Puppets get new lease on life

An animator is blending old and new technology for a TV series.

A disappointing visit to a turtle habitat in Terengganu four years ago inspired an animal lover to develop a new-generation puppet TV show to teach children to respect Mother Nature.

Azlan Pa’Wan, managing director of production and animation house Big Beak Pictures Sdn Bhd, recalled visiting the Rantau Abang, Terengganu, turtle conservation area in 2006 and finding it in a deplorable state.

“I felt sad. From having more than 10,000 turtles in total showing up there every season, it dwindled to only eight turtles while I was there,” he said. “The turtles were staying away in droves because people kept disturbing the creatures when they came ashore to lay eggs.”

Azlan said he was perturbed because it was clear that the public was oblivious to the needs of these magnificent creatures.

“I was up the whole night thinking about what could be done. Then, the idea to create a TV programme for children that teaches respect for the environment dawned on me,” he said.

However, he said, he wanted the programme to combine down-to-earth, old-school puppetry with animation technology to grab the attention of today’s children who are used to high-tech cartoons and electronic games.

Two years of research

Azlan started up Big Beak Pictures to create his dream educational programme. “In the beginning, the company was in effect a one-man show — just him — and a freelance graphics designer,” he said.

He lacked a good script and characters for the TV programme. So he began researching popular children’s shows such as Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street, The Muppets and Dora the Explorer.

After much thought, he decided on two characters, that would represent endangered animals. “There’s a friendly honey bear called Chummy and a strong-willed orangutan named Champ.

“And I named my show Chummy and Champ,” said Azlan.

“We then spent two years finetuning the concept and doing market research. We went to schools in the Klang Valley, Penang and Seremban and did puppet shows for kids to see what worked and what didn’t.

We tested the concept, the images and the product many times before finalising everything.”

He found that creating a puppet show was not as easy as he thought. The person operating the puppets must also voice the characters so that the words sync with the puppetry.

“We thought filming puppets would be a lot simpler than making an animated movie. We couldn’t have been more wrong,” he laughed.

But Azlan stuck to his guns, drawing inspiration from such shows as The Muppets which were his childhood favourites.

“I like puppet shows because there’s a kind of innocence about them. It’s too bad that puppet shows are practically dead these days; killed off by animation.

“I’m trying to revive interest in puppets and the challenge is finding the talents to put a show together,” he said.

For voice talents, Big Beak Pictures roped in a 30-year-old veteran Brian Zimmerman, who is based in Singapore, to play Chummy and RedFM radio deejay Dilly to speak as Champ.

Zimmerman is the only one with real voice-acting experience; he has voiced characters in several manga series, including One Piece and Case Closed.

Azlan also started adding technical staff to his company.

But he kept going back to the drawing board with Chummy and Champ. “Its taken about four years (to make) because I kept reworking the script, characters and sound effects. I think we redid everything more than 10 times.

“I want a solid, world-class product that children will love. So I reworked and re-edited until I was satisfied,” he said.

Adding dazzle

But Azlan has his feet firmly planted on the ground. He knows that a good script and puppets — no matter how well manipulated — cannot hope to attract our PlayStation-generation of children, without elements of cutting-edge animation woven into the picture.

“The PlayStation and other game consoles like the Xbox 360 and Wii offer so much visual effects that our children are used to that, and a plain ol’ puppet show would likely not interest them,” he said.

This is why he insists on using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and Flash animation to enhance his TV programme. These are being provided by a technical team he’s hired to add the eye candy.

“There are four animators, 10 live-show production crew members, sound engineers, two illustrators and three concept artists and designers, and we have almost completed the pilot episode,” he said. He plans to double the number of animators, illustrators and artists in September.

“Children like special effects and puppetry, and the combination of both makes for a colourful and whimsical programme,” Mohd Rizalmie Sabran, Big Beak Pictures’ visual illusionist, chipped in.

He said he jumped at the chance to join Big Beak Pictures — which is an MSC Malaysia company — to work on its children’s programme after spending two years helping make TV commercials.

“I prefer kids shows. Brings back many happy memories. Also, I have many young cousins and I enjoy watching children’s programmes on TV with them,” Rizalmie said.

He said it two to four weeks to complete the online editing (of special effects, CGI and animation) for one episode of Chummy and Champ. The team uses Aftereffects, Particle Illusion, Flash and other software to create the CGI effects.

According to Rizalmie, there are animation scenes that also take a lot of work and effort to get right.

“And then, there are effects like fruits being digitally morphed into alphabets, digital tears for Chummy and stuff appearing to pop out of the screen. There is also an animated wayang kulit scene,” he said.

Overseas interest

The programme is still under development but has already attracted interest from overseas markets, including the United States, Thailand, the Middle East and Europe.

This was achieved with the help of MSC Malaysia guardian — the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) — which distributed Big Beak Picture’s concept papers to international TV broadcast channels.

Kamil Othman, vice-president of MDeC’s creative multimedia department, said Chummy and Champ is how educational programmes should look for the iPad generation.

“It’s one of the few kids programmes in the world with CGI. There are not many programs like this created by Asians,” he said.

He calls on more Malaysians to take advantage of technology to create content such as Chummy and Champ. “The technology is available to everyone and this levels the playing field. In terms of production quality, Chummy and Champ could have come from the West,” he said.

Azlan, meanwhile, is focusing on finishing an entire season of his show. “The first season will have 26 episodes, each about 22 minutes long. “It will take us another six to eight months to complete all the episodes,” he said.

He hopes Chummy and Champ will help promote better understanding of our environment, as well as boost knowledge and kindness towards animals and nature in general.

“We hope to nurture and inspire children to grow into responsible adults,” he said.

Azlan is targeting kids aged two to six with the series but there are plans to reach out to older children with the following episodes and public announcements by the lead characters of Chummy and Champ on TV.

“That’s my long-term vision. We want to send our message to all audiences. Even mums and dads can benefit,” he added.

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