I love that there are adults who love children’s shows and who can find things to enjoy across all animation. That is wonderful. But the Cartoonbrew (and similar) crowd are not who most of us are actually making shows for. Our real audience is far more quiet on the Internet than the noisy adults. So even though most of us know the above to be true it always helps to have a regular reminder, hence the new print-out on the studio wall today. The section underneath has already been filled with photos of some of the children of crew-members and their extended families. Just faces reminding us who our real bosses are.
Children are our audience, our clients. They’re in charge.
And you know what? I couldn’t ask for a better boss.
Dublin has a huge amount of protected buildings, mostly old Georgian houses. If you want to rebuild or improve, well, you may not be able to or, if you can, only within strict guidelines. Even new buildings must adhere with the feel of Dublin and can be rejected planning permission for things like being too high, thus ruining the low-rise skyline.
It’s all an effort to preserve things as they are. To prevent change.
Here’s the reality: you CAN’T prevent change.
Dublin is full of windows like the one above, rotten and falling to bits. The cost of a new window in Georgian style is prohibitive. A modern window, prohibited. And so they rot. Not just the windows. That low-rise skyline is filled with old decaying buildings.
Even if you could renovate each and every building true to its original style and changed nothing, you would still have a city that no longer meets the needs of modern citizens where it once did all those years ago. While fine for Georgian times, during Ireland’s boom, the infrastructure was decades behind the needs of the people.
So even in the act of preventing change, the city has changed.
Change happens. You can’t prevent it no matter how hard you try. In buildings, cities, work, life, anything. The only outcome of trying to prevent change is that you lose control of that change. It’s far better to embrace the change. Create the change, move with change. Control the change.
One thing I love about pixel art is the defined nature of the decisions. Most pixel doodles of mine begin as canvases of 160 x 240 pixels. That is 38,400 pixels in total. 38,400 squares to colour in.
38,400 decisions. That’s all it takes.
When written down like that, it seems like a lot but it’s really not. Compared with the fluid, less defined nature of a painting, for example, it’s a very small number of decisions. A painting might take a day or it could take years. That brings uncertainty. But with pixel art, there is a wonderful sense of security that comes with having a clear number of decisions. Just make 38,400 colour choices and you can walk away satisfied.
The surprises can come in the creativity, but the framework is reassuringly contained.
Writing, directing, setting up and managing productions is all about making decisions. Any leadership role is. Decision after decision almost every moment of every day. Each one with the potential to haunt us later. It could be overwhelming, and I have seen it defeat people.
Define those decisions in advance, however, and the job becomes so much more certain. Each decision becomes a very clear step towards the end goal and the only surprises come exactly where they should: in the creativity. That comes in planning – choosing your canvas, your amount of pixels – and it’s why I take control of my entire productions right from the start and don’t allow any loose ends. Then it’s just in making those decisions, not delaying (it’s rare we are hit with some magical piece of insight by just putting it off), and being clear to not entertain any decisions that aren’t within our canvas – those are time-wasters.
Work your way through your 38,400 decisions and you can walk away satisfied… or, like these touched-up pixel doodles, you can then see what extra you can bring. Everything from there is a beautiful bonus.
Over the last week, I have been completely buried in Planet Cosmo animatics – the stories with voices but just in storyboard form, rather than fully animated. Cosmo is a greater challenge than my previous shows due to the number of elements that all have to flow together – adventure, characters, three songs per episode, two planet information sections, several interactive sequences and more. Vastly different segments that all must come together as a whole in just thirteen minutes.
For guidance, I find watching with an audience can make all the difference.
Not just asking opinion, or even watching their reaction. There is something simply in being in the presence of an audience that can completely change how we ourselves perceive what we are seeing. We get a new perspective. Even if the children sat with poker faces and never said a word, the act of just watching with an audience can make so many things clear.
Then of course, we have the added bonus that our audience rarely sits with poker faces (generally not a good sign) and we can ask them questions. What did you like? Who is your favourite character? What did you learn about the planet? We can learn so much about what is working and not working about our shows from just asking our audience and listening carefully to the answers. If you have your own kids, you have that access to that feedback all the time but, even if you don’t, an audience isn’t hard to find. So why not seek out that feedback?
Well, for me, I find if I’m resistant at all to even looking for the feedback, it’s a sign that somewhere deep down I know something isn’t right and I just don’t want to hear that. So I have to push through it and look for the feedback anyway.
