Merry Christmas (or holiday of your choosing) to everyone who has visited the site, everyone who left a comment, everyone who got in touch, everyone with an interest in making good content for children and everyone already making it, and to everyone who just loves doing better. I hope you have a wonderful holiday and an amazing 2012!
For those in Ireland, just a heads-up that the Fluffy Gardens Christmas Special will be airing on RTE2 on Christmas morning (the 25th, like you didn’t know) at 7.55am. It’s a lovely Christmassy story, even if I do say so myself, and your little ones will really enjoy it. It’s actually the fifth year running that it will show for Christmas on RTE so it’s a bit of a tradition now, like mince pies and falling asleep in front of the TV.
If you do catch it, I hope you and your children love it.
Cosmo is go! Monster Animation has officially closed the financing on my new show, Cosmo, and we’ll be moving into production early in the new year. A huge thanks to everyone who helped pull it together, especially the Irish Film Board and RTE. I couldn’t be happier to be bringing this animation show to children. It’s one that will entertain, make children laugh, have them up singing and dancing. On top of all of that, it will introduce children, boys and girls alike, to the Solar System. A group of absolutely amazing planets, especially that little blue one we call home.
Who knows, maybe this show will lead to a whole new generation of astronomers, scientists and more. At the very least, it will spark questions and a new interest and understanding of just where we live and our planetary neighbours.
And it’s going to be fun all the way through!
I have been developing this show for about two years now. It has felt like an epic journey already, but it’s one that’s just beginning. We’re going to be putting together a fantastic team at Monster Animation and giving everything we have to this show. 2012 is going to be a good year.
You’ll be hearing more about it soon but here’s a little look at what to expect…
A time of giving gifts and receiving gifts. Really though, we give and get gifts all year round and maybe Christmas is a time to acknowledge that and think about all those wonderful gifts we’ve been fortunate to get, and those we have chosen to give.
Some of the most amazing gifts I have been given this year have come from those working with me on my new show, Cosmo.
Simon Crane, a wonderful artist, animator and director, offered me ideas, designs, fun and character. These aren’t just his job. These are gifts and he gave them openly. Thank you, Simon. Jenny O’Brien, another amazing artist, gave me gifts of colour and texture for our planets. Jonathan Atkinson gave me the gift of sound, beautiful and absolutely unique music that gives Cosmo a feel all of its own. Young Ali Lyons gave me the gift of Cosmo’s voice ‘ enthusiastic and honest. And so many others gave Cosmo-related gifts, especially the gift of support and encouragement, which people all over the world have given freely. Even if I haven’t named you here (space issue!), I thank you all for your gifts.
Words of support, offers of help, simply a kind word at the right moment, or even a critical word at the right moment. These are all gifts, from family, friends, colleagues, peers, from everywhere. For me, it has been a year of gifts. And I have been given so much more than I could ever give back.
But I try.
This year, we gave Punky to the world, a lovely little show about a girl who has Down syndrome. It’s picking up momentum internationally and, if you haven’t seen it yet, you hopefully will very soon.
And, for most of the year, I have been preparing something new. Picking all the right elements, packaging them together and wrapping a shiny bow around it. This is Cosmo of course and, as I write this, Monster Animation’s producer Gerard O’Rourke is working hard with many of the show’s supporters to pull everything together to make sure this is a gift we’ll be giving to children in 2012. It’s a gift of fun, laughter and, even more than that, an introduction to space and the Solar System. This is something that, for the right children, will be a gift that stays with them. Just yesterday, I was feeling a little overwhelmed with an ever growing ‘to do’ list. I took a mental break, listened to a relaxing album (by Antonyme, if you’re curious), wrapped myself up warm, and went outside to find Jupiter. Even with just binoculars, it looked amazing. So big and bright in the clear sky, with its four biggest moons sparkling around it.
It was wonderful. Like a gift from the Universe to me. A reminder that we’re part of something amazing. I don’t know exactly what that something is, but I do know it’s amazing.
Staring up at that planet and its moons somehow removed all pressure. I felt calm. Just marvelling in the beauty of the night sky, and our place in it. That feeling, the sense of wonder, the desire to know more and really be amazed by it, is something I want to give to children. Sure, there’s fun, good stories and great songs but, hey, lots of shows have those. This introduction to space makes it something more.
I hope they enjoy it.
Gifts are everywhere, and I find the more they’re recognised as such (whether receiving or giving) the more we get from them. The more they can enrich all our lives.
This Christmas, or whatever holiday you choose to celebrate, I hope you get all the gifts you want. Like, really want. More than that, I hope you have the opportunity to give the gifts you really want to give.
Last week, I posted about safe children’s content and how that does not equal bland. As safe TV is something I tend to talk about quite a bit, a few have asked me how television can possibly be safe and yet still have any sort of edge?
