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Magic Light Pictures

Programming Profile

Magic Light casts spell over kids’ market


Magic Light Pictures’ joint MDs Michael Rose and Martin Pope and head of international distribution Muriel Thomas showcase their C21 Digital Screenings playlist, discussing why young audiences deserve quality content and reveal details of their new project.


Launched in 2003, Magic Light Pictures (MLP) originated from joint MDs Michael Rose and Martin Pope’s mutual desire “to produce imaginative, thought-provoking and exciting entertainment for children and families worldwide,” says Pope.


Previously, Rose had set up the feature film division at Aardman Animations and Pope was a live-action producer, working with industry heavyweights including Alan Bennett and John Schlesinger at the BBC. “We shared an interest in focusing increasingly on the family market, as we realised it’s an incredibly important audience who deserve to be well served by the best there is,” says Pope.


“What’s wonderful about this audience is they are so clear-sighted; they can sniff out anything that feels inauthentic. It’s important to work with writers and directors who have a clear sense of what they’re trying to say and deliver it in a congruent way.”


Martin Pope,
Magic Light Pictures

Since then, the London-based producer/distributor has become renowned for its screen adaptations of children’s books. The Gruffalo (1×27’), MLP’s first adaptation, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, takes the first playlist spot. The story follows the magical tale of a mouse who goes on a woodland adventure in search of a nut.


“We set out to create life-enhancing, high-quality family entertainment with The Gruffalo, which launched in 2009. That led to the development of the Gruffalo brand, both in the UK and internationally, which we’ve built over the last 10 years as a high-quality, long-term, classic evergreen property,” says Rose.


“It took us four years to get the rights to make The Gruffalo into a film and the ancillary rights, which we control. The authors were understandably very cautious and had various offers to make a movie and series, but they didn’t want to expand the world into other formats. For Julia, each book is an individual rhyme and not to be tampered with.


Michael Rose,
Magic Light Pictures

“Our approach was to make one half-hour film, where we didn’t have to change a word and could stay totally true to the text, creating a film that takes the book to screen. We did it in a way that the experience of reading the book and watching the film should be seamless.”


The next playlist choice, The Gruffalo’s Child (1×26’), followed in 2011. The sequel charts a little Gruffalo who, feeling brave, ignores her father’s warnings and tiptoes out into the snow, through the forest, in search of the Big Bad Mouse.


“There was a second book, which is rare for Julia and Axel, so The Gruffalo’s Child became part of our plan to build the Gruffalo property. There are only two Gruffalo books and therefore only two films. But we realised we could keep building the brand and retain it in family’s hearts while also delivering for BBC1 and the other global broadcasters that we’d built relationships with by exploring their other titles,” says Rose, referring to the next playlist choices.


Muriel Thomas,
Magic Light Pictures

Room on the Broom (1×26’) came out at Christmas 2012, then Stickman (1×27’) in 2015, followed by The Highway Rat (1×26’) in 2017, Zog (1×27’) in 2018 and The Snail & the Whale (1×26’) in 2019. “We’ve carried on exploring the universe of Julia and Axel and created a family of half-hour specials, which have a unity to them, although they’re each different stories in different worlds,” says Rose.


The most recent project, Zog & the Flying Doctors (1×26’), takes the next playlist spot. Narrated by actor and comedian Lenny Henry and again based on the works of Donaldson and Scheffler, the story follows Zog and Sir Gadabout as they try to rescue Princess Pearl, who has been locked up in her uncle’s castle. “We found there was an increasing appetite for these Christmas specials, both in the UK and around the world,” says Rose.


MLP has successfully produced other content around its titles, allowing the characters to live beyond the shows, including crafting the 2020 Christmas idents for BBC1 in the UK. “We were very lucky the BBC asked us to create its festive branding, which was fantastic support for the premiere of the new film,” says Rose.


The Gruffalo
The Gruffalo

MLP has also expanded into the activation space, with a Gruffalo ride at the UK’s Chessington World of Adventures Resort. “It’s about the values that are embedded within the stories, which are core to Magic Light, that should be reflected in everything we’re doing, so there isn’t a gap between the playing of the products, or experiencing the ride, or seeing an ident or a film,” says Pope.


