Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Remember Punky?

European Award for 'Punky'

A first for animation as lead character has Down syndrome

Image of Cartoon character Punky (courtesy of Monster Animation)

At Cartoon Forum in Poland this weekend, European Producer of the Year went to Ireland's Gerard O'Rourke of Monster Animation.

Monster Animation, an independentanimation studio established in 1995, focuses on creating and producing original projects as well as working on co-productions. Their latest TV series, Punky, was developed by the IFB and produced with funding from the BAI and RTÉ.

The Epoch Times spoke with Mr O'Rourke about the idea behind Punky—a cartoon where the lead character has Down’s syndrome.

The project was originally created by an Irish writer called Lindsay Jane Sedgwick, said Mr O'Rourke. 
“It was through the film board that we were asked to hook up with Lindsey and see if we could turn her great idea into a format suitable for a children’s programme.”

According to Mr O'Rourke, Ms Sedgwick had decided on a character with Down’s syndrome because some of her friends had firsthand experience in that area, and also because she was bemused that there were no characters with Down’s syndrome in animated programmes. “So she used Punky as a vehicle to tell the life story of someone with Down’s syndrome from their point of view,” explained Mr O'Rourke.

It was from that structure that Mr O'Rourke decided to make the animation for pre-school children, and that all the stories should be told from Punky's perspective. Furthermore, Punky would have to be played by a person with Down’s syndrome to be true to the show. “We worked with Down’s syndrome Ireland in finding a person that would be suitable … in the same way that we would cast with any talent agency.”

Children will, by watching the show, learn that Punky has Down’s syndrome but that she is absolutely the same as everyone else.

Ms Aimee Richardson was selected to play Punky. “She did a fantastic job, she was absolutely amazing and she brought Punky alive and did a hugejob for us.”

“It is a show that tells the story of living with Down’s syndrome through Punky's point of view, it is not a show for children with special needs ... it would go in a slot with all other preschool shows … children will, by watching the show, learn that Punky has Down’s syndrome but that she is absolutely the same as everyone else. The most important message we wanted to get out was that she is a person with Down’s syndrome, not a Down’s-syndrome person.”

With respect to the feedback the show has experienced, Mr O'Rourke said, “we have had great success and feedback from all over the world.” The show will have its international launch next month. “It was on that basis that we got voted producer of the year,” he said.'

Gerard O'Rourke of Monster Animation. (Courtesy of Monster Animation)
Pat Clarke is Chief Executive of Down Syndrome Ireland (DSI), an organisation of people with Down’s syndrome and their parents and guardians which has over 3000 member families with 25 branches nationwide. Mr Clarke said that DSI was involved with the production of Punky as a project from the start. “We advised Monster Animation and Gerard O'Rourke on the programming and layout.” “Ms Aimee Richardson, who plays Punky in the cartoon, was and is part of our DSI's national advisory council,” said Mr Clarke.

Commenting on the impact the project may have on the view the public has of people with Down’s syndrome, Mr Clarke said, “What it did was, it showed that the people and particularly children with Down’s syndrome are children first and that they have the same foibles and idiosyncrasies as every other child growing up; they might need a little more attention, they may take things a little more literally than others, but in the main I think the programme over twenty episodes showed people and children with Down’s syndrome in a positive light.”

“They would have had our full support and I'm delighted that Gerard and RTE received this award … this is a unique project and I'm not aware of it being done anywhere else in the world before … I do know that, internationally, there is a lot of interest in the programme,” said Mr Clarke.

Be gentle.

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