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Little J & Big Cuz: Ground breaking TV

Little J & Big Cuz designer/director Tony Thorne on creating something he never had growing up – a contemporary animated children’s show starring young Indigenous characters.

Little J & Big Cuz

After 15 years working on and off in VFX and animation on studio blockbusters such as the Harry Potter films, District 9, and Happy Feet 2, Tony Thorne was ready for a career change.

<h6>Tony Thorne</h6><p><em>Little J & Big Cuz</em> designer/director</p>
Tony Thorne

Little J & Big Cuz designer/director

He had his mind set on becoming a teacher when producer Ned Lander got in touch about an Indigenous children’s TV series he was working on for SBS, Little J & Big Cuz.

The Australian Council for Educational Research had approached Lander, because their studies were indicating that the best way to connect with vulnerable Indigenous children about the transition from home to school was through an animated TV show.

Lander had produced films such as Last Cab to Darwin and Radiance, and worked on a number of television series, documentaries and dramas while at SBS Independent (SBSi), including East West 101. But he hadn’t tackled animation before.

Lander came across Thorne’s name because he had written a screenplay about his Aboriginal family story in Tasmania, which received development money.

“So people at Screen Australia, NITV, and friends of mine within the animation industry knew my story, because that’s what the screenplay was about, and that was how Ned heard about me,” Lander says.

“Ned approached me to see if I would be interested and I came to the second scriptwriting workshop in Sydney.”

This was early 2014. But Thorne already had a job at the time, so while he did help plot some storylines, he hadn’t officially signed on at this stage.

“Then gradually over that year Ned convinced me to come on board as the director of the show,” he says (Thorne is also listed as designer).

What attracted Thorne from the beginning was that this series would be created by Indigenous writers, including Leah Purcell, Beck Cole and Adrian Russell Wills.

“For me, the most important thing about the series is story,” he says.

“And we were going to make this piece of entertainment and drive it from the perspective of these Aboriginal kids, Little J and Big Cuz…

“For me that’s pretty unique. You just hadn’t seen a children’s animated show, where all the primary characters were going to be Aboriginal and it was going to be set in a contemporary world.”

The series follows the adventures of five-year-old Little J (voiced by Miranda Tapsell) and nine-year-old Big Cuz (Deborah Mailman) – a couple of Indigenous Australian kids who live with their Nanna and four-legged friend Old Dog, just a short stroll from their school and friends.

Aside from Tapsell and Mailman, the voice cast includes the likes of Aaron Fa’Aoso, Shari Sebbens and Mark Coles Smith, to name a few. But Thorne didn’t actually realise the calibre of actors he and the team were casting – they simply watched the audition tapes and picked the voices that best fit the parts.

“And then we were told who they were,” he says. “So it was a very humbling experience for me then to go ‘wow’. And at that point, I was starting to realise the show would get quite a bit of profile outside of the NITV, Indigenous audience, so that was a fantastic thing.”

Little J & Big Cuz

Thorne says there was nothing like Little J & Big Cuz in Australia when he was growing up.

“The images of Aboriginal people you would see were tied to very traditional notions of what that was,” he says.

“So Little J & Big Cuz has been a long time coming…

“I guess it could’ve existed a lot earlier, but all of the pieces had to be in place for a show like this to exist, and finally they were.”

He says animated series take a long time and cost a lot of money to make, particularly when it’s for such a specific audience.

“And (we) needed a bunch of key creative people out there with the experience to approach this (and) that’s really happened probably in the last two decades, with generations of people gradually getting the skill sets,” he says.

“One thing we were determined to do was make it in Australia. Often companies will outsource things… where labour’s a bit cheaper, but that was one of the things we were determined not to do and that made the show a little bit more expensive to make.”

For Little J & Big Cuz, he says funding came together and they were off and running around the middle of 2015.

“By December of 2016 we were pretty much done,” he says.

People would come and go at different points of the process, but at its peak, close to 40 people and two animation studios – 12 Field in Melbourne and Blue Rocket in Hobart – were working on the series.

“The animators produced about 40 seconds of animation a week, which probably doesn’t sound like very much, but it’s a lot. When I worked on features it was between two and eight seconds a week,” he says.

Writer/director Beck Cole was brought on as voice director to help work with the cast and deliver a number of different takes on each line, which were then matched to the animatic (animated storyboards).

As director, it was Thorne’s role to sign off on all the animation and make sure the beats of the story and emotional arcs in the script were being carried across into the animation at the right pace.

“I learnt a lot about emphasis and pauses and where you could really go through a sequence fast and where you should really slow down and tell the story in a much more sedate way. They were big learning curves for me,” he says.

Thorne thinks there could be many more Little J & Big Cuz adventures ahead in the future.

“I’m hoping season two will happen and maybe even season three,” he says.

“The response to the show has been very positive so that’s brilliant for us. It’s looking very encouraging.”

Little J & Big Cuz airs on NITV, Fridays at 7.30pm from 28 April, and every afternoon at 4pm from 1 May. Catch-up episodes are available on SBS On Demand.

Little J & Big Cuz was supported through the Screen Australia Indigenous Department and NITV. Australian Children’s Television Foundation is handling Australian and international sales.