Some of us give feedback regularly as part of our jobs. I’ve done this as a director and, more recently, a script editor and I also consult on projects quite regularly and much of that involves highlighting problems or flaws in a concept.
Or, as I prefer to think of it, identifying the areas where we can make that project even stronger and build on the best ideas contained within it.
I’m effectively saying the same thing there but one comes with a positivity that the other doesn’t have. Because I have also been on the other side of feedback, I can tell you with certainty that the positivity matters. When you’re reviewing somebody’s scene, when you’re reading through their script or trying to break down their concept, you’ve been given a piece of work that comes from within that person. It’s personal. It is as personal as it gets.
Feedback needs to be useful and constructive. It needs to be honest but there is a very fine line between honesty and cruelty and I actually haven’t seen an instance in my entire career where that cruelty is warranted, as much as some people might think it’s fine on X-Factor or whatever. Honest feedback can be delivered positively and sensitively. It’s not really about sugar coating or just saying nice things for the sake of it. It’s actually about seeing those good things, which is just as important to the process as seeing problems or negatives. If you don’t have a good sense of the strengths, how can you make it even stronger?
So look for the strengths. That will help guide your feedback and, more than that, it will allow you to deliver that feedback in a positive way. Because as much as you may think it’s just your job or it’s business or whatever, when you are in a creative field and looking at works from creative people, it IS personal.
In children’s media, I like my characters to be simple and easy to grasp. It offers clarity in storytelling, it lets the kids know the characters quickly and it means things don’t get messy. But simple and clear doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a spark or depth beneath that clarity – that’s where genuine humanity comes into play. We all act differently under different circumstances, especially when under stress.
A very simple story example of this is in Indiana Jones. He’s brave and that’s a defining, clear trait. We know where we’re at with Indy’s bravery. But present him with some snakes and that changes. He acts differently. He’s not acting out of character because this is an established part of who he is – Indy is frightened of very little but he is scared of snakes.
This is a fantastic storytelling tool because it allows a writer to put Indiana Jones in a panic situation, something that would be very rare for him as a character.
Secondary traits and exceptions to the core traits are really important for this reason. One-note characters are nicely clear but can be deadly boring. On the other side of that, a character who isn’t pinned down and has no consistency will be a character we can never truly know or understand. But a clear, simple character with a set of exceptions allows an audience to quickly get on their side while also providing the storyteller with some tools to mix things up – to make the character uncomfortable and, at some points, even unpredictable.
In a way, this is really about knowing the limits of your character and how that works in their everyday life. They might be a generous character… until it comes to sharing a dessert. They might be a grumpy character… until presented with a puppy. They might be an energetic character… until they have bad night’s sleep. There is always an exception somewhere when it comes to people and how we act.
So use that. Use those exceptions. Do it clearly – know who your base character is and know why you’re going to change how they act and then make that clear to your audience. Don’t let them get muddled or feel like they are acting out of character. But use the exceptions to mix up your stories and add some twists and turns in there. Because acting differently under different circumstances is the human thing to do.
One thing I find about scripts is that, the longer they get, the harder it is to see the story. All the words get in the way. Descriptions, characters, dialogue, the little formatting quirks – they are all part of telling your story and yet, as you work, each one can be a hindrance when it comes to really seeing the story. Your nice location may prevent you from seeing the pacing problem. Your witty dialogue may obscure the basic character flaws. And when you get up to a certain number of pages, you can forget about seeing the whole story – you’re now into little bits of story. That’s all you can manage at a time.
So I find it crucial to have a distilled version of the story. We writers often work with story beats and I think that’s a great idea. Having a list of your beats, whether on cards, post-its or just in a document or notebook is a really good way of keeping track of the larger story. And yet at certain points in the process, I like to get even more distance from the details.
Instead of looking at beats, I start to lump them together and I write down the basic sections. In a movie script, there might just be around 8 or so but it varies depending on the needs of the movie. Do what you can to create a grouping. The early part is usually easy – that’s the Setup. So you can have Part 1, Setup and a one-line description of what happens. Then whatever event happens that kicks off your story might be Part 2. In the actual story, it will be ‘this happens, then this happens, and this other thing happens’ but the idea here is that, if they can possibly combine into a section, combine them and tell it in one line.
