'Animalia' and the Art of Talking Animals

Janet Hetherington looks at how Animalia brings CG talking animals -- ones that teach children language arts and the power of words -- to TV screens around the world.

An international production that brings together Australia and Los Angeles, Animalia is the most ambitious children's television series ever produced down under. All images © Animalia MMVII.

An international production that brings together Australia and Los Angeles, Animalia is the most ambitious children's television series ever produced down under. All images © Animalia MMVII.

Talking animals have been a mainstay of animation since its early days. From the leader of the club (Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse) to a wascally wabbit (Warner Bros.' Bugs Bunny) to the current crop of CG animated creatures -- including a gourmand rat (Disney/Pixar's Ratatouille) and many, many penguins (Dreamworks' Madagascar, Warner Bros.' Happy Feet and Sony's Surf's Up) -- animated animals seem to have a lot to say.

While a wisecracking Kung Fu Panda (DreamWorks) is kicking butt at the box office, another group of CG talking animals has been entertaining and educating children around the world about the power of words -- in the TV series Animalia.

"Most kids love animals -- even if they don't have any pets. So when animals on a large or small screen are talking and telling jokes, it's what kids expect animals to do," says Bruce Johnson, president and CEO, PorchLight Ent., and an executive producer of Animalia.

Animalia is an international production, headquartered in Australia and produced by Animalia Prods. -- a joint venture of executive producers Ewan Burnett, Graeme Base and Murray Pope -- in association with L.A.-based PorchLight. In addition to PorchLight's Johnson, story editor and lead writer Tom Ruegger also shares exec producer credit.

The HD animated show, based on Graeme Base's best-selling alphabet book with fanciful illustrations of animals, made its debut in four major English-speaking territories in fall 2007/spring 2008. Animalia premiered on Network TEN in Australia, on BBC-1 in the U.K., CBC in Canada, and PBS KIDS GO! in the U.S.

Ewan Burnett, president of Burberry Productions in Australia, commented that Animalia is the most ambitious children's television series ever produced in that country.

"Animalia is 40 half-hours of 3D animation at a level of quality not seen in Australia, and possibly the world, before," Burnett says. "As such, it was a hugely ambitious project to produce -- especially in Australia, where 3D television series pipelines did not exist to handle this quantity and quality of work. We had to implement a process of substantial infrastructure development and crew training and, with our principal animation partner Photon VFX, and our second animation house Iloura Digital Pictures, we imported talent from Canada, New Zealand, Europe, Argentina and elsewhere. As a result, the production has left a considerably enhanced capacity in Australia to undertake productions of this nature in the future."

Bruce Johnson.

Bruce Johnson.

"Graeme Base's Animalia is an iconic book property with a completely unique, whimsical art style," notes PorchLight's Johnson. "I've been a fan of the book for years, and I always felt these characters should be brought to life in animation. But because of the style, it absolutely had to be done in spectacular CG animation. Fortunately, Graeme, Ewan Burnett and Murray Pope felt the same way and were able to put together an amazing team of artists and animators in Australia. And our anchor network, CBBC, was supportive of doing a series in this style from the beginning."

Zebras in Zeppelins

The series features two contemporary kids, Alex and Zoe, who are mysteriously transported to a new land -- a sophisticated, magical world called Animalia. This land is populated with talking animals drawn from Base's book, including zebras in zeppelins, hogs on bikes, media mice delivering news bulletins on blue butterflies' wings, dragons, unicorns and even elephants with their own eatery.

Leading characters include the self-deprecating Livingstone T. Lion; teenage rock-and-roll loving G'bubu Gorilla; Allegra, a prima donna alligator; and the small but heroic iguana Iggy. There are troublemakers too, such as the scheming tiger Tyrannicus.

Because it airs on educational channels like PBS, Animalia carries positive social messages and promotes character traits like cooperation, persistence and creativity, as well as literacy. Each episode depicts one or more key communication skills such as language use, writing, speaking, listening, critical thinking and online searching and research.

Reading, writing, critical thinking, critical viewing, computer skills, speech and other communication skills are embedded in Animalia's storylines.

Reading, writing, critical thinking, critical viewing, computer skills, speech and other communication skills are embedded in Animalia's storylines.

"PBS is a great network and they are very rigorous in their requirements for specific educational content in every children's television series," Johnson says. "While Animalia is based on Graeme Base's characters, the series is also based on a 'language arts' curriculum and it embodies the National Standards for the Teaching of Language Arts as published by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, two widely respected professional teaching organizations in the U.S."

Reading, writing, critical thinking, critical viewing, computer skills, speech and other communication skills are embedded into the storylines. "[Story editor] Tom Ruegger was able to guide the writers to make the scripts highly entertaining, but also maintain the 'language arts' content in every episode," Johnson adds. "We also had a great pair of consultants, Harvey Daniels and Elaine Daniels, professional educators with a specialty in language arts, who read and provided notes on every script."

Animalia revolves around the 11-year-olds Alex and Zoe, who slip through a portal and arrive in a land of talking animals. There they learn that the Animalians had an ancient language, that their civilization is based on principles of literacy and that the very essence of Animalia is tied to the animals' ability to communicate with each other. All of those skills are housed in what Animalians call the Core -- a large orb at the center of their Great Library.

