2013 is going to be an exciting year for me. Many of us at Monster Animation have been working hard over this little holiday season to get the last few episodes of our new show finished and 2013 is the year it gets released to the world.
For me, Planet Cosmo is more than a new cartoon show. This is the culmination of everything I have worked on and worked for since I began making children’s shows. It is the result of years of practical experience, years of research and so many intentions, goals and dreams. A preschool show full of laughs, smiles, songs and fun that introduces children, boys and girls, to whole other worlds, each one amazing in its own way. And not just fantasy ‘ these worlds are real. A show to entertain and inform. And hopefully inspire.
All in just fifteen episodes. That’s almost three and a half hours, a Peter Jackson feature, so not that insubstantial.
I always count myself lucky that I get to form a show from nothing, a blank page, and take it all the way to the finished picture across every part of the process. Yes, it’s a heavy work load but it comes with so many advantages. A unified vision for one thing but also each step always has the other steps in mind. I don’t write without picturing how we in the studio actually make it happen on screen, for example. I don’t think a show of this type could be made on the budget we have without that. Our resources were tight and we aimed high.
Thanks to the amazing people we have working on the show right now, we reached even higher.
So, yes, I’m excited about letting Planet Cosmo out into the world in 2013 and, once we finish the show, I will be putting my faith in Monster Animation’s producer, Gerard O’Rourke, who should be shouting about about it from the rooftops, getting it to the right broadcasters and having it seen by as many young children as possible. Because I know from our testing already that children are going to love this animated series and it’s really good for them. So if you see him, or indeed me, at an event, ask to see some Planet Cosmo. And if you’re a parent, keep an eye out for it.
So what of the rest of the year? Well, we at Monster will be making series 2 of Punky, written by Andrew Brenner and directed by my very good friend and colleague, Simon Crane. I have an awesome little collaboration between a fantastic electro artist and my daughter, Daisy, to work on (more on that when Cosmo is finished). And I will of course be busy working to create the best, most fun and good children’s content that can possibly be made. And, on my little blog here, I will continue to write every Monday. So if you have any questions or topics you would like me to cover, feel free to let me know.
I hope that 2013 brings you exciting things, progress, fun, new projects, and all things good for children everywhere. Have a fantastic year and, as always, thank you for stopping by my little corner of the web.
I wish those things above for you this Christmas/holiday season. This morning, I began to write a much longer list of things I wished for all of us, for you, me and for the world. Some were as broad as peace and others were more detailed – more active role models for our girls, for example. And then I got to one wish I realised would lead to all the others. The one wish that, if it came true, would bring us to where we need to be and far beyond.
So this, on Christmas Eve 2012, for all the survivors of the Mighty Mayan Apocalypse, is my wish for the world -
That’s it. A world that improves, strives to get better with each new generation. A world unafraid to change, to leave behind old outdated notions and one that builds a better world for all of us. Men, women, every single child on the planet. And, hopefully at some point, on other planets too. Not one of us excluded.
In the words of Bill and Ted, “Be excellent to each other”. Merry Christmas all!
The extent of my sadness about last week’s events cannot be put into words. So much on that tragedy and what should be done has been well covered elsewhere and my little site is simply not the place for it. But in the last couple of days, I find I keep coming back to two thoughts that are relevant here. Thoughts that have been articulated here before in different forms at different times and yet I find I need a reminder every now and then.
The first is true whether you are dissatisfied with some element of your career, want to make your story or script better, want a production to go more smoothly or, yes, even want to avoid repeated tragedies large or small. It is this -
In order for anything to get better, change must occur.
You may fear change and the uncertainty that comes with that. You may feel things can get worse and that change brings risk. It does. But the bottom line is, for things to get better, change must happen. No matter how small or large a thing you want to improve, you must instigate change. You must embrace it. Dive into it. Not just talk about it. You must do it. Do it now. If it doesn’t work, change again.
Because if you keep doing things the same way, you will get the same results. Progress and improvement require change.
My second thought is for all those of us who make content, entertainment or products for children. Children are amazing. They are creative, innovative and innocent. They are wonderful right now and each one has the potential to become a wonderful adult and change the world in a positive way. Through what we do each day, we can reach those children. We can give them so much goodness. We can enrich their lives. We have to. This is our duty and responsibility when we decide to reach out to a young audience.
