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.
Just a little animation thought today. Those who have worked with me know how much I value life in animation. I can be quite critical of animation that, really, is just movement. Anyone can make something move. It takes real skill and heart to make a character really live.
That’s acting. No matter what kind of character you are animating, it’s about the acting. The understanding of the moment, the feeling, the drive of the character. It has many layers of depth that you can apply to even the simplest, crudest preschool show.
But animators have to bring something else that actors themselves generally don’t have to worry about: physics. When you’re on a set or a stage performing, physics takes care of itself. Weight and gravity just happens. If you drop a glass, you don’t really have to sell that the glass is hitting the floor as part of your performance. As an animator, you do. As an animator, the physics of and around your character is part of your challenge. It is part of how you sell the performance, then the scene, then the whole story.
And so good animation is much more than movement. It is acting plus physics.
One little thing unrelated to animation – a Gråtass live action children’s feature film I wrote picked up the Audience Award at Cinekid last week. Congratulations to the director, producers, cast and crew!
You know what advice I LOVE? It’s the advice that has me nodding my head and thinking, yeah, that confirms everything I have thought about my work and my life and the world. This advice makes me feel good about myself and I should remind myself to keep on doing what I’m doing and everything will turn out just fine. Oh look, a butterfly! Isn’t life wonderful?
The problem, however, is that the advice we really need isn’t always as fun to hear. It’s the advice that challenges us, means we might have to change something in how we do things, makes our life harder. Seriously, who wants harder?! Certainly not me.
But that’s the very advice we might need sometimes. Here’s the thing – improvements require change. And change is hard. Keeping that change up is even harder.
I saw one of those videos about how finished is better than perfect. That’s good advice. You’ve got to finish and deliver and faffing around forever, no matter how lovely your unfinished work might be, is no use to anyone. Some people really need this advice.
I was just about to share the video when I thought of some people I have encountered over the years who would watch this and nod their heads and think, yeah, this confirms everything I have thought about my work and my life and the world. I’m going to just throw this work down, shove it in an email, might even stick some words in that email and I’m going to hit send. Finished is WAY better than perfect. When actually, the advice that those particular people need is the harder advice to hear – that they need to spend more time with their work, really push themselves to get it better and better and build up their own sense of internal quality control. Because while finished is better than perfect, great is much, much better than sloppy.
Different people will benefit from different advice. We are not all the same. Not even close.
So listen for the advice that is harder to hear. We may not like hearing it but it might be exactly what we need to hear.
We’ve added some new colours to our Mooshku logo. Yes, that’s pretty exciting but not as exciting as our new showreel! This gives a really good look at what we do at Mooshku, with a particular focus on our animation because that’s usually what you do with a showreel. I can guarantee you that there are some things in here you haven’t seen yet.
So check it out below!
Like it? Feel free to pass along the link and share it and show all your best friends. We’re pretty proud of it.
What is harder to show in something like this video is all the development and writing work we do, especially as most of that happens on new projects that haven’t been launched yet. We consult on concepts, help write and put together show bibles and pitch work, define early scripts to set the tone for a show and work out the kinks and answer the inevitable questions and we do this on many types of shows. And not just shows too – the formats are different but the various forms of children’s media often share common goals.
What’s great about doing this is that a) we’re really good at it and b) we love making good stuff for kids. So it is hugely rewarding to help others give their good stuff for kids every chance it can get. Next month, Mooshku turns three years old. Because I’ve been doing this for decades, it’s quite odd to think about how new that feels – it’s barely older than my dog! But really, as a company, we’re young and I was doing a little stock take recently and all those services we decided to offer when we set up our company we have managed to do for people over the last few years. So I’m taking that as a victory.
It’s not an easy business. Anyone in it knows that. But it’s fun. It’s rewarding. It’s always changing. And, as I say in the video, if you can put smiles on the faces of kids… well, you know the rest. If you ever need our services, get in touch.
