There appears to be an explosion of older children’s characters and shows being revived with new Teletubbies, Danger Mouse, Bob the Builder, Super Ted and those are only the most recent. In explaining this recent boom in nostalgia, I hear the words “risk-averse” on a pretty regular basis.
But does dusting down the oldies and presenting them to kids today really come with less risk?
My career owes a lot to classic characters. My first meaty children’s show directing gig was Roobarb & Custard Too, a revival of the 1974 UK cult classic Roobarb. With original creator/writer Grange Calveley and of course the irreplaceable Richard Briers, it was really a continuation of the original series – we always thought of it as series 2 rather than any kind of reboot. I have so much love for that show and it was a wonderful experience so I’m certainly not against looking to the past to bring something fun to kids today. But there are some things to consider, some real risks and I know this because we had no choice but to consider some of them. And as my career grew, I realise we should have considered more. Here are just a few examples:
Many classic shows, especially the older ones, existed in a whole different time and a very different media landscape. Would your classic property really have performed as well in a world with dedicated children’s channels running all day, with VOD and the Internet? Would it have stood up against Peppa? Would it have worked alongside Doc McStuffins?
Relevant to parents. Relevant to buyers. Not in any way relevant to kids. You might get it on air, you might get parents happy to leave it on their television and this gives your show a good chance. But that’s not enough. Have you really got more than nostalgia?
This is a really big one. Kids’ lives are different now. TV shows are different. You are no doubt going to want to update the show and the characters. You should – many classic properties come from a less diverse time, where certain things were acceptable that just aren’t now. But assuming you took on the property because you liked it, will your changes really make it better? Can you safely say that you can take a classic, a well-loved treasure, and that you can do better than those who made it a success in the first place? What if you lose what was good about it?
Are your characters still out there somewhere in their original form? Will they be if what you do is successful? Will old rights holders rush to get their versions out on to the shelves? Now you’ve got mixed branding on your hands with the danger that each form weakens the others rather than strengthening them. If the changes you make are significant (redesigning characters, for example), you could have a problem.
The Fresh Hit:
One of the main reasons hits hit is because they are fresh and different to what’s out there already. Few of the current generic ‘Team Dora’ type shows will ever hit as big as Dora because Dora was new. Spongebob was new. Peppa was new. Can you achieve that with your classic property? It can be done (Friendship is Magic, Battlestar Galactica in grown-up TV) but you have your work seriously cut out for you if you are taking on pre-existing characters.
So these are just some of the considerations when reviving a classic.
It’s not easy and to this day, ten years later, I wonder if we took the right approach with Roobarb even if we did make something that kids still enjoy. Classic properties can be fantastic to work on because we already love them. Cast and crew working on them often want to do justice to the originals and so you get good work. They can be easier to sell sometimes because they come with a name, a history and a proven track record, albeit in whole different conditions. But when it comes to really making a success, I’m not so sure that a classic property comes with much less risk than a whole new show where you have a blank page to create something tailor-made for the kids of today.
My own personal key takeaways from this year’s Children’s Media Conference:
1) For the most part, television still rules.
2) Print is still very much alive in the kids’ space.
3) Digital interactivity and games cost and people don’t like to pay for them. It’s a difficult space.
4) Some of the most exciting, innovative and most beneficial new content for kids is right in the midst of that difficult space. It’s a wonderful place to be as a content creator.
5) As much as these lines appear to be blurring on the outside, from those commissioning these forms I still get a feeling of definitive divides. TV=TV, books=books, games=games.
6) Very few people seem to see VR in the future of kids’ media or notice it is coming, contrasting with my own view that, for better or worse, I see it as an inevitability. May take a generational shift or two though.
7) No matter what end of the business – whether gatekeeper, knocking at those gates or looking for other routes – everyone is just muddling along trying to figure things out as the media world changes.
8) Many people consider this a transition period. Or is that just an expression of hope? Personally, I’m not convinced it will settle any time soon so we’re either along for the ride or we can try to positively influence the direction.
9) Apparently, I am a ‘high-functioning introvert’.
10) A huge number of people are in kids’ media for just one reason: they want to give kids something great. Those people are awesome.
That’s it. Thanks as always to Greg Childs and the organisers for pulling together a really great event. It was fantastic to hear so many varying viewpoints on the panels, to catch up with old friends and meet many Twitter friends in person for the first time. Would you believe some people aren’t on Twitter? Weird. Thanks to everyone for kind words about what we’re doing at Mooshku (one particular project seems to be going down a storm) and about my older work too. After all these years, Fluffy Gardens still gets a LOT of love! If you read this little blog and we never got to meet, be sure to say hello next year.
