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IFTN talks to Gerard O’Rourke of Geronimo Productions – Creator/Producer of ‘Nelly and Nora’
23 Jan 2015 : Seán Brosnan
'Nelly and Nora' is premiering on RTÉjr in February and CBebbies in May
With Irish animation company Geronimo Productions announcing this week that their new pre-school cartoon ‘Nelly and Nora’ will be premiering on RTÉjr on February 2nd, IFTN caught up with the series creator and producer – Gerard O’Rourke of Geronimo Productions – to talk about the new show.

Geronimo Productions (formerly Monster Entertainment) has been gaining a reputation for creating very original in recent years, whether its’ the first ever animation series centred around a character with Down Syndrome (‘Punky’) or the exploits of an unsuccessful school hurling team (‘Ballybraddan’). They have done it again with the pre-school animation series ‘Nelly and Nora’ (made with support from RTÉ, the Irish Film Board and Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Sound and Vision Scheme), a show designed to entertain young viewers and encourage them to discover that the weather outside is something to be embraced and enjoyed.

You pitched this idea at MIPCOM back in October 2013 so how does it feel now almost 16 months later to be finally seeing the fruits of your labour?

‘We actually pitched ‘Nelly and Nora’ six weeks before MIPCOM as well at the Cartoon Forum in Toulouse and that went extremely well. We then got selected to pitch at MIPJunior. I have attended a lot of markets and pitched a lot of projects but I knew immediately that there was something stirring with this one. There was people circling the camp – which is almost as difficult as when you have no one circling the camp because there is now tonnes of interest and you have suss out who you should be partnering with. Because once buzz and hype spreads, everyone wants a piece of the action and that can be quite intense because you may be talking to people who may be good partners but might not be necessarily the best partner for this particular show. So, that was a new headache – a good headache to have but a new headache none the less!’

‘It took a few weeks and a few trips overseas after the market to consolidate and find who we wanted to partner with. So, yeah to see the fruits of our labour now is really nice and I suppose relieved is the word I would use! It was a big commitment to take on 52 episodes. To go from pitching a series in September to closing finance in December of the same year was a very intense period. You know, to close all of our contracts and financing with BAI, The Irish Film Board, RTÉ, Section 481, BBC Worldwide and CBeebies as well as German broadcaster ZDF in such a short space of time means that we definitely are relieved now and have a huge weight off our shoulders.’

And what do you think it is about ‘Nelly and Nora’ that caused such a stir at Cartoon Forum and MIPCOM?

‘I think the illustrations from the artist Emma Hogan initially blew people away and got us a lot of attention immediately. Secondly, I think the concept that we are doing something about the weather got us notice. It’s amazing that there has never been a show out there that deals with the weather. It just seemed to bring back memories for people of siblings on holiday on a beach or in a field making their own fun – and it’s the nostalgia factor for a lot of people and they will think ‘that was me as a child’. It’s outdoor fun and adventure – no matter what the weather on holidays with your sibling and I don’t think there is another show that deals with something like this. Other than that, I think the charm of the characters, the great illustrations and the way we shaped the episodes. Everything just fell into place and just seemed to work. We were blown away because this is set in the east coast of Ireland with all manners of weather in any one day [laughs] but I didn’t think it would capture as much attention internationally but it seems to have caught everyone’s imagination.’

So, where did the idea for ‘Nelly and Nora’ come from?

‘It was very organic. We didn’t set about studying the ingredients for a great show. It is simply based on my own family adventures and holidays growing up and that idea was then partnered with the illustrations by Emma Hogan – who also had those type of family holidays and actually anyone who came to work on the show seemed to have those experiences as well which made everything work a lot more simply. We weren’t trying to work to a formula or plan – we just did what we felt was right – and it worked. It happens every now and again [laughs].’

And would you be nervous at all about how it will play out with the current crop of young kids – kids that maybe don’t share these types of holiday experiences?

‘Yeah, it is pre-school and there are a lot of kids that don’t have these holiday experiences now. They are now flying off to a block of apartments in the Costa Del Sol but what was pointed out to us is that a lot of these kids will be having their family holidays through Nelly and Nora’s adventures. And that’s also true of kids who live in apartments in the city and don’t have a lot of nature areas to play in. So, I think you’re right – there will be some kids that might not have the experiences of Nelly and Nora and we are not saying that their adventures will in any way be a substitute for these kids but the hope is that the show will encourage them to go outside and have their own adventures. I mean, if you live in a city and it starts, most people go indoors. But in this show, the siblings tool up for the weather and go out and have fun so I think that message is fantastic and hopefully kids will be reaching for the hats, scarves and gloves and getting out there.’

