Funny formula: Irish team brings science and silliness to CBBC

‘Brain Freeze’ blends puppetry, animation, mayhem and science. It started on a shoestring, but now they can afford shoes

Thu, Jan 23, 2014, 01:00

‘The whole thing was a bit experimental at the start,” says Ian Benjamin Kenny (35), an animator and the director of Brain Freeze, a new Irish-made children’s show airing on CBBC this evening.

“It wasn’t a straight up . . . puppet . . . show . . .” His speech has ground to a halt on account of a lone chord strumming from the corner of his studio where the puppet cast of Brain Freeze are slumped, lifeless. “That was weird,” says Kenny.

“It was even a weird chord. It was a major chord,” says the show’s producer and co-writer, Colm Tobin (35) of Kite Entertainment.

“And the fact that it was a banjo – and I don’t have a banjo.” They descend into laughter.

Funded by Science Foundation Ireland and CBBC, the show addresses “various misnomers and myths in science”.

“The original idea was to do something along the lines of the Langerland stuff, which was cut-out animation style,” says Tobin, who wrote and produced the Langerland series with Aidan O’Donovan. (“Langerland was a Terry Gilliam-esque style animation and sort of . . . vaguely satirical,” says Tobin dryly, to more laughter.) “So I approached Ian and Paul Madden, who is an animator on the series. We came up with a thing called Science Fiction, a series of 90-second shorts,” he says.

RTÉ funded the original series. “It had a very, very, very small budget – €40,000 for the whole thing, which is ridiculous for animation,” says Tobin. “But we looked at it as a chance to develop something.”

Enter the puppets
It was Kenny’s idea to add puppets to the mix, and in this latest series “we’ve thrown everything into it”, he says. “Puppets that are shot on green screen, CGI robots, then we’ve got 2D animation, and lots of special effects. And the studio is built in 3D.

“This was actually the first time we could afford to pay someone to do the puppeteering,” says Tobin.

Liam Geraghty (30) is the hidden hand behind the show’s three stars: Dr Knowles; the madcap Prof McCork; and the show’s long-suffering floor manager, Colin.

“I wasn’t trained in how to be a puppeteer,” says Geraghty. “I only ever did it at the Panti show [at Panti Bar on Dublin’s Capel Street] as a cabaret act.”

As a child, he was a huge fan of the Muppets. “Completely obsessed. Still am. I watched the Muppets last night actually.”

“It’s a cottage industry,” says Tobin. “We slowly started to be able to afford the normal things people have, like voice booths, post-production . . . shoes.”

“The whole thing took about a year to make, from conception to the finished product,” says Kenny. “We did it all over one of the hottest summers we’ve had in a while.”

“I think for every single shoot I was wearing shorts,” says Geraghty, who spent most of the filming on the floor. “Yeah, I’d be lying on my back here, underneath this table, which is their [the puppets’] desk, and just the whole time with your arm in the air.”

The number of people working on the show has increased fourfold from the original six involved with the original Science Fiction series, but in terms of a second run of Brain Freeze, it will be back to “horse-trading again to get the money together for it”, says Tobin. But they’re hopeful. “BBC are very happy and they’ve given us a great slot – it’s at 5.55pm. And I think it’s after Blue Peter one of the days, so you’re inheriting that audience.”

So what can that audience expect? Dr Knowles, voiced by Maura Foley, the show’s lead scientist, is “an everyman character who’s serious about her job and wants to get all this information across to the audience”, says Tobin. Whereas Prof McCork – hilariously voiced by Aidan O’Donovan, who also writes the scripts with Tobin – is a “bumbling, old-school Cork professor who doesn’t know anything about anything”. And lastly, the team’s newest addition is Colin the floor manager, voiced by John Colleary.

Kenny made all the puppets for the show. “They’re made out of foam mostly. Foam and a glue gun, and my daughter’s clothes. We changed Dr Knowles. She was the toughest one to do.You can get away with old men and goofy boys but pretty female anchors are much harder.”

Round the Bend
Although aimed at eight- to 12-year-olds, the four-minute show has a cheeky irreverence that gives it universal appeal. It’s not surprising that 1990s children’s show Round the Bend was a big point of reference. “That was really rude, when you look back on some of it,” says Tobin. “It just wouldn’t get by [the broadcasters] now, which is a shame.”

Kenny’s three-year-old daughter, Matilda, loves it. “She quotes it. We have this one part in the show where this big, booming announcer comes on and he says, ‘today’s big answer’. He’s got this English accent, kind of like the X Factor voiceover guy. She was in the car one day and she goes, ‘Today’s big awwwnser! in this English accent. It was brilliant.”

Brain Freeze is on CBBC on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 5.55pm and will also be broadcast on RTÉ in six weeks’ time

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