Monthly Archives: May 2013

This is my last week at Geronimo Productions. A chapter ends and a new adventure begins. I can’t help but think back to what we have achieved over the years, how much has changed and of all the little moments that defined not just the studio but who we have become.

For one particular moment, I go right back to the beginning, so many years ago…

It was the end of my second year in animation college. Sullivan Bluth had just closed down. But there were new studios popping up. I gathered my portfolio and turned up to one of these – Monster Productions. I met a young, pleasant yet intimidating producer (I was young – everyone was intimidating to me), Gerard O’Rourke. He was running the show and one would expect him to know what he was doing except he had this crazy idea about starting me off as an animator. Did he not realise I was still in college? How new I was?

Well it was a struggle, I’ll admit. But I got better. I had to. Cut to many years later and I am working side by side with Gerard as a children’s content specialist, forming and moulding shows with an impressive catalogue behind us.

Maybe he knew. Perhaps that is why he gave this nervous young student a chance? Was he thinking, I’m going to give this kid a shot because one day we’ll build a studio and we’re going to make great things together? Could he possibly have known how long we would be linked and what we would achieve?

No. He couldn’t have known. He didn’t have to know. What Gerard did on that day was create the potential for all that to happen. He took a chance on a person and suddenly that path came into being. It led to great things. Over the years, I have seen Gerard give so many people their start and, each time, he creates a potential future. It doesn’t always lead to anything. That potential is not always realised but the opportunity is there and, so often, interesting and unexpected things are the result of those chances taken.

When we take a chance on a person or even take a chance on an idea, we create a new potential future. It is like planting seeds that, one day, could grow to be something wonderful. We can’t know the results and it would be wrong to constantly look for them, but we can create the potential. And so we should.

This is just one of the many things I have picked up from Gerard as we built what would become Geronimo Productions and I will always be grateful for the opportunities. I have a long list of personal achievements filed under the heading “if it wasn’t for Gerard…” and, at this stage, I am hoping he has a similar file with my name on it. Gerard and I will, no doubt, work together on many projects in the future and will always be linked by our strong catalogue of shows.

At the end of this week, one phase ends and a new phase begins. What am I doing? I am taking a chance on an idea. New aims, new missions. Interesting things are coming. And in the meantime, I am always here to talk projects, content, scripting, preschool and more so do feel free to get in touch.

I am pleased to announce a new Girls Will Be Girls t-shirt in partnership with the awesome Pigtail Pals! A fun, colourful, playful t-shirt with happy little girls being anything they want to be.

Limiting gender role models are everywhere and what I have found having two girls of my own is that it is much harder for girls to aspire to something if they don’t actually see it.

I wrote an article on this subject some years ago after I realised that my girls just weren’t getting the role models they needed or deserved. Sure, many girls will grow up to do amazing things but they have to take on a battle of gender perception on top of all the other challenges we face when we want to achieve.

The first hurdle is simply the idea that we can actually have these aspirations.

That is why I created this image. Girls will be girls. They can be anything they want to be and I wanted to show that in a fun, loving way that kids will really enjoy. Teaming up with Pigtail Pals to make this available as a t-shirt made perfect sense. Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies specialises in providing better role models for children, girls and boys, and is very active in this area, working towards creating a better reality for our children. A reality in which gender is not a challenge. I have been a big fan of the Pigtail Pals mission and I am so happy to have partnered with Melissa on this t-shirt.

You can purchase the shirt here on the Pigtail Pals site. I particularly recommend it on the Baby Blue, Sea Blue, Baby Pink, Lilac, Sherbet, White, Lemon or Lime colours. And you should hook up with Pigtail Pals on Facebook here.

Really hope you all like the shirt! And yes, there is a boy’s version on the way!

Many years ago, back in an earlier generation of Monster Animation, I introduced what I liked to call ‘Pizza Friday’. Basically, I liked pizza and by making it a thing and getting everyone else on board, I ensured I got to have it each and every week. Pizza Friday.

Around the same time we bought a huge box set of Muppets on VHS and, every Friday, we would eat pizza and watch The Muppet Show. If I remember correctly, we may have thrown Pizza Wednesday into the mix for a while too…

Pizza and Muppets. A wonderful combination.

Years later, when Pizza Friday was but a distant memory I found that, whenever I smelled pizza, I thought of Muppets. Whenever I saw Muppets, I smelled pizza. Actually right inside my nose – the real smell of pizza. Not just any pizza, but the exact pizza we got from that one pizza place. It was that strong.

Through basic repetition, my brain has been programmed to link Muppets and pizza. Just as I link The Smiths and George Takei (that’s a whole other story). One instantly leads to the other and it’s not a conscious thing. It’s sensory. Visual of Gonzo, smell of pizza. Instant.

Pretty amazing.

