themselves in whatever country has bought the format and explain how the show gets made,’ says Arnesen.

To that end last year, this caravan of CN consultants went to India to help establish the Hindi-language format, which is now top-rated in that region. One of the biggest challenges was translating the content for the local culture. Arnesen says, for example, the UK’s animated boxer character whose gloves make it impossible to hit the buzzer, didn’t work in India, where boxing is virtually non-existent. So the Indian production company created a Southern Indian dancer who is equally reluctant to hit the buzzer, but it’s for fear of smudging her elaborately hennaed hands. It made more sense culturally and saved one of the show’s running gags.

Arnesen notes one of the biggest advantages in re-creating the format in another territory now is that new kid participants get to see clips of the UK version beforehand, giving them a much better appreciation of what they’ll be expected to do. (The first crop of UK contestants had to play completely blind.)

Another plus that’s exclusive to the Canadian version is the extensive Skatoony online community marblemedia is developing and then licensing back to Cartoon UK, which could only launch a basic honeycomb site when the show started three years ago due to timing and resource limitations. marblemedia’s Bishop believes the rich online platform, coupled with the popularity of the TDI characters on Teletoon, and now Cartoon Network US, bodes well for the Canadian version being picked up as is by the American channel, even given the subtle Canuck slant.

In the meantime, Arnesen says, the format is gearing up to begin production in Germany later this year. France, Spain and Italy show solid potential for future regional formats, and Turner/Cartoon UK is also in talks with local prodcos in Dubai that are very interested in kids game shows at the moment.

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