I think it might be pitchforks and torches time when it comes to gender in toys. My main reason for this is: it affects so much more than just toys. It spills over into so much more. How many of us were surprised when it came out that the reason focus was taken away from women villains in Iron Man 3 was down to a perception that women don’t shift toys? After #WheresRey and Black Widow and so much more, this is just a common story now. It’s barely a story.
I know how it happens from first hand experience. I have had that discussion with distributors, with producers. Of course most will tell you it’s not down to them. I have to wonder if toy companies and toy stores even know how much they are blamed for every bad gender decision in kids’ media? People in media, people like us, will eventually remove themselves from the decision and it comes down to: “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” Oh those silly toy companies.
Not only will they get the blame but, importantly, they will be shown to be right. They will demonstrate that gendered products sell more. Of course, there is confirmation bias in here and they have created an environment in which this can be shown to be true. After putting boys on all the Lego boxes for years and realising they have a problem, nobody should be surprised that Lego Friends sold well. It just patches a problem they created themselves. This isn’t just Lego of course – they just provide an example most people know. It runs through the whole toy chain right down to people working in toy shops. Yep, lady who shouted after my girls “but that’s the boy’s aisle!”, I’m talking about you.
It is a toy culture the industry created. And so it desperately tries to sustain it, knowing nothing else. Having made the ‘rules’, the huge hits that have to cross gender in order to become such big hits (such as Dora and Peppa) are branded exceptions so these big sellers won’t shake insiders’ confidence in that culture. And you know, the people working in these companies are all real people too. They aren’t just the cartoon villain scapegoat at the end of this media chain. They’re looking at their figures from their gendered strategies and afraid of messing with that in case their jobs end up on the line. I feel bad for anyone in that position, just as I feel bad for people in media who genuinely want better gender representation but they know that they have to stick with certain strategies because that has been shown to work, at least in the conditions that we have all built. We’re all just people here.
And I guess that’s what it really comes down to. Us as people.
So here is a question for you, no matter what end of the industry you are in: do you personally believe that placing clear gender limits on children is beneficial to kids and society in general?
Not your company, not your financial bottom line. You. A single individual.
If you answer yes, if you think that what we should play, who we should be and how we should think of ourselves and others should be limited by notions of gender, I can do nothing else but hope that someone will shine a light on the wider gender problem, the pressures and limits on girls and boys, the toxic environment illustrated by comments on Ghostbusters trailers or the Rogue One IMDB board, and hope that you will one day change your mind.
But if you answer no, if you believe that, actually, it would be better for everyone if we shouldn’t impose limits on children and people based on gender, then let’s all acknowledge that and pull together on the same team. From here on the inside. Let’s call out the bullshit where we see it. Let’s push media that is gender inclusive. Let’s create characters that don’t all conform to basic stereotypes. And let’s fight for them when we’re told “hey, you know how the toy companies are!” so that we don’t pass on the wider problems to the next generation. So we give our girls and boys every chance to be strong, happy and to do what they want to do, and can all do.
Where cultures have been created, cultures can be changed. Just because you think it works one way doesn’t mean it won’t work in different, better ways. Anyone in this generation should be well used to that with the amount of change we have seen in our lifetime. We don’t need to fear that change. We just need to make it happen.
It is the Space Year 2030AD. The world has entered a darker age. Once-specialist 3D riggers and effects artists now litter our cities in little more than derelict shanty towns, their place taken by automated software. Children’s media is produced by just two warring multi-national cybernetic toy conglomerates, having bought out or destroyed every independent creator of children’s media. The network once known as YouTube hosts nothing but children’s infomercials. The Great Adult Colouring Book Crash killed off publishing for good. The few remaining apps, now sentient, search through back alleys and dumpsters for coins, gems and smurfberries.
Bob the Builder is getting relaunched. Again.
Some say the world never truly recovered from the incident in 2019AD when over 7 million children disappeared into a Minecraft server and were never seen again. I think many of us thought it never would.
But there is hope. There is a new generation of children born amidst the chaos. And a secret underground swell, once little more than whispers and rumour, is taking hold. These are the new children’s media creators. Inspired by the renegade spirit of the early YouTubers and with legends of the rough and ready puppets and animation of the first days of children’s media, these new creators put everything on the line to bring fun to kids. They gather in secret locations, broadcasting shows made with little more than scraps and enthusiasm. Shows with energy and fun not seen in a decade. The conglomerates try their hardest but they can’t put them down – these kids have nothing to sell and nothing to lose.
