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.
I am often asked about various aspects of creating and producing content and have covered many different parts of that already. But I have never gone through the process of how to create a show from the start all the way through because every project is different. So with Millie gathering momentum, I thought I could use it as a case study and show how the beginnings of an idea can become a show pitch, and hopefully go much further. So here is part 1: The Idea!
It all starts with a mission – the goal. Or at least, it usually does. Millie and Mr Fluff didn’t. It started with a trip to the zoo. The zoo is a fantastic place for families and my girls were very young and loved it and it was great to share in that experience. While there, I began to have silly notions based on animal names. This sort of thing:
But one unexplored idea that I had on that particular trip was the question of what would happen if an animal needed the day off. I thought about this for a while but it was a couple of years later before I would ever answer it.
And it was a simple answer: you would call a stand-in. And in my head, this professional is a large tiger wearing glasses and carrying a briefcase. Very stuffy and upper crust and someone who takes his job very seriously. The core concept and the beginnings of Mr Fluff were now already in place, although I didn’t really know it yet and there was still a long journey ahead.
Now ideas will come and go very quickly. If one seems remotely worthwhile, I find I have to act on it very quickly or else I will lose it. And the other important thing about an idea is that, really, it is nothing unless explored, tested and improved. Everyone has ideas but that is a long way off having a show or a book or anything else. You have to take it further. So I wrote a little story just to get the idea on to a page and I did some drawings. This seemed the easiest and quickest way to explore this and it didn’t matter if they weren’t any good – I didn’t have to show them to anyone.
The story was about this rather large tiger named Needs A Name (very common in early development) who comes in to replace a sick lion and gets tormented by the monkeys. I called it ‘Anything But The Monkeys’.
It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great either. Something was missing. This wasn’t good enough. The tiger wasn’t quite carrying the story. And I still had no clue what this was going to be (a book maybe?), if indeed it would be anything, and so it just went on my long list of concepts to revisit.
This is the thing with ideas – if you act on them and do something with them, even just the most basic exploration, you will very quickly start to amass a collection. Ideas are not the hard part once you start looking, it is knowing the good ones from the bad ones. Finding focus is far from easy and I was at a point where I had several ideas to develop and not much by way of resources to develop them. I had left Geronimo Productions not long before this and jumping straight back into television was not part of the immediate plan.
So Anything But The Monkeys would join that long list of incomplete ideas.
But I wasn’t waiting long for that silly tiger to start nagging at me. It didn’t help that my kids had already begun making fanart. I knew this idea was strong. That still didn’t mean it would ever be a real anything, but getting upgraded from ‘just an idea’ to ‘a strong idea’ is a pretty big leap. It was time to take this beyond idea stage and really start to work it up. What I really needed was to find what was missing. One part of that was the mission – I had no mission, no real goal. But the other part? No idea.
The answer, as it happens, was to be found in one of the early drawings…
More next week as development begins and I aim to locate those missing pieces.
Minimum viable product is, like the current Cult Of Failure, one of those concepts I find tricky given my experience and what I do. Why? Because the standard of children’s media is generally INCREDIBLY high. Sure, we hear people complain about the reboots and the more generic Team Dora shows and there are many areas to improve. But really, a massive amount of kids’ media across books, apps and television is pretty impressive. In books we have a level of artistry and writing that can amaze kids and adults alike. Apps have brought us some astounding creativity and a high level of polish. And kids’ TV is built on 60 years of history – learning, experience, research and hands-on production – and still delivers new surprises all the time.
So I get the concept of minimum viable product but, in kids’ media where the current standard is so high, I find we always need to be aiming much higher. Minimum awesome product or whatever you would like to call it.
While at MIPJunior last weekend, I saw some new concepts and shows from friends and colleagues that hit much higher than what we could ever call a minimum viable product. Some wonderful things that I have no doubt will be hitting various screens in the next couple of years, hopefully along with some of our own work at Mooshku which, as an aside, went down brilliantly during MIPJunior.
Not everything was fantastic, of course. One trailer, for example, was mentioned over dinner as an idea that then was terribly let down by the animation quality. There are other companies with impressive production experience and can make pretty trailers but not always the expertise to create content, story and characters from scratch. And some excellent would-be content creators just don’t know how to get stuff made. There can be parts missing that can let down that push to get well beyond minimum viable product.
