It seems so simple when put like that. Certainly, if you see your job as selling merchandise, an iconic character design is essential. But there’s more to a character than that, right?
For example, she may have an iconic design but does anyone know what kind of personality Hello Kitty has?
Has lack of personality hurt her? Not hugely. Hello Kitty is an exercise in design. What about in the context of classic stories? The three little pigs – how much do we know about them? Well, we know they’re pigs, they’re builders and two of them like to cut costs. That’s more than we know about Hello Kitty but they’re still not exactly what you’d call well-rounded characters.
But then what do I know about Dora the Explorer?
She likes to shout. She’s neglected – after all, what parents in their right mind would let a young child out across the jungle with a monkey? And she has communication issues. The Map, for example, won’t talk to her directly and instead asks the viewers to tell her things. They must have had a falling out or something. Map probably didn’t like being shouted at.
I actually don’t know a huge amount about who she is. What makes Dora tick?
I remember when I pitched Fluffy Gardens, I showed the Paolo the Cat pilot. I was asked whether we had considered just making the whole show about Paolo. After all, he was such a great character. Character? I was puzzled. He’s a red cat. He’s clever and, em… he’s red. That is about as deep as Paolo was back at that time. He got considerably more fleshed out across the two seasons.
The difficulty here is that, sure, maybe it is all about the character but what it is about those characters varies so greatly that finding the common ground is often very tricky. Hello Kitty’s appeal is straight from the visual design and little more. Dora’s appeal is more that she speaks directly to her audience. The appeal of the three pigs comes more from the story and the tension rather than anything specifically about the characters. Paolo the Cat actually had one underlying trait that gave him much more appeal than even I initially anticipated: modesty.
The common factor? Appeal.
The challenge? Appeal comes in so many forms. It must appear simple to the audience and yet can be incredibly difficult to achieve. It is hard to quantify.
The solution? Don’t ever think of it in terms as simple as “it’s all about the character”. Character can be many things or sometimes very few things and character rarely exists in isolation. The process is complicated enough and there are so many aims and pitfalls that creating good content is never about any single thing. All aspects must be considered together. Design, personality, dynamic within a group of characters, story, mood, voice, sound, pacing and so much more. It is all part of creating appeal. See the whole and then pick and choose what is relevant for what it is you are creating.
Aim for appeal.
And if you do it right, even if you don’t know exactly how you did it, it will appear simple from the outside. So simple that someone with an interest will look at what you’ve created and think, it’s all about the character.
There are no original ideas. Everything is a derivative of something else.
There is a small amount of truth to these words in that even things that seem new are usually a progression of ideas, another step forward rather than complete reinvention. My problem with these words stems not from the truth of the words themselves but how and why these words are used. You see, more often than not these words are used in an attempt to justify lack of creativity, lack of effort, lack of ambition and sometimes straight out moral bankruptcy, where someone clones the hard work of someone else for financial gain.
And yet at times we hear similar from some of the world’s greatest innovators. Steve Jobs said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”, echoing Picasso before him. And if they said it…?
Well let’s break this down.
Good artists copy. Great artists steal.
Let us first acknowledge that the world is full of good artists. Good isn’t good enough and neither of these men would have found good acceptable. We want to aim for better. We want to aim for great at the very least. So we can take the first part of that – good artists copy – as a negative. We need to be aiming for the second part.
So now let us consider the difference between ‘copy’ and ‘steal’.
When we copy something, we mimic it. We attempt to replicate the original and, no matter how successful we are (and copying things on a surface level usually lacks the real understanding to replicate anything great), the original remains. So there are now two of what it is we copy – the original and our copy, which we hope will in some way be close to the original. But it probably won’t ever be as good.
Stealing is very different. When we steal, we take the original and make it ours. Whether or not it is right, we now possess it. We own it. The original owner no longer has it. It’s ours.
To be a great artist, to steal, we must do so much more than just copying. Copying is not good enough. We have to make it ours and we have to take it from the original owner. How do we do that? By building on it, changing it, bringing everything we have to the idea and giving it our own personal touch. That’s how we make it ours. And how do we take it from the original owner? By taking the idea and making it so much better than the original owner ever could have dreamed of. By making it so new and so special it now sits in its own category, making what it used to be completely redundant.
