Animation nation: JAM Media

“A lot of cartoons patronise, driving down the moral ground. We try to avoid that”

I’M THANKING him before we even make our introductions. John Rice, CEO of animation company JAM Media, has no idea how much he has made my world a better place.

Two shows, one on CBBC, the other on CBeebies, give me guaranteed, precious minutes of quiet time each week. A dinner can be prepped, a coffee sipped, as my seven-year-old watches Roy and my one-and-ahalf-year-old sits engrossed with Baby Jake.

For the uninitiated, these are two Irish-made children’s programmes — and the man responsible for them is John Rice.

I’m not the first mother to thank him for putting a little bit of sanity back in her life. And while so many other cartoons we parents are forced to endure take the moral highground, with preachy, simplistic storylines, JAM is a very different beast.

Roy, for example, is the story of Ireland’s first animated child — it’s all live action with a sketched Roy added afterwards through the magic of technology — and it can be enjoyed by parents as much as kids.

Clever and knowing, it never talks down to its young audience. It’s no wonder Roy has just been nominated for the BAFTA Children’s Awards.

“A lot of cartoons patronise, driving down the moral ground,” says Rice, sitting in his office in JAM HQ in Kevin Street, Dublin. “We try to avoid that. We like fish out of water stories.”

The same applies to Baby Jake. The pre-school show follows the adventures of a young baby, courtesy of his older brother’s imagination, as he explores space or enjoys a safari. As you do.

Unlike other shows for toddlers, it’s utterly watchable. And the music and bright colours see to it that my baby barely blinks when it’s on.

Incredibly, no child psychology experts were brought on board, confesses Rice.

“You just follow your gut,” he says simply.

With their third and most recent animation for CBeebies, Tilly and Friends, they did enlist the services of a child psychologist. “They talked about play patterns, the psychological motivations of the characters — I wonder if it was money well spent,” he admits.

It all comes down to the story, says Rice, and JAM has brought some of the country’s best writers on board for its animation.

Behind him, on the mantelpiece, awards clamour for space. There are many — the recent Producer of the Year award at the Cartoon Forum in Toulouse (“I had my eye on that for ages,” he smiles), IFTAs — the list goes on.

And it all began with three college friends who decided to start a business together.

After qualifying Rice initially headed to America, where he worked with Fox and MTV. But eventually he found his way to back Ireland and JAM.

“Traditionally jam is made by heating up lots of juicy berries and adding sugar, requiring jars and stuff,” their website states. “But back in 2002 three animators joined forces, John Rice, Alan Shannon and Mark Cumberton and together they made a different kind of JAM altogether (note the initials of their first names — hence the JAM).

“They developed a recipe for ‘sticky content’, the exact ingredients of which remains a mystery but I have heard that it involves picking a big bunch of great ideas, a good helping of technology, some magical stories and flavour to taste with fine animation.

“Since the early days they have grown bigger and stronger each year with many new talented artists and programmers joining the team to make JAM even sweeter.”

There wasn’t overnight success. Rice laughs as he recalls his stag in Amsterdam, when he was tempted to pack it all in and return Stateside.

Then came Picme. It was a cartoon with a difference — technology allowed them to use a cut-out of a toddler’s face on a cartoon body, in the midst of animated characters. The child changed in every episode, allowing audience interaction — The Den, for example, ran competitions to give viewers a chance to be part of the action. It was an instant success.

They brought the show to MIPCOM, the TV and entertainment market held annually in Cannes and it was snapped up.

“Today it’s probably the longest running show on Nick Jnr,” says Rice, “and we only made four series.” There are plans to relaunch Picme as an app before the year is out.

“It was a heady experience for a small company,” admits Rice, “we had international broadcasters coming at us asking, ‘What’s next, can you do something like that for us?’”

A short film, Badly Drawn Roy, made in conjunction with the Irish Film Board, led to that something next.

It was a hilarious 22-minute film about Ireland’s first animated person. Faux-documentary style, it featured interviews with Roy’s ‘family’ about sharing life with a cartoon character.

The BBC saw it, and realised the potential. Roy was aged down — and an award winning cartoon was born. It’s an all-Irish production, from the sets to the cast (Simon Delaney plays dad).

At first glance Dublin might seem a strange choice of location for a CBBC show.

But it’s all down to money. Ireland’s current boom in animation — JAM is just one of the success stories — is about more than just a very talented population. The Section 481 tax break sees to it that if you spend £1 in Ireland, you will get an immediate tax return of 28p.

Hence the BBC were happy for Roy to retain his Irish accent. The series has also sold well internationally.

“There are other advantages in Ireland too,” says Rice. “We have access not just to Europe, but America will look at you and think you’re English speaking.

“...The BBC took a gamble on us with Roy,” admits Rice. “We never did live action before.”

But JAM were quick learners and the risk paid off. A solid relationship was built between the two organisations and when the BBC was approached with the concept of Baby Jake, they immediately turned to JAM to make it a reality. The show was such a hit it was re-commissioned after just one week on air. “We had to take 7,000 photos of the baby’s face to cover every expression,” explains Rice.

Then came Tilly and Friends, JAM’s latest venture that brings to life Polly Dunbar’s beautiful children’s books on CBeebies.

The author spent a summer at the JAM offices, helping to make the transition from page to screen.

“Twelve other broadcasters had to prebuy it with the BBC,” says Rice of the new economic reality. “We got all the public broadcasters like ABC in Australia.” JAM outsources some of its animation, mostly on Roy, to Canada, after finally finding a company there they were happy to work with (“We’ve kissed a few frogs,” Rice admits).

It isn’t always easy, acknowledges Rice, but the big benefit is the time difference — they walk into the office in the morning to a full day’s work from the Canadian team.

Later, Rice walks me through the building. From the outside, it blends in with all the other non-descript premises on Kevin Street.

Inside though, it’s got JAM’s stamp all over it with leather retro couches and funky light fittings. Rice takes me from his office on the ground floor to the Baby Jake room across the way.

The silence is striking. The animators, all busy on computers, work with their earphones in — they barely acknowledge our presence in the room as Rice shows me the latest snow-filled episode of Baby Jake.

It takes on average 22 animators/compositors about 10 days to make an 11-minute episode.

Upstairs the team is putting the finishing touches to Tilly. When I visit, 30 people are employed at JAM — a week earlier there were 60 as they wrapped up another series.

The day after we meet, Rice is on a plane to MIPCOM again, this time with a new animation, Curly Hare, under his belt. He has high hopes for it.

He shows me a two-minute promo and I can understand his confidence. On his return he tells me by email that “all the stars seem to be in alignment for Curly to be born on TV”.

We need to be patient though — on average, an animation can take three years to make it to the screen.

There are also plans to open up a UK office, and ambitions for other live action TV. Watch this space.

By the end of our interview I come to the conclusion that John Rice is one of the most refreshingly honest people I have ever interviewed. He has three children — Rebecca, 12, seven-year-old Sophie and David, three. And what do they say when you ask one of them to watch one of your programmes?

“Oh no, not Roy,” he says, and collapses into a fit of laughter. Rice’s teenager, he explains, has far more mass on the Disney Channel.

Later, he turns to the Baby Jake toys on a shelf behind him and hands me one to take home to my toddler.

He cuts me off mid my second thank you of the day, nodding at the admittedly awful looking doll.

“He looks like Wayne Rooney, doesn’t he.” And we are both in hysterics.

As I play back our interview, I realise much of it was taken up with Rice’s laughter. Of course he’s a savvy businessman, a talented animator, but he’s also good fun, maybe even a child at heart.

Perhaps that’s what it takes to run a really successful animation company.

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