Jonathan M. Shiff

Jonathan-M-Shiff-1016It would appear that kids around the world can’t get enough of Australian mermaids. Beginning with H2O: Just Add Water and now with Mako Mermaids, Jonathan M. Shiff’s stories of these underwater creatures and their lives on land have been delighting kids and tweens across the globe. Shiff, who also created Ocean Girl and The Elephant Princess, talks to TV Kids about creating aspirational characters and story lines, the challenges of filming underwater and his long-running partnership with ZDF Enterprises, which has been distributing his shows worldwide since 2002.

TV KIDS: What was the original inspiration for H2O: Just Add Water?
SHIFF: For most of my career—which is heading towards 26 years—I’ve done female-skewing, positive, aspirational role models for young girls. My daughter just turned 30. When she was entering a content phase, I wanted to appeal to her. Most good content makers are either connected to a young imagination or in my case act like a child sometimes! You need to be connected to your material and inspired and enjoy it. Mine was strong female role models. I’d already done, some years prior, Ocean Girl, which was on Disney U.S. and many other places, so I had experience in shooting underwater and above water. [I thought], what about mermaids? Mermaids are kind of like empowered sirens. They have fun, and they’re connected to the natural world. Most of the planet is water, and we don’t know much about it. So there’s a whole secret world there. That was the original inspiration. And then we drilled down into character and it became a story of friendship, not just a fantasy.

TV KIDS: How did Mako Mermaids come about?
SHIFF: Looking back now, we started the careers of a lot of well-known actors. Margot Robbie, Liam Hemsworth, Phoebe Tonkin, Claire Holt, all started with me on my productions. Margot Robbie started on The Elephant Princess. Liam Hemsworth was on the same show. Phoebe Tonkin was on the original H2O. Claire Holt likewise. The girls from H2O grew up. They reached a point when they were hitting 20 and wanted to move on. They outgrew aspirational characters for the tween-age audience. The other thing was, from a regulatory point of view, [there were limits on how many episodes could receive funding assistance]. Being an ex-lawyer as well as a producer, it occurred to me that Australia hadn’t done a spin-off. So we approached the regulatory authorities and said, What if this wasn’t a story about three girls becoming mermaids, but a story about mermaids trying to be real girls? They said, That’s a spin-off, let’s do it. We were in the same universe story-wise. And Mako Mermaids was born. Also, Mako Mermaids gave me more latitude as a storyteller to do more fantasy, because they were less limited than the real girls [in H2O].

TV KIDS: Tell us about the challenges of filming live action, particularly the underwater scenes.
SHIFF: I seem to have a penchant for doing crazy stuff, whether it’s real elephants in The Elephant Princess or filming with girls in prosthetic tails. We have electric rods that go in the water and send out a pulse to scare off the 15- to 18-foot sharks. We also film at Sea World Australia in their aquarium—the sharks there are babies and are harmless. But in open-water situations you need an army of stuntmen and stuntwomen, your camera has to be in heavy underwater housing, you need to be able to talk below water and give instructions while the girls are swimming. The salt water tends to sting your eyes, so we have to put milk drops in the girls’ eyes sometimes. It’s quite demanding. It’s more analogous to doing an actioner. The girls have to do three months of training—core training like Pilates, because they’re kicking with the tail, but also swim training and breathing techniques.

TV KIDS: Why do you think your shows have resonated in so many countries?
SHIFF: Our productions have universal themes, so no matter where you live on the planet you can relate to them. You can relate to the characters, to the subject matter. I enjoy fantasy colliding with the real world; that’s a common theme. H2O and Mako tend to be fantasy action adventure, but the core stories are of friendship. In the case of Mako, it’s about the mermaid pod; it’s about having a lot of sisters.

TV KIDS: Have you had to change the way you tell stories given the evolution in how kids now access content?
SHIFF: I’m producing for linear and nonlinear. We are partnering with Netflix on Mako Mermaids, as well as with ZDF in Germany. So you’ve got to strike a balance in the storytelling in terms of episodic or serialized. In the early days, I used to produce quite heavily serialized because it was mandated by the Australian system. Then we went into more episodic self-contained adventures. Today we strike a balance between them. The SVOD streaming services lend themselves to binge-watching, and then you can easily enjoy the cliff-hangers and the serialized nature of it. You’ve got to adapt to the way the media is delivered. But the stories still need to connect with the kids and they still need to fire up their imagination, regardless of the medium and how you’re delivering it. That’s universal. That’s at the heart of the storytelling.

TV KIDS: How are you managing production costs given that budgets everywhere seem to be tightening?
SHIFF: We are blessed to be producing in places where there is some regulatory support for content, particularly for children. Australia still has the [quotas for] C classified children’s drama content, so we have government support. I’ve always tried to strive for high production values in the belief that as the market fragments, [high-quality content] will shine—it’s unique so it finds its own brand space. We’re also blessed that we’ve had longstanding partnerships, particularly with ZDF’s children’s department in Germany, ZDF Enterprises as our distributor and with Network Ten in Australia. The long-standing partnerships provide a certain output with them and confidence in what we’re doing. It’s not easy, but my response is not to go down-market—my response is to try to stand our ground and cut through.

TV KIDS: I’m hearing that kids are aging out of children’s content younger than they used to. How has your target demo changed?
SHIFF: If anything, we’ve slightly widened who we play to because there’s a lot of co-viewing now. The core audience is still 9 to 14. The younger kids are going to enjoy the fantasy, the mermaids, the magic and so on, but if you can build the story around the relationships and the characters, then the older siblings will be able to watch with the kids. That’s a good phenomenon that’s happened in the last few years.

TV KIDS: Are there any new projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
SHIFF: I’ve been working on a brand-new franchise. It’s going to be a whole new universe, a whole new story. As we do each show we try to learn lessons from the past and build and grow, so this will be my best yet. At the same time, it’s hard to let go of those tails! You just want to hold onto them and be taken to somewhere where there are white sandy beaches and palm trees and the sun is always shining and you can play with the reef fish. I think there will be more mermaids swimming yet. I’m working on a special event for that.

TV KIDS: Tell us about your long-running relationship with ZDF Enterprises.
SHIFF: When I go to the markets and they give me my gold card—I’ve been to a lot of MIPs!—people say, You’ve been with the same distributor for 14 years? That doesn’t happen! People don’t stay married that long. There are prison sentences that are shorter than that. I often tell students when I teach that I may build the racecar but the distributor, the marketer, races it. People underestimate the intelligence and the trust and respect you have if you develop a strong relationship with the distributor. The distributor, with its intel and knowledge base, knows when to go fast, when to go slow, who to sell to, where to place your product. It’s great being a content producer. I love being Peter Pan who never grows up; it’s healthy, I think! I deliver the racecar to the driver and then respect and trust their judgment in how fast it could go, where it could be placed. It’s great to make a great show, but it won’t become a hit without that partnership. That’s a rare success, which we continue to enjoy.