I have been Creative Director of Geronimo Productions (formerly Monster Animation) for well over ten years. During that time, we took Monster from being a small studio making commercials to being a studio with a mission, with a drive that reflects my need for the highest-quality children’s programming and an impressive catalogue of shows – Roobarb & Custard Too, Fluffy Gardens, Ballybraddan, Punky, Planet Cosmo and more. Along with producer, Gerard O’Rourke – who I have worked with for eighteen great years – I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved with this studio, what we have built and all the content we have created and produced.
And now I announce my resignation as Creative Director of the company.
Why? Well, the short answer is simply that it is time.
It is time to explore other avenues. Time to build and manage new content within new frameworks. Time to open myself up to different collaborations. Time to make a new leap.
With Geronimo Productions, I have achieved what I set out to achieve all those years ago. It is now a studio that is very different to the one I took on when I stepped into the role of Creative Director. One with tried and tested methods, a strong catalogue with so many success stories and new shows that I have no doubt will become the next success stories. The studio has its own momentum and drive and will flourish.
And for me, on top of the business of building a studio with Gerard, creating and refining production methods, guiding the creative vision and choosing and managing projects, I have seen more than five shows – over 23 hours of television – shaped, pitched, produced and sold. My own Fluffy Gardens went to over 100 countries and Planet Cosmo is now building its own sales with a wonderful reaction from the industry and, more importantly, from children and parents.
I have been and will continue to be a champion for positive preschool entertainment across all areas from creation to screen and beyond.
And so it is time.
I will be with Geronimo Productions for the next month, making sure that the current Geronimo projects are all in good hands and will support them and lend my expertise after I leave. Geronimo Productions will continue to deliver great shows for children and I wish them every success in the future. Thanks to Gerard and all Monsters and Geronimites past and present for being with me on this journey.
Many years ago, when I was just moving into children’s programming, I saw what was then Tell-Tale Productions (veterans Iain Lauchlan, Karl Woolley and Will Brenton) pitching a show called Where’s Boo? at the Cartoon Forum. They discussed the design and how their research showed that the simple shapes, clear colours and heavy lines made the character much easier to read for small children. Now sometimes people make outlandish claims at the Forum but this made sense to me and the (now ex) Tell-Tale guys know their stuff.
In the years that followed, I dug into research on how children perceive visual information and conducted quite a bit of my own testing on show concepts and designs. It was only then that I could truly appreciate how right they were. As adults, many of us tend towards complexity, the details, texture and polish. Many of these things have no relevance to preschool children and may even cause problems.
Young children need clarity. Visual simplicity.
I have written before about how I first found the Fluffy Gardens look – I drew the characters with a mouse. It prevented me from using some of the shapes and details that would be pleasing to me as an adult. I ended up with basic, crude drawings. Almost like those a child might do.
Children reacted so positively to these images and I found they were drawn in particular to the large eyes (hence them getting even larger in refining the look). The flat colours, the hard black lines on the characters and the simple easy-to-read expressions all contributed to it working for children, yet often far from what we look for as adults.
Since making Fluffy Gardens, different shows have had different needs. You can see, I’m sure, how Planet Cosmo is an evolution of the same ideas. Aiming at the higher end of preschool age range, Planet Cosmo needed to demonstrate the wonders of space. It needed to feel a little more beautiful, less crude. And yet still we have basic shapes, large eyes and flat colour on the characters. The balance took a long time to find and, throughout development and production, we had to remind ourselves of our purpose.
Because as we work, we tend to drift.
Often we drift towards old habits, sometimes we drift towards new ones. But we drift. This is across all aspects, not just design. It is why we so often play back old character samples when recording voice work for a show – even the actor who defined a voice can find themselves drifting away from it, just a little bit each recording. In classical animation, it is how characters might change when animating straight ahead, each drawing being just a little different from the previous one.
So it is important to reset.
Important to take us back to an earlier realisation and remind ourselves of what we learned. To relearn it. It is rarely enough to learn something just once.
For me, that means pulling out the very early Fluffy Gardens concepts, even more basic than the actual finished show. Appreciating the simplicity, the lack of details. And recognising that what I’m looking at is very different to what we often strive for or appreciate as adults. And that’s a good thing.
So, when working for young children, never fear simplicity. Keep in mind the drift, no matter what end of the craft you are in – writing, designing, directing, animating. Sometimes in our quest to get better, we can forget what is important to our audience.
