Like many kids do in the fall, Paper Owl Films’ Pablo is heading off to school for the first time.
The preschool series is getting a third season that’s all about aging up into the five to eight bracket along with its audience. And that means new character designs, new story framing and a new overall tone.
The original Pablo is a hybrid 2D-animated/live-action series produced by Paper Owl Films, Kavaleer Production and Ingenious Media. It follows a five-year- old autistic boy and the imaginary animal friends he uses to make sense of the world. Distributed by CAKE, the series premiered on CBeebies in 2017, and has since aired internationally on channels and platforms such as ABC Kids, NatGeo Kids and Netflix.
Over its two-season run, the 104 x 11-minute series has scooped up a variety of awards, been praised for its sensitive handling of autism, and generated a range of books by Penguin Random House, games and an upcoming stage show.
Traditionally, when a 52 x 11-minute preschool series gets to its third season, the original audience has aged out, and new episodes simply target a new cohort of kids.
But instead of aiming to engage another group of preschoolers, this new iteration of Pablo is meant to follow its original viewers as they grow up, says Grainne McGuinness, creative director at Paper Owl Films.
Rather than an animated/live-action hybrid, season three will be an animated retelling of eight-year-old Pablo’s day at school through his own eyes.
And as part of the aging-up strategy, these new eps will mix 2D and 3D animation with photo-real elements.
While the Pablo brand was doing well, it was time for a change, and that need became pressing when McGuinness learned an alarming fact. In 2015, when she started working on the series, 46% of autistic kids reported being bullied in school. By 2021, that number had shot up to 75%, according to British organization Ambitious for Autism.
Unlike the first two seasons, this new one won’t primarily target kids with autism, says McGuinness. By telling the story through Pablo’s eyes and broadening the show’s audience, she’s hoping to foster empathy among all kids and shine more light on the experience of those living on the autism spectrum.
“We want to build a show with a central character who happens to be autistic that will be a hit around the world, encouraging kids to get to know the autistic kids in their class,” says McGuinness. “To succeed, it has to be something that all children want to watch, so that’s the way that we’re developing it.”
While renewals typically mean much shorter development periods (if any), Paper Owl has been working on season three for the past year and a half, says McGuinness.
To start, though many of the original writers (all of whom have autism) will stay on to help Pablo reach an older audience, Paper Owl has also hired adult-skewing comedy writers to inject more humor into the series. Pablo’s anthropomorphized animal friends, each representing a different trait of an autistic kid, were also aged up.
For example, in the original, the characters were drawn to mimic the look of crayon art. But as an older kid, Pablo has matured into using markers and pens for his drawings, so his imaginary friends have taken on new photo-real elements.
The traits they represent needed to grow with Pablo, too. His mouse companion—who is sensitive to sounds and smells—has to learn how to deal with an overwhelmingly loud and smelly school environment.
With development funding from existing partners CAKE and Northern Ireland Screen, Paper Owl is looking to go into production next year. Ultimately, school-aged Pablo will stick around for two seasons before—if all goes according to plan—he grows a little more, ready to enter his (live-action) high school phase and deal with new issues unique to teens with autism.
“We have to create a standout, funny, action-packed, mainstream show because that’s the only way that it’s going to deliver,” says McGuinness. “But we’re ambitious that this show will be right up there with SpongeBob or Loud House.”