SMART COMPANY : The Funny Farm

A bit like Lego, New Zealand’s creative economy just keeps on growing and developing interesting new shapes to fit the planet’s needs. The latest is Auckland-based The Funny Farm, company set up to take advantage of the burgeoning demand for mobile phone applications.
The “oily rag start-up funded by family and friends” has recently launched product called JokeToons through Nokia’s Ovi store, leveraging off its market of more than 180 countries and its popularity. Apple, with more than 120 million iPod Touches and iPhones, is naturally the next step. Early June will see the launch of the Apple JokeToon App, currently in development by Danish company.
Last month, The Hedge Clippers, freebie put up on the store to pique interest, was getting over 1000 downloads day and appeared in the top 10 free downloads. Imagine the graphics quality you see on big budget, animated kids’ movie. Add some sassy characters, good natured jokes and the crystal clear definition found on most smartphones and you’ve got JokeToon – with 720p HD quality.
Now picture market where customers don’t have to go to venue, because the delivery vehicle is simply sitting in thousands of pockets across the world. The product costs the same as cup of coffee week. That’s gold, although Reynolds would prefer to think of it as “a wave about to break”.
He says: “I’ve always been into sailing and surfing so see things in those terms. It was an image that developed for me three years ago. Here was wave coming that was so huge, you felt it before you saw it or sensed it, definitely big wave to surf, except there is no tow-in. It’s about getting it up to speed and in the right direction.
“The mobile phone market is the biggest on the planet. We’ve spent the last three years getting ready to catch the wave. It’s studio dedicated at this stage to CG animation for mobile consumption.
“There is no IP in text joke. We’re holding the IP and library of Pixar style jokes. We’re pretty excited. Nokia has over 65 million video capable phones out there. They’re completely global.”
And even more important, the cartoons are really funny. As Peter Hall, head of global commercialisation for the team says: “It’s about having fun and having laugh – water-cooler discussion of something you’ve shown your mates. We’re not out to offend people or make political statements.”
Blondes might not be impressed, especially those that relate to Sally Fox, the digital actress voiced by Outrageous Fortune’s Pascal (Siobhan Marshall). Her character isn’t very bright, yelling at ventriloquist’s dummy for his dumb blonde jokes, but what she lacks in brains is more than made up for with looks.
The reason these snack movies work so well is that all of the jokes are shot in studio with one or more of an eight-strong cast of actors. “It’s all fully acted out as if live and then we cut it into the joke. Then, it goes to the animators,” says director Nigel Godfrey.
The animators use the footage as frame of reference for tricky areas such as facial expressions, hand movements, and hair, taking mere week to build each new world.
Godfrey is one of multicultural team of 12 that includes producer Johannes Konigstorfer, Alfredo Luzardo and host of artistic and VFX talent. So how did staid lawyer and trustee assemble such diverse crew? Reynolds attributes this to both his “mad, creative streak” and “ideas guy” Mike Heffernan.
“Heff had all these projects he wanted to get off the ground but hadn’t been able to. I met him and thought, I’m interested in playing ball here and learning about the business,” says Reynolds.
Which he then proceeded to do, reading every relevant book he could find on the art of movie making over period of seven years. At MIP TV event in Cannes, he heard Nokia describe movies in terms of screens: original movie theatres were followed by TV in the home, then PCs, then the mobile phone – The Funny Farm’s screen of choice.
The Funny Farm is not solo player. It is an offshoot of Reynolds’ production company Magimation which has more ambitious, but highly protected plans afoot. So are JokeToons the limit for The Funny Farm? According to Peter Hall, not at all.
“We are not against brand placement at all, we just don’t want to do that right from the start,” he says. We’d like to build up our downloads to start with. Animation lends itself really well to unobtrusive advertising; it’s really easy for us to do as it can be seamlessly integrated into the environment.”
In-flight entertainment is another area that could see snack movies take off. With continual interruptions, small screens and poor sound quality, traditional blockbusters are simply not as enjoyable, whereas short format bite of entertainment could prove ideal.
Just as flesh and blood actor can have sponsorships and wear say, branded t-shirt, so can the digital crew, slipping into All Blacks shirts and deadpanning their way through scene after money-spinning scene.
“You have to be prepared to spend the time building something substantial. This is why we could gather all of these people because we put all of this work in,” says Reynolds. “Knowing we were onto something good, we wanted to come up with commercial rationale. We are small screen focused, which has the least capital and the most return.”
It’s an example of yet another Kiwi success in the digital and movie landscape. “In New Zealand we have to come up with creative solutions to our geographic isolation,” says Reynolds. “It’s that simple.” Citing carbon emissions tax amongst other factors as major deterrent to manufacturing he says: “We need to manufacture synthetic digital. Investment has been cheap for share in the bricks and mortar aspect of The Funny Farm and the show, the IP,” says Reynolds. “It’s going to prove to be the deal of the century. We’re going to prove within the capital base we have that this market works.”
But before you rush off to obtain shares in pure New Zealand creativity – they’re not available. The last share sold the day of this interview.

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