Experience counts. It counts on a small scale when you’re beginning your career and every little piece of work you get is contributing. It counts on a large scale when you hit a certain point in your life and realise that you have amassed a huge body of varied work.
But experience comes with a disclaimer that isn’t always talked about: it only really counts if you learn from it.
It is possible to make 300 episodes of television and make the same mistakes in every single one of them. For experience to count, you have to learn, review, grow and adapt as you work through your life. Confidence is all well and good but your experience needs to come with a certain level of self-criticism and an awareness of weaknesses or mistakes to make sure that you do eventually wake up one day and are pretty fantastic at what you do. Even then, if you’re doing it right, you’ll still be learning new things each day.
I was replaying Ridge Racer on the PSP. It’s a beautifully smooth fast racing game and it looks excellent. I played it when the PSP came out back in 2004 and it still impresses today. On one track, a night city track from Rave Racer, there is a bridge over water. I had never noticed before but the water is just one flat blurry texture repeated. It’s incredibly simple for such a great looking game. This got me thinking about details.
There are two extremes in handling details when we make content and a giant gulf of grey area in between. At one end, you have the “ah, who cares?” mentality. We’ve all seen this. Sloppy work that looks or sounds unfinished. Someone made the decision to let it go and, in kids’ content, someone may well have said something along the lines of, “it doesn’t matter to a five year old.”
Then on the other side, we have the few works of almost pure perfection. Every shot, every element, every detail is a piece of art. A thing of beauty. If you zoomed into that bush you see in the background in that two-second shot, you would see impeccable texturing and colour as each leaf sways gently in the breeze.
Details matter. They matter to us and, yes, they matter to a five year old because they are part of what makes up that overall experience. So when making kids’ content, the place to aim for is closer to that perfection end. You have to care. You have to want it to be as great as you can make it.
But if you’re too far over on that scale, problems can arise. Even if you have your eye on all elements, you deplete time and resources and may fail to deliver. But the real difficulty is that it is incredibly rare that someone can keep track of all the details. As focus gets deeper into some areas, others get lost in the system. And people see your end product and think, wow, that looks incredible but the sound mix isn’t so great. Or the music is wonderful in that story kids will never ever understand. Or that would look great in a picture frame but kids have no idea what they’re looking at. You have lost the most important thing about those details – they have to come together to make up a great overall experience.
So you can’t lose sight of that big picture and you certainly can’t lose sight of your audience. Yes, the details matter. But the truth is they don’t all matter, at least not in quite the same way.
The trick is caring enough and having the knowledge to really be able to know which details count and which don’t.
When Namco made Ridge Racer for the PSP, someone made the decision not to spend time or CPU power on the water that is seen on that bridge section for around a second. They were confident in the overall experience, which needed a stable 60 frames per second, and they knew the visual details that would impress: the buildings, the lighting. They knew which details would matter. They knew that if I was looking at the sides of the screen rather than the road while going over that bridge that something else in the experience probably wasn’t working. The result is that the game has always impressed and it took me over ten years to spot that the water is just one flat texture. That’s how to get it right.
Children can follow a story easier if they know where everything important is. The reason is quite simple: the moment a child wonders why a character is going a particular direction or what happened to the cow who was there earlier or why the house is now blue and not red, they are out of your story. They are likely not looking at what you want them to look at and aren’t hearing the next important lines you or your writer tortured over. If you’re fortunate enough to engage them again at all, they’ve missed bits.
So make sure your audience knows where everything and everyone important is.
You can do this in many ways: clear establishing shots, framing shots in such a way that everyone important is visible, sticking to a few set camera angles and not reversing the viewpoint without a damn good reason (3D animators – just because you can move a camera doesn’t mean you should). These are about getting your animatic right and they’re good guidelines to stick with in general.
If your team have set out a clear map of where everything is, this can be a great help – now you have reference. But guess what? Your audience doesn’t have that. Don’t assume that because it makes sense to you, it will make sense to them. Keep it clear, keep it consistent.
Always ask yourself: does my audience know what they are seeing? How have I shown them this?
And watch for places where consistent geography will actually work against a clear understanding. If a path doubles back on itself, for example, that could have kids thinking that characters turned around and are going the wrong way unless that geography is made crystal clear.
