Here is a tip for handling action in children’s media that I most often find myself giving to animators working on TV shows but it applies to many parts of the process including writing. It even applies well beyond children’s media. It’s such a simple thing and it will will have you thinking “well that’s just obvious” and yet it is so easily missed. Here it is:
One thing at a time.
One action at a time. So in animation, don’t have two important events happening on screen at the same time. Why? Because we can only look in one place at any one time. If you have two important actions happening simultaneously, it is guaranteed that one of them will be missed. In kids’ media in particular, clarity is key to engagement. If kids don’t know what they’re looking at, you’ll lose them. If they miss a plot point, you could kill the story.
So keep in mind that you may have a screen of 1920 by 1080 pixels and a lovely wide canvas to play with but we can only focus on one place at any one time. And if you’re clever about it, we’ll be looking exactly where you want us to by utilising momentum, action, composition and so on. So animators need to think in beats and look at their timeline and plot each main action across that. One at a time. Always one at a time.
But this goes well beyond animation.
This applies to writing. Plot points one by one, knowing that kids are taking the story information you give them in sequential order. If you hit them with two important points at once, you can be pretty sure they’ll miss something. It is crucial in making animatics and setting down your timing and, while plotting actions, you have to take it a step further – consider sound in those beats. One at a time. This is not just about the visuals. Often kids are focusing on watching or on listening and will do one better than the other. An important sound can be missed when it happens simultaneously with a competing action on screen. Dialogue can be missed while kids listen to the music. If you have a key line in your story, give it space. If there is a noisy action, give it space before a character speaks again. Use natural gaps in a voice actor’s delivery to punctuate the action.
Ideally, you should be able to depict your end result in the form of a horizontal chart divided by beats just like an animator’s timeline and each beat just has one thing in it: an action, a line, a sound and so on. That’s your focus and everything else in that beat should be constructed around that focal point.
When looking at actual production for preschool media (television or otherwise), I see one particular quirk occur again and again in the visuals. I see it in animation and live-action, and it’s harder to forgive in live-action for reasons that will become clear later in this post. Pointing out this quirk and showing people how to avoid it is one of the most repeated pre-production/production lessons I have to give, whether working on my own productions or advising others on their own. It’s a simple practical tip but it all comes down to audience awareness so thinking about the fix can really help far beyond visual production – it’s about understanding point of view and that is relevant across creation, writing, direction, sound and every other part of the process.
So here it is. Have a look at this setup…
Character, background, a few details. It’s very simple. So what’s wrong with the picture?
Well, consider the position of the horizon. It’s rising up above the character. For this to happen, we have to be looking over that character, like a very tall adult looks over a child. This is not a child’s viewpoint. This is not how kids see the world. It’s how adults see the world.
Wherever you are right now, stand up and find a horizon or even look at the angle of the ground. Now get down on your knees and watch what happens. The ground flattens out and the horizon drops. If you had a little character in that setup, the horizon would be below the top of that character and you would be looking the character right in the eyes. This is how kids see the world.
This should be really apparent shooting live-action because you would see very clearly whether your cameras are at the height of an adult or a child. So if your setup is for something aimed at young children and you want to make a real connection, the first image should have looked more like this:
Drop the horizon. Those three words help make a connection in storyboarding, layout, background etc. But they also serve as a reminder across the whole process. Is the viewpoint you are depicting really that of a child? Or does it belong to your adult self? Find the child’s viewpoint and you will create something much more relevant with a stronger connection. You will make something that really means something to your audience.
In preschool, your story can be and should be very simple. Some people find coming up with stories very tough but the truth is, more often than not, the problem is not finding the story, it’s realising that you’ve actually got several stories in there. The focus to stick with a single, clear story is usually much harder then coming up with stories to begin with.
So why shouldn’t you have more than one story running through your preschool content? That’s easy: clarity. The more elements in your story, the more chance of it becoming messy. It depends on the length and structure of course but you can’t end up with a jumble of ideas. That’s true anywhere but especially in preschool. Your audience needs to be so absolutely clear on what is happening, what the core idea is, what the consequence of each action is and why every character is doing what they do. And you won’t be there to explain it to them.
Sure, you can have little asides. Little extras. But your core story idea? That’s a single idea.
A lot of us are what I call ‘kitchen sink’ writers. Everything goes in as we work up an idea. That’s fine as long as we have the focus and clarity to pull out the unnecessary as we work. Anything that does not serve that central idea should be removed. That can be a lot harder than it seems – preschool sometimes has this perception of being easy because the content is simple, and that’s exactly why it is anything but easy. Simple is hard to do. When I’ve seen writers struggle in preschool, it’s almost never because they can’t find a story. It’s because they’re trying to tell too many.
So pull your stories apart. Got something that feels like a second story thread in there? Great – pull it out and bank it, there’s a whole other episode for you to write later. Got a third story idea muddling things up? Take that out too. Now you’ve got three stories. Before long, you’ll have a series. And this is the real positive here, the one way to motivate yourself to really strip those stories. It’s not that you’re losing story ideas. You’re gaining whole new stories. Keep every idea. The more story threads you can pull out of your current work, the more stories you have banked for later.
Ideas aren’t the problem. It’s the focus to stick with just one. So pull the stories apart.
When creating content and particularly when developing characters, we can find ourselves looking for the hook. How do we draw children in? How do we get them to like this?
This is often seen as an additive process. This character will be cool so kids will aspire to be like her and also we’ll give her purple hair because kids love purple and she should be made of electricity because kids are all about the electronic devices and… and… and…
That’s not always a bad approach but it misses one key thing about kids (and often adults too): they go in wanting to be drawn in. They want to like it. You don’t always have to work so hard to pull them in. Instead, what you could look for are the barriers. What is stopping them from liking this?
I’m working on an interactive project right now and this is so easy to see with the mechanics in testing. If a character doesn’t respond the way a child wants, there is an almost instant disconnect. A barrier now exists between the child and the experience they want. The more bugs, clutter and barriers there are, the harder it is for a child to like what you are giving them.
The same is true for the characters and for narrative content, though it is sometimes much harder to see. Often those things you’ve added in your search for the hook can become a barrier – a disconnect between who the child is and the characters you are presenting them with. The more elements you throw into the mix, the greater the chances are that you will find the one thing that will sever the connection with some members of the audience. This is one of the key parts of my job when script editing: identifying those moments that will jar, taking kids out of the story. That is also why we can see a ‘blank canvas’ character do very well (what do we really know about Dora the Explorer?). A child can very easily project themselves on to a character if there is simply very little there to get in the way. And because we creators so often like to throw the kitchen sink into projects, that usually becomes a subtractive process. What traits can I remove from this character to reduce the number of potential barriers?
It can seem counter-intuitive at times. I want a great character, not a character who is barely there. Thing is, if you make it easy for people to see themselves in a character, you have a great character. This is especially true for young children.