Monthly Archives: January 2012

When my daughter Daisy was younger, TV shows were real to her. They were like whole other worlds and the characters existed, albeit behind a layer of glass. At five, she still loves TV but now knows they are created, acted, drawn and produced. She has a pretty clear understanding of the process and what I do for a living. And yet the characters are still alive to her.

The other day, she was watching Punky – Monster Animation’s show about a little girl with Down syndrome – when she came out with a question: “Daddy, why did you make Punky have Down syndrome?”

In a way, the answer was very easy. There are children who have Down syndrome and they should be represented on television and it’s good for children and parents to see a little girl like Punky. But the way the question was phrased gave it a specific spin – why did you give Down syndrome to Punky? Not making a particular positive or negative judgement on it but aware that, if you were Punky herself, this decision would be a pretty big deal.

Not long after, she asked why I made Cranky so grumpy. This question came from a different angle in that Daisy very much disapproves of Cranky’s biting one-liners. This one was a decision that affected Daisy herself.

Of course I could point to creator Lindsay J. Sedgwick and writer Andrew Brenner, who both had a bigger part to play in defining these characters, but that would have been wrong because she could have been asking about Cosmo or anyone in Fluffy Gardens. What was important about the question was the very clear sense of responsibility.

We create characters.

We give them life and we make them who they are, for better or worse. We make decisions on how they’ll act and react, whether we’re writing words to put in their mouths or even just animating a single scene. Everyone involved in the process plays a role in bringing these characters to life. And then we show them to children.

Different people will take away different things from that life we create and some characters, lines and even whole shows won’t suit some children. That’s to be expected and it’s why it is important that parents play an active role in choosing content for their children. Nevertheless, we are responsible for who we create and what we show to the world. We’re responsible for the scenes we animate, the lines we write, the details we add to a background, everything. And what’s more, we’re not just responsible for what an audience might take away from the show. We also have a responsibility to these characters. In some way they’re like teenagers screaming “I didn’t ask to be born!” but we brought them to life anyway. Are we doing that with honesty? Sincerity?

It all comes down to us and the choices we make. That’s what makes content creation so amazing. All of us involved in even the periphery of the process can make a difference and contribute. And then we own that responsibility, both to our audience and the little lives we create.

It seems even a five-year-old understands that.

HowToAnimate2

I’ll be crewing up soon for Cosmo and Monster Animation has put out the call for animators. A few would-be applicants have been in touch on email or through twitter to ask for advice, for any tips on what I might be looking for or what we might need for the project. So I thought I might offer a few general tips that spring to mind. These all assume you can animate (Tip 0: Learn to animate) and so are tips based on what I would look for in an applicant, but they’re also just for people who want to work on the type of projects I work on or with the type of people I work with. I imagine most will work for any studio and even well beyond animation. So here we go…

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TIP 1: Be the person who gets in touch to find out what people are actually looking for.

Those who got in contact with me already have a head start. Because, firstly, I let them know what might help (not easy admittedly on Twitter at 140 characters) and, secondly, now I know their names and I’ll recognise them when I get to see their work. I have already filed those names in folders labelled ‘keen’ and ‘has initiative’. These are good folders to be in.

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TIP 2 : Know the project.

Know what it is you’re applying for. The truth is, many of us aren’t really looking for animators, as in people who just take scenes, look at the storyboards and make them move. We’re looking to build a creative team. Someone who really contributes to the project. That requires knowing the intended end result.

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TIP 3 : Be professional.

Getting into the ‘stating the obvious’ territory now, right? Sure, but I know from having made it through animation college myself that the working world is a whole different place and there is some adjustment that takes place. Get past that adjustment faster and you will do better. Be courteous, on time, do things when you say you’ll do them even for something as basic as sending an email. Proof read those mails too. Why does it matter? It’s all an indicator of where your internal quality control is set.

Oh and if you’re wondering if I take people straight out of college ‘ yes, I do. I try not to fuel that ‘you need experience to get experience’ paradox, and I’ve had some fantastic people straight from college in the past.

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TIP 4: Don’t betoo professional.

We’re not in one those CV/Resume grilling-interview kind of businesses. At least, I’m not. I make cartoons. They’re fun. A big part of fitting into a creative team is personality. If your guard is up and you’re so well-rehearsed with speeches about making your deadlines and what made you want to be an animator (to save lives!), it makes it harder for me to know what you’re really like. By the way, this is why industry events and nights out are fantastic. You get in front of people and they’ll quickly see you who you are. That counts for a lot. So, if you’re in Ireland, get to those Pegbar events ‘ they’re really good.

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TIP 5: Show what you can do.

Make it easy for people to see what you’re good at. Make everything accessible ‘ online at one click. Try to keep a showreel short, so we’ll make it to the end. Bear in mind the needs of the project. If we’re looking for Flash animators, we want to see some Flash animation. But also try to mix things up a little. Keep it varied because you just never know what might interest someone. If someone tells you a showreel or portfolio needs lots of a particular something, what they mean is they want to see lots of that particular something. You can’t be sure everyone wants to see the same thing. Variety is good.

