Jessie Hughes keeping ‘Head Above Water’ with new animation project

Jessie Hughes (Image: Warwick Gow)

For creative technologist and screenwriter Jessie Hughes, female-driven animated television wasn’t easy to find growing up.

Aside from the odd exception, she found that most of the shows she preferred featured male leads crafted by male writers.

“All my favourite animated shows that I used to watch, such as Family Guy, American Dad, and South Park, had male leads,” she told IF.

“Even Spongebob Squarepants has a male main character.

“When I realised that, I thought, ‘Oh, isn’t this odd?'”

It’s an imbalance Hughes hopes to address with her show Head Above Water, a subversive animated comedy series featuring feminist mermaids and exhausted sirens, being brought to life with the help of Brisbane-based motion studio Breeder.

Set in an underwater metropolis centred around the Department of Justice, the sirens go about their days devouring society’s bad apples, such as misogynists and mansplainers.

The 27-year-old crafted the idea last year after she was forced to move back home to the Sunshine Coast during the peak of the pandemic instead of undertaking a Master of Design Engineering at Harvard University in the US as the John Monash Scholar for 2020.

With a background in design and more than four years experience working in VR, Hughes said the events of last year facilitated a long-held ambition to work within film and television.

“I’ve been wanting to work in film and television for quite a few years, so this became a make-or-break moment in terms of taking that leap forward,” she said.

“It was about moving away from design engineering and really embracing film, television, and art in its truest form.

“I think the pandemic period gave me that time to reflect on what I actually really wanted to be doing with my life.”

Hughes, who has had work exhibited at film festivals including Sundance, Cannes, and SXSW, was supported by Arts Queensland and Sunshine Coast Council to fund the concept development of her series under the Regional Arts Development Fund.

Earlier this year, the QUT Creative Industries graduate was awarded a funded place on Screen Queensland’s Sketch to Screen initiative, a collaboration with Screen Queensland and Aardman Academy, the animation studio behind Wallace and Gromit.

A partnership deal with Breeder followed, with a pilot in the works to market internationally before the end of the year.

Head Above Water was influenced by other animated productions including South Park, BoJack Horseman, and Archer, along with the contemporary feminism of television shows like Broad City and Fleabag.

“It was when I really understood the characters and these strong feminist themes that I wanted to get across that everything sort of clicked into place,” she said.

“It’s at a point now where I find it easy to write more content for the show because I understand what the show is now.

“I’ve been inspired really strongly by Broad City, which was my favourite show growing up.”

A 2019 study by the University of Southern California found that only 17 per cent of “created by” or “developed by” credits were attributed to women in the 100 animated television series that were analysed.

Furthermore, of those series, only 25 per cent of the writers were women, while only 39 per cent of the top 100 animated series included lead or co-lead characters who were female.

Hughes said she hoped Head Above Water could be a market opportunity for producers and funding bodies eager to bridge the gender divide in animation.

“Everyone loves watching animation, so it should be for everyone,” she said.

“Shows like this are about expanding that idea.”

She identified channels such as Comedy Central or Adult Swim as the “dream” homes for the series.

“All of my idol series are from Comedy Central, Adult Swim, or FX,” she said.

“Even a streamer like Netflix could be brilliant way of getting the show out there.

“If we could get as many people wrapped up in this story as possible, then that would be epic.”

Find out more about Head Above Water here.