Just a little Christmas post to wish everyone who stops by a happy, warm Christmas/holiday season. I wish you friends, family, comfort and peace.
Given the subject matter of my site, I should also plant one thought: there is still room in this world for new original Christmas stories and, if they’re good, they can become a defining part of the season for kids of any age. If you have a Christmas story in you and it’s not yet another version of A Christmas Carol, consider developing it and taking it further. Let that thought simmer as we come in to the new year.
And on a related note, I’d like to remind Irish readers that my very own Fluffy Gardens Christmas will be on RTE2 at 7.40am on Christmas morning. 8 years in a row, a Christmas tradition! It will also be on RTEjr at 11.40am and 1.05pm as far as I can tell (it’s just listed as Fluffy Gardens but I’m guessing on the time slot…). It is the most Christmassy of fun Christmas stories and I hope your little ones will love it if they haven’t already seen it.
Have a wonderful Christmas everyone! See you back here in 2014.
Publishers often like children’s books to be short. So do parents, who invariably end up reading them before bedtime. When my girls were younger, I often improvised abridged versions of long stories, aiming to shorten them without my girls noticing.
So shorter is better, right?
Well, I don’t know. You see, I also ended up reading 2-3 stories, depending on length. And if a book is fun to read, I find I have no desire to create my own abridged version. It turns out that the reason I try to shorten books is not because I don’t want to spend the time reading. It’s because I don’t want to spend the time reading that particular book.
It’s rarely a length issue. It’s quality.
I can’t tell you that you’ll win any arguments with publishers. But I can tell you as a parent that, if your book is fun to read, length isn’t all that much of a concern.
As a last little note on this, I should point out that the books I will most often skip are those books where I find myself stumbling over words. Those are a sure sign the writer wasn’t writing out loud.
There are two bus routes I can take from my house. One is a short, direct trip. The other drives around half of Dublin before getting to the city centre. The ticket for the long route is significantly more expensive than that for the shorter route. Why? Well the bus covers more distance, uses more petrol and takes up more of a driver’s time, I guess.
And yet this is an ass-backwards way to charge for a service.
This is like charging more for a package to reach its destination in six weeks than you charge for it to get there tomorrow. The shorter bus route provides a more efficient service. As a commuter, this is much more desirable and worth paying a premium for. If Dublin Bus actually put some thought into what they do as a service provider rather than people just carrying out an unwanted chore day after day, the long route would be cheaper than the short route.
Provide a service with more value attached, you can charge more for that service.
This is always worth keeping in mind when you are providing a service yourself or indeed hiring someone who is offering a service to you. Consider these questions – How will this service benefit the end product? Will it make creation/production easier? Quicker? Better? Is there relevant, applicable know-how here that few others can bring? Are valuable strengths being applied in the right areas? Is there trust here that carries value in itself? Where can real value be added? And how much is that worth?
It is not just about charging or paying for time. It is what that time brings to any project that counts.
Memento was a great movie, wasn’t it? And who didn’t love Godfather Part 2? But we don’t jump around chronologically like that in preschool. There is a very good reason most of the top preschool shows take place in real time, hardly ever even moving on to tomorrow, never mind shifting backwards to yesterday. If 24 had been a preschool show, nobody would have noticed what was different about it.
Generally in preschool, it’s good to stay in the present. Right now. In real time.
Young children don’t always have a clear sense of time. And the younger they are, the harder it is for them to understand. Children live in the moment. They live now. Yes, some actually have surprisingly great memories (like my eldest daughter) but it can be hard to process any true sense of when something really happened. A child might say “yesterday” and that could mean yesterday, last week, last year or five minutes ago. And without truly understanding how the past works, it’s incredibly difficult to really grasp the idea of time in the future.
Back in the early Fluffy Gardens episodes, I made the mistake of writing in too many ‘next day’ transitions. Rookie mistake. Much later with Planet Cosmo, it all takes in real time except for a single story which revolves around bedtime and so required one night-to-morning switch. Making it work took a lot of thought and, even then, I suspect I only managed to get across what was key to the story (bedtime) rather than fully getting across that passage of time, at least with the younger children.
