“I have an idea for a show, how do I get it made?”
I get asked this question on a pretty regular basis. Before I got into broadcast television, it’s a question I found myself asking. If you are here looking for the answer, the bad news is that this post does not contain the answer you want. But it may contain the answer you need.
Here is the first step – back up and review what you have.
Because I find that almost everyone who comes to me with this question is looking to sell a show. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But what they have is exactly what they say they have ‘ an idea for a show. And one does not equal the other.
To get a show made, to sell a show, you’ve really got to have a show.
An idea is a fantastic starting point and, in spite of what I have read elsewhere, I think an idea alone can have value. After all, it is the core from which a show can grow. But you have to know the difference between the idea and the show. You have to recognise what you have. For example, more often than not I see the idea is just a group of character designs. That’s not a show. It’s a really good place to start (my own Fluffy Gardens began as just a collection of characters) but it’s not yet a show. Other times, people will describe a scene or the beginnings of a story. Great for establishing the tone you’re looking for, but it’s not a show.
And sometimes people just have an aim - so it’s this show, right, that tells children just how amazing bees are.
Often those ideas seem to be vaguest, fluffiest and least-defined in terms of actual creative. They can also be the strongest and most likely to succeed because those ideas come from someone on a mission. Someone out to make a difference in a child’s life rather than just trying to get their own creations on to a screen somewhere.
But it’s still not a show yet.
So how do you get your show made? Make it a show. Go back to the idea, your own driving force, and flesh it out. Figure out what it is and why. Picture how an episode might play out. What’s missing? What does it offer the audience? Do the characters work together? Do they spark more story concepts? You know that phrase “it writes itself”? Well I find really good show concepts ooze episode ideas ‘ stories after stories. If you’re struggling to find a story, something in the setup is probably not working yet. That’s all creative stuff but anyone can work these things out, whether you’re coming at this as a designer or a writer or anything else. It can be daunting and there may be a thousand reasons why you think you aren’t qualified but, truth be told, I don’t know if anyone is really qualified. Those who succeed are just those who went ahead and tried it anyway.
And then kept trying.
Throughout this process, the most important thing to figure out is this ‘ why would someone care? Television is saturated. Broadcasters, distributors and buyers have decades of shows just sitting there. They get pitched new shows all the time. So what one-line pitch has your show got that will make someone think, “I don’t have a show like that, I need that”? By the way, that requires doing your homework and finding out what already exists. Not everyone is going to buy into your pitch ‘ that’s fine, not everyone has to. But you have to know what your pitch is.
At some point in all that, you will find you go from having a show idea to having a show. And you are in a far, far better position when your question becomes, “I have a show, how do I get it made?”
One last addition to this… If you really go for it and get to that last question, you are well on your way to where you want to be. 99% of people stop at the idea. So just push that bit further.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, Fluffy Gardens characters come with grey areas – they, like real people, aren’t just black and white and don’t always lend themselves to clear messages or absolutes. One character who posed a problem was Scoopy the Pink Rabbit. I set Scoopy up as a character who constantly asks questions. Every answer followed instantly by yet another question, often an inappropriate one.
We all know children like that, right?
But what’s the lesson? That a child shouldn’t ask questions? But then isn’t the best way of learning about things asking questions? We should be encouraging children to ask questions. Well that’s a lesson any parent with a three year-old on their 167th ‘why’ of the day would likely take issue with.
So Scoopy the Pink Rabbit’s episode ended up with multiple messages to children: asking questions can lead to useful knowledge, but ask the right questions and don’t hurt anyone‚Äôs feelings. And, in a way, it had a message to adults too: your child asking questions can be a very good thing.
The episode is messy. It has some fun in it, no doubt, and children seem to really enjoy it (I suppose that’s the important thing) but across the whole series I feel it is one of the weaker episodes.
Life has its grey areas and sometimes there isn’t just one right answer but, man, that doesn’t half make it hard to write a good show about them. This is where I think co-viewing comes into play. It is a really good idea for parents to watch shows with their children and talk about them. That way, parents can expand on the ideas in the show or answer any questions the show brings up in a way that suits them right then and there.
