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Inspired by the interactions between his young daughters, Joe Brumm created a one-minute pilot that would become the kids’ television juggernaut Bluey. Here, he discusses the challenges of writing the show and reminisces about the blue heelers of his childhood. “Each episode has a number of components to make it good … It’s not just about coming up with a funny game.” By Steve Dow.

Bluey creator Joe Brumm’s dog days

Joe Brumm.
Credit: Daley Pearson

Last week, locked down in Brisbane, Joe Brumm put on his best suit and tie and joined his team on a video conference to celebrate a win: six-year-old Bluey; her four-year-old sister, Bingo; dad, Bandit; and mum, Chilli, had stormed their way to an International Emmy Kids Award.

But the clinking of champagne glasses would have to wait. A skeleton crew of three has been keeping the wheels in motion at Ludo Studio in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, where Bluey is made, while the rest of the some 50-strong team, including animators, storyboarders, writers, sound designers, special effects crew and producers, have all been forced to work from home to make the second half of the hit ABC series’ 52-episode second season.

Fans around the world are waiting. In recent months, Bluey has broken through globally on the Disney Junior pay TV network, the Disney+ streaming service and the Youku streaming platform of China’s Alibaba Group, dubbed in Mandarin. In the United States, some young fans have even added “mum” to their vocabulary, in place of the requisite “mom”, a reflection of the fact Disney has not dubbed the Australian cast’s voices.

“It wasn’t calm,” Brumm says of the Emmys night. Bluey’s success has been incredible and the competition was stiff. “It’s always hard when you’re not holding a trophy, but some pretty big shows have won this in previous years.”

It was only in 2016 that Brumm, through his boutique animation company, Studio Joho, made a one-minute Bluey pilot with his small team in their spare time. Ludo co-founders Charlie Aspinwall and Daley Pearson unofficially took the pilot to conferences such as the annual MIPCOM television market fair in Cannes, France. Passing it around, executives scratched their heads: was this more Family Guy than Peppa Pig?

“It just had some dangerous stuff in it,” Brumm recalls. “Bandit was pushing Bluey and she wanted to go all the way around on a swing, so she ends up doing a full 360 degrees. It was just unsafe,” he laughs. “You could never put that on TV.” So Bluey version 1.0 was a bit anarchic, like South Park? “No. No one swore or anything, but there are so many safety rules: you can’t have a kid swing around [completely] in a swing. But it was really funny, I thought. All the heads of companies were passing it around to themselves saying, ‘Hey, check this out; this is great.’”

A year rolled by. The team met Michael Carrington, then the head of ABC children’s television, who liked the one-minute version and secured about $20,000 of funding for a seven-minute “proper” pilot aimed at kids, with the goal of getting it ready for the Asian Animation Summit in Brisbane in late 2017. The ABC snapped up Bluey, and began airing it on ABC Kids in October 2018. International attention was assured; in one year, the show racked up 152 million iView views.

Brumm’s wife, Suzy Brumm, is a storyboard artist on the show and is working on a spinoff book series. Many of the show’s plot lines come from the couple’s experiences playing with their daughters, who were both aged in the four- to six-year-old bracket as Bluey and Bingo were when the first pilot was made.

The core of the stories always comes from Joe’s interest in children’s play, says Pearson. He told the Screen Forever industry conference in Melbourne last year: “[Brumm] really respects children. He really believes that they can handle stuff. That doesn’t mean heavy stuff; it just means they can handle themes. From the very beginning when we first met Joe, he said Bluey is about game play because game play is the first notion of a child’s experience of collaboration, co-operation, responsibility, plus jealousy, plus all … the human stuff. That germ was always there for Joe and I think [in] every game he’s tried to express some version of the first draft of adulthood for Bluey and Bingo.”

Inspiration also comes from Brumm’s extensive reading of psychology books about children’s play. He decided the show would not focus on reading and numbers, but rather on four- to six-year-olds’ social development “just after fine motor skills and just before abstract academic onset”: children learning to co-operate once they pass the ego phase of toddlerhood. At that developmental stage, his own two children were “re-creating the world as they saw it”. Brumm observed or would sometimes take part in his daughters’ “little distilled-down version of your previous day’s interaction”, such as “playing cafes, doctor trips, taking them to the dentist”.

Initially, Brumm had been “forced into” seeking out psychology books – written by authors such as the late Vivian Paley, who was an American early childhood education researcher and kindergarten teacher, and the late Sara Smilansky, an Israeli behavioural scientist – because his elder daughter, then aged five, was not enjoying structured class for her prep year, although she enjoyed the social side of play.

“We had a hard time, trying different schools, because she’s quite a smart girl,” Brumm says. “So the problem wasn’t obvious. In hindsight, having read everything, we realised she was probably not quite ready for such a big academic push when we could see she was really just in a socialisation phase.”

The Brumms found a school that aligned with the psychology he had been reading about, but Brumm declines to name the school because as someone who makes shows for the national broadcaster, he says, he must avoid being seen to endorse a particular brand or philosophy.

