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On the edge of their seats

It's pretty evident in pop culture circles that 2009 will go down as the year of the vampire, thanks primarily to a little phenomenon called Twilight. Based on the first title of the young adult book series of the same name, Twilight debuted in theaters worldwide in late 2008, settting young (and not-so-young) hearts aflutter, not to mention driving hordes of eager tweens and teens through the doors of US trend-based retailer Hot Topic in search of Gothtastic licensed merch. As the second film in a reported quartet, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, is being readied for release this November, don't expect the appeal of the undead to wane anytime soon, especially with older kids and teens. Along with a second wave of vampire- and zombie-filled novels (see 'Thrilling new source material?'), supernatural protagonists and chill-inducing stories are making their way onto the small screen and into the core-kid demo.
September 4, 2009

It’s pretty evident in pop culture circles that 2009 will go down as the year of the vampire, thanks primarily to a little phenomenon called Twilight. Based on the first title of the young adult book series of the same name, Twilight debuted in theaters worldwide in late 2008, setting young (and not-so-young) hearts aflutter, not to mention driving hordes of eager tweens and teens through the doors of US trend-based retailer Hot Topic in search of Gothtastic licensed merch. As the second film in a reported quartet, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, is being readied for release this November, don’t expect the appeal of the undead to wane anytime soon, especially with older kids and teens. Along with a second wave of vampire- and zombie-filled novels (see ‘Thrilling new source material?‘), supernatural protagonists and chill-inducing stories are making their way onto the small screen and into the core-kid demo.

In primetime, new teen series Vampire Diaries (also based on a publishing property) is being prepped for its debut on US terrestrial The CW this fall, while kidcasters the world over are adding sometimes scary, sometimes funny, but always otherworldly fare to their skeds at an ever-increasing rate. In fact, not since the Goosebumps craze of the early 90s has there been so much interest in spine-tingling tales for kids.

And producers are starting to stock their development slates with age-appropriate, primarily live-action series designed to give kid viewers a bit of a jolt. In fact, London-based Kindle Entertainment directors Melanie Stokes and Anne Brogan say they had Goosebumps, among other shows, in mind when they started developing projects to fill a perceived gap in creep-out programming. Their latest project, live-action 26 x 22-minute series The Shiver Sisters, which revolves around the relationship between twin sisters where one just happens to be a ghost, is being produced with a certain level of creepiness top of mind. ‘Doctor Who in the UK has been such a success with the family audience,’ says Brogan. ‘We knew there was an appetite for scary with kids.’

Head of children’s programming at London-based Coolabi Julian Scott agrees that the primetime supernatural and spooky programming that kids are watching outside the traditional kids zone is paving the way for variations on similar themes for a younger demo. The company has just started production on Dead Normal, an irreverent live-action series with the tagline ‘Just because you’re dead, doesn’t mean life is over’ that pretty much guarantees a certain spook factor. The series, co-produced with Melbourne, Australia’s Burberry Productions, is about three sisters who died in tragic circumstances in the late 1800s and now operate as ghosts in the contemporary world.

Keeping the creepy kid friendly
Though the kid appetite for on-the-edge-of-your-seat scares is growing, keeping shows age-appropriate remains top of mind for kids producers that have to assume parents aren’t co-viewing during kid dayparts. For example, Coolabi’s Scott is excited about the plot devices in Dead Normal that include ghostly apparitions walking through walls and the odd poltergeist, but is also conscious the series is for kids and it’s important that it deals carefully with the dark side of how the main characters met their demise.

‘We’re still working out how they died and at some point that question will have to be answered,’ says Scott. ‘We have to explain it without glamorizing it.’ In the meantime, Scott says the first rule of thumb for Dead Normal scripts so far has been to focus on the sisters as aspirational characters driven by their personalities and triumphs, not their deaths.

The Othersiders, a new reality show on Cartoon Network US that bowed in June on the CN Real block, has a built-in scare quotient. In each ep, a group of kids investigate haunted locales, such as the historic ship Queen Mary or a military airplane scrap yard. Cartoon’s VP of alternative programming Rob Swartz says the show definitely channels the excitement factor and adrenaline that comes with taking viewers out of their everyday environment and comfort zone. However, unlike the adult counterparts of this reality-tinged ghost genre that have terrified grownups, running around, shrieking on night-vision cameras, Swartz says the environment of The Othersiders is ultimately safe. The net takes care not to put the cast or audience in the same kind of uncomfortable situations. For one thing, an adult supervisor is always present on set in the guise of a paranormal consultant. Additionally, the kids on the show pursue the unexplained phenomena with a sense of curiosity and through science-driven tactics that often mitigate the scare factor.

‘When they hear a scary noise, instead of turning away and running, they pursue it,’ says Swartz. ‘There’s something empowering about the fact that they want to dig deeper.’

‘Research we’ve done shows that kids like to be thrilled but not terrified,’ says Anne Gilchrist, who at the time of this interview was CBBC controller. ‘They don’t want to be given nightmares, but they do like to have that kind of intake of breath, where it’s exciting.’ Gilchrist adds she’s made a point of sprinkling shows with a thrilling spooky edge throughout the schedule. CBBC’s got Bo and the Spirit World, an in-house production about kids who are transported to ancient China and quest to find spirits in the hopper, along with Ingenious from UK-based Lime Pictures. This adventure show about a genie has a healthy dose of horror-tinged tension. And airing now, live-action 13 x half-hour Jinx from Kindle revolves around a magic chef who emerges from a cookbook. But Gilchrist explains while CBBC’s audience loves to be taken to fantasy worlds, ‘these series weren’t commissioned because they were spooky; it was because they delivered a good story and their characters had heart.’

