Go get grubby!
Cate McQuillen and Hewey Eustace of mememe productions are the creative force behind the Emmy Award winning dirtgirlworld. Made for 4 to 7-year-olds, this quirky eco-series and transmedia property teaches children that we protect what we love. Dirtgirlworld is a celebration of life outside with the main characters, dirtgirl and scrapboy, inviting us all to “go get grubby!”
The Australian based duo were recently in New Zealand for Survive & Thrive where Transmedia NZ's Fiona Milburn had the chance to sit down with Cate to talk about creating dirtgirlworld and mememe’s ethical business models.
Here are the edited highlights of the chat. Also see a storify of Survive & Thrive below.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and what drove you to create dirtgirlworld?
My background is in music and education. I started off as an all singing, all dancing child who luckily had a dad interested in growing food. So, I was the all singing, all dancing, wheelbarrow riding child. And, of course, I was obsessed with story. Obsessed with reading story, watching story, going to plays, and writing stories myself.
As a teenager, this obsession with story kept growing stronger. Then I did an education course, and taught in schools for three years, until I abandoned that to become the all singing, all dancing adult that I had always dreamed of being. Not that I have any regrets. I totally love education. I love teaching. I love how powerful sharing knowledge is. Dirtgirl would never have come about if I hadn’t had that sort of experience in my life.
I met Hewey whilst performing the lead role in Hair, in Melbourne. He was playing bass in a famous rock band, and we fell in love. We decided we would move to the country, because the western world was in decline. This was 25 years ago. We packed up all of our belongings, bought an old church on 80 acres, and started living a sustainable lifestyle. We met lots of families, with lots of awesome kids. Families who knew way more about the planet than I did, because they had lived it from birth.
We realised, then and there, that there were many dirtgirls and dirtboys who deserved to have content that was relevant, and meaningful, and reflected their lives. And, that there were many kids in the city who also deserved sharing that story. So that’s where dirtgirlworld came from: from hanging out, doing it, being it, wearing no shoes, a little orange tractor, and my hair in three pony tails.
Once you had established the idea, what were your next steps?
Because music was our background, we wrote an album of 20 songs. It won some awards. Kids loved it, kids were singing the songs, so we thought we would write to the TV stations.
“Dear TV stations my name’s Cate. I live in the country and I have this great idea for dirtgirlworld. Here’s a CD, would you like to make a TV show of it?”
We sent this off and, of course, heard nothing.
“Oh right! That’s obviously not how it works.”
So, I lifted up my chin and discovered that, just up the road, in Byron Bay, they had a SCREENWORKS organisation. I went and did a couple of sessions there, including how to pitch a project, and entered their pitching competition. However, I decided not to pitch dirtgirlworld because I didn’t want to put my heart on the line and have it chopped up with a knife and fork by broadcasters. I made up another project altogether, pitched it and won.
Then we went to Melbourne, to the SPAA Conference, and won that competition. Headed to Kidscreen, in New York, where we also won that competition. Because we had a performance background, pitching was OK. There were no nerves, we were comfortable in that public pitching realm. However, I wouldn’t suggest that anybody pitch like we did. We were bizarre. We lived in isolation so had no idea how you were supposed to pitch. Being bizarre has worked really well for us, but I don’t know if it would work well for everybody else.
I spent about two years going to conferences and markets. We were able to build a really strong network of people who were interested in who we were, where we were coming from, and who wanted to work with us. We were also getting all this information from world experts such as Mark Pesce, Katie Salen and Jeff Gomez who were coming to Australia and speaking. We had all these beautiful opportunities, met all these great people, and in the background we were still working on dirtgirlworld.
Here’s the hippy in me coming out, I decided that we wouldn’t pitch dirtgirlworld until we were invited, until the invitation was put on the table. So, in our pitch pack, we only used dirtgirlworld as an example of the music that we wrote. Then, I was having a meeting with Disney and they brought out the CD and said,
“What’s this? This looks really interesting, tell us about this.”
I said, “Well this is dirtgirlworld. […] Dirtgirl has a massive head and a little body, real eyes and a real mouth, and she wants to speak with soul and spirit.”
Disney are looking at me and they go, “Look, we know you’re really interesting, we know we want to do something with you, but we can’t picture what you’re saying. Can you go away and make something?”
And I said, “Yes”.
I didn’t say, “Yes, and can we please have some development money?” I didn’t know that was the sentence that should have followed. I just said, “Yes”.
I went home and said to Hewey, “the invitation’s been put on the table” and that’s when we started rolling out dirtgirlworld. Pitching it, having conversations with people, taking a financial risk and making an animated trailer about dirtgirlworld … and that’s all paid off for us.
Did you eventually go with Disney?
No. For me, dirtgirlworld was always a public thing. I wanted every child in the world to have access to, to be able to enjoy, dirtgirlworld for no money. Our partners have been: ABC, the BBC in the UK, CBC in Canada, and then PBS Kids Sprout in the US. Dirtgirlworld has also gone out through BBC Worldwide to France, Spain, Korea, Israel … it’s available in seven languages and 128 countries.
Was dirtgirlworld always intended to be a transmedia property?
Always! It’s like an orange, you peel the orange to reveal all its juicy segments. We started with music and then we went to TV. Nearly everything we’ve rolled out has been in my head from the beginning: music, a live show, all the different ways that you can interact with dirtgirlworld online. For example, [on club dirtgirlworld] a child can add their voice to an avatar and speak about how they feel about the planet.
We had very big ideas, as well as little ideas, and it’s been about waiting for opportunities. It’s funny, we drive some things and for others we wait until somebody says, “have you thought about this?” and then we say, “yes we have, and here it is”. It’s probably only been in the last 12 to 18 months that I’ve started to expand on the original things that I wanted to do with dirtgirlworld.
