The Treehouse stories set itself the noble goal of inspiring a love of reading in children. Based on viewer figures, prestigious awards won, international sales, foreign adaptations, and even books published, the creators can definitely declare mission accomplished. We talk to them about where the series started, how it is made, and also why a little girl called Colombe remains unconvinced.
Interview with Jean Baptiste Wery, producer at Dandelooo, and Emmanuele Petry Sirvin, executive producer at Dandelooo.
TV France: The Treehouse stories seems above all to be about childhood memories.
Jean Baptiste and I are voracious readers, so we wanted to cover the walls of our office with books. We used this project as an excuse to acquire some of the loveliest works for children. Hmm, that’s not quite true. In fact, we really wanted to share our love of reading with children (my own daughter, Colombe, is very opposed to it) and we looked for ways to do that. With Juliette Turner and Ariane Payen, my co-authors, we explored various options: a hot air balloon, a grandfather in a sweet shop, a modern-day Pippi Longstocking. Then I recalled that one of my greatest pleasures as a child was to hide away in a treehouse that I had built in a pine tree, and to lose myself in adventures. So we said, a treehouse? But, of course! Everyone has a treehouse for their soul.
Why choose a hybrid format for this fun and educational work?
First we made a teaser with paper puppets using photos of real children’s faces. It looked a bit disturbing, to tell you the truth. The really good idea came from Laurence Blaevoet at Canal+, who suggested that we do a hybrid series and film the introduction with real children. The casting process, from the creation of the cabin to the live shoot, began in 2015 and continues now with season four in Studios de la Victorine (filming in July in Nice with five children), thanks to the support of the PACA region and the Alpes Maritime department.
We were lucky to be introduced Celia Rivière by Charlotte Gastaut, just at the right time and we were so right to place our trust in her. She was, and is, the perfect director…. She has high expectations, total commitment and true talent, even for the book part of series, despite her expertise being in animation (she studied at Gobelin). The stars simply aligned.
Why does it work so well for children?
Three days ago, a gallery owner told me that the series is the only one that his two children agree upon when they choose what to watch (a girl of four and a boy of seven). Why? This is a kind of “refuge”, without parents or teachers, with no instructions to follow, where the children are surrounded by simple games that allow them to enter a world where they have choices and can sit with their own emotions.
TV France: It’s a lovely goal to help children enjoy reading – how did each episode get made?
Each album (except those that are chosen simply because they are funny) tackles a problem – like not wanting to eat certain food, feeling jealous, being scared of the dark, making a gift for Mothers’ Day, not knowing what to draw, and the winter blues. There are nearly 103 topics covered! We imagine the story backwards (don’t tell the viewers!). We start with our enthusiasm for an album based on the designs, the author, the power or humor of the story, its originality – and we imagine a scene that could introduce the book – something that reflects the story like a mirror. Not like medication to heal a wound, more like an echo, a resonance that invites the children to think and even discuss the topic. At the end of the episode the children in the treehouse have grown up in some way, they are more confident, stronger.
We feel we’ve done our job when the viewer asks their parents to find the book at the library so that they can read it together. Or when an orthodontist writes to thank us for giving his patients an appetite for reading. That actually happened once.
TV France: How do you choose the books that the episodes are based on? What is your selection process, what are your criteria?
We like to spotlight, wherever possible, small independent publishers (like Kilowatt, Ricochet, l’Elan Vert and l’Etagère du Bas) but we don’t deprive ourselves of the wonderful stories published by the bigger players like l’Ecole des Loisirs, Nathan and Gallimard.
There are numerous criteria: we look for relatively simple design that can be animated (that said, we do allow ourselves the pleasure of more sophisticated designs when we really love them); a theme that will appeal to children; and a story that isn’t too long, otherwise we have to cut a lot of text. Marion Claret (Production Director) and I can often choose a book without even having to discuss it, we are so sensitive to the literature! Sometimes our discussion gets very animated. Actually, it’s fascinating to see how a book that seems really simple can have so many interpretations!
We never change a word of the text (except for cuts) and we animate the design of each book faithfully as we use the author’s own illustrations in the series.
The teams at Caribara in Paris, Annecy and Liege are passionate about their work and also very thorough with the adaptation for the animation component.