It is okay to do that. You can tell stories like that as long as you know why it is you’re doing it, understand what elements are important to your story and make it absolutely clear, with the understanding that young children are not going to have that same sense of time passing that you do. But unless you really have to, I would always advise staying in the present. Stick to real time. It’s much easier for a preschool audience to grasp and they will be with your characters every moment of your episode.
But that was before just about every piece of knowledge from the entire planet decided to plonk itself right in front of us as we work. And even without that, think about those times you are buried in your work and someone interrupts to tell you something that, actually, has no real relevance to anything you are doing or are ever going to do. That knowledge is not power. It is distraction.
The truth is, there is more in the world than we could ever learn in a hundred lifetimes. We can amass knowledge. Everyone can. In a way, that has completely levelled many playing fields. Knowledge is not power any more. Not on its own.
Action is power – that comes from having drive rather than lots of knowledge. Relevant knowledge is power when applied – relevance and a sense of what is actually important comes from experience rather than just information-gathering. Above all, focus is power. And focus, by its very nature, means shutting some things out because you just don’t have the time or energy for them. Oh, I’m not anti-learning. Not by a long shot and anyone who reads this little blog would know that very well. I feel we should learn about the world and beyond our world, grow, test and challenge ideas. But when we are working, actually immersed in projects, we need focus.
And as it happens, it seems that focus is much harder to achieve these days than finding knowledge.
So in those situations, consider filtering just what information gets in. My rule of thumb: if the information is something I can’t take any action on, I don’t need it.
Every business has its own language and even little niches within those businesses have their own dialects. When you’re just learning the language, often the first words you pick up will be the buzzwords. They’re new and people are just trying them out so they get overused. Most buzzwords will eventually be dropped. Those that aren’t will stop being buzzwords and will be integrated into the language of that business.
It is important that you learn the language. Not just the buzzwords but the actual language.
Why? Because it makes your communication clear. When you’re creating, inventing, making and building, clear communication is key. Luckily the language of preschool content is relatively simple, at least on the content end – vocabulary begins to really build when you get into the actual production. Thing is, unless we hit a point where we are content doing the exact same thing over and over again, that learning doesn’t stop. So I don’t write this as someone who is content being fluent in preschool and speaks it like a native. No, as it happens I am myself currently learning new languages in the software end while developing some new preschool content and discovering yet again just what difference the language can make.
Writing a project document when you don’t know the language is like trying to order in a restaurant abroad by gesturing, making animal sounds and shouting louder. You know what you want and your intentions may make perfect sense to you but that doesn’t mean anyone else will know what you are babbling about.
And so we must learn the language.
It’s exciting. New methods, new terms and new ways of putting thoughts together that can really help solidify your concepts. It’s not always easy (I’m still at the shouting louder phase) but it’s important, no matter what end of our business, or any business, you want to be in. So whatever you’re aiming to do, learn the language. Listen the fluent speakers (that is what I am doing right now) and read, read, read. Then speak it.
The real challenge, I suspect, is weeding out the useful language from the buzzwords.
More often than not when making a point we take small, clear examples from everyday life and use those those to help illustrate a far greater, more important concept. I am about to attempt to do the exact opposite – to use a complex, world-altering discussion to see what it can tell us about making happy little children’s cartoons.
You see, I have been thinking about the recent exchanges between Russell Brand and Robert Webb. To boil it down to incredibly simplistic terms, Russell Brand has been saying we shouldn’t vote because the system doesn’t work for us and we need to make that clear by not agreeing to take part. Webb argues that we’re lucky to have democratic systems at all and not taking part will only make us less relevant, resulting it in being far less likely that it will ever work for us. Phew, that’s a rather grand discussion for two comedians but I couldn’t help but wonder about where I stand.
In my life here in Ireland, I have seen many generations of politicians. And how it works here is that, with every new generation, the previous generation is revealed to have been inept, self-serving and utterly corrupt. Sure, the country has changed and we have had massive ups and downs so not everything has stayed the same but this cycle of apparent corruption and damning the previous generation has remained a reliable constant. And while there are some more pleasant things about what has happened in my life on a government level (not least of which is the amount of support for local children’s content), I must admit to having hit a point where I feel like my actual vote is irrelevant. That particular aspect of our system doesn’t really feel like it is where change happens.
