Partnering in the Arab World
A C21 Viewpoint by Estelle Hughes
3Line Media will be taking part in the Arab Awakenings session at Sheffield’s Children’s Media Conference next week. Here the UK indie’s MD Estelle Hughes (below) discusses the Middle East connection.
Let’s start with the FAQs: No, I don’t have to wear an abaya when we’re in Abu Dhabi, and yes, it is tricky to work a production schedule through Ramadan. But it’s tricky to work a production schedule through Easter, May bank holiday and a royal wedding too, so fair’s fair.
To be honest, when we did a deal in early 2009 with the Abu Dhabi Media Zone’s newly set-up Twofour54, we weren’t even sure of those answers ourselves.
Two-and-a-half years on and the learning curve and experience have been immense, and we’re now well into production with the second season of the BBC/Al Jazeera Children‘s Channel preschool hit Driver Dan’s Story Train. We’re also about to open a production office, 3Line Arabia, in Abu Dhabi as a partner company of Twofour54, to co-develop and produce Arab-created content for an international audience. It’s not just the Grand Prix that moves at speed in this region.
Driver Dan’s Story Train, or Captain Karim as he is known in Arabic, is produced in a unique way between the UK and Abu Dhabi, with animators, writers and illustrators working on the show from all over the Middle East. Twofour54’s mission has been to enable the transference of our skills by attaching an Abu Dhabi production partner (Blink Studios), which has recruited and trained staff to work on the series.
Driver Dan (below) is in CGI but also incorporates live-action kids in green screen and a specially commissioned storybook with illustrations in each show. In season one (episodes 1-52), Blink did a complete adaptation of the series into Arabic, which included locally filmed green screen kids and smaller sections of new animation (such as the pages of a book turning the opposite way).
For season two (episodes 53-104), the split of work has increased under 3Line’s creative control and Blink is producing some animation for the international version as well as being in full control of the Arabic one. This means that significant amounts of animation, storybook writing and illustration, and now script writing, is being done in the Middle East.
So, in the short time since the series first went into production in Bristol, it is now a fully fledged Arab shared production venture, with animators, writers and producers in Abu Dhabi now working on a successful series that airs in the UK, the Middle East, Australia and the US.
There is currently a lot of activity in the UK animation industry as a result of international partners offering funding and facilities in return for employment, IP transfer and/or training in their own (usually government-incentivised) regions. So, like most UK animation producers, the three of us at 3Line (myself, Mark Taylor and Teresa Reed) have produced international projects for years. In our experience, the country you work with is irrelevant when it comes to the cultural and business issues affecting preschool content (although there are much greater differences when catering for older audiences).
The critical factors in a successful international venture are not rocket science but they are still a challenge to manage – even if you know what they will be from day one.
As in all productions, the schedule rules – falling behind a tiny bit can very quickly snowball, so the strong hand and spreadsheet skills of a tough and fair producer and production co-ordinator have been crucial in this production. Across all productions, there will always be teething problems and unexpected issues, and different ways to address them. But to deal with them successfully inevitably involves the magic word: communication. And that means both the spoken word and in person (3Line stock includes a lot of Etihad air miles); respectful conversations, albeit often with dramatic passion; and an enormous respect for everyone’s pride, personal as well as professional – all done with great humour and mutual hospitality.
Young Arab audiences, like all young viewers, deserve the best content from their own culture as well as from around the world. The growth of production at studios such as 3Line Arabia, Blink and Cartoon Network Arabia’s Animation Academy (listed here in no particular order, of course) in Abu Dhabi alone are ensuring that content gets made in the region. However, that’s just one Emirate, one of seven within the UAE, and just as the UAE is only one of the many countries that make up the Arab world, so the UK is only one country in which global series are based.
Perhaps the important lesson in nascent UK/Arab production partnerships is the same for both parties: work with and consult from as wide an area as the budget and schedule can support – broadcasters, distributors, funders, creatives, parents, educationalists, producers and, of course, children. With that comes the best opportunity to produce exciting and meaningful global content for local audiences, wherever they might be – Inshallah.