On Monday, I attended the launch of RTÉjr, Ireland’s new dedicated children’s channel. Broadcasting twelve hours a day, the channel brings content directly to Irish children, expanding what was once a block on RTÉ2 into a full channel sitting along with all the other children’s channels on Sky, UPC and Saorview. Now I should point out that I have five shows currently airing on the channel so it’s likely I would say some pleasant things about it – I have been referring to the channel as my ‘showreel’, after all. But there is more to RTÉjr than just being a place to catch some of my shows.
RTÉjr is a big positive step for all Irish children. An important step. Here is why –
It is a dedicated children’s channel focusing on children aged seven and under. I have previously expressed my appreciation for dedicated children’s channels on this site. I feel they give parents more control, lessen the risk of inappropriate content and they simply make it easier to pick and choose what our children watch.
It is a channel focusing on delivering specifically to Irish children. Local content is so important to children. Each country has its own culture, its own ways of looking at the world. That unique point of view should be represented in the shows kids watch. Anyone in children’s content will know just how difficult that is to achieve ‘ most shows need to be sold all over the world to stand a chance of breaking even so how can they be culturally specific? Well, that’s why local content in any country needs support.
RTÉjr has, yes, content bought in from abroad but it also currently carries a large amount of content created here in Ireland for Irish children. For example, one of my own shows now airing on the channel, Ballybraddan, is about Irish children playing hurling, an Irish sport. That show just couldn’t be made anywhere else. And it is wonderful now to see it sitting in the schedule, seeing it among the NickJrs, the Disney Juniors and all the other juniors. And RTÉ’s own produced content (of which I am not involved with) has jumped in quality recently and the level of talent has risen. So it is not just content tailored for Irish children, it is better content for Irish children.
The biggest part of this whole channel for me as a parent?
RTÉjr carries no advertising. None.
It was so encouraging to hear RTÉ’s Director General, Noel Curran, focus on that point at the channel’s launch on Monday, calling the lack of advertising a strong statement and positive for parents, while expressing his and RTÉ’s commitment to children and the new channel.
So what we have now with RTÉjr is an ad-free channel, focused on children aged seven and under, delivering some uniquely Irish content that children just can’t get anywhere else.
As a creator, a producer of content, RTÉjr offers a home for existing content and makes it much more accessible for our audience. With the channel sitting in the Kids section, it is now far more likely that children and parents will see our shows, take a chance on them over some of the more international content. It also creates a need for new content. The challenge laid down by the channel and the commitment is to keep it relevant, keep it current. Oh there will be budgetary constraints (there always are), but this channel will need content as it evolves. And with such a strong start, I am looking forward to seeing the channel grow.
The launch event was tons of fun. I got to meet Reuben and Bó Donie (who, as a children’s presenter, I was very impressed with ‘ this guy could be the Irish Justin Fletcher) and almost got to pet a hedgehog before his minder told me he gets a bit bitey. And my girls have been testing out the channel for the last couple of days and have been enjoying it immensely. So congratulations to Sheila DeCourcy, RTÉ’s Cross-Divisional Head of Children’s Content, and all her team on a great launch, a strong schedule, and for giving something really positive to Irish children.
If you’re in Ireland, you can find RTÉjr on Saorview (Channel 7), UPC (Channel 600) and Sky (Channel 624). For my own shows, you’ll find Fluffy Gardens at 1.15pm and 4.55pm, Planet Cosmo at 9.05am and 1.40pm, Roobarb & Custard Too at 11.05am, Punky at 8.40am and Ballybraddan at 6.15pm. But be sure to check out some of the other excellent Irish content on there too ‘ Beo Show, Garth and Bev, Why Guy and more.
My path to writing stories for children has been a very visual one – animation, storyboarding, directing. Along the way, I have seen some wonderful scripts and have been very fortunate to work with some excellent writers. But I have also seen many submitted scripts that would be almost impossible to produce, some that make little sense and I have heard numerous complaints from animators about writers who just don’t think visually. Many on the animation side, for example, preach the value of forming the story through storyboards rather than words on a script.
Even with my visual background, when I moved into writing I embraced the words. The language. I love language and the flow and the rhythm that words can bring and I have done since long before I got into television. I don’t believe the value and power of words should ever be underestimated, even in preschool entertainment.
But early in my career, I was writing a script and something went wrong. Something was missing. I didn’t quite know what it was. It was while working out another basic story problem, remembering that a character could use a wrench left in an earlier description, that I realised what had happened.
That wrench had been there all along. But I didn’t see it. I didn’t see anything. I had lost the picture. I was now dealing in just words. Oh there were descriptions but I was no longer really seeing anything. It was a whole lot of spoken dialogue in darkness. The actions seemed abstract, lost in the darkness, and even the characters were nothing more than mouths to deliver dialogue.
