Over the years, I have spent a long time trawling through whatever research I could find. Mainly so that I would be informed when I create, so that I might learn from those who have gone before and in the hope that I mind find the odd little gem or two (I did).
One quote that stayed with me is from T. Berry Brazelton, a member of the AAP Committee on Public Information. Following studies into children and media in the early ’70s, he wrote that “a child comes away from a television set believing that physical violence is a perfectly acceptable form of self-expression”. He wasn’t damning television, instead calling it a “valuable experience” but he recognised that television, like anything else around us, contributes to our world view.
I thought about that a lot, and not just about violence. Through stories (because I don’t believe this is limited to television), we can show children many ways of self-expression. In a sense, showing them: here is how you can be that person that you are, how you might present yourself to the world. And I thought, variety. Every child is different. We can show the best of everyone if we choose but not always in the same way, recognising that we’re all different and what feels right for one child might not feel right for another.
In our characters, we can embody different feelings, desires, fears and joys and we acknowledge those as real things, giving them the weight they deserve. And through the actions of those characters, we can show the many forms of self-expression. We can choose to make it a positive thing and show children that, yes, there is a place in the world for them. We might do this in an aspirational way, hoping for a better world, but I feel it is also done best while acknowledging the realities of who we all are right now.
For me, this gives us the best of preschool entertainment. But perhaps not just that. Maybe this has a place across all our entertainment.
It can be very interesting to study stories that made it to screen (or indeed bookshelves) for reasons beyond just the story itself. What I mean by that is, for example, Star Wars Episode 1. A new writer pitching that script would have had it torn to shreds and a bunch of other writers would have been brought in make it fit with more traditional story expectations. The weight of Star Wars and Lucas meant that didn’t happen so we were presented with a sort of ‘what if?’ scenario: what if you can study a story before all the usual conventions get applied?
It isn’t all that often we get a huge movie that allows us to study why other movies stick to certain story conventions.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is one of them. A beautiful looking movie. But I think nobody but Rowling (or Lucas or the Wachowskis in their day) would have been allowed to put this story to screen. That makes it very interesting to study. Before you object, I don’t mean to disparage the movie by the Ep1 comparison. You see, we’re so used to story ‘formula’ that veering away from that isn’t always a bad thing in itself. It is just a different story. One we can learn from.
So in a movie and stories in general, I think three questions are really important:
1) What’s it about?
2) What is the climax?
3) Who is the main character?
Obvious questions, right? The trick is that each one should relate to the other. While the answers to 2 and 3 are very clear in Fantastic Beasts, they aren’t all that related to each other. The main character doesn’t act in the climax beyond a few words that don’t really influence the outcome. The outcome is taken away from the main character, who wasn’t even all that aware of the events leading to that climax until just before it. I have a feeling many would struggle to come to a consensus on what the answer to 1 is. Is it the title? If so, the climax didn’t relate to the main story. Was it the story being teased throughout that then became the climax? If so, the main character wasn’t a part of it. I have seen that part referred to in reviews as the ‘subplot’ and yet that’s the big climax of the movie.
Story convention tells us that the main character should drive the story. The story should be about something that presents a goal for that main character, an obstacle to overcome or a quest of some sort, ideally an area for growth. The climax should be that character’s and that story’s ultimate showdown, where they bring everything they have earned or learned to overcome the final challenge and achieve their goal (or not if it’s a sad story although we’ll still expect growth).
This works whether its a true life story of a broken person overcoming an addiction, a huge ridiculous sci-fi story to save the universe or a little preschool story about a bunny learning to tie their shoelaces. It is what keeps your story moving forward, gives it focus and brings it all together at the end for a satisfying conclusion.
So what happens when we don’t get that? Well, we can see that right here. Fortunately for Fantastic Beasts, it presents an incredible spectacle with a bunch of very entertaining scenes and characters. My daughter loved it and that’s what counts. I will often make the argument that, if a script or book has you turning that next page eagerly, it’s working. But I have to wonder if there was any tension at the climax? Whether many people were truly invested beyond just enjoying the spectacle? Or, if people were truly invested, whether it would have been possible to heighten that. That’s a hugely important thing in story. You have give someone reasons to really care by the time we get to the end of your story. That doesn’t just affect the feeling we have while watching it – it affects what I call the aftertaste of a story.
