Logie and Emmy-winning Bluey follows a six year-old Blue Heeler who turns everyday family life into extraordinary adventures. Magazine editor James Cunningham sat down recently for a chat with creator and writer Joe Brumm, art director Costa Kassab, series one art director Catriona Drummond and series two and three director Rich Jeffrey to discuss and consider the ‘cinematography’ behind the beautifully animated show.
By James Cunningham.
Bluey is a home-grown Aussie success story. First airing 2018, the show about an anthropomorphic six-year-old Blue Heeler puppy and her family was created by Joe Brumm alongside Queensland production company Ludo Studio.
The show was co-commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the British Broadcasting Corporation, and after only two seasons so far, has not only earned the Logie Award for Most Outstanding Children’s Program in 2019 but also an International Emmy Kids Award. Bluey was renewed for a third series in October 2020.
Set in Brisbane, the show follows Bluey, a Blue Heeler puppy characterised by her abundance of energy, imagination and curiosity. Bluey lives with her mother and father, Chilli and Bandit, and her younger sister Bingo who regularly joins Bluey on adventures.
The show’s visuals, including animation and art direction, are beautiful. With overarching themes including a focus on family, growing up and Australian culture, Bluey has received consistently high-viewership in Australia and around the world. Each frame of Bluey is carefully considered, designed and executed. Visually, the show contains a multitude of nods to our unique Australian landscape, its flora and fauna.
Art director Costa Kassab reflects that from the early days of design to today, the show was always about visually reflecting an authentic view of Australia, specifically Queensland and Brisbane. “Whether that’s through the abundance of Queenslander architecture to the subtropical diversity of the outdoors, we wanted to look towards the lived experiences of Australians outside the stereotypical outback aesthetic commonly found in media,” he says.
Maintaining the idea that these spaces were lived in was just as important. “We strived to include details such as messy car interiors, toy strewn playrooms and mundane yet idiosyncratic street details like wheelie bins, bus stops or water meters,” says Kassab.
“There’s a real beauty to stopping to admire everyday sights, especially within a busy family. An integral visual direction we leaned into once we started curating the drawn style was the rounded-cube ‘shape language’ of the show,” says Kassab. “To reflect Bluey’s neat, box-like appearance, everything in the world would boast that same essence of parallel lines and elegant simplicity. We’re not saying she lives in an 8-bit block world but rather one when lines don’t converge too closely cramped to each other and that objects and structures only feature their most prominent and iconic features.”
Followers of Bluey who live in or who know Brisbane can admire the way the city has been represented in the show. The background and landscape artwork ‘locations’ often feature well-known destinations in and around the capital city such Southbank, Brisbane River, the city’s skyline and buildings such as Brisbane Planetarium. All of the artists who work on Bluey collaborate closely with director Rich Jeffrey and creator Joe Brumm to further piece together the little bits that make the areas more specifically familiar.
The New Farm location in the episode ‘Spy Game’ comes to mind, where we see Brisbane Powerhouse in the background of a shot and even a scene which takes place at the New Farm Park Toilet Block, which is a really specific reference. The characters and scenes of Bluey are grounded in actual locations, and this becomes indicative of the attention to detail on the show.
Kassab explains, “I like to take advantage of living where the show is set and visit the places I know will show up in an episode beforehand. As someone who’s grown up here, at the very least I can usually call upon my own memories of the places too. Nothing quite compares to the visual notes you make in person.”
To achieve some of these visual landscape references, the team sometimes do location reconnaissance just like any film or television production might. “Photo references are invaluable in a busy production,” says Kassab. “Most of my time at the beginning of an episode isn’t even drawing, rather researching and collating photos of everything from places, artworks to film stills. We also sometimes have a location scout who takes photos for us in specific places like local churches or shops while we’re in the thick of production.”
“Our style is quite caricatured to harmonise with our simple characters,” continues Kassab. “We often describe the shape language as ‘chunky’. I also feel like in this stylistic process of simplifying shapes and details for cartoons, we get to the core essence of the subject matter. What shapes do you remove and add on a tree to succinctly communicate what type it is? What colours are drowned out in a wistful sunset and which ones are amplified? For me and the viewers, these decisions are what make stylised art so magical to experience as opposed to photorealism. You don’t always remember a clear picture of your cherished spaces but you can surely create a purposeful atmosphere.”
With the art of story-boarding, the craft of editing becomes integral when planning an animated series such as Bluey. Creator and writer Joe Brumm explains, “The opening title sequence, which is a game of musical statues is emblematic of the approach taken to the storyboarding of the show. Keeping in mind this is a show for four-year-olds who are still learning film grammar. I wanted to avoid making a quick, ‘cutty’ show. The title sequence is essentially one long shot, which gives our audience the time to track characters properly. This I’ve tried to continue as much as possible throughout the show, trying to use single shots for as long as possible, only cutting when absolutely necessary.”
