‘Hello!’ A voice cries out as I roll up to the main house on the bush property, and I assume that the head sticking out from the back verandah belongs to Cate. I wheel my bike over a small bridge across a stream and around the back to meet the co-creators Cate and Hewey.
The verandah looks out over gardens and lawn to the forest beyond, and is the sort of place that speaks of a slower and more relaxed pace of life. Cate and Hewey however have a string of visitors; in addition to myself there’s a consultant Ian here to discuss strategic planning, and the actress Maree who arrives soon after me.
I excuse myself to go and explore the property, and eventually find what I’m looking for: a small garden within the garden, with flowerbeds, pathways and a little hut at the back. It’s partly enclosed by a cute wooden fence and a gateway entrance brandishing a name that my nieces back home, like most Australian children and many around the world, would recognise instantly: ‘dirtgirlworld’. To think that right here is where it’s filmed.
I’m excited to see the film set, but I don’t feel a strong connection with it, not really, as this isn’t of my generation. I grew up with TV shows like Captain Planet, a flying blue man teaching us to care for the planet. It’s my nieces’ generation who are growing up with the simple fun and games of dirtgirl and scrapboy. But I’m keen to see behind-the-scenes how the kids of today are being taught to love and protect nature.
Returning to the house, Cate finds time to sit with me and chat about how dirtgirlworld came to be.
Cate and Hewey were in a band in Melbourne, but became dissatisfied with the urban lifestyle. They’d dreamed of one day building a mud brick home and growing their own food, so ended up moving all the way to this bush property near Whiporie in northern NSW. They became involved in their local community and built a life here, with Cate working in the performing arts and later as a teacher in the nearby city of Grafton.
They noticed that there were no children shows that spoke to all the amazing people that they were meeting in the country who were growing food and living with nature. They wanted to open this world up to other kids who were in the city and didn’t get to see this kind of life. They also wanted to reflect back to the country kids their own lives.
Cate and Hewey started by making an album of 20 songs about an imaginary world of dirtgirl and scrapboy. These characters were informed by their own experience, Cate and Hewey in the garden. It was what they knew.
The arts organisation Screenworks hosted a regional ‘pitching competition’ and Cate and Hewey entered, pitching the idea of an animated kids TV show version of dirtgirl and scrapboy — and they won. They were sent to the Screen Producers of Australia Conference in Melbourne for another pitching competition, and won there too. As their prize they chose to be sent to pitch to the Kidscreen Summit in New York, which was said to be the kids entertainment industry’s most important event.
Cate and Hewey were different to the types of people these large broadcasters were used to working with. The broadcasters loved their idea, but said they needed to see something to fully understand the concept. So Cate and Hewey returned home and tried to work out how they were going to create the sample they were asking for.
In the end they took a huge risk. They sold a 100 acre block of land that was supposed to be their superannuation investment. The $96,000 from the sale allowed them to work with animators in Australia and Canada to produce a sample animation only 1min 20sec long. They took this to the next Kidscreen Summit in New York.
Their investment paid off — the BBC came onboard, followed soon after by the ABC and CBC. They made 52 episodes of the animated show, which was screened in 128 countries, in 9 languages, with 151 people involved in making it. This was followed by CDs of the songs, games, and lots of outreach.
Cate tells me about auditioning people for the roles of dirtgirl and scrapboy. Maree was one of Cate’s former performing arts students in Grafton, as was Michael, the actor who plays scrapboy. Cate reached out to them both and persuaded them to come back to Grafton to audition.
The animation style they used shows the actor’s real eyes, mouth and body with an animated face. Cate tells me how some of the model-like girls they auditioned had such symmetrical faces it made the dirtgirl animation appear too doll-like. Maree, overhearing this, pipes in with ‘Are you talking about my messed up face?’ Hewey replies, ‘Maree, you are our real-life doll.’ Maree, of course, is gorgeous — though apparently asymmetrical.
We’re inside Cate and Hewey’s cosy and characterful home preparing food. There’s a main hall living space, with an iron fireplace and a loft bedroom above, plus a charming kitchen extension with windows looking out over the verandah. Hewey tells me it’s actually an old church that they converted, and the extensions are made from salvaged materials.
That evening Cate and Maree prepare costumes for their upcoming weekend performance. Cate has bought a treasure-trove of garments from local op shops for them and their band to dress in, and they joke and laugh together as they mix and match combinations, going for a ‘second-hand Gucci’ look.
Soon Hewey invites us outside to light a bonfire in a clearing amongst the trees. The flames eat through the large pile of wood trimmings quickly, but it’s nice to sit around the fire for a short while with the others and talk about the show. They describe how the team — all the actors, camera operators, makeup artists, sound recordists and more — have become like a big family over the years. It sounds like a lot of fun to be part of.
A lot of their work became about maintaining and protecting the brand, and Cate would make the representatives from the broadcasters come and spend time on their bush property before she signed any contracts with them. She also insisted on a clause in the contract saying that what they did needed to be good for the planet.
Cate tells me about being approached by a number of large merchandisers and signing on with them to create dirtgirl merchandise. None of the products they came back with matched Cate and Hewey’s values, as it was all synthetic clothes or plastic toys — ‘They just didn’t get it’, she says. Cate would suggest other, more eco-friendly product ideas to them, but with little success. ‘I mean, what child wouldn’t want a worm-poo tea bag to put in their watering can?’, she exclaims in all seriousness. Eventually the merchandisers grew so frustrated about not being able to go ahead that they gave up and sold the contract rights back to Cate for a dollar.
