Published 22 February 2020

If you quit your full-time job to start a business with your colleague and friend, tough conversations are inevitable. Kristen Souvlis and Nadine Bates, the co-founders of Brisbane’s only female-led animation studio, Like A Photon Creative, have found such chats are best conducted in Brisbane’s only Korean bathhouse, fully naked.

“Whenever we have to have a really important conversation where we can’t bring any bullshit to the table, where we have to be completely clean and clear, we go to the Korean spa,” Bates says.

Hundreds of hurdles, between leaving their jobs in children’s TV at Network 10 in December 2015 to the opening of their first feature length animation The Wishmas Tree, which opens in cinemas this month, have required such honest conversations.

The three times they’ve been approached by other media companies with acquisition offers? To the spa. That time an important deal fell through and they weren’t sure how they would pay their staff? To the spa. When Souvlis went on maternity leave, meaning Bates had to handle a bunch of duties in her absence? To the spa.

Images of cleansing spa sessions may convey a sense of overall serenity, but it has taken relentless determination and sacrifice from Souvlis and Bates to grow Like A Photon Creative into what it is today.

Their journey began with a piece for Disney Australia called Balloon Barnyard and a counting segment, 1-10 Hoedown, for Sesame Street. In 2019, they signed a contract with Universal Content Group to make three feature-length animation films.

The first, The Wishmas Tree, hits Australian cinemas this month and stars Miranda Tapsell and Ross Noble. (The film follows a young possum whose misguided wish for a white Wishmas accidentally leads to ecological disaster in her hometown.)

Souvlis and Bates liked working in television, where most of their experience was in producing and writing respectively, but they felt nervous about where the industry was headed.

“I think we both looked at the model that is traditional television, and financially, we went, you know what? This isn’t sustainable. The industry is changing too quickly, and it’s not going to look like this in five or 10 years. And we need to get ahead of it,” Bates says.

What they saw was a model designed for a pre-online world that relied a lot on government subsidies and tax offsets. Souvlis says that’s great for the manufacture of local culture and getting individual films and shows off the ground, but it’s not enough to build a sustainable 21st century business.

This led them to found Like A Photon Creative as more of a “content-first technology company” than a traditional production studio. In practice, this means having a broad array of content types including films, follow-up digital worlds, related games, and storylines from different character perspectives that kids can discover via the company’s reading app Kindergo.

“But traditional financiers had never seen that model before. And they certainly hadn’t invested in media companies before, because media companies are risky. Who the f— invests in a media company?” Bates says.

Well, some people obviously do, and they must have liked the multi-platform vision these two were putting down, because in the last three years they have raised $5 million from ACAC Innovation and Queensland’s Business Development Fund to help fund their growth internationally.

“It was no easy task and no mean feat. We’ve certainly had champions involved in both those organisations. And the importance of having and finding a champion can’t be understated. But that also doesn’t take into account all the business acumen that we had to gain and grow over the past five years,” Souvlis says.

Thanks to raising capital and the deal with Universal Content Group, the founders have grown the company from five people to 120.

They have lured a number of successful Aussie animators from North American-based studios like Dreamworks, Animal Logic and Pixar to Brisbane.

So what have they learned about hiring new staff at scale?

Don’t hire talented arseholes, the pair respond in unison.

“We’d rather hire for culture and fit, and skill them up, than hire someone at the top of their game, but who then ruins peoples’ self-esteem, leads with anger, undermines, and dictates – it’s not worth it,” Kristen says.

Furthermore, although it takes a bit of extra effort, time and planning on the part of them as leaders, the fight for gender parity at all levels of seniority is worth it.

Even with funding and great staff in place, making a good kids’ film still requires a touch of magic. Bates, who is a huge Beatrix Potter fan, says the greats all have an “almost intangible quality, like an X-factor” to them.

But there are still a number of key principles that Ms Bates follows. Number one: don’t patronise kids — they’re not morons, they’re younger.

Number two: weave in positive messages like the importance of kindness, tolerance, and equity into the plot.

And number three: make kids laugh. (The trailer for The Wishmas Tree ends with a joke from a wise-looking gecko saying that he needs to go and do a poo. Financing kids films is a serious game, but not as serious as writing the content for them.)

As for the highlight of this journey so far?

“I sat on a kerb and cried after I first saw The Wishmas Tree in a cinema. That was a huge moment. I’d already seen the movie a thousand times. It wasn’t about the movie. I was like – oh, it’s a good movie. I was almost sick of seeing the movie,” Souvlis says.

“But it was about seeing it with the people who’d busting their butts for 12 months to make it,” Bates says, finishing her sentence. “That was an incredible feeling.”