And the closest thing they have to a skill is the drive to make kids and themselves laugh and smile. To brighten up a day with a story or a joke. In 2030AD, the dawn of a new age, this is the only skill that counts.
Last week, I was speaking on a panel about pitching at the Cartoon Forum. I have pitched there six times over the years, starting with some pretty awful presentations but getting better each time, to a point where I have been told (modestly blushing here) that I have given some of the best presentations of the forum.
For those of you unfamiliar with how it works, the Cartoon Forum is a place to showcase new projects in search of broadcasters or distribution. In the morning and afternoon, short trailers for each project are shown and interested parties can choose which projects to see. There are usually three projects pitching in every slot, so this is competitive and your trailer counts.
Once you’ve got them in the room, you have their attention and it is up to you. We covered quite a lot in our panel talk and we could have kept going for hours so there is too much to go through in one post but here are a few core pieces of advice:
Learn from the pitches of others
Practice only makes perfect if you actually learn something in the process. You have to constantly re-evaluate your own presentation. It can be hard to get any kind of objectivity about our own pitches so my advice is to watch others pitch. Make a note of what engages you, of what keeps you interested and what bores you. When do start looking at your watch? When does your mind drift to thoughts of cake? Whatever they are doing at that moment, make a note not to do it in your own presentations.
I had a pretty shocking eureka moment watching one pitch that bored me to tears. The big shame about the pitch? It was a lovely project. But they made it really hard to like. And it hit me that, much of what they were doing, I was also doing. My pitches changed forever that day. And I learned many positive ways to present from watching Robin Lyons present, who is always entertaining.
Last time I was at the Forum, a local company of some good industry friends gave an excellent pitch. They told me afterwards that, when crafting their presentation, they asked themselves how I would pitch it. Learn from others, both the good and the bad.
Know your material
You have to know every beat of your presentation. It’s not like learning a poem where you know just the words. You have to know every point, every piece of information and why that information is there. You have to learn it and then go far beyond that, to the point where your presentation is part of you. Why? So that you can deliver it naturally, so that it fits perfectly within time, so that you cover everything you need to cover, so that it doesn’t sound like you’re reading a script. And most of all, so that you can deal with interruptions. There is always a chance that something will disrupt your presentation. You have to be able to get right back into it. Don’t go shuffling through notes or running to your laptop. If you truly know your material, you’ll flow right back into your presentation.
Engage with your audience
The default setup in the Cartoon Forum is a desk you can put your laptop on and hide from your audience. Perfect for introvert creators. Terrible for actually interesting your audience.
Find a way to connect with your audience. As obvious as this sounds, they are real people. They are there to find out about your project. They want to be there. So talk with them. Not just at them. And certainly not at your laptop screen or back wall. Look them in the eye and see them as the individual people they are. Smile. And start a conversation.
People love to feel a part of the show. That should be true for the show you’re pitching and also your presentations. Bring them in, let them feel a part of it.
Lastly for now (I could go on for days):
Have a great show
You could give a knockout pitch. You could be the best sales person on the planet. You could start a bidding war there and then, having all broadcasters want your show.
Then they have to go home, back to the office. Your pitch fades away and what’s left is your actual show. And they invariably have to pitch it internally to their own teams. And maybe it doesn’t sound quite as good coming from them? And actually they have a whole bunch of questions that your documents don’t seem to have covered. Maybe this show isn’t quite as well thought out as it seemed?
A great pitch is important. Crucial, actually. But your show needs to be solid. It needs to be interesting. It needs to be well developed. Because at some point in the process, it’s going to have to sell itself.
Every single time I work on a project, I have one goal in mind: this will be the best thing I’ve ever made. This is true whether it is the start of a whole new concept or just one more episode of a continuing series.
Does it always turn out to be the best thing I’ve actually ever made? Not always. But having that as the goal always pushes me to make something better, try something different and give the audience something a little bit special. It prevents me from being overwhelmed by deadlines and letting something go that just isn’t ready yet.
This goal is its own quality control.
And really, why would you possibly want to do anything less?
So whatever you’re doing, whether you’re mid-production or coming up with something new, set a high goal. Make it the best thing you’ve ever made. Simply keeping that as your core goal will vastly increase the chances that it is.
Here we go. The definitive rules to children’s content:
1 – Characters must be aspirational. Make them older and cooler.
2 – Girls will watch shows for boys but boys won’t watch shows for girls.
3 – Think second screen. For some reason.
4 – Your animal character must know a martial art of some sort… urrrggh…
Sorry, I can’t go on. My fingers won’t let me type any more. Really, I’m just going to give you one piece of advice here: if someone insists there are rules to successful content, run far away. There is a huge amount to learn and research, studies you should look for, people you should follow for information (David Kleeman, for example), many guidelines, important case studies and stories that will greatly inform your decisions (and your decisions should be informed). But rules? No.