So the standard is incredibly high, a minimum viable product is rarely good enough and usually no one person can reach the necessary quality alone.
That’s tough, right?
Sure, but you know what else I saw at MIPJunior? A large community of people helping each other out. Offering advice. Sharing stories of successes and failures. Hints and tips. And the offer of services and expertise where needed. I very quickly realised we all have a lot more in common than it might appear. We are just at different stages or have different strengths. Aspects some find difficult, I’ll realise I struggled with for a long time too in those early days. Other things that even now I could find daunting, others who seem so confident in the industry will reveal they share those feelings too. The important thing is that we find our strengths and use them well, while working with those who have complimentary strengths. And with so many great people around to work with, it’s not as hard as it may sometimes appear.
When I started up Mooshku with Méabh, one of our first goals was collaboration, not competition. We wanted to work with other people, other studios, people we admire with strengths different to ours and helping others out where we could lend our strengths and rich expertise. Now that we’ve got things moving and have momentum, it is so clear that was the right choice. And no better place than kids’ content to get collaborative and reach far, far higher than just minimum viable product.
And related to the topic of collaboration and sharing information, I’m delighted to announce a fantastic event from Animation Skillnet and Creative Europe on the erosion of lines between books, apps, games and TV shows. Our panelists are Eric Huang, publishing legend from Made In Me, Curtis Jobling, creator, author, illustrator and designer of Bob the Builder (proper Bob, not new Bob), Miika Tams, Rovio’s VP of Games of Angry Birds fame, and Julie Fox from Awol Animation, international animation distributor. Each speaker will be offering a presentation which will no doubt inform and inspire and then I’ll be chairing a panel discussion with our guests. It is happening at the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin on the 29th of October. Details HERE!
I have posted in the past about luck and how it is really about getting yourself in a place of opportunity and putting in the work to be ready to take that opportunity when it comes. A couple of weeks ago at the Cartoon Forum, I saw a lot of people put themselves in the right place to invite opportunity. Most were ready. Some had a glowing track record or were known veterans, some shined with ability and confidence, others had just worked their asses off to make sure that everything they showed was as great as it could be.
Every now and again, though, I could spot a project and group of people and I knew I was thinking what a large portion of the room were thinking: they’re good, but they’re just not ready yet.
Harsh, right? Thing is, I can probably spot it so easily because I was that person once. I had those projects. Pitching Millie and Mr Fluff at the Cartoon Forum was my 6th time pitching there over what must be around 13 or 14 years. And the very first time I pitched there all those years ago, I don’t think I really had an understanding of what it takes to make a show. As it happens, making a show is pretty easy if you’ve got the budget and an ounce of organisation skills.
But making a GOOD show? That’s a whole different matter.
There are so many elements that have to be spot-on: concept, story, characters, design, production methods, animation quality, writing, casting, sound, music, timing, flow, momentum… the list goes on. All of those things are important. Some of them are so crucial that the second you spot something wrong you know they just aren’t there yet. And the more you show, the more likely it is the flaws will be revealed. You need footage to prove your concept but it has to be right. Some people get it early and they’re good at it all and I admire those people.
I had to work at it.
I’m sure I have discussed it here before but my first few show pitches were unsuccessful and for the simple reason that I just wasn’t ready yet. Oh there were varying individual reasons – sometimes the concept was underdeveloped, we didn’t have the strength of vision to best integrate feedback, sometimes we just got it plain wrong – but really they came down to that same thing.
So what do you do if you’re in that position? You’ve got the drive, you’ve got the ideas, the skills even. But you’re just not quite there yet. Well, you’ve got options…
What changed everything for me was directing Roobarb & Custard Too. I had the safety net of the show’s creator handling all the writing, I had a massive back catalogue of episodes to study and so as long as I really put in the work (I did) I could make a good show. That was 39 episodes. And over that 39 episodes, studying each one of them afterwards and analysing what worked and what didn’t, I got better. I could see what to look out for in visual storytelling, in the boards, I could spot the rookie mistakes in animatics (mistakes which I had previously made myself). I still had so much to learn but, with that series behind me, I was at a point where people saw us pitch Fluffy Gardens and, whether consciously or unconsciously, they could see that I was ready.
So one of your best options is always to work on other shows first. If you’re a writer, write on other shows. If you want to direct, work on a show with a good director or creative leads. Build up those skills while you have the safety net of more experienced people or prior work around you. Even with that, it’s not enough just to do the work. You have to treat it like study and make sure you actively learn. Question yourself and what you’re doing. Get better.
