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.
The biggest mistake I think anyone can make in a pitch bible is a wall of text. People won’t read it. It takes up too much time. Unless your text is pure gold, it’s like wading through a swamp. And if it is pure gold, will people have the time to find that out?
More often than not, very busy people are scanning through pitch bibles. So you need to get to the point and keep it lean.
And yet, if you strip it down to the bare minimum, you always run the risk that someone will flick through it and think, this feels a little thin. Is it underdeveloped? Not a fully-realised concept?
So how do you keep it lean and to the point while making clear that your concept has depth, storytelling potential and a fun character dynamic? Active images. Try to get every picture telling a story. If it is simply a single character illustration, tell us who they are in their pose and expression. If it is a setup made to look like a still from an episode (I would always recommend this), make sure it feels mid-story, mid-action. That way it gets people thinking about how the characters got there or what will happen next. An image alone can get the message across that there are stories to be told.
Even if you are showing off a particular aspect, try to tell a story. Showing off your fancy backgrounds? Maybe show a character playing in your fancy backgrounds. Keep it active. Inspire the imagination so that, even if someone doesn’t read one word in your bible, they have a good idea what it is about. And hopefully, they’ll be making up their own stories as they look at your pictures.
Bank work whenever you can. Waiting for someone to come back to you? Get something for the next step done. Have something fall through? Use the time to get ahead on the work you have or even might have. Push forward and bank the work, even if you don’t need it yet.
I think the trick to really getting things done and delivering is not about keeping up. It’s not about measuring everything to hit that deadline. It is getting well ahead of it. You see, something is going to get delayed or some problem will crop up somewhere. It could be really small but it will happen. If you’re on track for hitting that deadline and then a problem or delay arises, you’re no longer on track.
So any chance you get, push forward. Get ahead.
Will this ever cause problems in itself? It can come with a risk. Let’s say you have delivered a script or submitted a scene of animation and you’re waiting for feedback. If you get stuck into script 2 or that next scene, there is a possibility that the notes from the first one will change how you should have approached the next phase. But you have already begun to work through ideas and problems so, even if you have to make considerable changes based on that feedback, you still have a head start.
Keep going. Push ahead. Bank the work for when you need it. Your future self will thank you for it.
I have been writing on projects from several countries this year. Holland, Australia but most of my writing has been for Norway. I’m writing in English for what will ultimately be broadcast in Norwegian. And I don’t speak Norwegian so I must have faith in the translation.
Has this affected my approach to scripting?
Yes, absolutely. On two features I wrote so far this year, I began to realise that certain quirks were making translation more difficult. In English (and no doubt in other languages), we tend to use many different words to describe what is essentially the same thing. We condense actions and those much-maligned adverbs into more creative and sometimes subtle verbs. We play with our language.
But when your writing changes from one language to another, certain contractions and slang that require interpretation just won’t work. The more subtle distinctions become problematic. Words that rely on context can be mistranslated. And subtext is something that requires great care because your underlying subtleties could become underlying nothing at all once translated.
As I have mentioned here before, I tend to write out loud. I speak it and then write it down because written language is not the same as spoken language. So now, as odd as it may sound, I’m writing in an accent and that helps me find language that will translate more directly.
So yes, my approach to scripting has changed.
But what I’m realising now is that perhaps it shouldn’t have needed to change so much. Perhaps there are things I can learn from writing this way. Because the one thing this awareness of translation is always pointing me towards is clarity. Making every description clear. Making every line clear. So that there can be no misinterpretation about the intention. Gone is any flowery language. Gone are little language witticisms that will have me chuckling at my keyboard while having a translator scratching their heads. Back (strangely enough) are the adverbs – because that keeps your core verb clear and out in the open.
Simple, clear language. Language that works, both in the descriptions and the dialogue. Easy to translate. Easy to read. Just easy.
And you know what? That’s probably the way a script should be no matter what language you’re writing it in.