Why play safe when you could be weird?

As part of the Illustration for Children Season of Inside Illustration, Alex T Smith talks to Greg McIndoe about his book series Claude moving to children’s animation and creating fresh characters for his new animated series.

As an award-winning children’s book illustrator and author, Alex T Smith is no stranger to seeing his stories in print. Much to the delight of Alex and his young readers, two of his illustrated adventures have been brought to life on the small screen.

“I love reading and I love books, but my inspiration has always come from TV and film,” says Alex. His much-loved Claude book series was inspired by shows from the 1970s..

Claude published by Hodder Children’s Books

In particular, the formulaic structure of popular shows like Mr Benn, Are You Being Served? and Dad’s Army influenced how each Claude book has an episodic feel, with a consistent set-up bookending each tale. The story always begins when Claude’s owners leave and ends when they return, none the wiser of the shenanigans which have taken place in their absence, despite the obvious visual clues.

Claude has been extensively translated

Published in over 20 languages, Claude has a proven global appeal, so it is no surprise that several production companies were interested in teaming up for a TV adaptation. Alex and his publisher Hachette decided Sixteen South perfectly fit the project. “They wanted to keep the look and feel of the show true to the books and they understood my influences without me having to explain them,” he explains.

Confidence in his collaborators was important to Alex because – as any illustrator will understand – he had become quite protective over Claude after spending so many years telling his character’s story.

Claude – additional characters that Alex developed especially for the TV series © Sixteen South Limited

While developing all of his characters, Alex spends time considering the quirks of their personalities to make sure he knows exactly who they are. “What makes a character is when you subvert what people expect of them,” he says, “Claude’s best friend, Sir Bobblysock, was inspired by my grandma and behaves like an old Irish woman. You don’t expect that from a sock”.

‘A main character should be instantly recognisable, even with no details, just in silhouette from across the room’

Alex T Smith

“For a main character, you have to have someone that children can either relate to or imagine being friends with and who they can learn from too,” he continues. An educational expert helped inform Claude’s optimistic catchphrase: I can do that! “We wanted Claude to help children feel like they could do anything.”

In terms of aesthetics, a main character should also be instantly recognizable, even “with no details, just in silhouette from across the room”. This is particularly helpful when it comes to designing merchandise for a character – something which Disney, who bought the rights to the Claude TV show during the development process, knows a thing or two about.

Claude TV characterisations © Sixteen South Limited

Working with a multinational corporation presents a different batch of challenges. For example, one of the main locations in Claude is a bakery, but Disney has a Healthy Eating Policy which means they can’t be seen to be promoting unhealthy food.

“I wrote an episode where Claude is on a ride-on lawn mower. He is an animated cartoon dog, but still we had to go along with very serious health and safety guidelines,” Alex recalls. In the end, this risk aversion inspired a humorous aspect of Claude’s over-the-top personality; you won’t see him so much as cutting a vegetable without putting a helmet on first.

Claude TV tie-ins Comic Capers (published by Hachette). Comic Capers was made entirely from artwork from the animation. © Sixteen South Limited

As work on over 50 episodes of Claude – all of which were new stories to keep things fresh for young fans – came to a close, Alex set about conjuring up some new adventurous animals. This time, inspiration came from somewhere very close to home – his garden. “I have pet chickens and I am always looking out at them and wondering what they are up to.”

This seed of an idea developed into The Coop Troop which he describes as “The A Team but with farmyard animals”. The initial came from Alex during a brainstorming session with Sixteen South and they have been developing it together ever since.

“We didn’t have books to back it up this time; we just had an idea and used it to create a whole new world from scratch”. Perhaps the most noticeable result of this alternative process was a change in aesthetic style. Alex’s original sketches for the characters of The Coop Troop were 2D before it was decided that 3D CGI animation would fit the fast-paced and action-packed tone of the show.

The Coop Troop characters © Sixteen South Limited

The Coop Troop has had a surprisingly fast turnaround by TV standards. It went into production in October 2021 and is set to premiere later this year. The collaborative project is currently being finished by a production team in Paris. “I did more in the early stages and am less involved now, but that’s lovely because I get to be surprised,” Alex says.

With both Claude and The Coop Troop, Alex has been sure to celebrate all of the little wins along the way; including the ‘surreal’ moment when he first saw footage of the characters he had dreamt up inside his head moving and speaking exactly how he’d imagined they would.

The Coop Troop trailer still © Sixteen South Limited

In the TV world, there is always the threat of a project being abruptly cut short and not making it to screen, so focusing on these highlights helps maintain a positive mindset. “You have to celebrate every little milestone, because you never know how far you are going to go.”

The biggest win for Alex is the delight of having children as his audience – something which he believes is a true privilege. “They are loveable, incredibly bright and funny but so weird,” he says, “You can go anywhere and they will come along for the ride.”

The Coop Troop trailer still © Sixteen South Limited

Tapping into this childlike sense of freedom, curiosity and unadulterated oddness is at the heart of Alex’s success as an author, illustrator and now TV maker. “I’m a big believer in not tempering your weirdness. Why play safe when you could be weird?”

Images courtesy of Sixteen South

Read the Editorial Season interview with Sarah Habershon of The Guardian here. And the Branding Season interview with Uncommon Studio’s Jhy Turley here