Strange Hill High, the new tween show from the CBBC, FremantleMedia and Factory Transmedia, has a wicked sense of humor and knock-your-socks-off visuals.
Once in a blue moon, all the right ingredients for a cool kids show come together, and the final product ends up being better than anyone had envisioned in the first place. A case in point is FremantleMedia and Factory Transmedia’s clever and innovative new series Strange Hill High, which debuted in April on the CBBC in the U.K. Serving up state-of-the-art puppetry, Japanese vinyl toys, CG effects and some inspired writing from both sides of the Pond, the (13 x 30′) show follows the misadventures of three students, who are constantly chasing down mysterious phenomena at their inner-city school. Think of it a topsy turvy X-Files for tweens.
Originally conceived by U.K.-based indie producer Kat Van Henderson and championed by the head of CBBC acquisitions and drama development Sarah Muller, the show caught the attention of the development team at FremantleMedia Enterprises at an early stage. Factory Transmedia was then tapped to produce the animation, while L.A.-based Josh Weinstein, former exec producer and writer on The Simpsons and Futurama came on board as showrunner.
“Sarah Muller had been championing the project from Kat Van Henderson for his talented and amazing creator who had never done a show before,” recalls Bob Higgins, exec VP of Children & Family Entertainment at FremantleMedia. “We had great success working with the CBBC on our show Tree Fu Tom so it was a very smooth process for us.”
Higgins says originally it was the show’s unique look that totally won him over.
“What grabs most people at first are the visuals,” he adds. “Before coming to Fremantle, I had worked at WildBrain and Kid Robot so I had Japanese vinyl toy in my blood. I knew I wanted to be part of this show when I saw that. There was also the notion of doing something completely different in terms of the way the show was produced.”
Hypervynorama—that’s the term coined by Van Henderson to describe Strange Hill High‘s snazzy look, which blends a variety of methods and technologies. The puppets are designed and created by the iconic Mackinnon & Saunders firm in the North of England. The stop-motion and puppet-making shop has had a huge impact in the children’s entertainment world over the past 30 years, having worked on TV shows and features such as Bob the Builder, Postman Pat, Rastamouse and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie and Fantastic Mr. Fox.
As Muller tells us, “From the first moment I saw Hypervynorama, I knew it was unique – quite unlike anything else that I’ve seen in my entire (lengthy) career and I genuinely had that tingly feeling that you get when you know you’re on to something special! There’s something about the physicality of the puppets in the hyper-real backgrounds that creates an altered sense of reality and allows us to tell some really weird stories that I think kids are going to love.”
The puppets are shot live with rods on stage to deliver a truly cinematic look.
“This gives us the ability to get amazing depths that you can’t really get any other way,” says Higgins. “You can blow smoke on the set to evoke mystery. Then you add the stop-motion, CG and After Effects elements. None of the puppets have any facial expressions—they’re puppets without faces. All of those features are added in post, combining several classic techniques which are put together seamlessly.”
According to the producers, it takes about a full day to produce two minutes of show footage. But the laborious process has certainly been worth the time and effort.
“There are lots of phone calls, emails and video conferencing involved, and because we are stretched from L.A. to Manchester, someone is always working on the show, 24/7,” says Higgins. “Josh is a great writer and communicator, and he was able to get the best of the writers, who are based in the U.K.”
Higgins says what he and his team at Fremantle Kids strive to do each year is to bring the best of the best to the market each year.
“I honestly think that we’ve achieved it this time. The look of the show, the writing, the stories, the voice talent, the music—it’s all a great combination of elements, and I can guarantee that it’s going to get noticed by the buyers. They’re going to sit up and take notice!”
For Weinstein, the project presented a great opportunity to work on a stop-motion series, having spent many years on traditionally animated shows.
“I was happy when they approached me because they wanted someone with TV experience to lead it along,” he recalls. “I loved the way the way the puppets looked at first. We ended up aging up the puppets—they were kids in the beginning, and now they look about 12.”
The veteran toon writer says he believes that comedy is valued more in the U.K.
“For many of us who work in comedy, British comedy has been the best,” says Weinstein. “The stereotype of a British person is this uptight person, but I think it’s the total opposite. There’s this amazing tradition of comedy in the country, and I think they’re more open to try new different things.”
Don’t tell the studio suits he has worked with in the past, but Weinstein says the show’s development process has been a breath of fresh air compared to some of his previous experiences.
“I’d fly over to London, and the execs from the BBC were pitching lots of funny ideas. They are a real hoot over there. We were all in synch and it all felt like we were going down this fun road together.”
Both Weinstein and Higgins point out that one of the great selling points of the show is that the writers never talk down to kids.
“That’s the way we wrote on The Simpsons, and I feel that we follow the same rule on this show,” says Weinstein. “You assume that kids are smart, and that they’ll get what do you. You write for the kids and adults and hope that they both find things that are funny in the show.”
Another fun aspect of the show is that one of the main characters Mitchell (voiced by Doc Brown) is a real anti-hero.
“He doesn’t like authority,” says Weinstein. “He doesn’t like to work. He often causes problems by trying to avoid something!”
To date 13 episodes of the show have been produced, and a new season has already been greenlit by the CBBC. While the original voice cast for the show is British, led by Emma Kennedy, Doc Brown, Richard Ayoade, Jonathan Keeble and Caroline Aherne, the producers are preparing a version with American voices for the international market.
As Weinstein mentions, “The original target audience for the series is 6 to 12-year-olds, but I think it’s really 6 to 60, as all good animated comedies should be. I’m the father of 13-year-old twins, and they’re harsh judges of the stuff that I do, but they seem to be captivated by it!”
Strange Hill High premiered on the CBBC in April. FremantleMedia offered the toon at the MIPTV market.