You’ve just won an International Digital Emmy for dirtgirlworld – dig it all, can you explain a little bit about it’s digital components and how they fit together?
Dirtgirl’s scrapbook is very important to her in the show, so we took her scrapbook and made that the first place to touch base with her online. The scrapbook has lots of different pages. Some of them have the characters and others have games that teach about sustainability. For example, one game involves: moving clouds from the sun, so it can shine on your solar panel, so you can build up enough energy to drive your biodiesel tractor to collect your oranges, so you can squeeze them to make orange juice for everybody. They’re really cool games that kids like, but they’re also about sustainability.
Then there’s a virtual garden. We were worried about kids that never have any contact with the earth, kids all over the world who live in apartments or in high urban areas, so there’s a tamagotchi seed that you have to care for as you learn about the growing process. That was huge. Even at the beginning, when we just did that, it was a really big thing for us to build.
Now we’re able to do crazier and crazier things such as the dirtgirlworld iphone and ipad app used [in conjunction] with dirtgirl’s smart seeds. For instance, you buy the smart lettuce seeds and inside the packet is a biodegradable plastic plant marker with a picture of a lettuce. We have embedded an augmented reality marker into the picture of the lettuce. The child pops that marker into the ground, points their phone at it, and a 3D version of dirtgirl pops onto the phone to take them through their first planting experience. Every week, there’s another job to do in the garden to help that lettuce grow: looking out for it sprouting, weeding around it, mulching it. Then, as it grows and grows, you start harvesting and you get recipes so that the child knows how to make a meal.
Also, at the end of each scanned experience, the child gets rewarded with some additional content from dirtgirlworld that lives within the app. And, on a slightly different note, we’re always looking for new ways to monetise what we do. It’s so we can keep going and keep doing sustainable things. In this case, we made the app free but you pay for the organic smart seeds.
It sounds epic and technologically advanced.
Yes and we were so lucky to have Screen Australia. There’s no way that we, as small company, could have afforded to do that amount of research and development without support from their All Media Fund. [Now the Multi-platform Drama Production fund.] In the last few years, there’s been a lot of support in Australia for people who are trying to think outside the box.
What other initiatives were included in the EMMY win?
Currently in Australia, there’s a big discussion on how people are dealing with their waste and the education that goes with that. Our local council came to us and said, “Well, you are living locally would dirtgirl like to be our rubbish ambassador?”
We thought, “Oh yeah, that sounds like a cool idea,” so went down and had a few meetings with them.
I think they thought dirtgirl would just have her head on the corner of their brochure, but after a few chats, and with great enthusiasm on their part, this local council agreed that we would rebrand their garbage services. We did the household brochures; the posters; and the compost caddies ,which all have dirtgirl stickers on them explaining what goes into them. The compost caddies went to every house. We did a radio show called Let’s Talk Rubbish; scrapboy did a lot of radio ads; and we also did lots of print media. We became their communications company and created all their media assets.
Then, as a joke at a meeting, I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if dirtgirl and scrapboy were on the garbage trucks?”
At the next meeting, they said, “We can do that!”
So we talked about garbage trucks and the philosophy of garbage trucks. Normally they are dark green, but we painted them all white. The graphics show these amazing vegetable gardens with dirtgirl and scrapboy, along with the slogan “Rubbish … handle with care”. You handle rubbish with care at home, then you hand it over to the council, and the council handle it with care for the planet. The white made it about health and hygiene, not about dumping stuff. We now have kids running out and waving at the rubbish trucks, like they are Mr Whippy vans, and we are rolling it out to other councils throughout Australia.
How was digital used with this initiative?
The council sends reminders to people’s phones. Dirtgirl says, “Hey it’s bin night, put out your red bin!” The council also engages with people online and with digital radio. We took a small local council and helped them use digital and social media to interact with their residents. At the project’s start 36% of rubbish was being kept out of landfill, which was terrible, but within 6 months 70% of rubbish was being kept out of landfill.
If you want to be a company that doesn’t have plastic lunchboxes, raincoats or flannel pyjamas, because they don’t fit your ethos, then you have to start looking at financing models well and truly beyond what’s traditional in children’s merchandise and licensing.
What advice would you give to emerging content creators who also wish to balance creativity, monetisation, and their value system?
You have to see opportunity everywhere. Hewey and I always have our antennas up. If we read about an issue in the paper, we go, “how can dirtgirl solve this for the community?” “Is there a way for us to help here?” Then we look at monetisation. We do so much with no money attached, mostly assets and content for kids, that we have to be sensible and look for those other ways.
It’s also about being brave and bold. I think a lot of people look for monetisation too close to where their work is happening. If New Zealand is anything like Australia, then screen funding from government is limited. We went to the Department of Climate Change and Energy and got some support from them, so try to look beyond the traditional. Try to find people, or commercial partners, that share your values. If you see an inkling of shared values then race over and have a conversation.
But it’s not about pumping stuff at people. It’s not about users or audience, it's about community. I think that’s really essential. It’s about having this circle of people who are very much involved, and not necessarily making content. That’s not what builds a community. Think of ways to involve your community that are simple, so that they feel like they can easily be a part of it. For us, we go even further, calling people who are into dirtgirl our family.
Mememe are not a traditional production company. We didn’t make dirtgirlworld then wait five months before making our next show. Dirtgirlworld and content about the environment is where we happily sit, but then we have to be much more inventive about the way that we do things.
If you want to hear more from Cate and other Survive & Thrive speakers, then check out the storify below.