August 12, 2016

How Atomic Cartoons caught the Beatle-mania bug

Jordan Pinto / Playback

Vancouver’s Thunderbird and its animation subsidiary Atomic Cartoons said “yes” to Beatles-themed series Beat Bugs even before creator Josh Wakely had finished his pitch.

The only problem was that Wakely, who had earlier acquired the rights to use songs from Lennon/McCartney’s “Northern Songs” catalogue, had never worked in animation before.

Listening to “Help” on a small laptop, Wakely outlined his vision to Atomic character designers on how these classic songs could be woven into the narrative of a children’s animated series.

From those small, tinny-sounding beginnings, Canada/Australia coproduction Beat Bugs has quickly gone on to become the largest project that Atomic has ever participated in, involving more than 135 in-house employees (half the company’s workforce).

After nine months of development, representatives from Thunderbird/Atomic and Wakely’s prodco, Grace: A Storytelling Company, went to L.A. to pitch the project. Netflix was the first choice for distribution for Beat Bugs, said Atomic president Jennifer Twiner-McCarron, and the streamer snapped up the series during the first meeting.

“We felt it worked better on a streamer, for the kids to have all the songs at once,” she said.

With Netflix on board, the project went into physical production in early 2015. Thunderbird and Wakely’s Grace: A Storytelling Company are joint financiers on the project, while Netflix acquired the international rights.

One of the reasons Atomic used so many in-house employees, said Twiner-McCarron, was that it needed to be an “iterative process” due to Wakely’s team being based in Australia.

The majority of storyboards were done in Australia, while all the design, modelling, animation, lighting and compositing took place in Vancouver with Thunderbird. That being said, Twiner-McCarron estimates Wakely made approximately 25 trips to Vancouver in a little over one year.

Atomic did everything visual that went on screen, and then would send it back to Australia, where Wakely’s team would insert the music and the sound effects.

Of the logistics of doing a Canada/Australia coproduction, Twiner-McCarron said, “In some ways it’s good, because when one team is asleep the other one is working. You just have to have odd check-in times.”

The announcement that the series had been greenlit for a second season came in late July, one week in advance of the series’ launch on Netflix. The producers, though, have been working on episodes for the second season for some time, and expect to be finished at some time in the fall. Beat Bugs‘ second season launches on Nov. 18.

The producers are also hopeful of a further greenlight, as they held back about half of the Beatles’ catalogue’s “A” tracks (such as “Hey Jude”), so that they have strong songs in their back pocket should the need arise for more episodes. “Not that there are a lot of ‘B’ Beatles tracks,” joked Twiner-McCarron.

In terms of target audience, the series is aimed primarily at four-to-seven year olds, though invariably there will be cross-generational appeal, said Twiner-McCarron. Creating the series to appeal equally to boys and girls was also important to the producers, who initially created one of the main characters, Buzz, as a boy, before realizing the series could appeal to a larger audience of girls by making Buzz female.

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