Ever enjoy the experience of a story but then you forget afterwards what it was about? Or you start picking holes in it yourself? Or you liked it but never really want to see it again? That’s the aftertaste. The moment to moment experience can drive us through a story in an exciting way (Star Trek Into Darkness). But without coherence and strength and earning each emotional beat, you can be left with a hollow aftertaste and a feeling that it never really made a lot of sense (Star Trek Into Darkness). The aftertaste is important.
So it is possible to tell stories any way you like. You can ignore story conventions altogether and never learn about them. Or better, you can learn them and choose to discard them. But unless you’re Rowling or Lucas a decade or so ago or the Wachowskis around the same time, you will have a much harder time getting your story out there for people. You might think, but Rowling did it and it worked. It did. That’s true. But no story is perfect (maybe Alien) so perhaps consider how the film could have been with that same spectacle, that same world of wonder and magic, that same entertaining cast but with a story driven by and for that main character, leading to a climax where everything for him was on the line and he was the only one who could achieve the final aim.
The great thing about learning about story conventions and getting to a point where you truly understand them and they become a part of your work is that they give you the choice. You can use them to make your story better. You are not a slave to them. They are your tools to help you tell your story even better. And when you read a book or see a film that doesn’t use these tools, for whatever reason and whatever outcome great or not, study it. Think about the different things you could have added or taken away from that story in an attempt to improve it.
I’m not saying you’ll do better than Rowling. But you will learn from it.
I love to keep documents of information, ideas or just things I’ll need to refer to later. Documents last longer than memories and are often easier to find when you need them. This week, I’m pulling up one of my most important documents. At the top is the heading: how long things take.
Yep, just how longs things take.
You see, the biggest problem we all face when we say yes to something is misjudging how long what we’ve just said yes to will take. It is when our schedules get all cramped and messed up that chaos happens and something goes wrong. And we creative people LOVE to say yes to things. Most creative people take years of training to start to say no to requests. Even all those years later, we are really at a disadvantage when someone asks us to do something we really enjoy.
Saying NO to requests is really important. It’s how we make sure we deliver on the stuff we say YES to.
This applies to all sorts of requests, often even within work we’ve said yes to. But a good example is my pixel work. That’s my hobby. My work, my career and what I do is children’s media. But someone totally rad will ask for pixel art and I’ll want to do it. My gut will say yes.
That is where this document comes into play. A list of a whole bunch of little tasks, especially the tasks we don’t often count as real tasks. And scrolling down, I’ll see ‘make one animated pixel art gif’. Beside it, the time it took to make the last one. Do I have that time now? Honestly, the answer is probably no.
I still love to be asked because something will come along that is just too awesome to turn down. But when I do say yes, I need my love of making rad things to be tempered by the basic reality of how long things take. That’s just one example, of course. Really, we all need to know how long our processes and tasks take and I know first hand that the memory of that experience doesn’t always match the reality. Even when it does, the reminder is important. I’m fortunate enough to be making all kinds of content long enough that I know how long most things take but, even then, having it written down makes that reality impossible to ignore.
I guess it comes down to a recurring theme on this little blog: making informed decisions. That’s really the key here. Keep that knowledge handy so any decision you make is truly an informed one. And learn to be okay about saying no to requests.
Seems a post on toxic environments is more relevant this morning than I would have liked. I can’t quite help you on a world scale yet but, if you’re looking to get your mind off what’s going on, here’s a post that may help your work. Let’s start with a little Star Trek…
I finished reading the two volumes of 50 Year Mission, all about Star Trek. One thing that was interesting is that, on just about every Star Trek show, the environment for writers seemed pretty toxic for the first few years. It was adversarial and antagonistic with writers feeling they couldn’t do their job, professional lines crossed again and again and, from what I can gather, probably a large amount of time spent complaining about the situation which led to bitterness, low morale and plenty of firing and quitting.
None of that was good for the shows. In the early shows, they did well in spite of this toxic environment but the effects are there to see in the stories. With the later shows, this environment created problems that they never really recovered from, eventually leading to low ratings on DS9 and Voyager, the cancellation of Enterprise and the end of Star Trek until the 2009 reboot that left behind everyone involved in the previous decades of Star Trek.
