Liam Maguren talks to the Mukpuddy team about the return of The Barefoot Bandits, Māori MacGyver in space and getting adults excited about cartoons again.
Ryan Cooper, Tim Evans and Alex Leighton are a triforce that take the form of New Zealand animation studio Mukpuddy. I burned my shoes for them when I celebrated their history and the premiere of the first season of their hit local TV show The Barefoot Bandits.
The second season is almost upon us (beginning Saturday, 7 October 6:00pm on TVNZ2), so I talked to the lads about how they’re pushing the envelope, annoying tropes in mainstream animation, the rise of ‘Tumeke Space’, and how it’s totally OK for a single human grown-up adult person to watch animated shows.
You’re living the dream making a kids cartoon. Well, I shouldn’t just say “kids” cartoon…
Alex Leighton: Yeah, we do try reiterate that. A lot of people have a weird stigma around animation, especially these days. Animated shorts like the Bugs Bunny shorts and Mickey Mouse shorts were only made for adults. You didn’t take your children to the cinema; it was an adult activity.
Somewhere in the ’80s, because cartoons were selling toys, there was a weird stigma that came along with it that continued – this idea that animation was for babies and little kids.
Ryan Cooper: It became like a secret shame for adults.
AL: It’s been the toughest thing for Barefoot Bandits, because our three main cast are kids. It’s hard to convince adults that something starring kids is for them. Though It has done it nicely, and Stranger Things.
RC: But when adults do find it, they discover it’s for everybody.
AL: We realise something like ‘Tumeke Space’ is easier to sell to a slightly more grown-up audience, just because the lead is an adult.
The second episode this season is a ‘Tumeke Space’ episode, so it seems like you’re already pushing for this.
RC: ‘Tumeke Space’ was an idea before The Barefoot Bandits. We had this idea floating around of a Māori-MacGyver-in-space-type character. To us, that was a fun way of doing something super Kiwi and massively sci-fi – two of our loves.
AL: It tapped into the type of comedy we grew up watching. Billy T James was on TV all the time who – for us – was our only local comedy voice. ‘Tumeke’ hopefully echoes that. When we got season two of The Barefoot Bandits, we messaged TVNZ: “Is it cool if one episode is kinda 80% ‘Tumeke Space’ and we’ll have the kids throughout it?” And they were cool with it. So it’s kind of acted as our pilot.
RC: Which we hope does the trick. This season really sells the scope of where we could take it.
AL: This doesn’t even scratch the surface, eh?
RC: The Barefoot Bandits is our first time telling a Kiwi story in New Zealand. Now that we’ve done that, we want to tell a story of a Kiwi character going elsewhere.
So… ‘Billy T in space’?
AL: That would be the pitch. Barefoot Bandits was the New Zealand Goonies.
What have you learned from the first season that strengthens the second?
AL: Things are a little smoother production-wise this time around. But in saying that we’ve honed it, we shoot ourselves in the foot by getting more ambitious.
RC: There’s more CG. The stories are more complex.
Tim Evans: Yeah, we’ve learned that we have no self-control. We are our own worst enemies.
AL: We give ourselves limitations and then ignore them.
TE: And we always knew that. Every series of ‘Sparkle Friends’ we made for What Now? was bigger than the last. We had CG effects for the last one we made for them.
AL: The thing we learned, as massive control freaks, was how to delegate.
RC: While also staying Mukpuddy? The three of us worked together and did multiple things, so we instinctively knew what needed to be done. Expanding made us worry that that was going to disappear. We just applied how we used to do things to them and it’s just the same. It feels like Mukpuddy.
TE: Everyone’s having fun on the project, and it’s fun for us because they’re just as passionate as we are in creating this thing that feels really special and unique. It shows in the work they’re giving us. We don’t have to crack the whip or anything. Being able to let every aspect of it, from the compositors and animators to the storyboard artists, give their own touch and flair.
RC: It comes from the voice actors, too. We’ve got great Kiwi actors and comedians who are great at ad-libbing. They’ll read what’s written but then they’ll add more.
How do you guys manage to attract all these A-list NZ actors?
RC: Our theory is: “You can only ask.” Usually, if they’re available, they’ll say yes. Generally, the idea – and hopefully a little bit of us, maybe – is why they want to do it. We’ve been very, very lucky.
