Brown Bag are Ireland’s most prominent animation studio, bringing them from humble beginnings in a crumbling Georgian house on Gardiner st to the Oscars, eight-years later for Give Up Your ‘Aul Sins. Brown Bag has just released the first season of Henry Hugglemonster, based on OFFSET 2013 speaker Niamh Sharkey’s work, in partnership with Disney.
We’re hugely grateful to the show’s director, Norton Virgien (who also directed the Rugrats movies), who took some time to answer a few questions for the blog’s Animation & Film Day.
Hey Norton! How did the initial idea for the collaboration come about, from Brown Bag or from Niamh?
Well, as I understand it Niamh’s publisher, Walker Books, were the first to see “The Happy Hugglewugs” as a very visual book that would translate well to television, and showed it to Brown Bag, who were quick to see the potential as well. Co-incidentally Brown Bag’s co-founder Cathal Gaffney’s sister and Niamh are close friends, which facilitated introductions all around. Brown Bag and their development executive Jenny Stacey worked with Niamh over a couple of years to develop the property; they created a mini-pilot, and brought it to Disney. My own involvement began when Disney commissioned a full length pilot from Brown Bag, which was the first thing I directed here – and collectively we made a wonderful little film which very few people have ever seen – but which got the proper production off to a good start.
What kind of challenges are there in bringing, what started as one person’s vision, through the process of bringing it to screen.
I’m very proud of the way we maintained the spirit of the original material at each step of the development – it’s too easy for film-makers to brush off the original creation and force their own styles or ideas or clichés onto something special, sometimes making it more ordinary.
Niamh’s books have a smart and slightly tilted kind of humour, and our biggest decisions to make involved how “safe” and politically correct we needed to be for our preschool audience – and after some back and forth early on we managed to find a playful but spirited approach to take with the show; it is kookier and more comedic than is usual in its genre. This honours the books, and seems to suits Niamh very well. I personally would hate working on a project where the original creator felt it had lost something important in the translation – ideally it should grow in positive ways! So we’re happy when we see Niamh smiling.
Can you talk us through the process step by step? From pitching to design to animation?
We use a script based production method – meaning we work hard on the script and then let the design, storyboard and cinematics develop accordingly – in this way we work in a similar way to a live action show. Our scripts grow out of a brainstorming process – our head writer, Sascha Paladino, Niamh and I start many of the stories off in a free-flowing session talking about our own experiences, or things we’ve observed with our own children – and other members of our team join in on a rotating basis – which gets all of us involved and invested.
We record voices before we start drawing, which makes our storyboards the next key point, and we work hard on making solid “animatic” versions of the show for the animators to work from. Disney offers their comments at each stage, of course. The key for us is to make the storyboards extremely visual – to tell the story as much with our choices of angles, camera movement, poses and compositions as we can – ideally you could understand the emotions and drama of the story even if you didn’t hear the dialogue.
The rest of the process becomes adding the most free, loosest, most expressive animation we can and fine tuning at each step going forward.
You guys were working on it for a long time, is it hard to stay motivated while working on one single project? How do you as a team, or as an individual, stay creatively fresh?
It’s a challenge – not so much from the length of time, which is actually a fair bit shorter than an animated feature film usually takes. We create something like nine hours of animation in about half the time that a larger feature crew creates an hour and a half – and that involves coming up with 52 different ideas rather than one long story.
It’s the constant deadlines that are daunting – we need to move two eleven minute cartoons along the “pipeline” through its various stages each week over an 80 week period – there are few moments to take a breath! It’s an intense process, and favours energetic artists with the ability to make quick decisions and a good sense of humour.
Now that you’ve finally got it out into the world, what’s the reception been like?
The UK and Ireland have been seeing the show so far – though not in our original version – we have British voices for the characters which gives the show a slightly different feeling. But the ratings are quite good and we’re getting very encouraging anecdotal reports from families all over Ireland that “Henry Hugglemonster” is their kids’ new favourite show. We can’t wait for all the episodes to hit the telly – the show gets stronger as we developed our style and we’re confident that the fans we have already will be telling their friends to watch as we roll them all out over the next several months.
Brown Bag is going from strength to strength – what do you think makes the company unique?
Firstly it’s an artist owned and run company – both Cathal Gaffney and Darragh O’Connell are terrific directors in their own right. There is a great spirit of young energy among the team they have put together – I’ve found the crew great to work with – and very welcoming to the few of us have come over from the States to help out. None of us seem to accept the limitations of the craft easily – the team is always looking for ways to out of the various “boxes” that other studios may just accept.
So there’s no secret beyond finding the best people and giving them the freedom and encouragement to do their best.
What’s next in line for you – more Hugglemonsters or something new?
Personally I have been involved with directing both Doc McStuffins and Henry Hugglemonster and I love both shows – and hope to stay involved with both as best I can. I remember from working from the early days on “Rugrats” that once a show becomes a hit it’s nearly as challenging to keep it from losing its spark as it is to develop it in the first place – so I reckon it will be best to do another round or two of each of them. And once the team knows the shows we have a chance to make them stronger in a season two.
SO – more deadlines!