How Bluey is changing the way we parent
It's not the sort of place you would expect to become the home of a global phenomenon. On the left is a popular nightclub, down the road are takeaway food shops and out the front, commuters wait by the bus stop.
But right there among it all on Wickham Street in Fortitude Valley in inner Brisbane, is Ludo Studio; the ordinary looking office space where people are doing extraordinary things. A place where creative and talented minds bring to life the ground breaking, award-winning, record smashing and globally successful children's animated television show, Bluey, a series created by Brisbane animator Joe Brumm and produced by Ludo Studio about a family of blue and red heeler cattle dogs including sisters Bluey, 6, Bingo, 4, mum Chilli and dad Bandit.
The family of cartoon dogs is teaching mums and dads how to parent their children, according to child psychologists, and influencing children in powerfully positive ways. It's also delivered significant tourism opportunities as it showcases an unashamedly Brisbane backdrop, with film and television specialists calling for a Bluey theme park in the city.
So how did this simple cartoon made out of a studio in Brisbane take over the world of kids' TV? Since Bluey launched on ABC Kids less than two years ago, in October, 2018, it's done what few have before it.
It's become the most popular show in ABC iview's history with the first season experiencing more than 261 million plays. Since season two launched on March 17, it's had more than 43 million plays - or more than 330,700 each day.
Last year, the series was the number one Australian children's series of 2019 on metro broadcast television in Australia. It won a Logie for Most Outstanding Children's Program and an AACTA Award for Best Children's program.
Its rising success caught the attention of major international players and in June last year, partner BBC Studios struck a global broadcast deal with Disney.
Bluey is now available on Disney Junior and, as of January this year, Disney+. This means Bluey, a show created, written, animated and post produced entirely in Brisbane, is on air or available to stream internationally in the US, Canada, UK, Europe, Middle East, Latin America, New Zealand and China.
Despite it being proudly Australian, with the Aussie accent remaining in the international versions, it's well and truly proved it has universal appeal. Earlier this year, Bluey was awarded an International Emmy Kids Award in the Preschool category.
It comes after the first season of Bluey, which premiered on Disney Junior and Disney Channel in September last year, reached 16 million views across both platforms in the United States. It was listed in the top six Disney Junior series with kids and girls aged two to five and in the top five series with boys aged two to five.
The incredible rise of Bluey is no stroke of luck. Behind every seven-minute episode is a conversation, a thought or situation families across Australia have lived through.
Brumm, alongside Ludo Studio executive producers Charlie Aspinwall, Daley Pearson and producer Sam Moor, turned those moments into an animated series featuring a family of cartoon dogs.
And at the centre of it all is what Bluey is all about: play, heart and family.
The series not only teaches our kids important values and lessons, says child psychologist Larne Wellington but the parents too.
"Parents are not used to watching a cartoon that has such great pearls of wisdom in it," she says. "The key thing that comes out of it is the importance of playing with your kids and spending time with them.
"Obviously in this day and age we don't have all day to play with kids, but on the show it's wonderful to see parents so involved in the games and spending quality time with them."
"It doesn't have to be hours but even if you spend some of your time just being together and being in their world, helping them, developing their imagination and learning … that message really does come through in Bluey," she says.
"Even though Bandit and Chilli (Bluey's mum and dad) have other things to do and other responsibilities, they always make time for their kids."
Developmental psychologist Areana Eivers acknowledges parents are beginning to look up to Bandit and Chilli, who are seemingly perfect and patient. "I think it can make parents think about situations," she says.
"I've heard of parents who measure themselves on the parents in Bluey and sometimes feel themselves to be inadequate but there is a realness to the situation that is being depicted, so to that extent it can be inspiring more so than other things."
Alongside the benefits for parents, there are endless positive teachings for children, says Wellington, with strong and clever messages such as dealing with emotions, consequences and a positive depiction of gender roles. "Bluey helps kids build their emotional intelligence, I do that with people every day and I love the fact they do that in the show," she says.