One last thing to mention. That music track you hear in the reel is a song called Electric Isle by Dream Fiend. You should check out that whole EP and more HERE! Beautiful dreamy happy synth. It brightens up my day.
Now go on. Have a good day and show off our showreel somewhere!
The world is divided into two groups of people – those who will read that heading and say “Hammer Time!” and those who will say “Collaborate and listen!” As it happens, this post is not about MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. It’s about creative careers.
Here’s a thing: creative careers aren’t easy.
I started as an animator many years ago in the days when everything was pencil and paper. I remember seeing older people in their thirties, maybe some in their forties, travelling the world as they moved from production to production in search of animation clean-up jobs or whatever. Even back then, I got this feeling that I didn’t want to be that person. At some point, I was going to want to settle down. To stop having to chase that next job.
I looked ahead and, even just starting out, I knew that continuing exactly what I was doing probably wasn’t going to lead to a place I wanted to be.
I worked hard over the years. Not always focussed. Not always knowing where I was going. But I still amassed a good set of skills and, now, each role I can play in this business helps inform and support the other roles. So I have been very fortunate. I need the work and that is often dependent on productions, just as it was back then. But it’s easier to do from here, settled with my kids, and I can often create my own work in many ways.
And yet it is still true for me that a creative career isn’t easy. Even now, I have to project ahead and look at the path I’m on and try to figure out where that will lead me in the next 10 years. Or 20. I have to stop (no, not Hammer Time or Collaborate and Listen). Stop that day to day, to-do list to to-do list motion that just keeps me on a fixed path. Stop and review – where I am, what I’m doing, whether it is working, where I want to be and how I might get there.
It is a little time out to assess directions and I think it is hugely important. Probably in every career but definitely in ours.
My advice is that you start this early. Not all the time. It might only be once every few years. But do it. Stop. Take a look at where you are. Take a look at where you want to be, keeping in mind that it might not be where you thought you wanted to be the last time you did this. And consider how best you might get there.
A question I get asked fairly regularly is: how do get my concept to a broadcaster? When I dig a little deeper into this question, what I find is that there is a perception that the broadcaster lives in a castle on a mountaintop guarded by a fierce dragon who will toast you and then eat you if you dare stand anywhere near the bottom of that mountain holding a concept document.
It’s not true.
There is no mountain and the dragon just wants to make sure you aren’t some random gibbering kid off the street. And even if you were, they would probably let you in anyway.
Here’s the reality: broadcasters need good content. And that content might just be what you have. They actively want to see it.
Yes, you’ll find at certain events that they can be difficult to reach. Often that’s because they are being hit by every producer in town with “Why aren’t you buying MY show?!” or they have vanished off because one of those producers is spending the rest of that year’s budget taking them to a fancy lunch. They might be there to speak or to find out certain things rather than be pitched to every couple of minutes. You’ve got to understand what that must be like.
And yes, sometimes they will be incredibly slow to answer an email and will require nudges. They are busy people. That’s the reality.
And generally you will want your work to be of a certain standard. Few people are going to have patience for a half-baked idea scribbled on a post-it if this is the seventh pitch you have given them since 9am earlier that day.
But nevertheless, they want to see your content. They can be reached and, when they can find time for it, they will want to see your idea. Usually, they’ll be very happy to meet with you. They can be incredibly welcoming. So how do you it? First, look to see if there are proper channels you should go through. Certain publications such as Kidscreen will do ‘meet the buyer’ specials in which broadcasters will often say how they would prefer to be reached. Some broadcasters have website submissions or some clear contact systems on their sites. Many will make their emails or those of the relevant staff freely available. If you’re just starting out, see if you can find the right person and ask how they would prefer you pitch to them.
More than all of that, go to industry events. Don’t randomly assault broadcasters or pitch to them in the toilet. But sooner or later, you’ll be introduced to some of them and you can then follow up with a mail. Hey, remember me? I have something I’d love to show you. Can I set up a meeting? Or send you some material?
