The end of another year. I don’t feel the need to do a full stock take as I found myself forced to evaluate everything a couple of weeks ago when my birthday approached. Overall… it has been a good year. I have worked on some really great things with some really great people, old friends and new. That has probably been my biggest pleasure in 2014.
Having had such a varied year, I think 2014 has left me with two strong thoughts:
1) It’s fantastic, worthwhile and valuable to push in different directions, use your skills in new ways and try whole other things entirely. 2) It’s always good to recognise what you do well and sometimes it’s just fine to do that thing you are really, really great at. Because not everybody is.
As it happens, it’s possible to apply both – familiar skills in new forms.
So what about 2015? Well, there are some exciting things ahead – some you know about, like Millie and Mr Fluff, and others will be revealed during the year. There is also room for some new collaborations and I’m hoping I get to work on some fun new projects that I haven’t even discovered yet (get in touch if you need some preschool awesomeness). A year of plans and possibilities.
So what about you? Have you got the year planned out already or is it an empty page? Will it take you in a new direction? Or solidify what you’re already great at? Or somehow both? Whatever you have planned or not planned, I hope it’s a fantastic year for you! Thanks as always for stopping by my blog. And if you have anything you would like me to cover or any questions on any aspect of making great content for kids, please get in touch.
It’s that time again – it comes quicker every year. I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas/holiday season! Thanks as always for stopping by my little blog.
If you’re in Ireland, keep an eye out for the Fluffy Gardens Christmas Special. It will air as always on Christmas morning at 7.50am and also on RTEjr at 10.30am and 2.30pm. Plenty of chances to see it! Isn’t it about time I made a new Christmas special? Isn’t it?!
Oh, one last thing. I just found out that Dino Dog made the Guardian’s Best iPad Apps for Kids 2014 list: YAY!
Sorry, that should have had a question mark in the title. Anyone know how to survive a mid-life crisis? I’m turning 40 tomorrow. I am not cool with this at all. Not even slightly. It’s a pretty huge milestone and you know the thing about those first 40 years? You don’t get them back. You don’t get to try again. There are no save points we can reload.
And that sucks.
I guess two things might help. 1) We can try to appreciate what we’ve done well in that time. 2) We can aim to make the best use of time generally, knowing that these milestones come whether we like it or not.
Life is made up of many parts but just looking at work and content, what have I done in that time? Well, I created Fluffy Gardens and that is still one to be proud of, even if I do say so myself. It’s only really looking back on it now that I can see the slight lunacy of taking on directing the entire series while writing it too but if I could do it again (I can’t) I don’t think I’d do it any other way. I love that show and those characters will always be dear to me. And they are clearly dear to many parents and kids even now. So that’s nice.
Planet Cosmo, a show to introduce the planets to kids. I love this show. It was so much fun, I worked with an amazing team and I got to drop in some nice sci-fi references. Best of all is that it did what it was supposed to do – it inspired children. And I made other stuff that I can still really enjoy today: Roobarb & Custard Too, Punky, Dino Dog and more. My favourite? It might still be the Fluffy Gardens Christmas Special.
I once joked to someone in animation that, if there was a hell, you would be forced to watch what you have made over and over on a loop for all eternity. But if you’ve made stuff you like and are proud of, then it’s not hell. It’s heaven. So you better make great content. It feels the same turning 40. If you’re reading this and you’re much, much younger than me (likely!), keep that in mind. One day you’ll wonder about what you’ve spent a large chunk of your life creating. Hopefully you’ll be happy with what you have made.
Am I? I guess. I’m never truly content but that’s a great motivator. I always want to make something better. Something more challenging. Something that will really matter to kids or their parents. Which leads on to the next part: aiming to have something we’re happy with when we hit these milestones. We can’t plan every move and no doubt things will change as we encounter new opportunities but I think if we really care about what we do and genuinely aim for better each time, we’ll hit upon something we’re proud of. For me, that’s building new content and collaborations with Mooshku that will really set up the next decade. The foundations have been put in place.
If your own challenge is not yet finding something you’re passionate about, keep trying different things. That is not wasted time. I animated on features, made commercials in lots of different styles and tried a whole bunch of other things before realising I wanted to make children’s content. Our path is not always obvious.
