Docs and Kids: Two Genres Evolve Over a Quarter-Century

Twenty-five years is a long time to have been in any business -- especially this business. Over those years, VideoAge has seen many changes. So, in honor of our anniversary, we chose two major genres -- kids and documentaries -- that are less effected by local tastes than others, and asked a few luminaries to point out what they see as the key moments in their genre’s history, and to nominate a few legends, both past and present.

Lenora Hume, executive vice president, Production and Programming at the U.K.’s HIT Entertainment, and Scott Dyer, executive vice president, Production and Development at Canada’s Nelvana agreed that one of the major differences between the children’s business now and that of 25 years ago is the explosion in the number of outlets. Dyer pointed to, "the rise of speciality channels such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, YTV and many others that focus on kids and youth, which offer a strong distribution potential to producers, and great opportunities for kids to enjoy content." Hume focused on "the proliferation of media outlets such as the Internet and PDAs." One advantage Hume sees in the emergence of these new outlets is that they "allow producers and broadcasters to test characters and programming at a grassroots level prior to any significant investment."

Both also concurred that the trend -- which emerged in the ’70s -- of moving animation overseas to countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and eventually China and India, was and is important. As Hume described it, "the achievement of cost-effective business models allowed for a resurgence of animation worldwide." The scale of such operations can be gauged from Dyer’s assertion that, "during the ‘80s, Nelvana was FedEx’s largest Canadian client because we were shipping so much paper between Canada and China."

Bob The Builder
Bob the Builder has proved to be a major
kids’ phenomenon across the globe.

Dyer also sees the arrival of digital animation as a key development of the last 25 years, and one he said has reversed the process of outsourcing: "We now have between 100 and 150 animators working in Toronto," he said. Hume said she believes that Nelvana’s home-based army of animators "owes as much to Canadian tax breaks as to cost savings from digital animation."

  For Hume, however, a more significant development occurred in the ’90s, "when broadcasters began promoting children’s programming through branded blocks in their schedules."  

She was happy to nominate Nelvana’s Care Bears as a key series over the last 25 years "because it attracted kids back to the cinema, which was a habit they were in danger of losing, and it also introduced the cycle of a movie morphing into a series and vice-versa." She also nominated Twentieth Century Fox’s The Simpsons and HIT’s Bob the Builder as being of significance.

For Dyer, Mainframe’s Reboot "is significant because it was the first series to demonstrate 3D production on a weekly basis."

For Hume, the man of the past quarter of a century is "James Wang of Wang Films who, along with others, played a significant role in the globalization of the animation industry."

Quite a lot has happened over the past 25 years in the world of documentaries, as well. In fact, Dan Korn, U.K. vice president, Production, Discovery Networks Europe said: "So much has happened over the past 25 years it’s difficult to know where to start." But in the end he plumped for "the use of tape rather than film because it gave producers more flexibility as they could gather much more material for editing." He also believes, "the introduction of non-linear editing, reality TV and the relatively recent use of celebrity have created or enhanced various documentary genres. But," he continued, "without a doubt, CGI was a groundbreaking development which pushed the boundaries of documentary production."

For Claire Birks, chief executive of Australia’s Southern Star, "there have been a few significant changes in the area of natural history -- the increasing importance of narrative, the need to connect with audiences at an emotional level, and the use of presenters and CGI."   She believes the significance of these developments lies in the pressure they’ve placed on producers to become more creative. "Producers," she opined, "are having to become better storytellers and that, in turn, is attracting audiences back to natural history. It is no longer enough to rely on beautiful photography and a few facts." Birks said that, "the use of presenters and new technology such as CGI has helped reinvigorate the genre, attracting audiences who wouldn’t normally watch a traditional natural history film."

The importance both attach to the arrival of CGI is evident from their selection of landmark series over the last quarter of a century -- with both nominating the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs and Planet Earth . Korn paid tribute to Walking with Dinosaurs for "sparking a revolution in CGI technology," and to Planet Earth for "its fantastic application of HD technology, and for the full realization of what is now achievable in natural history programming."

Birks eulogized Walking with Dinosaurs as "incredibly innovative at the time, and of Planet Earth she asked, "with its incredible photography and David Attenborough as narrator - what’s not to like?" She also praised Discovery’s Meerkat Manor as "the first animal soap opera."

Korn applauded Discovery’s own Virtual History for, "interspersing CGI with historical footage and bringing people like [Adolf] Hitler and [Winston] Churchill back to life."

British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough -- who is considered by many to be one of the pioneers of the nature doc -- is one of Birks’ two nominations for outstanding contributors to the genre. Of Attenborough, she said simply, "he is the original, and he is still the best." But she also praised Sean Morris, founder of Oxford Scientific Films as, "a real pioneer in terms of macro/micro photography."

Korn, however, singled out "Michael Grade for the invaluable legacy he left behind following his management of Channel 4," as well as, "[former BBC director of Factual and Learning] John Willis for his overall lifetime contribution to documentary making," adding, "finally, I would mention [documentary producer and screenwriter] Simon Berthon for his outstanding contribution and successful experimentation with history documentaries." BJ