So where does that leave me with Brand and Webb? Well, like almost everything in life, I find myself applying the question to making children’s entertainment and seeing what feels right there. In making animated television shows, we inherited some systems from the old classical animation days but, really, very few of those turned out to be all that relevant and, because of the way the children’s TV industry grew here in Ireland from the ashes of those old movie systems, we all kind of made it up as we went along – we created our own new systems. There was a lot of trial and error involved.
The bottom line for any system we put in place was this: if it doesn’t feel like it’s working, you don’t keep hammering away at the same system in the the blind hope that some day it will. You remove that system and try another. Even if we’re being told we’re lucky that we have Y2K-compliant copies of Toonz, if it’s not working for production there is no point in keeping it. You don’t just change staff. You change the whole system. You move to Flash and completely change your pipeline to work with that. Or Cel Action. Or 3D.
So if Brand were making cartoons, I feel he would be saying something along the lines of “Stop measuring things in footage – it’s not working for you and has no relevance” and Webb would be saying “well you’re lucky to be making cartoons at all”. And both are true. But deciding not to use a particular system does not mean we have to give up the ideal of making awesome cartoons. Quite the opposite. When you’re in production and you have come to the conclusion that a part of the pipeline is deeply flawed and just didn’t give you the results you needed, you would be crazy to carry that same system on to the next production.
A key part of making any production work is identifying where it doesn’t.
And with so much to do, every single part of the process should contribute to making your work better – it should have a positive effect to the on-screen end result. If it doesn’t, don’t give it your time.
So whatever about the politics, whatever about what we may feel about Brand or Webb and comedians generally, it is possible that we can take this discussion to a smaller level, closer to our little preschool content home. We can be thankful we get to make shows at all, we can hang on tight to our ideals of making better and better content and, all the while, being completely open to acknowledging when a system just isn’t quite working for us. When that happens, we can change it.
We had a great day on Saturday talking through writing and developing for preschool media. For the most part, we stayed with the needs of the audience and how best to focus and present the creative in engaging ways. But any work comes with systems that must be dealt with on top of all the fun creative and dealing with notes is part of almost any process. We touched on this a little on Saturday but I felt it worth expanding on here. It’s fantastic to get notes about how awesome our work is but, when we aren’t used to them, more critical notes can sometimes feel like a kick in the gut.
They can feel rotten and can be hard to take when we are so close to our work. That’s the truth of it.
So knowing that, here are my top tips for handling notes you don’t particularly like:
1. Don’t react instantly.
Read the notes. Then do nothing. Don’t send a mail, don’t pick up the phone and don’t tear your work apart. Do nothing. Instead, leave them and revisit them the next day. They’ll look different and you have now had time to process them even if you weren’t considering them directly. Sure, there may be some notes in there you still don’t like but the knee-jerk reaction is gone and you will be better able to consider them for what they really are.
2. Remember they are not out to get you.
People write notes to contribute. And you know what? Most do contribute. If there are notes that you vehemently disagree with, remind yourself that the person who wrote the notes is not your enemy. They want to help and their intentions are good. I could have done with someone reminding me this early in my career.
3. Really consider them.
This is so important. You might read something in the notes that doesn’t match with your initial thinking or they may be phrased poorly or even (the odd time) read as offensive but is it possible that the point behind the note might actually make your story better? Or is it possible that you might be able to implement them in some way that would produce, for you, a neutral result – so that you give on the note without feeling like you have lost what you were aiming for? If so, do it. Most of the time, even a note we see as rotten has a very valid point behind it. It’s a sign something hasn’t worked. The truth is, it is the critical notes that have value.
4. Choose your battles carefully.
Eventually you will find a note that, to you, defeats the whole purpose of what you wrote. One that would make you feel terrible if you went with it. You need to save your credits for that one. Don’t waste them on the little things, those things that don’t really matter. Don’t get into the habit of rejecting notes – it will wear you and everyone else down. Save the credits.
5. Those battles? They can’t be battles.
If it becomes a confrontational situation, everyone loses. You win by keeping people happy, acknowledging that something hasn’t quite worked and looking for solutions that are positive for everyone. Keep control, get the results you want while making sure everyone is okay with that. Be positive and stay constructive, not destructive.