On that particular subject, here’s a little confession from my Fluffy Gardens days: we had no idea where anything was. Not a clue. There was a vague map but we shifted it around to suit episodes and individual scenes. Town changed all the time. Bushes teleported regularly. Now some of you might be gasping in horror at this apparent carelessness but this actually worked very well and here is why: we knew our geography was fluid and we used that to enhance our clarity within individual episodes. It is a 2D show. It is broadcast on a 2D screen with a defined aspect ratio. It made sense that journeys should also be 2D: left to right or right to left. So rather than worry about how Paolo travelled south around the mountain to reach Mavis, we instead made each and every journey a simple horizontal one, either left or right. How do we know when they’re going home? When they walk the other way. That made it incredibly clear to children.
Often but not always the going was right and the coming home was left. Why? Because that’s how we read most Western languages: progress is left to right.
In each episode, I watched carefully for these journeys and sense of place at animatic stage.
I equate making television with doing a magic trick. You decide where you want the audience to look and what information to take in. What the audience perceives as happening is more important than what is actually happening. If you do it well, they won’t notice how you did it. In our case, we kept the journeys in Fluffy Gardens clear by keeping the geography fluid. Might seem counter-intuitive at first but it works.
So whether you lock down a location map or allow your geography to be fluid, keep it all clear as events are playing out in an episode. Don’t let either of those methods work against you. Show children where all your important characters are. Show them where the characters are going. Show them where they are coming from. And don’t confuse the two. If a character leaves or enters a scene, show it. And if, when showing an animatic or rough episode, a kid or your producer or an exec or anyone else at all (even a single person who was sending a text through half the episode) has trouble with the geography then fix it.
The most important thing here is this: when writing, directing, designing, storyboarding an episode, you have more information than any child watching. What you know about where everything is doesn’t matter. It’s what the audience knows that counts.
Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post. When you see it with sound, it will work much better. Sure it seems wrong now but the story will come together in the animatic. We’ll let that scene go but the scenes around it will give it context. Ah, what do kids know anyway?
Making shows and media is hard. Sure, it can be fun and we’ll all talk about it with a smile to people who aren’t in the business but you and I know that it can be hard. There are so many places for things to go wrong. And fixing mistakes? Production problems? Making stuff work that really doesn’t? That’s a nightmare. It can send problems down the entire chain of production and on to the screen.
So how do we avoid that? Well… you know all those places it can go wrong? You make sure that each one of those stages is, instead, carried out correctly from the very beginning. I make it sound so easy! The thing is, every time you get a step right it becomes harder to get the entire process wrong. The earlier you start to get it right the better.
Let’s look at a real example: an animated television episode.
We will assume the concept is already in place (if not, get that right first). So you have your characters, your setting and you know what the show is about. You may even have scripts already. That’s a good start. But this individual episode is all new.
You start with the story idea. Just the very basics, often a one-line concept. If this concept is good, it could lead to 100 different stories and many if not most of them could be really great. So get it right first. Work through lots of ideas and pick the best or pick one that really inspires.
Once you have that idea right, the next stage becomes easier: plotting the story. You’ve got to get this right because your script will be much harder if you don’t. You need to know what happens and if there are early story problems they will become apparent here. Work at getting this right and you’ll have a much easier task on the next really important part: writing the script.
Now your script has to be good because that defines the whole episode. Pulling a good episode from a bad script? Forget about it. Get your script right and the storyboard artist will have a much easier job drawing a lovely set of panels. Get those panels right and the animatic will be a breeze. Get the animatic right and your animation… and your scenes… and your sound… and so on.
Get it right the first time and everything becomes easier. It sends that goodness down the entire chain of production. Get it wrong and you’re struggling every single step of the way and you’re looking at your final episode thinking, the next episode might be better. Or worse, thinking that it’s awesome while everyone else is hoping the next episode might be better.
So start at the start and get your story and your script right. Only let it go to the next stage when these are good. Build on each step rather than constantly trying to paper over the previous one. It can be hard work up front and you might wonder if there is really value in torturing over some of the details but your future self or your director or your whole team will benefit. More importantly, the kids will love what you make.
On a related and not coincidental note, Nelly and Nora from Geronimo Productions launched in Ireland this week. I had the pleasure of working as script editor on the show with two great writers – Andrew Brenner and Emma Hogan. Both of them worked incredibly hard early on crafting lovely stories to get those first stages right and begin the chain of events that would lead to what are now lovely episodes for young children. The core of what those episodes achieve was all there in the scripts and so the production team could spend their time making them wonderful (and that’s just what they’ve done). There are 52 episodes now airing on RTEjr and going global very soon. If you have children, look out for it.