 

Joe Brumm was born in Winton in central-western Queensland. The family moved to Cairns and later to Brisbane when Joe began attending high school. The original Bluey in Brumm’s life, also a blue heeler, was a “bit of an arsehole”, Brumm recalls.

This Bluey was a boy and did not get along with the family’s dalmatian, Chloe, a girl. “He [also] used to hate my little brother,” laughs Brumm, referring to his younger sibling, Dan, who is now the sound designer and the voice of Uncle Stripe on Bluey. “He used to herd Dan around. I remember loving that dog, and he was great, but unfortunately we had to give him to someone else when we moved down to Brisbane. He was just making Chloe’s life terrible, so we gave Bluey to a farm.”

The name Bandit comes from another blue heeler in Brumm’s childhood. Bandit belonged to the best mate of Brumm’s father, Bob, who was then a cattle stock inspector. Brumm’s mother, Chris, was a librarian. Brumm’s older sibling, Adam, became an archaeologist, which became Bandit’s occupation in the show, although all three Brumm boys like to draw.

“I had lots of little weird quirks growing up,” says Brumm. “I used to get really homesick. I could never sleep over at anyone’s house until I was about 12. Mum’s an extrovert and Dad’s an introvert, so I’m a bit of both; I think I just ride those two [opposites]. Depending on the day and the mood, I’m in one of those camps.” His introvert side shows when he explains he doesn’t like seeing pictures of himself.

After university, Brumm applied for an illustration course but then discovered an animation course and scored a place in the latter. “I really liked animators and seeing them mucking around. They’re really my people,” he says.

He moved to Britain and spent 10 years working in London, mostly on children’s TV, including three years on Charlie and Lola. “It was a great time to be an animator in London,” he says. “I learnt about the pipeline to make a series, how to run a studio, to make a kids’ animated cutout series. It took a bit of tweaking and adjustment. I learnt from some really good directors how to be a director, how you need to comport yourself. Kitty Taylor, the director of Charlie and Lola, was a good person to learn from.”

The global financial crisis hit, and work dried up, so Brumm came back to Australia. He had just married Suzy and was homesick. “I always had the drive to start my own company [Studio Joho],” he says. “The time was right to go home and start that.”

Brumm sometimes begins writing a Bluey episode with notes about the family’s experiences. “Sometimes you’ll play a game and it will be too weird and funny that just jog a few lines down. For the real core of the episode, it will often be from reading books and thinking about, ‘Oh, that’s what was going on in that game or that little conflict.’ Usually all the little conflicts or emotional stuff that’s going on is just from watching my kids. One kid is always doing [something] to another kid, and you talk it through with your wife and you talk to your friends and you read books – you’re always trying to figure some issue out, right?

“Not that we get to the bottom of issues all the time, but when you get to the middle of an issue, it’s like, okay, I’ve learnt something there about why kids do things, and then I try and get that in the episode. Each episode has a number of components to make it good, and that’s why it’s a challenge for new writers. It’s not just about coming up with a funny game.”

The most challenging Bluey theme has been death. In episode 38 in the first season, “Copycat”, Bluey finds a budgie that dies. “Every little aspect of conscious and unconscious behaviour that you’re exhibiting [as parents], there’s little eyes on you taking it in,” says Brumm. “The kids are always playing that game that annoys the shit out of you when they’re copying you, that’s the overt version of it, but they are often just [more subtly] copying you, and when they hit an area of life they’ve never hit before – which there’s quite a lot of when you’re five – that’s when they really look to you for your reactions.

“Fairly recently, one of our guinea pigs, Karen, got eaten by a python in front of the kids. So that was a whole 45-minute ordeal. Death of pets and birds is what happens when you grow up in the Australian suburbs.”

Although a big team pitches in to make Bluey, Brumm’s voice remains authorial. Producer Sam Moor told the Screen Forever conference: “We tried very hard with series one to get some other writers in, but we just found that nobody could get that same voice. The people that have been most successful [in writing] have been a couple of our lead animators and one of our [visual effects] guys and an animation director. I don’t know what it is, but nobody can quite get it. We’d love to find that person.”

Brumm likes to surf to wind down and spends an hour meditating each morning, and has passed directorial duties for season two into the capable hands of colleague Richard Jeffery. Brumm is aware, as he prepares to begin writing a “theoretical” season three of Bluey after a four-week writing break, that he is asking a lot of himself with 52 episodes a season.

“We always keep looking for those other writers [but] I find they’re not quite landing in our show’s territory straight away. We usually get there; they just need guiding around a bit. If someone could just come in and write these episodes, production would be a lot smoother for me.

“In season two we have five or six episodes before the end where I’ve worked with other writers. But the other thing is I really enjoy it, so I don’t want to outsource the thing that I love. I don’t know the answer to that; I’m a bit of a control freak in that area. As long as I can keep it up, I’m going to.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2020 as "Heeler dealer".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.