Tomorrow, I could have a special extra post so check back then…
Here is a reminder I like to give when talking to people about making content for children, whether writing, directing, producing and across TV and other platforms. I call it The Barney Test. It’s very simple.
First, watch this…
Okay. I’m guessing you didn’t watch it all but that’s okay. Now the next part – answer this question truthfully: did you love it? Every minute of it? Would you love nothing more than to just keep on watching more Barney?
If you aren’t shouting a big happy “YES! YES! YES!” at the screen right now, you can rest assured that you are like almost all adults on this planet. Barney isn’t meant for you. It’s not meant for me. It is meant for children. And the thing is, children LOVE Barney. Most kids adore him. In spite of what we adults might want to do to the goofy purple dinosaur, Barney has given kids a lot of entertainment and good over the years
This is the point of The Barney Test: it illustrates just how different the tastes of adults and kids are. We are not the same, not even close. It’s great if you can make something you like but if you are guided only by what you like, you lose your audience and miss the potential children’s hit that you have to offer, whether Barneyish or more parent-friendly. And wouldn’t that be a shame?
So if you ever find yourself losing focus, veering towards self-indulgence, pop on an episode and take The Barney Test as a reminder of just who your audience really is.
On a related note, Dr. Maya Götz posted a link to this wonderful document on Emotions In Children’s TV. Download the PDF and give a read. It is a really important reminder of how children experience and process events in stories and the feelings that come from those. The point towards the end about how your work is biographically rooted is so important.
Development is easily one of the most crucial stages in any project. This is when you take an idea and turn it into something much, much greater than an idea. You make it real. Development leads to a sense of the finished product, it defines so much of the stages that will come later and, importantly, it gives you something you can sell. And if this stage does not get the care and attention it deserves, it is also where you unintentionally build in problems that may only become apparent down the line.
During development you look to change, to improve. You pull apart your concepts and try them in different ways. You try different characters and then change each and every one of those characters until the balance feels just right. You examine designs and styles. What if we try it this way? For development to truly work, you have to be completely open to change.
The hope is that through this process you will arrive at something much greater than the initial iteration.
But if there’s one lesson Gmail, Twitter etc. constantly remind me of, it is this: sometimes it was better the way you had it before.
The truth is, your work can get worse as well as better. It does happen sometimes that the initial instincts in certain areas were spot-on. When each new change brings a whole new set of problems to solve, it can be time to look back and ask, did we have this right before?
So be open to rewinding and taking your idea back to where you started. Keep in mind that this does not in any way mean the development process was a waste – you have to challenge these concepts and explore all other options to truly know it was right to begin with. Remember that if you go in deciding that you had it right the first time, then you’re not really open to change. Others will challenge your choices so be sure you challenge them first.
Push your development. Try different and make it better. Look for any direction you haven’t yet tried and apply it. Does it make the project better? Or worse? Development is one of the most crucial stages of any project so give it everything you’ve got.
Show, don’t tell – a storytelling guideline so often repeated. Rather than have someone tell us what a character is like, for example, show us a situation that illustrates that. Let the audience put it together themselves from the story you give them. It is an important guideline because, for good storytelling, it’s often right.
But is it right for young children? Not quite.
To be sure important information is coming across, you’ve really got to tell. State that important line, that key plot point, that crucial lesson. Research into educational media and children found very early on that young children will often miss inferences or more abstract thought processes required to put pieces together if the lesson is not directly stated. It has shown that you have to be far more explicit about your educational material to be sure children take it in. And if it works for educational material, it works for plot points, character traits and so on – it just happens that people have far more reason to study this in an educational context.
In short, the research says: tell.
From my own experience, it seems the difficulty is not that children don’t take in more subtle information or that they can’t put two and two together. It is that they are taking in so much information that we as content creators lose control over just exactly what parts they are retaining and processing. I have long maintained that everything a young child sees or hears goes towards forming their world view. The difficulty is that different children in different situations are taking in different things and applying them in different ways. So to control that, to make that key information clear, we must follow the guideline offered by the research: tell.
The ideal is to achieve both. Show first. This establishes context, which is so important for understanding. It allows for the possibility of some children putting the information together themselves. Then tell. Hit the information home by telling, as clearly as possible. Those children who were a step ahead of you will feel really good about that (give them a chance to get there first) and it will solidify the information for them. Those kids who weren’t quite there yet will already have the context so that, when you state the information, it makes perfect sense and falls into place instantly.
This way you are now in control of the information, be it an educational lesson or a key plot point. So show… but also tell.
