Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Barefoot Bandits: The new 'toon in town

The makers of a new local kidult animated show hitting primetime tomorrow talk to Lydia Jenkin
Alex Leighton, Tim Evans and Ryan Cooper of Mukpuddy.
Alex Leighton, Tim Evans and Ryan Cooper of Mukpuddy.

Walk up the stairs to the first floor of an unassuming building in Grafton, and you suddenly find yourself in a colourful animation studio.

Mukpuddy Animation is a bit of a wonderland for kids - or big kids - who are interested in figurines and toys, colourful imagery, dressing up, and celebrating all kinds of fantastical worlds of creativity.

It might seem a bit unusual for a workplace, but when you meet Ryan Cooper, Alex Leighton and Tim Evans and see the outlandish creations they come up with, it all makes sense.

The enthusiastic trio have known each other since meeting on an animation course 13 years ago, and have been making eye-catching, amusing and award-winning cartoons ever since. If you have kids, you might've seen their distinctive work screen on shows like What Now or Studio 2, or if you're a bit of a local film buff, you'll undoubtedly know their work from many 48Hour Film Festival competitions.

They're prodigious creators, putting their work on YouTube, and honing their skills making wacky but clever family-friendly material that draws on their love of the 80s, and nostalgia for a variety of cartoons and shows they all loved growing up - Hanna-Barbera shows like Hong Kong Phooey and Adam Ant, Spielberg movies, Star Wars, Monty Python, The Goon Show, and Jim Henson.

"The worlds they were building and the comedy aspects, the fun of it all, that's what inspires us," Cooper explains.

Now they're tackling their biggest project yet: a homegrown, animated, full-length, prime time series, which will appeal to the whole family, and restricted only by their imaginations.

In centres around Tane (voiced by Tammy Davis), Fridge (Josh Thomson), and Riley (Laura Daniel), three youngsters growing up on the island of Ngaro, which has plenty of local mysteries to keep them occupied, and inspire many adventures over the back fence to track down aliens or glow-worms or pirate ships.

"We're tapping into our own childhoods," Leighton explains. "We grew up in the 80s and that's what it was like, playing outside, running around in bare feet, adventures in forests and bushes. But we've added the stuff we hoped we would find on these adventures - you know, we would've loved to have seen Big Foot, or found some crazy spaceship.

"I guess we're all quite sentimental about our childhoods, growing up in New Zealand, and I guess this show reflects that quite nicely."

The Barefoot Bandits. Photo / Supplied
The Barefoot Bandits. Photo / Supplied

They get to encounter plenty of oddball characters too - Rhys Darby is the eccentric mayor of the island, Leigh Hart is a reclusive, mysterious old ex-rugby player, Temuera Morrison is Tane's classic Kiwi dad, Jemaine Clement the leader of a glow-worm cult, and John Rhys-Davies is the ghost of a sea captain.

"Some of the characters are based on people who we've encountered in our lives," Cooper says. "For example, there's one old lady character called Bessie. She's the mother of the mayor, and she's based on my dad's mum - my nana, who wasn't so kind to my dad but was nice to everyone else, and I used to do impressions of her, and so she's become a character in the show."

"A lot of the characters come out of Ryan doing impressions," Leighton explains.

"Yeah, there's a lot of joking around, chatting, when we're coming up with ideas," Cooper agrees. "But a lot of the other characters on the island come from story arc ideas too. You know there needed to be someone kind of reclusive who was a bit of a mystery to the kids, and he became this character Mr Slab, who was kind of like an old ex-rugby player, stoic and quiet. And from there, Leigh Hart instantly popped into our heads, his voice fit perfectly, and that's when the look starts coming together."

"Sometimes having a real person in mind for a character really helps when you're writing, because you'll just write it how they would say it. For example, I always had John Rhys-Davies [the acclaimed Welsh actor who was Gimli in The Lord of the Rings] as the voice of our ghost sea captain in my head, and writing those lines, it was making me laugh, because I was thinking, if he actually says these words, that's going to be amazing.

"And then he actually said yes!"

The trio have been over the moon with the people who've agreed to be part of the show - apart from those already mentioned there's Teuila Blakely, Lucy Lawless, Cohen Holloway, Jason Hoyte, Rima Te Wiata and more.

"Everyone has been super-cool, because we don't have the money to pay everyone what they're worth, and most of them have come on board purely because they like the project," Cooper explains. "And we just went for it really - all we could do was ask, and if people say no then we move along, but we were very lucky."

The actors involved influence the final product in ways beyond their vocal abilities, too. The animators creating the visual form of each character are inspired by their vocal register, dynamics, and unique inflections. And occasionally the actors' own real-life looks have an impact.

"It depends - the character's movements are obviously very much influenced by the actor's voice, and therefore their own subtle movements, but in visual terms, it depends on the actor. Someone like Jemaine has a particular delivery and look, which goes so perfectly together and so that definitely influences the features of the glow-worm character, for example," Leighton explains.

"And I guess Dennis the mayor has something a bit Rhys Darby/Murray-ish about him," Cooper adds, "you know he's tall and slim, with the same hair colour, and the suits he wears are conceivably something Murray would wear."

Other times the visual design will be quite separate, and sometimes it's even fun to have voices that seem unexpected when matched with certain visual representations. There's a lot of back and forward, experimentation, and often artists will draw 30 versions of a character before they get close to what they're looking for.

One thing the Mukpuddy team were absolutely set on was creating a world that was distinctly Kiwi, not just in the voices and catchphrases (the kids call each other "egg", say "Mean!" and "Hard out!") but also in the background visuals and references.

"We wanted to make something that had a distinct Kiwiness to it, because that in itself can be funny," Cooper says.

"And because the island is fictional, it can be a bit of a microcosm of Kiwi life, and there are a lot of Kiwi-isms in there that we know people will enjoy," adds Leighton.

They're thrilled that both NZ On Air and TVNZ decided to take the plunge and back their idea - a second season has also been given NZOA funding, and TVNZ got on board, programming the show for a 6.30pm weekend timeslot.

"We're stoked that NZ On Air even gave us a look," laughs Leighton. "The kids' funding round is a tricky one. It's once a year, and they fund a lot of the same stuff, and it's hard for the new guys to get in there, but we did it."

"And it's great to have the support of TVNZ - it feels like they understand what we're trying to do," Cooper adds. "It's hard to pitch an idea and say 'We're making a show for everybody', because programmers want to hear an age group, they want to know if it's for kids or tweens or teens or over-40s or what. So to say 'it's for everyone' is a bit unusual, but I think the programmers have understood what we're getting at."

Essentially it's a show for kids that adults will get a grin out of too - think The Simpsons or Bro'Town, rather than South Park or Family Guy when it comes to the jokes.

"Hopefully this show can bring the same level of laughs, but is a bit safer. We didn't intentionally do that, but it's just how we write," Leighton explains. "We don't fill our scripts full of swearing or crude stuff, but there's plenty of other humour to be found.

"Our pitch was that it's like a Kiwi Goonies in tone, which does sum it up quite well, I think, because it's a cartoon that's based in the real world, but also allows for fantasy.

"Aliens exist, pirates exist, ghosts exist, mutant glow-worms exist, you know, because animation is perfect for all this stuff - you just have to draw it."

Lowdow

What:The Barefoot Bandits
Who: Creators Ryan Cooper and Alex Leighton
Where and when: TV2, Sunday, 6.30pm

- TimeOut

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