But having children can also show us the limitations in such feedback. As anyone with a child will know, show the same child the same thing on a different day and you will most likely get completely different feedback. Children are incredibly complex beings and prone to such dramatic changes even in just the space of minutes that, when crafting a television show, it can sometimes be a mistake to react to their whims too quickly. What you get back in feedback at any given moment may actually be about something else entirely. This is true for an adult audience too ‘ what they say they want may well not be what they’ll like if you give it to them.
Focus groups can be of very limited value. If they weren’t, every show ever tested would be a huge hit.
Entertainment is an inexact science. Or, at the very least, the science is so complicated that it is well beyond our total understanding right now. Whether from those in the audience themselves, or from those who claim to know what they’re talking about (like me), it’s all just a best-guess scenario.
So feedback is important. But it’s not a replacement for our own independent thought. It shouldn’t be a crutch, an excuse not to make our own decisions, an out-clause if something goes wrong. They are still our own decisions.
So watch with an audience. Listen not just to them, but to yourself as you gain a new perspective.
Character is everything. At least, that’s what people say.
But, having created over 40 characters for one show alone, I’ve realised that some of the characters people initially love turn out to be the hardest to find stories for. The attraction to a character can actually be just a surface trait, or a design quirk rather than being a really well-developed character who will lead to many good stories. Some characters get exhausted rather quickly, whereas others remain fun to write forever. And when they’re more fun to write, I’m pretty sure they’re usually more fun to watch.
Here are a few examples of Fluffy Gardens characters easy or tough to write for:
PAOLO THE CAT
Everyone took a shine to Paolo early on and children really respond to him when he crops up in other character’s episodes.
But, beyond his initial series 1 episode, Paolo was very difficult to write for. The thing is, because he is set up as being so clever, he’s a living deus ex machina to any story. Can’t solve a problem? Go to Paolo and ask him! He’s a ruiner of good stories. So in series 2, you’ll see Wee Reg the Puppy immediately jump to the idea of asking Paolo about rainbows – but Paolo isn’t in (he’s out buying milk) because, if Paolo is in, the story ends there and not in a very interesting way.
Of course, what I came to realise is that part of what made Paolo so endearing in the first place is how insecure he is about his own talents. I made use of that in a series 2 episode that became one of my favourites.
Still, Paolo wasn’t easy to write for.
THE SMALL GREEN THING
Another very popular character with children. But let’s be honest here, even the word ‘character’ is stretching it a bit. He’s cute, he’s green and he squeaks.
Part of the challenge with this character is that I achieved what I wanted to say with the Small Green Thing in the very first Fluffy Gardens episode ever aired – Paolo the Cat. In that, I show that even though he is small his help can make a big difference. I feel that’s a strong message and I delivered it and then the poor ol’ Small Green Thing became tough to write even just as a guest character. Nevertheless, he remained popular among fans of the show and I think he’s an example of the importance of simplicity. In ways, it’s sometimes easiest for us to relate to the blank slate characters because we can project ourselves on to them.
MAVIS THE PONY
Mavis, on the other hand, I could write a thousand episodes about. She is one Fluffy Gardens character who could easily carry her own show. She is no (please excuse this) one trick pony. She is very careful (positive?) but that makes her nervous (negative?), prone to panic (negative?) and unwilling to take chances (parents could see that either way depending on just how many scrapes their children get into). So her main trait, being careful, instantly results in a whole bunch of conflicts without her even having to do a thing. And, as most of these Fluffy Gardens character traits lend themselves to moral tales, Mavis exists in a grey area because it’s easy to argue that being careful is a good thing and equally easy to argue that taking chances is a good thing.
To add to that, she has hay fever and Michael Maloney’s voice delivery makes her sound like a female Irish Richard Nixon, which I love.
So Mavis can be thrown into just about any story and be entertaining, often very funny but also come out of it having learned something about the merits of being careful or the exact opposite – about taking chances.
As a result, you’ll see there are more series 2 episodes about Mavis the Pony than any other character. She was just too much fun. I had to keep writing Mavis stories.
Early on when pitching Fluffy Gardens, many people asked me ‘could you just make the show about Paolo the Cat?’. If I had, the show would have wrapped up after about three episodes. What we perceive as character is often much simpler than we imagine, and other times much more complex. But of this I’m pretty certain – there is a lot more to making a connection with children than character. It is just one layer in a far larger creation.