One of the hardest things starting out in any field is knowing if what you’re doing is actually any good. We are so often completely unable to evaluate our own work and the closer we are to it the harder it is. Is that nagging doubt a sign we shouldn’t send in that script or submit that drawing? What if it’s actually pretty good? What if we think it’s good but that’s just pure delusion and we need to bin it and start from scratch?
How do I know if it’s any good?
I faced this so often in the early days of being a children’s writer. I was tortured by self-doubt and yet, at other times, so stubborn about things I thought would turn out great on screen. I couldn’t effectively evaluate the quality of my work.
Now when you are just getting started, the quick fix solution seems obvious: have someone else evaluate it. This can be a really good idea, especially if you are giving it to someone who is an expert in their field. I was fortunate on Fluffy Gardens to have a wonderful script editor who helped me become a better writer. Before that, I got great writing tips from a good author friend. You can learn a lot from the critiques, notes and suggestions of others and that will help you get better.
But it doesn’t really solve the problem and the thing is, you need to solve it. Why? Well…
1) The opinions of others are just that – opinions. Ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 different notes, often conflicting. They may all be valid in different ways but might not be right for what your work should be or suit your particular strengths. You may end up having to sift through many suggestions, leading you back to the initial question – how do I know if it’s any good?
2) Ultimately, you must become your own quality control. You have to seize responsibility for your own work and relying on others to tell you what is right or wrong can be a dangerous crutch. You have to be the one pushing for greatness. You have to be the one who knows what is best. You have to be the expert in your own work. If you hand in a script, you have to know it’s damn good.
So what’s the solution?
The solution lies in distance from your work. Time. I learned so much writing those first forty episodes of Fluffy Gardens but that’s not actually where I made the biggest leap as a writer. That came afterwards. You see, months after production and probably half a year after the scripts had been finished, the episodes were on repeat among other shows. All those feelings I had while writing were gone. I had distance. Now I was just someone watching a television show. I saw those stories in ways I never had before. I could see parts that really worked, and many that didn’t. At the same time, I was watching and studying many other preschool shows so I also had context and comparisons (doing your homework is essential).
Not only could I see these strengths and weaknesses in the finished episodes, I could see them in the scripts. Rewatching and rereading those forty episodes, I was building up a massive list of things that I felt worked and didn’t work. And they were all about my work, not about what worked or didn’t work for someone else.
Distance through time.
But the great thing is that you won’t always need that time. You see, once you have begun to properly evaluate your older work, you will see things to look out for in the work you are doing right now. You will have a far greater awareness and start to build up an objectivity that was next to impossible before. And it is so important that you do this because your work won’t always get better on its own. Practice makes perfect doesn’t work if you’re just repeating the same mistakes over and over because you can’t see them.
You can make a start on this right now. Have an old script? Dig it out and go over it. Be a harsh critic. Do it with other scripts. Make a list of strengths and weaknesses. Then see if you can find those same elements in your current work. Use what you learn to get better right now. If you don’t have an old script you think is suitable, write one. Write a script this week, get it into what you feel is good shape and stick it in a folder somewhere. Leave it. Continue working and learning and revisit it in six months time. Is it as good as you thought? Are some parts better? Worse?
The important part of this is that you begin to grasp a real awareness of your own work. An honesty about your work that you can apply now. And it works for writing, drawing, directing. It may well work for everything. Before long, you will have a good sense of whether your work is good or not no matter how deep you are buried in it.
While doing some housekeeping, I came across some old Fluffy Gardens development work. Fluffy Gardens had a somewhat unconventional visual beginning and was then refined in several stages until it was ready for screen. I have put this design process together in some collected images in my GALLERY, including a few explored yet unproduced ideas that have never been seen before outside of the Geronimo Productions (then Monster Animation) studio. I do hope you find it interesting!