This is not an exact science. Or at least, it is such a complex and ever-changing science that we will never fully understand it. It is certainly not a box-ticking exercise. Use the knowledge and stories and experience you can gather, carefully consider your options and go with what feels right for your project, your audience and you.
I was at a roller disco a few weeks ago (I’m the roller disco king). It was my daughter’s birthday party and I thought the idea of roller skating was a little bit crazy because of the varying abilities of the kids and the potential for accidents. Nevertheless, the kids got on great. Even those who were skating for the first time just went for it.
Sure, they fell over a lot but they got up and kept going. And one kid who fell over a lot soon started to get the hang of it and the speed of progress was pretty astounding.
I was skating around and I saw him skating with all the other kids and he was doing brilliantly. It was like he had done this many times before. He looked smooth and confident. I gave him a big wave and said “Well done!”
And he fell on his backside.
I broke his flow. I was just trying to be encouraging but I interrupted him while he was making real progress. He had focus, he had momentum and I pulled that away from him. I guess at least I was being encouraging so he got up and set off again with a smile. I wonder how much worse it would have been had I shouted something like, “Bring your feet together! Go faster! Not that way, this way!”
So today’s thought is very simple: when someone is doing something good, let them do it. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t become an obstacle. Just allow it to happen.
One of the difficulties in tackling notes arises when you have notes coming in from different sources. It is rare that everyone wants the same thing. Some individual notes can completely contradict each other. Worse still, if you look at the overall picture of the notes (see last post) it can become clear that several people involved have a different vision for the project.
So how do you keep everyone happy?
The obvious answer is that, mostly, you don’t. But the hard part is that, almost always, you have to try.
I’ll fall back on an old analogy of mine. You’ve got friends coming over. One likes red wine, one likes white wine, another prefers beer and someone just wants a cup of tea. But you only get to serve one big drink in the middle of the table. So what happens if you pour in some of those wines in with the beer and stir in some tea? Do they like it? Of course not. You’ve created something hideous.
But… maybe the tea drinker doesn’t mind white wine. Maybe the beer drinker will be okay with wine if you serve it in a pint glass (that won’t end well…). Maybe you can promise the red wine drinker that you’ll do your best to make sure you have red wine in next time.
So when it comes to notes, you have to weigh up the considerations and the options. The two big ones are:
1) What is right for the story?
2) Who is bankrolling the whole thing?
The second one might not always be fun to consider but it is of vital importance. There is no point in keeping lots of people in the process happy if the one person who can pull the plug hates it. There will always be a hierarchy when it comes to notes. They do not all carry the same weight.
The hope is that story will always come first and that your notes will help you make it even better. When you have some tough decisions or notes that conflict, you have got to try to find solutions that people can agree on. But if that can’t happen, make sure you keep the right people happy.
Almost break time! Well that turned out to be a busy year. On Friday, I should deliver the final draft of the last episode of a 20-episode live-action children’s series I have been writing. A gorgeous television show for Norway that has been a joy to write. Also this year, I have written for companies in Holland and Australia. So my 2015 writing output looks a little like this:
29 TV episodes
2 features from blank page to final draft.
1 feature to first draft.
That is on top of our other Mooshku work: consulting on a couple of projects, creating and animating segments for a live science show, producing a rad pixel art music video for Gunship, developing some of our in-house IP and creating, writing and producing a pretty special little animation we’re not yet allowed talk about (more on that next year!). Oh, and Méabh has been busy producing Little Roy with the wonderful Jam Media.
Together, we have lived in many worlds and made friends with many characters, some established and some completely new. We have had stress and struggles but also fun and play. And it is the fun and play that we want on screen. That is what kids will respond to.
That is why we test our work with children. We note what is working, not working. Where they laughed, where they looked away. What they talked through or what they talked about. For us, it is about giving children the best and, when it comes down to it, no matter what our opinions are, no matter who is throwing notes at us, it is important that we ultimately defer to the true experts: the children.
So as Christmas approaches and the year draws to a close, I would like to thank all the kids who watched our work this year and listened to our stories and gave us comments such as “make this into a whole movie”, “can you finish it today?”, “my favourite bit is the bit with the pants”, “why does it say he is green when it isn’t coloured in?”, “will the drawings be better?”, “did you forget your glasses?”, “it was my sister’s birthday yesterday” and many more insightful gems. Especially to the children of Rathfarnham Educate Together.