A toxic creative environment is bad for everyone. Star Trek was so fortunate that it carried so much weight that it could overcome this problem many times. Most of us won’t ever be so lucky. If we’re working in a very negative space, our work probably won’t survive. It will be too apparent in the final product and we don’t have the big name or Patrick Stewart keeping us going. It can kill our projects.
So we have to avoid it. The difficulty is that it is something that can come from all ends of the creative chain. Problems and uncertainties at the top can make life very difficult for everyone having to work under that – lack of clarity in decisions or notes, decisions reversed too late, lack of trust in the people you hired to do the job. What much of this comes down to is that those at the top, the ones with the power to make the final calls, need to know that their role is to help everyone else do their best work. Help. Not force, demean into or any other more negative way.
I have been in this position as director of many shows. I have to trust my team to give me their best. I have to help them do that, giving them the right information, the clarity of direction (not just dictation) and, at the right times, the freedom to let them give me something they think might actually be better than what I’m asking for (my big rule for animators, for example, has always been ‘surprise me’). When I get that wrong, and I have at times especially early on, it makes their job more difficult. If it stays difficult, you can be sure that a toxic environment will be created. So you always have to look out for the problems and see where you can help your team do better.
But a toxic environment can also be created from the bottom up. This is often more difficult to deal with because what it usually comes down to is negativity from one or more people that spreads like a slow virus. Maybe someone isn’t suited to the job or has misunderstood the job. Or maybe (and I’ve seen this) they’re just a very negative person who moans out of habit. They complain and mumble and find fault and there is a danger that that viewpoint becomes accepted as normal. It spreads and soon you have a team that spends their time looking for fault, rolling their eyes and being generally unhappy. That’s a toxic environment and it’s no good for everyone, especially the unhappy team.
That can’t be allowed to continue because it will poison your production.
If you’re running a production or leading a creative team in any way, my advice would be to assume first that there are problems you can fix. Look at how you’re doing things and see what you can do to help your team do better. Think of it with that word: help. Actively encourage your team to come to you with suggestions on how to help – better they talk to you than complain to each other about things you never know about. But if after all that it turns out that there are just negative influences in your team, you can talk to them and try to encourage them to do better but it could be a case that you need to separate them from the group or get rid of them altogether.
If you’re on that team, understand that complaining to your colleagues won’t help. Go to whoever can actually change things and explain the situation and ask for help. If you have a very negative person on your team, don’t feed into it. Don’t laugh nervously and agree. If you’re working on something good or something that is giving you some satisfaction, say it. Try to counter that negativity.
Because no matter where you are in a creative process, a toxic creative environment is bad for everyone.
A drive for quality is everything. It’s not just about wanting your work to be better. It’s about expecting it. Here’s the problem – a lot of people won’t tell you when your work is not good enough. They’ll be polite if they’re your friends or colleagues and, if they’re a client, they’ll soon just work with someone else. Responsibility for quality control is ultimately your own.
Where this becomes tricky is when you are across an area you aren’t familiar with. I remember this when making the Dino Dog app, for example. I know if an animator is giving me their best. But a coder? I had no idea. I didn’t know good code from bad code. Having gone through that process, I have a far better sense of what is possible and how but that was a real challenge for me.
Sometimes I’ll see potentially good work that is let down by one aspect (all too often, the visuals) and I understand how that can happen. The person who is at the top is kind of like how I was with coders and their creative person is telling them that it’s good work when really it’s not good enough. That can happen. And the longer it goes on, the more you associate that work with ‘good work’ when, actually, you’re way off.
Some work is simply not good enough and you won’t get anywhere with it. Harsh, right? Yup. But it’s true.
So how do you avoid that? First, your own drive for quality has to be very strong. I feel that comes with doubt as part of the package. Yes, people like to list the virtues of confidence but, if you’re sure your work is great, will you ever aim for better? If you go in doubting the work is good enough, you will challenge yourself and others to look for better. But the other thing you need to get, to avoid the cases where you simply don’t know, is a second opinion. A real second opinion. And like I wrote right up there in the first paragraph, friends and colleagues will be polite. You need to keep asking until you get an answer that is hard to hear.
Hearing your work or that of your team is not good enough can hurt. But it’s what will help you make that work better and that’s what you need if you are going to do well. Push hard for that second opinion, especially if the first opinion was “it’s great”.