Director and Creator J.J. Johnson, 1st AD Mary Reynolds, Production Designer Domini Anderson, and Location Manager Dason Johnson share their unforgettable experience bringing this remarkable show to life, and why Jane inspires both kids and adults alike to make a difference in the world.
How did the concept of Jane as a series come about?
Director and Creator J.J. Johnson: The idea for Jane came to me about five years ago, right after my daughter was born. It was an incredible moment filled with hope, but at the same time, I felt anxious about the state of the world. When I start any new project, I always try to think about what I would want to say to my younger self, as a kid growing up in the 80s and being concerned about endangered animals and the environment. I found so much comfort and safety when I discovered people like Dr. Jane Goodall and David Suzuki, who were dedicating their lives to helping animals.
We wanted to partner with an organization that could take the inspiration we’re able to push through the show and manifest that into action. The Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots and Shoots program empowers youth and promotes environmental action in over 60 countries, so it felt like a natural fit.
A lot of environmental shows can be surface-level without really acknowledging that we are running out of time, and while we still have time, we need to start activating sooner. That’s why Jane explores how a little girl finds her activist voice and figures out how to use it. It’s not targeted solely at people who are already environmentally minded, although I think they will see themselves in the show. Jane is trying to reach out to those who may feel overwhelmed, or like there’s nothing they can do on their own.
Photos courtesy of J.J. Johnson/Sinking Ship
How did you first get involved with this production?
1st Assistant Director Mary Reynolds: I’m from Halifax and spent most of my career there. I moved to Ontario 12 years ago after I met my husband. I connected with Sinking Ship in 2015 and started on Season Two of Odd Squad. J.J. and I hit it off, developed a great working relationship, and later became friends. I had some terrific opportunities because of him over the years, including the finale of Odd Squad. Only about eight of us got to go to Sydney, Australia, to shoot the finale over there. We also shot a few episodes in New York and Pittsburgh. For the Dino Dana movie, I wanted to take the entire crew out to Drumheller to shoot a few scenes. Then came Jane. I was involved in the early stages of the show, and we knew that one of the 1st ADs would be going to shoot on location in Kenya and Costa Rica. Luckily that was me!
Production Designer Domini Anderson: I was approached and invited to interview, but when I read the script, I immediately had a clear vision of what J.J. was creating and what Sinking Ship wanted to accomplish with the series. When we first met, JJ and I had the same visual language and shared the exact same vision for what the show could be and what we could do with it. It was exciting to think about what lessons kids could get out of it, and the beautiful landscapes and worlds described in the script made it so much fun to create.
Location Manager Dason Johnson: I’ve been working with the Sinking Ship team since 2015, so almost eight years now. When they have projects that I’m available for, I’m usually their first call. The first production I worked with them on was Odd Squad, which was their first DGC signatory production. It had a much smaller footprint at that time, but it’s grown and gotten bigger over the years. I believe I was on one of the sequels of Odd Squad when they approached me and said, “Hey, there’s this Jane Goodall project coming.” I kept hearing murmurs about it, and then J.J. said to me, “We need to find a few places” We started some early preparation and scouting around 2020-21.
Tell us about your worldbuilding process and inspirations for Jane. Could you describe how you crafted a specific visual identity for the show?
Production Designer Domini Anderson: The cool thing about the show is that it taps into kids’ imagination and takes them on incredible journeys to places like Africa. We wanted to focus on the vastness of a child’s imagination and make it fun and magical. We aimed to think like kids and create a world that encouraged creativity and questions. The real-world sets were designed to encourage imagination and reflect the imaginative journeys. For example, we made some objects by hand and created imaginative worlds out of cardboard. The visuals came together once we leaned into this element of play. The sets were a mix of builds, including interior sets, as well as location work for the exteriors. The builds ranged from real-world sets to fantastical builds that allowed us to play in different realms and genres. We had the opportunity to create everything from laundry posters to the inside of a submarine.
Photos courtesy of Dason Johnson
Tell us about your time shooting in Kenya and Costa Rica, and your pre-production process as you honed in on these locations.
Location Manager Dason Johnson: The apartment building is the hero location, and everything revolves around it. We ended up finding it in Cabbagetown, which is a location with a lot of activity and history. We had just gone through COVID, so when looking for locations abroad, we used photo location scouting, 3D location scouting, and virtual reality goggles. It was quite a challenge – but I like challenges. We hooked up with the GPN, which is a global production network comprised of vetted production companies worldwide, mainly in countries without deeply rooted film industries. They all network with each other and share resources and locations. But it took a lot of Googling and GPS to get a full view of what each location was going to look like, considering different regions have different environmental patterns. For instance, Kenya has been in a drought for eight years, so some of the pictures online weren’t even up to date. We had a scout in each location who could go to the spots and tell us what they looked like right now.
