We talk a lot about co-viewing but the reality is that television is often (mostly?) watched by children alone, while parents make lunch, tidy up, smoke a fine cigar while enjoying a glass of cognac or whatever.
For very young children, however, a book must be read by an adult.
An adult is present at all times to provide context, discuss ideas, explain what is real or not real, censor if needed (I tend to replace the word ‘stupid’ with ‘silly’ ‘ I just don’t like stupid) and give children the messages they want to give them. And specific books can be pulled out at specific times ‘ they don’t just air on their own in an order decided by someone else. It becomes parent and child time. Family time. Picture books, by their very nature, seem to help me be a better parent and hopefully that will in turn help my children grow up to be better adults.
A complex show, or indeed any project with multiple elements, brings with it many possible pitfalls. Often (if you’re doing it right) these are a direct result of creativity – trying new things, pushing ourselves further into unknown territory while trying to create something surprising and wonderful. After all, if it comes too easy it’s a sure sign you’re retreading old ground. But when resources and time are limited, those pitfalls can soon become major problems. Careful monitoring of progress becomes essential and evaluating not just each element but what happens when those elements are put together. Backgrounds may look great on their own. Animation might look fantastic. Put them together and it’s only then that you might spot some clash that needs to be fixed and dealt with.
What if that happens across 180 scenes or more?
You end up with a huge overwhelming fix list.
Most projects end up with a daunting fix list at some point and this has the potential to cause breakdowns in any system. It can lead to panic. Chaos. Fixing parts here, there. Sending some elements back to be fixed without fully understanding what it is that needs to be fixed. Sometimes each fix breaks something else. The bigger the fix list the greater the pressure and the more likely it is to result in half-fixes, incorrect fixes and an even larger fix list. It can be utterly demoralising. Remember when teachers would give you a whole evening’s homework not taking into account that every other teacher did the same? Did it result in focused high-quality homework? It did not. It either resulted in scrappy homework or none at all because the pain of coming up with an excuse was less than the pain of actually doing the work, which could only ever be done badly.
So how do you deal with a fix list and avoid the breakdowns?
You search for golf balls.
Ever lost something and you’ve looked all over the house, searching many locations over and over again? Good golfers don’t do this. I think it was my granddad, an avid golfer, who once told me about how one should search for golf balls. When searching for a lost golf ball, a good golfer will choose a small likely location and search it. Thoroughly. So thoroughly that, if they don’t find the ball, they can be absolutely certain it isn’t there. So they move on to the next spot and never search that location again. By being thorough, they will always make progress and never go backwards. Dealing with a fix list is the exact same.
One at a time, you work your way through the list. And you do not move from a fix until that single fix is complete, tested and working. The original problem must be solved and evaluated to make sure it did not create any new problems. Only then do you move on.
No half-fixes. No fix snacking. No panic.
A slow process? Sometimes. Not anywhere near as slow as fixing the same thing five times incorrectly. And it is much more manageable dealing with one fix at a time, one anything at a time, rather than looking at some huge gargantuan task.
I found the Children’s Media Conference took me back to my roots in some ways. An event like that always helps to inspire and remind me why I love to make children’s content but this went even further back. In a talk on gaming with Ian Livingstone, I suddenly remembered creating Fighting Fantasy-style adventure games in BASIC on old Apple computers. Games programming. From there, my life could have gone in a very different direction and a career in the games industry would actually have been a very natural move. With content now merging/diverging/transmediaing and so on, perhaps I’ll end up in that direction eventually.
With all the talk of apps, many more traditional TV folk were thinking about how they might fit in, I guess hoping they don’t get left behind. And one of the things I heard said over and over was this: it’s all about narrative. The story. TV, books, games, apps – it all comes down to narrative so the same thinking and the same skills apply.
In Ian Livingstone’s talk, he had a slide. On the top was written ‘Gameplay, Gameplay, Gameplay’ and underneath that was an image of Pong.
Hmmm… narrative? No. In Pong, narrative didn’t apply. Nor in Pac-Man. Even now, does the narrative really make a contribution to Angry Birds? Tiny Wings? When we’re talking games, it’s usually about gameplay. Sure, narrative can be woven in beautifully and contribute – many heavy hitter games have a very strong narrative. Others succeed in spite of incredibly weak narratives. In many games with barely a written narrative to be found, the playing of the game often creates its own narrative – for example, in multiplayer games it is the gameplay coupled with the experiences of real people that leaves players with their own stories to tell. That’s something that needs to be allowed for by the developers, even nurtured, yet not really something that can be imposed upon the player.
So when it comes to games, it really doesn’t always come down to narrative in the same way it might in a cartoon (and even that’s something I would question).
That is just for games of course. Every app is different and every app has different strengths, weaknesses and needs. But the one thing I can be certain of is that a TV show is not an app. They aren’t the same and the same rules or skills do not apply directly, even if sometimes the strengths in one medium may compliment the other.