So in thinking specifically about aspects of filmmaking and cinematography such as shot composition and framing, how is the world of Bluey storyboarded? Series two and three director Rich Jeffrey explains, “Its generally is a very flat two-dimensional show. Most often our characters are staged on a single plane and aren’t often set in different depths from each other. Our storyboard artists keep this in mind when staging our more basic scenes. Of course we break this rule all the time where the script requires it for certain action.”
“Our shot composition and framing is depicted by dialogue and action,” Jeffrey continues. “What does the audience need to see? Who’s talking and how many people are in the conversation? If we need to show something important then we go close in on it so the audience doesn’t miss it. Filmmaking is all about directing the audience to follow the story. You want to make sure you’re showing things in the clearest possible manner and not to make continuity confusing. Do you need to remind the audience where everything is situated? Then go wide and show an establishing shot before cutting in on specific shots so that the audience can understand where everything is, geographically.”
Storyboards are in a way the first pass at directing a film. It’s the key step in the visualisation of the script into picture and something that can represent the structure of the moving image. In animation every aspect of each scene has to be designed and created. Storyboards for animation have to provide a clear depiction of the staging, composition, acting and action for the film. It’s a highly creative and demanding role for any storyboard artist.
“We start by giving them a brief where we read through the script with the showrunner, director and board artist,” says Jeffrey. “We discuss all the main points of the script’s locations, dialogue and action. At this meeting we will even have prepared some very simple thumbnail sketches to help describe what shot or camera angles will work best. Our artists then have three weeks to complete a board. In the first week they show us the key layouts for all their main shots in the form of rough drawings or thumbnails; smaller, simple sketches that come before the larger main finished drawings.”
“At this stage we iron out all the things that aren’t working visually and correct it there to avoid any major reworking of finished drawings,” Jeffrey continues. “Then they build from there, defining the action in more detailed panels still in rough form. We do another pass on that, correcting again any problematic areas before the artist spends the last week cleaning up the board to get it ready for the editor. All without a piece of paper. Everything is done digitally in specific programs designed to build storyboards. The artist is still very much hand-drawing, but it’s straight onto the screen via a Cintiq.”
Any cinematographer will tell you how important colour is in film, especially with all the digital grading tools now at our disposal. Colour is a powerful tool for practical readability, characteristic art direction and emotional drive. Costa says, “It’s important we have purposeful colour schemes and colour direction while maintaining a sense of fun and brightness in the show’s design. While we certainly practice consistency across familiar locations such as the family house and neighbourhood, our spectrum is highly dependent on the context of location and plot mood.”
In the episode ‘Grandad’, yellows, browns and warm greens transport the viewer to a dry rural Queensland bush. Calypso’s school and its surroundings, particularly in the episode ‘Barky Boats’ are by comparison much more deep and vivid, almost like a fairytale forest. “The handmade fairy garden and hidden meadow in that episode may seem wildly vibrant at first but the scheme actually repeats yellow, pink and green in a careful pattern that creates the illusion of a boundless rainbow,” says Costa. “Brisbane is also naturally a colourful place, between its tropical flora and breathtaking sunrise and sunset skies. Even something as simple as noting how saturated the cool blue shadows get during the afternoon goes a long way to make the cartoon world feel like home.”
One episode in particular, ‘The Creek’, offers the viewer beautiful scenery with almost painting-like compositions. Visually, it’s quite stunning. This episode perhaps in particular stands out as the location of the creek was important to the narrative of this particular episode. Series one art director Catriona Drummond adds, “You mention that the compositions are ‘painting-like’. It’s important to note that at a foundational level they are paintings. The backgrounds may be deceptively ‘cartoony’, but at the rough stages of background development, we are literally ‘painting’ the colour roughs for these backgrounds.”
“They require the same skillset as traditional painting to make something that is an appealing composition and reflects the story and emotional arc of the episode,” says Drummond. “I did a lot of plein air painting around Brisbane and South East Queensland so I could capture the specific light for episodes such as ‘The Creek’. The location is based on creeks around Brisbane.”
“Brisbane is lucky to have lots of little wild patches all over suburbia like this,” continues Drummond. “Wandering a little way off a playground into bushland and the local creek is a familiar feeling to a lot of us. I also drew upon my own experiences growing up around the Kedron Brook area in the inner north. I also added my own little touch in the spa scene with the leaves on the rocks. In my own childhood my mum and I used to make little bits of land art like that in the same way Andy Goldsworthy does. Overall I wanted the creek to be a beautiful, secluded natural sanctuary. By the time we reach the scene with the Potoroo, one of those strange magical memories from childhood. Flooded with afternoon light from a place you can’t quite remember, that eventually becomes so mysterious it’s almost spiritual.”