You kids all rock and you make our work better.
I hope everyone has a calm and peaceful Christmas or whichever holiday you choose to celebrate!
Last week I was at Cinekid for Professionals in Amsterdam on a panel discussing the Dos and Don’ts of Storytelling in Digital Media. It was my first time at Cinekid and I was impressed.
For a start, Cinekid isn’t just a professional’s conference. It has family events and screenings and children are everywhere. This is fantastic. When you walk outside and you’re among families, it is an instant reminder about why we’re talking about what we’re talking about. It was no coincidence that listening to the audience and reacting to feedback was a common thread in our discussions – it is all too easy to lose sight of the audience in this business. To get caught up in trends and advances and all sorts of abstract concepts. Too easy to forget about the kids we want to make great stuff for, and their parents.
Cinekid doesn’t let you forget and I love that.
Cinekid is also home to an incredible media lab. A huge hall full of what are effectively cutting edge toys. Huge screens where your actions will sweep bubbles away. A rolling game where you roll huge tyres to make progress and much more. Some I couldn’t even figure out but there was a little bit of magic in just about everything in the room. That’s if you got a go – the kids liked to hog the best stuff! There is also a co-production market and workshops.
The conference itself covered a good mix of topics. An inspiring talk by Gary Pope. A little bit of frowning at Minecraft Story Mode (I like it and think it contributes nicely!). A great piece of research into girls and media from Pineapple Lounge – the main message: celebrate who she is, not who she feels she has to be. Some excellent insight into virtual reality from Nicoletta Iacobacci and the always wonderful David Kleeman leaving us with some real challenges as content creators (I’ll pick that up in another post). We had a live Let’s Play with the excellent Minecraft educator Wizard Keen (Adam Clarke) and a glimpse into Maker Studios from Robbie Douek which left me conflicted as he told us it was about authenticity while playing a car ad that, as far as I could see, wasn’t labelled as such.
Then there was our panel with Ida Brinck-Lund (consultant for Lego’s Future Lab), Caitlin Burns (business strategist for brands from Microsoft, Nickelodeon and more), Julien Fabre (Ankama) and me, moderated by Warren Buckleitner who guided the whole day. I’d like to think we were brilliant and probably the highlight of the conference but it is always hard to know how our discussions impact others. What I do know is that we covered a broad range of topics and each brought a different view. All four of us are in different spaces and yet similarities could be identified – needing to engage with our audience and also needing to learn and adapt as we work.
No matter how long we have been doing what we do, no matter what history is behind us, we are in an ever-changing space in an ever-changing world and each new media form and device provides a whole new set of challenges. It’s exciting. As I said to Warren on the day, from having made Dino Dog I could write books on how not to make an app. It was a steep learning curve and sometimes that rich history in one form of media is walking you right into a trap in another. That is one huge reason to do your homework. No matter what it is you’re making, no matter how confident you feel, do the research. Learn. Ask questions. And be open to the answers you get.
So there is an easy Do for Storytelling in Digital Media: do your research.
And a Don’t? I guess don’t always assume that the research has been interpreted correctly. If we knew it all, the big hits wouldn’t surprise people the way they always seem to.
So that was Cinekid 2015. My trip also included bicycles, ferries, odd street layouts and the ever-present smell of pancakes and weed. The real highlight? Meeting a lot of really great like-minded people all doing different things. I enjoyed your company and I hope we see each other again soon.
The biggest mistake I think anyone can make in a pitch bible is a wall of text. People won’t read it. It takes up too much time. Unless your text is pure gold, it’s like wading through a swamp. And if it is pure gold, will people have the time to find that out?
More often than not, very busy people are scanning through pitch bibles. So you need to get to the point and keep it lean.
And yet, if you strip it down to the bare minimum, you always run the risk that someone will flick through it and think, this feels a little thin. Is it underdeveloped? Not a fully-realised concept?
So how do you keep it lean and to the point while making clear that your concept has depth, storytelling potential and a fun character dynamic? Active images. Try to get every picture telling a story. If it is simply a single character illustration, tell us who they are in their pose and expression. If it is a setup made to look like a still from an episode (I would always recommend this), make sure it feels mid-story, mid-action. That way it gets people thinking about how the characters got there or what will happen next. An image alone can get the message across that there are stories to be told.
Even if you are showing off a particular aspect, try to tell a story. Showing off your fancy backgrounds? Maybe show a character playing in your fancy backgrounds. Keep it active. Inspire the imagination so that, even if someone doesn’t read one word in your bible, they have a good idea what it is about. And hopefully, they’ll be making up their own stories as they look at your pictures.