Expectations play a huge role in any story. It is not as simple as having high or low expectations. Personally, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t expect a good story and if a film, show or game is entertaining, we will rarely come away disappointed just because we expected something pretty good.
Where expectations become a problem is in those situations where we expected something entirely different to what we got.
For example, if I told you we were going to watch a film with Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey and you started to look forward to a light, quirky romcom then you would likely come away pretty annoyed when it turns out the movie we watch is Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Next Generation, right? You would a very hard time accepting the movie for what it is because there is a huge disconnect between that and what you were expecting.
If I told you in advance we were going to watch a schlocky horror sequel, you would likely have a better time.
The same is true within the stories themselves and, yes, within children’s stories. Sure, we like twists and turns and surprises but if something in your intro has us looking forward to something that is ignored or forgotten about later on, we will likely be disappointed. It’s Chekhov’s gun: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” (side note to preschool writers: avoid stories about loaded rifles).
So if you’ve got a kids’ story that opens with news that the circus is coming to town, make sure you get to the circus and make that moment as fun as you possibly can. Don’t just make it a throwaway epilogue. Really milk it. Let kids enjoy it because that’s what you told them to expect. Pay off what you set up. Make sure that where the story goes is at least as entertaining as the promise you made when you introduced the ideas.
My advice? When you finish a draft, revisit the opening. If it looks like the story was going somewhere entirely different, change it to reflect where you actually ended up. Don’t ever leave kids hanging, waiting for something that just isn’t going to happen.
Let them know what to expect and then pay that off in the most entertaining way possible.
Animation tests are wonderful things. Sure, they’re pretty good for people hiring because they provide a safety net in case someone with a decent showreel can’t actually do what you need. But that’s not what I mean. Animation tests are wonderful for those doing the tests. Because they’re an opportunity to show not just that you can do a job competently, but that you can offer something special.
Can you get that in a showreel? Sure, but every job is different and I have seen a lot of good showreels in the hands of people not suited to particular jobs. Creating something directly relevant shows what you can do in a far better way*. That is a real opportunity and, when talking to new animators, I always advise to push to get a test even if a studio doesn’t quite think they are ready. No better way to get ready than actually tackling the job.
My first full series directing gig on Roobarb & Custard Too I got by doing a test. There were other factors, of course, but as part of the discussions the rights holders of Roobarb needed to know that our studio could replicate the look they wanted. Well we could replicate it without a problem. That wasn’t an issue. But now we had an opportunity to show them something more, something different. And I did a little test animation test that was quite removed from what they were asking for.
We got the series and I was now directing a 39-episode series.
All because we showed them what it looked like. It took all doubt away and actually showed them that they could get better than they were aiming for initially. And that’s the real desired outcome. Competency is all well and good. Delivering special, something a little better than asked for? That’s how to make an impact.
And this applies far beyond animation tests. A show can be described beautifully and that can get people interested to the point where they would like to see more. But a great image can sell a show there and then. It’s not easy but it happens. Everyone has a bit of that “I’ll know it when I see it” thing in them.
So let them see it.
*One little footnote on this – some people are hired specifically to do something just like their showreel or in their own core style and that’s a different situation.
I met a spaceman at the weekend. More importantly, my two little girls met a spaceman. Astronaut Chris Hadfield, who I posted about last May when he both entertained and inspired the world, taught my youngest daughter to shake hands for the first time at the age of five.
And he was awesome.
I have no doubt that Chris Hadfield has completed many important tasks out there in space but one of the most important things he has done, in my opinion, is excite the people down here on Earth. And especially the children.
I have never been to space and maybe I’ll never get there but all the way back in 2010, I began my own mission: to inspire and excite children about space. Through a funny cartoon show, I wanted to introduce very young children to the planets in our Solar System. The real planets, all of which are completely mind-blowing. Whole other worlds. And, for me, that was just the beginning. The idea behind Planet Cosmo is that it would spark questions. That kids could go back to their parents and ask, why is Mercury so cold at night? How many moons do other planets have? What other suns are out there? What other planets are there?
The hope was that an interest would be ignited and that parents would recognise that and feed that interest. The show launched last year.
And you know what?
Planet Cosmo has worked. It hasn’t yet spread internationally as quick as I would have loved (it is, however, already it is making its way to Finland, Portugal and Iceland). But wow, it worked. Right here in Ireland, I have had some of the most amazing mails and feedback from parents. The ones that make me smile the most are those where the parents got involved – made Solar System mobiles with their kids, for example. When it isn’t just about a kid but a whole family sharing in interest in space.
Those are our future astronauts. Our future technicians, engineers. Even right here in little Ireland, software and equipment is being developed for space missions. In the future, who knows? Today’s kids could very well be astronauts. It’s more than just a dream. And right now, they are little astronauts. We are on a planet. In our Solar System. We are all in space. Making that known and igniting the imagination is so important.
