In 2013 the BBC debuted ‘Sarah & Duck,’ a deceptively simple animated show aimed at the pre-school set. ‘Sarah & Duck‘ bypasses the path of simple morality play and empty lesson — each episode puts its focus on the pleasures of everyday life. Planting seeds in the garden, baking a cake. Watching a rainbow arc across the yard after a morning’s rain.
Sarah and her friend Duck have an immediacy to life that most adults miss, that connection to what is in arm’s reach — what is tangible right now. It is a connection that children naturally have but is rarely depicted properly in entertainment geared at the younger age group. Too often, as parents we get shows and books that put on display children playing the role of adult, doing grown-up things, having grown up adventures, but with ‘Sarah & Duck‘ we get an incredibly inspired and honest take on childhood, devoid of aspirations of adulthood but a love of what youth is, of what childhood contains, naturally. The adventures that play out in each episode have a reality to them that is accessible, even possible.
The show was created by Sarah Gomes Harris and Tim O’Sullivan of Karrot Animation, a company with a large resume of advertising work, with the series ‘Sarah & Duck‘ being their first entry into the world of original episodic television. Gomes Harris and O’Sullivan created a show with depth in its simplicity, heart in its writing, and characterization. There are heroes amongst its shallots, rainbows, and a duck with a hearty quack and girl in a bright green cap.
CJ: Were you working at Karrot Animation prior to ‘Sarah & Duck’?
TO: Yes, I founded the company in 2007 with my partners Jamie Badminton, a friend and fellow graduate of the Arts University Bournemouth, and Chris White, who accounts for 100% of the business acumen in our trio. It’s proven a solid combination so far with Chris keeping an eye on the legals and finance, Jamie’s broad view of the work we are doing, and me staring at a Duck and pondering such questions as; “Are all Umbrellas alive or is it just when they’re picked from the ground.”
How long have you worked with Sarah Gomes Harris? Did you have a creative partnership before the show?
I met Sarah in 2008 at an animation networking evening, she had such a unique art style and worldview, that it wasn’t long before I had invited her in to join the studio with our first big commission for CBBC. It was quite an unusual factual entertainment show called One Minute Wonders, in which we provided an animated framework for various live action videos…it’s hard to explain in brief, but I think we have some clips on our website for the curious out there. It was during this production that our creative partnership was formed and led onto the development of ‘Sarah and Duck.’
I saw that ‘Sarah & Duck’ is the first full-length show produced by Karrot. Was that always the goal, for them to branch out from advertising into the world of original content?
Original content was always our intention, both Jamie and myself have a great love for storytelling, especially series format in which you can really get a chance to immerse in that world and know every character and facet. However it takes time and money, plus we had so much more to learn about running a studio. In the years leading up to ‘Sarah and Duck’ we pursued commercial work in order to build a team, practise our craft and establish ourselves enough so that when the time came we would have a strong footing on which we could pitch our own ideas.
You worked for Triffic Films as well as Karrot, both animation companies seem to focus on advertising and the credit portion for other shows. When you started your career in animation, was advertising your goal? Are you looking at doing feature films in the future?
To be completely honest, when I started my goal was to find work…any work that wasn’t hunting a warehouse for a specific flange and energy saving light bulb. Animation is a small and competitive field, full of extremely talented people all vying for few jobs, so initially it was hard going and I interviewed for a range jobs.
I recall my last interview, before joining Triffic Films, was as a concept artist for a computer games company in the midlands. I think my only goal if any, was to make animation that I would like to watch, whatever the format, but as I have progressed in my career, it is narrative based animation that I’ve become increasingly drawn to, and while I don’t have any specific plans to move into feature animation, it is a challenge I would one day like to pursue.
For a show aimed at pre-school age kids, ‘Sarah & Duck’ does something quite unique – there are no heavy-handed lessons or obvious take-aways for the audience. It’s incredibly refreshing. Was that a decision made early on in the creation of the show?
Yes and no…We didn’t overtly pre-meditate at first, it grew organically out of one principle — simple but exciting adventures. Tapping into the idea that when you’re five years old a trip across the living room can be the most exciting thing you do that day, depending on where you imagine yourself to be. So finding the joy and beauty in the little things meant that we naturally sidestepped any need to moralise or teach the audience something.
The focus quickly became about telling a good story with characters that feel natural, so forcing in a lesson on why one should not scratch certain areas in public, would just derail the believability of those characters.
The look of the show is simple – the characters are designed of hand-drawn basic shapes, but the more time I spend with the show the more it reveals. The backgrounds have such rich textures and patterns. As the co-creator and director, do you also do the art? How involved are you in the ‘look’ of the show?
Sarah Gomes Harris’ design style and sensibilities are primarily responsible for the look and feel of the show. Though in the early stages we had some help from Adrien Merigeau, a very talented art director, in developing the use of paint and pattern which, coupled with Sarah’s fantastic use of shapes and wonky line work, created a deceptively rich world.
My role has always been to help guide the process from the point of view of the story and add ideas or point to influences or inspiration that can help. Now in our third series we have refined the process that allows Sarah to sketch some ideas of design and colour and then we have two incredible art directors Annes Stevens and Rebecca Whiteman, brilliant artists in their own right, who design the new locations and props for future episodes. Again my role is to work with them both closely to ensure that the design stays true to the show and is the best it can be for that particular story. Occasionally I will have a more specific idea about how I would like an episode to look, but more often now I allow the art directors to lead the process and put their own stamp on the episodes.
Sarah and her friends live alone, parent and family free. The children are as mature as the adults; Scarf Lady and Sarah are equals. The narrator (voiced by actor Roger Allam) will often give Sarah advice, but just as often he watches as Sarah solves problems on her own. It’s a brilliant approach that feels a bit risky – kids living alone, no parents around. Was that an easy decision to make early on? Did Sarah have parents in early drafts of the show?
Thinking back we never even considered the parents. As a kid, I remember that feeling of living in a world of your own outside of parents; when you played that was the universe and the parents only broke the illusion when the fish fingers were getting cold. So when focusing on the imaginative adventures of child and her friend they weren’t deemed a necessary presence.
However, Narrator is always there, not to get in the way, but essentially play along like a parent behind a video camera and provide that sense of security that allows our characters to explore freely.
In 2014 ‘Sarah & Duck’ won a well-deserved BAFTA in the pre-school animation category. For me, the show feels to go beyond that category – I can see it appealing to the same crowd that loves shows like ‘Adventure Time,’ ‘Steven Universe’ and more adult-minded shows. When you think of the audience is the ‘pre-school category’ a priority, or do you focus on viewers of all ages?
Outside of age groups, I try to make a show that i think is funny and tells a good story. In an oddly selfish act I suppose I am making this series for myself, but including the four-year-old version of me that never really left the building…apologies to my long-suffering partner.
When thinking about new stories I have often thought, what would four-year-old little Timmy have liked, coincidentally it marries well with what 36 year-old Tim likes too. If anything I work hard at removing any barriers, like popular culture references, overtly complicated language, or anything too cynical. Without those stumbling blocks, the emotions of the characters communicate with all ages… and the odd face plant from Duck never hurts.
Mentioning the odd faceplant from duck made me think of the comedic timing of the show. As an American, I’ve always enjoyed British comedies (growing up it was Are You Being Served, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, etc.) and the humor of ’Sarah & Duck ’ feels very English to me. The dry wit and especially the timing of a simple, ‘Oh, Duck…’ or a ‘Quack…’
We work really hard at the timing, and choosing the right voice take for that matter. Not having that crucial beat can really be the difference between and titter and a full on belly laugh.