AL: I know with Jemaine [Clement], he’s vouched for us. Told them we weren’t crazies. So that helped.
RC: We got Richard O’Brien for the second series. He was quite hard to track down, so I just put it out there on the internet and someone gave me an email. Within an hour, he emailed back saying, “Love to.”
Everyone we’ve worked with has just been amazing. Tem[uera Morrison] has been doing Moana and Aquaman but he’s always made time for us, this little Kiwi show. We’ve got the Topp Twins and they live in different parts of the country. We managed to get them in here at the same time.
AL: I think what we love about the approach to making a cartoon is that we’ve developed this low-key, ad-libby, very natural delivery. The opposite of that is what we hate in cartoons. A lot of the American stuff is turned up to 110 with people putting on voices. But we cast with a person in mind.
RC: We had a few battles back in season one. We wanted Josh Thompson for Fridge but there was a little apprehension around that, saying “Aw, but he’s not really famous.” That’s not what we were casting for. Once they heard what Josh does, they understood.
They came back with “Fridge is our favourite character.” And we said “Yeah, we knew he would be.” That’s why we asked Josh. Everyone likes Josh.
AL: Laura Daniel is very much like that, too.
RC: A lot of Riley came from Laura. We had an idea of what we wanted her to be, a geeky kid who was super smart and sensible but all these fantastical things pull her away from that.
TE: She’s so excited about things that she sometimes puts them in danger.
RC: Laura’s helped that character develop.
AL: We also wanted Riley to be the opposite of most female leads in animation.
RC: They’re usually relegated to ‘The Bossy Character’ or ‘The Negative Character’ who’s like “No, we can’t do that, boys!”
Having a daughter myself, I started really noticing those roles. I didn’t want those. I wanted to have a cool character who was either keeping up with the boys or being an influence on them.
What other tropes in mainstream cartoons get on your nerves?
AL: Unfunny writing. That is, quite honestly, the biggest pet-peeve seeing all this amazing artwork coming out of these shows – primarily out of the States – where you can tell there’s a committee involved at every stage of the process.
RC: The school setting was bugging us for a long time.
TE: Especially in the ’90s.
RC: Man, kids want to escape that. We did get that feedback when we were developing stuff for Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and Disney – “It’s got to be relatable to kids!” But kids will relate to all sorts of things; it doesn’t have to be them, exactly.
TE: They’ve got all these rules about how it’s supposed to be relatable to kids, but how is Spongebob relatable?
AL: How is he relatable!? He’s a grown-up, works in a burger joint, drives a car, and argues with his next door neighbour.
TE: We’ve added a small school element to Barefoot, but we’re careful about it.
AL: We don’t want to have an episode revolve around them doing homework or being at school.
TE: School is horrible.
AL: We had Gargoyles, Duck Tales, Dark Wing Duck, Ren & Stimpy – they were a way to escape. For this 20 minutes, I didn’t HAVE to do my homework. That’s what we wanted to bring back with Barefoot Bandits.
TE: Another thing with modern American cartoon is how the characters talk over each other. They don’t seem to listen.
RC: Talking AT each other. We wanted our characters to feel like they’re actually friends who listen to each other.
What’s been some of the best feedback from fans of season one?
RC: I had a kid say: “You’ve been inspired by people. How does it feel to have us be inspired by you?” It almost choked me up; that never even crossed my mind.
One girl asked me: “Why did we make Riley so different to other female characters in cartoons?” like we were saying before. This young girl had noticed she was a different sort of female character who was funny, independent, and as cool as the boys.
AL: Parents, as well, have given us really nice feedback about how great it is to have a Kiwi show they can watch with their kids.
TE: The characters sound like Kiwis but are doing bigger, cartoony things.
RC: Teachers also tell us how important it is for kids to hear their voices in something that can stand alongside a big American cartoon.
AL: Lots of kids refusing to wear shoes, apparently.
Viva la revolution.
TE: It’s easy for a kid to dress up as a ‘Barefoot Bandit’.
RC: Which we’d love to see, by the way. Hint hint.
There will be a lot of fathers who could easily dress up as Tumeke Space, as well.
RC: And I want to see that. Please put that in this. Cosplay, please. That’s a bucket list tick.
The Barefoot Bandits begins Saturday 7 October, 6pm on TVNZ2
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