It’s the most wonderful tiiiiiiiime of the year. Yes, it is! And I’m wrapping up (see what I did there?) for the holidays. I hope you have a wonderful, calm and gentle holiday. Unless you’d rather chaos and excitement, in which case I wish that for you instead.
Thank you for stopping by my little blog.
Oh and for the 9th year running, the Fluffy Gardens Christmas Special will air on Christmas morning on RTE2 at 7.35am. Full of sparkly Christmas goodness. You’ll also catch it on RTEjr more than once, I think. So look out for it and do enjoy it!
Almost break time! Well that turned out to be a busy year. On Friday, I should deliver the final draft of the last episode of a 20-episode live-action children’s series I have been writing. A gorgeous television show for Norway that has been a joy to write. Also this year, I have written for companies in Holland and Australia. So my 2015 writing output looks a little like this:
29 TV episodes
2 features from blank page to final draft.
1 feature to first draft.
That is on top of our other Mooshku work: consulting on a couple of projects, creating and animating segments for a live science show, producing a rad pixel art music video for Gunship, developing some of our in-house IP and creating, writing and producing a pretty special little animation we’re not yet allowed talk about (more on that next year!). Oh, and Méabh has been busy producing Little Roy with the wonderful Jam Media.
Together, we have lived in many worlds and made friends with many characters, some established and some completely new. We have had stress and struggles but also fun and play. And it is the fun and play that we want on screen. That is what kids will respond to.
That is why we test our work with children. We note what is working, not working. Where they laughed, where they looked away. What they talked through or what they talked about. For us, it is about giving children the best and, when it comes down to it, no matter what our opinions are, no matter who is throwing notes at us, it is important that we ultimately defer to the true experts: the children.
So as Christmas approaches and the year draws to a close, I would like to thank all the kids who watched our work this year and listened to our stories and gave us comments such as “make this into a whole movie”, “can you finish it today?”, “my favourite bit is the bit with the pants”, “why does it say he is green when it isn’t coloured in?”, “will the drawings be better?”, “did you forget your glasses?”, “it was my sister’s birthday yesterday” and many more insightful gems. Especially to the children of Rathfarnham Educate Together.
You kids all rock and you make our work better.
I hope everyone has a calm and peaceful Christmas or whichever holiday you choose to celebrate!
Trends, eh? They’re important. If your animated TV show hits right at the beginning of a trend, pop the champagne. If it’s running counter to the trends, it could be a great project but the timing could kill it and never give it a chance. So how do you target the trends when creating your show?
My answer: you don’t.
It takes so long to develop a concept from scratch that, if it can already be identified as a trend, you missed it. Just develop the concepts that you think are awesome, that your audience respond to, that inspire you and others around you. Forget the trends.
Now when your concept is developed and you’re pitching and certainly when it is in production and you’re selling, that’s a different story. At that point you can look at the trends and see where it fits. Use it as a story.
But really, let your project just be the best at what it is.
Watching Shia LaBeouf watching his movies a few weeks ago got me thinking about narrative and just how simple it can be.
I watched him sit for a while. Sitting… sitting… sitting. Pretty dull, right? But I found myself wondering when he gets up to go to the toilet. I mean, he must have done that, right? And while I watched, he started to get up. He’s going! Look! He stood and… twist in the tale, he was just letting someone by. It was a little moment of excitement in something incredibly mundane and it had an unexpected outcome.
Later, he looked wrecked. I could see he was tired. Would I get to see him fall asleep? His eyelids got heavy. Almost… almost… and then he shook it off. Still awake. I found myself watching for a bizarre amount of time to see if he would fall asleep. And I felt a genuine satisfaction when it finally happened.
It reminded of a webcam about a decade ago that was fixed on a dog basket. When you logged in, the dog might be there. Or might not be there. The real excitement was catching the moment when it happened – when the dog got into the basket or left the basket. Seeing that dog get into its basket was a more rare and precious thing than watching Iron Man beat the heck out some bad guy for some reason he probably caused yet again.
Narrative comes in many forms. Expectations and outcomes can make a story. The little surprises, the anticipation and then catching a moment. The stakes only need be as high as the tone you set. And whatever about visual spectacle, we can relate to the little things.
And this is why a YouTuber finding some diamond in Minecraft can be more exciting to kids than your carefully crafted cartoon that took seven drafts and months of production to get right.
When we start on a new project or a new job, our thoughts often go like this: OMG what am I supposed to do now?! How do I muddle my way through this one and not get fired?! When we reach a certain level, I think we become a bit more sure of ourselves and what we can offer.
If you find yourself in the former situation, there is an easy way to help that. If you are in the latter, it is something that becomes even more important because it is when we get complacent that the real problems can start and soon we find we’re not doing as great a job as we thought we would. So what to do? It’s simple: ask.
