Children are soaking up the world at a phenomenal rate. This is not always easy. For younger children, I often liken it to Superman being overwhelmed by the sound of voices everywhere or that guy in Scanners hearing the thoughts of everyone at once. The amount of information thrown at us is incredible and, as we grow, we build filters. We can pick and choose what gets by our filters and what we focus on.
So when making content for kids, this leads to a whole bunch of things to consider. Firstly, they do take in information. They’re taking in probably far more than we are, just like Superman. They are smart, they are trying to interpret, they are using context and knowledge to inform and they are actively learning all the time. They see and hear and know often much more than we realise.
And they get subtlety.
The difficulty is that, with the amount they are processing, they don’t always get the subtlety you want them to. It’s like leaving a post-it with ‘get milk’ on the fridge when the fridge is covered with a hundred other post-its. Sure, you might spot it and get milk but you could just as easily end up having your tea milkless that evening.
So where does that leave us? Well here’s my take: when making content for kids, you can allow for subtlety. You can let those grey areas happen, because not everything in life is black or white. Especially when this is approached with an honesty about the lives of children. Give children a sense of the variety in the world, even the unpredictability.
But when it comes to core story points or messages, be direct and as crystal clear as possible. Hit those things hard. No ambiguity. Clarity is key. Somewhere out there, Superman is listening to a million voices. If you want yours to be heard, shout louder and say what you mean.
Most who come to this site will know me from my work in children’s media. If you’re one of those people, I have something a little different for you today. If, on the other hand, you found my pixel art on Tumblr and Twitter and found your way here, the look of this site might be a little baffling – mostly, I make work for children such as TV shows. The pixel art is a personal love on top of that. This post is about the pixel art.
If you haven’t already seen my video for GUNSHIP, check it out below for some retro-futuristic cyberpunk pixel art goodness to an incredible track. Maybe even watch it a few times to see if you can pick up all the not-so hidden references. If you were growing up in the ’80s and early ’90s, you’ll see some familiar nods. Here it is:
I have been making pixel art a while but, at the beginning of 2015AD, I started using it to bring some cyberpunk images to life. Not the future – the present that I would have imagined back in the ’80s. This is the 2015 I wanted. The one I expected.
But instead of public videophones, we got mobiles. Instead of hover cars and androids, we got constant connection to almost the entire world. Maybe we did okay. After all, that connection is what led to this collaboration.
Posting my pixel art gifs on Twitter, Dan Haigh from GUNSHIP found me and I found GUNSHIP who, at that point, had released the absolutely incredible track, Fly For Your Life. We instantly recognised shared influences, shared visions. And it was Dan who first had the idea to put these together. We began with a very simple idea of using the existing gifs to create visualisation for a track. But soon we found, in spite of busy schedules, it was growing beyond that into an actual video with a wonderful soundtrack – Revel In Your Time.
In terms of how it was made, it is old fashioned pixel by pixel work. I created almost everything using Pixaki on the iPad – a really nice simple pixel app with a wonderfully clean interface. Those who know me know I love the handiness of creating on the iPad and it worked great here. I could chip away at backgrounds and sprite sheets at any free moment, never having to worry about getting myself back to my computer.
You can see the tools here: a simple pencil tool, eraser and paint bucket. Hidden in the layers, you can see I’m starting to work out some character poses for the background characters. In that highlighted layer, I’m working on the animation for the dog – one of many little animations that pass by barely noticed but add to the feeling of life. By the way, you’ll now find some of my pixel art examples in Pixaki by default. Explore the layers and you’ll see how they are built. It is just pixels.
The sprites are all created in Pixaki but I put most of the animation together in Photoshop, using its animation timeline. It’s something that wouldn’t suit me most of the time but worked well for this sprite system. Effectively it’s all just frame by frame.