Here is a tip for handling action in children’s media that I most often find myself giving to animators working on TV shows but it applies to many parts of the process including writing. It even applies well beyond children’s media. It’s such a simple thing and it will will have you thinking “well that’s just obvious” and yet it is so easily missed. Here it is:
One thing at a time.
One action at a time. So in animation, don’t have two important events happening on screen at the same time. Why? Because we can only look in one place at any one time. If you have two important actions happening simultaneously, it is guaranteed that one of them will be missed. In kids’ media in particular, clarity is key to engagement. If kids don’t know what they’re looking at, you’ll lose them. If they miss a plot point, you could kill the story.
So keep in mind that you may have a screen of 1920 by 1080 pixels and a lovely wide canvas to play with but we can only focus on one place at any one time. And if you’re clever about it, we’ll be looking exactly where you want us to by utilising momentum, action, composition and so on. So animators need to think in beats and look at their timeline and plot each main action across that. One at a time. Always one at a time.
But this goes well beyond animation.
This applies to writing. Plot points one by one, knowing that kids are taking the story information you give them in sequential order. If you hit them with two important points at once, you can be pretty sure they’ll miss something. It is crucial in making animatics and setting down your timing and, while plotting actions, you have to take it a step further – consider sound in those beats. One at a time. This is not just about the visuals. Often kids are focusing on watching or on listening and will do one better than the other. An important sound can be missed when it happens simultaneously with a competing action on screen. Dialogue can be missed while kids listen to the music. If you have a key line in your story, give it space. If there is a noisy action, give it space before a character speaks again. Use natural gaps in a voice actor’s delivery to punctuate the action.
Ideally, you should be able to depict your end result in the form of a horizontal chart divided by beats just like an animator’s timeline and each beat just has one thing in it: an action, a line, a sound and so on. That’s your focus and everything else in that beat should be constructed around that focal point.
When looking at actual production for preschool media (television or otherwise), I see one particular quirk occur again and again in the visuals. I see it in animation and live-action, and it’s harder to forgive in live-action for reasons that will become clear later in this post. Pointing out this quirk and showing people how to avoid it is one of the most repeated pre-production/production lessons I have to give, whether working on my own productions or advising others on their own. It’s a simple practical tip but it all comes down to audience awareness so thinking about the fix can really help far beyond visual production – it’s about understanding point of view and that is relevant across creation, writing, direction, sound and every other part of the process.
So here it is. Have a look at this setup…
Character, background, a few details. It’s very simple. So what’s wrong with the picture?
Well, consider the position of the horizon. It’s rising up above the character. For this to happen, we have to be looking over that character, like a very tall adult looks over a child. This is not a child’s viewpoint. This is not how kids see the world. It’s how adults see the world.
Wherever you are right now, stand up and find a horizon or even look at the angle of the ground. Now get down on your knees and watch what happens. The ground flattens out and the horizon drops. If you had a little character in that setup, the horizon would be below the top of that character and you would be looking the character right in the eyes. This is how kids see the world.
This should be really apparent shooting live-action because you would see very clearly whether your cameras are at the height of an adult or a child. So if your setup is for something aimed at young children and you want to make a real connection, the first image should have looked more like this:
Drop the horizon. Those three words help make a connection in storyboarding, layout, background etc. But they also serve as a reminder across the whole process. Is the viewpoint you are depicting really that of a child? Or does it belong to your adult self? Find the child’s viewpoint and you will create something much more relevant with a stronger connection. You will make something that really means something to your audience.
In preschool, your story can be and should be very simple. Some people find coming up with stories very tough but the truth is, more often than not, the problem is not finding the story, it’s realising that you’ve actually got several stories in there. The focus to stick with a single, clear story is usually much harder then coming up with stories to begin with.
So why shouldn’t you have more than one story running through your preschool content? That’s easy: clarity. The more elements in your story, the more chance of it becoming messy. It depends on the length and structure of course but you can’t end up with a jumble of ideas. That’s true anywhere but especially in preschool. Your audience needs to be so absolutely clear on what is happening, what the core idea is, what the consequence of each action is and why every character is doing what they do. And you won’t be there to explain it to them.
Sure, you can have little asides. Little extras. But your core story idea? That’s a single idea.
A lot of us are what I call ‘kitchen sink’ writers. Everything goes in as we work up an idea. That’s fine as long as we have the focus and clarity to pull out the unnecessary as we work. Anything that does not serve that central idea should be removed. That can be a lot harder than it seems – preschool sometimes has this perception of being easy because the content is simple, and that’s exactly why it is anything but easy. Simple is hard to do. When I’ve seen writers struggle in preschool, it’s almost never because they can’t find a story. It’s because they’re trying to tell too many.