Ask how your client would like a job done. Ask how you could be most helpful to your peers or collaborators. Ask and you’ll get the answers you need to do a better job.
Take script editing as an example. I have found over the years that there are many different types of script editors, all offering completely different things and all with the same title. Some take a big picture view looking at theme and form and they ask the big questions. Others don’t want to mess with a writer’s story but will help them tell it better by getting into the details and working on a line by line process. Some are just looking for the red flags and are like a quality control process. All of these have value and they will help different types of writers in different ways. But they won’t all help all the writers all the time.
So if I’m script editing, it makes sense for me to ask: what will be the most helpful to you? What are expecting out of this process? We will often find that the job needs more than we’re told (because what people want and what they need are not always the same thing) but it gives us a fantastic place to start the process.
When in doubt, ask. When not in doubt, ask anyway.
Let’s make an aspirational character, someone who the audience will want to be. Someone to inspire them and motivate them. A little older, a little wittier, a little cleverer and with a great set of skills. We can do this in cartoons with snappy, cool heroes. We can do this in reality television with stories of amazing achievements.
Good, right? Not always.
There is a very fine line between inspiring children and putting them off altogether. What you see as aspirational can sometimes seem to the audience as unachievable. Out of reach. Showing them a champion gymnast might demonstrate what is possible with hard work and dedication. Or it might just tell a kid that their awkward forward roll that they were so proud of was actually nothing and highlight the massive chasm between where they are at and where that champion is.
Having something to aspire to can be great but I’m sure we have all tried something at some point in our lives and found it so tricky that it just doesn’t seem worth the effort (me with a Rubik’s Cube, for example). It has to feel within reach or have smaller, more achievable goals.
Children’s art shows historically seem to get this right. It is quite rare that they create something on these shows that children can’t have a good stab at themselves. The idea of making a bird out of coloured paper can have kids running to the kitchen to try. Fifteen minutes later, there is a new picture on the fridge and a very proud happy child. But had they shown a master portrait painter instead, fifteen minutes later there would likely be torn up pages and tears. And that’s if any child even bothered to try.
So I feel we can learn from the art shows even when it comes to creating fictional characters or building all sorts of other entertainment. Be careful not to undermine the amazing things that children are capable of right now. Keep in mind that what might seem normal to you (buttoning up a coat) can be amazing to kids, depending on the age group. Aspirational can still be good but be careful not to frustrate. As with anything else, always keep in mind your actual audience.
Structure is a wonderful tool for helping you lay down your story. It can provide a framework for what otherwise is a sprawling list of stuff that happens and things people say. For me, it provides clear targets to hit and that helps me get going in a story. And it helps when I get stuck too – what if I try to lead to a big moment here? What is that big moment going to be? I ended the last section on a downer, how about the next section ends on a high? And so on.
When plotting features, I let scenes play out in my head without guides or limits but, when it comes to arranging them, I use the most basic film structure as a template so I know where to put them. Without structure, I feel the stories would be like playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey only without a Donkey.
Once you’ve written something, a sense of structure needs can also be a great troubleshooting tool. Is a section sagging? Have a look at where beats land in a very traditional structure and see if yours are way off that. By the way, just a little thought here – the thing I hear most often is that a story drags in the second act. In my view, that’s because the story structure that is actually described in most books or templates is actually a four act structure, not a three act one. Dividing what people call a second act into two and treating each half as an act in itself may help avoid what is usually called a second act lull.
So, structure is a fantastic tool and a great place to start.
BUT… be careful not to get too hung up on it. A story should be engaging, fun or emotional. We should want to turn the page or keep watching. We should want to be immersed in that world and should believe that world. If we do, then it’s job done. Is it enjoyable? Do people love this story?Those are the things you need to look for when your story is laid down.
If you’re using structure as a way to show why a story or movie that everybody loves is actually rubbish, you’re doing it wrong. It is simply a helpful tool to help craft a great story. Don’t use it to break stories if they’re actually working as is.
It is never to late to mix up how you do things, to try different methods and find better ways. So I thought I would share a change in how I am handling script notes at the moment. Will this method stick? No idea – check back with me on that one.
I have written about handling notes before. Essentially what it boils down to is this: don’t react instantly. Read the notes, then forget about them for 24 hours or more. Let them sink in. Then evaluate them. Try to identify the core problems being addressed in the notes (like an illness, sometimes a symptom can mask a different problem). From there, you make your fixes as required while always aiming to improve, tighten and clarify as you go.
