Directing animated television shows is hard. It’s a huge amount of work, but it’s also really tough to everything right.
I know this from personal experience because it took me many years to get good at it and I had to direct, complete and review a large number of episodes to figure out how best to tackle certain aspects (for those counting, I have directed 215 television episodes and I’m still learning things). I can also see that directing is hard from watching pilots, development work and even a large number of completed broadcast episodes that fall into the exact same traps I did early in my directing days. Some just aren’t as good as they could be, even when the story is good and the writing is sharp.
So how to get better? How do you make sure you’re doing the writing justice and not losing anything in translation? Well, looking at storyboarding and how cuts work is incredibly important because poor flow can kill a great episode. A director and storyboard artists must share many skills. But this post is about the importance of timing.
Timing is something outside the control of the board artist and should ultimately always be in the hands of the director. I have previously mentioned the importance of animatics and I would always spend as much time as possible on my own cuts. Setting up and first passes are fine to delegate. But take control of those last passes yourself because, as director, you’re likely the only one who really has a sense of all the elements that will make up the final episode.
And it is in balancing the elements that great timing comes together. It is also where it can go wrong.
The difficulty with animation is that all the parts are separate. The animation and movement is separate from the still storyboards. The voice track is separate from the visuals. The sound effects track is not only separate but often added at the very end, meaning you haven’t got it when you’re putting the animatic together. Same with music. Miss one of these elements when you play out that episode in your head and you will end up with a timing problem later on.
For example, what if you don’t leave enough time for that foghorn sound and it ends up clashing with an important vocal line? What happens if you leave too much time and a joke is killed because we have dead air for a few frames too long? What happens if you don’t have enough time to get that character over the other side of the room and so your cut jumps? What happens if your conversations sound too close together and kids don’t have enough time to really take in the important lines?
You can avoid all these problems by focusing on timing. Not just the timing of what you have in front of you, but the timing of all those elements that aren’t yet in place. As you watch your animatic, you need to have a second screen in your own mind filling in all the blanks and have to be listening to the whole soundtrack like it is music. You always need to have a sense of the final episode, like it has already been completed in your mind.
From there, the best piece of advice I could give is to do multiple passes, each with their own separate aim. If you try to tackle every element at once in a single pass, I’m willing to bet they’ll merge together, your focus will shift to some particular problems and you will miss something. So separate out those tasks. Tackle one at a time. The passes I have done vary depending on the show but here is how I put together an animatic of Planet Cosmo:
Story Pass – this is to make sure I’m telling the story well. Clarity and flow are the big issues here so this pass could involve many panel revisions.
Voice pass – I listen to the animatic without the visuals. Does it sound natural? Is there enough space around key lines that young children get to take them in? Are there gaps that feel too long or unnatural? Listen for the beats, for the music that’s in the voice track.
Effects and music pass – On this pass, I’m watching while being very conscious of where the effects and music will go. If you have an action with an important sound effect, get it clear of the lines. Find a natural gap in the dialogue and get it in there, even if this sound effect doesn’t exist yet – do it in your mind. Again, listen to the beats. Be aware that music can glue separate scenes together (this is not always desirable).
Laughter pass – Yes, I did an entire pass just putting in laughs for the characters. Why? To punctuate the episode, the jokes and the fun moments. And kids love laughter.
Squeeze pass – This pass exists with one purpose: to get rid of anything that isn’t absolutely essential. If something just isn’t as fun enough, remove it. Feel like you’re doubling over on something? Remove one. And have your episode length in mind all the time.
Final Pass – With this pass, I just try to watch the episode as if I was watching on television for the first time. Instead of going in and editing as I watch, I’ll quickly scribble down a note so I don’t break the viewing flow. This is where that last bit of tightening or stretching will be done. The last chance to get it as great as it can be. Always remember that your show must be clear on a single watch with no explanations.
Sound like a lot of passes? It is. Because getting a great animatic together is one of the most important parts of the process and should never be rushed. A great animatic is how you get a great episode. It is possible to kill a great animatic with poor animation but great animation will never save a bad animatic.
Because timing is so important, it is essential you give it what it needs and what it deserves: time.
Story is drama. Drama is conflict. You need character conflict. And so on.
One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is applying what they have read about writing adult screenplays to preschool cartoons. Children are not little adults and one of the most important messages I would give to anyone in media is to stay audience aware. If your core target audience are adults just like you, great. That means you write what appeals to you. But if not (and preschool children are not like you), then audience awareness is of paramount importance.
And those adult screenplay tips and tricks no longer apply.