Tip for students ‘ the quicker you replace that student work the better. Even with really talented hard-working people, the nature of college seems to create a similarity in projects that can wear people down when they’ve just watched twenty showreels. Whether paid professional work or personal projects, aim to replace that student work quickly.

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TIP 6: Enjoy it.

Animation is fun. We make cool stuff. You’re not in it for the money (there are far easier ways to make money), not in it for the glory (few animators become celebs, right?). You’re likely doing it because you love to animate. Or you love to tell stories. Or love playing with fun characters. Or love the idea of giving something really good to children. Don’t lose that. Sure, there are difficulties and every studio has its quirks, not everywhere suits everyone but don’t let that drag you down. We’re going to make children smile. We’re going to touch their lives in a positive way, especially making a show like Cosmo. This is important. A big responsibility, sure. But a great one and one that should be fun, exciting and full of creativity for all of us.

So enjoy it.

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Without getting into the technicalities of the actual animation process (and there are lots – if anyone ever wants my personal tips on those, see Tip 1), these are the six tips I would give to anyone wanting to work with me on any projects and I’m sure they apply to many, if not most, other places too. To you Irish animators, you’re in a great place right now with an insane amount of work going on. This is fantastic and it means you can pay special attention to finding the right project or studio, rather than just accepting what’s available.

As for me, I’m excited about taking on some new crew members for Cosmo and I wish you all well, no matter where you’re working or where you’re applying for work.

AngryMob2

One thing that I love about the Internet is that it allows voices to be heard in a way never possible before. If a product or service completely misses the mark, it will be all over the ‘net the very day it launches. If a customer service rep sends insulting emails to a customer, we’ll hear about it. If an effort to boost sales from girls results in more gender limitations, well, you get where I’m going. And, for those of us creating or making anything at all, it makes it much easier to get a sense of how we’re doing. It gives us information which can inform all our future decisions.

Feedback is fast and loud on the Internet.

It’s very powerful. It’s democracy.

But it can also be like picking up your pitchforks and torches and storming a castle.

Last week, CBeebies launched a new format for Waybuloo, the meditating children’s show, during its bedtime hour. They cut it down to about ten minutes and added a narrator. The Internet did not like it. No sir, the Internet didn’t like it one bit. An outcry made its way around Twitter, with mail addresses to those in CBeebies being distributed so those voices could be heard.

And those voices were heard.

CBeebies made the decision to revert to the older format of Waybuloo. All was back to normality, the CBeebies bedtime hour was restored to its former glory and we could all sleep peacefully again.

I don’t see much of Waybuloo and I didn’t catch the new version. From what I read, the narrator went against its peaceful, gentle feel. So that could have been a bad move and, if so, it’s easy to see why it might upset fans of the show. And I give credit to CBeebies for listening to their audience and being willing to drop the new version even if that meant letting go of many decisions and a lot of work. But then I think about how many episodes of that new format aired…

One.

Just one.

When a show is well-established, and Waybuloo is, change will always be difficult to its fans. We fear change. That’s our thing, it’s what we do. But give something a chance and maybe, just maybe, some merit will be revealed. I can’t think of the amount of comedy shows, for example, that I dismissed after one episode only to find them grow on me and find myself really clicking with the humour. Sometimes it takes a while for us to get past simply the notion that this is new.

I remember some years ago Sesame Street aired a few episodes without the Elmo’s World sequences. Apparently they didn’t go down well and children were asking, ‘Where’s Elmo’s World?!’ So they put it back. But I couldn’t help think, you have aired this show with Elmo’s World for the entire lifetime of that audience. Of course they’re going to ask where it is if you take it out. I could throw a rotten fish head at a child for a year and then, one day, walk by without doing it and the child would shout, ‘Hey! Where’s my fish head?!’ The first reaction will always be, hey, this is different!

It’s what happens when we get over that that counts.

So I don’t know about Waybuloo and what way that should have gone. But I do know that feedback on the Internet is fast and loud and, very often, we react to change simply for being change. Feedback is immensely valuable. But mob rule..? How can we tell one from the other? Perhaps there are times we should take a moment to consider before reaching for our pitchforks and torches, just to let things settle. And, if we’re the one in that castle being stormed, yes we need to do what is best for our audience but maybe, just maybe, we need to build better defenses to give ourselves time to work out exactly what ‘best’ is.

Punky, Monster Animation’s animated show about a fun little girl with Down syndrome, has been nominated for two IFTA awards: Best Children’s Show and Best Sound. Seeing as there’s only so much I can say in a 140-character tweet, I thought I’d give the nominations a little mention here to let you know a little about the show and those involved.

Punky is the creation of writer, Lindsay J. Sedgwick. She took the show through a long development process, supported by the Irish Film Board, and eventually the show landed on our desks at Monster Animation. My first thought? Are you serious?! No way. You can’t make a cartoon show about a person with Down syndrome because a cartoon is, by its very nature, a caricature. Even with the absolute best of intentions, this would go horribly wrong.