When you’re scouting from halfway across the world, you have to do as much homework as you can beforehand and get as much information about the areas as possible, so you can coordinate and be prepared. In Kenya, the parks we were filming in were an eight hours drive away from the airport, and their size meant it could take an hour to drive to the location in the morning. It took a whole day of scouting on the ground in person just to get the scope and really lock in on which area we wanted to shoot in. They all looked great in pictures, but when you’re there, there are logistical considerations. Maybe you have to climb down a cliff or cross a river, or there’s a temporary bridge that we need to build. In that case, we ended up not building it and figured out how to shoot from one side of the river to the other.
Each episode is focused on one of 20 animals and what we here in the West can do to help preserve animals that are endangered or threatened. There were five African animals, and Kenya was smack dab in the middle of a bunch of biomes: desert, jungle, mountain, and plain. The criteria were to find natural environments, and that’s why Costa Rica ended up being a stand-in for a variety of South Asian locations. We also featured winter animals such as caribou and polar bears, which is why we ended up in Alberta. We had to be creative and resourceful to ensure that the filming locations matched the animals we wanted to feature.
1st Assistant Director Mary Reynolds: We shot the first portion in Cabbagetown in 2021, then we went to the Rockies for a week and Costa Rica for two weeks. After that, we did three more months of studio work and finished with Africa, working with Blue Sky Productions from Nairobi.
We picked the locations for each script based on photos, and I did a schedule ahead of time. We knew the scenes we were going to shoot, and I decided that we should shoot the elephant first, then the hippo script next. But, of course, it was a whole other world once we got there. The biggest challenge was getting to the actual filming location, which involved taking two days to fly there and a nine-hour bus ride up to northern Kenya. We ended up in the Samburu area, which is quite far north, above the equator, and it was super dry and dusty. We stayed in Sarova Shaba Game Lodge, which is in the huge Shabba National Reserve, and all our locations were within this reserve. It was pretty magical, and it’s what you imagine Africa to look like.
After all this travel and the nine-hour bus ride, we settled into where we were staying for about eight days. We had only one day for scouting because we were going to start filming the very next day. We ran around, looked at all the locations, and found two that we needed. For the hippo episode, we needed a body of water, and the big challenge was that there was not a lot of water because of droughts, so we had to bring up the hippo episode to our first day of filming there. It was quite a kerfuffle changing the schedule at the last minute, but in fact, it was the right thing to do because, within two days, that little riverbed where we shot was almost dried up.
Production Designer Domini Anderson: I had such an incredible time in Kenya. The local crews were really great, and everyone worked together so well. It’s impossible not to be awed by what we’re doing and where we’re doing it. It’s hard to be grumpy on set because we’re doing what we love, making something we all really believe in, in a place where most of us have never been before.
We all got up very early to make the most of the daylight and shoot as much as we could before it got too hot in the day. We went to a different location every day, then we set up our equipment and started shooting. We made sure we could get everything done as efficiently as possible, along with staying hydrated a lot and reapplying sunscreen. The conditions were a little more extreme than we were used to, but we all knew that going in. I’m Australian, so I thought it was great! We saw wonderful things, worked really hard, and got this wonderful trip as a reward for it.
Photos courtesy of Domini Anderson
Were there any logistical challenges in shooting in some of the world’s most remote locations?
Director and Creator J.J. Johnson: The show posed significant production challenges because we had to deal with both live-action and VFX. It was the worst of both worlds since we had to contend with unpredictable environments, lighting issues, and a large number of scenes filmed outdoors. This was our biggest VFX show ever, and the animals had to appear photo-realistic, which required eight months of work to achieve. These challenges are typical of live-action productions with extended periods for effects work, but I can’t help feeling privileged and lucky that we were able to travel and take our team with us. I believe in taking the team that got you there to the end, and we took as many people as we could since they deserved to be there, and it’s crucial to continue the excellence and brain trust that we’ve built. Despite the challenges, we approached the project from a place of gratitude and a willingness to pivot as necessary, as is typical of live-action shoots. We faced a continuing drought on location, and locations were disappearing, but we managed to shuffle our shoot and capture specific areas before they vanished.