But my approach has changed for the last few scripts I have completed. Here is what I have done instead:
Don’t even consider the notes. Just go ahead and make the changes exactly as suggested without worrying about the real causes or the bigger picture. Then wait that 24 hours or more. Now read through your story and make a note any time something feels wrong. If you can tighten, do it. If you can cut, do it. Tweak until until it feels right.
The first method, my traditional system, is careful and considered. The second is not, at least not at the start. The risk in the second method is that the changes made may miss the underlying issues that led to the notes in the first place. But the huge positive is that it doesn’t allow for any rejection of the ideas in the notes based on little more than ‘I had it this way before’. When you actually start to evaluate the story with consideration, the changes are already in place and you have moved on from that earlier draft. You are now evaluating a new version of that script and, because you went straight ahead and made those changes and they aren’t from your own gut, it allows a touch more objectivity.
So if the first method has worked for me, why change?
What prompted the trial was writing on a show this year from creatives who have an incredibly strong sense of what the show is – every note without fail made the episodes better exactly as described (I have to be honest, that is not always the case). I realised several episodes in that their notes came with a safety net. And I also noticed that, as a result of that, I would tend to find my own fixes and tweaks around those notes because I wasn’t worried about tackling their notes. It meant we all caught more and the scripts got better easier. I also think it could be more efficient from a time perspective and my workload has been particularly heavy this year.
I have a feeling that the best method will vary from project to project, from notes to notes and especially from writer to writer. But if you are a writer and find you have trouble tackling notes, from separating yourself from those early drafts, try this second method and see if it helps.
Last week I was at Cinekid for Professionals in Amsterdam on a panel discussing the Dos and Don’ts of Storytelling in Digital Media. It was my first time at Cinekid and I was impressed.
For a start, Cinekid isn’t just a professional’s conference. It has family events and screenings and children are everywhere. This is fantastic. When you walk outside and you’re among families, it is an instant reminder about why we’re talking about what we’re talking about. It was no coincidence that listening to the audience and reacting to feedback was a common thread in our discussions – it is all too easy to lose sight of the audience in this business. To get caught up in trends and advances and all sorts of abstract concepts. Too easy to forget about the kids we want to make great stuff for, and their parents.
Cinekid doesn’t let you forget and I love that.
Cinekid is also home to an incredible media lab. A huge hall full of what are effectively cutting edge toys. Huge screens where your actions will sweep bubbles away. A rolling game where you roll huge tyres to make progress and much more. Some I couldn’t even figure out but there was a little bit of magic in just about everything in the room. That’s if you got a go – the kids liked to hog the best stuff! There is also a co-production market and workshops.
The conference itself covered a good mix of topics. An inspiring talk by Gary Pope. A little bit of frowning at Minecraft Story Mode (I like it and think it contributes nicely!). A great piece of research into girls and media from Pineapple Lounge – the main message: celebrate who she is, not who she feels she has to be. Some excellent insight into virtual reality from Nicoletta Iacobacci and the always wonderful David Kleeman leaving us with some real challenges as content creators (I’ll pick that up in another post). We had a live Let’s Play with the excellent Minecraft educator Wizard Keen (Adam Clarke) and a glimpse into Maker Studios from Robbie Douek which left me conflicted as he told us it was about authenticity while playing a car ad that, as far as I could see, wasn’t labelled as such.
Then there was our panel with Ida Brinck-Lund (consultant for Lego’s Future Lab), Caitlin Burns (business strategist for brands from Microsoft, Nickelodeon and more), Julien Fabre (Ankama) and me, moderated by Warren Buckleitner who guided the whole day. I’d like to think we were brilliant and probably the highlight of the conference but it is always hard to know how our discussions impact others. What I do know is that we covered a broad range of topics and each brought a different view. All four of us are in different spaces and yet similarities could be identified – needing to engage with our audience and also needing to learn and adapt as we work.
No matter how long we have been doing what we do, no matter what history is behind us, we are in an ever-changing space in an ever-changing world and each new media form and device provides a whole new set of challenges. It’s exciting. As I said to Warren on the day, from having made Dino Dog I could write books on how not to make an app. It was a steep learning curve and sometimes that rich history in one form of media is walking you right into a trap in another. That is one huge reason to do your homework. No matter what it is you’re making, no matter how confident you feel, do the research. Learn. Ask questions. And be open to the answers you get.
So there is an easy Do for Storytelling in Digital Media: do your research.
And a Don’t? I guess don’t always assume that the research has been interpreted correctly. If we knew it all, the big hits wouldn’t surprise people the way they always seem to.
So that was Cinekid 2015. My trip also included bicycles, ferries, odd street layouts and the ever-present smell of pancakes and weed. The real highlight? Meeting a lot of really great like-minded people all doing different things. I enjoyed your company and I hope we see each other again soon.