So what happens when people approach preschool with character conflict as a goal? We end up with story catalyst that leads to grumpy, angry characters snapping at each other. They get annoyed easily, often at things that have no relevance to the lives of preschool children. Very soon what we have is a harsh, unpleasant story that feels far too grown-up.
And the person reading the script thinks, this is not a preschool story. This is not a preschool writer. Not the desired outcome.
Part of the reason this happens is that we all tend to misremember our childhood. We have memories of how we felt that we assign to a much younger age by mistake. And all the while, we’re interpreting those memories with the thoughts processes of an adult, not the child we once were.
The lives of preschool children are so small. Their environment is tiny, they have fewer relationships and those that they have are usually with a trusted group of family and friends. Even in preschools and Montessoris, the atmosphere is much more controlled than later in life as they get into the school system. Those harsh conflicts don’t happen in the same way for preschool kids and, when they come close, they are diffused and forgotten about almost instantly.
So conflict for a preschool child is on a different level. Striving for victory, overcoming their shortcomings and conquering the world means being able to stand on one leg for five seconds, being able to brush their own teeth, being able to clump around the house in daddy’s shoes without falling over, getting their turn on the swing or successfully putting a plaster on an injured teddy bear. It is in ways like these that good preschool stories find conflict and even character conflict too. But not in the same way that stories for adults do.
In fact, the conflict in a preschool child’s life often wouldn’t even be considered conflict to most adults.
So try to ease up on the conflict. Keep the story small, even if it is set in some fantastical dreamworld, because the world of your audience is small. Give kids something to relate to. And keep it fun. Give kids something they’ll enjoy watching. There’s a reason Peppa Pig is a huge hit with kids and Breaking Bad isn’t quite so appropriate for them. Let’s see fewer sulks, angry exchanges and sad faces and, instead, give us more fun, more laughs and more smiles.
We all fall back on certain staples of children’s writing if we think we can do something with them. Series 2 of Fluffy Gardens featured a sports day episode, for example. How many other shows have done that? Roughly around all of them. Every show ever. Using a familiar plot element as a catalyst is not a bad thing in itself. We can often find we have an interesting spin or something to add.
But there is one common story that manages to rub me up the wrong way every time: the surprise birthday party. I gave that away in the post title, didn’t I? Note to self: don’t ruin surprises.
The surprise birthday party story sees most of the episode being taken up with the main characters pretending they’ve forgotten one character’s birthday. Could there be anything more horrific? Well possibly if you were willing to do episodes about car crashes or a burns ward. But in a child’s life, I can think of few things worse.
For a start, it involves a secret. Secrets can haunt parents who, to keep them safe, need their children to be open and honest with them at all times. I must admit it’s a personal thing but I am not a big fan of secrets in children’s media generally.
It involves a very deliberate lie.
It involves a conspiracy in that lie, creating a sense of exclusion. One person is kept out of the secret.
It involves a character feeling awful for most of the episode as a result of that lie. On the very day that they should be feeling wonderful.
And then it eventually throws in a nice happy ending justifying the horror. It’s like sticking a shot of a puppy onto the end of Saw and calling it a feel-good film.
Back when I was writing series 2 of Fluffy Gardens, I wrote some stories that were, in many ways, reactions to stories I had seen as a child with messages I found to be way off what we should be telling children. And I did eventually write a birthday party episode in which characters were planning a party and one of the characters suggested a surprise party. The reaction was pure horror from the other characters. I quite enjoyed that moment.
Ultimately, I chose not to make the episode (in spite of everyone telling me otherwise) because I felt it didn’t do justice to Mrs. Toasty the Sheep, who cracked under the stress of planning the party. So I never got to express my horror at the surprise birthday party.
In just about any creative field, we can sometimes hit a point where what we are doing seems like a complete and utter disaster. On quite a simple level I tend to encounter this when writing or illustrating. I might hit a point where I think what I am doing has gone horribly wrong. The story doesn’t work or the drawing looks nothing like what I had in my imagination. But we all know it happens on a large scale too, with whole projects that have so much more at stake. It just didn’t turn out like I hoped. What went wrong? This was a terrible idea. Abandon it and start something new quickly, before it’s too late!
Not so fast.
Keep pushing. Disaster is often simply a part of the process. All it usually means is that you aren’t finished yet. Keep going and finish it.
To give up early is to lose a huge opportunity for something special. We will never know if, actually, it would have turned out great with some more work. If we could have rescued it, turned it around and ended up with something that really did justice to the risk we took when we began.
And don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that any creative endeavour isn’t a risk. Anything creative comes with risk. So give it a chance, put in that extra work to allow that risk to pay off. That is what it takes – work.
I see this on a small scale with scripts and illustrations, where what was once a mess often ends in something really interesting. And I see this across whole projects.