Furry, fun and home-grown
Meet the Belfast TV production company that’s taking the world by storm. Clare Weir reports
It’s colourful, all-singing, all-dancing and it’s a homegrown export which has helped pump £4.2m into the economy here.
Meet The Pajanimals, who beam into hundreds of millions of TV screens across the UK and USA and who are the brainchild of a Belfast man and his 55-strong team, who create award-winning children’s television shows right here in Northern Ireland.
The Pajanimals is co-produced by Sprout, The Jim Henson Company — behind the likes of The Muppets and Sesame Street — and Colin Williams’ Sixteen South Television.
Sweetpea Sue the pony, the excitable duck Squacky, the creative cow CowBella and the optimistic puppy Apollo were designed and built by the world famous Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
With a background in design in graphics and websites, Colin started working with advertising and design agencies and originally started his own production company Inferno in 2002, before setting up Sixteen South in 2008.
He was originally inspired to move into children's television after watching the box with his own young daughter.
“I noticed the things that she did and didn’t like,” he said.
“She liked things like Bear in the Big Blue House, which has high production values and looked really impressive, and didn’t like stuff with poor production values. I got to thinking that there needed to be more children’s television with high production values and what I could do about it.
“Now, four years later, I have gone full circle and am now working alongside the people who made Bear in the Big Blue House.”
The creative industries have already been cited as one of the fastest growing and most lucrative sectors for Northern Ireland.
A report from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) last year estimated that there were 2,200 creative industry businesses here, representing 3.2% of all business units.
Figures gathered over the past three years show that the creative industries added around £737m in gross value added (GVA) in 2008, representing 4.2% of Northern Ireland’s total GVA.
In 2009, government estimations show that 31,000 people were in creative employment — 4.2% of Northern Ireland’s employment total.
For Colin and his team, the big break came when Sixteen South was selected to make Sesame Tree.
Despite never having made a show, the firm was chosen from 14 to co-produce the series with Sesame Workshop.
Broadcast on CBeebies, it enjoyed huge ratings and its website recorded 2.6m hits in a four-week period alone.
From there, the offers started rolling in and the company is hugely successful despite having been a relatively short time in the business.
The next hit was Big City Park, which won awards from BAFTA and IFTA, followed by Big & Small.
As well as being a huge success in the UK, Pajanimals is also screened on the Sprout station, which reaches 55 million homes across America, and has even won a slot on NBC, which reaches every home in the US. It is also screening in Australia and New Zealand.
The chances of such a small, young company achieving such a vast spread and huge ratings is minuscule, says Colin.
“CBeebies has three or four slots a year. They receive 1,000 pitches,” he said.
“Less than 0.5% of all children’s TV shows ever get on the air, and only a very small proportion of those spread to wider audiences. The chance of becoming the next Peppa Pig or Thomas the Tank Engine is tiny.”
Next for the small screen is Driftwood Bay, a new animation from Sixteen South.
Colin said that the business model for the show is unique, funded by a cocktail of cash with no support from a major broadcaster, which would normally stump up anywhere between 5-40% of a show’s working capital.
While Northern Ireland Screen has been of huge support to Sixteen South, Colin said that banks and other investment agencies need to take notice of the huge rise in creative industries.
“Game of Thrones films in Northern Ireland and grabs a lot of the headlines and receives a lot of notice from Stormont,” he said.
“But with Game of Thrones and productions like it, the actors and the staff, come here, film, and leave again.
“Children’s television has a wider audience and is more financially lucrative and easier and quicker to sell abroad than a genre like drama or even feature films. I would say we have a much wider audience than a show like Game of Thrones.
“We hear all the politicians talking about the importance of the export market — well here it is.
“We are a Northern Ireland company based here, employing a majority of local people and exporting products abroad to a huge audience.
“But when I went to the bank for a current account when I set up Inferno — I wasn’t looking for a loan — I found it very difficult.
“We are attracting money to Northern Ireland, we are proving that you don’t need to be in London or LA to succeed in the creative industries, we don’t need any financial incentives to stay here and we generate salaries for local people, so it would be nice for companies like us to get a bit more support and investment,” he said.
“People need to understand what is happening here and how exciting and full of potential it is.”
But he added that more joined-up thinking is needed in terms of providing the right people for the job.
“We try to employ from Northern Ireland where possible, but it can be hard to find certain people with certain areas of expertise,” he said.
“We have six writers — three from Northern Ireland and three from LA. We do have to bring in crew from outside.
“Our director and head of department had to be brought in and do a brilliant job.
“We try to train young people on the job, but it would be great for Stormont and the universities and colleges to get working on link-ups to companies like ours so that young people get the training and qualifications to get a head start in the industry — so that they can stay in Northern Ireland rather than going outside to work, and so that we can recruit here and give our jobs to local people. The creative industries are already being pushed as a big boost to the economy, so it makes sense for the Government and education providers to be proactive and start tailoring courses so that we have quality graduates to work in the industry.
Roll of Honour
- Best Children's programme BAFTA Scotland - 2011 for Big City Park
- Best Youth/Children's Programme Irish Film & Television Academy - 2011 for Big City Park
- Gold Plaque Hugo Television Award - 2011 for Sesame Tree
- Silver Plaque Hugo Television Award - 2011 for Big City Park
- Cine Golden Eagle - 2011 for Sesame Tree
- Cine Golden Eagle - 2011 for Big City Park
- Commended Celtic Media Festival - 2011 for Big City Park
- Winner Hugo Television Award - 2010 for Sesame Tree
- Cine Golden Eagle - 2010 for Sesame Tree
- Creative Industries Award - 2010 for Sixteen South
- Institute of Designers in Ireland Award - 2005 for Interactive app for CocaCola
- Royal Television Society - 2004 for BBC title sequence
- Goldeneye web award - 2004 for Moy Park website
- Institute of Designers in Ireland Grand Prix trophy - 2003 for BBC title sequence
- Institute of Designers in Ireland Best Television Graphics - 2003 for BBC title sequence
- Society of Designers in Ireland Graphic Design Category Best Irish Graduate - 1995
- Society of Designers in Ireland Gold Medal Overall Best Irish Graduate - 1995
Sixteen South's portfolio
- Driftwood Bay
- Big & Small
- Sesame Tree
- Big City Park