"When the series begins, the Core has ruptured, and certain communication skills are one-by-one disappearing," Johnson explains. "As the series progresses -- there's a series arc -- the kids help Animalia get restored to its 'proper' running order. Along the way, the kids also learn how to get along with each other and how to deal with the unique (and sometimes volatile) personalities they encounter when meeting the animals.

"The series is structured around a series arc beginning with Alex and Zoe arriving in Animalia, and ending with their return to our world. There's a half-way point at the end of Episode 20, and plenty of twists and turns from 21 through 40. And as Alex and Zoe discover... there are some shadows in Animalia's past. I can only tell you that once you start watching, you will keep watching."

The series captures the unique and whimsical style of author Graeme Base's original characters, including G'bubu Gorilla and the heroic iguana Iggy.

The series captures the unique and whimsical style of author Graeme Base's original characters, including G'bubu Gorilla and the heroic iguana Iggy.

Big-Budget Techniques

The making of the 40-episode series spanned some eight years, and, from an industry perspective, has set a new benchmark as the first series to use a variety of 3D animation techniques typically reserved for big-budget feature films.

"We set up a design team for the show in Sydney in early 2006," recalls Burberry's Burnett. "It comprised a number of people who had been working on Happy Feet at Animal Logic and other conceptual and character designers who were experienced in CG animation. This team worked with our director, David Scott, and with Graeme Base, who thoroughly enjoyed watching his characters rise off the page and come alive in 3D. When preproduction started at the Warner Roadshow Studios in Queensland, the key members of the design team relocated for the duration of production."

All of the executive producers and production partners had input into the character, location, set and prop designs, but Base was very closely involved in the process. "The key was to take Graeme's beautiful illustrations and make them work for series television," Burnett says. "When we started preproduction, the book had already been in the market for over 20 years and had sold over three million copies around the world. So, it was critical that the series looked like Graeme's work with its rich colours and whimsical characters."

Burnett says that lifting the characters off the page required many modifications and enhancements to achieve the range of motion and emotion required for animation. "The design teams did extensive ROM studies of each character, which served as a base for all builds and rigging," Burnett says. "We also had 3D maquettes created of all the lead characters to assist in the build and rigging processes.

"Our lead boy, Alex, is recognizable as the boy who appears on the title page and is hidden on every other page of the book. Our lead girl, Zoe, is a new character created especially for the series, so that Alex had someone to share his adventures with. With the human characters, we deliberately decided to use a simpler, almost 2D look to avoid the 'uncanny valley' effect of human characters in animation -- not to mention the extra time it would have required to animate them."

Burnett notes that the lead animals were created to be engaging and attractive and to provide the animators with all possible opportunities for characterization. "Facial and body rigs of all lead characters were very complex and detailed. We were unable to afford follicle accuracy on texturing due to the processing and rendering times it would have required. David Scott did however devise a process of using 2D cards in selected places like Livingstone's mane and G'bubu's head and shoulders to give a fur effect.

Lifting the characters off the page required many modifications and enhancements to achieve the range of motion and emotion required for animation.

Lifting the characters off the page required many modifications and enhancements to achieve the range of motion and emotion required for animation.

"Because the book is so revered, we had the good fortune of attracting some great artists and animators. David had worked with Peter Jackson on [The Lord of the] Rings trilogy, but had never done television. The result is that every episode looks and feels like a mini-movie. It's also animated in full HD and really is one of the most spectacular-looking children's series I've ever seen.

"As often happens, the quality was great to begin with and just kept getting better and better. The last 10 episodes are fantastic, which is a tribute to David, to the writers and to the animators."

TV and Beyond

Animalia also has an active presence on the Internet. Communication skills promoted by the show include online searching and research, and Animalia supports this with its associated interactive websites for kids. There are stories, games and character biographies, and visitors can create their own online comics featuring the characters and backdrops, send Animalia e-greetings, and more.

"The website was contemplated and planned all along," says Johnson. "Fortunately, we had tremendous assets to use in developing it. The anchor network was the BBC, and the original website, animalia.tv, was done in support of the BBC broadcast. It's an amazing site.

"The other site, pbskidsgo/animalia, has many of the same elements, including some fun games. The goal of both was to make a fun interactive experience, not necessarily to teach. However, there's a great activity curriculum on the PBS site, especially designed for teachers and parents, all tied to the original language arts goals of the series."

The first U.S. DVD compilation of the series will be available on September 23, with more releases planned for 2009 and beyond. There will also be DVD releases in the U.K., Canada and Australia.

"There are eight or 10 major international territories getting ready to premiere the series as well," Johnson advises. "As for the production team, we completed the 40th episode about a month ago and we're all taking a well-deserved breather."

The hard work has paid off. Animalia has helped put Australia's animation facilities and expertise on the global map.

The quality of the animation in Animalia sets a new benchmark for childen's TV series.

The quality of the animation in Animalia sets a new benchmark for childen's TV series.

"Animalia set a new standard for excellence in television animation," comments Johnson. "I'm not saying that was the goal, but it does seem to be the end result. It's really breathtaking, especially when viewed in HD on a great screen."

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.

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