Puffin Rock

Derry-based children's media company Dog Ears launch television series voiced by Hollywood actor Chris O'Dowd

Old wisdom suggests that if you work at something you love then you never work a day in your life. The atmosphere around the office and studio of Dog Ears, a children's media company based in Derry and co-creators of a new animated television series for children entitled Puffin Rock, proves the sentiment.

John McDaid, creative director at Dog Ears, is a happy man that the show has aired. It runs on Nick Jr. in the UK and RTE Jr in Ireland. 'It’s a big release,' he beams, 'to finally have something people can watch and enjoy in their homes. This is what it’s about if you work in a creative industry. We work in children’s media so are always thinking about how we can make something more beautiful and filled with integrity that kids can enjoy and parents trust. The emphasis is on making children smile and happy. That’s a great starting point. We care about what we do and we care about our end users.'

Puffin Rock is set on a beautiful and wild island off the Irish coast and centres on Oona, a young, adventurous and charismatic puffin and her curious little brother, Baba. The series is narrated by actor Chris O’Dowd, well known for his work on the IT Crowd, Moone Boy and, of course, the huge Hollywood smash Bridesmaids. His narration is amusing, but the main thrust of the show – aside from the obvious entertainment value – is educational. Each episode is filled with observant facts about the wildlife on the island.

Dog Ears have made the show in partnership with twice Oscar-nominated animators Cartoon Saloon, who are based in Kilkenny. A third partner is Penguin, the largest publishing company in the world. Together they are working on a global roll-out of Puffin Rock as a multi-platform brand encompassing the television series, books, apps and toys.

Dog Ears first formed as a company of four in 2010. Alongside McDaid work managing director Fionnuala Deane, editorial director Laura Campbell and financial director Jackie McColgan. Other projects they have developed include Baby’s Day Out, Miss Rosie Red and the Humdinger! Children's Book Festival, which returns to venues across Derry in March 23 - 28, 2015, featuring events with writers and illustrators.

Production on Puffin Rock kicked off in Derry and Kilkenny in 2013. Dog Ears have built a new animation studio in Derry for the project and provide 50% of the animation as well as scripting, voices, soundtrack and music recording.

'We’re lucky to have great premises here, our own studio and a fantastic team,' says McDaid, speaking of their Bishop Street premises. 'I know it’s a cliché but we’re like a big family and we all care about what we’re doing. We’ve felt strongly from when we set up that we wanted to do things here in Derry. The world is a different place now. You can work locally and think globally. Technology allows for that. And we aren’t the only ones doing world-class things here. This is no longer a second rate place to have a go at creating something worthwhile. The digital and creative sector is the fastest growing sector in Northern Ireland. Invest NI are aware of this and are keen to foster the notion of creative industry.'

Not only has business support from Invest NI enabled Dog Ears in the building of an international brand, but key support and assistance from Northern Ireland Screen, the Irish Film Board and Arts Council of Northern Ireland have propelled the making of the 39, seven-minute episodes.

The original idea for a Puffin Rock project came from Cartoon Saloon, who intially approached Dog Ears due to their expertise in creating books and apps. 'Co-working and co-producing with Cartoon Saloon has been seamless,' McDaid adds. 'There are very distinct steps in the animation process and we are completely synchronised. Twenty years ago something like this could have been a logistical and technological nightmare but we now have the capability. We could be in the same building.'

Cartoon Saloon, recently nominated for an Oscar (for the second time) for their animated feature The Secret of Kells, isn’t the only illustrious company which the Dog Ears team are keeping. The involvement of Penguin brings the clout of a world-wide brand to the table. Penguin had been trying to develop a puffin character in-house but nothing seemed to work. 'It’s synchronicity and serendipity,' McDaid believes, 'and good luck that Penguin saw Puffin Rock when first developed as a book. It’s like it was made for them.' 

Puffin is, of course, the children’s imprint of Penguin. 'We work really well with them,' says McDaid. 'We can provide a creativity and agility that a larger traditional company may not have. We have a playfulness that they can tap into. There is no bigger publishing company in the world to have as a partner and this is the first project that Penguin have had that has been created by someone else or they didn’t buy outright. This is a forward-thinking way of working.'

There is much collaborative co-operation involved in the entire project, in fact. Music for the series is scored by Derry-based record company Smalltown America and recorded by the Ulster Orchestra. The series has allowed for Dog Ears to provide internships, skilled placements and on the job training and practical work experience for animators, script writers, editors and production co-ordinators. Young people and children also provide voices for the characters in the show – part of the endearing warmth of Puffin Rock is hearing young Northern Irish accents on the screen.

Dog Ears have had an intense and exciting few years since set up. And they’re neither resting on their laurels nor slacking off the workload now that Puffin Rock has become a success; a second season of the show has already been commissioned. That’s a beneficial boon in a business obsessed with viewing figures.

'It feels like a miracle that the second season is commissioned and finance secured to produce it,' McDaid reveals. 'The wind is behind us and the momentum is there and we hope to increase the team from the present number of 14. The energy and positivity has helped us secure the funding of £2.2 million budget, which is no mean feat. Our key rationale is now that we can keep this team together and go straight into producing series two. This creates security and consistency in that the quality will not only be maintained but increased. Now at the end of series one everyone is firing on all cylinders.'

This all contributes to a sense that Dog Ears are only getting warmed up. 'Young and creative people can look at us and say, "If they can do it, so can I." That can only be a good thing. We have another project in active development, a property that can translate across books, apps and television. That’s stimulating, challenging and fun. There is lots of other work to be done alongside producing Puffin Rock. It keeps everything fresh and who knows what the opportunities for the future will be. Three years ago we had an outline drawing for a little puffin. A year on from that, there’s a book. And now we have a full animation team and a full series.'

At a time when a darkness is descending on much of Northern Ireland's arts sector and, by extension, creative industries due to funding cuts, Dog Ears is a success to be valued and celebrated. The future bodes well not only for a cute little puffin named Oona, but for a Derry-based company showing the world how it's done.