Abu Dhabi's twofour54 and a UK media company have teamed up on a unique new interactive animated TV show filmed in English and Arabic.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, there lived a... Hang on let's start again... In fact, let's fast forward to this time next year when a new show for very young children hits our television screens and story time will never be the same. Let's imagine we are somewhere between the ages of three and seven, sitting cosily on a sofa with our mothers, a pop-up storybook on our laps. We turn on the television to hear about the latest adventures of a brand new character, called Driver Dan, and his Story Train. On our screens, children just like us are opening pop-up books to listen to the same story. Suddenly the train sparkles into life and drives right out of the pages of the on-screen book and into the animated world of the series.
As the story unfolds, we can hear the voices of the television children chatting to Driver Dan about what's going to happen and asking the questions we would ask if we were in the same imaginary world. But wait, Mummy gets out her mobile phone and films us dancing the conga in our living rooms like the children on the screen with Precious the inquisitive camel, Loopy the dinosaur, Hip and Hop the brother and sister rabbits, and Sweetie the panda who loves her food. We don't notice that Mummy is now sitting at her laptop uploading the film until we see ourselves on the television dancing with the others.
How exciting will that be for a child? Futuristic, maybe, but producers say it's entirely possible, and Driver Dan's Story Train is a natural progression for a generation to whom multi-tasking comes naturally. The show is in production in both the UK and the UAE and should be enchanting children in both countries and indeed all over the world by this time next year. "Nothing really exists just on television any more. Children consume media. They do five different things at once. They might not even be watching the show on television, either. They could be watching it on their Gameboys or on PCs," says Estelle Hughes, the managing director of the UK production company 3Line Media, which has teamed up with the Abu Dhabi-based twofour54 to co-produce the children's series in Arabic and English. The show will be broadcast on the BBC's UK children's channel CBeebies next spring and is expected to be taken up by Arab TV channels throughout the MENA region at the same time.
It's the first partnership deal for twofour54 (named after the geographical co-ordinates for Abu Dhabi), the government-backed company set up to help establish and develop a sustainable media and content industry in the region. It will involve young filmmakers interested in children's television travelling to 3Line Media's studios in Bristol, England, to study animation and production techniques so that the operation is so seamless that it will be impossible to spot where a particular episode was made.
"They will be pretty much bilingual and they will also learn about the style of the illustrations and the stories that are set in Japan, India, New Zealand and other countries. It will be a truly international programme," says Hughes, who, with her partners, the director Teresa Reed, who is in charge of production, and Mark Taylor, who oversees creation, development and production of new content, will visit Abu Dhabi in September to open the production office.
"Once we have finished the English voice recording, it will be refilmed in Abu Dhabi using local children and voices speaking in Arabic. The Arabic version of the series should be finished at the same time as the English. The animation of the storybook section also has to be refilmed in the UAE because, obviously, the pages are turned the other way," says Hughes. The team is already talking to writers with a view to using fresh material for the 52 episodes in the first series. "We already have eight script writers and four storybook writers. Some of the storybook writers we are talking to are based in the UAE. We have to write and illustrate stories that are going to appeal all around the world. They have to be the right length with links to the characters. It's not an easy show to write.
"The ability to produce 52 global scripts in a short period of time needs a lot of experienced writers. We will help UAE writers and producers to polish up their skills in the required style. Perhaps six to 10 interns will come to Bristol for a month or longer. We are entirely self-contained with all the necessary skills in one company. The fact that we are a one-stop shop and can accommodate interns was appealing to potential partners," says Hughes, whose 18 years of experience in television includes her appointment as controller of children's programming at the UK broadcaster ITV in 2006, commissioning and acquiring all shows. Prior to that, she was the deputy head of acquisitions and animation at BBC Children's TV and was heavily involved in the launching and programming of CBBC and CBeebies. She also worked at UK Disney.
The three colleagues worked on a children's show called Boo!, featuring several cartoon characters with an adult narrator and a chorus of children. It was directed by Taylor and produced by Reed, based on a design by the children's author and animator Rebecca Elgar. "Years later we went back to Rebecca and asked her what she had thought of on her own and she came up with Story Train. We did development and created a guide with character development, test animation plus an 11-minute script. Mark's studio was already up and running and the time was right to set up a new company with three areas of business, the studio where animation is created for companies all around the world, consultancy and production.