"They (Chilli and Bandit) also portray the sense of shared responsibility and that it's not just one person's job to do the washing … those subtle messages come through."
It's the children's show the world needed and now, unsurprisingly, everyone wants a piece of Bluey.
Australia Post has already sold over 3000 limited edition Bluey stamp packs since they were released on June 30 and Bluey merchandise (by Australian toy company Moose Toys and BBC Studios) has taken over toy stores.
Over 250,000 plush toys have been sold around Australia since their release in November last year. Anything you can think of, Bluey's face is on it, including the recently launched Bluey homewares line. But among the most popular are the Bluey books.
Penguin Random House sold one million Bluey books in Australia in seven months, following the first release of books in November last year.
The first three Bluey titles were listed in the top four highest selling Australian children's books in 2019.
Few Australian children's shows, let alone Queensland-based productions, have had the impact and influence of Bluey, says Queensland University of Technology film and animation lecturer Dr Charles DaCosta.
He notes other Queensland-produced shows over the years, which saw reasonable success, include Animalia and Barnyard Balloon.
But none offers what Bluey does.
"A lot of Australian movies in the past, when you switch the sound off, you can't tell they are Australian unless there is a kangaroo,'' he says.
"There was the [Looney Tunes] Tasmanian devil character Taz, but it doesn't have a voice and the other characters around it are still American. This one is Australian and challenges kids and people to ask, who is that? What accent is that?"
Bluey, says daCosta, is also a unique tourism opportunity for Brisbane. He believes the city where Bluey was born should do more to capitalise on the show's success.
"It's not even two years old. For a little baby of a series, it is a phenomenon," he says.
"What I think it's going to do for Brisbane, as it gets more and more popular, Brisbane will support the studio, starting with Bluey, and help them to create something big.
"(We need to) support the company to produce something that is related to the locality, if it's able to do that, there is a chance people will come to Australia to see Bluey in the way people go to New Zealand because of Lord of the Rings."
He's thinking big; a Bluey movie, with the potential for spin-offs in the same way as Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit and, on a grand scale, a Bluey theme park in Brisbane.
"I believe because of Bluey, and if we have Bluey themed things here and plan it well, Americans, Europeans and other nations will bring their children over and holiday in Brisbane," daCosta says.
This is only the beginning for the little cattle dog cartoon family. There's no telling what will happen next, but what we do know is, right now, it's play time.
A self-described big kid at heart, Brisbane composer Joff Bush can hardly believe he gets to work on one of the world's most popular cartoons.
Brisbane's homegrown hit Bluey pounced onto screens in late 2018 and stole the hearts of young children and parents across the country. The beloved animated series is keeping Bush, 35, busier than ever.
In his South Brisbane studio, Bush works his musical magic on every episode.
"I put my heart and soul into it and then I move straight on. We're delivering one episode a week and I just get excited about the next one," he says. When Bush is deciding whether to take on a new project, he asks himself three questions. Is it going to be fun? Are we making something great? Am I going to improve my craft? "Bluey ticks all those boxes," he says.
Bush picks up a colourful melodica with a twisty yellow tube on the table beside him. Blowing into it, he starts playing the little handheld keyboard used to record the show's now famous theme song.
"Da Da Da Dah Dah Daah Da Dah Dah
Da Da Da Dah Dah Daah Da …"
"It's a fun instrument," he says. "We wanted to use something that would stick out a bit."
Along with the adorable characters, heartfelt stories, multigenerational humour and bright animation, the music in Bluey has played a major role in its success. After the show's Brisbane creator Joe Brumm had the idea of making the title sequence a game of Musical Statues, Bush got to work creating a melody to go with it. On the sixth attempt, he cracked it.
"I wrote one theme that had that hook in it and Joe said 'that's the theme, repeat it over and over again.' It introduces the family and the idea of imaginative play which sets up the show. The game of Musical Statues really was the key to unlocking how to write that," he says.
Now parents and kids around the world hum along to the catchy tune calling out "Mum!", "Dad!", "Bingo!" and "Bluey!".
