Con­nect­ing with kids against the odds

How Canada’s Sink­ing Ship En­ter­tain­ment be­came a kids’ TV pow­er­house

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - MEGAN DOLSKI

Stand­ing in the mid­dle of Chichen Itza in Mex­ico, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer J.J. John­son was prep­ping for a big re­veal: two blind­folded kids were about to lay eyes on the Mayan ru­ins for the first time.

Just as he was think­ing the “wow pyra­mid” mo­ment he had set up would make for some great TV, the chil­dren’s eyes fix­ated on a tiny lizard in­stead of the an­cient struc­ture in front of them. They started to chase it.

Stand­ing there next to a team from Na­tional Geo­graphic — to whom he had suc­cess­fully pitched a chil­dren’s TV show about world travel (“Are We There Yet?”) be­fore he or his two busi­ness part­ners had ever globe-trot­ted any­where them­selves — John­son de­cided to roll with it. He told his cam­era crew to fol­low the kids.

“We’ve learned to just share the con­trol of our shows with our kid casts. They know what their peers want and what they’ll like,” John­son says, re­mem­ber­ing that shoot from a decade ago. “If you listen to them, you’re just go­ing to get a much bet­ter prod­uct.”

That phi­los­o­phy helps guide Toronto’s Sink­ing Ship En­ter­tain­ment, a chil­dren’s pro­duc­tion com­pany that took home five Day­time Emmy Awards last month for its hit se­ries “Odd Squad.” (Cale­do­nia na­tive Isaac Kragten, who plays Agent Otis, won a Day­time Emmy for Out­stand­ing Per­former in a Chil­dren’s, Pre-School Chil­dren’s or Fam­ily View­ing Pro­gram.) Three other Sink­ing Ship shows, “Annedroids,” “Book­a­boo” and “Dino Dan,” were nom­i­nated for mul­ti­ple Em­mys (for a to­tal of 28) but didn’t win.

The com­pany now em­ploys 90 per­ma­nent full time staff, has made about a dozen kids’ TV se­ries (mostly live ac­tion) and a movie spinoff, and en­gi­neered its own vir­tual re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ences.

From their first go at chil­dren’s TV more than a decade ago, John­son and the two other founders — all Ry­er­son Univer­sity grad­u­ates now in their mid-30s — have been fly­ing from the seat of their pants.

“Our in­ex­pe­ri­ence has been our great­est as­set,” said John­son, who leads the com­pany’s cre­ative. “We ap­proach ev­ery­thing with fresh eyes so we’re not con­di­tioned to re­peat the same things that ev­ery­one else has done.”

He and friends Blair Pow­ers and Matt Bishop met at Ry­er­son al­most 20 years ago. In their fi­nal year, John­son and Pow­ers pitched a project and tried to con­vince their peers to pick up the re­main­ing crew roles. “Don’t join them — it’ll be like join­ing a sink­ing ship,” a class­mate warned a fel­low stu­dent who was con­sid­er­ing it. The two friends reg­is­tered a com­pany in the same name later that day.

As fresh grads, nei­ther John­son nor Pow­ers liked the idea of work­ing their way up the in­tern lad­der or tak­ing an as­sis­tant role that would lead to a bet­ter job later. But when the plan to skip all that proved eas­ier said than done, John­son took a gig at a tal­ent agency and Pow­ers started work­ing as an as­sis­tant ed­i­tor in a base­ment in Burling­ton.

Then a boy named Daniel Cook walked into John­son’s tal­ent agency. The two hit it off, de­bat­ing whether De­cep­ti­cons are cooler than Au­to­bots. John­son im­me­di­ately called Pow­ers with an idea for a TV show: “Just fol­low­ing this kid around as he went around on dif­fer­ent ad­ven­tures and did dif­fer­ent jobs to just see his per­spec­tive on things.”

They shot a pi­lot, which was when Bishop, who now leads the com­pany’s vi­su­als and an­i­ma­tion teams, joined their team.

At last, the three sent a cut of “This is Daniel Cook” to chil­dren’s broad­cast­ers in Canada (which, at the time, they had to look up to iden­tify). To their huge sur­prise, TVO called the next day with some in­ter­est: “We lit­er­ally didn’t know what to do,” re­called John­son, who was 23 at the time.

The show was even­tu­ally picked up in Canada by TVO and Tree­house, and later in the U.S. by Disney.

Since then, Sink­ing Ship has pitched and sold hun­dreds of hours of chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming. The com­pany now has filmed in up­wards of 40 coun­tries, and em­ploys its own pro­duc­tion, post­pro­duc­tion and in­ter­ac­tive teams.

In its al­most 20 years of pro­duc­ing con­tent, the com­pany has amassed a loyal fol­low­ing of kid fans. When they held an open house on the set of “Odd Squad” last month, more than 1,000 fans (and their scram­bling par­ents) bought tick­ets to meet their favourite cast mem­bers and stock up on weird gad­gets from the show.

Mil­lie Davis, the 9-year-old Cana­dian ac­tress who plays Ms. O on the gen­tly ed­u­ca­tional se­ries, greets and poses for pic­tures with starstruck young fans. On the show, which airs on both TVO and PBS, Mil­lie plays the juice box-sip­ping squad leader who sits at her desk and sends her agents on strange prob­lem-solv­ing mis­sions.

Mil­lie thinks her char­ac­ter is im­por­tant, on and off screen. “It’s a child of colour play­ing a lead role and be­ing like a boss and lead­ing peo­ple and stuff. I think that’s re­ally cool,” she said in a re­cent in­ter­view at the open house on set. “I think that (peo­ple who watch the show) learn that girls have power too.”

Fea­tur­ing di­verse casts and char­ac­ters has been a big part of the pro­duc­tion com­pany’s fo­cus. Sink­ing Ship’s founders say they have also made an in­ter­nal ef­fort to hire more women, ac­knowl­edg­ing that tout­ing shows with strong fe­male leads made by an all-male pro­duc­tion team would miss the point.

The founders be­lieve kids are of­ten un­der­es­ti­mated, and want to talk up to their view­ers in­stead of down.

“Some­times (kids) want to see more of them­selves re­flected on screen and they are not get­ting that in the de­mo­graphic that they are as­signed to on the TV,” said Pow­ers, who heads the busi­ness side of the com­pany and its in­ter­ac­tive teams.

The com­pany founders say they want fill the gaps in chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming. They’re turn­ing their fo­cus to the 9-to-12-year-old age group, an au­di­ence they feel is over­looked.

VINCE TALOTTA, TORONTO STAR

Adam Peltz­man, left, and Tim McKeon, right, are both cocre­ators and JJ John­son, mid­dle, is the founder of Sink­ing Ship. They’re on the set of "Odd Squad."

VINCE TALOTTA, TORONTO STAR

Ms O, a.k.a. Mil­lie Davis, on the set (her of­fice) of the kids TV show "Odd Squad" where she sends her agents on strange prob­lem-solv­ing mis­sions.

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