This is about making a meaningful connection and giving children something positive. Something that makes their lives better. For today and, for those children who make the journey, for tomorrow.
Even with all the tragedies and horrendous things that go on in our world, I think people are pretty amazing. We’re capable of amazing things and I hear stories of goodness every day. That gets lost sometimes among the reported horrors. But perhaps in the grand history of humanity, we’re still in dark times. Each one of us can be a beacon in that darkness. Like a lighthouse. And why would we want to be anything else? Not one of us should be in this business without having the best interests of children, of people, at heart at all times.
To all of my friends and colleagues genuinely working to make the world a better place for children, whether I know you personally or not, you have my love and respect. And to any parent who is part of this recent tragedy or dealing with their own losses, wherever they may be, my heart goes out to you and you are in my thoughts.
Mild peril. A staple in much of children’s entertainment. Then a big happy ending. But what stays with a child? The peril or the happy?
I first observed this personally when my eldest girl, Daisy, was still pretty small. A funny and mild as mild can be episode of Pingu was on. Something bad happened to Pingu (probably because he did something a little naughty, that rascally penguin!) and then it all turned out fine at the end. All Daisy took away from the episode was that Pingu was sad.
Much later, the same effect was observed with Happy Feet. The one part that registered? The scary seal. The happy ending was totally wasted on her.
I was reading some research into educational television that said children take in information best when they’re emotionally invested in the show. It seems so obvious.
So, applying that to general entertainment whether with or without any educational value, when are children going to be most emotionally invested in a film or show? During the ‘relax folks, the world is great and everything is okay’ parts? Or during the ‘OMG run, something is going to eat us!!!’ parts?
You might be looking at your child (or indeed your audience) thinking, this is great, they’re really hooked by this show, whereas what they’re seeing is effectively a horror film for kids. The ‘mild peril’ parts may be the only parts that stay with them when they go to bed that night. I am not saying with this post that peril should be avoided or your show must be toned down into nothingness. Not at all. In fact, the more inventive among you may find ways to use this positively somehow. But what children take away from your show at any given point in the episode is always something to consider. Especially when you’re dealing with a younger audience, who might not effectively verbalise what they feel about the show.
More often than not, children remember the scary stuff.
Today I present four more recommendations from the bookshelf that should be of interest to anyone developing or producing content for children -
Creating Animated Cartoons with Character by Joe Murray
I first bought this book back when it was an ebook PDF direct from Joe Murray’s site and instantly bought the book again when it got a proper print run. From the creator of Rocko’s Modern Life and Camp Lazlo, this book is another that goes through every part of the process from creation all the way to the screen. Yes, this is full of practical advice, basic steps and lists of “dos and don’ts” that any content creator needs to know but it has more than that. What makes this book different is Joe Murray’s personal point of view. This book in many ways is like the grounding voice of reason that we all need to hear sometimes and that just comes through in how it is written.
Being very much on the small independent side of things, I have actually had an easier time than most but let’s never kid ourselves that this is an easy business. It is not. It can feel heartbreaking at times. Joe Murray knows this and part of the book almost feel like a reflective part of his older self is writing a letter to his younger self – there is much we can learn from this Joe Murray.
G Is For Growing by Shalom M. Fisch and Rosemarie T. Truglio
G Is For Growing summarises thirty years of Sesame Street research. Sesame Street tests EVERYTHING and has done from day one. With testing and how they chose to use the information that came from that research, they managed to create a wonderful balance of entertainment and education that set the template for just about every educational show that followed. While this book, being written by academics seemingly for academics, doesn’t quite achieve the same level of balance, it contains a wealth of information that will be of use to anyone making children’s shows. So much can be gained by looking at the research that led to great shows like Sesame Street rather than just looking at the shows themselves and trying to reverse engineer them. G Is For Growing is like the Sesame Street source code.
