Creator Gyimah Gariba and Guru Studio’s Frank Falcone take TV Kids inside Big Blue’s long and winding path from compelling pitch to commissioned and completed series soon to appear on broadcasters and platforms across the globe.
Lettie and Lemo, the young sibling adventurers in Big Blue, are on a mission to unravel the mysteries of the ocean. In their submarine, the duo, together with their crew members and a stowaway named Bacon Berry, discover the wonders of the underwater universe while also finding ways to protect the planet. Aimed at kids of all ages, the series is being rolled out worldwide by Guru Studio, with CBC in Canada as the commissioning partner and ABC in Australia on board with a prebuy.
Big Blue was created by Gyimah Gariba, a Ghanaian-Canadian whom Guru had spotted while he was still at university, tapping him for a design role on Justin Time. “The idea for Big Blue originated while I was working on Justin Time season three,” Gariba tells TV Kids. “I was inspired by an underwater episode. Guru launched an internal call for pitches for new original IP, and I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to explore merging tangible, realistic things about the world’s oceans with the myths of the underwater world. The next layer was centering the story around a goofy, unusual family. When crafting the story, we wanted audiences to care about the characters, but also laugh with them.”
And for those characters, Gariba took inspiration from his own family. “The characters started as caricatures of my own three siblings,” he says. “Lettie represents the oldest sister who can do it all, Lemo is the obnoxiously confident little brother and Bacon Berry is the adorable yet powerful baby sister.”
Frank Falcone, president and executive creative director at Guru Studio, says he and his team were immediately attracted to Gariba’s pitch. “Gyimah presented something he was passionate about,” Falcone says. “It was unique. It was a family story. We were looking for something that could reach beyond our 5-to-9 target demo—inclusive of preschoolers and adult parent co-viewers. The representation aspect was also very important to us—way back in 2015! We were supporting the honest reflection of a creator’s identity long before the world jumped on board. When we were presenting the show, many doors were closed to us, but in 2015, the CBC came on board and championed the show along with acquisition partner ABC Australia.”
Completing the financing was not easy, Falcone notes, with Guru Studio stepping up to deficit-finance the project. “It was a difficult decision for an independent company, but we couldn’t leave the CBC and ABC high and dry and we certainly didn’t want to let Gyimah down. So we committed to the show and its message and purpose, not just in word but in dollars.”
The relationship between Lettie and Lemo and their assorted crew is at the heart of the show’s appeal, Falcone notes. “It’s an honest representation of Gyimah’s family dynamic, without being topical or having any hint of political motivations or social commentary on race relations. It’s not a cartoon about the experience of Black people in society or what it’s like to grow up Black. Gyimah wanted to level the playing field in representation. He wanted to present an ideal. That’s something we stood behind, so much so that we wrote it into his contract as a creator, which allowed us to stay the course with his vision.”
The end result, Falcone explains, is a show that is “funny and delivers on the promise of a diverse modern family dynamic, with all of SpongeBob’sgoofy dysfunctional sensibilities, sitting at the helm of a USS Enterprise-like submarine exploring a vast underwater fantasy universe. That’s what we have on-screen: missions and a lot of comedy—silliness wins the day!”
The teamwork at the heart of the storytelling reflects the all-hands-on-deck approach the creative team at Guru took to getting the elements of Big Blueperfect, from the look of the characters to the tone of the comedy.
“Our director Riccardo Durante, writers, editors, voice actors, board artists and our incredible designers have contributed quirks and details that made the characters come to life and give them so much more dimension and depth,” Gariba says.
“We focused on the characters and finding their voices—ensuring they have integrity so you know how they would react to any situation they’re written into,” Falcone says. “I believe that when you have strong characters, they almost write themselves. We got to that place with Big Blue. The characters know their roles, they know their neuroses, they know their faults—and their faults are what drives them and makes them hilarious!”
Outside of Lettie, Lemo and Bacon Berry, the core characters include ship medic Phil the dolphin and onboard engineer Freddie the turtle. Falcone notes that the casting process for Freddie, in particular, speaks to the theme of diversity and inclusion that permeates the series. “Many broadcasters have representation quotas for female and male characters,” Falcone explains. “We fulfilled that for this show, but we also had a character, Freddie, that fell between those binary categories. We didn’t care whether Freddie was male or female, so we cast the actor blindly. We directed the casting agent not to send us the actor’s names so we could base our decision on their vocal qualities and their acting. In the end, we wound up casting that character without knowing whether the actor identified as male or female—and still don’t know to this day! It’s a funny cartoon turtle; it doesn’t matter, does it? That was a great way to work within a broadcaster’s rules and yet land somewhere between them so we could carve out some new territory for representation. In the end, we love the character’s voice and how Freddie, in many ways, embodies the real spirit of the show—true inclusivity without judgment or identity politics.”
Gariba hails the creatively inspiring and supportive environment he has found at Guru following his work on Justin Time and True and the Rainbow Kingdom. “I have always admired their development process, and they know how to support their talent. They helped me expand my raw ideas and streamline them so that every episode would build toward the larger picture.”
Falcone is a fan of betting on new talent at Guru, a process that he says comes down to “asking questions and allowing the creator to make those bigdecisions for their show. We’re there to provide advice and guidance—it’s an educational process. Pairing a creator with a strong, talented director who has experience is key to helping new creators quickly learn the ropes of production. You don’t want too much of the learning to be mid-production; you want it to be guided. Experiential learning can be expensive! You want to allow someone to learn but provide clear guardrails and priorities. We learned things in our early episodes that trigger improvements in the later episodes—stronger design, stronger layout, the show continues to grow and develop as the season unfolds. The process should always get better as the creator’s experience deepens.”
The sales team at Guru, led by Jonathan Abraham as VP of sales and business development, is busy doing deals on the series ahead of its CBC launch later this year, with NRK in Norway and CTC Kids in Russia among those on board. Gariba is excited for children and families around the world to fall in love with his creation. “I want people to have fun watching the show,” he says. “The characters go through hardships and they overcome them like any other story, but my favorite part of the show is that they never stop enjoying each other’s company and they never stop being a little silly.”