And the most important tip of all when you have notes arriving in…
6. Cut off your email.
Don’t check project emails in the evening or weekend. Give yourself a cut-off and stick to it. I would even advise picking a time early Friday afternoon or lunchtime and cutting it off from then. Because someone might send a note on a Friday just as they are walking out of the office, like dropping a little nuclear bomb on your weekend. And you can’t do a thing about it until Monday morning. So let it wait until Monday. Don’t have it on your mind all weekend. You need your weekends, you need your evenings and you need your sleep. So be selective about when you open yourself up to mails.
So those are my top tips for handing those notes we don’t agree with instantly.
I will leave you with just one other thing to consider. I so often preach the value of Audience Awareness – knowing who it is we write for and keeping our audience in mind at all times. One of the wonderful by-products of embracing Audience Awareness is that it can take ego out of the equation. It becomes all about the kids and not in any way about you. When that happens, it stops being personal and you can really see that notes are not about being critical of you or what you can do, but are about seeing if a whole team can give something even better to children.
It all has to make sense. Once your audience starts asking questions in their head about why certain things have or haven’t happened, you’ve lost them. They may miss a line or even several lines and they are out of the story. They may not catch up again. They may not want to.
So everything in your story has to make sense. It has to be clear even for the younger children in your audience. It should be clear for you as a writer or a director and clear for everyone in the production. And so there are limits to how whimsical you can go before you start losing your audience and it is very important that you play by the rules you establish at the start of your story.
And therein lies a lovely little bit of freedom.
You see, we tend to accept the world as it is when we are first introduced to it. If we begin a story about a family that owns a spotty elephant and, halfway through the story, the elephant’s spots turn to stripes without any reason, we’ll question that. It could take us out of the story. But very few people will question how a normal family ended up with a spotty elephant in the first place because that’s the world we established right at the start. If a character becomes a wizard somewhere in your story, that needs to make sense in the context of your world. Open the story with a wizard and nobody will question it. A world of chocolate people? No problem. But when it’s a hot sunny day and they don’t melt, you have some explaining to do.
So if you have some fantastic, fun, whimsical concept you want as part of your story, open with it. That’s now your world. It doesn’t mean you’ll get away with anything, as the chocolate people example illustrates, but you’ll get away with that particular stretch.
We will generally accept the world as presented to us right at the start. From there, you have to stick to the rules you establish.
By the way, don’t forget I will be giving a course on Writing and Developing Content for Preschool Media this Saturday, 2nd of November. It’s going to be a really good day full of guidance and tips to help you focus your content in a way that better engages preschool children. Details here: Animation Skillnet.
Here is a simple little scripting tip that will sound obvious as you read it and yet, because of the way we use language, is something often missed as people write.
Make sure actions and visuals play out in the chronological order in which they happen.
This is easily illustrated by an example. Read this next paragraph and play the story out in your head:
Harry laughs out loud almost as soon he enters the room when he sees Lenny hit the floor, after just tripping on a roller skate which sent him flying into the air.
There is no possible way that a scene can play out like this on screen unless you are playing it backwards. We read first that Harry laughs out loud but that doesn’t really happen until after he enters the room so we missed an action there. Lenny hits the floor but we have to rewind the scene as we find out how and why he hit the floor. As anyone reads through the lines (producer, editor, director, anyone), they lose a sense of what is happening because they are having to jump back in time as they read. That is a problem. It creates a barrier between the script and the storytelling and, really, you don’t even want people aware that they are reading a script – you want them to experience the story.
The solution? Just write it very simply as it happens in chronological order:
Harry enters the room. He watches as Lenny trips on a roller skate, flies through the air and lands right on his bottom. Harry laughs out loud.
Now everything happens in order. As someone reads it, every action plays out in their mind just as it will happen on screen. The sentences are functional. Personally, I like to keep them that way because what is important is the action. Your wordplay won’t make it to screen unless it is in dialogue and flourishes of language, as interesting as they can be, can often draw attention to your scripting rather than the actual story. The main thing is that you have clearly set down the order that will then survive to storyboarding, animatic and final episode.
So keep it mind as you write. Make sure actions and visuals play out in the chronological order in which they happen.