And, sure enough, one of the primary concerns from everyone who heard about the show was ‘ how will you show her visually?

It wasn’t easy.

But just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. In fact, maybe the closer it is to going horribly wrong the more chance it has of turning out to be rather special if it works. Because many others would have backed out earlier. Our producer, Gerard O’Rourke, didn’t back out. Of course, he wouldn’t have to design her!

As it would turn out, designing Punky was really only the first of many challenges in making the show work. It would take the wonderful children’s writer, Andrew Brenner, to craft the funny, honest and often touching stories for Punky and her family. It would take design work and early direction by Ciara McClean and fantastic visual storytelling for each episode by director Simon Crane to bring those stories to life. It would take Aimee Richardson’s perfect voice. In many ways, Aimee became Punky. It would take support from the Irish Film Board and broadcaster RTÉ. And it would take Creative Director Jason Tammem√§gi getting over his initial urge to flinch.

Through all that, the show still had Lindsay’s soul.

And eventually… it worked.

So now we have a fun little preschool show that is really just about a girl and her family. It’s about what she does, what she enjoys, what makes her laugh. She also happens to have Down syndrome. Due to the lack of main characters like that on television, that makes the show important. Important for children and parents, regardless of whether they have someone with Down syndrome in their lives.

And now a couple of IFTA nominations. That’s nice. Will it win one? Who knows. The IFTAs are what they are. But I guess, for me with my head deep in Cosmo right now, the nominations are just a reminder of what we made, why it’s important and those fantastic people who made it what it is.

I remember many years ago catching a bit of some show with designers discussing fashion trends for the next seasons. You know, the what would be the new black kind of thing.

And it hit me – these aren’t really trends. Because they are being dictated by the people selling the products. Designers basically tell people what the next new look is, put it everywhere, slap it on a celebrity and then, sure enough, it is the next new look.

What was also fascinating for a season that hadn’t happened yet was the amount of top designers selling the same new looks. I don’t know enough about the fashion industry to know how that works but, to the layman, it almost looks like they get together in a room, decide what they’re going to push and then they all go away and push those looks independently. Then it goes down the chain and the designers who weren’t invited to that meeting see which way the wind is blowing and push those same looks too.

And we have a new fashion next season.

Someone getting in on the action at that point would just say, well I’m giving the people what they want. In fact, ask the public and many will say that’s just what they want too, won’t they? It gets reinforced and reinforced between designers and the public. When the whole industry is pushing the same look, when that look is all over magazines, on every rack, it’s going to sell but is it what people really would have wanted? At that point, who knows. Who even cares? It’s very difficult to pull it apart.

Really though, it’s suppliers dictating demand. They’re designer trends, not people trends.

Great for the industry I’m sure but, when it comes to something like fashion, it struck me as somewhat ass-backwards.

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And now we have Lego Friends. Lego for girls. A topic of much discussion.

I haven’t weighed in on this yet. Why not? Well, to be honest, I have been conflicted. I can see some merit. Lego is a great toy and having a more obvious open invite to girls is something I’d support. They’re good looking sets that go some way towards restoring the balance in a product line that has gone quite dark. And the characters aren’t all bad. One is an inventor. One has a catchphrase about getting to work. We’ve all seen a lot worse when it comes to role models for our girls.

But then… am I to take it now that the airport sets, the police sets, town sets, Harry Potter sets and everything else with blocks of all colours, action and play possibilities, they’re just for boys? It is the way Lego have been marketing them.

And I guess therein lies a problem.

Whatever about my feelings, Lego Friends have their critics. And, as a father of two young girls, I can’t help but agree with much of what I read here at Marketing Media Childhood‘s collection of articles on the subject. So I’m watching it with interest.

But what does this have to do with fashion?

Well, someone in Lego (and maybe even people reading) will have thought, but this pink girly stuff is what girls want, right?

Perhaps.

But when almost the entire toy industry is selling the same limiting narrow view of what girls should be, it’s like the fashion industry – you can’t pull it apart. And yet, really, it’s suppliers dictating demand. How can anyone say it’s what girls want when they’re being sold little else? So Lego are just that last straggler playing ‘me too’ in the girl’s toy aisle. Is it hard to blame them? I guess the thing with Lego is that I’ve never seen them playing catch-up before.

Maybe people just expected better.

“Strong reasons make strong actions” – Shakespeare.

It’s the Space Year 2012AD. This is it – the future. No doubt about it. And, to quote Lennon (no, not Lenin), “what have we done?”

I have big plans for 2012 and some very exciting things brewing.

No real resolutions though. No dos or do nots. More like reasons. Why I need to do certain things. If those reasons are strong, they’ll lead to actions. As for the future, it’s not quite there yet, is it? Until it is, I guess strong reasons will be easy to find.

So bring on 2012.

I hope it’s a great year for you, and for all of us. May all your reasons be good ones.