Your well-presented project may be exactly what they are looking for and they don’t want to miss it. So polish up your work, know that they want to see it and then show it to them.
A lot of people have passion for their own work and the desire to create something wonderful. The dream of really really take ownership of their work. And yet, more often than not, those people achieve much more when working for someone else than they do on their own projects. They might tinker away at their projects once a month or so. Or just wish that’s what they were doing and then feel bad that they haven’t actually achieved anything. Sound familiar?
So how do you focus yourself on your own work when you get a bit of time? For me, there are several ways of doing it but what they really come down to is replicating the pressure of having a job. When you’re an employee, usually someone tells you what they need and when they need it. And once you have a goal and a deadline, you have a target and you get to work and great things happen.
When you have your own projects, you probably know your big end goal. But you may not have broken it into smaller tasks yet. And I’m willing to bet you have no deadline.
So set a deadline. Better yet, get yourself a deadline. What’s the difference? If you set a deadline, you can shift it. You get busy and so you put it off for a week. Two weeks. Months. But if you acquire some sort of external deadline, that’s likely to be fixed. An application to a funding body. A submission to the Cartoon Forum. A trip to a conference or a market. Set up a meeting for that market with someone important and then put that date in your calendar. Congratulations – you just got yourself a deadline.
Now put that in whatever diary you use to keep track of what you’re doing, whether it’s your phone calendar or a series of scrappy post-its stuck to your computer. Break down what you need to do into smaller goals and create smaller step deadlines between now and your fixed deadline. Never lose the pressure of that big deadline. In fact, if it doesn’t feel pressured enough, get more deadlines to meet. Become a gatherer of deadlines.
Then meet every one of them. Before long, your project will have turned from an idea to a developed pitch concept and, if you keep at it, hopefully much more than that.
Way, way back when we made Fluffy Gardens, we started with a pilot episode. After a significant development period and with a full crew, it took us around 4 weeks, possibly a little more. That was with simple, pretty crude, yet charming animation. A higher level of polish and it would have taken us far longer. For just 7 minutes of screen time. And that’s just the animation itself.
To make 40 episodes (the length of our first series) at that rate would take over three years. But of course it didn’t. With the same crew, we were getting episodes out in just 4 days by the end of the series and looking better than the pilot did.
4 weeks to 4 days.
That’s some difference. That comes with familiarity, knowing the methods, the characters, building up libraries. We got better and we got faster. And that’s entirely normal. That is why it is difficult to break down a series schedule to an exact per episode time period. You estimate it based on an average, knowing the early episodes will take an age and the final episodes will be quick.
The real hard work is done up front. Those early episodes need the focus. They need the scrutiny. They need questions: are we happy with this? Are we doing it the right way? And they need the time. That will pay off hugely down the line.
Thing is, it is true for more than just animation production. Having just one writer or two on a whole show, for example, means they get to know it and they put in that work in finding what it is and, soon, they are doing it better and faster. Your composer will learn new things in those early episodes that they will apply as they go on. Everyone in the process will learn some new tricks in those early days or weeks.
So what’s the point here? It’s this: don’t panic when that early work seems to take an age. It’s normal. That’s going to pay off. Just make sure you start to see an increase in momentum as you continue.
I normally only post on a Wednesday so this might upset the entire fabric of the space-time continuum but, in advance of heading to the Children’s Media Conference, I thought I’d get in a little update on me and Mooshku. Why? Because I don’t often talk about my current work here and it’s no harm to remind you about what it is that I do.
So what have I been up to? And Méabh? And all of us at Mooshku generally?
Mooshku have been consulting on 3 lovely early stage children’s properties for third party companies. That entails evaluating existing content, focussing it for the right audience and also broadcasters and partners and putting it together to make a really strong pitch for a really strong concept. That has included writing concept documents, show bibles, storylines and also sample scripts. Simply put, we have been making lovely ideas even lovelier!