Our brains can make connections so easily. And those can be positive connections, negative connections or connections that don’t matter one way or another (like The Smiths making me picture Mr. Sulu). It is rarely conscious. I’m aware of the Muppets/pizza link but how many other associations have we made throughout our lives that we can’t pinpoint? And what effect are they having on our lives?

The obvious one that people mention is because so many of us share this is eating sweet things when feeling bad. A not-always-positive action which is often traced back to a childhood association of sugary treats rewarding good behaviour. But that’s just one example of many. We have so much to deal with in a creative life, so many doors to push open and often face so much resistance that we need to be our own champion. We can’t afford to sabotage ourselves. But what if a negative association is holding you back? What if failures or judgements in childhood or early adulthood have led to associations that prevent you from trying certain things? Or what if a misdirected positive association is causing you to repeat the same mistakes over and over again?

Trickier still, what if you don’t know what those associations are? What if they are so buried in your subconscious that they’re now impossible to identify?

For me, what I do is remember that pizza equals Muppets. And to make that association, one deep in my core on a sensory level, all it took was to put the two together on a regular basis for the period of one VHS box set.

It was that easy.

And if we can do that, surely we can replace or reprogramme any other association by working to create all-new ones. Ones that work for us rather than against us. If something is hard to do, or there’s something holding us back, a hesitation, we can put that task together with something we enjoy. We can reward the positive, the difficult and even the unpleasant but necessary with things that mean something personally to us – whether that is about treats, games, Muppets, pizza, Mr. Sulu or anything that can contribute to the buzz of satisfaction we get knowing we have achieved something worthwhile. Before long, we have a positive association. And at that point, we’ll just enjoy the doing.

As we work, we can create rewards and, with them, all-new associations. Sooner or later, we’ll begin to replace the old ones whether we knew they were there or not.

By now, you will have all seen Commander Chris Hadfield’s version of Bowie’s Space Oddity, recorded and filmed on the International Space Station. It is truly amazing. More than two hundred miles above the Earth, a man floated in a tin can, played his guitar and sent a song down here to those of us still on the planet.

My mind is still blown, not just by the amazing imagery, but the whole idea of this happening and what it means.

Go on, watch it again…

This world is changing so much. Things we take as normal could be gone in a couple of generations and things we can’t even imagine could be part of everyday life. Don’t believe me? Okay, yes, I too am disappointed we don’t yet have flying cars and robot butlers. But just consider the effect of 3D printers. Right now, for several grand, you can get a device that prints objects. Actual objects. Sure, they’re expensive and are limited in what they can do but what about in ten years? What if they’re in all our homes and capable of making much more than a pretty plastic model? Already the implications are becoming apparent with plans for 3D-printed guns hitting the Internet. More positively, we can print our own tools. Our own toys. Our own parts for almost anything.

What will that mean for industry? What value will manufacturing have? And if manufacturing has no value and plans are shared freely, what value has creation? Innovation? How will our economic models that served us well during industrial times stand up to change of that magnitude?

I don’t have all the answers. I am just using that one single device to illustrate the potential for society-altering change. Those of my age, of course, have seen such huge changes already. We are the generation who knows what it is like to live before the Internet and after it. I watch Mad Men and notice the lack of computers on the desks and I have to remind myself how we possibly got any work done without computers.

It is all changing.

So in a world where all is changing, what do we teach our children? What do I teach my girls? How about these ‘ creativity, adaptability, problem solving. All good. Empathy, the will to do good. Great, I can see already we’re going to need each other as our planet changes. A love of learning, a search for knowledge, understanding, focus. Absolutely. Change can be influenced, steered, and a greater understanding of our world, our universe and just who we are can help us direct that change towards the positive, helping to make our lives better. Inspiration and aspiration, the belief that we can do amazing things and are capable of things thought previously impossible regardless of gender, race or social standing. Yes, yes, yes.

Commander Hadfield played a guitar in space and I think he has awed a whole generation. He entertained us. But he has done so much more ‘ he has inspired us. The International Space Station is just the beginning of an amazing journey.

We can all play our part. I won’t get to space any time soon but I can inspire children to learn, to enjoy the wonders of our planetary neighbours. That’s why I created Planet Cosmo. It is entertainment first and foremost. Kids have to love the show, they have to laugh and smile and have to want to watch it. And they do. I have lovely mails from parents on how much their children enjoy it but those mails tell me the effect goes beyond the entertainment. My little show inspires – a love of learning, a new interest in space. I’m no Chris Hadfield but the reaction to the show tells me that our team at Geronimo Productions performed our space mission well. Our hard work paid off. And I have been so fortunate to work with such a dedicated team.

As I prepare to leave Geronimo at the end of this month, something that will be one of the biggest changes in my own life, I reflect back on what we have achieved and I can smile. But I’m also looking to the future, at what awesome gifts we can give the next generation to entertain them and inspire them, to enrich their lives both as children and adults.