Well different people probably have their own ways of getting there but, for me, I have found that it comes down to one of my main working methods. It’s a thinking I apply to animation, writing, just about everything. Here it is -
Work within your limits.
Now this is a dangerous thought in ways, because I have found that many don’t know where their limits are. Many will totally undersell themselves and under-perform because they see their limits, or their perception of limits being set for them, as being far more restrictive than they actually are.
But, if you can really know and trust where your limits are and set them yourself at the beginning of a project, it’s a great way of thinking.
Here’s an example I often use to animators of how it applies. Look at the animation in the television version of a Disney film, like the Aladdin cartoon show or something like that. Compare that to a stylised Cartoon Network style show like the old Dexter’s Laboratory. Usually, Aladdin’s TV show animation will look much worse. Now, technically, there’s much more in it than in Dexter’s Lab but Aladdin was designed for a movie budget, and looks great when it has that budget, whereas Dexter was designed from the ground up for a television budget. Aladdin becomes something you know should look different, should look better, but it’s compromised and feels incomplete.
Dexter works within its limits and, as a result, can reach the absolute top of that limit. It comes out looking better. Complete. Uncompromised.
Same is true for the creation, writing or directing of a show and how it applies to safety/blandness.
If you write a story or feature characters that aren’t age-appropriate, you will have producers cutting you off at the knees, broadcaster or distributor notes making you tone it down and remove whole chunks. And what you’re left with is a shell – a show or episode left without its soul. Without its edge. Something that feels incomplete. Like, if only…
But, if you pick your limits and know them, keep it age-appropriate from the start but try to maximise the fun, silliness, humour, adventure, whatever within those limits, then you’ve got a good chance at ending up with a safe show that isn’t bland. Safe with a spark. The key factor here will end up being responsibility – it requires you to own the responsibility of where the lines are in your content, not a broadcaster or anyone else. So if you push limits (and pushing limits is good), you know they’re your limits.
I aim for shows that are safe for children. That parents will be happy letting their children watch. That was my first requirement when coming up with Fluffy Gardens. Cosmo has more of a comedy edge but I still want it safe for sensitive children.
Does this mean the watering down of children’s entertainment? The censorship of all that’s fun and interesting? The removal of the very things children love the most?
No. No, it does not.
Yes, there are some shows out there that seem absolutely soulless. Maybe they are. Perhaps they’re the products of committees or several years of conflicting notes. I don’t know.
But television that is safe for children does not automatically equal bland, dead television.
Most striving for better television or educational content are not trying to turn your children into grey, boring automatons. It is not some conspiracy to make your children conform.
Besides, that’s what school is for, isn’t it?
Yes, I believe children’s television should be safe and age-appropriate. I think, ideally, it can educate. But, in doing so, I also think it should challenge. It should provoke thought. Independent thought. Ask children to think about the world they live in. To think about who they are and maybe even present some positive messages to give them the confidence to be who they are against the opposition they will face at times in their life.
For that, if anything, children’s television needs a spark.
Here’s why we could do with more relevant local content here in Ireland:
My daughter calls wool ‘yarn’.
She has used ‘you betcha’ instead of a simple yes.
She once called nappies ‘diapers’.
She frequently uses the phrase, ‘reds under the beds’.
Okay, so I made that last one up but, as good as some of the US television is, we may have just a touch too much of it here in Ireland. The balance is a little off. Worse still, the US shows we get are often the least educational because they travel easier when it comes to localisation. We’re likely missing some of the best the US has to offer.
Language is just an obvious symptom. An indicator that a child’s world view is being formed. It actually goes much deeper than language. And it’s important to realise that what seems culturally relevant on the outside might not be on the inside. For example, colouring Barney green and calling him Seamus wouldn’t really make the show any more Irish. It’s just window-dressing. And yet a show with a purple dinosaur in a fantasy world could be culturally relevant to Irish children if the core delivers something needed by those Irish children and presents it in a way that works with the culture and ideals. Culture does not equal window-dressing. We need to look deeper.
It’s not always easy.
But it’s important.
Not just Ireland of course. Every country could do with good relevant local content.
A television show is, in many ways, like new technology. You may have something completely new, be filling a need, have some edge over everything else in a saturated market, but none of that matters if people don’t know about it.
In both television and technology, the value is often in the experience. That’s something that’s very hard to advertise. You can easily tell people about the features of a device, even of a TV show, but the experience?
For that, you need the early adopters.
You need those people willing to take a chance early, who get excited simply by something new, who want to try it out and give it a go. If they like it, those early adopters will spread the word ‘ will tell people about not just the features, but the experience. People who will talk about it, blog about it and let people know what this new thing is contributing to their lives. I can check my Facebook in church! Wow, I’m totally consumed by the mystery of this weird polar bear on the island! And so on.
