No matter what the budget is on a show, no matter how much time there is, it’s never really enough, is it? The reality is that corners get cut. The real trick is finding the corners that just aren’t all that important. Corners nobody really notices. If you’re doing it right, you should never have to use budget as an excuse when showing someone your show.
There is one part of the process, however, where you should never cut corners – the animatic.
The animatic (or leica reel), for those of you not in the midst of animation right now, is basically the template for an episode. It is the storyboard panels, the episode illustrated in quick pencil drawings (almost like a comic book), timed out in order to the dialogue track. In animation, that’s where we do the editing – in advance of the actual animation. We check angles, timing, expressions and set down all cuts and scene changes within the animatic. What we have at the end of that process is a whole episode, all edited to time, told with the dialogue and black and white drawings.
The animatic is one of the most important parts of the process.
It is where you set down the story. It is where you truly find out if the script is working or not, and it’s where you can amend things if it’s not. It is where you define all the setups, turn abstract descriptions in a script into actual working scenes. It defines every other part of the process and its importance can’t be overstated.
What you do after animatic stage can make a good episode great. But it won’t make a bad episode good. Your animatic has to work. This is especially true if you are shipping animation overseas – it will be very rare that you get something back that surprises you by being much better than what you had in the animatic.
If you rush an animatic, push it through before it’s ready, your show simply will not be as good as it should be.
In the last few weeks, I have seen some shows that clearly have had so much love go into them, with great design, and yet some weird setup problems, framing issues and lack of flow that let the episodes down. That will have come down to the animatic and, when so much work is going into a show, isn’t it a massive shame to aim for anything less than excellent?
So what to look out for in an animatic? Well, there are many problems to avoid, things not to do. Too many to tackle here (I may tweet some if anyone is interested ‘ my twitter is here). But here are some more positive things to look for, ways you can make your episode better at animatic stage -
Listen for the rhythm
Yes, it’s a visual medium but the rhythm is so often established with the sound, and the reality is in preschool that children often listen more than they watch. Your show should have beats, like music. Don’t just watch your scenes. Close your eyes and listen to them. Is the rhythm right?
Watch for the flow
Key word here: momentum. Energy can carry us across the cuts. If there is something moving fast from left to right when a shot cuts, that momentum will be with the viewer as they enter the next shot – use that by finishing the left to right movement somehow in the next shot. Let momentum ease those cuts by carrying the energy across the cuts. Your story should flow naturally.
Establish visual rules
Our brains expect order. Yes, you can move a camera anywhere in a cartoon but our brains don’t want chaos. If you don’t want cuts to confuse, establish a set of visual rules in every scene. For example, if you have a shot with a dog and a cat and the dog is on the left and the cat is on the right, stick to that when you cut to different shots. If you have a close up of the dog, have him a little left on screen because, once that setup is established, we expect him to be on the left.
Reign in your shots
It’s best not to use more setups than necessary. Too much jumping around can feel chaotic and confusing. For example, if you have a group shot and are cutting in and out to characters, that group shot should have the same angle, framing and distance each time unless there is a strong reason to change it. If you have 34 different shots in one conversation, you have probably got a problem. Reign in the shots. Reusing setups is not just something we do because it’s cheap – it’s actually less work for the audience.
One place at a time
This is a big one ‘ remember that people can only look at one place on screen at a time. If you have action happening at the left of the screen and action happening at the right at the same time, the audience will miss something. Don’t have two important things happening at once. One thing at time.
Give it time and then push it further
It’s amazing what difference a day can make, fresh eyes the next morning. Try not to send an animatic into the system the second you think it’s done. Give it time and let it sit. Come back to it later. You will see it differently and you will find things to improve. So go ahead and improve things. You can’t do this indefinitely but time spent improving an animatic is never wasted. Push further – polish those expressions, amend poses, make sure each action and each mood changed is marked (keeping in mind rhythm and flow). As a director, I usually do all that myself in the last phases. I’m constantly adding and amending and, as great as our board artists have been, because I have the dialogue, timing and flow, I can always go further and make our episodes better.
If you have a great animatic, you will have the foundations for an awesome episode. Everything else on top of that becomes a bonus, taking something already great and making it magical. If your animatic is a problem, well, your job will invariably become just damage control. That’s no fun.
Give the animatics the time they deserve and make your shows fantastic.
Early development on Planet Cosmo was quite intense and, before long, I had a very clear idea about most of the core elements in the show. I had a massive amount of research, an episode structure in place, a whole bunch of stories and I knew my characters and how they worked together.
When I got to that stage, I could have put it all together to make a book about Planet Cosmo that would rival a meaty Stephen King novel, only with a better ending.
But I figured, nobody will read all that.
Most people just want an introduction, the basics. Truth be told, for all the effort that went into the writing, I’d say many buyers had decided whether they were going to take Fluffy Gardens or not based on one look at the show design. I knew the same would be true to some extent for Planet Cosmo. I felt pretty good about the show though because, unlike Fluffy Gardens and a bunch of shows out there, Planet Cosmo had an easy pitch ‘ it brings astronomy to children. That’s it. You either want that or you don’t.