1st Assistant Director Mary Reynolds: The biggest challenge was just going to and from work every day in this reserve. It’s this massive national reserve, so the roads were rough and unpaved, and we encountered a ton of dust. It was blistering hot and dry, and the heat was almost overwhelming. You couldn’t even touch rocks on the ground because they were so hot. If that wasn’t enough, early on in our shoot days, we had some COVID cases and some other crew members who were just ill from the travel and the heat.
For the final day of filming, we travelled back down towards Nairobi, up into the mountains. None of us were aware that Nairobi is already at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. We had just that afternoon to scout the location we needed for the chimpanzee episode, but the area that we picked in photographs didn’t work when we saw it in reality. So after driving for six hours, we spent another four hours running up and down the mountain, and it was getting close to dark. We only found one spot that could work, and that was right up at the top. I think it was probably around a 10,000-foot elevation. The next day, when we were all filming there, a couple of our crew members, including the tutor for the kids and one of our focus pullers, had elevation sickness to the point where the tutor was throwing up and couldn’t work and the focus puller was shaking.
Even though we faced lots of challenges, it was an incredible adventure. We had enough crew, and there was always somebody who could step in if someone needed a break. We did wind up with a couple of days off in both of these areas, so we were able to go on safaris. The sunsets were gorgeous up in the preservation area, and we got to see giraffes, elephants, lions, zebras, hyenas and herds of mountain elephants. It was absolutely amazing. I never imagined I’d get to go to Africa, and now I can say I’ve been there.
Photos courtesy of Mary Reynolds
Production Designer Domini Anderson: I think that when you’re shooting on location, there are always logistical challenges, and the further away you go, the more those challenges compound. However, by the time we went to Kenya, we had already been to Costa Rica, so we had become somewhat accustomed to things like the rhythm of each day. So I believe we were well-prepared for Kenya, and the crews we worked with there were truly excellent. Like I said, I’m Australian, so I loved running around in the heat. That’s just second nature to me. I think we were all very aware of what a magical experience we were having, and when that happens, logistical issues like sitting on a bus for long periods of time become part of the adventure. It was amazing to be on set and drive past zebras, even though the bus didn’t have great suspension for that kind of terrain. The adventure of filming in these locations always comes with bus rides and strange gear-hauling hikes, but I enjoyed it all!
Location Manager Dason Johnson: Every problem was solved in terms of achieving what we needed with what we had. It required a lot of thinking on our feet and pre-planning, as well as being flexible and able to improvise in the moment. For instance, when we had a whole crew on a mountain at night without any lights and only seven trucks for 40 crew members, we had to time the exits carefully since there was only one way down. We were on a strict time limit since we were travelling. Normally, we could come back to a shot if we missed it, but in this case, if we didn’t get it, we wouldn’t have it. There was a lot of problem-solving, but I found it fun. This is why I love this job!
Photos courtesy of Mary Reynolds
Was there an especially magical or memorable moment on set that sticks with you?
Director and Creator J.J. Johnson: The pandemic was so brutal, that just being on set with people was a joy. When you’re creating something, Sinking Ship becomes a sort of family unit, and there are pros and cons to that. Watching the delight on everyone’s faces when we got to our wonderful locations was like seeing a kid’s reaction to an animal for the first time. It’s this sense of awe and wonder that just reinvigorates you. So the trips were a welcome break from what we were going through back home, but I can’t think of a single day during production where we didn’t feel like we were making a difference.
Our scout day in Kenya was probably the most memorable. We were just driving around when we spotted a lion on the side of the bus. We came across lions finishing their meal of a zebra with baby cubs just lounging around. Kenya and Africa have an energy that you just can’t help but feel a part of, and I hope that shows in the episodes.
1st Assistant Director Mary Reynolds: The quiet moments during our sunrise and sunset drives really stood out. We watched the sun set over the African savannah, and I was truly amazed.
On our first day on location, we had to watch for crocodiles along the riverbed, and we had a local crocodile expert named Philip assist us and do regular crocodile checks. Our visual effects team needed to be in the water to capture footage of the hippo, so they quickly became friends with Philip, who spoke incredible English. He even received an honorary award from the visual effects department. On our day off, we visited a traditional village and were surprised to learn that Philip was the son of the chief of that village. He told us that he was 54 years old and would become the chief the following year, succeeding his 110-year-old father. Meeting Philip and experiencing his community’s way of life was a wonderful experience.
Location Manager Dason Johnson: In Kenya, the world operates in a fashion that’s very different from here. There are elephants that just walk up to your door. In Costa Rica, it’s still beautiful, but it’s a little more inhabited.
