Punch Monkey Studios: Steering their Pilot

Punch Monkey Studios: Steering their Pilot

Andrew Phillips and Howard Fyvie’s interview felt like a class in comedy writing. They riff off ideas for jokes, funny characters, or situations. It’s way too early on a Saturday morning for most adults to have this much energy. But this is the childlike joy that they are injecting into the pilot their studio, Punch Monkey Studios is making.

One of their favourite characters is Punch Monkey. Andrew explains that “Punch Monkey… is literally a punching bag for this villain… who has a lot of anger issues.” When it came time to register a name for their company this punching bag kept popping up. Howard explains, “There is a nice little coincidence to it. When you add jokes to a script you punch it up… which is a service we provide.”

Punch Monkey image courtesy of Punch Monkey Studios

Punch Monkey, image courtesy of Punch Monkey Studios

Perhaps Punch Monkey will make a cameo appearance in Punch Squad which they are developing with Turner Asia Pacific (APAC). “We are basically being paid by Turner to create an 11 minute pilot for our dream project,” Andrew says. Punch Squad is about a group of B grade law enforcers in the form of a cookie, a girl, a unicorn, a cactus, and a strawberry. They protect Rex City with the ultimate goal of becoming a superhero team. There’s just one little problem – they don’t have any superpowers. “When we pitch it to people we say that it is Guardians of the Galaxy meets Doc McStuffins,” Howard explains.

Andrew and Howard herald from Cape Town and have known each other for almost 10 years. But they didn’t see each other as creative partners when they met. “Howard was this serious filmmaker, director guy, and he didn’t see me as a potential filmmaker,” Andrew explains. “And, equally I didn’t see him as a writing partner” Howard explains. Their comic chemistry only started during their individual participation in the animation based competition, StoryLab. They didn’t win, but they immediately got back on the horse and pitched their idea for what would become Punch Squad at the Turner Kids’ Animation Pitching Competition at DISCOP Joburg 2016. This time they walked away with the prize.

Howard James Fyvie of Punch Monkey Studios

Howard James Fyvie of Punch Monkey Studios

Andrew Phillips of Punch Monkey Studios

Andrew Phillips of Punch Monkey Studios

They had won free accreditation to Annecy 2017 and $2000. Their show idea had also caught the eye of Turner Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). Getting to the pilot stage wasn’t guaranteed. They took the money they had won to improve their pitch bible. Andrew emailed 85 people, but only 17 responded to his emails and 14 agreed to take meetings with them. “You have to be open to all relationships in the beginning. It’s such a huge, vast abyss that you are diving into when you want to make a show with a network.” Howard explains. They were able to make an impression on Turner Asia Pacific. “When we met with Silas [Hickey, Senior Director, original production, and development APAC] we chatted with him for an hour without mentioning our show. He got to know us. He got to see our energy, our passion, and our humour” Howard says about their fruitful meeting.

Punch Squad image courtesy of Punch Monkey Studios

Punch Squad image courtesy of Punch Monkey Studios

Andrew and Howard believe that creators in the animation industry need to enter competitions like Animation du Monde. “We wouldn’t have met Silas at Annecy if we didn’t win at DISCOP 2016,” Andrew explains. The most important part about winning was more invisible according to Howard, “We won a whole bunch of confidence between me and Andrew. People are taking this seriously. Someone from Cartoon Network is giving us notes on this thing. It must be a real thing if people want to help us shape it. So let’s make it better.”  The story has gone through many changes as the pair try to find the right balance. “Sometimes you have to work backwards to find what is the heart of the show. And, then you bury the heart in the middle of the thing you are creating.” Andrew explains.

The pair advise that it is important to be willing to adjust to the input from networks early on in the development process. “A perfectly polished pitch bible will sometimes scare people off. Most of the guys want to get involved very early in the development process. A perfectly polished pitch bible, they are like err, what are we going to add to this? You have already gone very far in the wrong direction.” Andrew says about pitching to potential broadcasters.

Zandi of Punch Squad image courtesy of Punch Monkey Studios

Zandi of Punch Squad image courtesy of Punch Monkey Studios

The pitch process is more about building a relationship than just trying to sell your project. “Sometimes you hear people when they are pitching. They aren’t passionate about their work or themselves. They are monotonous. No one is going to buy into you.” Howard explains. If it sounds like a job interview, it is. “You are going to be in a relationship with these guys for five years.’ Howard continued.  Some networks like Cartoon Network want to work with the creator(s) of a project. “They want to invest in the creator, like more so than the project alone. There are other networks out there who are more interested in the project. So they might get you to develop the project to a certain place and they will say goodbye and give it to other creators to develop.” He explains, “You might not be as good as you need to be. Sometimes they buy into you, but will mentor you till you are good enough to fit into their brand.”