Our little astronauts are wonderful.
So I thank Commander Chris Hadfield for doing a far bigger, better job than I could have ever done. I hope he has inspired your children, as he has inspired mine. His book is excellent, by the way. And if you haven’t yet checked out Planet Cosmo, give it a look. It’s often on RTEjr here in Ireland and there is a whole episode on YouTube below for anyone to watch. From here, I would love to continue that mission – to inspire and educate kids about space exploration and the awesomeness of it all. And I know it is a mission many others share so, who knows, there could be new partnerships, new concepts, new forms.
I suspect I shall end up doing a lot more work for all our little astronauts. I certainly hope so.
We have all been told something we’re doing won’t work. For example, years ago we were told by a good broadcaster that Fluffy Gardens wouldn’t work. Broadcasters wouldn’t buy it, kids wouldn’t watch it.
Fluffy Gardens sold. Kids loved it.
Being turned down and told that concepts won’t work is an industry cliché. Every success, small or huge, comes with story after story of people rejecting the idea or saying it will never work.
So when it is your concept they’re saying this about, what do you do?
Well, firstly listen to any criticism. Really think about it and its relevance to your project. If amending something could improve your project and make it a better version of what it is, then do that. Don’t do it because you’re expecting anyone to change their mind. That’s the wrong reason and almost never happens. Don’t do it because they know more than you. Do it if you truly believe your project will be improved. Always strive to make your project better.
Evaluate your pitch and materials. Are you showing your project in the best possible way? If not, learn from that and improve your presentation.
Then accept that the project is not right for that person. That doesn’t mean there’s something fundamentally wrong with your project and it certainly doesn’t mean there is something wrong with that person. We all have different experiences and that person may have tried something similar in the past and it may not have worked for them. Or there may be other quite good reasons why they don’t want what you’re selling and they aren’t going to go into those reasons with you. All it means is that the project is not right for them.
Move on. Quickly. And look for someone who it is right for.
Don’t ever let the negativity drag you down. Don’t completely shut it out either, because you might pick up something useful from the criticism. But don’t let it beat you. Don’t let it stop you. Keep going. Make it better, pitch it better and get it in front of the people who will love it.
Eventually, you’ll be telling your very own story about those people who told you it would never work.
Wow. What a year. 2013 was a year of change for me. Here are a few highlights…
I finished the crazy, grueling yet tons of fun production that was Planet Cosmo and we launched the show. At Geronimo we then moved straight into series 2 of Punky, 20 new episodes of that ground-breaking show. Geronimo also developed a new show and brought it to market: Nelly & Nora, a lovely concept you’re going to hear a lot about in the future.
And then… I left Geronimo Productions after 13 years of being its Creative Director.
Now THAT was a big change. It was time for that change, but I didn’t come to the decision lightly. We have made so many great things at Geronimo/Monster Animation (including my own shows) and I very much took ownership of building that studio, turning us from a place to make commercials and production work to a creative force, making nothing but great TV for kids all in-house. And I have always worked so well with producer, Gerard O’Rourke. As he says himself, we are totally different in almost every way and yet we make a damn good team. It seems nuts to let that go. It was nerve-wracking and threw my life into completely new and uncertain territory.
But it was time.
If we hadn’t all guessed it before, 2013 really brought home to me how much I have become ‘the preschool guy’. It became my area of both practise and study many years ago and I found myself delving deeper year on year, and there is a lot to learn. So it is great to be able to share that expertise both as a professional and also in 2013 as a teacher, giving a one-off Writing and Developing For Preschool. Sure it’s a small niche but it’s one that I adore and I am very happy to embrace that. It has rewarding this past year to advise on new projects in that capacity. It is a good time for high-quality preschool and we can always aim higher. And if we can, we should, right?
As 2014 begins, I now feel I have the best of all worlds. I’m working independently with people I know well, as script editor on Geronimo’s new show for example, and on other projects with people I respect yet have never had the chance to work with before. I’m working in forms I never have before, including my first foray into children’s apps. That has been really exciting and I am so looking forward to sharing news with you soon. And I am also building something of my own, a new framework that will play a larger role as we get further into this new year.
It’s going to be a big year for me with new projects and new partnerships.
On top of all that worky stuff, I have a great family with two wonderful little girls who are growing up fast. So I guess you say that all is going well as we move into this new year. I have a lot to be thankful for.
So how about you? What was 2013 for you? What are the plans for 2014?
Whatever you’re doing, I hope you’ll stop by my little corner of the web where we can talk preschool, entertainment, enriching and fun content in all its forms. As always, if you ever want me to cover a subject, answer a question or explore a specific topic feel free to get in contact at any time. I hope you all have a fantastic and fulfilling 2014! Let’s all strive to give kids the best of everything and have fun doing so.