Cartoon Network Studios looks to tap Asia Pacific talent

Cartoon Network Studios, the original production facility located in Burbank, California, has made Australia its first port of call in Asia Pacific in its international search for animation talent. Cartoon Network executives, responsible for green-lighting hit comedies like The Amazing World of Gumball and Adventure Time, recently visited creators and studios in Sydney and Melbourne last week on the global pursuit for new and original concepts. The US-based delegation was on a regional hunt for local animators and creators and bridging the gap between Burbank and this region is Turner Broadcasting Asia Pacific’s kids’ content team, based in Hong Kong. Employing a “virtual studio” model, its chief content officer Mark Eyers and creative director of animation and development, Silas Hickey, are instrumental in fostering this artist programme. They will arrange for home-grown creators from Asia Pacific to experience Burbank for themselves and to ensure the successful development of a pilot short that fits the Cartoon Network mould. “Even though we’ve just landed on the other side of the world, it’s great to know that kids enjoy the same kind of humour,” adds Curtis Lelash, Cartoon Network’s VP of comedy animation. “While kids in Asia Pacific laugh at exactly the same jokes in shows like Adventure Time as Americans, we are really looking forward to introducing the world to a taste of what this region can offer. With series like Exchange Student Zero, a new pipeline of content will soon be a reality. It is an East-meets-West concept bringing together a type of animation popular in Asia and a western-style sense of fun, and a huge dose of Australian talent.” Curtis Lelash was joined on the Asia trip by Brian Miller, senior VP and GM of Cartoon Network Studios. Last year, Cartoon Network confirmed that it had commissioned a TV special called Monster Beach from Melbourne-based Bogan Entertainment Solutions (BES). Cartoon Network Australia is also producing Exchange Student Zero, its first ever locally-produced comedy series. It is an original Australian concept created by BES, and began life as a short before developing into a TV special that aired in 2012 and has now become a fully-fledged series with global export potential. Speaking exclusively to’s Sidharth Iyer, Lelash voices his opinion on the state of animation, advantages of having in-house productions, digital outreach, merchandising and much more… read on. Excerpts:- Your association with Turner goes back to 2005, how has the journey been thus far? It’s been really great to be part of a renaissance at Cartoon Network. When I first joined, we had passed our early golden days of The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack and Johnny Bravo. Now it’s like we’ve rediscovered that era with another bunch of great shows with Adventure Time, Regular Show, Uncle Grandpa, Steven Universe, The Amazing World of Gumball and Clarence. It’s been an exciting journey. Cartoon Network has always chased unique storytelling and innovative creators. In the last few years, we have got back to our roots, finding the best shows from the most talented people. The animation space has certainly gone through a drastic change over the past decade, what are your views on the same? Over the last five years, there has been a rapid increase in the volume of television productions. Also, with developments by our competitors and within the digital space, the industry has become much more proactive. This has helped, and also forced us to further define our place in the market – finding the best talent and being a home for artists that can allow them to chase the kinds of things they are passionate about. We constantly need to be recruiting and developing talent, as well as sourcing new creators, and this is what has really driven us to look internationally, to places like Asia Pacific. This is the reason that I am in the region right now, as part of a global talent search. Obviously in India we have huge success on Pogo and Cartoon Network with local productions such as Chhota Bheem and Roll No. 21, but the next step will be to identify talent and productions in Asia that can be exported globally. What is the advantage of having an in-house production team to work on original series and formats for a broadcaster like Cartoon Network? Cartoon Network Studios knows that as you develop the talent for today’s shows, you help build the shows of tomorrow. Creating a home and fostering new talent is very, very competitive, but we know it’s worth it. Right now, about 60 per cent of our new show development comes from talent already on our shows and so people who were storyboarding on Adventure Time and Regular Show, are the ones who then ended up creating Steven Universe and Uncle Grandpa and upcoming shows. We have also just finished remodeling the studios so hopefully it’s a nice place for artists to feel at home! With Adventure Time and Regular Show being one of the most watched TV series, what do you attribute the success to? All of Cartoon Network’s series try to entertain in the smartest, funniest and most unique way possible. And to do that it all starts with the vision of a really talented and passionate creator, so if the combination of those two unique elements comes together well, we’ve really hit upon something. With Adventure Time and Regular Show, we’ve perhaps made the storytelling shows more complex, which helps appeal to a broader audience. These shows, plus Steven Universe, Uncle Grandpa and Clarence, have organically found heart and charm in their characters and worlds. This clearly appeals to both kids and adults alike. Do you feel the kind of animation and storylines that are prevalent in the industry today are really loved by children of all ages? Yes, as I said for us it’s about entertaining in the most unique, smartest, funniest, but also broadest possible way – hopefully to an audience of any age! We don’t want to condescend or patronise children when we tell stories, and this philosophy continues with the tradition of Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry. Cartoon Network underwent a refresh first in 2005 and later in 2011. Can we have your thoughts on this please? The most recent brand refresh was about injecting fun and laughter, energy and enthusiasm into the channel. We changed our logo from a slanted identity to something closer to our iconic checkerboard logo and returned to our core – putting great comedy at the front and centre of everything that we do. After all, funny is in our DNA. In 2001, the channel introduced programming blocks like Toonami, Acme Hour, Prime Time, Boomerang and Cartoon Network After Dark, a couple of which are now channels in their own right. Why don’t we see such out-of-the-box programming blocks anymore? Adult Swim in the US became its own block on Cartoon Network, with its own style of older-skewing programming, and it’s been really successful. Although, on the flipside, we’ve been having so much success with shows that have broad appeal, working across different demographics, so there is perhaps less need to segment our programming. We’re a little less niche right now. Here in Asia Pacific, we’re looking to build on the initial success of Toonami, which is its own channel in Southeast Asia and launched in 2012. Later this year, you’ll also see much more focus on Boomerang as a dedicated channel around the region, with its unique blend of familiar and original comedies. While in India, Pogo continues to provide local, targeted programming to a very enthusiastic audience. As we are in the age of new media and lots of kids are looking for things on the internet, what is Turner’s strategy in terms of leveraging this medium and generating a buzz? We’re really focused on creating content for our new digital platforms right now, including for our new US app ‘CN Anything’. We’re hoping to bring this to Asia soon, but generally, we’re experimenting with what works best for mobile. In India, the Cartoon Network Watch and Play iPad app has proved really popular for playing games and watching video. It’s really exciting to be telling stories in all kinds of formats. We’re literally creating long-form TV specials of up to 80 minutes in length down to 15-second little bites. Of course, each style creates its own challenges and opportunities. Merchandising is a big market for animated characters and Turner certainly has loads of them. Do you have any big plans around merchandising in APAC in the coming days? From a US point of view, it’s really pleasing to see how Cartoon Network comedies resonate with kids in Asia Pacific, and when you get hit shows that will hopefully translate into sales of branded apparel and toys. From a licensing angle, there are some really creative projects in this region. I’m a bit sad that I didn’t get to ride the Cartoon Network Express train in Taiwan on this trip, but also looking forward to trying out Cartoon Network Amazone Water Park when it opens in Thailand later this year. What is the future of the animation industry in your view? The future is great in every possible form and length, not just in features but also in digital. There’s a universality of animation, particularly with comedy, that means that content is durable and is able to replay for years and years. That’s becoming an important asset, and Cartoon Network is jumping in with both feet. It’s definitely a new golden age for animation production!