So when you have a line for each section and you’ve given each a heading and a space between each section, you should be able to see your entire story in less than half an A4 page. And I can assure you that, doing that, you will see things about your story that you would have been very difficult to spot just reading the script but also you’ll even see things that might have eluded you working with just the beats. Getting it down to a smaller and smaller form is like creating more and more distance between you and the story (yes, these are small, those cows are far away – it’s kind of like that).
Because all those words get in the way. They’re important, of course. Those will be your finished product. But you need to get them out of the way to really see your story.
There is another important reason to ask this question. It is this: your content can have a negative impact too. Wait, but it’s just a cartoon! It has characters being nice to each other! It teaches about family values! Okay but are you absolutely certain that, when a child applies the events in your content to their lives, they’ll take away the positive messages and not some other message?
Content counts. It can count in a positive way and it can count in a negative way.
If your content says something about the lives of the audience without you having planned that, kids can come away with a negative message. An example… your characters are magical elves who transform depending on their mood (great idea, right?). The evil elf is hideous and deformed and terrorises the good elves. We don’t want a message of violence so, instead, in our story this elf learns to be good and transforms into a beautiful creature. So a lovely message that our true worth comes from our actions… OR… if someone calls you ugly or rejects you, it is YOUR fault because YOU are a bad person.
Damaging message. Kids aren’t elves so, if you transplant the story to the life of a child (what does it say about their lives?), things get kind of nasty.
Messages are important. And they are there in every story you write or make, whether you intended it or not. For kids, everything is educational. So you really have to look at your story in every way possible and see how it could be reinterpreted when applied directly to your audience by your audience.
Take care with what you are saying to children. Always ask: what does this really say about their lives?
Last year, I started running. Yep. Running. Who would have thought it, right? It was HARD. It’s still hard but I’m getting better. What I’m finding now is that I don’t treat running all that differently to the way I treat work. The same basic ideas get it done, like I would write a script or make a show.
The first thing is obvious: do it.
It doesn’t matter if my run is hard or if I feel like I’m not making progress the way I want to or if I never want to run again when I get back. What matters is that I do it. Once my run is done, that’s the achievement. That’s an important thing knocked off my to-do list and, as long as I keep doing that, I will keep on running and I will get better. That in itself is progress.
But from there, I find a lot of it is about checkpoints – marking that progress. At the start, the goals were things like “run for five minutes straight without needing to call the emergency services”. Now, I really just have three checkpoints in any run. The first is starting (the “do it”). I’ll give myself a little pat on the back even for setting off. The last is the home straight – I’m almost done.
The middle checkpoint, however, is the one that I find needs the most acknowledgement. In my 7km runs, it is the 4th kilometre. On my regular route, the 4th kilometre is when my energy starts to flag. To make matters worse, it is uphill all the way. Those two factors combined make it the hardest kilometre. That’s when I need to really push myself. It’s when I sometimes express inner regret at having started at all. It’s when I want to stop for a pint and burger.
So when I hear on my little app “Distance: four kilometres”, I allow myself a little inner cheer. I made it. I faced that 4th km and won. A major checkpoint has been reached. It’s a victory. If it were a game, I’d save my progress.
Now here’s the thing: on the 5th km, I have even less energy and, actually, most of that is uphill too although not to the extent of the 4th. But I’m so busy allowing myself to bask in my own personal victory that I barely notice the 5th km and, before I know it, I’m hitting the home straight. And no matter how tired I am, I can always do the home straight. So celebrating that 4th km is what gets me all the way there. If I didn’t, 7km just might beat me.
Every production and every task has its own equivalent of my 4th km. On a whole animated TV show, I find it’s getting the first batch of episodes out while everyone is still finding their feet and the systems haven’t settled. When you get a certain number of good episodes delivered, you know the rest is going to be just fine. For a scene, it might be some really good key poses – hard to get right but they set the template for the rest of the shot. For writing, I find it’s when I get down a really strong outline. The rest is just work and refinement and improvement. Each task will have its own version. It’s that point when you have achieved something important and you know you can make it the rest of the way.