The truth is, to really steal and make it worth doing, you have to make it original. Innovate. Yes, you can be influenced both directly and indirectly by others. You can certainly learn from others. Yes, you can build on old ideas. But you have to add to them, put things together in whole new ways and try what simply has not been tried before. You have to set new standards.
You have to aim for different.
Whether the words at the top of this post are true or not, once you buy into the idea that nothing is original and use that to justify what you are doing, you will never get past copying and never find something truly special. To find new you first have to believe it exists.
Welcome to my new website. A new look for a new phase. So what is there to discover?
Well, if you’re reading this, then you have already found the blog, currently titled Positive Preschool & Beyond. With Fluffy Gardens, Planet Cosmo and other shows I made during my time with Geronimo Productions, it became increasingly clear that my mission was to create something meaningful for young children. Enriching positive content. What you will find here on the blog will often come from that mission. How do we communicate effectively with our audience? What do children really need? How do we write a good story? How to do sell a show? And how do we make it? All of these and more will be explored in the blog.
And it is not just preschool. The Beyond part is very important, not just because my experiences in children’s television extends beyond preschool but because so many of the content and production discoveries apply well beyond that age group. So many of the tips and tricks we find in the creative industries apply all across the board – it’s just we give them different names. Often, what we find are simply tools for life. Positive Preschool & Beyond.
I have a new Home page, a Shows page, an About page where you will get a little biography and a Contact page if you would like to reach me.
One new addition to the site is the Gallery where you will find some illustration and design pieces. Sometimes known more for my writing, it is in the images that the words are formed, as I think it often should be.
So that’s the site. I do hope you enjoy it and visit often. You may spot the odd teething problem, especially when it comes to older posts (missing tags, etc.) and old links likely won’t work. If you spot anything especially horrendous, please do let me know!
And if you have found my site relatively recently, here are some posts you might find interesting…
I will be featuring more posts I think might help visitors over on the right, in the Featured Posts section so check back often and feel free to share those that you enjoy.
Lastly, if you are interested in some history, in how I got into children’s content, how I got my first show and how I became a writer, I had a nice leisurely chat with Aidan McAteer from the Flipped Animation Podcast and we went through the whole story. You can find that here.
So many methods, explorations and tips that contribute to making better preschool shows can be summed up in just two words. These two words count well beyond preschool, beyond children’s entertainment, beyond television – and you can adapt the language in this post to suit almost any creative business you are in and it will still be true. Two words that can change your approach and mean you actually communicate the messages you wish to get across.
Always stay aware of who your audience is. Such a simple idea and yet so easily lost.
There are times we please ourselves in order to keep our motivation. We aim to please peers and co-workers for that praise that can give us a boost when we need it most. We must please broadcasters, distributors, financiers, other producers because, without them, we often don’t have a show.
We can put so much effort into pleasing all these people and yet not one of them is within the target age range of what we’re actually making. Before long, we can have lost all sight of the children who will eventually watch our content.
And when that happens, we fail at what we do.
Try putting aside the idea of pleasing all those people and instead become audience aware. Know your audience and focus on them. Learn everything you can about them and how best to communicate with them. How best to deliver excellence to them. And then do just that – deliver excellence.
But what about selling to broadcasters? What about co-producers? What about all those gatekeepers and allies we need to impress? Can we really afford to ignore them?
But within all these groups, there are people who are audience aware. There are people who understand their audience and are dedicated to giving them nothing but the best. I have been fortunate enough to meet some of these people over the years. Those are the allies you want. Those are the people who will champion what you are doing. Oh not everyone is going to want exactly what you are making. That’s the way of the world and is true no matter how much you try to please people. But by remaining focused on your audience – effectively your end user – sooner or later, you will impress people who count.
It is what will guide you to make your work better. It is what will have you creating and producing the right content for the right reasons. It is what will make your content count. And it will find you those champions when you need them.
One last little thing to consider… in life, our audience changes many times a day as we meet and deal with different people. Audience awareness can help on a grand project scale and on a moment-by-moment basis.