“If we look at The Gruffalo, it started for lots of families as a beautiful moment with their children as bedtime reading. Then it expanded to a world on the screen and then on to a live experience at Chessington. It’s important all the experiences are the same quality and have the same values,” says Thomas.


The source material for the final playlist choice, Revolting Rhymes (2×29’), came from elsewhere. “In Christmas 2016, we put out a two-part adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, skewing a little older, which went on to huge international success, including an Oscar nomination,” says Rose.


Zog & the Flying Doctors
Zog & the Flying Doctors

The book takes five classic fairytales – Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, The Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella – and mixes them together, serving them up with a mischievous twist.


Rose believes that being focused on editorial control has helped MLP to prosper. “One thing we did in building the company was to do a few things and aim to do them really well. We’ve never felt a great obligation to bash out a lot of production. We also set out to control the whole journey to market. Muriel Thomas spearheads international distribution to ensure we distribute our own works globally and to retain control,” says Rose.


“We have also built our licensing team run by Daryl Shute, so we keep control of all those elements to ensure they properly connect,” adds Pope.


Revolting Rhymes
Revolting Rhymes

Thomas explains: “For Magic Light, the driving force is to expand its international distribution. Over the years we’ve been carving out this beautiful niche within the international distribution world and building stronger relationships with broadcasters and streamers. Even though the world of distribution is changing in terms of technology and accessibility, there is always demand for high-quality content. And we are very fortunate to have great content with wonderful storytelling and strong characters.”


MLP is keen to move beyond its previous successes. “The specials are wonderful things to do. And we’re carrying on making, developing and producing them. But we’re also interested in brand-building and we’re very ambitious to develop a second international property that can sit alongside the Gruffalo,” says Rose.


Room on the Broom
Room on the Broom

The company has been developing Pip & Posy (52×7’) for the past two years. The preschool animated series for three- to five-year-olds is based on the popular picture books, again illustrated by Axel Scheffler and authored by Camilla Reid. The importance of friendship is the key theme.


“We fell in love with the books and the characters. The series will debut later this year on Channel 5’s Milkshake! strand and Sky’s on-demand service Sky Kids, and then internationally including on ZDF in Germany. We’re incredibly excited about it, it’s a wonderful show,” says Rose.


“We’re conscious about the international audience, so it’s essential in terms of developing ideas that they appeal and come with a full understanding of diversity and different cultures,” says Thomas.


Pip & Posy
Pip & Posy

“We hope preschoolers will get an insight into how to navigate the ups and downs of friendships, and in doing so, build stronger relationships. During the pandemic, early years learning has been so thoroughly disrupted and social interaction skills are really crucial. Although it’s not an educational show, we hope that’s part of the value of making it,” Rose adds.


Like many in the kids’ animated space, MLP has weathered the pandemic storm well. “It’s been stressful at times and there have been difficulties, but we’re very conscious that it’s important that high-quality entertainment is delivered for young children who are at home,” says Pope.


“The lesson that we learned over the past nine months is to be flexible and adapt very quickly, which has allowed for business continuity. From the distribution side we’ve been able to answer an even higher demand, because we noticed a huge peak back in April and May, where we were approached by lots of broadcasters internationally, who really wanted content,” adds Thomas.


The Snail & the Whale
The Snail and the Whale

After 2020’s difficulties, the three MLP executives are buoyant about 2021. “We are feeling very positive about the year ahead. I’m sure there will be some challenges thrown at us in terms of the overall Covid-19 situation. But we proved we were quickly able to adjust, so hopefully we can adapt to any future surprises in a more relaxed way,” says Thomas.


“We are developing another preschool series, which is based on the Mr Panda series of books by Steve Antony, and Martin has started developing some high-quality, family live-action dramas, which are a departure from our other work,” says Rose.


“We’re focused on the quality of the story and audience experience. Whether it’s animation or live-action, documentary or apps, it’s about knowing the audience and delivering something knockout for them,” says Pope.

More programming profiles

  • 26-01-2024

    Magic Light Pictures’ latest holiday special debuted last month and here the company’s marketing director, Marc Ollington, and distribution director, Muriel Thomas, outline how its specials are a year-round business.


    As each new year rolls around, UK prodco Magic Light Pictures celebrates the success of its latest animated Christmas special, which has become a much-anticipated staple of BBC One’s festive line-up.