So celebrate that point. It doesn’t mean the rest will be easy but acknowledging the achievement along the way will help make it easier. It will help you get to that home straight in a much more positive way. So that your own 7km (production, story, episode, scene, whatever) won’t beat you.
When you make children’s media of any sort, you become a part of a child’s life. What you create, what you are a part of, has access to them. It’s like walking into their houses and getting to sit them down for 7 minutes or 11 minutes or a few hours and just tell them stuff. If you’re a parent, how would you feel about someone you don’t know doing that? What would you want from them? What would you expect from them?
It is a huge responsibility. You must always remember who your audience is and understand that responsibility.
There are many reasons to make children’s media but, no matter what other reasons you have, giving something really good to kids should be VERY high up on that list. It is, right? Right? I’m sure you do want what’s best for kids – chances are you wouldn’t be at my blog if you didn’t because it’s a recurring theme here. But it’s no harm to have a reminder of why you’re really doing what you do.
And then, once you remember that, your career often comes down to questions: what good can I do for kids?
What can I create that might make their lives a little better right now? Or (and for me, this is often the more important question) what can I create that might make their lives and the lives of others better as they grow older? Where can I help? Where can I contribute? How can I be a positive force in their lives? And how can I do it in a way that works with parents, rather than trampling over that role?
What’s odd about that is that it really puts us in the role of assistant. It’s just ‘how can I help?’ Odd because, as we create, we become part of forming worlds, creating entire characters and little lives. We decide where they go and why. Or we manage teams to create whole shows. We get this feeling of being able to mould everything, to be in charge of everything, to decide who does what and why. And we can do all that. But ultimately we’re doing it to be an assistant. An assistant to parents, to society and, especially, to children themselves.
How can I help?
So I guess if you consider the responsibility of your content coming into a child’s life as if we’re walking into homes ourselves, maybe the best thing we can do is to stop talking for a moment and ask the parents and the children: how can I help?
Story problems need solutions. If your story doesn’t have a strong line running through it, or it wanders, or it doesn’t lead to a satisfying conclusion then you are going to have to fix that. As part of the normal process, you’ll have to look at your story and be willing to make significant amendments – that’s normal. Some stories have more problems than others but you can be sure that there will be story problems to solve somewhere in your process.
But here’s the thing: story problems usually require more than story solutions. In fact, looking for story solutions may be the wrong thing altogether.
Really? How can that be? Stay with me here! What I have found over the years of writing and, more importantly, in evaluating stories and script editing (because it can be easier to see things in the work of others) is that story problems usually need character solutions.
For one thing, it is often problems with the characters that lead to the perception of a story problem in the first place. They might be acting out of character and so a section just doesn’t feel true. Or there might be better actions that a particular character would take. A moment that should have a punch might have none because we don’t get why it matters to our characters. Or a section might just be dying because the characters in it don’t spark off each other. But even if the problem isn’t directly a character problem, when you go into the plot and the story and start moving things around then, invariably, you’ll introduce one of these problems. Funnelling characters into places to serve the plot or fix the plot can lead to a disconnect between character and story.
You have to go back to the characters.
You have to ask character questions. How can you amend your characters to put them on a new path that will, in turn, strengthen your story? If these characters aren’t yet fully defined, you actually have an advantage – you can completely rewrite the characters, improving the overall dynamic between them. If they are already locked down as characters, then what you might need to do is to change who is with who in the scenes or introduce a new element very early on that can put your main characters on a slightly different path or give them different information – something that will amend the choices those characters will make when you get to the difficult areas in your story.
When you get that right, your characters are driving your story and that’s exactly the way it should be. Always go back to your characters because story problems usually need character solutions.
I spent a long time torturing over backgrounds for something we were making recently. Are they too basic? Too plain? Now too shaded? Overworked? Too fancy?
