Earth Science Investigators on the case

A new 9GO! kids' show produced at QTQ is a mix of information and entertainment on screen, and industry training behind the cameras.

“If aliens came to Earth, what would they think of humans – the way we act, how our bodies function, what we rely on each day, how we choose to spend our time?”

These are questions probed by new 9GO! series Earth Science Investigators, produced deep in the studios of QTQ9 in the small but merry band of the Kid’s Unit, under Head of Production and Programming for Queensland, Geoff Cooper.

A 50 episode commission of the Factual Comedy is but a modest output by this team which has previously produced some 700 episodes of Smashhdown and 250 of Brain Buzz. Created by producer Dominic Morris, the series fuses comedy with STEM-based facts, theories and information for kids. It tackles questions such as ‘Why do humans have pets? Why do humans grow to different sizes? Why do humans take photos of each other? Why do humans hold so many singing competitions?’

While Cooper recalls the fish-out-of-water alien movie, Star Man, Morris says it melds sci-fi and detective whodunnit.

“We’ve taken a lot of the dramatic narrative elements of those genres and found own way to twist that into Factual. We’ve still got things like a very intense interrogation scene but rather than just doing it as drama, we’re getting information through that as the medium,” he says.

“We’ve used classic setups from the detective genre and thought, how can we do that in a Factual way? It’s sort of like sugar that makes the medicine go down.

“There is a clear structure to the way that kids learn. Part of the design of the show is that the two main characters are aliens who come to earth, they get to be at the same level as a kid. So they’re the children’s eyes into a show and they learn at the same pace as a child would, which is what makes the show something very palatable for kids to understand and learn from, in a fun way.”

The small ensemble consists of Ashlee Lollback as Major Letdown, Arnijka Larcombe-Weate as Private GroupChat and Michael Balk as General Ignorance -all of whom have worked on QTQ Kids Unit titles. In this tight-knit team actors think nothing of operating props off camera, while their colleagues are busy performing. Even Morris doubles as writer, director, producer, creator.

Cooper is proud of the small team which has the backing of Nine Sydney to continue to produce Kids’ TV at a time when other networks are winding down -or have already ceased entirely.

A seasoned producer of 20 years’ in Kids’ TV, he previously produced Totally Wild, Cheez TV, Toasted TV and created Scope and Outback 8. When then-Nine CEO Hugh Marks heard he had been hired by QTQ Production the call went out to start making internal Kids’ television.

Cooper talent-spotted Morris during his time at 10, after seeing a pitch in which he tipped a two litre bottle of milk over his head.

“I’m like, ‘Yep, we need him!'” Cooper recalls. “So we we got him involved in Toasted TV at 10.”

“I didn’t even have a car at that point,” Morris laughs. “I remember my parents dropping me there (on the first day). It’s weird to think about now.”

Cooper continues, “I called Dom within probably a week of finding out that we were going to do some kids content at Nine, and poached Dom from Channel 10. He’d gotten involved with another show that that I created called Scope and the rest is history.”

Each episode of Earth Science Investigators begins with two investigators sending a diary-cam-style video message out to the galaxy as part of their Investigators log. What follows is a Research Montage, Hitting the Streets for vox pops and an Expert Interrogation.

With the versatile talents of Lollback, Larcombe-Weate and Balk, Morris is mindful that other projects could soon come knocking.

“The two actresses are amazingly good. Our graphics guy is incredible. Our cameraman is good. We have a lot of people on the cusp of becoming something else,” he explains.

“They are so good at understanding (each other). You don’t need to give them too much. You give them some line and let them play.

Generally, you just say, ‘Can you just give me an alternate take of something?’

“I love doing what we do here and I want to do it for as long as I can. But it’s starting to be harder and harder because the high turnover takes a lot of time. We’re very lucky in this moment to have all of this great team together.

“You do feel like you’re just playing with your friends, and you just happen to be getting paid. So it’s been an incredibly lucky experience.”

Earth Science Investigators also has hopes of international sales, with its mix of STEM and Comedy an ideal mix of entertainment and information for other broadcasters.

“The audience in Australia is only a piece of the puzzle for us. Generally speaking, when it comes to this sort of content, we really do need to be looking at it from an international point of view,” says Morris.

“We are incredibly proud of a show that we think stands up to American, British and Canadian productions that are out there.”

For Cooper the Kids’ Unit is also an important training facility for those in front of and behind the camera including two graduate editors and a graphics designer, all mentored by experienced Nine staff.

“Albin (John), the cameraman, was brought in as an intern on Smashhdown. He’d done a stint in regional News, but loved production. So the first chance we got to grab him, he put in his resignation and walked across the hallway and joined us.

“The Factual unit now has some very experienced documentary makers and production cameramen. The decision to hire Albin didn’t come lightly. He needed the right work ethic and attitude and energy as you do with when you recruit anybody. But Scott, our Senior camo would do anything for Albin, he’s just such a great talent. He’s got a long way to go. We’re gonna try to get him involved in everything we can.”

“Part of the reason that it’s so exciting to be able to do Kids content is that unlike any other sort of comedy genre, you do get to go weird!” says Morris. “You get to have fun, you can go somewhere much further than you would sort in situation comedy, and absurd.”

Despite the changes to Kids’ TV viewing in recent years, Cooper has his eye on new opportunities for his prolific Queensland team.

“The industry has just transformed so much. We used to get 500,000 viewers for Totally Wild at 4 o’clock. We know that viewing patterns are different now and I think as that changes as well with Nine, I would like to think that we’ll have more opportunities to create a genre space- whether it’s 9Now or, dare we dream, Stan, to create some content for either of those two platforms.”

Earth Science Investigators premieres 7:30am Monday July 3 on 9GO!

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