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.