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C21 DIGITAL SCREENINGS

Magic Light Pictures

Programming Profile

Magic Light founders on turning classic children’s stories into TV hits

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.

 

Rose
Michael Rose,
Magic Light Pictures

Fortunately, they proved persuasive – because that protracted pitching process has evolved into one of the most durable creative collaborations in the animation business.

 

The Gruffalo, which debuted on screen as a 30-minute seasonal special in 2009, is still watched by adoring fans the world over, having been named the best children’s TV fiction of the last 50 Years by the Prix Jeunesse in 2014. Subsequently, Magic Light has gone on to produce another 10 animated specials based on Donaldson/Scheffler hits such as Room on the Broom, Superworm and Zog. This Christmas sees the launch of the 11th collaboration, Tabby McTat, to be voiced by Jodie Whittaker (Doctor Who), while early secret preparations are also underway for the next project.

 

Recalling the early days, Rose says he and Pope knew immediately that The Gruffalo was a special property: “It has fantastic characters at its heart and it’s a great story. We saw a real opportunity to make a half-hour Christmas special and develop a classic property.”

 

Pope
Martin Pope,
Magic Light Pictures

The Magic Light team have never wavered from their belief in the half-hour format, using it for all their Donaldson/Scheffler adaptations. “Julia and Axel also received offers from people who were pitching the idea of a Gruffalo series or feature,” says Pope. “But we felt the half-hour special was the best way to communicate the values in the book. There was such a richness in the world, but it was still only a short read – so making a feature film or series would have required changing the story. Fortunately, Julia and Axel were thinking along similar lines.”

 

The ambition to create half-hour films was aided by the fact that a market for seasonal specials already existed in the UK, adds Rose: “British television has a long tradition of airing animated co-viewing events at Christmas, so that was what we aimed for from the start.” More than a decade on, every one of the Magic Light/Donaldson/Scheffler films has been given a premium slot in BBC One’s heavily viewed Christmas Day schedule.

 

Rose and Pope have never cut corners on quality. So how has the boutique firm funded its creations? “Initially, we raised money privately to fund The Gruffalo,” says Rose, “because we wanted to retain complete control. Taking that risk allowed us to achieve the best creative result and control distribution and commercial exploitation. The latter was important, because we cared passionately about bringing the film to the audience in the best way possible.”

 

The Smeds and The Smoos
The Smeds and The Smoos

The BBC and ZDF in Germany then came in as core partners on The Gruffalo – and have been involved in every Donaldson/Scheffler special since. The rest of the global distribution business is handled by an in-house team, led by international distribution director Muriel Thomas.

 

To date, the company has licensed Donaldson/Scheffler properties into 180 countries.

 

As referenced above, this year’s new release will be Tabby McTat, based on a book that was published in 2008. “It’s about the relationship between a busker called Fred and a musical cat called Tabby,” says Rose. “It deals with how things change in life, about how you embrace this change, and the way it can lead to new and better things. It’s set on the streets of London and we’re really excited about it premiering on BBC One over Christmas.”

 

Pip & Posy
Pip & Posy

With production almost complete, several pre-sales on the show have been inked, adds Pope: “But Muriel’s sales team will be at Mipcom in Cannes in October looking for additional partners.”

 

Ask Rose and Pope if they have favourites among the Donaldson/Scheffler shows and they are reluctant to “choose between our babies.” Oscar-nominated The Gruffalo and its sequel The Gruffalo’s Child were clearly landmarks, while Room on the Broom has been a big hit in the US, also securing an Oscar nomination. The Snail & The Whale, meanwhile, has won two Baftas. Cornered, Pope says Zog has been a particularly important show: “Aside from The Gruffalo, Zog the dragon is the only character who has been given a second book by Julia and we have made two films. He is a wonderful dragon who is really breaking out and living on his own.”

 

While the financial model on the productions has stayed more or less the same, there have undoubtedly been changes in the shape of the market. “The most obvious shift has been that DVDs have been replaced by streamers and other digital exploitation,” says Rose. “One of the major developments for our shows has been the growth of on-demand platform BBC iPlayer. Our entire catalogue is available there, so now audiences can watch these shows all year round, not just at Christmas. We’re about to reach the milestone of 100 million views on iPlayer.”

 

The Gruffalo
The Gruffalo

Social media has also become increasingly significant as a support tool, adds Pope. “We’ve passed 500,000 subscribers on our Gruffalo World YouTube channel. The complete films are not on the channel, but there is plenty of scope to connect with audiences via clips and other activities.”

 

Pope says the company has also made inroads into theatrical distribution. “We’ve had some very successful releases in France and are now replicating that strategy in the UK and Germany. We’re seeing tremendous numbers of people going to the cinema to have experiences they can cherish.”

 

Just as significantly from a commercial perspective, characters like The Gruffalo and Zog have developed traction in licensing and merchandising. “From the start, every decision has been about ensuring these characters would still be relevant in 50 years or more,” says Rose. “That long-term thinking has enabled us to build robust licensing programmes, so now we have hundreds of products across markets like the UK, Germany, Italy and Benelux. We’ve also expanded into live activities and experiences through partnerships with the likes of Forestry England and Merlin Entertainment.”

 

The Snail and the Whale
The Snail and the Whale

Productions typically take around 22 months, start to finish, and involve the kind of painstaking textual analysis that wouldn’t be out of place in an English literature degree. “Working with writers, we really think through each line, each phrase, looking at every picture in the book in detail,” says Pope. “We’re trying to explore all the richness in every title.”

 

One intriguing dimension of book-to-toon adaptations is the dialogue between two sets of creatives. So how does the dynamic with Donaldson and Scheffler work? “They’re keen to see what we’re doing,” says Pope. “And it’s a real benefit having authorial insights. But they are respectful of the fact we need to be given the freedom to make the films. In practice, we consult them at key moments; and when they have ideas, we take them on board.”

 

As with their financing model and production format, Rose and Pope have avoided introducing gratuitous changes to their creative approach. Their view, supported by the enduring popularity of their shows, is that successive generations of families and kids yearn for the same thing. “Audiences want something that’s high quality, that speaks to them emotionally, that they can cherish, and that helps them engage with the world imaginatively,” says Pope. “Our view is that if we stay true to what we want to do, quality will out.”



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.

     

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    Marc Ollington,
    Magic Light Pictures
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    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.

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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 29-01-2021

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    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.”
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