The musical enchantment doesn't stop at the theme song. Every week, Bush sits down with Brumm for what is known in the biz as a "spotting session". With Bush's adopted greyhound Winnie at his feet, they watch a newly created episode without any music to work out the "spots" where it should go. Unlike a lot of cartoons that use the same background music over and over again, Bluey's musicality helps set it apart. "We think of each episode like its own special little short film. We don't do any cookie-cutting and that's across all departments," Bush says.
Born in Wagga Wagga, Bush moved to Brisbane when he was 13 and attended Brisbane State High School. His mum was a high school teacher and dad a public health professor. Bush started piano lessons when he was six - "I was never one of those prodigy kids" - but it wasn't until he was 13 that he started to fall in love with music. "I discovered jazz and I had a piano teacher who was a TV composer. I remember when I was 15 seeing a concert, and I can't remember what it was, but I remember watching it going, 'This is the most beautiful thing in the world to do.' I got obsessed with it and worked my arse off," he says.
While studying piano and composition at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Bush met Daley Pearson who was enrolled at the nearby Griffith Film School. They soon started creating "a lot of bad movies" together, mostly for 48-hour film competitions. They worked together again on Pearson's 2011 TV series The Strange Calls. Then when Pearson co-founded Ludo Studio with Charlie Aspinwall, Bush was brought on board to write music for their films and TV shows, including Bluey. He has also worked on the music for Australian Survivor, Ronny Chieng: International Student and a host of other shows, but it's Bluey by far that keeps him busiest now.
Working with a team of musicians, arrangers and composers, Bush uses a range of musical genres to score each episode. "I love a lot of New Orleans music, Beethoven and Bach - but I love all music. And I really like musicians that tell stories," he says.
American singer-songwriter and composer Randy Newman, who has scored Disney/Pixar films including Toy Story, Cars, A Bug's Life and Monsters, is one of his big inspirations, along with legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone and Japanese film composer Fumio Hayasaka. "What I love about Hayasaka's scores is it was all about the story structure," Bush says. "That's something we try to do on Bluey. We might use a little theme or a palette of a sound that has an association to bring back later in a bigger way."
The breathtaking final episode of the first half of Season Two, which aired earlier this year, Sleepytime, had parents in tears. It could easily have been just a fun and witty episode putting a hilarious spin on the challenges of bedtime for families with young children.
Instead, it was an animation masterpiece in no small part due to the music. As Bingo drifts off to sleep, viewers enter her dreamy world where space and the wonders of the universe help deliver the series' emotional piece de resistance capturing the essence of parental love. Collaborating with LA-based Australian composer David Barber, Bush did an arrangement of the orchestral piece Jupiter from English composer Gustov Holst's famous The Planets suite.
"We built an association with that theme and the love of the parents. It was always going to be a bigger episode and they wanted to do something really special for it so everyone went all out. It's a really beautiful episode, it was worth it," Bush says.
In the episode called Bike, Bush used Beethoven's Ode to Joy to help tell the story of the kids learning to do things on their own.
"When I was a piano teacher, playing Ode to Joy was one of the first pieces kids learnt. For the bulk of it I was copying the way kids practise that tune on the piano, so little phrases all broken up, and then it will stop and start again, and I tried to imitate that learning. Then when they're achieving everything it bursts into the orchestral version," he says.
As well as piano, Bush plays guitar, accordion and a range of weird and wonderful second-hand instruments.
When an episode calls for an instrument he can't play himself, Bush brings other musicians in to record the parts. "For Bluey, we try to use as many live instruments as possible to give it a bit more soul," Bush says.
After completing Season Two and a Bluey album due for release later this year, Bush's next project will be working on music for Bluey's Big Play - The Stage Show. The production has been delayed due to COVID-19, but is later set to tour over 50 theatres across Australia including Brisbane's Queensland Performing Arts Centre.
"I don't know if everyone is going to get the layers of meaning we put in everything, but hopefully on a subconscious level it reinforces the story," Bush says.
For the millions of people humming the music in Bluey worldwide, the answer can only be yes.