So I created a little three-page introduction in lieu of my Stephen King novel. The core pitch and plenty of pictures. I knew people would at least read that.
My first meeting…
“Hmmm… it looks a little thin.”
Are you serious? Thin?!
The following weekend, I pulled all my notes together and put it all down in a document. Well, almost all of it (I like to hold the odd surprise back so I have something exciting to reveal later). While my document didn’t quite rival The Tommyknockers, it was still a meaty 50+ pages and a script on top.
I gave it to my producer. He flicked through it and said -
The first episode of Planet Cosmo aired today. It was supposed to be a very happy day. Yes, the show looked awesome on television and the response so far has been incredible but, truth be told, the day turned out to be a bit of a stinker for a couple of reasons but mostly this – today was the day we got the very sad news of the passing of Richard Briers.
I worked with Richard on Roobarb & Custard Too, the follow-up to the classic 1974 show, Roobarb. It was 2005 and I was directing a television show for the very first time. Taking the place of the legendary Bob Godfrey, I had some pretty massive shoes to fill and I was probably well out of my depth.
How would I possibly direct someone of Richard Briers’ stature?
Well it turns out directing Richard Briers on Roobarb was mostly me just nodding and saying, “Fantastic. Wonderful.” He was amazing. When he stepped into that booth on the first day, I heard Roobarb. 1974 Roobarb. It was like no time had passed. He needed no reminders, just got straight into it and it was beautiful. I was a child again and there were tears in my eyes listening to him. All the old characters were perfect but we had new characters too so he had to handle the narrator and a host of characters, old and new. No problem for Richard. He found voices in minutes and never lost them. So absolutely consistent.
Richard Briers turned Grange Calveley’s wonderful words into music. And he did a mean Richard Burton Mole.
He was a joy to work with. Oh, there was a bit of a surprise at first because I was expecting Tom Good, wellies and all, and, instead, was meeting a rounder man in his early seventies. And there was the odd grumpy moment, but never angry. Mostly just about how something had been photocopied in a way he didn’t particularly appreciate. He always made it funny though, always light and always entertaining and these moments really just served to show how human he was. After all he had done, all he had achieved, after becoming a UK legend, he was really a very regular man, happy with just a cheese and pickle sandwich and the odd glass of wine. No pretentiousness, full of humility.
And so, so easy to work with. This from a man with such incredible talent. A national treasure. International treasure.
I went away from Air Studios in London having had a great life experience and with a bunch of fantastic recordings. All I had to do was put pictures to them. How could I go wrong? Grange Calveley and Richard Briers made my job easy and the result of that is that I was able to go on to make more shows. I was given a chance to learn more, to build expertise, knowledge. Without that experience with Richard Briers and those amazing recordings, I wouldn’t be launching Planet Cosmo today. It just wouldn’t have happened.
Thank you, Richard. For all you gave me, for all you gave Roobarb, all you gave children and adults alike in all your work. You’re truly one of a kind, a talent, a gentleman.
Imagine a child in a hallway full of vending machines.
Each vending machine has a big colourful picture of a topic ‘ Pirates, Planets, Dinosaurs, Reading, Geography, Princesses, Building and so on. A child gets briefly curious about a topic, let’s say Pirates, and runs to the Pirate vending machine and presses the button. Out pops an exciting Pirate adventure story.
Now the child may love that story and press the button again, hoping to get another Pirate adventure. Or they may decide they want to see what this whole Geography thing is all about. Either way, their interest was nurtured, rewarded, and given a chance to grow.
But what if, when they press that Pirate button, nothing happens?
They press it again. Nothing.
What do they do? They move on. They’re clearly wasting their time and there are many more vending machines to try. The chances of them bothering to try that particular vending machine again are slim to none. If a child has an interest and that interest is not fed very quickly, they will move on.
One problem we face right now is that not all of those vending machines work for all children. A girl might try the Building vending machine and get nothing. But if she even walks passed the Princess vending machine, it unloads sparkles and unicorns all over the place. That’s an interest that is fed instantly, one that is constantly rewarded. So of course lots of girls are going to be into Princesses. We don’t need to push them in that direction. We simply reward that interest while not rewarding others.
It’s not just Princesses of course, I use that as an example because it is one many of us are familiar with. Boys have their own limited vending machines to deal with too.
During the week, Harrods took a beating on Twitter for having two books side by side in their reading room. One was a book clearly for girls on how to look gorgeous. The other was a book for boys on how to be smart. Neither of these books were forcing anyone down a particular path. They don’t have to. Just as we don’t have to force a plant to grow or not grow. Water one plant and not the other and the result is obvious.
Just as if there is only one working vending machine in that hallway – that’s the one the kids will come back to.
So to give children a genuine chance to explore their interests, we need to fill all our vending machines with goodies. We need to make sure they work and are well maintained. And we need to make sure they are attractive to both boys and girls without limiting either gender.