However, our first trip to the mountains of Alberta was quite astounding because of the location. Films like The Revenant were shot there, and a lot of car commercials. It’s called Fortress Mountain, and it has a big wide vista with a flat granite mountaintop that’s hard to beat. I’m a winter guy, so the winter expanse was like nothing else. We did get knocked out by a blizzard at the end, but everything else went well. That first scout, I was like, “Oh, yeah. That’s why we’re here, and it’s gonna look incredible.”
After that, we went to Costa Rica and warmed ourselves up. But the Fortress Mountain experience really stuck with me because you drive out of Calgary for an hour, and then you drive another 30 minutes through the mountains with no reception. And then you drive another 10 minutes up a mountain through switchbacks. It was such a cool adventure. Most of the crew out there was shooting on The Last of Us at that time, but they were like, “Okay, it’s my day off on The Last of Us; I’m coming out for Jane.” They were total pros, with altitude pills and first aid training. You can’t really film on Fortress Mountain without knowing what’s up.
Photos courtesy of Dason Johnson
Domini and Dason, did you have a favourite location? What about a favourite setpiece?
Production Designer Domini Anderson: My favourite set that I built is Jane’s apartment. It was partly because I’m a bit sentimental, as it was the first set that I really visualized and knew how I wanted it to look. To see that come to life, I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. This amazing group of people came together to build something inside my head, and now it’s real. That’s why I love being in the Art Department. It continually blows me away.
We really wanted Jane’s apartment to be the heart of the show. We wanted it to be inviting, warm, and a place where creativity and being yourself is encouraged, and questions can be asked. It’s a space for exploration, trying new things, being wrong sometimes, and all those things can exist in that space visually.
Location Manager Dason Johnson: We shot a few scenes at Ontario Tech University, which has been featured in a few things. They have some really cool features, like an audio room and a wind tunnel. Big organizations like F1 go there to test their vehicles. It’s a cool-looking place, and the people there are very friendly.
My favourite location overseas was actually Costa Rica. It’s a stunning country with a pleasant Caribbean vibe. I come from a Caribbean background, and it was interesting to meet people with similar ancestry but in a different context. It was great to film there because there were so many opportunities. We could film on the beach and drive our vehicles right up to the water. The local police were the only people we had to ask for permission, and they said yes. The way they do things in Costa Rica is very organized. We also filmed a treehouse built by an engineer who specializes in building treehouses around the world. He lives in this treehouse for half the year. It’s pretty phenomenal. We filmed the panda episode there, filling in for China. There was a lot of creativity involved in how to make that work instead of flying all the way to China to shoot.
Jane Goodall’s work inspired this production, and what about her life and work really stuck with you while making this show?
Production Designer Domini Anderson: I think what resonates with me about Jane Goodall’s work is her tenacity of hope. She has been doing this work for a long time, yet she still has a lot of belief. Her work comes from a place of love for the world and hope for what we can do together in the future. I think this is wonderful, especially during such an overwhelming time when it’s easy to feel dejected. To have a constant voice like hers pushing the boundaries of how we understand animals and how we interact with them is truly inspirational and keeps hope alive.
Personally, I appreciate what she has accomplished as a woman in her industry at the time. As a young woman in her field, she had to face many challenges; even just the idea of a woman wearing shorts was met with resistance. Sometimes we forget how difficult it can be to make those kinds of strides in any field when it’s dominated by someone who doesn’t look like you. I really hope the show allows kids to see a future for themselves as a conservationist, or a scientist, or any other profession that works with animals.
Location Manager Dason Johnson: Jane Goodall makes an appearance in the last episode. I won’t say any more about it, because it’s pretty special. We all got to meet her briefly when she was in LA, and she’s quite a woman. The most striking thing is her assuredness. I noticed this right away. It’s like confidence mixed with fearlessness mixed with a clarity of purpose that’s very natural. She speaks very deliberately, with no take-backs, and it was quite inspirational to see.
Director and Creator J.J. Johnson: She’s iconoclastic for a reason, with a powerful personality and a way of speaking that takes me back to my childhood, where I felt safe. However, there is also a real sadness there, as she has been doing this for over 70 years, and the situation hasn’t improved. You can sense that she knows time is running out as she travels 300 days a year spreading her message. Despite this, I am hopeful. By creating a show that keeps her message alive, we hope to inspire others to do everything she suggests to help heal the world.
