Exclusive Interview with Martin Baynton

Mr. Martin Baynton is a writer and illustrator with both an international reputation and over thirty published children’s books to his credit. These books include “Jane and the Dragon”, from which the children’s television show by the same name is based. Created in conjunction with Ricard Taylor and Weta Workshop, “Jane and the Dragon” brings the tale of 12 year-old knight’s apprentice Jane, and her wisecracking Dragon to TV in vibrant and innovative animation. Fresh on the heels of his appearance at this years San Diego Comic Con and with the release of the first five episodes of the show on DVD coming on August 19th, Martin was kind enough answer some of our questions about his work.

PCZ: Thank you for taking the time to field some questions. I have to tell you that my almost three-year-old really enjoys “Jane and the Dragon.” My wife and I are using his enjoyment of the television show, coupled with the fact that he affirms “Dragon is my best friend,” as a way to introduce your books.

MB: Great stuff, three years old, what a great age that is. My son is now twenty five and was the art director for “Jane and the Dragon”, my daughter is twenty two and was the assistant editor on the show here in NZ and wrote a couple of the scripts. But I long for them to have grandchildren so that I can read stories to a new generation, I keep borrowing my friends children and grandchildren these days. It goes by in a blink of an eye, Iím sure everyone tells you that Bob, but enjoy them at this age it is truly precious and special, even if it is a little exhausting some days.

PCZ: What was the genesis the “Jane and the Dragon” concept? Where did the idea come from and what sort of lessons did you hope to impart?

MB: A young girl told me how she hated the traditional fairy stories because the girls were never the masters of their destiny, they always had to behave well in order to be rewarded by marriage, or woken up by some handsome prince. The key value in those stories seemed to be that if you were well behaved and submissive the great prize of marriage would be yours, all very Victorian social engineering. So Jane was a direct response to that, to tell a story set in the traditional landscape of romantic knights and castles, but with a heroin who was responsible for shaping her own destiny and following her own dreams and not the expectations of others.

PCZ: What was the impetus behind creating a television show from your books? Why did you choose to do so with Weta? From the Weta side, what was their interest in creating a children’s television show?

MB: Jane has been in print for over twenty years, so she becomes like one of your family, a child you are immensely proud of. And that means trying to do the right thing by her, letting her grow and become all she can be. So a TV series allows you to expand on her story landscape and tell the bigger stories that she almost demands of me. It was a dream come true that Weta wanted to do it as their first childrenís TV production. Richard Taylor is passionate about kids TV shows, an avid collector and he wanted to make a show that was both aspirational in story terms and which also would also be beautiful at an art and design level. I couldnít imagine a more incredible production home for Jane.

PCZ: The look and feel of the animation is very unique. In the DVD extras Richard Taylor describes it as a “pencil drawn look”. Why was this important to the stories you tell?

MB: Richard wanted to replicate the way I had drawn the original pencil illustrations in the Jane books. The idea was to give the show a timeless artistic quality. CGI animation is a fast growing technology and each show can look dated very quickly as the techniques and methods get better, so we wanted to make something that looked both state of the art, but off to one side of the direction other studios were taking. We wanted an original look, but a classical storybook look as well.

PCZ: Aside from the obvious beauty of how the hair moves in the show, many times I catch myself wondering about the animation movements of the characters. These are often so smooth they look more like live action then animation. Is motion capture used in the production or is this all to the credit of the animators?

MB: Itís a mixture. We wanted motion capture to get the truth of movement such as way real people flinch very slightly when they practice with staves, the head pulls back at the moment of impact, it doesnít push in as it is often depicted in heroic, super hero type action. With motion capture we made the world a world of consequences, not a cartoon world. We wanted it to feel that if Jane leapt of the battlements she would break both legs, not go into a tuck and roll and come up fighting as if she was a Ninja character. So we used a mix of motion capture and keyframe.

PCZ: Being a parent myself, I appreciate when a children’s show recognizes that we are probably going to be in the room while the child watches the DVD over and over. For example, in the “A Dragon’s Tale” episode, Dragon becomes ill. Jane checks to see if he has a fever and states, “you’re hot!” Dragon’s off the cuff reply of, “Why thank you,” was done in exactly the same tone I have overused on my wife in the same scenario. Are these little presents for parents an intentional act, or is it simply that the writers can’t help themselves?

MB: Thank you so much for that. In all my books I have tried always to entertain mum and dad as well. I know how my kids wanted the same book read over and over again, so I wanted to make my books, and then the TV show earn the parents as well in the hope that they would then like it enough to want to share the experience at some level with their children. One of the most rewarding results of the show are the numbers of parents and grandparents who love the show and watch it as a whole family.

PCZ: I have read about Weta partnering with CORE Education. Can you tell us about the goals of that partnership? Might this focus extend beyond New Zealand in the future?

MB: This was a wonderful opportunity initiated by CORE who are a passionate team of educationalists working here in New Zealand. They recognized that Jane covered many areas of the educational curriculum and we have been working together to build resources for schools based on Jane. For instance I have just finished a classroom based play adapted from the original Jane book, and this is available to schools for free as a theatre activity that lends itself to classroom performances. All these resources will be available to other schools beyond New Zealand. Schools in the US can have the play for free now by emailing the Weta Workshop website for a copy.

PCZ: Can you tell us if there are any plans for a line of “Jane and the Dragon” collectibles from Weta?

MB: Collectibles is an adult market in the main so we had never envisaged collectibles as being viable. However at Comic Con this year a number of Jane fans approached us with the same request so we will give it serious thought now.

PCZ: What does the future hold for “Jane and the Dragon?” Can we look forward to more seasons on television, more DVDs or possibly a feature film?

MB: I have high hopes for Jane. I would love to see more episodes and of course a film would be wonderful. I keep my fingers crossed everyday that the incredible support weíve had from a wonderful fan base will continue to grow and that there will be enormous opportunities for Jane in the future.

PCZ: Are the any other projects you are involved in which you would like to share, or even hint at?

MB: Richard and I have developed a new pre-school show which we will be launching at MIP in Cannes this October. We have also joined forces with Chapman Entertainment in the UK to develop a TV sci-fi series for 6 to 10 year olds, focusing more on boys this time. We will be launching that at MIP as well.

PCZ: Lastly, do you have any advice, or warnings, you would like to extend to those would like to follow the same path you have and write or be involved in the television industry?

MB: Be like Jane and follow your dreams. It may sound glib but I truly believe that creative integrity and sticking to a dream is the way great shows come about. The TV industry is difficult because itís an expensive sandpit to play in and when you borrow other peopleís money there is a pressure to take their advice and suggestions too. But new and exciting properties come from the ground up through creatives who really believe in what they are doing and are prepared to fight for it and stay the course.

Beyond “Jane and the Dragon,” Martin also works for the stage, radio, TV and film, as a producer, director, screenwriter and script editor. He is the director of Limelight Studios, a television project development company which has just completed making their first animation series geared to pre-school, “Fifty the Tractor”, which is also based on his best selling books. Currently, he is again teaming up with with Weta Productions as the executive producer for “The Wotwots”, a new preschool animation series.