Mixmups: Behind the scenes with the disabled stop motion characters

Mixmups: Behind the scenes with the disabled stop motion characters

For every generation of children there is a TV series that stays in their hearts and minds even through adulthood. Rebecca Atkinson is hoping her stop motion creation, Mixmups, is going to be just that.

Every day a team of animators manipulate the handmade puppets of Pockets, Giggles and Spin to capture 10 seconds of footage for the new 52-part pre-school series.

It's slow going, but "incredibly exciting" for creator Rebecca Atkinson, who has hearing loss and is vision impaired.

Having worked in TV for almost three decades Rebecca had always been frustrated by the lack of disability representation. So when she had the idea for Mixmups she told BBC Access All she saw it as her chance to "create a children's brand that does disability in the way I think it should be done".

And it is about to go "crashing" into the mainstream on Channel 5's, Milkshake!

Mixmups follows three friends - Pockets, Giggles and Spin - who live in a helter-skelter house in Mixington Valley, which Rebecca says was inspired by Great Yarmouth.

Pockets is visually impaired and uses a guide dog called Yapette. She's called Pockets because when Rebecca started losing her own vision she realised "you have to know where stuff is".

Giggles is a cat with curvature of the spine who uses a wheelchair and Spin is non-disabled and very boisterous.

Mixington Valley is an accessible haven for the three. As well as a slide going down the helter-skelter, there's a lift going up with automatic doors into the garden, and wheelchair accessible swings.

It's a world that shows how accessible and inclusive life can be. And giving children the chance to see that is important to Rebecca.

"I had hearing aids from the age of three," she says. "And I never, ever, saw anybody anywhere with hearing aids."

She remembers a "spectacular" moment when she was watching Blue Peter and noticed the presenter had something in their ear.

"When I saw that hearing aid, I thought, 'that means I can be a presenter!'"

But when her mum informed her it was actually an ear-piece, Rebecca's "heart sunk" and she took that to mean she could never be on TV.

"What we have to remember about children and representation is that you, as a child, fill in the blanks yourself. So if you don't see yourself represented anywhere, you will internalize that as low self-value," she says.

In every episode, the Mixmups go on an adventure by mixing key ingredients together. The recipe for a treasure hunt includes a pirate hat, sand and pirate noises.

When an adventure inevitably doesn't go quite to plan the wise old Lucky Loover Bird, who appears in every episode, voices her belief - "There's always another way".

It's a metaphor for everyday disabled living, full of adaptations and work-arounds.

In one episode Pockets, Giggles and Spin venture to a toyshop, only to find it is in an inaccessible treehouse. They try various methods of getting into it before re-considering the situation.

"They sack off the Old World one and just go, 'let's do this differently'," Rebecca says. "They end up having to build their own toy shop that is accessible."

The production goes deep into the details of disability. Many of the scriptwriters are disabled and Rebecca works closely with the animators who are non-disabled and keen to get it right.

They have even studied and mimicked the foot placement of guide dogs for Yapette and occasionally when Pockets walks through the door she might accidentally knock into it with her shoulder.

Rebecca also spent time with lots of disabled children who wanted to bust some myths of their own through the show.

"The children I consulted said, 'we want to be seen out of our wheelchairs, because people assume that we sleep in them because they never see us lying on the sofa'."

So viewers will see Giggles transfer in and out of her wheelchair and sometimes Pockets will use a cane instead of Yapette, like in real life.

Showing the details of disability as everyday occurrences is paramount to Rebecca.

Mixmups isn't her first foray into the idea of having to "see it to be it". In 2015 she launched the Toy Like Me campaign which modified mainstream toys to include disability elements after realising none of her children's toys were at all representative.

"You might get a Lego grandpa with a wheelchair or a Playmobil hospital set - somebody with a bandage around their head. It's communicating to children about disability, that it's essentially the preserve of elderly people or temporary footballing injuries.

"It's not showing the lived experience of disabled people in any way, shape or form. There was nothing aspirational there."

So, Rebecca got creative herself - crafting a bright pink cochlear implant for Tinkerbell. She took photos, posted them online and they went viral.

"Nobody had explored colliding disability aesthetics with the colour and brightness and joy of toys and childhood," she says.

Rebecca was invited to consult with toy companies, but found that these outdated images of disability were so ingrained in the designers minds it was hard to break through.

When the companies sent back "re-imagined" disabled characters, it tended to be the cliché blind man wearing dark glasses.

It's a "perpetual wheel" of assumptions she's trying to break with Mixmups and it starts right at the beginning with the storytelling.

One of her favourite episodes is an Easter Egg hunt, with eggs that beep.

The whole game is about the friends finding Easter eggs together using sound. Rebecca believes most stories might use noisy eggs as a resolution to a narrative involving a blind character who couldn't find regular 'silent' eggs.

"That sets disability as the problem," she says. "I'll make the Beepy Egg hunt exist from the beginning, with no mention of why," so inclusion becomes normalised and no play is off limits.

The Mixmups motto, "there's always another way", is a phrase Rebecca has thought a lot about while developing the show.

Based in Norfolk and continuing to lose her sight she finds travelling fatiguing. The growth of online working means she has been able to oversee the production remotely, something which might not have been as accepted pre-pandemic.

"That flexibility of work is the only way that I've been able to do it," Rebecca says. "You do have to be realistic about your own health condition and about what is practically feasible.

"Sometimes that other way is actually saying 'no, I'm not going to force myself to do this'. "

But she is glad she dived head first into the Mixmups world. Rebecca says everyone has been "extraordinarily supportive" and Mixmups has been bought by TV companies in Australia, Canada and Ireland.

"It's just a total joy for me to be able to see this on screen after so long developing it. I just want disabled people to claim this story."

Catch Mixmups every Saturday and Sunday from 4th November at 8.15am on Channel 5's Milkshake! and streaming on My5.