Because poor ol’ children’s television can’t cover everything.
Life isn’t simple. It isn’t black or white. There are many shades of grey and many points of view.
Fluffy Gardens features what could be called morality tales, to a point. But some lessons conflict and others require interpretation because there are so many different ways of looking at things. For example, Mavis the Pony is very careful (a good thing for safety) and yet that sometimes completely inhibits her and she misses out on fun experiences (a bad thing). There’s a grey area that requires a unique decision whether or not to be careful in any given situation.
On top of that, most Fluffy Gardens characters are more well-rounded than they may initially appear. They don’t just embody a single trait.
This became problematic for certain characters and stories, especially for the distributor who (probably rightly) argued young children don’t like grey areas. For example, in Paolo the Cat’s episode I introduced Cornelius the Crab as a ‘naughty crab’. I came to regret that labelling, which would forever taint how we view that character’s actions, just as it would do if we label children. Later, I chose to revisit the label in Cornelius’ own episode in which, because he’s always pinching, he is branded as ‘naughty’ by most characters until they realise that his pinching can actually be useful in the right situation.
It was somewhat of a grey conclusion ‘ he shouldn’t pinch people, but was I justifying the behaviour by also showing that others shouldn’t judge him so quickly? The ending is unsure. Really it comes down to this: disapprove of the behaviour, not the person. A very difficult message to get across to a child, especially when children themselves are so quick to label. I guess it is nature’s quick way of sorting out friend from foe in a child’s mind.
But life isn’t that simple. It isn’t black or white. There are many shades of grey and, personally, I think we would do children a disservice to pretend this were not the case.
On another topic, the Cartoon Forum is on this week. I won’t be there but our producer Gerard O’Rourke will be and he happens to have an episode or two of Cosmo with him. So if you’re going, hunt him down and check out the show!
I remember listening to a talk from a business coach which highlighted some of the differences in our productivity when the boss is watching. If we’re on our own, we might check emails, send a text message, watch YouTube videos or whatever. But, if the boss is watching, we will work. We will sit at our desk and do what we’re supposed to be doing.
So his tip? Work like the boss is watching.
In a way, it’s a good tip for productivity. At least for cutting out those time-wasting activities that don’t contribute. Great for those tasks that are certainties and it’s just a case of getting them done, and it can be a good way of looking at things if your boss happens to be you and your future depends on you getting the work done. But then there’s that old phrase, much repeated in songs over the years – dance like nobody’s watching.
If you’re dancing, what difference does it make if you know nobody is watching?
It removes judgement. You’re free to look ridiculous. You can express yourself in any way you choose without fear and you can immerse yourself in the music and just let go. You’re free to play. The self-expression can make you feel better but there is more to it than that. If you do it enough, you just might get good. By flailing around day after day, you may find some moves that actually look pretty cool. Your moves. You could surprise yourself. And, if you get that confidence up, maybe one day you will feel good enough to surprise someone else too.
I don’t see work as being all that different.
If when we work, we’ve got that spectre of a boss looming over us, we are going to hold back. We’ll be afraid of making a mistake and looking ridiculous. We’re self-conscious. Critical. The result is that we play it safe and take no risks. Or worse, get so tied-up second-guessing the inevitable judgement that we make a complete mess.
I remember on Fluffy Gardens making sure that people felt ready to show me their work before I looked at it. I didn’t want to catch anyone mid-dance. Without me looking over their shoulder, they’d invariably take more risks. Be more playful. After all, if it didn’t work, they could clean it up before I saw it. I got better results on a show where my main request of each animator was ‘surprise me’. I knew they could all do adequate without taking risks. But these days adequate just isn’t good enough. It’s in the surprises that those animators would make the show great.
I think we’re all capable of beating ourselves up enough about our work without adding the permanent shadow of a boss to the process. Instead, we should create without advance judgement. Allow ourselves to play. And allow ourselves the mistakes, those moments in which we might look ridiculous. Through that, we’re more likely to rise far above adequate. All the way to excellent.
So when it comes to being creative, when what you do really has to count, here’s my take – work like nobody’s watching.