Baldies: new animated series aims to bust myths about children’s cancer

Photo: archive of Eliška Podzimková

Why do I lose my hair? Why can’t I go school? And why are my mom and dad worried about me? These are just some of the questions asked by children who have been diagnosed with cancer. A new animated series called Baldies, which is currently in preparation, aims to answer them and help children go through the treatment, while keeping their spirits high.

I spoke to its creator, young Czech artist Eliška Podzimková, and first asked her how she got the idea for the project.

“When I was 16 I went through cancer treatment myself. It is quite common for people who had cancer to return to the topic later in life. You feel like it is your duty to help others, who still have this challenge ahead of them.

“I was thinking how my art could be useful in the process of the treatment. It actually wasn’t that easy. I came up with lots of ideas but none of them seemed good enough.

“I want the kids who will be watching the show to see the reality of the hospitals, because it becomes part of their life for a certain time.”

“I wanted to create a project that would have a lasting impact, educating not only the patients but also the society in general. I feel like it’s necessary to open a discussion about cancer among kids. I don’t feel people see it correctly.”

What would you say are some of the persistent myths surrounding cancer?

“Especially the idea of a false end or unsuccessful treatment. When you hear the word cancer you immediately imagine people without energy and with bald heads. You often get this visual image from the media and films.

“But I would say that especially with kids, it is not the end of the world. Nowadays, the success of the treatment is around 85 percent, which is a pretty high number. So when you hear the diagnosis, it definitely doesn’t mean your child is going to die.

“But if you have the setup from the movies in your head, you are not psychologically prepared. So my ambition is to try to change this view, at least a little bit.”

What kind of questions do you answer? What kind of questions do kids with cancer ask most frequently?

“Kids ask many questions and most of them are based on the time they will have to spend in hospital, away from their class and without their friends.

“Unfortunately, that’s something we cannot really tell. Cancer treatments are very individual and each of them is very different. So we will mostly cover some of the common things they will have to go through.

“One of them is obviously: Why do I lose my hair. Why can’t I go school? Why is mom and dad worried about me? Why are they crying at home? So these are mainly psychological questions.

“But we will also explain the meaning of MRI or CT and other examinations they have to go through almost every week. That is something that is possible to explain perfectly through animation.

Eliška Podzimková | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

“We believe it can be helpful to explain these thing, because you are mostly scared of things you don’t know. So if we can describe it somehow, it might help.”

How would you describe your TV series? What is the story and who are the main characters?

“Our main character is Toby. He is a very passionate guy who wants to know everything and learn about new things. He has this magical car, we call it Beetle for now, which can get him inside the body to see what is going on there.

“So whenever Toby is scared or wants to learn something new, the Beetle takes him inside and shows him how it works.

“And then we have another character called Emma, who is his best friend. She has spent a lot of time in hospital, moving from one facility to another.

“She is this cheerful character who can make everyone around her laugh, which is important, because the key to a successful treatment is to stay positive. I know it sounds like a cliché, but that’s how it is. And actually there is a lot of dark humour in oncology!”

How would you describe the animation technique? As far as I know it blends animated and live action scenes

“The key to a successful treatment is to stay positive. I know it sounds like a cliché, but that’s how it is.”

“That’s right. First of all, that’s my style of work. And I think it will work perfectly in connection with this topic. I don’t want the story to be fully animated because it is not a fairy tale.

“I want the kids who will be watching the show to see the reality of the hospitals and the examinations, because it becomes part of your life for a certain time, so I feel like it needs to be shown. This is what they will encounter during the process.

“So all of our characters who have cancer in the series are animated, and all the other characters, like doctors, parents, teachers and medical clowns, are real people.”

You raised the money for the project through a crowdfunding campaign and managed to collect nearly 2.5 million crowns within three months and over 4,000 people contributed to the project. Did it take you by surprise?

“Yes, of course, and I am very grateful for that. It’s just telling us that the project makes sense and people think it’s important. It also gives us the energy to keep going.

“So I think it’s very nice that so many people sent us money even in these difficult times. We really appreciate it and we are really happy about it.”

A number of public broadcasters, including the BBC, have already shown interest in your series. Why do you think is that? Is it because cancer is a global issue?

'Plešouni',  photo: archive of Eliška Podzimková

“Yes, I think so. Cancer doesn’t choose and it is not only here in the Czech Republic. It is everywhere.

“And I think there is no such project as the one we are working on. There are similar projects, such as animated educational videos. We are also creating something educational, but with more narrative and empathy.

“So it’s great that the foreign productions are already interested in this project and I hope it will reach as many countries as possible.”

What stage are you at with the preparation?

“We are still in development and will be for a while because it’s the most important part of any animated project. We are currently working on a more detailed script and we are also waiting for some European funds to get involved.

“We are also moving forward with the animation studio in Belgium, which is called Lunanime. They have done pretty amazing stuff in the past. We have a common visual style so I think it will be a really nice team to work with, because I am not going to work on it by myself as an animator. So that’s pretty exciting for me.”

If everything goes according to plan, when do you think the series could be released?

Unfortunately Covid also affected some of the negotiations with the productions. Everything simply takes longer so everything will be slightly postponed.

“We want to have it finished by the end of 2023. That’s our own deadline for now. We’ll see how it goes and how the current situation develops.”