They started the process to create the pilot during Annecy 2017 after Turner APAC’s buy-in. But pilots don’t put food on the table. “We don’t spend a lot of time working on the show. [The time we’ve spent] working on the show comes up to about 2 or 3 months” Howard said. Andrew is a scriptwriter for the Supa Strikas television series. At the moment it is the most successful animated series from South Africa. Howard writes and produces live-action videos.

When they do come together they work hard. Their creative process includes playing a game. The rules limit them to an eclectic mix of characters and situations. “You have all of these pieces, elements, characters together. How can we make each other laugh? So we just bash them together.” Andrew explains. Even as they explain the process they start riffing jokes. It’s effective, very effective. As they talk I couldn’t help but laugh as they come up with one absurd scenario after the other.

Andrew and Howard know that making a pilot doesn’t automatically mean they have a first season in the bag. At Annecy 2018 they had been shopping around for projects at different stages of development. “…you just don’t ever know which one is going to hit…like anything where luck is involved the more you hedge your bets the more opportunities you have to hit on something,” Andrew explains. They are taking everything in their stride and looking to the future with hope.

 

Garland-Waide Bradford has a career path that has varied from corporate work as a public relations manager in communications strategy to media work as an insert producer for factual television. These were purposeful choices to understand how to integrate creative choices with market requirements in turning content into brands. Growing up in a township meant that these educational opportunities were out of reach due to access and financial constraints. But, having paid his dues through work, Bradford is a dynamic thinker who owns a skills set that is third industrial revolution ready. He completed his BA Honours in Media Studies in 2017. His focus has been on media management and has been studying models of sustainability in the media for several years. He started his journey with the African Animation Network as Head of Communications in 2017 where he hopes to use his skills to empower aspirant animation professionals and member associations to further their global reach.

Ingrid Agbo on making history

Ingrid Agbo on making history

Ingrid Agbo laughingly points out that “… I can’t even draw a line.”

This Paris-based Togolese director and camera operator didn’t let her lack of experience in the art form stand in the way of working towards producing an animated series about African history. “…but I know what I want…and I have a lot of giants [in design and animation] around me.” The story leading up to Annecy 2018 is in itself a uniquely African one.

Ingrid Agbo took the stage at the 2018 MIFA Animation du Monde pitching. It was the third time she would tell a room of mostly strangers about L’arbre à Palimpseste. This project is about two brothers who learn about historic African figures from the stories their grandmother tells them.” Her nervousness was understandable but like in the previous sessions in Abidjan and Johannesburg her concept won judges over. Gulli, the French children’s network, awarded it with a prestigious presale.

There are many stories that relay European and Asian history. Ingrid hopes that L’arbe à Palimseste will become a landmark series for historical figures from the African continent. “ … if you talk about African history, heroes…this is something that, in a TV show, has not been done before.” Ingrid said during a recent interview. Each episode is a short film about a person from history with the grandmother and her two grandsons as the only reoccurring characters. The boys represent our own ignorance of the past. Through them we learn more about these people.  “African history is full of important and inspiring – but sadly forgotten – characters. We wish to resume this transmission, to promote this fading legacy.”

A screenshot from the second pilot of L’arbe à Palimseste image courtesy of Ingrid Agbo

A screenshot from the second pilot of L’arbre à Palimpseste image courtesy of Ingrid Agbo

Annecy was the catalyst that the project needed to move forward. “Gulli here in France and in Africa is the channel for children, it is something very important to have that kind of broadcaster for children [as a partner]…we are very happy and proud” Ingrid said about the deal. The presale enables the L’arbre à Palimpseste team to approach more coproduction partners, distributors, and perhaps institutional funding. The project has come a long way since the initial pilot that Ingrid funded herself, “The first pilot cost a lot… but the result wasn’t so good…animation costs a lot, if you don’t put in the money you don’t get the quality.”

This was the beginning of her journey with L’arbre à Palimpseste. When she heard that African Animation Network had organised the Animation du Monde pitching session during DISCOP Abidjan 2017 she saw an opportunity. “The important thing about this pitching session…was to put talent together…” Through it she was able to meet with animation studios from across Africa and started to collaborate with two. “I didn’t realise I could find collaboration with [an animation] studio in Africa.” She worked with studio Basement Animation Studios in Nigeria to make a second pilot.