Within the episode ‘The Creek’, there’s a short sequence where the audience sees a dragonfly fly past Bluey. This sequence demonstrates not one but two cinematic techniques; the use of slow-motion in conjunction with depth-of-field. These two techniques are something that you might usually achieve ‘in camera’, but here the team behind Bluey are recreating camera techniques with animation.
“It’s actually easier than you may think,” adds Jeffrey. “In the case where we may want to add some effects or enhance a shot by giving it extra detail and employ some cinematic techniques we will render all the different elements of a scene out separately on an alpha, meaning that where there is no image or artwork it will be transparent. These separate layers may be the background on its own, then the character or each character separately and then foreground elements. Basically anything you want to control separately. This allows us to take all those layers and re composite them back together in a programme like AfterEffects.”
“We can then edit the sequence by faking depth-of-field by blurring certain layers, adding a 3D camera for multi-plane which is what we did in the case of this shot” says Jeffrey. “The slow-motion itself the animator did simply by having it animated very slowly at that point. Quite a manual technique when you think in live action you would simply film it at a high frame rate and slow it down. We can then add extra detail like certain lighting and visual effects. In the case of the dragonfly, we drew extra detail into it as we were seeing it so close up.”
For the adult fans on Bluey, the series features a variety of pop culture references from Indiana Jones to Gladiator, from Predator to 2001: A Space Odyssey, from The Simpsons to Seinfeld. It’s a playground of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it easter eggs. One inspired idea saw the aspect ratio for the episode ‘The Adventure’ change to something more cinematic, adding black bars to the top and bottom of the frame throughout the episode. Something not immediate identifiable to kids.
Kassab explains, “In terms of the aspect ratio it was really just a simple visual cue for the audience to shift into a new cinematic world of play. Art direction wise, I had the joy of creating outfits for the fantastical character personas using craft materials. Bluey’s felt princess crown is a nod to more historical princess headwear in medieval times. The inspiration actually sparked from costume design in the film Braveheart. I really liked the decision to go down this route because it more uniquely presents the idea of princess outside of renditions of tiaras and gowns.”
There are about twelve major steps in the production of each roughly seven-minute episode of Bluey including; scripts, voice records, storyboards, editing, art direction, design and rigging, backgrounds, layout, animation, visual effects, foley, music and final mix. Each step consists of a whole department of people or in some cases a person dedicated to that task
“One episode is in production for about three to four months throughout all those steps but of course it’s a rolling schedule meaning where one episode is complete for that department another one starts,” says Jeffrey. “At any one time production is across as many as twelve or more episodes in their various stages of completion.”
“We don’t do any form of colour-grading on our show as all the final artwork is created up front by our artists in photoshop,” he continues. “Being a simple show in that respect is easy to create what will be our final art from the start. Our final films however do still go through a process with an external company that runs checks on each episode to make sure our colours and sound are within legal requirements for broadcast. This is also where we view the episode for the last time before it gets delivered. After this it’s too late to correct any mistakes so we have to make sure we’ve caught them all!”
Kassab adds, “Within the art department, we’ve been striving to increase the artistic range of the show, both in subject matter and rendering. Ever since day one, our team has put 100% into making the show look as best as it can. However as you do more and more of a project, you start to catch your own mistakes and better innovate your processes and methods. Throughout each season, we’ve found more room to dig deeper in the art and its cinematic possibilities.”
“Something else that has come with time is the ability to develop the visual lives and spaces of Bluey’s surroundings and her friends,” Kassab says. “Whether it’s taking a trip to a new fictional version of another iconic Brisbane setting or seeing inside more of Lucky’s dad’s house, it’s been very engaging, fleshing out our world bit by bit. New characters are another design adventure. We’re always finding new dog breeds to stylise into our show’s shape language, or reinvent how far we can take certain visual attributes of certain breeds for narrative purposes.”
The episode ‘Sleepytime’ is an excellent example of the power of animated visuals. An episode with a visual scope that the team says they couldn’t have dreamt of achieving in season one. “I feel like we’ve already had so many medium pushing opportunities during this third season,” Kassab says in conclusion, “and while it certainly hasn’t gotten easier, our restlessness with improving our craft powers us through each day.”
Find Bluey on ABC iView and discover it for yourself.
A special thanks to Joe Brumm, Costa Kassab, Rich Jeffrey and Catriona Drummond, and also Sasha Folker and the team at Ludo Studio is Brisbane, and along with Amy Reiha at Australian Broadcasting Corporation for making this article happen.
James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.