Narrative in a traditional sense, as it happens, is often entirely optional.
I imagine when creating an app, or really anything else, the important thing is to find that which is not optional and then you have your focus. In gaming, that’s gameplay. Your answers may vary.
Last week I attended my first Children’s Media Conference and I came away with a huge amount to think about. There was a special focus on apps this year and this focus had many people thinking about their characters, shows and properties in quite different ways. I can imagine some serious strategy meetings taking place as I post this on Monday morning.
The CMC sessions were varied and interesting.
There were several Meet The Commissioners sessions in which each commissioner (public broadcasters, commercial broadcasters, publishers) outlined what they do and who they serve content to. Many people of course hope to hear exactly what a commissioner is looking for so they can go away and make it but that never happens. The message is clear – just go and make something great that you believe in. Hopefully if it really is great, one of these commissioners will recognise that. It’s an important message and not far off what I posted here back in May.
There was an interesting session on testing. Admittedly, with me they were preaching to the converted on this one. If you want to get a sense of how kids will react to your content, show it to kids.
I saw a great talk from Ian Livingstone on gaming and its history. As a reader of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks as a child, I went to this as a fan and was not disappointed. It was an entertaining talk that has planted a few ideas to be explored later.
And there were many more good sessions over the few days, including one on monetising apps ‘ making the money. I was glad to see both inside and outside the sessions that there was quite a bit of debate on the ethics of how this works right now with certain apps. Some were just treating anyone who makes money as rock stars irrespective of what they do to make it, but many more were seeing the obvious here ‘ this is the Children’s Media Conference, with everyone there in some way making content for children. Often very young children, far too young to understand the implications of what they are getting into or the extent to which they are being manipulated.
Apps aren’t a good thing or bad thing in themselves. Like TV and other media, it’s what we do with them that counts and creation comes with responsibility.
While there, I managed to meet many interesting people doing all sorts of different things and a real highlight of the CMC was finally meeting some people in person that I know or know of but have never had a chance to meet previously. Some I knew over Twitter, like Joe from Rumpus Animation for example (check out their showreel here). Some are regular sources of information online, such as the excellent David Kleeman from the American Center for Children and Media.
Others were people I have admired over the years, such as Little Airplane‘s Josh Selig. Josh makes incredible shows for preschool children and I have loved reading his insights and opinions on his Kidscreen blog, which reveal a man dedicated to quality without ever losing focus of those who really count ‘ the children. The results are there for all to see in Wonderpets, 3rd & Bird, Small Potatoes and more and it was great to meet Josh.
One very special person I finally met in person is my script editor, Hilary Baverstock. Hilary and I have worked together since 2007 on both Fluffy Gardens and Cosmo and yet, until now, we had never actually met in person. Hilary turned me from a somewhat stinky writer to a far, far less stinky writer and has consistently made every one of my little children’s stories much better. And she is as wonderful in person as I always imagined her to be. Thank you, Hilary, for everything you have given me over the years.
So that was the Children’s Media Conference 2012. My first but definitely not my last. Thanks to everyone who said hello, gave me a card (business, not birthday ‘ it wasn’t my birthday) and said kind things about my shows, especially Jem Packer (of the wonderful Knife & Packer) who proved his knowledge of Fluffy Gardens by singing the theme tune. And thanks of course to the organisers of the Conference. It was a real success and I look forward to returning next year.
Hoping for less rain next time though. The whole cancelled trains thing on the way home wasn’t quite as fun as the rest of the conference.
Lastly… at the weekend, the IFI here in Dublin held a Family Festival with an animation trail, showing Irish animation such as Octonauts, Wobblyland, Roy and, yes, Fluffy Gardens. I had a wonderful time answering questions for children and adults alike on animation and the show itself. One child may have even created his first show based around a funny little character called Philip. Thanks to everyone who came and asked questions!
Yes, show titles should be simple. Complicated titles aren’t ideal.
But it’s even worse if you don’t actually tell children what the name of the show is.
Can you imagine making that fatal mistake? Introducing a show and not even letting children know what it’s called?! Insanity.
Yes, well that’s the reason my eldest first called Fluffy Gardens ‘Da da da daaah’ (the theme tune). At least my youngest managed to call it ‘Gandans’ when she was the same age, mainly because I tried to teach her what the show is called. But nowhere in the opening sequence did I tell children that the show they’re watching is called Fluffy Gardens. Oh it’s there in the text but it’s not like most of my target audience can read, is it?
A rookiemistake and one that won’t be repeated.
Thankfully many parents did know what it was called and liked the show so it did pretty well in spite of that. But if I was allowed to remaster/remix the show, I’d fix that. And add in some CG characters. And have Greedo shoot first… oh, no that’s Star Wars… sorry, lost my train of thought there.
So learn from my mistake – if you’re making a show, please tell children what it’s called.