Most of the books are French – Marc Boutavant, Grégoire Solotareff, Nadja, Dorothée de Monfreid and Marie Sellier, for example – but we have also enjoyed adapting the great Italian writer Béatrice Alemagna and the Swiss Albertine. We have also used books from Japan, Spain, Columbia and Lithuania, which sometimes actually simplifies the acquisition of rights! We are so happy when we get positive feedback from authors. In 77 adaptations, there has only been one that wasn’t happy.
TV France: The series received instant recognition – the first season won an Emmy Award. That must have been encouraging!
The Emmy was a real surprise. Jean Baptiste and I weren’t expecting that, truly (our faces on the video are a real picture). It was a moment of intense happiness, especially as we never thought we’d get the series made. Certain members of the committee – who shall remain nameless – thought it was too labor-intensive and unfeasible.
TV France: The success hasn’t stopped. You continue to receive awards, and the series is present in more than 160 countries.
The series has been dubbed and broadcast in every corner of the world, from Iceland and Brazil to Hong Kong and Canada. It’s shown in most Central European countries and the Middle East. It’s really fun to hear “our” children speaking Estonian and Mandarin!
TV France: Your success must also impact the books you choose.
We never tire of hearing that foreign channels are helping books to get published in their countries. For example EITB (Basque country TV) made a deal with a publisher for all their books to be published in the Basque language.
TV France: And the DVDs?
Arte Editions has been with us from the start. We are currently at seven volumes and two box sets, which enables libraries in France, Switzerland and Belgium to offer families the series free of charge.
TV France: Chinese children can watch a version adapted for CCTV. What are the specifics of the Chinese version?
Huashi managed to persuade CCTV to make their own Treehouse stories.
They chose to create a format by building their own wooden cabin (based on our design), hiring child actors, and using our scripts. They selected 30 books about animals and have published those were not already available in Chinese.
The filming took place in a famous park – the name of which escapes me – and you can visit the actual cabin. Young couples take photos in front of it when they get married.
TV France: The Treehouse stories has been adapted for the big screen twice and found popularity with viewers. How did you adapt the series for the cinema?
We have two cinematic options, thanks to the support of Gébéka. One shows the children throughout a whole year, going through all four seasons (in the treehouse, you can snow and sheep out of the window). The other is solely animation of “the bird house”, which tells the story of a magical white bird that invites children to read. The second film is a huge success among teachers and schoolchildren.
TV France: Season 3, currently being broadcast, offers some surprises.
Ha! Yes, in season three, we let ourselves leave the treehouse and film outside, including a magical scene where we transport the children to the seaside to watch the sunrise. It was an extraordinary moment!
TV France: And in August 2022, we’ll see season four. Can you tell us a little about it?
We are in the thick of things with season four as we start filming in less than a month. The animations have been validated, the lovely children chosen, the team is in place. We just hope it won’t be as hot as it was during filming two years ago! In terms of the topics, it’s funny to notice that a lot of the books talk about taste and food (the history of chocolate, a talking lettuce, a picnic in a clearing, a baker that takes the place of a police officer, a burnt cake) and about accepting others (“the day we ate together”, “the dog with a house on his head”, “Go away, Alfred!”, “Blurs”, “Biancas’ eyes”). Tolerance is the number one value we want to communicate to children.
TV France: Are there other adaptations in the pipeline?
Yes, we are adapting two properties that we just fell in love with. The series Billy le Hamster Cowboy is based on the books of Catarina Valckx (Ecole des Loisirs) and is in production at the Ooolala studio at the Cartoucherie in Valence for France Télévisions.
The project La rivière à l’envers by Jean Claude Mourlevat, winner of this year’s prestigious Astrid Lindgren award, is currently being written (Marie de Banville, Jean Regnaud, Guillaume Mautalent and Sebastien Orsel). For and with Canal+ . We are lucky to work with Nathalie Leffray, who has been so kind and offered us her keen sense of constructive criticism.
Production starts in Q1 2022, all being well!
We are staying humble, though – my little Colombe still won’t read books. They say the cobbler always has the worst shoes… However, we have managed to cover the walls of our office with books and we continue to receive more. We’ll have to remember to share them with the children!