Sixteen South Go Global With Pajanimals

From making promotional videos about missles to making kids laugh, it's been a long journey for managing director Colin Williams

Northern Irish independent production manager, Colin Williams, has gone from producing promotional videos for a missile manufacturer to working with the Jim Henson Company on the children's television series, Pajanimals, which has sold to a global market.

This October, his Belfast-based production company, Sixteen South, won a business Deloitte Rising Star award, and recently gained a BAFTA nomination for another children's programme currently aired on CBeebies entitled, Big City Park. For Williams, it's been a long and unusual journey towards success.

‘I set up a company called Inferno about nine years ago,' he recalls, 'and initially we produced commercials and promos and animation for international clients. The problem was that one of our clients was a missile manufacturer. And when you’re making a commercial for something that will most likely end up being used to kill people, you think, “Is this how I can best use my talents?”’

For Williams, his damascene moment came four years ago when he was at home watching children's television with his daughter. Her reactions to the characters on screen led Williams to a 'light bulb moment'.

‘I noticed how she responded to shows with good storytelling and a strong visual look, and I saw how she didn’t react to others that lacked those qualities. I knew that those kind of programs were what I’d love to be making,’ he explains. ‘I had a passion for this kind of programming, so I set up Sixteen South shortly after.’

In the four short years since it’s inception, Sixteen South has certainly made its mark. Specialising in children’s television, the company has co-producing shows like Big City Park and Big and Small for CBeebies, and Sesame Tree with Sesame Workshop. It was the latter show that brought Williams into contact with stardom.

‘In the second series of Sesame Tree,' he recalls, 'we had the opportunity to have a special guest on the show. But there was only ever one we wanted: Oscar the Grouch!'

'Caroll Spinney is probably the most legendary puppeteer in the world and I can't believe he flew over to Belfast for the job. He’s now in his late 70s and has been working in the business for 40 years. It was really special to have him be part of our team. Our puppeteers were nervous meeting him, but he instantly put them at ease and even gave them some tips.’

Sixteen South’s latest co-production is another show based around puppets. Pajanimals is aimed at preschoolers and is currently broadcast on the Sprout Channel in the US. It is a gift to every parent who has ever had trouble getting their little toddler to settle down for sleep.

Its cast of four furry siblings sing and joke their way through the troubling time before lights out. Developed from a popular series of three minute programs – several of which received over 1m hits on YouTube – Pajanimals' latest incarnation is a series of 10 minute episodes, produced around strong musical themes. Set in the characters’ bedroom and in their imaginations, it’s a primary coloured, soft furred sing-a-long.

'It is, in every sense, a joint creative venture,' says Williams. 'Each episode of Pajanimals is written by writers in Northern Ireland and others in the USA. Two of our cast are American and half are from Northern Ireland, although they do adopt American accents. I know we have learned from the Jim Henson Company and they in turn have learned from us.’

New technology has enabled the Sixteen South team to work closely with their American counterparts. Project Kelvin, which was launched a few years ago, offers a form of high speed internet for commercial traffic between Northern Ireland and the US.

‘We have meetings online and discuss every aspect of the show: every change, every decision,' says Williams. 'When it is finally produced, we can send a 23Gb show from here to the US in 20 minutes, whereas regular broadband would reduce that to 28 hours.’

With four high profile successful shows brought to market within four years, Sixteen South have been kept busy. It was only two weeks ago that Williams flew off to MIP, a television festival in Cannes, to pitch ideas for new projects. Unlike past successes, these will be purely produced by the indie company. One has already been picked up.

‘It’s a puppet show,’ adds Williams, ‘and is very adventurous. We’re very pleased that we already have a broadcaster onboard for that. The second is a mixed media animation show. I can't tell you much about it except that it’s called Driftwood Bay, and we’re working on a pilot.’

Working in children’s television is most definitely where Williams wants to be, and he is glad to have left the cut-throat world of promotional film-making behind him. Whilst he admits that 'business is business', he is more than happy to have moved on, and to be bringing a touch of magic to the world.

‘My kids are now six and nine,' he says. 'I’ve brought them to the sets of our shows. They’ve seen a puppet carried in a hold all and then brought out into the hands of a puppeteer, but the funny thing is, once that puppet’s out and talking, they’ll look into its eyes and talk to it because it is a real character. That’s the magic of it all.’