MIPTV: Weta Workshop, Nelvana U-Knight for Series

What could be better than having a pet dragon for a friend? A co-production that makes sense for all parties involved, of course, and that’s what Weta Workshop and Nelvana have found in each other, according to Weta exec producer and co-founder Richard Taylor and Nelvana exec producer of production and development Scott Dyer. Yesterday, the two houses announced that they will share co-production duties on the all-CG series Jane and the Dragon, based on the popular books by author/illustrator Martin Baynton, who is serving as an exec producer for Weta.

The series, which both Taylor and Baynton say "flew totally under the press radar" until now, is still in pre-production as the two parties continue to evaluate the division of duties. Dyer, however, divulges that there is a possibility of a completed episode by MIPCOM with the full announcement of a series launch at that time. As it now stands, Nelvana will most likely help with pre-production duties such as scripts and storyboards while Weta will retain the bulk of character development, the overall look and CG production, the pipeline for which is based on Weta’s unique and streamlined motion-capture system.

The story of a young girl who is actually a knight in medieval times, Jane and the Dragon is conceived as both a fantasy adventure-comedy and an educational property. According to Taylor, Weta worked on the development and stylization of Jane’s world for a year and a half–during the end of production for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in top-secret mode. The multiple Academy Award-winning production house wanted to have a deep understanding of that universe–down to the very reasoning and history of character garments and props–before reaching out to the television arena for a production and distribution partner. Says Taylor, "We’ve envisioned this series as [one] that can extend far beyond the television set in terms of its ability to teach. So the very clutter of culture is already built into the world. With LOTR, people asked why we went into such detail. The answer is because the audience would miss it if it wasn’t there. It’s the same with Jane."

Six months ago Nelvana had no idea it would be approached to help conceive such a jewel of a project. Baynton notes, "We actually researched which studio to go to and chose Nelvana. We arrived at MIPCOM last fall and actually made a cold call to the booth. I met Irene and said, ‘We have a show we want to sell to public broadcast.’"

Baynton refers to Irene Weibel, vp of educational development, who says that admittedly this wasn’t a typical introductory line and took the meeting. "I was so impressed with their demo I immediately called Scott over and he did something I’ve never seen him do before–he leaned into the screen as if he was trying to touch it."

The clever demo, which includes visual descriptions of Jane, the dragon and the world they inhabit, includes brief mocap animation sequences and some eye-popping renders combining a stunning new 2D/3D look, as well as a short cartoon that sets up Jane as a sassy independent heroine every kid will want to get to know.

Because Weta has already done much of the character design work and devised several dynamic new processes for building new characters virtually on the fly, Jane’s world will be almost as well populated as Middle-earth, but at a far lower cost. Dyer, who agrees that the production sensibility for Jane is extremely high quality for television, especially in the education arena, says, "This production will still come in around the range of a typical television budget."

Of all the new friends involved in bringing Jane to a worldwide audience, creator Mark Baynton is both the most proud and most amazed. He explains that putting his treasured characters into the hands of the wizards at Weta has been beyond respectful. "They’ve managed to completely maintain the look of my drawings and the light pencil look with all the flimsy furniture that appears as if it could never hold weight. They not only devised justifications for this look but analyzed my work so they could repeat it." "We call it Baynton-izing," Taylor says with a boyish grin, looking a bit like a wizard with a secret treasure he’s glad to have out in the light.