And the last layer was After Effects, where I composited anything that needed big movements without sprite replacements – such as the bike scene, train and so on. The animation in the video is actually all 12 frames per second but rendered at 24fps so doing those movements in After Effects meant they could be smoother than the default 12fps. Otherwise, they would have looked quite jerky. I also added a little cheat by bringing out a few glow effects in After Effects to really highlight the neon feel, integral to that cyberpunk atmosphere.
I know one of the parts that has gone down really well is the Monkey Island outro. It is one part I can’t take credit for – the GUNSHIP guys added that and it was a touch of genius.
So that’s GUNSHIP’s Revel In Your Time video. I hope you enjoy it! Feel free to share it and post it everywhere. Spam your friends! No don’t. Nobody likes spam. But do share it if you know someone who might like it. And If you like that track, you need the album. It is absolutely fantastic. Already my album of 2015. It just gets better and better with incredible songs such as Pink Mist, The Mountain and Black Sun on the Horizon. It was great working with Dan, Alex Westaway and Alex Gingell on this and I hope the album gets the attention it deserves.
The Children’s Media Conference last week was interesting as always. Lots of positive ideas and people making great things with great missions behind them (the mission is important!). A lot of talk of YouTube which, of course, most of us are very aware of both in terms of opportunities but also challenges. We know a lot of children are going there for their entertainment. My own girls, for example, adore Stampy and his seal-like laugh and gaming fun.
What is a concern for me as a parent are the ads that play before these, which are in no way age appropriate. The last Stampy marathon I watched with my girls was interrupted with ads for Orange Is The New Black, for example. There is a YouTube Kids app in the U.S. It has come under fire but I at least find it encouraging that it is an acknowledgement that kids can and do access content there. Hopefully that will get better and, when right, will go global.
Kids exist. They watch YouTube.
So it was a little disappointing when one speaker who makes excellent YouTube videos was hit with the question: who should be watching your videos? The speaker had already talked about how much kids get from the videos, even using a slide of a toddler watching one of the videos. The answer to who should be watching: well, as per YouTube terms of service so… I guess that’s 13 and over. It was just a little moment where someone was put on the spot and was hit with a question they weren’t quite expecting (though certainly should have been) but it was an abdication of responsibility. That’s always a problem. Kids exist. They watch YouTube.
On the other end, there was a great panel on the 4-6 age group and age appropriateness presented by Mellie Buse and it was fantastic to hear Dave Ingham (Boj, Clangers) and Lucy Murphy (Bing) talk about how they want to tackle subjects relevant to the lives of kids, challenge them, reflect their lives and their world with honesty in a way that is right for the age group. They really think about who is watching what they make. I love that.
So let’s side with Dave and Lucy on this one and remember that kids exist and they watch what we make. And isn’t that fantastic?
I have been writing children’s feature films recently. Quite a different experience to writing short formats with a lot to look out for and so much more to keep track of. One thing that is true for short format but becomes so much more apparent in longer format is that nothing exists in isolation. Every change has a knock-on effect on everything else.
When you realise this, sometimes changes can terrify you as you watch a domino effect of fixes due to what seemed like one small tweak. But it’s so important to recognise the positive power of this effect.
You can give some scenes so much more impact, more emotional weight or more comedy without changing the scenes themselves. Look back at the setup. What can you change or add to your setup to maximise the effect of the moments you want? For example, a woman finds shoes. Yay! Happy moment. Change your opening to a woman realising she just lost her legs and you change the entire effect of that scene. Change the opening to that woman having lost her shoe business and she’s living on the streets and now maybe these shoes become an uplifting moment at the start of building herself back up. Odd examples and not exactly right for children’s films but you get the idea.
And it becomes so important to look for this cause and effect. Otherwise your temptation might be to push the effect scenes much harder. Woman finds shoes. Instead of looking a little sad, now she bursts into tears and roars at the sky. It’s going to feel forced. But tweak the setup and you don’t need more than her looking sad to get the effect you want. And it will feel earned.