I also found my notes to the new animators on series 2 of Fluffy Gardens and among the notes is something that struck me as relevant in any area when you are getting to grips with something new, whether that’s learning a new skill, new software, writing outside your comfort zone, etc. It is written about animation but, if you’re not an animator, consider how this can be applied in your own area. So here it is, a thought from the animation notes of Fluffy Gardens:
1. Don’t get creative!
At least, not at first. The first thing to focus on is just getting basic movement looking as if it came straight from the most controlled scenes of the first series. Walking, picking stuff up, showing different expressions and that sort of thing. They are surprisingly easy to get wrong. So don’t go in attempting anything fancy. Keep everything grounded and just try to get it all working.
But… when you have got that (and be sure that you have first)…
2. Get creative!
Add little touches. Try something unexpected. It may not always work. That’s okay. But look at some of the more special scenes in series 1. You’ll see they’re always simple and never go crazy (well, except for Poppy the Tiger’s dream sequence) but, every now and again, there is an extra touch in the animation. A hidden smile from George the Mean Yellow Dog, a close hug, wet fur, that sort of thing.
Do be careful and certainly go sparingly. But when it’s right for a scene, have a think about what extra you could do. Add something special. Surprise me!
So there it is. First, know your field and know what you’re doing. Then get creative and deliver something special, something exceptional, something unexpected. That’s where the magic lies.
So we’re all about Facebook these days. Twitter. Google+, anyone using that? They all eat up a lot of time but they’re fun and, at times, really useful. The speed at which news travels over Twitter is astounding and it’s not just that we’re there as readers – we’re participants. We’re involved. We add our views, they get retweeted and now we’re part of a growing story.
It’s audience participation.
In fact, it’s more. Because in many cases, the audience IS the content.
While much of this is relatively new, audience participation certainly isn’t new to entertainment. I’m a big games fan, for example. I remember many years ago watching a whole bunch of dull horror films in a row and thinking, these wouldn’t scare anyone. Then I played Silent Hill on the Playstation and it terrified me. I actually had to play it in short bursts because it creeped me out so much. And the reason? I was in control. I was the one leading that character through those hideous places. I made the decision to turn that corner.
Interactivity changes the entire experience. It is real personal involvement and very powerful.
And I liked that even back in the Pac-Man days. We’ve come a long way since then. It’s now not just games, it’s games with friends all being part of the experience. And now, with Facebook, Twitter and so on, it’s like life is this big interactive game.
It’s all about the audience participation.
The passive experience for me, like with those old horror films put against Silent Hill, often has a hard time comparing.
Applying that to children and, with Blue’s Clues and Dora, interactivity has became the standard across a lot of children’s television. It’s not real of course. It’s faux-interactivity but it does the job well enough that children can feel a part of it. Going back further to when I was a child in the ’70s, Playschool on BBC spoke directly to me and I was a part of that. Sesame Street too. And you only have to look at the tradition of pantomime and how much children enjoy that to see the power of audience participation has for kids. Like I wrote in a previous post, good children’s entertainment is not one-way communication. It is a conversation.
And now we create websites and apps that offer genuine interaction. Not the fake stuff. And while there are many questions that comes with that, it seems to me like such a natural step.
The current generation of children are being brought up with faux-interactivity all over their television screens and genuine interactivity on every other screen. From birth. They are connected to media, stories and each other in ways we never were. This is standard.
And I wonder, in fifteen or twenty years time, will those children be satisfied with passive media? A TV show that doesn’t talk back? A movie with a character you don’t control? When everything can be a pantomime with you as one of the stars, what place is there for just sitting down and watching or listening to a story?
It’s another one of those phrases we hear a lot these days: Education by stealth. I heard it most recently at the Children’s Media Conference last week (which was fantastic) and sometimes it just doesn’t sit right with me. I can’t help feeling that there is another phrase we should be using.