We created, wrote and produced Trufax Tot Cop for the Nickelodeon shorts programme, just one of four international companies selected. It is absolutely KILLING ME that I haven’t been able to show this yet or say more about it. There are very good reasons why I can’t but I’m so eager to show it to you.
Update: I’m now okay to add an image so here he is, Trufax Tot Cop!
We produced animation for a live science show for the Edinburgh Fringe last year and, around this time last year at Mooshku, we were just finishing production on a pixel art music video for GUNSHIP. You probably know I love my pixel art.
And we have been developing our new IP and producing some new animation samples to show them off. They are really pretty and fun and we’ll be bringing them along to the CMC next week. We’ll post some online soon too, I promise! In the meantime, some pictures:
Sticking with our Mooshku mission of collaboration, Méabh produced the live-action for the 52 episodes of Little Roy for our wonderful friends at JAM Media. And Méabh is currently producing The Overcoat for the talented guys at Giant Animation, featuring the voice talents of Cillian Murphy and Alfred Molina.
And on top of all this, I have been doing a huge amount of writing. Over the last 18 months or so, I have written…
5 episodes of the upcoming Wild Adventures of Blinky Bill for Flying Bark in Australia.
4 episodes of a lovely new show I can’t yet name for Submarine in the Netherlands.
2 Gråtass live-action theatrical children’s feature films for Cinenord in Norway.
More than 10 scripts for top secret early development projects for Ireland and the UK (early development for 3rd party companies is a lot of what we do in Mooshku).
And I have been writing the full 20 episodes of the new Karsten Og Petra series and a Karsten Og Petra feature film, also for Cinenord. This is one that is particularly dear to my heart. This series is so lovely. If you haven’t seen anything from it yet, you should look it up. It is preschool perfection (I can’t take credit for that – it was perfection even before I got involved!).
And I’m working on something lovely for Karrot (of Sarah & Duck) and a nice new show I can’t yet mention but will be a lot of fun.
That post turned out even longer than I expected. We’ve been busy! Really, we’ve been doing what we love to do: make really great stuff for kids. We have our mission to bring kids something really good and we’re strong on that. And we also love collaboration and working with others. We don’t see competition – we see a community. So far, that ethos is working wonderfully for Mooshku.
So that’s the update. If you’re at the CMC, do say hello! It will be lovely to catch up with old friends and meet some new ones too.
We put so much into our work. So much passion and thought and trial and error. Creating anything is decision after decision. You have to make a call and, each time, you know how important those decisions are. And then you get to a point where it is ready to show someone.
The next step might be to pitch it to someone. Or to test it with children. Or to run it by peers.
And you hesitate. Why? Why don’t you test it with kids? You know people with kids, right? The reason is usually always the same: fear that the response you want is not the response you’ll get. We all go through that. Every time. And when we do send it out to people with the power to make or break our project and an email comes back, our chest flutters as we open it. We’re afraid. And when we see negative feedback or a flat-out rejection, we get angry, we get sad. Often we fluctuate between being hugely demoralised and totally stubborn. I’ll show them!
That’s because it matters to us. It’s because we care. Those feelings suck. They really do. But they’re important because they mean we still care.
What happens to your project all depends on what you do next. You have to be completely honest about that feedback, especially if it comes from testing with kids. You have to really look deep and examine the results you got. What worked. What didn’t work… and why. The key is that you accept the results. Too often, we just look for the results we want and we will find ways of dismissing the results we got. They were distracted. They didn’t read it properly. They missed page 7. I had a cold that day. What do kids know anyway? That way of thinking is all too easy, precisely because we care so much and we feel so attached to our project. And it’s a sure fire way to make a project worse.
Work with the results you get, not the results you want.
That doesn’t mean you cave in at every negative sign. It doesn’t mean you start your project from scratch the second someone tells you they don’t like it. It simply means this: those are the results your project is generating right now. Accept that as truth and then you just have to ask yourself: now what am I going to do about that?