Anytime Playdate by Dade Hayes
Offering a look, as the full title states, Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom, or, How Television Became My Baby’s Best Friend, this book is a great read both from the perspective of a content creator and as a parent. A parent himself, Dade Hayes makes it his mission to find out just what goes on behind the scenes in the children’s television business – the story behind the content his young daughter seems so hooked on every day. This book explores the good, the bad and the ugly of the industry and, even though written from a very personal viewpoint, feels very open-minded, inviting the reader to come to their own conclusions about what he finds out.
And even for those of us in the industry (at least for those of us on the more European side), there is the odd surprise here and there, and not all of them good ones. For the content creators, his exploration into the development of Nick’s Ni Hao, Kai-lan is of particular interest as it, like so many other shows over the last ten years, aims to repeat the success of Dora the Explorer. A very well-written and enjoyable read.
Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years Of Life On The Street by Louise A. Gikow
This is a wonderful celebration of Sesame Street, packed full of information, stories and fantastic pictures. It is a real treasure, exploring the show from its creation all the way to today (well, 2009). Beautifully designed and laid out, it is one of those books that is just a treat to pull down from the shelf and open up on a random page.
And for those of us in children’s television, it is an inspiration. I put Sesame Street up there as the best children’s television show of all time and it still has so much to teach those of us producing content for children. While there are other books on Sesame Street of great value, such as G Is For Growing above, in my view this book is the most enjoyable.
That’s it from the bookshelf for this post. As always, aim to learn and get better at what we do. Our audience will benefit and, if they benefit, we do too.
Even though women make up over 50% of the population, all studies show they are still massively under-represented in film and television. And I would sometimes find myself questioning the roles assigned to the female characters who do actually make it to screen. In many areas of media, I think we can do better.
At the weekend, my eldest Daisy was at a party in a kid’s art place. She made a rather awesome clay model of a princess in a tower. Asking her about it, she explained that the girls all had to make princesses to be rescued while the boys all had to make knights with swords to rescue the princesses. I was not exactly happy with this narrow gender-based project. Seeing this, Daisy went further and told me that they could choose to do either but all the girls chose princesses and all the boys chose knights.
I am not sure what form this choice was presented in or if indeed it was much of a choice at all. But if it was an open choice, I could well believe that most girls would choose princesses and most boys would choose knights. Because those are the gender roles assigned to them in an overwhelming amount of media and, in particular, marketing.
So you can offer the choice but, in a world that clearly pushes boys and girls into narrow gender roles with girls having fewer role models to choose from, is it really a choice?
As for me, I find myself very consciously making sure I have female characters in my shows. And this was not just a reaction to having two girls of my own. Even well before they were born, I developed Fluffy Gardens to have an equal amount of male and female characters. That was a very active choice because I wanted it to speak to children, not just boys or just girls. Children. With PLANET COSMO, the main character became a girl very early on in development because I wanted to introduce both boys and girls to all the cool stuff in space. Again, an active choice.
But a few years back, I did a little drawing-a-day project with zombies. Somewhat gruesome and not for the kids, it was just for fun. I realised when I approached the end of it that an overwhelming amount of the zombies were male. Why? Well, I wasn’t really thinking about it. They just were. It’s like even being so aware of female under-representation that, when I stopped thinking about it, I would fall back into the whole ‘default human being male’ thing.
So what does this tell me?
It tells me the only way to change this situation, to improve this, is to be active about it. Is to actively make it part of our thinking as we develop shows, games, anything. Should we force female characters in to a show if natural development has led to mostly males? In my opinion, yes. Yes we should. Because that ‘natural’ situation usually comes about because we are just perpetuating old media habits and conditioning and those are really hard to break without actively pushing against them. Getting female characters, varied, interesting and active should be a clear goal when developing media. Because there is a very good chance it won’t happen on its own.
How could it when we ourselves are so influenced by the media around us?
If we do this and do it well (and by the way, I think many of us in preschool are actively tackling this right now), it would take just one generation to make real change. One generation later and maybe the writers won’t have to think about getting strong female characters into their stories. It will just happen as it becomes normal.
And maybe kids making art will make real choices and deliver more than just princesses from the girls and knights from the boys.
To produce something truly special, I find you have to embrace creativity and allow freedom to experiment, encouraging individuals to deliver even better than expected and to break boundaries. That comes with a built-in risk factor.