So what’s wrong with education by stealth? Well first let’s look at how it is used. I usually hear it in two contexts:
1) When someone wants to dress up a non-educational product as educational. They reverse-engineer some sort of educational aim into their description. For example, making all these children smile in this game where you feed them Happy Meals helps your child’s hand/eye co-ordination! It reminds me of Josh Selig‘s term, to curriculate – to retrofit your content with education. To me, I rarely buy that this does anything for actual education.
2) Much more positively, I hear it used by people who genuinely want to give children content that will be good for them but they appear to doubt that their audience actually wants to be educated. So the idea is that you hide the education among entertainment and slip it to children that way, so they don’t even know they’re learning stuff.
Now chances are if you have ever used it you have done so in the second context. And there is something to be said for the idea when you have content that is not meant to be educational but you’re hoping to add value in some way.
But let’s examine it further.
Education by stealth makes the actual learning out to be some undesired ninja that must stalk your children and find a way into their brain when they least expect it. It denies the idea that the educational material may actually be interesting. It’s like it says the last thing we would want to do is have a child realise they are learning something, as if it would turn them off completely.
I reject that idea.
Firstly because how can we possibly inspire a love of learning that will stay with children if we make it our business to hide from them any knowledge of that learning? And secondly, because some of the best shows on the planet don’t hide their educational content. They put it right out there in front and let kids soak it up and love it. Do they entertain? Absolutely they do. But it’s not education by stealth because they don’t try to slip in that education without anyone realising.
Sesame Street does not hide its educational material. Deadly 60 does not hide its educational material. Horrible Histories does not hide its educational content. Quite the opposite. These shows revel in what they can give to children. By embracing the educational content, they don’t have to hide it because they can work with it to make it fun, make it exciting and make it interesting. These are some of the most entertaining children’s shows and they all inspire a love of learning in their own way. This is not education by stealth. It is something else entirely. These shows all embody the phrase I think we should be using instead:
Education by total awesomeness.
Learning is not something to be hidden. It is something to be celebrated, made exciting, presented as an adventure. Because that’s exactly what it is. The truth is, children love to learn. We just need to want to teach them. Not all children’s content needs to be educational but, if that’s what you’re going for, then really go for it.
Education by total awesomeness. It’s what the top shows do and it works.
In designing characters for preschool, clarity is key and so we often aim for very simple characters with few details. But in the animation process we then have to take those simple characters and make them live. They need to act, just like a live-action actor does, and tell the story through their actions, their emotions, even their thoughts.
Does that matter for a preschool audience?
Yes. Not in quite the same way that it matters to adults. What a Disney fan or the Cartoonbrew crowd might consider great animation does not apply to preschool. Preschool animation can be simple, can be crude. But I have seen first hand that preschoolers will be more engaged when they believe those characters aren’t simply moving – they are living.
We must make our characters truly live.
But every now and again, an animator takes a look at a basic preschool character, possibly a crude design with little more than a shape, eyes and a mouth, and thinks, that won’t work. Those characters need more details to get across the expressions. How can I work with such basic pieces? Where are the eyebrows?
If you are an animator and have ever thought this, I point you towards puppets and the amazing work that great puppeteers do. Many puppets can’t move their eyes, or eyebrows. They can just open or close their mouths and little else. Some puppets have almost nothing to work with in comparison with animation. But through poses, subtleties, sometimes just a tilt of the head, a puppeteer can make us believe that their puppet thinks, feels, and lives. They can get across any emotion through movement.
We are taught this as animation students, most commonly with the emotional sack exercise (although that is often abused by forcing limbs and more onto the shape), but we tend to forget it soon after. We get used to the crutch of details. Details that, more often than not, we simply don’t need.
I have seen some of the most basic characters brought to life in Fluffy Gardens, Planet Cosmo and more and the best animators know that, to make a character live through movement, really all we need is to master that movement. Watch for the differences the tiniest move can make, the changes in attitude a tilt forward can bring, or a tilt backwards. See how the slightest change or subtle movement of the face can make us believe a character is listening and thinking. Bring the characters and story to life.