Here we go. The definitive rules to children’s content:
1 – Characters must be aspirational. Make them older and cooler.
2 – Girls will watch shows for boys but boys won’t watch shows for girls.
3 – Think second screen. For some reason.
4 – Your animal character must know a martial art of some sort… urrrggh…
Sorry, I can’t go on. My fingers won’t let me type any more. Really, I’m just going to give you one piece of advice here: if someone insists there are rules to successful content, run far away. There is a huge amount to learn and research, studies you should look for, people you should follow for information (David Kleeman, for example), many guidelines, important case studies and stories that will greatly inform your decisions (and your decisions should be informed). But rules? No.
This is not an exact science. Or at least, it is such a complex and ever-changing science that we will never fully understand it. It is certainly not a box-ticking exercise. Use the knowledge and stories and experience you can gather, carefully consider your options and go with what feels right for your project, your audience and you.
I have been knee-deep in writing live action children’s TV shows and features for the last while. The Gråtass children’s feature film released earlier this year in Norway was what started this journey and there is more Gråtass on the way. But this post is about a gorgeous Norwegian series called Karsten and Petra. Based on children’s books, the series is about two little children, Karsten and Petra, and their everyday life at kindergarten and with their families and with their talking toys, Lion Cub and Miss Rabbit. It is already a massive hit in Norway with a 12-episode TV show and four hugely successful theatrical movies.
After writing Gråtass, the production company Cinenord asked me if I would write on their new Karsten and Petra – 20 more TV episodes and a new movie. When I watched what had already been made, I felt I was discovering something truly magical. A perfect preschool children’s series, with the movies reaching a little beyond but always right for a very young audience. Charming, sweet and adorable. Full of warmth and love and yet not shying away from reality. Seemed just right for me, given my preschool focus.
But the pressure of following up the original work was immense. To live up the charm in the writing? To make it feel right, to do it all justice when the work was already so good? That was a heavy weight.
Thankfully, we began on the TV scripts. I know how to make TV work and I suspect some of what I loved about the show was seeing what I would have done with it. It matched my preschool aims in so many ways. Yes, I spent the early part endlessly second-guessing myself but thankfully Cindy Hanson, the script editor, was always there to guide me – as much a writer’s therapist as a script editor (as I feel a good script editor should be). Soon, I got into it. But I felt even more pressure on the feature film. Feature films are hard. I had to follow some really lovely movies and I had given myself a seemingly impossible goal: live up to the charm of the previous work while also building on it. Basically, offer more of the same without being more of the same.
Can that even be done? It seems it can. I think we achieved exactly that. And it really is we. So many people have been essential to getting that right.
At the weekend, I travelled to the set to see the crew filming the episodes I have written and prepare for the brand new feature film. A wonderful new Karsten and Petra (the original kids grew up!) and everything else just as I had seen it when researching the series last year. And wow, it was special. The sets are stunning, the children are ADORABLE, the rest of the cast fantastic and I could see Arne Lindtner Næss, the director, bringing the magic that captivated me when I was first introduced to this world.
I didn’t feel like I was watching my scripts being shot. They weren’t mine any more. I was simply watching Karsten and Petra, looking just as it should. I even got to meet Lion Cub! He’s shorter in person but just as nice as he seems on screen. That lion has some funny showbiz stories to tell.
If you’re interested in work for preschoolers at all, you should check out what they have already produced on Karsten and Petra. You’ll find something sweet and really quite special. It is a joy to work on and, thankfully, it’s not over yet!
I’ll leave you with a couple of articles on Karsten and Petra coming soon:
I remember when directing animated shows that I would sometimes see characters moving around for no reason while other characters talked. Some animators have a need to fill the space. They’re thinking they can’t just let the character stand there and blink, can they?!
Yep, you can. And you can go further. Every now and again, I would make the listening (or watching) character the focal point of the scene. And again, even when they are the focus, we just need to see them taking it in. The expression is important. Lots of movement isn’t.
As my friend Simon Crane and I would say: animation is not about making your characters move, it is about making them think.
This applies well beyond animation. Seeing characters take in a moment can have more emotion, more drama and more comedy. Remember The Office? Gareth (or Dwight) would do or say something ridiculous. Where did the camera spend most of its time? Watching Tim’s reaction. Or Jim’s, depending on which version you’re watching. Comedy can come from someone doing something funny. But better comedy can be seeing a character watching or listening to someone doing something funny.
When we write scripts, we’re often into the back and forth of lines. Character says A, next character says B and so on. We can get so caught up in what they say that we can miss what might be more important: what they hear. Or what they understand. Some actors are known for trying to reduce their lines in order to give them more time to listen and to react. Because it’s like animation – it’s not about making your characters say stuff, it’s about making them think. And making them feel.
So when you’re thinking about your scenes, playing them out in your mind and writing them down, think about the reactions. No, not the outbursts. Just those little moments of listening, of taking it all in. Of thinking and feeling. That’s where your character is. That’s where the drama is, the comedy or the heart of your scene. Let your characters listen.
Stories: the status quo, something changes that throws everything out of whack. That’s the main idea. Take a happy person, make them sad. Maybe build them back up to happy again. Take a comfortable person, make them uncomfortable. You shake up the situation and that makes a story. Like some sort of snow globe.
I find that gets much harder to sustain at feature length. Especially when I have spent so much of my career writing stories as short as 7 minutes. I start, I change the situation and now… what, I have 75 more pages to fill?! Gah! Can I just doodle in these? How about a really long song?
So how do I sustain a story across that? Well, essentially it’s the same idea but my next step is to look at the sequences and the scenes.
For me, every scene is a tiny little short story. Status quo, something changes. At the scene ending, the feeling should be “wait, what happens then?!” Until the very last scene, where the feeling should be, “Ahhhhhh… that was good!” (if your last scene ends with, “wait, what happens then?!”, we are no longer BFFs).
Others will refer to these as emotional turning points. Your script needs them. If you open your scene on a high, you might end on a low, or the other way around. For me, they are little stories in themselves and that amounts to the same thing, with the added bonus that you take on extra responsibility to make the individual scenes interesting and fun all by themselves.
This way, your story can stay clear while keeping everything moving, fun, interesting, gripping and/or emotional.
I was asked a while back about how I approach writing outlines. Just getting the first shape of the story together. Well, my own approach is relevant to more than just the beginnings of stories. This applies to much of my writing process. And here it is:
Write fast, write furiously, send nothing.
I just throw the ideas down as quick as possible. You would be shocked at how messy and nonsensical my early documents are. It doesn’t matter. Nobody will ever see them. The idea behind this very first stage is simply to make the ideas real.
They now exist somewhere.
From here, I don’t go in and edit them. I don’t tidy them up. I send them to nobody. I simply think about them. Something about the fact that some ideas are down and there is already some sort of framework gets my brain working. Other ideas come. Scenes appear. And often a whole other framework for the story begins to form. I make notes of any thought or idea that comes to me during this time.
Usually, these thoughts are disconnected. Put them together and it might almost feel like a trailer. But you know how it is – watch enough of the trailers and you can often piece together the entire story of a movie. And this is what happens with these ideas. Eventually, the scenes are filled in and there aren’t all that many gaps any more.
And then I write the first draft of the proper outline.
I do this just using the original document as notes. I don’t go in and edit it because it then is all too easy to get locked into unfinished ideas. Best start it fresh now that there has been some time to see it better. And this time, I’m thinking about a beginning, middle and end. I’m actually telling a story. This is the version that will now be edited and, likely at some point, sent to someone. It will be the template for the script.
But it almost never happens without that first fast, furious and never sent version.