When we spoke to all these incredible individuals from all over the world in our documentary segments [directed by DGC Ontario’s Tiffany Hsiung], every single one of them pointed to a moment in their childhood that inspired them to care more about the animal they’ve grown up to save. It’s such a reminder of how powerful childhood can be – if you get excited about something, it can drive the rest of your life. They’ve already started creating their own programs locally to encourage other youths to do what they’re doing. We tried to feature as many experts as possible because they’re the ones really doing the work. Just like Dr. Goodall made me feel safe as a kid, we want people to know they’re not alone in this. There are incredible people out there doing everything they can to save animals, and all they’re asking for is your help.
How do you approach making content like Jane, that educates but also inspires both kids and adults?
1st Assistant Director Mary Reynolds: I think, ultimately, it’s all in the writing. J.J. has a real knack for hiring terrific child actors. One of his greatest strengths is his ability to treat everybody equally, including the cast, so there’s no preferential treatment anywhere. The kids who appear on Sinking Ship shows feel like a part of the crew; they don’t get separated out into special trailers. He sets a very fun tone and has a lot of laughs with them, but they understand early on that they have to work extremely hard. For me personally, as the AD on these shows, a big challenge is making sure that we have enough time for the kids to be tutored on set. While we were away, we brought our tutor with us, and the kids were always learning, both on set and off.
Location Manager Dason Johnson: It’s about striking a balance between delivering information and encapsulating it in a framework or presentation that almost hides that information. When we were watching a couple of episodes, my wife commented that she learned a whole bunch of facts about these animals without even realizing it. At the end of each episode, there’s a documentary section that lasts about three minutes, where we speak to real experts that deal with the animals in the field. That part, for me, was surprisingly poignant and full of information. It’s great to meet the people that are really trying to save animals or research them. And in the show itself, there are a lot of humanizing moments between the characters that I think will be very interesting for people to watch. The goal is to inspire younger people, and a lot of episodes revolve around younger people having to fight against what the older generation might discourage, which is one issue in the overall reality of the environmental movement and climate change. We’re trying to change the past and get the present up to date, so we can all work towards fixing things. That comes across in this show, and it’s pretty inspiring to be part of something like this.
Production Designer Domini Anderson: I think I was really fortunate to work with J.J. and Sinking Ship in this regard because they’re so good at this. One of their core tenets is to not talk down to kids. You meet them where they’re at and explore the world from their perspective. You put on your “kid goggles” a little bit, and you look at the world from there. I think it gives kids permission to be curious, ask a lot of questions and learn about the world. I mean, who isn’t curious? The concept that learning isn’t fun is, I think, influenced by adults because kids are just so fascinated by the world. If you meet them at that level where you’re sharing information and playing and imagining, then you can help them have fun.
I hope it’s engaging for both kids and parents, and that it taps into that childlike curiosity and creativity that we all have inside us. We want to show them a world where their imagination can take them to Kenya, Costa Rica, or wherever they want to go. It was really fun exploring this concept in the art department. The show features a lot of upcycling and handicrafts that parents and kids can make together using recycled cardboard and other materials they have at home. Ultimately, we hope that watching Jane inspires both kids and parents to embrace their creativity and imagination and to see the amazing future they can build together.
Director and Creator J.J. Johnson: Many kids and adults, including myself, oscillate between anxiety, anger, or feeling overwhelmed. Our main character is not perfect and gets angry and screams at people sometimes, but she quickly learns that this is not the way to bring someone on her side. Instead of having a perfect kid who loves the world, we have a flawed activist with strong opinions who realizes that those opinions can turn people off if not positioned in the right way.
To get kids excited about the real world, we need to show them the real world. It’s not enough to have a 2D show; we need to go out there and see these animals, see where they live, and see their beauty. Once you see that, it’s hard to turn your back on them and say they’re not worthy of our protection. Kids especially have a high BS detector for being preached at, so it’s important to find ways to engage them without making them feel like they’re being lectured. I really hope that kids understand they have a voice and that we need their voices. I hope that, especially in those documentaries, they see that simple changes, when magnified by many people, can cause global changes.
Here at Sinking Ship, we operate on the principle of “Excite, Entertain, Educate.” If the show is not exciting visually or story-wise, nobody will watch it. If it’s not entertaining with humour and heart, viewers won’t identify with the characters. If there’s no takeaway or something that you’d want to tell your best friend about, then the show won’t stick with you. This philosophy mirrors a quote from Dr. Goodall, which really helped me in developing the show: “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall they be saved.”