I was not writing visually.
I have since seen that same thing happen in the scripts of others and even in books and what I have found is this – the more words we write, the more risk there is of losing the picture. You can have great dialogue and really play with those words and that’s great but you have to have a complete visual picture. More than that, you have an opportunity to create something wonderful with those visuals, an opportunity that should not be wasted. Think of some of the defining imagery in movies – the long spacecraft Discovery in 2001, getting the yellow bus moving in Little Miss Sunshine, pushing into the wind in Babel. Imagery so iconic, it often feels the rest of the movie is built around it. It is no surprise so many of those moments end up on the posters.
Does it happen in preschool? Sometimes. It does now when I write it.
Almost all of the series 2 Fluffy Gardens episodes are based on a single core image – a huge field of flowers, cycling over a hill framed by a rainbow, a little boat sinking in a vast ocean. The same is true for Planet Cosmo. If you know the episodes, you’ll recognise some of the scenes in the sketches above, done before the stories were ever written. And it has value to young children as each episode becomes special, a completely unique event even in a format as structured as Planet Cosmo – the episode with the tiny pieces of ice floating in space, the episode with the raging red storm, the episode with the room full of glowing stars. Iconic visual moments unique to those episodes.
So how do you stay visual while writing, dealing with just words?
Well, my advice is: don’t deal with just words. Sketch and doodle as the story forms. Try to define some of those key moments in advance. Keep those drawings close. No matter how good or bad they are (nobody ever has to see those drawings), they will help you keep your visual picture. There are other ways too. You could trawl Google Images for locations similar to those you’re writing about. Print them out and place little cutout characters on them. For one feature script (keeping in mind that the more we write, the more the risk of losing visuals increases and a feature requires much more writing), I actually made myself a little playset, customising figures to match the characters in the story and building a basic set from cereal boxes.
You don’t have to go that far. But do whatever it takes to keep hold of those visual images and create those iconic moments. That way, you’re taking the best of both worlds – staying visual like those who create their stories through storyboards while embracing your passion for words and language.
Be wary of getting lost in the darkness. Stay visual.
I was speaking to a group of animation students a couple of weeks back, taking them through my career and how I got to do what I do. Moving from career leap to career leap, everything sounds pretty impressive, even to me and I lived it. But the truth is that I am only ever telling half the story. Actually, much less than half.
Because for every success there are several failures. Sometimes many failures. I don’t usually get to cover those in a short talk but they are important to acknowledge, hence this post.
I talk about my first job being an animation position on TVC’s Willows In Winter. But in reality, it’s the first job that means something in my career. My real first job was picking tomatoes, a job I was fired from. I tend to talk about Fluffy Gardens as my first self-created show. It is actually the first self-created show that I managed to get off the ground. It is not the first show I pitched. I move on to my next show, Planet Cosmo, pretty quickly and, in doing so, neglect to mention the few show concepts that came in between those two shows. And there are so many more little disappointments, unsuccessful pitches and out and out failures throughout my career.
‘Failure’ sounds like a very dramatic word, steeped in negativity. Failure can bring fear, sadness and, sometimes, can kill our motivation. Why try if it’s only going to end badly? But that is the exact opposite of what failure should do for us. We all need to be okay with failure. In fact, failure is really important. Here are some things to keep in mind about failure:
1 – Failure shows we have taken a risk. No advancements, career leaps or worthwhile successes will come without risk. It just doesn’t happen. If there is no risk of failure, we’re not really doing anything and certainly not trying anything new. So failure shows us we’re pushing ourselves. That’s a good thing. Push further.
2 – When creating, it is all part of a process. Ideas must be tried and tested, and then the results evaluated. We use that information to make the next creation better, more relevant. And nothing is ever wasted. Ideas from that project that didn’t make it will resurface in another project, often in a better form.
3 – In the end, the failures don’t count. This is so important to remind ourselves of because one of the things we all have to move past is our fear of failure. Failures can teach us but they don’t count in any negative way. The successes are what people will remember. When I talk about my career, I can talk for an hour and I’m still covering the successes. I don’t need to talk about the failures because people don’t care. Do you remember Steve Jobs for the failed Mac Cube or the success of the iPod? Which counts? All it takes is a single success to wipe away all failed ventures. Failures don’t count. So don’t fear them.
Not everything you do in your creative career is going to work out. It certainly won’t work out first time. If you’re really striving for better, for something important, failure is more than likely something you will face many times. Be okay with that. Embrace it.