Another option is to bring that experience to you. Acknowledge that you might not quite be there yet and find ways of teaming up with people who make up for that. People who bring a wealth of knowledge and have a strong body of work behind them. I have seen this work brilliantly. I remember seeing one nervous young creator presenting a project that was lovely but, on her own, we would have been left wondering if she could have really handled a series. But she had teamed with a production company with a good track record. They didn’t even have to be a part of her pitch. Just that people knew they were there was enough to reassure everyone and it ceased to be an issue. They could then just focus on the lovely project they were seeing. Sure enough, she made a great show.
If you have set up your own production company and your work to date has not been series work or leading the creative, see who you can hire in or at least get consultants. Get experienced directors to look at your animatics, your scenes. Get great writers. Because the truth is, one thing that experience helps with is spotting those mistakes that every industry expert seeing your pitch will also spot.
You have got to be ready and you have to show people that you are ready. That is not something that just happens – it is something you can actively work towards.
Last week we brought Millie and Mr Fluff to the Cartoon Forum. I have mentioned Millie in my last two posts but I don’t feel I have really told you a huge amount about it, partly because I like this blog to be informative rather than just a platform to promote my projects. But Millie is really important for me and I think it deserves a bit of space here.
So why is it so important? Well, Millie is not the first project of mine to make it out into the world since my big move last year (that would be DINO DOG) and it is not the only Mooshku project in development. But it is my first new TV project. Even bigger than that, it is the first Mooshku project to be revealed to more than just a handful of people. That’s a big deal to us at Mooshku. Mooshku’s first stamp on the world of good children’s entertainment is Millie. It is the first project that can now make it to what would be a Mooshku showreel. That’s important, right? It’s the beginning of a new life chapter that could turn out to be a very big chapter.
Here’s the show concept…
Millie is playful child (just like your child) who runs a zoo (okay, not exactly like your child). Her one aim: make sure everyone has a great time at the zoo. So when an animal is sick or needs the morning off to pick up their dry cleaning or is missing for any reason, Millie calls her very good friend Mr Fluffington-Strypes to stand in for the missing animal. Fluffington-Strypes (Mr Fluff to his friends) is an actor, a gentleman and a rather large cuddly tiger. He dresses up and assumes the role of any animal at the zoo.
Anything but the monkeys, who are noisy, playful and terribly messy and far beneath a professional such as Mr Fluff. More often than not, it doesn’t quite go according to plan and so Millie has a day of fun trying to make it all work out and children have lots of laughs along the way.
Millie and Mr Fluff is a short, snappy preschool comedy show. Comedy is one of those things talked about a lot and there are certainly a few great preschool shows that are genuinely funny for young kids (Peppa, Gigglebiz, Ben and Holly, Pingu going back a bit). But there aren’t all that many. So we worked really hard to get the Millie comedy right for preschoolers in the scripts, the voices, the design, animation, music and sound. And it works. It’s funny. That kids also find out about animal traits along the way is a happy bonus feature.
After LONG development, testing and tweaking, Millie and Mr Fluff has really come together to become something special. And we finally revealed the show to the world (well, to Europe) at the Cartoon Forum.
The pitch went like this: adrenalin kicked in, I started talking about the show, showed a lot of clips and I could see some people smiling which was nice and then it was suddenly over and people were saying lovely things and writing even more lovely things on little purple cards. The show went down great with a lot of people. They got it. In comments, the strength of the core concept was something people could see. They loved the comedy, the look, the music and a few mentioned in particular how well we knew the characters and how that came across.
One aspect that intrigued people: all of the art assets were created on iPads.
All the interest and positive comments were great to hear given the amount of work we did in development – it paid off.
Huge sigh and a sense of satisfaction… before realising that this is just one stage in the process and we now have a lot of following-up to do. And so it’s off to MipJunior with Millie next. A step in a longer journey but a very important one to me and we came away with the results we wanted. And on top of that, we really enjoyed the Forum and got to hang out with old friends and new friends and that was lovely.
So would you like to see some of Millie? Sure you would! Here is the extended megamix of our trailer with little glimpses of Millie stories and scenes. You can watch it in higher quality by clicking the little Vimeo logo on the clip. Here’s Millie and Mr Fluff: