The enthusiasm for Puffin Rock is palpable from the moment you walk into the offices of Derry multimedia company Dog Ears on Bishop Street.
With an inhouse animation studio, a very quirky mural in which all staff members are depicted in puffin form and a firm ‘can do’ attitude, it doesn’t take long to see where the drive behind the much talked about cartoon series comes from.
These are people who aren’t simply working on a project - they are living and breathing it - and are completely passionate about it.
But while the business brains behind ‘Puffin Rock’ - which has recently been sold to Netflix and will be broadcast in America, Canada, Japan, Germany and France - are a team of young (and not so young!) vocal actors who have brought the cast of characters to life.
While the series - which is already showing in Ireland, the UK and Australia - has actor and writer Chris O’Dowd narrating its beautifully drawn stories, the rest of the voices come from a cast of Derry schoolkids. The results are simply spellbinding.
Leading the cast is 11 years old Kate McCafferty, a P7 pupil at Longtower PS who had no previous acting experience.
Yet, when the team from Dog Ears arrived at her school offering pupils the chance to audition she so impressed that she earned the coveted role of central character Oona.
“It was so amazing,” Kate enthused. “I never thought I would get the part. We were just jumping for joy when I found out.”
Having never set foot in a recording studio before, the experience could have been daunting for Kate - but she took it in her stride.
“It was a bit scary - but all the people from Dog Ears put me at my ease straight away. They treat me so well - and we have a lot of fun.”
A lot of fun it may be but for Kate taking on such a role does mean hours in the studio. “I go in for about a week once a month,” she says. “And do maybe three hours in the one go - or up to five hours. My record is getting through nine scripts,” she says proudly, adding that she “loves every minute”.
The growing success of the TV series means that Kate, as Oona, has to act as an ambassador for the show. She has even travelled to London - to the HQ of publishers’ Penguin, to record Podcasts.
All this, she takes in her stride. “I love it,” she says, smiling brightly. “It’s brilliant. It doesn’t ever feel like work.”
Seeing her character on TV for the first time was a huge thrill for the schoolgirl. “It’s really strange but really great. I don’t think I sound like myself at all!
“When it started on RTE I was so excited, but I was even more so when it started on Nick Jnr. It just was totally mad.”
As Oona, Kate has one of only two cuddly Oona’s in existance (something which is bound to change!). “We put her on top of the Christmas tree at Christmas,” Kate giggled.
Voicing the role of Oona’s baby brother - the exceptionally cute Baba is five year old Sally McDaid, a P1 pupil at Model Primary School.
As the youngest cast member, Sally could be forgiven her shyness on encountering a Journal reporter but she did tell me: “Oona helps Baba do lots of things. Baba is cute and not naughty at all. He’s very shy, too.”
The recording studios can take on a little bit of a playgroup feel on recording days - something which means even children as young as Sally feel completely at home. The children have toys to play with, colouring in sheets to work on and plenty of tasty treats to keep their energy levels up.
And Sally gets to have a race with her daddy, John McDaid, Creative Director at Dog Ears, to the studio each time she’s there. “I always win,” she laughs before treating me to Baba’s special catchphrase “Baba Boo!”.
Big sister Anna McDaid has also got in on the act. The seven year old voices ‘May the Rabbit’ - who she describes as “jumpy and fun-filled and a good friend to Oona and Baba.”
While her daddy may well be on the team behind the production, Anna had to go through the same audition process as all the other children and she says she was “really excited and happy” to learn she had secured the role of the very happy rabbit.
“I love watching it on TV and I think it’s really exciting that it is going to be on TV all around the world.”
She added that she had already told her daddy he needed to take her on holiday to all the countries Puffin Rock would be airing - but daddy wasn’t biting just yet!
Thirteen year old Orna Canning, a Year 9 pupil at Thornhill College - and a pupil of the McPhillips School of Speech and Drama, auditioned to for the role of Flynn the Fox who she describes as “a grumpy teenager”.
As a teen herself, Orna relates to the role. “I think she’s just a normal teenager - and a bit grumpy at times.”
Like most of the children working on Puffin Rock, Orna was given the chance to audition for the role when Dog Ears held open auditions in local schools.
“We were told a little bit about the character and given some lines to say. I heard I got the part just before I left school for the day and I was just so happy.”
The work itself has been easier than she thought it would be. “I was really nervous the first day, but we were really put at ease and it has been brilliant fun.”
Heading up the cast of boys are Darragh Gargan and Brenn Doherty.
Darragh, a first year pupil at St. Columb’s College voices the role of Mossy the pygmy shrew who is Oonagh’s best friend.
“Mossy loves eating and sleeping - a lot,” Darragh said, “and he is in a lot of the episodes.”
Having had no experience of drama outside of school shows, Darragh said he never expected to get the role. “There were so many people trying out for the parts. I think around 300 children auditioned, so I didn’t think I had a chance. I didn’t think I had the talent at all.
“So when I heard I had the role of Mossy it was just brilliant.”
Recording was a little daunting initially but now Darragh said he can get through a script in about 40 minutes.
He said it is hard to imagine that his voice will be heard all over the world as Puffin Rock goes global.
“When I first heard about it, I never thought it would go so far. I thought it would just be a Derry thing - I never imagined it would go all over the world.
“It’s amazing to think that it is doing so well.”
Brenn Doherty, a growing shining light in the local theatre scene - having portrayed young Josef Locke at the Playhouse last year, voices Otto the Owl.
A P7 pupil at The Model PS, Brenn went through a three stage audition process to earn the role of Otto.
“First we did a short audition in school, and I didn’t think any more about it. A wee bit later Mr Bradley, one of our teachers, called a few of us over and told us we had reached the second stage.”
On learning he had secured the role of Otto, Brenn celebrated in the best way an 11 year old can - with a pizza! But then it was time for the hard work.
But Brenn doesn’t mind. “I have wanted to be an actor since I was three, so this has been brilliant.”
Of course every good kids’ programme needs a couple of good adults in the background - and of course a good ‘Momma’ Puffin.
Voicing the role is mum of two Geraldine Cole (who was only a mum of one when she got the role).
“I’m from Derry but live outside Belfast,” she said, “but when I heard about the auditions I wanted to give it a go. My mother-in-law offered to mind my little girl so I could go.
“I have to say I was completely over the moon to hear I had the part. I couldn’t believe it.”
Geraldine’s children Chloe (two and a half) and Ben (three months) will of course grow up hearing their mummy’s voice on TV.
“I think it’s brilliant for them, but it’s been great for me. When John from Dog Ears called me to tell me the show had sold to Netflix, I was totally gobsmacked. People all around the world are going to hear my voice.”
The attitude of the entire cast ties in well with the attitude of the Dog Ears team as a whole. With a five year plan in mind for Puffin Rock - which started life as a book - they have already exceeded all their expectations two years in.
“It’s thrilling - a bit scary at times - but thrilling,” John said. “We are just rolling with it, and enjoying every minute.”