Not every risk pays off. Not every part of a production goes smoothly.
There are times when you have to recognise that some things are just not working. You have to recognise it fast and tackle it, because the truth is things almost never get better on their own. Problems within a system will result in a downward spiral that can cripple a production. Before long, you’re just firefighting.
In this situation, blind optimism is your enemy. The only way to prevent this is to accept you have a problem and actively deal with it. For me, there are three main steps to take as you build a new strategy…
1 – Stop
You will not fix things while scrambling for the next deadline. You are going to need time to evaluate, to repair and reboot to get things going properly. So stop. Create a space in the schedule. It may delay things now but it will pay off in the long run and may indeed be the only way of delivering excellence in the end.
2 – Look
Evaluate your entire process. Not just the individual problem, because there may be many more factors than are initially apparent. Look at each step and recognise what works, what could be improved and what is plain broken. Look especially for those areas eating up more time than they should – on any production, time is incredibly valuable. Make sure you know where time is being improperly spent.
3 – Listen
Listen to your team, listen to advice. Most of all, listen to yourself – your gut. If you find yourself unhappy or even just vaguely unsettled with something (or indeed someone) you have seen in your evaluation, listen to that. Those are the things you need to change. And as you build your strategy, if you find yourself uncomfortable with any part of the new plan, listen to that too.
Seeing it written down, it is clear that it is not unlike crossing a road – stop, look and listen. And like crossing a road, all this is to stop you running ahead and getting crushed by oncoming traffic, in the form of your own deadlines. Once you have done all this, you have one last step. The most important. You have to cross. All the plans in the world won’t matter unless you take action and implement them fully. Commit and cross that road. Then continue on your journey towards excellence.
Problems almost never take care of themselves. Deal with them directly.
On Planet Cosmo, the show has managed to exceed all our early predictions. It is easily the best show we have ever produced. But the rise in quality brought greater challenges and it has not always been an easy production. Some time ago, we had to go through these very steps and now we continue on our journey with new systems and strategies, delivering the excellence we expect with far fewer headaches.
Remember the days when all television shows reset at the end? It was a rule that someone had to push the reset button to get everything exactly as it was. So the premise never changed. Characters never died (unless, of course, an actor left the show, in which case they’d vanish between seasons with a one-line explanation). Kirk, Spock and McCoy would always end up the same – laughing at Spock on the bridge of the Enterprise. Oh, that Mr. Spock…
It’s not like that now. In most shows aimed at adults, people grow. Their lives change. There is a continuing story. Without that reset button, it makes television much more interesting knowing that a major change may actually be a major change.
In most children’s television and possibly all preschool children’s shows, on the other hand, the reset button is alive and well.
Broadcasters like to be able to put on shows in any order. Children’s shows are so short and are often aired in fairly large blocks, you can get through a whole series in a week (Cartoonito wiped out a year and a half’s worth of Fluffy Gardens work in five days). If the episodes had to be aired in a specific order, it would make life very difficult for them. Certainly not impossible, but it would require extra thought in scheduling.
I wrote a story a little while back about a daddy tiger who leaves his office job and becomes a mechanic. A pleasant little story. Might make a nice book some day.
But it could never be a television episode.
A change that large in a main character’s life just couldn’t happen. Because what if the next episode aired was an earlier one where he still had his old job? Even if they all aired in order, what if they got through the series really quickly so the next episode a child happened to catch was an earlier one? It could really confuse.
This got me thinking.
Children’s lives move so fast. Their lives are not without major changes. One day, they’re crawling. The next, they’re running around or cycling a bike. One day, they’re playing blocks with mummy on the sitting room floor. The next, they’re in school with a whole bunch of other children. And change is a big deal for children. We knocked down a wall in the kitchen and didn’t hear the end of it for months from little Daisy.
More than that, I see change as a really good thing. Don’t like your situation? Do something and make a change. Do what you really want to do. Unhappy with the state of the world? Work to make a difference. If something is broken, we can fix it. The world we are born into is a world shaped by people. We don’t just have to accept it as is. We can change it. Make it better.
Progress requires change. Change can be a great thing.
