It’s no secret that kids properties are increasingly being influenced by user-generated content. Nickelodeon, for example, turned to kids to help it color episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, while Jazwares recently launched a toy line inspired by kid-created Roblox game characters. However, few companies have let kids in on the creative process to the same degree as London-based edtech company Wonky Star has with its educational brand Night Zookeeper.
To help improve British children’s literacy skills and inspire digital and physical creativity in the classroom, Night Zookeeper initially launched in 2007 as a primary-school resource that encouraged kids to create, draw and write stories about magical animals. The work was then integrated into a larger story about a night zookeeper who encounters bizarre animals on his nocturnal rounds through a mystical zoo.
Apps with digital drawing tools expanded the brand five years later, followed in 2014 by a kid-safe online platform, which featured more gaming elements, stories that unlocked when children drew and wrote stories, lesson plans for teachers and a scanning option for paper submissions.
Now, Night Zookeeper has been adapted into a TV series for Sky that hit the UK broadcaster’s on-demand platforms—including the Sky Kids App and Kids Pass streaming service—in January. New episodes of the digital-first, 2D-animated show will launch in batches until the end of June. The premiere consisted of a 10-minute pilot, a live-action video explaining how kids could get involved, an online game, a free microsite and a parent/teacher guide.
Created by Josh Davidson, managing director at Wonky Star, the 10 x four-minute series revolves around 10-year-old night zookeeper Will and his friends Riya and Sam the giraffe. The trio embark on a mission to protect the zoo’s animals from an army of robotic spiders.
Before its debut, the show’s co-producers invited school kids from across the UK to submit character drawings and background designs, as well as suggestions for plot points, dialogue and songs.
Shortlisted user-generated content was integrated into skeleton scripts under the direction of the show’s co-producers, EP Howard Litton (Bing Bunny), head writer Dave Ingham (Shaun the Sheep, Luo Bao Bei) and London-based animation partner Karrot (Sarah & Duck). After the series launched, the producers kept Night Zookeeper’s online submissions window open to encourage kids to submit more ideas for upcoming episodes still in production. If new animals were selected for inclusion in upcoming eps, for example, Karrot would animate them on the fly.
To date, kids have submitted more than 150,000 ideas or drawings, and any that didn’t get picked for the series are available for viewing on the brand’s microsite.
For Davidson, ensuring timely consent for so many ideas before and during production was a big challenge, as was the pre-planning and production scheduling for the project.
“If we found great ideas, we needed approvals from the teacher, the school, the parent and the child,” says Davidson.
This was one of the reasons why the show’s development schedule ran almost a year and a half—or nearly twice the length normally required for similar short-form orders, according Sky’s head of kids content, Lucy Murphy.
And because the production used skeleton scripts, Murphy had to place a lot of trust in Karrot to meet deadlines and work out the stories on screen.
“It was an interesting process. I was getting scripts to approve that said ‘to be determined’ in big letters,” Murphy says. “We had to leave some gaps in the production until very late—which is a bit scary. Fortunately, Karrot is meticulous in its production pipeline management.”
Now that the series is on air, Sky plans to promote it through its learning initiative Sky Academy Studios, which teaches kids about TV production and storytelling, as well as giving them the opportunity to make their own videos.
Davidson is also shopping Night Zookeeper and the format to international linear broadcasters that may be interested in localizing the series.