Animalia: articles

Graeme Base's zany zebras to make TV debut

It's taken Australian illustrator Graeme Base eight "agonising" years to bring the cast of his classic children's book Animalia to life as animated television characters.

Now he's nervously waiting to see whether a new generation of kids will fall in love with his beautiful blue butterflies basking by babbling brooks and zany zebras zig-zagging in zinc zeppelins.

"It's been the agony and the ecstasy but the result is just gorgeous," Base, 49, said from his Melbourne home, ahead of the television premier.

"I don't watch a lot of TV myself and I hadn't really focused on the differences and the challenges of converting something which was a book."

Animalia was first published in 1986 and became a world-wide hit, selling more than three million copies.

A Melbourne-based production company bought the TV rights in 1999 and now, nearly a decade later, the transformation from page to screen is complete.

The first of 40 episodes in the $20 million computer-animated production will screen on Network Ten tonight.

"We nearly got there in 2002," says Base, an executive producer of the series.

"We thought we had the finance together but then it all fell apart overnight when the British government retrospectively changed a bunch of tax laws and all our investors vanished.

"We had a cry and started again."

In the book there are 26 different worlds - each based on a letter of the English alphabet.

But for television, Base says it was an "absolute necessity to free it from the shackles of the alphabetical structure".

He didn't want the series to be restricted to 26 episodes, but more importantly, he didn't want to limit its worldwide appeal.

"The English speaking world is only part of the market," Base says.

"We've already begun to sell it internationally into other languages."

Base is particularly pleased Animalia will appear on Arabic station Al Jazeera, but it has also been sold to networks in Israel, Scandinavia and Latin America.

But by far the biggest audience will be in the United States.

It's just started screening on cable network Animania HD and will run on PBS in early January.

The series goes to air on the BBC in the United Kingdom next week, when it will also hit Canadian screens.

The desire to market the series internationally has resulted in an eclectic mix of accents.

Of the two humans, young artist Alex is British while his friend Zoe is Latino.

G'Bubu the great green gorilla's accent is "kind of like Los Angeles", according to Base, while Iggy D'Iguana's is Castilian.

There's a Scottish Rhino, a French fox and some "ocker" Aussie elephants.

Animalia is all about the importance of communication, according to Base: "Say what you mean to say clearly. Communicate clearly, but crucially, listen to what is said in response."

In the show, kids Alex and Zoe stumble across a magical portal hidden in the town library.

It transports them to the world of Animalia, where they quickly learn they are not necessarily superior to animals just because they are human.

"I want Animalia to be fun ... because the best way of teaching anybody anything is for them not to realise you're doing it," says Base, whose books often have a deeper environmental and conservation message.

Animalia is pitched at children aged six to nine, but Base says it will appeal "much more broadly".

"I don't target any particular age group because if you do, you finish up talking down to kids and they can see that a mile off," he says.

"Because the book is now 21 years old, I reckon that some adults watching it with their kids will remember it from when they were kids."

In the original book, Base drew himself as a child (wearing an orange and yellow stripped jumper) on every page.

Base was born in Britain (he came to Australian aged eight) and it's tempting to believe the English-accented Alex - who carries a sketchbook with him at all times - is again based on the illustrator.

Asked if that's the case he replies: "I guess so ... I guess it's there.

"But it would have been horribly self-serving for him to have been called Graeme in the TV series," he continues.

Base's fellow executive producer, Ewan Burnett, believes Animalia is "the most ambitious childrens' series ever produced in Australia".

Burnett's Melbourne-based Burberry Productions produced the series and he says it uses 3D animation techniques "normally reserved for feature films".

The script was developed in Los Angeles, where the seven cast members recorded all 52 voices.

But all 40 episodes were animated in Australia, Burnett says.

Base is "thrilled to pieces" with the outcome but says he's glad he didn't have to do the computer work.

He had more of a "creative overview", he says.

"Reading scripts but not writing them" and "looking at artwork but not actually creating it.

"But I was involved in every single decision."

Animalia will screen at midday on Sundays.

It's not a prime timeslot but you won't catch Base complaining.

"Obviously there are ideal timeslots which everyone would like to get but you can't expect to when you just first putting a show out there," he says.

"What Channel 10 is trying to do is chase the audience.

"They're hoping with that Sunday, midday, will be a time when kids and their parents will both have half-an-hour free to have a look at it."

Animalia begins on Network Ten, Sunday, November 11 at 12pm

November 11, 2007