As many of you will have seen, it was announced last week that Monster Animation & Design has changed its name to Geronimo Productions. Monster Animation, started by owner and producer Gerard O’Rourke, has been going for 17 years and I joined very early in its history, taking the position of Creative Director of the company more than ten years ago. From there, we took Monster Animation from advertising into broadcast television, starting with us producing Roobarb & Custard Too and then creating Fluffy Gardens and moving us through Ballybraddan, Punky and now our new show and my latest creation, Planet Cosmo. All the while, I have been overseeing the creative vision of the company, building the studio methods and systems and creating, moulding, nurturing and producing shows.
We have come a long way together.
The name change is something Gerard and I have discussed for many years (mostly because of international confusion with another Irish Monster) and, with a brand new show launching, the time finally seemed right to make the switch. So this week, we’re working hard as Geronimo Productions to finish Planet Cosmo and you’ll be hearing a lot about that very soon. The studio at Geronimo is gearing up for more Punky (I’m serving as script editor at the moment with Andrew Brenner writing) and everything is moving forward with a new name and a new identity.
Will it bring exciting things? I think it will. It’s going to be a big and rather interesting year for all of us.
If we present our children with sweet sugary preschool worlds where everyone is lovely to one another, is real life just going to be a real kick in the crotch? Worse still, are they going to be totally unprepared to deal with tough situations?
Could heaping the sugar on actually be really damaging to children?
The reality is, life is not sugary sweet. Children can be mean. That’s just children finding out who they are, reacting with instinct and learning how to be among other children.
And the world can get much worse going into adulthood.
So is there a good case to be made for presenting children with fictional demons, wicked witches or bullies in order to prepare them for life? That young children actually need to see the darker side of life?
Possibly. As a parent I find that, at the right time, certain stories can really help children understand with or deal with why things happen (like when I had to explain why my scooter was stolen). Or at the right time they can even help children find the strength to overcome their own problems (like when I invented ass-kicking fairies to help my girls beat their bad dreams). Useful.
At the right time. Like medicine, to be taken when prescribed.
And yet all the research I have read indicates that violent television leads to increased aggression. Heavy viewing can scare children, leading to a paranoid world view which then leads, yet again, to increased aggression under the guise of self-defense. And some studies seem to indicate that children who have been watching more age-appropriate content rather than content outside their age range are actually better equipped to deal with life’s problems as they get older.
It seems to me that, while television isn’t to blame for children being who they are, for people being who they are, presenting the darker side of life too early will actually compound problems. In telling children that there are demons, wicked witches or bullies out there, we’re not just preparing them for the worst. We’re presenting the worst as normal. We can make them fearful, more likely to strike first or, worse still, have some aspire to be that which we’re desperately trying to defeat in our fictional worlds – certain preschool demographics were shown to aspire to being Swiper the Fox, for example, and who didn’t want to be Darth Vader?
I think, no matter which way I look at it, by presenting those tales of demons, wicked witches and bullies, we are more likely simply to end up with more demons.
Any of us making a show will invariably hope that the audience will grow large enough for it to become impractical to send someone out to the home of every viewer to answer any questions.
With young children, while it is important to present them with new ideas, new words and contribute to their learning by challenging them and aiming that bit higher, concepts need to be presented in a context that will make sense to them. Each child has a certain point at which they will lose interest if completely baffled. You can aim to hold them with bright colours and loud sound effects and that will work to some extent but, firstly, it will only work for so long and they are far more likely to want to watch a show that works on their level and, secondly, you have higher standards than that because you respect your audience, right?
So, when getting feedback on any part of the process, whether you are a writer, director, storyboarder, animator, compositor, anything, one of the most important questions to listen out for is “what is going on there?” You will hear it in many forms – “I don’t get this, why did they just…, what did they do there, why is that happening, seriously, what is going on?“
And the thing is, it doesn’t matter a damn what the answer is.
Because if you have to explain it, no matter how wonderful your explanation is or how much sense to you it made at the time or how much you think the person who asked the question is an idiot, the bottom line is ‘ it’s not working. You may well convince whoever asked and that’s more damaging than if you fail to because, as we’ve established, you can’t send someone to every household to answer as eloquently as you will. You will have lost your audience. The explanation doesn’t matter. The fact that the question was asked tells you what you need to do ‘ you need to go away and make it clearer, make it simpler, give it context, or strip it back so that nobody asks that question again.
For young children, clarity is key.
Listen for what is one of the most important questions when getting feedback – “what is going here?” Don’t explain. Just make it clear and present again.
When that question is no longer asked, you’ve got it!
Bonus tip for animators ‘ remember we can only look at one point of the screen at any one time. Even if your animation is beautifully clear, if you have a competing action happening at the same time, you can take it as a given that many will miss what is happening.
Amazing just how easy it is to lose that when studying the craft. We can get immersed in smoothness, squash and stretch, snappiness, anticipation, settles, secondary action and settles and that’s even before we get into splinter groups like symbols, meshes, ray traces and so on. Great tools but all come with the risk that you get so buried in the technicalities that you miss what animation is all about. As soon as the way you work becomes a system, you’re starting to lose it.
How many times have young children thought, ‘that show was okay but could have done with more squash and stretch’?
I’m pretty sure it has never happened.
It’s the life connection that’s important. Your characters either live or they don’t and that has little or nothing to do with what tools you have. You can take the most basic sock puppet and make it live and that will be just as engaging to a child as any of my colourful cartoons or the most beautifully-rendered hi-def 3D mo-cap you can make.