Congo Tree House is a start-up children’s animation creator in a highly competitive pre-school market, yet its newly developed concept Storybook Monsters trailer has got off to a strong start having already received enquiries from 12 countries. We speak to MD Clayton Byfield to find out more.

Kids’ animation newcomer eyeing the big time

Firstly, can you give us some background to Congo Tree House?

Congo Tree House was established in November 2012 by myself; I am the MD and creator of its newly developed live-action pre-school brand Storybook Monsters and big kids 2D animation Petathletes. A former retail print communications designer, I started a point of sale design business in 1990, becoming a major supplier to Cadbury Trebor Bassett before selling the company to a major POS manufacturing group. My first big break was supplying the pick & mix stands for 90’s hit movie The Full Monty. After watching the hilarious stealing of pick & mix sweets alarm supermarket scene, I developed a passion for creating more daring displays with light and movement in the form of spaceships and boats, etc. I’ve always enjoyed the creative aspect of my work, and the recent transition to develop my own children’s animation brands is hugely exciting and my biggest challenge to date.

What has been the industry response been like since you featured in last summer?

Let’s just say not everyone welcomed the news of another pre-school brand property launch. Some explained Storybook Monsters would be direct competition to their own big name children’s brands already covering this demographic. Yet others equally gave their genuine support to the creation of Storybook Monsters commending the design of characters, and even advising how to further advance the brand development process.

Who are the Storybook Monsters?

Storybook Monsters is the next ‘big opportunity’ even at such an early stage of its development. It’s a pre-school mix of light education, interactive reading and cultural exploration. There’s Mr & Mrs Reed, twins Turner and Paige, pet Catalogue and the adorable dancing narrator Bookflower.

They are a loveable monster family with unique features of illuminating book-shaped tummies that come to life with magical stories. They represent day-to- day life in a busy household and research proved they were an instant hit with the kids. So much so, we decided to work with one of the industry’s favourite scriptwriters Wayne Jackman for the pilot show treatment, and co-write our first Storybook Monsters book Meet the Reeds. The antics of the family pet Catalogue forms a huge part of the storyline. Ironically, it was an executive producer at Turner Enterprises US who gave me the idea during a conference call to focus on Catalogue being the star character to engage kids. Taking his advice, my team went straight to work on his communication, speaking only by phonics sounding words. It really paid dividends as kids and adults alike simply adore him.

A leading children’s TV network is now seriously considering development of Storybook Monsters into a production show, and that’s very encouraging for us.

Attracting investors is the hardest part of the journey, and Congo Tree House has a lot to prove since we don’t have the privilege of sharing past and present success stories to entice programme makers. Nevertheless we’ve taken on-board every piece of advice throughout development, focusing initially on creating our first children’s book Meet the Reeds. It’s a beautifully illustrated book by a loyal friend of mine, Jojo Norris, with a homespun storyline that presents the essence of the Storybook Monsters brand and vision to deliver a sustainable pre-school proposition. With big splash in-store promotion plans in motion supported with innovative LED lit cardboard POS display pop-ups, we’re aiming to launch the book for Christmas 2014.

And where does Petathletes fit into an already buoyant big kid’s animation market? Can it really compete?

Our developing Petathletes property aims to strongly challenge big kid’s brands currently on our screens. We’re not implying Petathletes is likely to push aside Ben 10 or Max Steel any time soon but, there really isn’t anything like these cultural diverse sports superhero teenage characters with attitude that depicts kids of today. I have not even a shadow of doubt they will compete against the big brands once we secure the financial backing.

As programme creators we’ve pushed the boundaries. They’re unique and controversial, and I say this referring to Petathletes female character, Rya, a sports-superhero in a wheelchair, an absolute first for the industry. This will be an explosive big budget animation series that aims to give a whole new perspective of cultural indifferences working as a team.

We’re also aiming to inspire change to overcome physical disabilities. Initially, we’re concentrating on bringing out the ‘PET APP’ next year so kids can interact online with sports battles using smart phones and tablets. Kid’s would learn more about each Petathletes abilities with the option to choose from 25 new Petathletes characters to formulate their own team. It’s really exciting stuff.

I’ve been asked on several occasions now whether ringleader Levi the Jamaican sprinter is modelled on the eccentric Usain Bolt. Answer: I would say he influenced and inspired the character development. Each character has their own style coming from different parts of the world so we’ve quite a mixed bag.

How do you see the licensing programme taking shape for both brands?

A key focus for Congo Tree House is positioning both brands for licensing opportunities in various product categories. Toys are very much a huge part of Storybook Monsters property plans, particularly Catalogue and Mrs Reed being starring characters and becoming interactive learning soft toys. We’re exploring ideas for Storybook Monsters stationery, apparel and accessories. Petathletes action figures and individual sports superheroes character costumes fits perfectly with the overall brand proposition, so everything we’re tirelessly working on here at Congo Tree House is investing in future activity.

Congo Tree House has the freedom of independence for now, but how will this affect the ultimate look of the brands once new partners are on board?

Congo Tree House has unmatched creative talent and vision to bring interim ideas to life. I guess what I’m trying to say is, a children’s TV network or programme maker investor will equally have their own ideas, and I’m confident these will be explored collectively as a team. Hence the offer of shared ownership. Our main objective is to further advance our brands’ development and I’m extremely proud of how much we’ve already achieved with limited resources."

Find out more about Congo Tree House online by clicking here, or visit its Facebook page.

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