Hopefully when you hit your next big milestone, you’ll have an easier time with it than I am. In the meantime, go make something awesome. Now excuse me while I sit in a dark room and listen to The Cure…
You might be surprised at the amount of thought and balance that has gone into the credits on shows I’ve made. It seems like a simple thing: people are hired to do jobs, that’s the credit they get. When shows are made by small creative teams, all adding wonderful new layers to your show, it’s rarely that simple. Your Production Assistant may have ended up a Compositor. An Animator may have shifted to Background Designer for a few episodes. And so on. It happens a lot and I love being open to when that happens. There is nothing wrong with people getting help or giving help in different areas.
Where it gets tricky in credits is where one credit might downplay another. For example, if that Animator above designed 5 great backgrounds and yet your main background person designed 290 then it wouldn’t quite seem fair to have both names up there equally. Maybe at this point your Background Designer is renamed Lead Background Designer or the Animator gets an Additional Backgrounds By credit. So credits are like a story in themselves – you have to think of them as a whole and consider the knock-on effect of each part.
I feel this needs to be right because I believe strongly in this: everyone should get proper credit for what they do.
It is important for two reasons. Firstly, the people working on these shows deserve their credit. They’ve earned it and it becomes part of their future calling card. But also because someone else at some point is going to read those credits and that could have an effect. If they see a Character Designer credit on a show with amazing character designs and then hire that person but their design skills don’t quite match because the credit was incorrect, that creates a problem. If someone buys a show on the strength of key talent and that person didn’t do what the credits say they did, that creates a problem. It is as important for others watching that the credits be as correct as possible as it is for the person credited.
So the main take-away here is: credits are actually important. Let’s aim to credit people correctly.
What has me thinking about this is the whole Zoella ghostwriting issue. Zoella, a personality I wasn’t all that much aware of, has a book out. It has done brilliantly as far as I know and it turns out that there was a ghostwriter involved. So people in publishing know this isn’t anything new and think it’s unfair to single out Zoella. I totally agree. My real issue here is nothing to do with Zoella or that there is another writer involved. It is that her book cover says very clearly “A first novel by…”. It’s not just a celebrity endorsement. It may be a flat-out lie. Or it may not be. We don’t know because there is an assumption that this lack of transparency is just fine. Some people have expressed surprise – don’t we know books like this are ghostwritten? Well, no. Because it doesn’t tell us that on the cover. It tells us something else entirely. Either the author’s name on the front of a book means something or it doesn’t. If it means nothing, let’s abandon it altogether so we’re not in misleading or false advertising scenarios. If it does mean something, then make it mean something. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writers getting help or having multiple writers so, in this case and in other ghostwriting cases, how about just crediting the other writer on the cover too? Or have a Presents credit on the cover, with the real author’s name on the inside (like the Fighting Fantasy books).
Either way gives the proper people credit while also not misleading the people reading those credits. If credits are allowed to become meaningless… well, then credits becomes meaningless.
When I pick up my Creating A Show posts, I’ll be getting into pitching. Pitching is a crucial stage and rarely easy but there is some fun to be had with it too. For introverts, though, pitching can sometimes seem terrifying, daunting or just something we’d really rather not do. As someone who has been labelled a ‘high-functioning introvert’ in the past, I might gather some thoughts and do a Pitching For Introverts post someday but, right now, I wanted to just point out one advantage many introverts have while pitching. There are generalisations here and everyone is different but many introverts should recognise what I’m describing below. It can give you an edge in a pitch scenario.
Here it is: introverts are rarely surprised.
Many of us spend a huge amount of time in our own heads. We play things out over and over, especially when we know a stressful scenario is coming our way. Now preparation is key to pitching or indeed anything else so I would always advise as much preparation as possible for anyone but often we introverts take that much further, whether we like it or not. We play out a gatekeeper asking us the roughest, toughest questions. We see them poking holes in our concepts. We watch as they pick up our show bible, find that one gaping flaw and then fling it into the bin. And we do this while getting dressed, while eating breakfast and at 4 in the morning when we should be asleep. Over and over again. We can be our own worst enemy when it comes to confidence but not when it comes to exploring potential outcomes.
So by the time we walk into that meeting, there is very little chance that something will happen that we haven’t already played out a hundred times. And usually it goes much, much better.
This is a good thing. We can identify problems before they happen. If we need to make a change, we can. If we know something might be a tricky issue but there is a good reason why certain decisions were made, we have those responses prepared. Things get easier and better the more times we do them. And for many of us, the first time we pitch a project to someone isn’t really the first time we’ve pitched it because we have driven ourselves demented with the conversation for weeks in advance. So we go in better.