Toronto’s Cookie Jar is heading into production on TV movie, Cryptville, premiering in January on Canada’s Teletoon. It’s based on the classically creepy 90s show Tales from the Crypt, but incorporates character-based storytelling to update the premise and will hopefully spawn a series for 2010. Cookie Jar’s SVP of creative development Ann Austen explains the show is being produced with the younger siblings of the sophisticated tween target demo, that’s already watching grownup fare, in mind. And one way to keep it high energy, yet safe, is to focus on building good old-fashioned suspense. ‘We haven’t shot any of the footage, but the director’s going for suspense versus blood and gore,’ says Austen.

Kindle’s Stokes and Brogan are also conscious of keeping The Shiver Sisters in the safe zone as a kids show. Though the scary nature of Doctor Who intrigued and inspired them, their aim was to provide a bit of otherworldly creepiness that’s palatable to kids. ‘We can’t go as far as Doctor Who because we’re not in that co-viewing schedule,’ says Brogan. She adds that shows driven by a realistic aesthetic, as opposed to the heightened, slick art direction of kid sitcoms like Hannah Montana, are much scarier. Also, creating a score and audio track that combines a sense of spookiness with playfulness is a big factor in steering the mood and keeping anxiety levels in check.

Comedy underscores scary
Taking a page from a classic feature film, Ghostbusters, Stokes and Brogan made a point of combining fright with slapstick as another means of keeping The Shiver Sisters en pointe with the target demo. Brogan explains that while the juxtaposition of scary and funny has been a hit in the movie world, it’s been difficult to replicate in kids TV.

One exception, however, might be 40-year-old franchise Scooby-Doo. For the younger set, its various incarnations have provided a ton of laughs wrapped in a haunted riddle. And now, a new live-action TV movie is being readied for broadcast this fall that will serve as a prequel, taking a look at the origin story of the Scooby crew. Ramsey Naito, VP of Cartoon Network Movies, explains that moving to live action with an updated, more contemporary aesthetic and vernacular makes the new outing much more relatable to kids and ups the spooky potential from the original animated series. But Naito says that its heavy comedic pace and tone keeps the high-stakes situations in which the kids find themselves safe and age-appropriate.

For Michael Goldsmith, director of original content at Canada’s Teletoon (Editor’s note: At press time Goldsmith had just accepted a position with Family Channel/Playhouse Disney Canada.), Scooby-Doo’s formula should have been a no-brainer for kids producers to replicate, but he says he hasn’t seen much in the way of good supernatural-tinged kids content until recently.

Shows on-deck in late August at Teletoon, including My Babysitter is a Vampire, from Toronto-based Fresh TV and Cookie Jar’s Cryptville, relate to similarly themed primetime fare kids may be watching and YA book series they’re reading. But Goldsmith wasn’t interested in bringing full-on horror to Teletoon. Instead, he was working on finding the right formula for how far the net could push into this territory.

‘We’re making it age-appropriate for nine- and 10-year-olds, interesting for the 12-year-olds – who we hope will watch and yet not turn-the-channel – and spooky for kids as young as six,’ he says. Comedy, he contends, is the key. ‘The only way we’re finding the scary scripts work is if we’re laughing the whole way along.’

Special effects a budget breaker?
While the market is hot, producers looking at getting into the genre should note that otherworldliness comes with a price. It’s not like you’re going to find ghosts, ghouls and vampires at central casting, so these primarily live-action projects have to rely somewhat on CGI effects that can exceed the scope of the smaller budgets found in kids TV production.

But veteran producer Tom Lynch believes it’s worth it. He sees the glut of comic book-based feature films, like Iron Man and Wolverine, as indicative of kids’ expectations when it comes to the level of excitement and fright they’d like to experience while watching TV. As such, he was interested in developing a series that combined special effects with contemporary storytelling. What he came up with was The Troop. Currently in production for a fall debut on Nickelodeon US, the 26 x half-hour series revolves around a secretive global society of kids that protects the world from a group of monsters that only young people can see.

‘With the internet and video games, kids need something that is a little more cinematic, something that will get them on the edge of their seats,’ says Lynch. And to make the series stand apart, he’s using a considerable number of special effects in conjunction with real on-set stunts. For example, in one opening scene, an insubordinate janitor more interested in listening to a baseball game than cleaning up a bathroom mess is suddenly confronted by a giant gelatinous cube that makes its way out of the ceiling and down the hall, eventually swallowing him whole. To simulate the effect of being grabbed by the computer-generated monster, the actor was strapped into a pull-back rig and yanked backwards at 15 miles per hour.

Lynch explains that the combination of hard effects and CGI gives a more tactile feel and authenticity to the shot. It takes 12 weeks per episode to complete the shoot, editing, effects and mixing. And before filming even begins, the writers and effects team need to hash out what will work and what won’t, which often means writing right up until the moment the cameras start rolling.

The Troop has the largest effects budget that Lynch has ever worked with on a series, but he says Nick has supported the costs in the interests of turning out a signature show. ‘Another reason I was able to get a high budget for the show is because it will sell internationally,’ he adds.

Coolabi’s Dead Normal, which has scored presales from CBBC, ABC Australia and Nick Germany, also relies on special effects to bring the paranormal elements to life. And though the company is keeping costs down as much as possible by steering clear of big CGI studios, Scott says incorporating special effects into a series ups the budget by about 10%.

Similarly, Cryptville is proving to be one of the most expensive projects Cookie Jar has ever taken on, according to Austen. She says incorporating special effects increased the price tag, but as with The Troop and Dead Normal, her production team is making use of set direction and hard effects as much as possible. ‘We can’t compete with Transformers on a budget level,’ says Austen. ‘We have to be more careful in how we frame and film and light.’ She says it also becomes even more important to focus on writing and character development to define shocking moments in the plot, and not rely on glitzy special effects to make an impact.

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