You need to be good to the early adopters.
In children’s television, it gets very tricky. Young children generally don’t talk about what they’re watching in the same way adults do. If a child just caught the first airing of a show and she loved it, she may tell nobody. The parent might never know and may never put that show on again. So, in absence of that, your early adopters are actually the parents. You need to give them a reason to try it. To take that punt and put it on for their child. Spread it throughout their family. They may even tell other parents – a rare occurrence, admittedly, but it can still happen.
With the parents being early adopters, it’s important to bear in mind their needs. What does a parent want in a television show? What do they want for themselves, and what do they want for their children? These may not be the same thing. What can we do for parents?
Bear in mind the early adopters.
That said, there are ways of getting the children themselves talking. That’s something that can be exploited in a very cynical way, making the parents your enemy in the process – not a great idea in this day and age because, with so much choice, parents are pretty quick to bring down the banhammer. But some shows, just a few (and COSMO is one of them), can get children talking while being really good to parents. Those shows get both sets of early adopters talking, and for the right reasons. If you’re in children’s television, shouldn’t that be our goal?
Many years ago when I was studying animation, we were given a summer assignment for life drawing – pick some aspect of our work, and improve it. Come back better. When we came back after the summer, the teacher went around the room to find out what people worked on. Most were along the lines of this ‘ I’m really bad at drawing hands so I worked to try to improve that and so I drew hundreds of hands.
That’s a good thing, right?
Sure it is. We could all do at getting better at drawing hands.
But I didn’t draw hands. Or feet. Or anything all that tricky.
I enjoyed drawing my dog, Reg, and I was pretty good at it (even if I say so myself) so I drew more of him. Lots more of him. Now it’s not like I didn’t have plenty of weaknesses to work on. I did. But I enjoyed drawing dogs and, by working at it, I might go from ‘pretty good’ to ‘great’.
And while everyone else was showing less stinky versions of their weaknesses, I showed my strengths. And it set the tone for the year ahead.
So what was the right approach? Well there’s a discussion on goals to be had, but that’s for another post. This post is about the idea that, to get better, the assumption is often that you work on your weaknesses. On first glance, it’s something that seems to make sense. By focusing on weaknesses, those things that might let your work down or might disappoint, you’re trying to eliminate the minuses. Empty that ‘cons’ list on the pros and cons that make up who you are or your work. But consider what number you arrive at if you get fixated on eliminating all minuses…
You arrive at zero.
And the unfortunate reality is that zero impresses nobody. Nobody ever bought anything thinking, well, I suppose there’s nothing technically wrong with it. Zero is nothing.
If you just pick at the negatives (and a lot of people do, often incorrectly calling it ‘constructive’ criticism, as if that’s a contribution – it rarely is), if you worry about what might not work, those rough edges, what might put people off or what could go wrong, you’re aiming for zero. What you need is a positive contribution. Taking that number above zero. Concentrating on what you can add, not eliminate. That’s constructive. And the fantastic news here is that the effort you put into making a positive contribution will have much more of an effect than that same effort being spent on eliminating a negative.
Making a good thing great has much, much more value than making the bad things okay.
Look at the iPod. Audiophiles say the sound quality isn’t great. The iTunes system can be restrictive and the programme hogs resources. Even now, it has some crazy problems that have carried over to the iPhone. Would it be better if these things were fixed? Absolutely. But people aren’t buying the iPod or iPhone because of what it does badly. They’re buying it because of what it does great.
Positives count much more than negatives.
By all means fix those issues that are easily fixed and certainly don’t tolerate any problems you don’t have to, especially in your own systems. But focus should be not on what you can make acceptable, or least offensive, but on what you can make great, fantastic, impressive. That’s how you stand out, that’s how you shine. It’s how you set the tone with your work. And the best thing? It’s much more fun.
So much of the violence in the world seems to come from the idea of the pre-emptive strike. It’s about being ruled by fear. The fear that someone wants to harm you makes you want to harm them first. And then they feel threatened and aggressive. And sure enough it looks like they do want to harm you. Your initial fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
And so people die and everything goes to shit. Countries level other countries.
On a far smaller scale, children punch other children in playgrounds.
Part of this is massively reinforced by entertainment that existed long before television – stories of good guys versus bad guys. Absolutely naive and yet still a staple of stories today. Makes for a very easy watch in movies or television. Were the cowboys the good guys and the Indians the bad guys? Every side ultimately sees themselves as the good guy, and so any aggression aimed at someone with opposing views is justified. We kill the bad guys and that makes us good. Hmmm…
But there is more to it when it comes to television.