Mbuotidem Johnson, the creative director and producer for Basement Animation Studios was invited to speak about Animation Nigeria at DISCOP Abidjan 2017. “[Ingrid] showed me the first pilot that she created. I also had a pilot with me that we created for market…which I showed her.” Mboutidem, like Ingrid, believes that festivals and markets are key to growth. “I have met more people in my industry… [it] has exposed me, educated me, and empowered me in this industry….”

This Pan-African collaboration yielded the fruit she had hoped for. “I gave them the opportunity to work on the second pilot…we won the ticket to get to Annecy.” She wants to continue collaborating with studios from across the continent to produce the first season’s 52 episodes. “I think if you have talent in animation and drawing on the continent why not use them? I have no problem working with talent from my continent.” Prior to pitching she added a coproduction partner from Madagascar. “All of the partners, I hope to work with them further, always tell me that the concept is very good, but we need to improve the animation and design.”

A setting from the new designs of L’arbe à Palimseste image courtesy of Ingrid Agbo

A setting from the new designs of L’arbre à Palimpseste image courtesy of Ingrid Agbo

The African animation industry is not as well-known as those in other developing countries. She wants to show the world what African talent is capable of delivering world class content. The fact that animation is a resource-heavy endeavor is something that is on her mind when talking about the project. “I used to call it the African production economy…It doesn’t mean we won’t produce quality. It just means that is difficult to raise the funds to make the 52 episodes in the first season.” She believes that the success of the project requires them to invest in African talent. “If we want to compete on a world stage we have to produce quality, and quality requires a lot of money. We believe that money brings in money”.

Setting the historic parts of each episode apart through design, L’arbe à Palimseste image courtesy of Ingrid Agbo

Setting the historic parts of each episode apart through design, L’arbre à Palimpseste image courtesy of Ingrid Agbo

The historical figure that was chosen for the pilot is Anne Zingha, an African queen that demanded excellence from her subjects and ruled with strength. Much like Ingrid she faced the odds stacked against her with an uncompromising determination. “Just tell the right history of this lady and you have a movie. I chose her because I was impressed when I read her story. I need to tell this story. There was no political meaning in choosing this character.”

Re-imaging the past, L’arbe à Palimseste image courtesy of Ingrid Agbo

Re-imaging the past, L’arbre à Palimpseste image courtesy of Ingrid Agbo

For all the talk about history it might make L’arbre à Palimpseste sound like a documentary series, which it is not. “[humour is] the vehicle that carries all truth.” Ingrid explained about the tone of the series. The fun in the series is created around the techniques only animation can create. She wants to share something with children that she didn’t have growing up “When I was [a] kid I missed [a show like this] a lot. When I grew up I didn’t know about these historic figures. The people [with] whom I identify were not from my continent, or my country. It was very sad to realise that. To discover some heroes is very important to educate ourselves. It makes you look at yourself differently.” She hopes that L’arbre à Palimpseste will add to the rich tapestry of world history.

A screenshot from the second pilot of L’arbe à Palimseste image courtesy of Ingrid Agbo

A screenshot from the second pilot of LL’arbre à Palimpseste image courtesy of Ingrid Agbo

Ingrid describes her willingness to make changes on the design and animation as key to winning the Gulli prize. But, she wasn’t willing to compromise on the authenticity of the story to get it made. “I met a producer in France. He liked the project but [he said] why is it so important for you to only have black characters in your story?” Her reply was that there isn’t any problem with being black. “My goal is to keep the history very strong…no matter what the animation and design is as long as the heart of the story stays strong.”

At the moment she is still planning the logistics of going into production. She is excited that she has found partners through Animation du Monde who believes in L’arbre à Palimpseste as much as she does. “The theory, the pitching is now over, it’s time to make it”. And make it, she will.

 

Garland-Waide Bradford has a career path that has varied from corporate work as a public relations manager in communications strategy to media work as an insert producer for factual television. These were purposeful choices to understand how to integrate creative choices with market requirements in turning content into brands. Growing up in a township meant that these educational opportunities were out of reach due to access and financial constraints. But, having paid his dues through work, Bradford is a dynamic thinker who owns a skills set that is third industrial revolution ready. He completed his BA Honours in Media Studies in 2017. His focus has been on media management and has been studying models of sustainability in the media for several years. He started his journey with the African Animation Network as Head of Communications in 2017 where he hopes to use his skills to empower aspirant animation professionals and member associations to further their global reach.