It’s an adventure. Almost like packing my guitar and blasting off into space.

Well, not quite. But exciting nonetheless.

Thank you Commander Hadfield for entertaining us and inspiring us. And reminding me of two of the most important goals when creating content for children.

I have previously stressed the importance of visual simplicity when creating content for young children. But rather than taking that as a given, it is better to get familiar with why this is important.

The answer is not that children are simple.

Quite the opposite. The answer is that children are incredibly complex and, at certain ages, interpret visual information differently. And knowing more about this answer will inform your design choices.

On top of learning new things at a ferocious rate, children are very quickly processing what they see based on what they already know. This can greatly affect how children perceive design. One thing young children try to do, and usually succeed, is put form to abstract shapes. They ace Rorschach tests. They will see monsters in dark corners, faces in patterns, and a whole zoo in their drawings where we adults see nothing but scribbles.

Simply put, they often can make something out of what we could consider to be nothing.

So if you have a detailed rock texture, for example, you see it as adding richness. To a young child, you are potentially throwing a whole set of new pictures you never intended. While your characters are busy telling the story, a young child could be staring at that rock texture and seeing snakes, or a clown, or socks, anything, and completely missing your story. Does that mean you shouldn’t use texture? No, not necessarily. But once you start getting detailed, you have to become very aware of the clarity. The edges and shapes become all-important to make sure your audience really put the right forms to what you are showing them. You have to work harder to make each visual element clear to children, while being careful not to overwhelm them.

Another interesting part to this is that children often process their visual information in a certain order. They can work their way through that order and stop when they have enough information to process what they are seeing. That order may well vary from child to child but I have found that shape, silhouette, is usually much more important to the younger end of preschool (two, two and half) than the colour and details within that shape.

So what does this mean for design? Well, it means that if you are using the same character model for more than one character and are relying on colouring and details for kids to tell them apart, you could be in trouble when it comes to the youngest children in your audience. They may well have already categorised the characters before getting to your details, leading to confusion over which character is which.

Varying the silhouette of your characters is really a must for young children.

This really just scratches the surface of things to consider when putting a visual form to your preschool project but even keeping these in mind will help your audience take in your content. You don’t want them confused. You don’t want them looking at one thing while you’re trying to show them another. You do want them to enjoy your story and soak up the entertainment and whatever goodies you are offering them.

What is important to realise is that, by getting more familiar with how your audience thinks, you will be better able to approach your project in a way that makes that easy for them.

There are huge challenges writing scripts for young children and I think many of them come from the simple reality of what we are doing – working with just words. Words can very quickly become abstract, lose meaning. As I went through in an earlier post, descriptions can fall away until you have just talking heads in a void and they all sound like the writer.

I think a good test of character is whether you would know who is speaking if the names were removed. Do the characters think and act differently? Do they speak differently?

They should.

We engage different parts of our brain when dealing with spoken word than we do when reading and writing. So just because something looks okay on the page doesn’t mean it’s going to sound okay when recorded. I write my stories out loud, saying each sentence over and over in different ways until it sounds right. I have done that since the very first Fluffy Gardens story and do it to this day. I’m not the only one. Ken Levine and David Isaacs (of Cheers/M.A.S.H. fame) dictate their scripts, working them out verbally as someone else types them out.

But saying them out loud in your voice may not be enough.

Writing in character voices is key to making those characters sound different, to get their personalities to come through in the dialogue. Because their voices will greatly affect the choice of words you settle on. If you’re just writing in your voice, you will pick words you will use. If you try words you would never use, they’ll sound awkward and weird. Put on a the voice as you write and you’ll very quickly find yourself putting sentences together differently.

For example, I recently rewatched an episode of Planet Cosmo and found myself laughing at Lifter’s choice of words – “Are you sure, sweetie? I can rustle up quite a breeze!” I thought, oh that’s good, I would never use the phrase “rustle up”. Then I had to remind myself that I wrote those words. But in a way, I guess Lifter said them. I just listened and wrote them down.

So it’s really important to write in character voices.

But I would take this a stage further and say that those of us reading scripts (script editors, producers, directors etc.) should try to read in character voices. You might not yet know exactly how they should sound but give it a go based on what you know of the characters. It will make those lines read very differently. For example, Cranky in Punky (written by the wonderful Andrew Brenner) has lines that can look very harsh and not age-appropriate on the page. But Cranky’s voice (Paul Tylak) gives her a comic quality that completely disarms the lines and makes them work beautifully. They become very funny. Similarly when I wrote Dad in Planet Cosmo, some of his lines looked rude, selfish and sometimes even mean. But say them in Dad’s voice and they become light and funny, losing their weight. How those words sound out loud in a character voice is what counts – that’s what children will hear.

It is always a challenge to make characters work and a greater challenge to make them work well. Working with the character voices is a way of helping their inner personalities and differences come out, and a great way of getting those words on (and off) the page.