So pull your stories apart. Got something that feels like a second story thread in there? Great – pull it out and bank it, there’s a whole other episode for you to write later. Got a third story idea muddling things up? Take that out too. Now you’ve got three stories. Before long, you’ll have a series. And this is the real positive here, the one way to motivate yourself to really strip those stories. It’s not that you’re losing story ideas. You’re gaining whole new stories. Keep every idea. The more story threads you can pull out of your current work, the more stories you have banked for later.
Ideas aren’t the problem. It’s the focus to stick with just one. So pull the stories apart.
Whether you’re writing, directing, producing or any part of the process of making content, you will encounter difficulties. Some you see coming, others you don’t. Some are minor annoyances, others are catastrophes. They all have one thing in common: you don’t want any of them to negatively impact the finished product.
What you certainly don’t want is a big problem late in your production, when there are too many parts of the process finalised to go back a step and when any delay will push you well past your deadline. You must avoid a panic late in your project. Panic by definition involves a certain lack of control and this can happen so easily when a new problem hits just when you need it the least. Your aim must be to retain control. But can you really choose when problems will occur or reveal themselves?
Sure you can. You do this by making the decision to panic early instead. Get it out of the way.
Right at the start, work on the assumption that something will delay you. Take on that little moment of panic on day one. So now you can’t aim for on-time any more because, in reality, that will lead to you being late. Instead, you have to aim for early. That builds in a buffer for those problems that may arise (just like I suggested about writing in an earlier post). It also helps you get to those problems a little earlier which may well be just the extra time you need to deal with them.
Next: Call a crisis point the moment you get a feeling in your gut that something is not working. Declaring a crisis is not a negative. Quite the opposite. By recognising a problem as potentially damaging, it allows you to take the uncontrolled and form a strategy to control it. You can reassess your aims, you can pull apart your systems and rebuild them, you can shuffle your teams or replace people completely. Bottom line: you have to acknowledge the problem before you can deal with it. Don’t wait until that problem has snowballed and is out of control. This is as much a note to self as it is to anyone reading this because any time I have seen that happen it has bitten everyone involved in the ass every single time.
While carrying out both of these points, never assume it will all work itself out eventually. It never does. Problems must be dealt with head on.
And then: Enjoy a calmer ride to the finish line. If you got your panic out of the way right at the start, built in that extra time, tackled every problem recognising that you have a crisis on your hands, you will have saved yourself a whole lot of worry later in the process and will likely have a far better product as a result. It’s that age old homework comparison. If you leave it to the night before it’s due, you’re in for a night of panic and possibly scrappy work that you don’t have time to review. Do it early, on the other hand, and you’re relaxing that night as you pick off the last few typos on a great piece of work.
But… shouldn’t we all be aiming for processes and productions with no panic whatsoever? Sure. And that’s exactly what it looks like when you have taken control of your production and carry out these steps routinely.
1) Aim to deliver early. 2) Declare every crisis immediately. 3) Never assume it will work itself out. 4) Enjoy the ride.
So what’s Mooshku? Mooshku is a word created for children and now a company created for children. Our focus is fun, positive stories and activities across multiple platforms. Mooshku is part of a new phase, a new leap – those who have heard my talks know I value my leaps. A collaboration between Méabh Tammemagi (agency producer for Saatchi & Saatchi among a whole lot of other things) and myself, we’re aiming to give kids the best in a way that works with parents. Our bottom line: if it’s not good for kids, we don’t make it.
The great thing about being based here in Ireland is that we have many wonderful animation production studios and a large bank of talent. We are hoping this brings opportunities for lots of collaborations and we have a rather large ‘people we want to work with’ list already. Our main area is content itself: focusing the aims and making certain they work for a young audience with strength in character and story while utilising all the methods to boost engagement and effectiveness that come from years of experience and research. We produce in-house where content will benefit from that while also offering our expertise to those making their own media and content for children.
Mooshku was featured in the Sunday Business Post here in Ireland at the weekend along with the April issue of Kidscreen magazine and the response has been incredibly positive. So thank you to everyone who got in touch with kind words. It seems expectations are high! Don’t worry – you know I like a challenge and I don’t intend to disappoint an audience.
If you haven’t visited already, check out the Mooshku website. The background patterns offer a sneak peek into some of what we have brewing (shhh! Don’t tell anyone!) and the site will let you know who we are and what we can do. If you know someone who might be interested, please spread the word. Also we’re on Twitter HERE.
So what of this little site? It will be business as usual here. This remains my personal site sharing content and knowledge, stories, tips and whatever else you might ask for. Of course, if you’re curious I can let you know what Mooshku is up to from time to time.
Thanks as always for visiting! See you back here next week.