"We wanted an international partner and someone with the scale of vision to make sure it was big. Twofour54 has fascinating plans and ambitions for the series in its territory and it is now the rights owners." One of the team's first jobs will be selecting Arab actors to do the voices of the characters. In the English version, Precious the camel has a Birmingham accent. Women are used to do the voice-overs of male characters. Driver Dan, a colourful and friendly lion, is the only adult character. One possibility is that they will find Arab-speaking children to do the voices here. They will also need five groups of four children to interact with the animated characters. "They need to play and be energetic for half a day, which is quite hard work," says Hughes.
Although the producers are careful to avoid words such as "educational", there is a clear purpose behind the series."It addresses the subject of pre-literacy and is meant to encourage them to realise how much fun there is in books and stories before they start to think of reading as education. They are sharing books with someone older than themselves, which is an important and valuable way of interesting them in reading.
"Some children don't have books at home, so if they arrive at school for the first time and aren't used to books it takes them time to get used to them." Every script and idea is put under the microscope in Bristol and Abu Dhabi to make sure it is not irresponsible or unsafe. For example, a trampoline in Loopy the dinosaur's carriage has a safety net around it, and food eaten by the characters has an international flavour.
Says Hughes: "There's a real balance of girl and boy appeal. Every stage from the idea to the script propositions and characters goes via twofour54. "During the show, the characters eat food grown in Sweetie's garden: figs, dates and apples. One storybook tale is about pirates that have a feast, which is very international and includes cakes, honey, tabbouleh and lots of fruits. There won't be any junk food."
There is also a focus on imitable behaviour. "Driver Dan's Story Train doesn't have tracks, but producers have to be careful that the kids aren't running towards the train. Imitable behaviour dominates children's pre-school television," says Hughes. "There is a subtle and natural approach to disability with the introduction of the elephant on wheels, a popular children's toy, which clearly represents a child in a wheelchair who doesn't take part in playing games in the same way as the others but is very much part of the group. A good ethnic mix of children is also important."
The characters have well-defined roles. Each has its own carriage. There's a sandpit in the carriage belonging to Precious the camel. Sweetie, the youngest, likes nature and her carriage has a garden where she grows vegetables. A typical story and one that might become the first episode involves Driver Dan pulling up beside Precious, who is excited because she has found a massive footprint in the ground. Loopy is with her so she knows it can't be a dinosaur print. She makes Driver Dan take them on the train and follow the footprints, which eventually peter out. They find the carriage of Hip and Hop, the brother and sister rabbits, but they aren't there. Then they hear a strange noise and Hip and Hop arrive on a space hopper. The "footprints" were made by the space hopper.
Says Hughes: "That particular story is about a child with an invisible friend and the children have to work out if the invisible friend exists or not. Do they come to the right conclusion? It's all about making them think about things and when they are asked to remember what they like about the show and say it out loud, it's about getting them to express themselves. That's the underlying core of the show.
"Throughout the first four minutes, Driver Dan is talking to them as the Story Train is driving along. There is a special relationship between him and the children at home. When that adventure is resolved, Driver Dan takes three characters to the Story Corner, something that any child who has been to playschool will be familiar with. He settles them down and chooses a story from the library carriage. It's still in animation at this stage and you can see the pages turning. When the story is over, he looks directly at the camera and asks the children what they like best.
"Then it switches to green-screen technology and real children are filmed against it. They jump into the pages to play with the characters. We hope the children at home will join in with whatever they are doing. It really comes alive and you get chimps and warthogs dancing and doing the conga. "We want them to feel that it could just as easily be them and indeed it could be. What is so exciting for us is how all these things work fantastically as entertainment. It looks beautiful on the screen but all very subtly and naturally.
"The reason we know it will work is that it is very well thought out. Kids are so discriminating and you can have your heart broken in a research session with a group of them. They say what they think. "The production of children's programmes has undergone phenomenal change. We have to be thinking about so many other elements: online, publishing, merchandising as well as encouraging parents to share reading times with their children. Genuine interaction is possible, so a parent could film their own child doing the conga and upload it into the storybook. That's the future and the technology is here now."