The Irish Voice Behind Disney Jnr’s Hugglemonsters

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult
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By Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin

As Disney Junior’s animated preschool series Henry Hugglemonster series goes into its second season (starting February 2nd in UK and Ireland) we caught up with series creator Niamh Sharkey in Dublin to find out more about how a picture book becomes one of the most susccessful animations (airing in 150 countries) on one of the world’s most well known channels.

Author of “I’m a Happy Hugglewug” the children’s storybook published by Walker Books, on which the television series was based,  Niamh Sharkey is an illustrator of children’s picture books that have won numerous awards including the prestigious Mother Goose Award and The Bisto Book of the Year. Her books have been translated into over twenty languages and Niamh has also been recognised with the huge honour of becoming Laureate na nÓg 2012-2014. Her current titles with Walker Books include The Ravenous Beast, Santasaurus and her new title On the Road with Mavis and Marge which won the Junior Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards.

The Hugglemonster story was originally identified as being perfect for the screen my Helen McClear who has come from Children’s TV to Walker Books. As Niamh told me, “She realised it would work well in animation, so we met with Brown Bag and developed the idea slowly. We had to come up with loads of stories. Each episode is a mini feature.” But it was the monster and the family that made it a winning combination, and when Brown Bag pitched it to Disney Jnr, they were able to see that straight away.

Following the themes of the original book very closely, the Henry Hugglemonster series follows the adventures of fun-loving, five year old Henry Hugglemonster, the middle child in a happy, wacky close-knit monster family – The Hugglemonsters . Henry lives in the monster town of Roarsville with his loving monster family and a roar-some group of monster friends. As a five-year old growing up in a fantastically wacky monster world, Henry’s discovering more and more about the emotional ups and downs that all pre-schoolers face. Family is crucial to the success of both the book and the series, as Niamh told me, “I loved the Muppet Show and monsters when I was a child and I wanted to do a book about monsters and family. The story is told from the point of view of a five year old monster, and the whole series is seen through Henry’s eyes. All the stories are about family, about a day in the life of a five year old monster.”

Niamh is still completely involved in the development process. She explained, “There had to be a narrative arc for the series that wasn’t in the original book, but each of the stories are still very personal, drawing on the experiences of the team. The content originates in the studio, we brainstorm the stories and figure them out using anecdotes from our own lives. This season is a mixture of my own life and Norton’s [Director, Brown Bag Film’s Norton Virgien]. He had a story about being a soccer coach and that became a story about Henry’s team being on the losing side.”

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Nimah is delighted that she was able to direct two episodes in Season Two – Halloween and Christmas, and she described the process to me: “The animators work to a voice recording to  create a storyboard – it’s drawn in pen and ink and the director adds notes at this stage. It’s five to six weeks work to put it all together into a black and while anamatic, and then the story is tweaked based on notes from Disney and the child psychologist who works on the project. Then another anamatic is made – some are done in Dublin, and some in Singapore. This is still rudimentary animation, a blocking pass, so you can push the story as much as you cna before it becomes computer animated and goes 3D.”

It’s essential that the stories appeal to a wide age range of children – from two to seven – and Henry’s older siblings help hold the interest of older children. Test story books are created for panels of children to critique.  Nimah told me, “Kids love the fact that he can fly.”

“As a picture book maker, I’ve always worked on my own, so working collaboratively is wonderful, we always find a way to make a story work.”

There is a huge amount of work in each series – each episode lasts eleven minutes, and there are forty- two new episodes in Season Two, but brilliantly the illustration style of the original book is retained in the computer generated animation.

In the second series, Henry continues to make discoveries alongside his Momma, Daddo and younger brother Ivor as well as embarking on adventures with his friends Estelle, Beckett, Gertie and Denzel. The series helps pre-school children understand common themes and issues such as a new sibling, jealousy and problem solving.

Launched in May 2011, Disney Junior inspires learning through play, from early maths and language skills, to healthy lifestyles with an emphasis on social and emotional development. It celebrates childhood by encouraging children to laugh, sing, dance, and above all – have fun. Other Disney Junior shows include Sofia the First, Doc McStuffins, The 7D and Jake & The Never Land Pirates.

Disney Junior is the #1 paid for preschool kids TV channel in the UK with viewers 4+ and kids 4-15 and with housewives with kids aged 0-3 years. Globally, the portfolio of channels under Disney Channels’ Worldwide management are available in 164 countries/territories, with 79 visual feeds, in 34 languages.  This represents a total of 110 channels.

Disney is all about the art of magical story-telling underpinned by business practices that are driven by great creativity, innovation and challenging the status quo and stands unrivalled in the media and entertainment sector with the breadth and diversity of their brands (including Disney, Pixar, Marvel, ABC, ESPN) and product combined with a truly unique heritage that engages every member of the family.

As the series develops, Niamh is looking forward to getting back to writing and perhaps creating more characters who can be brought to a global audience through animation. For more about Niamh’s past, present and future, visit www.niamhsharkey.com

(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin

Tune in on February 2nd 2015 at 5.50pm to see the first in the new series of The Hugglemonsters!

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