    Marc Ollington
    Marc Ollington,
    Magic Light Pictures
    Muriel Thomas
    Muriel Thomas,
    Magic Light Pictures

    Last year was no different, following the Christmas Day premiere of Tabby McTat, an adaptation of celebrated author/illustrator duo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s picture book about a busker and his pet cat. The film earned itself a spot in the top 10 programmes watched on Christmas Day, according to Magic Light marketing director Marc Ollington, with around 3.4 million live viewers for its premiere TX, and up to seven million in total after one week consolidated.


  • 22-09-2023

    Michael Rose and Martin Pope, the duo behind Magic Light Pictures, look back at their 11 adaptations of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s much-loved picture books and reveal how they plan to take the brands into the future.


    It is widely acknowledged that reading books to children delivers profound emotional and learning benefits. But there’s also evidence that it is a source of inspiration to the readers too. How many times over the years, for example, have film and TV producers said their creative ‘eureka’ moment came via the time-honoured ritual of a bedtime story?


    Take Michael Rose and Martin Pope, the co-founders of award-winning London animation studio Magic Light Pictures. Back in the mid-2000s, they were both reading Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s much-loved picture book The Gruffalo to their respective children. Determined to adapt the book into an animation film, they spent the next four years convincing publishers, agents and the authors that they could be trusted with this cherished property.

  • 30-01-2023

    Magic Light Pictures is best known for its animated Christmas specials on BBC One and now it’s diversifying, execs from the company reveal.


    As Magic Light Pictures celebrates its 20th birthday, 2023 is shaping up to be a big year for the UK prodco, which has made TV specials loved by many millions of kids around the world.


    The award-winning London company, founded by joint MDs Martin Pope and Michael Rose, has produced 12 of the BBC’s Christmas animated specials, including 10 films based on the story books by Britain’s best-selling author and illustrator, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.


    Its most recent, The Smeds & The Smoos, had more than 8.5 million linear viewers last December, with many more streaming this beautiful film on BBC iPlayer. This success is the culmination of two decades of hard work, creativity and smart stewardship from Pope and Rose.

  • 12-09-2022

    Michael Rose, joint MD at UK animation studio Magic Light Pictures, talks about the company’s strategy for turning shows into brands, and offers a glimpse of the company’s MipJunior slate via C21’s Digital Screenings.


    Magic Light Pictures is probably best known as the Oscar-nominated production house behind many of the BBC’s recent animated Christmas specials, such as The Gruffalo, Zog and Superworm.


    Last year the company launched its first animated series, Pip and Posy, on Paramount-owned Channel 5’s Milkshake! children’s block and on Sky Kids, with the show achieving fantastic ratings and international success.


    The series is about two best friends whose lives revolve around a wonderful world of play. Based on the picture books illustrated by Axel Scheffler, the illustrator of The Gruffalo, it aims to show preschoolers how to build lasting friendships with kindness, resilience and flexibility.

  • 17-02-2022

    With its holiday hit Superworm wriggling its way into millions of festive front rooms last Christmas, UK animation house Magic Light Pictures is lining up new content for 2022 and beyond.


    UK-based Magic Light Pictures, founded in 2003 by joint MDs Martin Pope and Michael Rose, has built up a strong reputation in the kids’ and family space, particularly for its animated Christmas specials for the BBC. With classics like The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child under its belt, the prodco has won three international Emmys and two Baftas and has been nominated for four Oscars.


    “We formed the company because we wanted to make high-quality programmes with a focus on the family audience,” Rose says.

  • 14-09-2021

    After a bumper year for the animation industry in general, Muriel Thomas of Magic Light Pictures reveals the UK company’s slate for this year and discusses plans for international expansion, as part of its C21 Digital Screenings showcase.


    While the events of last year sent many TV production houses into meltdown, the animation industry overall was less affected. Rather than shooting on location, CGI animators were able to keep working from their homes. Despite many challenges, productions could continue.


    The UK’s Magic Light Pictures – best known for producing Oscar-nominated animated specials based on Julia Donaldson and Axel Schleffer’s books, such as The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom – benefitted from this along with other animation houses and was also able to keep ahead of the gradually flattening curve through its position as both a producer and distributor.