And I thought, shouldn’t we be telling this to children? Is it a good thing that we are presenting them with a completely stagnant view of life, where nothing important ever changes? Nobody makes real leaps, discovers something that completely changes their life?
With the reset button in place, the characters we show to children are exactly where so many of us complain about being – stuck in a rut.
While I stumbled through the beginnings of Fluffy Gardens with a very limited amount of knowledge, it became clear early on that I could only benefit from studying all aspects of creating content for children and, since then, I have made it my business to find out everything I can about other shows, what has worked and not worked and why, and I have sought out the research – and there is a LOT of research out there. This is a well worn road and so, even for those of us determined to find our own path, it makes sense to see what we can learn from others. Not just the odd line we pick up browsing through an industry website. Real research and understanding. Would Fluffy Gardens have been a better show had I done my homework? Absolutely. And Cosmo is going to be a far, far better show for all the experience I have gained and research I have done since diving into Fluffy Gardens for the first time.
With that in mind, I thought I would recommend a few books that I think could really help those creating, producing or directing shows, or hoping to one day make a show. To start with, here are three books I think will help you -
Animation Development From Pitch To Production by David B. Levy
As the name suggests, this book covers animation development from the idea stage all the way to the screen. It uses industry stories to illustrate each part of the process and offers a huge amount of practical advice. Like so much of the most useful advice, much of it is stuff common sense would tell us and yet, in the midst of a busy life, we need to hear again and again. Within industry quotations are many different points of view – you don’t have to agree with all of them but there is plenty to consider and thoughts that may lead to you producing better work.
It should be pointed out that this book is based around the US system of getting shows off the ground. Things work very differently over this side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of value in knowing why things work that way in the US.
Mind In The Making by Ellen Galinsky
This is not a book on moulding shows. It is a book on moulding better people. Recommended by David Kleeman on Josh Selig’s Kidscreen blog, I found this book to be incredibly valuable. As I have said on this site before, a show needs something special to justify its existence. What can your show give children that will be of real value to them? This book will provides many suggestions. It takes you through seven essential life skills and shows how we can better nurture those skills in children. It is a reminder of the importance of we do, of what we can offer children that will contribute positively in their lives. This book is for the people who are serious about giving children something good.
I recommend building a show with your contribution at its very core, not shoehorned in at the end. This book can help suggest ways to do that. Not the easiest read in the world – I find academics seem to write like, well, academics. But informative and valuable.
Children And Television Fifty Years Of Research by Norma Pecora, John P. Murray and Ellen Ann Wartella
There is over fifty years of research into children and television. You might think you will do fine without knowing any of the results but why would you want to? This book is a gold mine of information. What works, what doesn’t work, what content affects children in what ways, how educational television affects children as they grow older, the effects of violence on your audience, how children process ads and so much more. This book summarises all of the results and, in doing so, provides a guiding voice for what to do, and what not to do, if you have the well being of your audience in mind and want to engage them positively.
This book is like the anatomy of what we do. With drawing, for example, you can copy a drawing of a person and it might look okay, but not great. But if you have a working knowledge of human anatomy and structure, your drawing will be so much more solid because you aren’t just copying lines – you have a real understanding of what you are doing. Many people making shows just copy the surface of what they see on TV (I was guilty of this myself at one point). But the great shows often had years of research to get where they were at. You won’t get the same results copying the surface. You need to know how they reached all their decisions.
This book is the starting point. From here, you can look up the studies and dig deeper and deeper and I guarantee you that it will make your work better.
So there you have it, three books to start with. If they sound interesting to you, seek them out. Read, take notes and make your work excellent.
The last couple of weeks have been some of the most hectic of our production yet. We are in the process of improving many of our studio systems to make sure we get the absolute best results we can for Cosmo with the resources we have. There really isn’t any ‘off’ time, where the brain can rest. But when I find it, even in short moments, I like to get my iPad out and doodle. Just a few digital brush strokes here and there. Sometimes even just one before I have to switch it off and move on to the next task.
The thing with taking small steps is that, as long as you keep going, you will eventually have a result no matter how small those steps are.
For Halloween, I present the one of my results above – a simple iPad digital painting made with the Procreate app during those little quiet moments. A little witch for Halloween. Hope you all have a ghoulish time this Halloween!