I’m not saying extroverts don’t do this too. We’re all different but I know some extroverts seem to play things out live and in the moment more than the introverts. But whatever kind of person we are, I think the main thing is to be prepared. Whether by structured preparation time or the repetive mental run throughs (preferably both), play it out all kinds of different ways. Try not to be taken by surprise. Be open. But not surprised. And that’s where we can have an advantage.
I like lasagne. I like to think I know a good lasagne from a bad lasagne, at least to my particular tastes. If a chef makes a lasagne that is absolutely disgusting, I don’t need to know how lasagne is made to be critical of that lasagne. I certainly don’t need to be able to make a better one in order to earn the right to be critical.
The point here most likely seems obvious already – if we have an interest in a particular subject, we don’t necessarily need to have all the skills ourselves to know good from bad. If you love action cartoons, for example, and have grown up immersing yourself in them, there is a good chance you would be able to sit at a desk approving or rejecting action cartoons. Or you could be a critic and write up reviews.
The difficulty, however, comes when you actually have to make something better.
In my first example, I can’t help a chef make a better lasagne because I’m not a chef and I don’t know how lasagne is made. I can’t tell them what they did wrong. I can’t give pointers on better ingredients to use. And I certainly can’t step in and demonstrate how to make a great lasagne.
My usefulness ends at being able to say if I like it or not.
So if you want to make content, it is not enough to have just looked at similar content. You have to go deeper. You have to take an interest in the process. You have to look at the ingredients, you have to learn how others have made things in the past – getting the recipes where possible. You have to know how and why people got to their end results. The theory, the history and the practice. Most of all, you then need to work at it – try, examine what went wrong or right and try again. Adjust your recipe as you learn more.
I won’t ever be able to make a great lasagne by just looking at a well-prepared one. And we can’t make great content just by looking at the finished product either. Go deeper.
Punky won the Best Children’s Film award at the 7th International Disability Film Festival. This is a really big deal for me. Why? Because it is recognition that we got it right. And for me early on, that was my biggest concern.
A cartoon by its very nature becomes a caricature. As soon as the idea of making Punky was floated in the studio at Geronimo Productions (Monster Animation back then), this thought was shouting loudly in my head. Could we possibly create a cartoon kid with Down syndrome and have that look anything other than offensive? Would it work in the writing? I did a huge amount of research and came across a company that made children’s baby dolls that looked like babies with Down syndrome. It seemed like the most well-intentioned idea so that kids with Down syndrome could have a doll that looks a little like they do and there were huge numbers of parents who loved that. But there were also some parents who didn’t. They felt it was highlighting the differences and not the similarities. And one thing that was abundantly clear is that, when dealing with children’s media, you’re reaching parents at a time when they are still just getting used to having a child in their lives so anything (be it colic, Down syndrome or other traits) can hit raw nerves.
I’ll admit it – I was nervous. For me, if we were to make a show with a main character who has Down syndrome, it would have to be right. It would have to right for children who have Down syndrome. It would have to be right for the parents of children with Down syndrome. It would have to be right for kids and parents who weren’t remotely touched by Down syndrome so that they would have a better understanding. All while still being entertaining for everyone. That’s a tough brief.
Gerard, producer at Geronimo, was not remotely nervous. He recognised the challenges but had faith that we could meet them and overcome them. We had made a lot of children’s television at this point and he knew we had a great team (we did) and that the fact that I was so clear on the potential pitfalls was a positive – we would work to get it right. And so Gerard believed strongly that we would do something good with this show.
And so we went ahead with it. We took what was initially quite a raw but energetic idea, created by Lindsay J. Sedgwick, which had the aims in place and we stripped it back to its core characters – a family. We pulled the age of the show to preschool for many reasons and simplified it for clarity. We focused on Punky but not in a way that would mean we were making a Down syndrome show. We very quickly realised that it was just about Punky and one thing among many about Punky is that she has Down syndrome. It’s just part of who she is. That approach for the show was right because that’s really also the message we wanted for all kids. Punky is Punky. She’s a kid. I guess in a way, I had to get over my own prejudices and stop seeing Down syndrome as this big barrier. You have to take people (and characters) for who they are.
As we fleshed Punky out we got to know her and, as it turns out, she’s an adorable kid with lots going on. The designs were a challenge and we knew they would be but again it was about treating Punky as her character not a condition. We had Ciara McClean designing on the show who arrived at the look of the family, Punky included, and they just felt right. When we got into the writing, we had Andrew Brenner who brought so much to the show. Andrew was perfect for Punky because he has a wonderful honesty about the lives of children in his storytelling. His inspiration comes from real life, not just some saccharine hopes for what real life should be. He got the family dynamic working brilliantly and brought so much humour in the process. Simon Crane directed the episodes, visually telling Andrew’s stories beautifully. And Punky herself came alive when Aimee Richardson was cast as her voice – so much fun and life and personality.
