Sarah Ball is the co-creator of tots’ TV hit Chuggington, and mum of two small daughters. Here, she talks about juggling work and family, what it’s like to work with child actors and how motherhood has taught her not to sweat the small stuff.
Tell us a little about Chuggington…
It’s an animated preschool show about a community of trains. The episodes are fast-paced, action-orientated and contemporary, with a big emphasis on strong storytelling.
I’ve been on Chuggington since the start – eight years now – I’m a co-creator and also the director and head writer. I oversee the creative process of all the different stages from scripting through to voice directing, storyboarding, animation, editing and sound mixing.
An animation world is created from scratch, so every little thing has to designed and built, and every sound effect has to be added. It involves a lot of people. We have at least 50 people working on the production. As head writer, I have had a hand in every script – to date that’s 128 episodes!
Why do you think it’s become such a hit with small children?
I think it’s because our main characters are also young and they are learning and struggling with a lot of the same issues as our audience. A lot of the voices are provided by children, which makes them very relatable to the young viewers. The world is modern, colourful and vibrant and the trains are the types that kids might see when they travel.
“The world is modern, colourful and vibrant and the trains are the types that kids might see when they travel”
It engages both boys and girls and we have strong female role models. The show entertains, but there is also a little take-away message, such as being a good team member, helping friends, or problem-solving. Parents know it is safe to sit their children down with Chuggington and I am often told by other parents that Chuggington is one of the few shows that they can bear to watch over and over.
How does your life as a mother inform the way you work on the show?
It made a huge difference understanding how my children see the world. Before I became a mum I was relying on my memory of how life was when I was that age, but that was a long time ago and the world is a very different place now!
“Being a mother has definitely made me a better storyteller”
It’s great to see firsthand what makes them laugh, what they are able to comprehend at different ages, what they are scared of, and the types of stories they enjoy. Being a mother has definitely made me a better storyteller. I’ve got the ideas for many stories watching my kids and their friends dealing with situations and problems.
What’s it like to work with child actors?
Working with the kids is so much fun, I love it. It’s one of my favourite parts of my job. It is challenging though, as you can’t predict how a child will be when they show up. They may be over-tired and not got much energy left to put into the performance, or totally over-excited and bouncing off the walls. Either way, it is my job to coax a performance out of them. We laugh a lot and the sessions are extremely enjoyable, but also exhausting. My voice is usually wrecked by the end of the day!
How old are your daughters and what are they into at the moment?
They are six and four years old. My eldest loves dance, gymnastics and drawing. The youngest is more into imaginative play. They are both very creative in their own completely different ways.
What’s your take on the challenges of life as a working mother?
It’s hard! I work from home so I do at least get to see them a lot, but to maintain focus and efficiency I’ve also had to learn to filter their background noise out and not get distracted by it.
I soon discovered that to be good at my job and also as a parent, I couldn’t be such a perfectionist anymore and work such long hours. Letting go of that was hard, but your priorities change and you learn to pick your battles. I still of course want a high standard in my work, but not necessarily the same perfection that I did ten years ago.
I can now better determine whether something is good enough and where to draw the line. I’m more realistic now. The story is the most important thing to me.
Chuggington is on CBeebies.