For me, I have spent the last few years filling a little space/science vending machine called Planet Cosmo. And originally, I set out to do that because my girls had an interest in space and I wanted to feed that interest. I saw so many children too who had an interest in space but their parents didn’t always know enough about the subject to feed that interest quickly, just as I imagine there have been many brief moments of interest in a particular subject that passed by my girls because I didn’t know enough to feed that initial curiosity.
So if you are creating, developing, producing content for children, be it television, books, apps, anything, how about picking a vending machine and filling it? Let’s spread those interests, give each one a chance and try to restore some balance for both boys and girls. Perhaps pay special attention to those interests that may one day make our children into better adults, with all the opportunities they deserve, not one single child excluded. Let’s get those machines working for everyone.
Nurture. Inspire. All while entertaining.
My vending machine, Planet Cosmo, starts on RTE2 here in Ireland on Monday, the 18th of February, with other countries to follow. And just wait until you see the goodies we packed into it!
We did it. Last week the final tapes for Planet Cosmo left the building, the completed series. Mission complete. Wow, what a journey.
It began early 2010 with just a wish and a doodle. That’s one of the very first images of Cosmo below, drawn with my finger on an iPod Touch using the old Brushes app. I didn’t know back then that it would be a cartoon show.
But I had more than just that doodle – I had an aim. A mission. I wanted to introduce the planets to children. Whole other worlds, real worlds, some of which can be seen by children just looking up at the sky at night. How amazing is that?
First, however, I had to entertain. I had to give children reasons to watch the show regardless of any prior interest in space. This would be a show for any and every child, boys and girls alike. And so slowly ideas became concepts, then characters, methods, structures and stories. Eventually, I knew I had it ‘ a show that delivered what I felt children both wanted and needed (not always the same thing!).
Humour. Lots of humour.
Curiosity. I love to spark questions.
And finally, the core of the show’s direct educational goal ‘ focused facts about our Solar System. Real amazing things that kids can share. If kids aren’t interested in that? No problem, the show has fun, humour, songs and adventure! It exists as entertainment and can sit on any preschool schedule, even without an educational remit. But soon, children may find themselves asking more questions, realising that beyond the fictional stories there are real planets out there (and we directly state what’s real in each episode). They may find that interest in space grows. And the more we feed that interest, the more likely it is that it will continue to grow. Wouldn’t that be something?
So here is the result of that long development. Planet Cosmo:
I knew production would be hard work. We were aiming high and our resources were limited. That just means you either find places to cut corners or everyone pushes that bit harder. Guess which one I went for? Yes, we pushed. We pushed hard.
Two things happened: Firstly, we had some problems early on. Secondly, the quality was pushed even higher (mainly due to some of our excellent animators exceeding our expectations ‘ you guys rock!). So now we were dealing with even higher standards and were playing catch-up as we dealt with our early production difficulties. There were times our deadlines seemed impossible. Everyone on the show stepped up and put in their all. Some found their limit and the cracks began to appear. Others could have kept on going, showing a level of support I will always appreciate and never forget.
Amazing on such a tough production to have people who are an absolute joy to work with.
And a very special mention for Simon Crane. Simon and I have worked together for years. He’s a good friend and an exceptionally talented animator and director in his own right (Simon is directing Geronimo Productions’ Punky) and he was my directing animator on Planet Cosmo. Simon’s level of enthusiasm and support kept me going, gave me energy when I needed it. This show probably just wouldn’t have happened without him. Thank you, Simon.
Everyone did great work. You should check out the credits when Planet Cosmo launches because one of the things I am most proud of is that we were able to make this show with so few people. You’ll find a tiny crew list at the end of our show. No hidden credits, no outside studio. That was it. Just us right here in Dublin. And you’ll even find quite a few names repeated in different jobs ‘ multitasking was an essential on this show! And even with such a small crew, the show is exactly what we wanted. I could never, ever use our lack of resources as an excuse for anything on this show. Planet Cosmo is actually a better show than the one I set out to make.
How often does one get to say that?
There are two other people I will mention here though. One is my script editor, Hilary Baverstock. These episodes only worked because the scripts were right to begin with. Without good scripts, we would have been working hard to make a show that looks pretty and does little else. So, as script editor, Hilary’s influence was felt throughout the entire production. And the other person is the producer of Geronimo Productions, Gerard O’Rourke. Gerard showed faith in this project from the second I showed it to him and he pulled the financing together to make it happen. The importance of that part is obvious but the immense work that goes into it is often never seen by those either making or watching the show. And Gerard now takes on phase three of what it is to make a show ‘ going out there to sell it. Find him at Kidscreen in New York and ask him to show you some full episodes!
So there you have it. We have completed Planet Cosmo. Fifteen episodes of animated fun and adventure, bringing the planets to children. The show launches on RTE2 in Ireland on the 18th of February and international broadcasts will follow. Find the show on Twitter at @PlanetCosmoTV for clips and images. I hope you all love the show.