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.
Bank work whenever you can. Waiting for someone to come back to you? Get something for the next step done. Have something fall through? Use the time to get ahead on the work you have or even might have. Push forward and bank the work, even if you don’t need it yet.
I think the trick to really getting things done and delivering is not about keeping up. It’s not about measuring everything to hit that deadline. It is getting well ahead of it. You see, something is going to get delayed or some problem will crop up somewhere. It could be really small but it will happen. If you’re on track for hitting that deadline and then a problem or delay arises, you’re no longer on track.
So any chance you get, push forward. Get ahead.
Will this ever cause problems in itself? It can come with a risk. Let’s say you have delivered a script or submitted a scene of animation and you’re waiting for feedback. If you get stuck into script 2 or that next scene, there is a possibility that the notes from the first one will change how you should have approached the next phase. But you have already begun to work through ideas and problems so, even if you have to make considerable changes based on that feedback, you still have a head start.
Keep going. Push ahead. Bank the work for when you need it. Your future self will thank you for it.
The Children’s Media Conference last week was interesting as always. Lots of positive ideas and people making great things with great missions behind them (the mission is important!). A lot of talk of YouTube which, of course, most of us are very aware of both in terms of opportunities but also challenges. We know a lot of children are going there for their entertainment. My own girls, for example, adore Stampy and his seal-like laugh and gaming fun.
What is a concern for me as a parent are the ads that play before these, which are in no way age appropriate. The last Stampy marathon I watched with my girls was interrupted with ads for Orange Is The New Black, for example. There is a YouTube Kids app in the U.S. It has come under fire but I at least find it encouraging that it is an acknowledgement that kids can and do access content there. Hopefully that will get better and, when right, will go global.
Kids exist. They watch YouTube.
So it was a little disappointing when one speaker who makes excellent YouTube videos was hit with the question: who should be watching your videos? The speaker had already talked about how much kids get from the videos, even using a slide of a toddler watching one of the videos. The answer to who should be watching: well, as per YouTube terms of service so… I guess that’s 13 and over. It was just a little moment where someone was put on the spot and was hit with a question they weren’t quite expecting (though certainly should have been) but it was an abdication of responsibility. That’s always a problem. Kids exist. They watch YouTube.
On the other end, there was a great panel on the 4-6 age group and age appropriateness presented by Mellie Buse and it was fantastic to hear Dave Ingham (Boj, Clangers) and Lucy Murphy (Bing) talk about how they want to tackle subjects relevant to the lives of kids, challenge them, reflect their lives and their world with honesty in a way that is right for the age group. They really think about who is watching what they make. I love that.
So let’s side with Dave and Lucy on this one and remember that kids exist and they watch what we make. And isn’t that fantastic?
We talk about story a lot, and for good reason. For many forms of media, story is key in so many ways to engaging kids. But for me, story is the start. Not the end goal.
Story provides the framework on which everything else sits: look, feel, setting, comedy, emotion, wonder, discovery and so much more. All put together, the idea is that we offer kids an experience. One they feel a part of. One they relate to, one that seems familiar and yet also one that can surprise them and get them thinking. An experience.
And one of the best ways to offer young children an experience is to show them young children experiencing, just like them.
Whenever we write a story for a show or film, we get notes. A script editor, head writer, director, exec, whoever will point out things that don’t work for them, problems or difficulties and often offer solutions too. It is part of the process and a very important one.
But dealing with notes is not always easy because, all too quickly, we get so close to our story that we can have a hard time seeing it any other way. Or during its early stages, we explored it so many different ways that we have already ruled out some suggestions we’re now seeing in the notes. Sometimes it is just hard to know where to start with them.
So here’s a simple tip. It’s something I do. After waiting 24 hours (I always need time for notes to sink in), I rewrite the notes at the top of my document. Not just transcribing them, I reword them in a way that suits me better (how I would have phrased them) and I lay them out so they are line by line, like a ‘to-do’ list.
This does two things. The first comes from rewriting them in my own words. Now the notes are no longer alien. They are no longer an outsider in my story. They are there in my document, in my story and in my words. It makes them personal to me. And so often I find that, even as I write them, my mind is already creating ideas and solutions that I didn’t see while reading them in an email. Usually as I write these notes, I’m actually also writing the solutions or new lines along side them.
The second thing is even simpler. Because they are now laid out like a ‘to-do’ list, I use them as one. When I’m confident a problem is no longer a problem, I strike it off the list. It gives me a sense of achievement, gets me closer to my goal and I always have clear focus on what it is I am actually tackling at any given moment.
It is a simple thing but it makes a big difference to rewrites and polishes.
