Interview: Mark Taylor
Standing in the foyer of the A Productions headquarters stands a giant wolf: the studio’s director Mark Taylor is about to discuss Cbeebies’ new animated series Driver Dan’s Story Train. Standing next to him is another giant wolf, its cartoon eyes and comical grin leering at visitors. Behind a desert of unoccupied desks and tables lies a small staircase leading up to Mark’s office where a conversation about green screens and Abu Dhabi ensues.
|Driver Dan's Story Time|
Driver Dan’s Story Train is a pre-school series, currently running on CBeebies. It’s an animated show with a strong cast of characters and it’s got a very strong literacy angle to it, but it’s not an educational programme. It’s all about telling stories. It’s done in a fun way, so we’re not being prescriptive or lecturer-y. We have an interaction element with viewers at home; in the title sequence, we introduce live action children and then we go into Driver Dan’s world, but we hear real kids in voice over, who we record. Driver Dan turn[s] to camera and ask[s] questions and you hear kids’ voices talking back. It’s a very inclusive idea.
Who’s funding this project?
Well obviously the BBC are involved, so there’s an amount of funding from them, and the remainder of the funding is through twofour54, which is a fund initiative based out in Abu Dhabi. The deal is we’re making an English international version; we’re also making an Arabic version, which we’ve currently just started, where we’re reversioning certain elements of the programme to be specifically Arabic.
How does that work?
We’re not redesigning the characters, but we’re introducing Arabic kids for the live action sequences, Arabic voices for the characters, and just culturally being aware of the changes we need to make in our content that help it sit in terms of the region. There are very simple things that we don’t take onboard at the start, [like] reading books. We read a book top left [to] bottom right, we turn the pages that way: they do it entirely the opposite way. So, all of that animation needs to be reworked; the lay out of the stories has to be thought about. In every episode, we have a story writer, so other than the script, we actually have a story script, and then those stories are illustrated, so every single episode has got, in effect, its own book created for that episode, written and illustrated. So in terms of reversioning the illustrations, we have to be aware of cultural content; any imagery or anything inappropriate needs changing or dealing with.
We’re working with a crew based out in the Middle East who help us assess it from a cultural point of view, from a language point of view. We just filmed eight episodes of green screen and the kids loved it and what was interesting was to see the parents’ reactions, because the parents are quite reserved, but by the second day they were much more open and much more interested. It sounds a bit corny, but we were connecting on all the right levels. The parents really appreciated it and the kids really enjoyed themselves and hopefully that comes out onscreen.
When we spoke with your PR, we were told that you were trying to make it as culturally neutral as possible. How?
We’re trying to make its appeal broad enough to work, but at least give it enough character that it is individual enough that people actually like it, so that it’s not a bland mish-mash: it’s certainly individual and very strong. We’ve got a broad range of characters with very individual characteristics and we were very careful when we came up with character groupings that we had a male-female balance, we had an age balance. We are talking about animated elephants, pandas and flamingos here, but there’s a kind of spectrum within it. We’ve signed a deal with MacMillan on a global publishing deal, so we’ll be seeing publishing properties coming out I think later this year, so that appeal to MacMillan is one of the anchor points of the show. It’s being sold in most of the major territories around the world. MIP is coming up, so twofour54 and Teresa [Reed] and Estelle [Hughes] from 3Line Media will be there.
Why did you team up with a company from Abu Dhabi?
It was one of those moments when timing was right: we’d been looking around for investment in the project for some time, twofour54 came along and said we fitted their remit. They were very pleased to work with us, they felt that the project was great. They were looking to expand pre-school [literacy] in the Gulf region, and because it’s not a prescriptive show, it’s not an educational show but it has a strong literacy element, that really appealed to them. They’re heavily promoting literacy in that region, in the Far East and the Middle East as part of their development programmes.
Also on their agenda is promoting and nurturing production talent in the region, so the idea that we work closely with them on the Arabic reversioning and also in terms of bringing people over from that area and training them at our studios sits well. It was good for us to have somebody come onboard because these days getting a deal together for shows like this is getting tougher and tougher… the pressure that children’s TV and specifically animation productions are under [means that] most companies I know will look to foreign co-productions to pull it all together. Creatively and editorially, we are controlling the project from here and training people from twofour54 in Abu Dhabi here in the UK. It was important to us to try and make sure we’ve done this in the UK because a lot of studios are sending work abroad. You go around the world and an awful lot of countries have got production aid available. In England, there’s no production incentive; we can’t access any funding because we don’t get a production subsidy and that makes it an uneven playing field for us.
But what I do think we have is that creatively and quality-wise… we’re good. Creatively, the UK is recognised as being probably one of the best spots in the world. We’ve got some great ideas, some great people, some great animation going on in the UK.