Backgrounds are really important. They are pieces of art in themselves. They can look wonderful in stills or posters and be all pretty and attractive and that can get people buying your work.
But here’s the hard truth: if a kid is looking at your backgrounds rather than what the characters are doing, you have a MAJOR problem.
Kids shouldn’t be looking at your backgrounds unless a character is pointing to something in one or something in that background is a plot point or an important setup piece. I know that sounds harsh to background artists but it’s actually the same for most areas of the process. If a child is lost in a writer’s wonderful prose rather than the action of the scene, the story will be lost. If they are whistling to the underscore rather than listening to what the characters are saying, the story will be lost. And so on.
Everything must serve the story. For backgrounds, that means giving context to the action, establishing the location. Framing it in pleasing ways, drawing the eyes to the characters and the important moments in the shots. Helping to tell the story. Like every other element.
We can all torture ourselves over individual elements, like I was doing about these backgrounds. But what is so important to remember is that it will never just be these backgrounds. It will be characters, dialogue, action, music, sound effects and more. And when it all comes together, what counts is this: does it tell the story in the best way possible?
Here’s a question to consider when coming up with your concept or story or even scene. It’s a simple question that isn’t always easy to answer. If the answer doesn’t come easily, that doesn’t mean you have a problem necessarily but it’s certainly something to consider because, when your story offers a clear answer to this question, it can really help engage your young audience.
Here it is: what does this say about the life of my audience?
Now many of us in the younger end of children’s entertainment, me included, often think about what we would like it to say to our audience. We think about the message and I think that’s important too. But that won’t answer this question. This question is about what your content says about the life of your viewer as it is right now.
What will they relate to? What will they see of themselves in your story? How does it reflect their life? And how might it make them feel about their life?
When you have your answer, challenge it. Is it saying more about your perception of a child’s life than about the reality? Will children themselves see what you see in it? Or is it just that you’d like to say these things to children, in which case we’re back to it being a message to kids. Be honest and challenge the relevance of your story. This will help you make it better. If your story connects directly to children and allows them to see their own life in it, it gives them something they can truly feel a part of. Something they feel a bond with. Something that is uniquely for them.
A while back, someone tried to sell me some system for scoring our work with premade music pieces and some software to make it fit. I apologise if that was you but, from my perspective, that is a HORRENDOUS idea. Sure, library music has its place and I’m not suggesting we won’t all get replaced by software some day but that day is not today and, right now, what the creative process needs is people. Minds, experiences and, most of all, feelings.
We have just finished a pilot for something incredibly exciting. It’s short – just three minutes long – and it is driven by narration so there isn’t much room for playing with the music. Nevertheless, our composer Derek Cronin and I spent a long time talking influences, emotions, flow, beats and much more in order to find the heart of what this pilot needed musically.
We dug out little known bands, identifying instruments and tricks. We went back to the 70s and 80s and discussed the relevance of punk and how one can apply some of that raw spontaneity in an appropriate way for preschoolers. We stripped our instruments right down to create a coherent bed of sound, so that the music in this little pilot might feel like it was actually created by the characters.
It was a huge amount of work for Derek and he tried so many different things but you could hear the exploration in the pieces, the fun and the sense of discovery. And it was work for us too. I guess it would be much easier to just listen to a bunch of software-chosen pieces and select ‘more louder’ or however it works. But in no way could it ever have matched the soul that came from that exploration and what Derek uniquely brought to each moment.
Creation is not just what lies on the surface. Every wonderful piece of entertainment, art, every great story and every feeling we have with it is built on so much more than we can see or hear in that end product. And yet it’s there. That exploration is there. It’s the soul.
I can’t possibly say enough how important music is to any show or film but it’s not just music. Every piece of the whole needs that human attention, that love and that care. That experience and history and life that each individual person brings to it. Every person can contribute to make something wonderful…
…if you let them. If you invite them to. And don’t instead think of it as just a problem that you wish you could solve by pressing a button. Creativity is wonderful in every part of the process. It is to be enjoyed and cherished, not by-passed.
Let’s stay thankful for the amazing creative people we work with.