One production later and it was clear: Gerard was right all along. We were doing something good with this show. And it was entertaining for all kids. Everyone at Geronimo Productions brought their best to Punky and that’s why it worked.
And so now this award. Anyone who knows me well will know I’m not much of an awards person but this one means a little more because this one feels like it is saying something to my early nervousness. My fears. It’s like it is saying: maybe those early fears weren’t unfounded but you always need to have faith that you can overcome them. Good things don’t always come easy. So I’m happy to have been one part of that process and I hope that everyone at Geronimo, especially Gerard himself and Lindsay as Punky’s creator, is proud of this award because they earned it. Well done, everyone.
Finding our new zookeeper character was about asking the right questions. Who will bring a child into the show? Who will kids relate to? Who will compliment our tiger character? Who can drive stories? You might notice that these are all about what the character will achieve for the show and the audience. The questions are not so much about the character itself. Having a clear sense of the needs informs the character. Once you are certain on those needs, you can move on to questions about the character, who they are and what they like and dislike and so on.
Answering these questions took some time but, once the goals were clear, the basics of Millie and a whole lot more fell into place remarkably quickly. I had an idea of who she was, what she looked like and a name. Showing kids early on revealed that they were attracted to the designs, although more testing would come later. I also was clear on how she could fit into the stories, even though that meant a lot would have to be reworked or replaced entirely so that she could drive the narrative rather than being sandwiched into what effectively were just Mr Fluff stories.
Oh yes, Mr Fluff got a name too. Mr Fluffington-Strypes, gentleman and master of disguise. The name sounded more than a little posh and yet the fluff made him cuddly, approachable and loveable – and that’s the true Mr Fluff once you get past the airs and graces.
And while these two characters were worked up as designs, the show found its look. A rougher, patchier version of what would eventually become the visual style of the show. Mr Fluff lost his glasses, Millie got younger and cuter and the crayon-like feel for the design happened naturally during this development.
It seemed like it took so long to figure out what this idea would become. So much searching and pausing and wondering. But as soon as Millie became clear, it felt like the framework of this show formed almost overnight. Was it all there yet? No. Of course not. There was much left to flesh out, to test, to challenge and then pull together but the ingredients of the show were in place. And the thing about all the next phases of development is that, unless the visual design bombed with kids (and I knew it was working to a point – I had one challenge to overcome later), the top line pitch of this show would remain intact.
Finally this was a show I could take to a broadcaster.
Or to put it another way, I now had no excuse to hold it back. No reason to procrastinate. No way of justifying tinkering away at it for a few more months. Because truth be told, I think many of us creators would be happier working at our idea than sitting across a desk from a gatekeeper trying to convince them that we have something interesting.
I could make up no more reasons to avoid putting a two-page pitch document together and start showing it to people. The pitch phase was about to begin. One of the toughest and yet most exciting parts of the process.
This post follows on from Creating A Show Part 1 and Part 2.
While working up the new zookeeper character, I knew I would soon have to answer a very important question: what is this? Is it a book, a TV show, a game, an app or something else entirely?
Transmedia is the easy answer but it is not always helpful. Yes, characters and brands often have to work across forms but, personally, I believe you need to know your core platform. Mainly because every form of media is different and the needs of each form are different. So if you’re aiming for all of them at once, I find one of two situations occur: A) you don’t realise the differences in each form and so fail to make the most of the strengths in any form or B) you know the needs of each form and shave the edges off your project so it works for any of them, diluting it to bland nothingness in the process.
For me, I have to know the core form. It’s that old idea of knowing your target if you’re expecting to hit anything at all.
Here are some things the media form will dictate:
Length and complexity. The strength of focus on narrative. The forms of humour (Slapstick? Wordplay?). The visual design (you can rest on a page in a picture book. Not so with TV). The amount of stories required (if it’s TV, you need a LOT of stories). Cost of development (when you get into animation or coding, costs shoot up). Your relevant gatekeepers (got to know who you’re selling to). The amount and type of partners needed.
There are many more aspects affected by the chosen form of media so it is crucial to know what you’re aiming for. You can change direction along the way of course but best to nail down an initial strategy and see it through as far as possible. And while we may just assume the primary form is the one we are most familiar with, that is not always what is best for the particular project.
