We’ve all heard the stories of rejection. How many people rejected Harry Potter or Spongebob before someone finally said yes. I hear these stories in two forms. The first is really positive – as a reminder not to give up. If you truly believe in your work, push and keep pushing. This is a good message although it should probably be combined with messages about making sure your work is as great as it can be and also being open to feedback.
That is not what this post is about. This post is about the other form of that story that I hear every now and again. It goes a little like this: these people are idiots! They even rejected <insert success here> so that shows what they know! This is a dangerous way of thinking. For a start, it’s wrong. Harry Potter or Spongebob or whatever was never, ever a guaranteed success and the big successes are almost always long shots in some ways and that needs to be recognised – they come with risks. And not everyone could have made a success out of them. A publisher or broadcaster taking something that isn’t quite a fit for them could have led to those same concepts being unsuccessful. Saying no could have been the best thing for them and the creator.
For the most part, it’s all about taking a chance. And those people, the gatekeepers, are doing it by weighing up everything they know about their audience and their business and then trying to see if your concept might be a fit for them. Do they believe in it enough to take the chance? That’s what they’re really being asked to do. It is a risk for them. Often a high risk with lots of money involved.
If they say no, it’s not usually because they didn’t like your concept. Or didn’t like you. And it’s certainly not because they are idiots. It is because, knowing their audience and business, they didn’t quite think the risk for them was one they could justify. In that case, that’s the best decision for your project – when you eventually get that yes, you need it to be from someone who truly, truly believes in your concept.
It’s not just about getting a yes. It’s about getting the best yes from the right person.
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.
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?
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?
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.
There are lots of ways to entertain, lots of ways to engage. Making stuff for kids, we tend to go the positive route. I like that. Sure, we can challenge children and present them with new ideas and get them thinking and I think that’s exactly what we should be doing. But when we do this right, we tend to wrap all that up in fun, laughter and a strong dose of heart.
But when we’re coming up with stories, it can be hard to know how to focus ourselves to achieve that or how to really pin down just what it is we’re doing. When we talk about story, we often split it into two completely different categories. One is a very structured, recipe-like approach, which is helpful but, if that’s all you’ve got, you’ll be leaving your audience cold. The other is where we get into flowery language and often what feels like very intangible stuff. Make it more dynamic. Capture the soul of the character. This is good but can you make it more reflective with a hint of longing and yet all wrapped up in joy?
What is it we really want?!
Well, here is one simple aim that I think can totally change how you think about your story: make your audience feel good. Make them feel good about themselves. Make them feel good about being part of the experience you’re giving them. Leave them feeling better than they did before they experienced your story.
It’s such a simple thing and it can lead to many different solutions and, really, you have probably been aiming for it anyway but actually exploring your story with this goal clearly in mind can have you looking at it in a whole different way. Does it make them feel good? Does it make them feel good about themselves? This is important for adults because it’s part of why we recommend shows or music or whatever. We feel good about being part of it. It’s much more than “you might like this”. It’s “I’m awesome because I found this for you and I’m now part of it”.
For kids, young kids, they don’t share the same way adults do but the same feeling applies in different ways. It can be “this made me feel good and I want more of it”. And really, that’s a very basic thing in entertainment and it’s odd how we don’t always think of aiming for that. We get so wrapped up in telling stories that we forget to think about what it’s like to hear them, to experience them. That’s audience awareness.
So when you’re having a hard time pinning down the intangible stuff, ask yourself this: what can I do in my story that will make my audience feel good?
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!