Sometimes we get notes back on a script and it is so clear that the writer of the notes was not really paying attention. They were checking their emails, on a phone call, reading twitter all while making notes on our script and they missed that one really important scene that explained the bit they said made no sense.
Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Well, that’s often how kids watch TV. They’re shuffling around, playing with toys, stabbing their sibling with a Peppa figure, being called in for lunch for the hundredth time. What they are not always doing is paying attention.
So as unfair as it may seem, sometimes that distracted exec is actually a good gauge of how clear our story will really be to our audience. Given we can’t possibly control a child’s environment, is it our problem if kids aren’t paying attention? Of course it is.
So what do we do about it?
The first thing is to make your content as engaging as possible. There are many ways of doing this and many tips already on this blog and more to come.
The second, and really the subject of this particular post, is for us to accept that, no matter how awesome our content is, there may be times children aren’t paying attention. So compensate for that.
Make all goals clear. Several times.
Run your core ideas through the entire story.
Recap. Several times if possible.
Save your story message for the last scene.
State an important line with other action happening that may distract.
Fear repetition. Young kids enjoy repetition.
So make it easy to keep up. Approach your little 7-minute story like it is a 39-episode series with an essential story arc. What happens if your audience misses episodes 25-27? What happens if someone joins the show mid-season? Give kids an in-point to your episode in several places and never forget this: the one part they miss could be your ending.
In talks and when giving advice to students, one of the lessons from my own experience that I tend to repeat is about the importance of jumping in at the deep end. Don’t wait until you are ready. Just go for it and then figure out how you are going to survive. It is the quickest and best way to make career leaps, and often the strongest way to learn.
Because, when you do that, improving becomes the solution to survival. Worried your quality won’t be good enough? Get better. Worried about deadlines? Get faster, more efficient.
I stand by that advice.
But it assumes you will survive. The unfortunate reality is that some people don’t. Sometimes the job is just not a fit for that person. That can be hard to accept at times. On a couple of productions I have had faith that people will pull themselves up and deliver. At times, I could see they really wanted to make it happen.
But sometimes it is just not a fit. At least, not at that time.
And as much as we all want things to work out for the best, I can tell you from personal experience that it can be far more damaging to a production to put faith in someone who just isn’t going to get there than it is to accept it and remove them from the production altogether.
Weigh up what happens in either scenario…
A) You let the person go. You have a tough conversation on your hands, often very unpleasant. You could be put under pressure to give that person another chance. If you go through with letting them go or moving them elsewhere, you now have a position to fill which can be very tough to do when a production is under way. You have to train a new staff member up in your methods and hope they will be a good fit in your team. You may even miss some deadlines while you get them up to speed.
This brings great uncertainty.
B) You hope they will get there eventually. Meanwhile the others have to pick up the slack, something they may be happy to do at first but will eventually breed resentment. This sours morale. The lack of productivity from this person can lead to a blockage in production so deadlines are missed. If that happens, they will continue to slip later and later. And if this person really is not a good fit, they will end up under severe pressure and stressed, leading to more mistakes. Meanwhile production staff (and creators/writers/directors/producers) have a meltdown worrying about their show/project. This is a downward spiral. It can kill a production and I have seen this come close to happening.
And unfortunately all this is considerably more certain than option A.
Better the devil you know? No. There is no room for ‘devils’ on a production. It is wonderful to have faith in people. It is great to give people a chance, even before they are ready. Without people taking a chance on me at several stages in my career, I wouldn’t get to do what I do now.
But sometimes that job and that person just aren’t a good fit.
Watch for that, try to catch it early and deal with it directly. Because delaying, with the best will in the world, can be poisonous to a production. And it is better to take on the uncertainty of finding someone new than it is to take on the certainty of a poisoned production.
I am so saddened by the passing of Jimmy Murakami, an animation legend and a wonderful man. Jimmy lived an incredible life and achieved so much (summed up in this Cartoon Brew post). For me, one of his greatest highlights is his movie adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows, a heartbreaking and beautiful animated movie with music by Roger Waters. I loved listening to Jimmy’s stories about the making of this film and he not only tolerated my barrage of questions on the movie but seemed to delight in telling more and more stories.
And nobody could tell a story quite like Jimmy.
It was only a few years ago that I found out that Jimmy had also directed ’80s Roger Corman sci-fi almost-classic Battle Beyond The Stars, with an all-star cast. Well that was a whole new barrage of questions and, yet again, Jimmy welcomed every one of them and was kind enough to send me old articles on the movie and feed my every interest.
That was the thing about Jimmy – he went out of his way to help anyone who was interested, and not just when it came to talking about his career. Jimmy seemed to love the new generation, the underdogs, and would always offer advice and support unconditionally. His stories entertained but also inspired.
And the stories of his life outside animation and filmmaking? Wow. Jimmy lived. He really lived. His stories were colourful, certainly not always PG, and always left me with a smile. That’s if I could steer him away from talking about Chinese co-productions.
Jimmy Murakami is a legend in animation and one of the biggest names in Irish animation. In a way, he mentored every single one of us. His influence will always be felt here. And now he is gone. I will regret not pushing him for even more stories. Not spending more time with him (we mostly caught up at animation events and it was only in recent years that I got to know Jimmy better). And most of all I will regret not pushing to make our screening of Battle Beyond The Stars and Q&A happen, something Jimmy and I had been planning for some time and we talked about just a couple of months ago. Sometimes you really do just run out of time. I’m sorry we didn’t make this happen, Jimmy. There are stories you would have shared that now we’ll never hear.
But let’s be thankful for all the stories we did hear. Thank you, Jimmy. You will be and are already missed.
A message to the people just starting out in this whole making content business – the wannabe writers, directors, designers, creators. Don’t be a wannabe anything. Just be it. Go on, change that twitter profile and remove the ‘wannabe’. Whatever it is you wanted to be, you are now it.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could make a show or app that appeals to absolutely everyone? One that appeals to all broadcasters? All distributors, publishers and everyone involved in making things a success? One that every single kid everywhere just loves?
It’s probably not going to happen.
Why? Because people love different things. You want people to have strong feelings – they have to have strong feelings in order to get excited about what you’re doing. But the thing about strong feelings is that, for everyone who really loves an aspect of what you’re doing, someone else will likely have strong feelings in the whole opposite direction.
A simple example from my own history is how Fluffy Gardens excited a few key broadcasters on little more than the look and yet one broadcaster didn’t want it because they didn’t like characters with big eyes. It was that simple.
Now if you aim to please everyone, to have your show be all things to all people, the solution is to reduce the size of the eyes for that broadcaster. Now you have affected the look, the one thing that had some people excited in the first place.
And this is the problem in a nutshell: in aiming to please everyone, it quickly becomes about easing dislikes rather than enhancing likes and loves. You shave off the edges that may put off individuals until you have something that, sure, nobody really dislikes but nobody loves any more either.
Instead, accept that not everyone will like what you are doing. Focus on those who will like it. And then improve it until they love it. Those people will be your champions. They will make things happen.
No show, no book, no app can be everything to everyone. And attempting that risks losing those who really matter to you.