That night I sleep in their ‘rainbow cabin‘, and early the next morning load up my bike and say farewell. We’ve made a plan to meet up again a few days later at the festival ‘Splendour in the Grass’ where they’re due to perform.
Arriving at the festival I follow the crowds in to the main gate, collect the media pass that Cate arranged for me, and check-in my bike at the cloakroom (not usually allowed, but having a media pass has its perks). I make my way to the kids area called ‘Little Splendour’ and find the dirtgirlworld team backstage. Cate seems tense from organising the crew, and dirtgirl looks very focussed on preparing. The band has come up from Melbourne especially.
I sit in the audience on a bale of straw and watch them perform their most popular songs, about compost, bugs, recycling, driving a tractor, getting grubby and having fun in the garden. The children who are watching start off shy, but are soon up and dancing in front of the stage, dirtgirl dancing with them.
After the show I join the dirtgirlworld team going back to their accommodation on the minibus with my bike squished in the aisle.
It’s interesting to see the team behind-the-scenes. Cate’s clearly the one in charge, organising logistics and briefing everyone, as well as performing with the band. She seems stressed, though she holds it together well. Hewey is quieter and more reserved, and seems to prefer remaining behind-the-scenes. As the main songwriter he tells me he gets a lot of pleasure just seeing his songs being performed.
The band members have children of their own who are staying with us. One of the kids complains about the busy schedule and constant hustle and bustle, to which her mother replies ‘This is just how it is being on tour’.
The next morning scrapboy arrives, laidback and jovial. It feels a little surreal driving in the car back to the festival together, with scrapboy sitting next to me and dirtgirl in the front seat putting on her makeup. It’s like I’ve become a dirtgirlworld groupie for the weekend, tagging along with them everywhere. I suppose if I were to idolise a celebrity, then these TV heroes doing sustainability education would be an ideal choice.
The festival continues, with more performances and meet-n-greets. Dirtgirl and scrapboy plant trees on the second day, along with two children who entered a competition and won this as their prize: tree planting with dirtgirl and scrapboy. These two characters have built such a huge appeal that children are competing to be able to come and plant trees with them. It’s wonderful.
I mention to them that my two nieces are huge fans, and dirtgirl excitedly suggests that we film a short video message to them later, from dirtgirl and scrapboy. I immediately think of how this will boost me to ‘favourite uncle’ status back home.
So what happened next with the dirtgirlworld TV show? Cate tells me the animated series took two years to make, and they adored it, but they felt they’d done that, and the story had now been told. The animation style was bold and fun, but expensive to make.
Kids were responding so well to the live actors doing outreach, so they made 20 live action TV episodes. It meant they could film at their home property, much more cheaply and with a quicker turnaround time, allowing them to be responsive to topical issues. It brought to life the characters and helped to extend the reach of this world into the community. They were also able to bring in the lovable character Costa from Gardening Australia as the overgrown garden gnome.
Cate says that the screen is only part of what they do — ‘though admittedly a big part, like the front door.’ In 2012 Cate was contacted by the Waste Coordinator for the Clarence Valley Council, asking if they could use dirtgirl’s image on the side of their rubbish trucks for their new food organics recycling scheme. Cate saw the opportunity to do so much more, and convinced them to hire dirtgirlworld to do their whole public education campaign.
Dirtgirl went out in the towns doing public performances to tell people about it and getting lots of media. Later, after the food organics recycling scheme had been running a while it was found that the recycling contamination rates were about 5%. So dirtgirl did a second wave of public appearances and performances, and contamination rates dropped to less than 2%.
When they engaged with suburbs that were notorious for their poor performance with waste and recycling, instead of telling the people of those suburbs that they were doing it wrong, they would go in and empower local ambassadors and host fun street parties, and have dirtgirl and scrapboy celebrating local residents doing the right things.
‘Telling people what to do doesn’t work, nor does making people fearful’, Cate says when I ask her how to approach sustainability education. ‘People need to connect to the ‘why’. But many people don’t have nature in their urban lives. The magic of dirtgirlworld is that it created a story world that’s so addictive, so joyous and so much fun, showing the beauty of the natural world and helping kids and families connect with it’, Cate explains. ‘We protect what we love, so we wanted people to fall in love with nature.’
I ask her what’s next for dirtgirlworld, and she tells me that at the moment every council has a different way of approaching waste education. She wants dirtgirlworld to be part of a universal story on waste. She also wants to look at the ten highest emitting countries and roll out localised live action versions of dirtgirlworld. ‘There should be an Indian dirtgirl, a Chinese dirtgirl, and so on. They don’t need an Australian dirtgirl telling them what to do. We need a league of dirtgirls out there.’
On the last night of Splendour I decide to stay at the festival and sleep in the large tent that the festival staff set up for the dirtgirlworld team. Dirtgirl and her boyfriend end up staying with me, and in the morning I show dirtgirl a video reply from my nieces.
When my nieces saw the video message from dirtgirl and scrapboy they were stunned and speechless — it must have been a shock to see their TV heroes talking to them directly. But they’d quickly set about making a video reply and asked me to pass it on. ‘Awww, that’s so cute!’, dirtgirl says, watching it while still in her bed. She seems thrilled, despite an exhausting weekend. ‘Kids almost never send video messages back to us!’