Can you tell us a little about the search for voice actors on the show – most notably landing actor and comedian Ardal O’Hanlon for the voice of the Dad on the show?

‘The kids we auditioned were from drama schools in Dublin – and it was a wide range of kids. There is so much great talent out there – we really had our choice - but we felt Clodagh Kane and Aoibhinn Mc Auley definitely came to the fore and are fantastic. The director Jamie Teehan wanted Ardal O’Hanlon as he felt that his voice would depict Dad very well. We didn’t want Ardal because he was Dougal from Father Ted or a well-known actor - we wanted him because he was very suitable for the role and we knew he would be professional. Linda Teehan is a stage actor and we knew she’s be great for Mum and Paul Tylak has done a lot of voice work in the past. There’s an abundance of talent in voice acting in Ireland and it’s just about taking the time to find it.’

‘Punky’ is another fantastically original pre-school cartoon from Geronimo that seems to be doing very well internationally….

‘We have done two seasons of ‘Punky’ and we are up to 40 episodes now. It won an award at the International Disability Film Festival in Moscow. It plays really well on RTÉ and around the world – it is the first show in the world to centre around a character with Down Syndrome and we see everything from the point of view of the main character but it’s not a show about disabilities it’s a show about a person who happens to have a disability. When pre-schoolers watch it – they notice that she is not the same as everyone else but they realise that she does everything – she gets on with her life. She is not an alien – she is a person. Punky is Punky and we see her resolve things her way. So, it was great to get that message across in a cartoon but also at the same time to create an entertaining show.’

With ‘Nelly and Nora’ being a show about the weather and ‘Punky’ as the world’s first lead cartoon character with Down Syndrome - is finding a show with distinct originality important for you?

‘Yeah it is important. We are an independent company and we like to do our own thing and ultimately we like to provide something different for the viewer. Disney will always provide certain type of programmes. They will always have a positive outcome and we try to provide shows that you will never find on the Disney Channel – or Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon – but that are important to kids. So, we did a great series called ‘Ballybraddan’ about the school hurling team that had never won the championship. After 20 episodes and getting them all the way to the final – they lost. If it was on Disney they would have won [laughs] and there would have been a ticker tape parade. The reality is that most school teams do lose so it’s nice to be able to offer the other side because that’s probably the world most kids live in. I think there’s a balance that needs to be provided to the overly aspirational shows and I think it’s the smaller, independent companies like us that can provide it.’

With Geronimo doing so well and Cartoon Saloon’s ‘Song of the Sea’ getting nominated for an Oscar, it would seem there hasn’t been a better time to be in the animation game in Ireland…

‘What’s interesting about companies like Cartoon Saloon, Brown Bag, JAM, Kavaleer, Geronimo and others is that we all roughly around the same age. So, we are on the same product cycle in that we are now beyond the learning curve and we are entering into a mature phase – and hopefully that lasts for a while! I think it also stems from the fact that there is a great inherent storytelling tradition in Ireland. We find good stories and we find good ways to tell them. So, I think all those things combined have found their way into animation here and made a big impact and hopefully things will stay like that for some time.’

So, other than the premiere on RTÉjr in February, what does the future hold for ‘Nelly and Nora’?

‘It goes on CBeebies in May and already has been pre-sold in a number of countries around the world. It’s starting in the summer in countries like Norway, Sweden, Czech Republic, Finland and many other countries that BBC Worldwide are selling into. It will be showing in Germany on their biggest broadcaster ZDF later in the year. BBC Worldwide will be doing a full launch of the series in Miami next month. We have also partnered with Walker Books in an extensive publishing programme and the first hardback book will be released late this year or in 2016. We have also appointed a company to deal with merchandising and consumer products and hopefully we will get some deals there too.’

Other than ‘Nelly and Nora’, what else can we expect from Geronimo in the future?

‘We tend to concentrate on one show at a time so this has consumed us! We are probably actually due a bit of a break [laughs]. But there are a couple of things on the development slate. So, we are fully expecting to have something out else out there later this year.’

‘Nelly & Nora’ will premiere on RTEjr from February 2nd and is made with support from RTÉ and the Irish Film Board, as well as funding from the BAI’s Sound and Vision Scheme.




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