Having produced a number of mixed-media series like Picme and Roy, JAM Media is always up for a challenge. But when the Dublin, Ireland-based company agreed to adapt an award-winning original short film—Fear of Flying by Irish filmmaker Conor Finnegan—it nearly met its match.
Finnegan’s nine-minute film tells the story of a little bird who overcomes his fear of flying and follows his feathered friends south. Funded under the Irish Film Board’s Frameworks scheme, the short features a unique blend of live-action puppetry with 2D/3D animation. Among its many awards, it garnered Best Animation at both Ireland’s Galway Film Fleadh and the LA Shorts Festival in 2012.
“We saw the short in Galway on its premiere, and were really taken by its visual appeal and tactile quality,” says JAM CCO Alan Shannon. Coincidentally, JAM head of development Chris Dicker was already floating an idea for a series starring a very positive and adventurous female lead. With a golden opportunity in its grasp, JAM optioned the film and brought Finnegan in to help art direct and craft a long-form preschool series with Dicker. JAM’s Dublin studio, meanwhile, got to work on the show’s stories and characters, and Manchester-based prodco and stop-motion animation expert Factory (Clangers, Scream Street) was hired to produce the series’ live-action elements.
Using a mix of live-action, puppetry, 2D and 3D animation similar to the short, the full series was renamed Becca’s Bunch. It follows the titular bird character and her friends as they head out on adventures in Wagtail Woods. Nickelodeon SVP of international production and development Nina Hahn says the project was introduced to her and Nick’s VP of content acquisitions, Layla Lewis, at a very early stage. And it was love at first sight.
“They showed us the short even before they did the formal pitch into our larger group, which allowed us to give them feedback from multiple different filters on what we wanted to see,” Hahn says. “The content itself had a lot of the DNA of Nickelodeon, from the visual quirkiness, to the way the characters were developed and its strong female lead at the center. It really tapped into the kind of broad, emotional and simple ideas that we like to work with.”
As a result, Nickelodeon secured exclusive broadcast rights to the 52 x 11-minute series in the US, as well as global pay-TV rights, in October 2016. (A premiere date is pending.) Three months later, JAM brokered a deal with Australia’s ABC Kids, and CBC Kids snapped up the series for Canada in May.
According to the show’s executive producers Shannon and JAM CEO John Rice, the project has been both a delight and a major challenge. “We never make things easy on ourselves, and we hit the jackpot with this one because it combines so many different little processes, some that we weren’t very well versed in,” says Shannon.
The production process begins with shooting live-action footage of puppets on customized rods built by Factory that give the characters a unique gait. The puppets are shot against real backgrounds to preserve the IP’s textural look and feel. Then in post, the rods are digitally removed, and the characters’ limbs and facial expressions are added using CGI animation.
“There’s a massive learning curve in how to compose shots in such a way that there’s less impact down the line for the digital process,” says Shannon. “For instance, all of the puppetry is carried out in real time, which sounds like it should be quick, but it’s far from it. It saves a little time on the floor, but the addition of the CG elements with the digital elements takes a long time.”
Other challenges involved figuring out how to accommodate multiple puppeteers using the rod-powered puppets on a very small set, taking the rods out for de-rigging, and removing shadows cast from the rods onto the puppets. The biggest obstacle, however, was matching the live-action footage exactly with CG elements.
“Even though we have tracking points on every puppet, using those as guides for where the limbs might go didn’t prove very successful at all, and at that point a large majority of the first 26 episodes were already shot,” says Shannon. “In the end, we had to reconstruct from scratch exact replicas of the characters in CG, even down to their indivdual hairs. Then we had to refine those rigs repeatedly until they matched exactly. It enabled us to copy the live-action motion so at least all of the eyes, beaks and limbs looked believable.”
Regarding the decision to use live action, Finnegan says shooting the puppets at 25 or 30 frames per second allows for more fluidity, since stop-motion is often filmed at a lower frame rate. “It has a much more analog feel, so when a character stops walking they will still bob around a little bit because the puppeteer may not have a completely solid hand. You can tell that there are a lot of people behind the craft of the puppets and the world,” says Finnegan.
For Rice, the production’s approach is paying off, now that the series is well into its second round of 26 episodes. At press time, 33 episodes and all 52 animatics had been shot, and three episodes were complete. “The learnings we’ve taken have also extended onto our other new shows like Jessy and Nessy,” says Rice. “And from a few of the Becca images we’ve posted, we’ve already had a number of rights holders and production companies looking to work with us to adapt the style on other properties.”
Going forward, Shannon says JAM will look to tie up presales in non-Nick territories, and begin discussions with a number of toycos and licensees. “We already have two publishing deals secured, Egmont for the world and Candlewick for the US, and we expect to make some interesting announcements in the coming months,” he says.