In studies that began in the ’60s*, researchers gauged the perception of the world and how it relates to television viewing. What they found was a ‘mean world syndrome’ effect. Basically, those who watched much more television were found to be far more afraid of the world around them. To the point where many heavy viewers of television would seriously overestimate crime figures and the risk of them becoming a victim of violence or crime. Not really surprising with all the Criminal Minds, CSIs and so on, is it?
Television viewing can lead to the perception that we live in a more dangerous and mean world (hence ‘mean world syndrome’) in which people can not be trusted, we are in constant danger and we need to take steps to defend ourselves.
And so children punch other children in playgrounds or countries level other countries.
This is one reason I adore preschool television over other areas of entertainment. So much preschool television reinforces the idea that people can be good to each other, that people aren’t out to get you, that we can help and be helped and that the world can be a wonderful place to live.
I remember reading about a TV conference where someone said that we shouldn’t be sugaring up our children’s television because the world isn’t actually all that nice. Sure, that’s true. And it never will be unless we start believing that it can be and work towards that rather than reinforcing the bitchy, cruel world often depicted in shows for the older kids. Preschool television shows a caring, nurturing, helpful, inspiring, playful, gentle, fun, whimsical, creative and peaceful world. No mean world syndrome. A beautiful world. One I think we’re capable of. Eventually.
Isn’t that something to aim for?
*(Gerbner, 1970; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1994)
Beloved characters being sold off. Value of children’s television being set at zero. All is not rosy in children’s television, especially in the UK. We’re very fortunate here in Ireland to have some excellent support (some not so excellent support but that’s for a whole other post). But support seems thin on the ground in the UK, birthplace of Bagpuss, the Clangers, Peppa Pig, Charlie & Lola, Paddington Bear, Roobarb and countless other children’s classics.
Animation UK released a report earlier in the week on the state of their industry and what they need in order to continue making quality shows. To continue making shows at all. The children’s television business is, at the very least, on shaky ground. Companies folding, people out of work. That’s the industry. The big shocker for me in there was how short they were in financing the fantastic Peppa Pig – they had to turn to friends and family to raise ¬£350,000. Peppa almost never happened. And, right now, other shows aren’t happening.
I don’t expect parents to care about that beyond maybe the odd sympathy nod (you know one of those ‘I understand’ kind of nods ‘ they’re nice). Ultimately, it’s not the job of parents to keep us employed. And yet, what happens to those of us in children’s television does affect parents.
Where it affects parents is in the quality of the shows their children have access to.
Where it affects parents is in the cultural relevance of the shows their children have access to.
Where it affects parents is in the educational content versus glorified toy ad content in the shows their children have access to.*
Where it affects parents is where it affects their children.
And that’s one place I very much expect parents to care.
I would argue that television aimed at younger children is the most important television of all. It is around those years that children are learning the most, forming their world view. That’s why this area of television will always need special attention, safe-guarding, constant re-evaluation and an acceptance of nothing less than excellence.
And it’s not just about what your children are watching right now. Humf may be a big deal in your house today but in a few years time, he could mean nothing to your child ‘ it will be High School Musical 74 or the like. And you might be the one parent in your town who doesn’t even own a television. Here’s the bad news ‘ every other parent does, and their children are in your school teaching your children what they picked up from television. Children of all age groups are teaching other children.
If you’re a parent, as I am, you are not isolated. Your children need good television.
So what can you do? Well, talk about it for one thing. Discuss (whether in person or online) good television or bad television. Make it known to people who matter (broadcasters, government officials, even programme makers) if you appreciate what’s being shown, what’s not being shown and what YOU want to see on television for your children.
Demand better television.
Demand local television.
The children’s television model has to change. For it to change for the better, or simply not for the worse, parents need to take control and drive home the value of good television. To my peers, friends and lovers of great children’s television in the UK – I wish you luck and I wish you success. You have set an example for all of us in shows for younger children, from Roobarb all the way to today. One of my proudest moments was being able to be part of the animated Children In Need video, not just because it was for a great cause but because I was honoured to be among such good company and great timeless characters. The UK children’s television industry has made history many times over and should continue doing so. You deserve the support you need.
*There is a industry-wide conflict here that is apparent in the Animation UK document, which discusses huge markets and high licensing figures while also saying they need government support to remain viable ‘ and yet often the reason other countries have support is because they mostly aren’t viable. Perhaps an acceptance that children’s television isn’t all big business might change perceptions and lead towards a model that isn’t quite as fragile as the current one? After all, when companies like Mattel are willing to buy Hit’s properties for $680 million, it calls the whole lack of viability thing into question. Depends on whether you’re making a great show, or a licensing brand. One is not always compatible with the other, nor should they be… just a personal thought.