Every TV episode I write has to justify its existence. Yes, people want volume and that alone can be the aim. For some shows, it doesn’t matter if every episode blurs into the next. But for me, I want to add something. Offer something that hasn’t yet been covered. I approach this in different ways on different shows and different episodes but I usually have the same thought behind it – how might this become a child’s favourite episode?
For that to happen, an episode needs something to define it.
You just have to think about how a child asks for the episode. “I want the one with the balloons!” “Can I see the one about the dog?” and so on. Quite early on, I found myself applying what I have come to call the Friends Title Method. Remember Friends? Of course you do. The episode titles in that show were all “The One With…” There was:
The One With The Monkey.
The One With Russ.
The One Where Joey Moves Out.
They all followed this format. For me, thinking of it that way means that I have clarity as a writer. If I know what the one thing is that defines the story, everything I write serves that and should strengthen it. For kids, it separates out the episodes and makes each one unique in its own way. Every episode offers something a little different and so justifies its existence.
So when I’m working on a story, I ask myself what episode this is and I refer to it with that Friends title system – it’s the one with… And now I always know what defines that episode.
Every character in a show or individual episode must have a purpose. They have to be there for a reason and they should offer something that no other main character can.
They should contribute in a way that furthers the story somehow, filling a role: mentor, ally etc. Or in a way that can complement or oppose in personality to enhance the group dynamic. Preferably both.
If you are ever in any doubt about just what that character is doing there, remove them. Better to have too few characters than too many.
Character descriptions are incredibly important in nailing down just what kind of person each character is. They should tell us how we will relate to that character. They should let us know why we might care about that character. And they should make clear why each character is different and has earned their role in a show or film. Often, character descriptions can bloat with back story, complex explanations of relationships with each and every other character and lots of tiny details.
Sometimes that stuff is useful. It might spark a story.
More often than not, however, it gets in the way. One thing I do when I am writing is to create my own little reminders of the core character traits at the top of my document or script. So a character description in a show bible might be a few paragraphs but, for me, it would become something like: Very young. Wants to be liked. Things must be fair.
Three sentences. And not even full sentences. Sometimes it might just be one word. If one of those sentences is simply ‘ordered’ that tells me a lot about how that character will react in situations.
What I have found over the years is that the characters that work best are the ones that can be narrowed down to three sentences easiest. If it’s a struggle to find the core traits that sum up that character or if they require lots of ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, it can be an indicator that the character isn’t quite nailed down yet. Or if you find two characters come down to the same basic traits, that too can be an indicator of a problem. So the three sentences can be a good test of how a character is working.
But does such simplicity do a character a disservice? Surely we can’t all be reduced to three sentences? We are more complicated than that, yes? We are, of course. But you still need that clarity to begin with. And you will find that three sentences per character applied to a whole range of situations will still result in a huge amount of variations in action and reactions. Because the aim then is to write them as living beings, not just robots carrying out their three traits like that’s all they are capable of. For example, we won’t write down ‘hungry’ as one of our traits unless constant hunger is a defining quality. And yet our characters will still get hungry. But how they deal with that will change depending on their three main sentences.
So give it a try – reduce your characters to three core sentences and see what you end up with.
I tweeted about this a couple of days ago and then thought it worthy of a post in case it helps anyone. Back almost ten years ago I had to come up with 40 characters and 40 stories to go with them for Fluffy Gardens. It was an evolving world and I didn’t yet know everything about it. What I did know is that I had to write these stories while also directing the show. I didn’t have time to mess about. Some stories came very easily. Others didn’t.
I needed inspiration for those tougher stories. So I created a cheat sheet.
In a simple document, I wrote lists. Everyday events in a child’s life, including mealtimes, washing up, going shopping and so on. Special events, including parties, going to the doctor, a trip to the zoo and things like that. It contains a list of locations: library, shoe shop, waterfall etc. A list of things: crayons, lederhosen, tuba etc. And (very important) a list of character traits: generous, analytical, boisterous etc.
Many of these are broken into smaller parts. For example, here is the listing for Concert:
Concert Dressing up. Getting tickets. Going to see a live performance. Listening to music. Orchestra. Band. Noisy. Getting restless. Loving the music. Singing along. Trying to play the songs afterwards.
Whenever I got stuck for a story, or I had a part of one but I wasn’t sure what to do with it, I would spend some time browsing the list. I would almost never find a ready-made story on it but it would inspire thoughts, scenes, ideas and ‘what if’ scenarios. Before long, a few words on that page would lead me off somewhere else and I would find what I had was a story. An actual story.
I have updated this list a few times over the years but the guts of it have remained the same. And it has remained just as useful since I wrote it all those years ago. So if you ever find yourself stuck for a story, consider making lists and creating your own cheat sheet.