So I had to decide. What would it be?
An interactive app or a game? Maybe… but I found myself concentrating on narrative and humour that could contribute to an interactive app but might not necessarily be the primary focus. I set that idea aside as something to revisit later. I knew it could be a great book, whether published physically or digitally. I still think it can be a great book. I can see the page layouts, the wordplay, even some fun printing tricks such as textured sections and sticky jammy parts. Perfect fun for preschoolers. So I was leaning towards a book for a while.
But I chose television as the first platform for this concept. Why? Because of what motion could add to the slapstick I was aiming for. Yes, a lot of that can come through in a book but this fast-paced silliness was almost begging me to make it move. I was also finding that the concept kept handing me new stories. They were short, basic ideas, almost like sketches and I knew not all of them would work when I finally got the zookeeper character right but, nevertheless, the stories kept coming. Television loves volume and this show could run and run. It was a well of little preschool comedy ideas.
This concept was a television show first and foremost and that brought me back to very familiar territory.
I can’t state strongly enough how important it is to know what your primary form is, even if you want your stories to eventually spin off to everything else too. There are so many variables in creating content and navigating through the choices is not always easy. So every time you make a solid decision, you gain even more focus. It informs all those other choices and offers you a clear direction. You will still have many things to work out but you’ll be doing it with a strong target. You know what you have to hit.
Know what it is you’re making.
And now that I knew what this was, I just had to sort this little zookeeper character.
This post continues from last week’s post on The Idea.
So I had a strong concept but it wasn’t quite working yet and I didn’t have a mission. Does a show need a mission? For me, yes. I think every creative endeavour needs a mission. Because getting anything off the ground is hard work. It can be gruelling. To push through the resistance, you need to have a strong sense of why you are doing what you’re doing. “I think this idea is nice” is rarely enough. You won’t last if that’s all you’ve got.
More importantly, you can’t do it alone. You need people to support you, to believe in the project and to help out. You need a reason for them to really care. That is why a mission is so important. It is a driving force. And this project didn’t have one yet.
But what I found at this time is that, actually, I had one. I had recently launched Planet Cosmo and that show seemed to achieve its mission – to introduce children to the planets. It had a clear educational goal and I now had a list of other educational goals I wanted to explore too. But Cosmo wasn’t an easy production. I found I didn’t want to jump straight into another similar mission. Really, what I needed was a palette cleanser. A whole other kind of mission – I just wanted to make kids laugh.
I was looking for comedy.
Sure, inevitably I would want to build something on a backbone of positivity. That’s what I do. But I wanted something that kids could just enjoy. I was working up a few things to fit that brief (a zebra named Richard, a collection of little monsters and so on) when I realised that, actually, this tiger zoo thing might be a really good fit.
I put the two together and Anything But The Monkeys now had a mission: it would be the funniest thing for preschoolers I could possibly make. Not just a project with some smiles or the odd bit of humour (a lot of preschool content has that already). A full-on comedy. I would amend, change and work at it until it made children laugh.
This was a huge step in the project. Knowing the mission can drive everything.
But unfortunately I knew this tiger wasn’t fully carrying the idea. He was funny so why didn’t it feel right?
I spent a long time working this out, trying to find what was missing and came to many different conclusions. The idea of the tiger character was that he would come in to the zoo when required. Like Shane in that western story, Shane. That meant we had no real anchor within the zoo itself. Perhaps that was causing a disconnect as we couldn’t quite lock on to that world? Even then, was the comedy right? He was funny in the way Niles Crane is funny. Or Eric Morecambe is funny. Hmmm… grown up humour. Not child’s humour. And in each one of those examples, they need a counterpart. The straight man. This big tiger needed a partner. More importantly, he needed a partner anchored to that zoo who would provide a child’s point of view – someone who would invite kids into this story and allow them to see the funny side of this tiger. A character who is just like the audience.
Not just a sidekick, that would be a half measure. I needed whole new main character. A new focal point.
I tried a lot of ideas for that (such as the child tiger character seen above) before locking on to an early drawing of a little zookeeper. What if the zookeeper was a child? A little kid running a zoo. That in itself seemed like a strong concept. It could be a pitch all on its own (yes, I was already thinking about the pitch – more on that in another post). And rather than competing with the tiger concept, it seemed to provide an anchor to bring the tiger character in.
My one-tiger show was now a double act and getting this zookeeper right would be the key to the whole concept.