I love creative surprises. I love the little moments of life people can add that I didn’t see coming. The smiles that a spontaneous idea can bring to a scene. Life is full of surprises and getting that across in a story is really important.
But when it comes to production aspects, I don’t like surprises. Not one little bit. This comes from many years of production – concepts to scripts to storyboards to layouts, backgrounds, animation, compositing, sound, music and post. So many processes and so many things to keep track of.
What a production needs is certainty.
In a production, you have to know what’s coming up, when things are expected and what has been planned for. You have to manage your resources carefully and often those resources will have been set down very early in the process. If the needs of the production don’t always match the resources, you need to see this coming from a very long distance so that you can adapt and amend plans – basically so it isn’t a surprise when it happens.
Surprises in a production lead to flusters, misuse of resources and wasted time. So when you’re entering into a production, get to know your production inside and out. Know what you have planned for. If you are lacking any of that information, find it out. Write it down so you can’t forget it. Make sure everyone is aware of what things need to happen and when. And do a regular review of where things are at so you are always kept informed. Avoid the surprises.
If you keep your production as clear as possible, you can save the surprises for where you really want them: in the creativity.
I remember this phrase from back when I was making commercials (a LONG time ago now) and I’m sure it is still one in very common use. We’ll fix it in post – shorthand for: let’s push the problem down the line and let someone else (or our future selves who may as well be someone else) handle it.
It isn’t just fixing a mistake in post-production either. There are many versions of this. Fixing your flow problems in the edit. Hoping your inbetweens will improve dodgy key animation. Letting your story problems through and hoping to fix them in animatic stage. Compared with some of those, “we’ll fix it in post” isn’t actually so bad.
The more fundamental the stage, the more you simply can’t rely on fixing it down the line. I don’t know if I have ever seen a scenario in my entire career where it has been easier to fix a problem later rather than fixing it right now in its earlier form. Once you build in problems, well, you’ve built in problems. You’ll face enough unforeseen difficulties when making anything that throwing foreseen ones on top could be an absolute disaster.
If something isn’t quite working, fix it now. Don’t fix it in post or anywhere else. Don’t shove the problem down the line or allow it to be next week’s problem. It rarely ends well. I’d say it never ends well except someone will probably hit me with a single example where it worked out okay. Don’t take that chance.
I just took to Twitter to express my dismay at a particular “learn animation” ad that keeps popping up on my Facebook feed and, well, now it’s going to be a whole post. Hopefully a short one. Here is my issue with that particular ad that reckons it will teach you to animate: the very first pose it opens with is incredibly unclear. It does not sell what is actually happening to the character. It fails at communicating the idea.
Pretty drawings don’t matter if what is happening is unclear. And it’s not just animation. A lovely storyboard panel is no good if what is happening is unclear. A funny line is wasted if your story is unclear and you’re losing your audience. Clarity is everything.
This is especially true when making any kind of content for young children. No matter what part of the process you are in, this is about communication – engaging kids, telling them stories, bringing them into stories and making them feel a part of them. Communication. And if your communication is unclear, if you don’t give them enough context or information or you muddle your ideas visually or otherwise, you’re not going to engage them as well as you should.
It’s the first thing you should ask yourself: is this clear to my audience?
So while it applies to every part of the process, when it comes to learning animation, I’ll take a scrappy yet clear drawing over a pretty yet unclear one every single time.
If you’re doing anything that involves other people, something that will go places and has got a bit of attention, you’re going to get notes. Notes are part of most creative careers and they can come at all stages of those careers. You need to learn how to deal with notes.
You’ve got to be true to your vision though, right? Well, unless that just involves being stubborn because now every set of notes is a battleground and it’s no fun for you or anyone else and, before long, people are just going to call a halt to the whole process. So instead you’ve got to flexible, right? Got to give people what they ask for? Well, unless that means a total detachment from your work and you are now just a middle person passing notes down the line and you have no investment in making something good whatsoever.
There is a third option and it is the best option. It is to take the challenge of the notes and make them work for you. It is to take your skills and your experience and your passion for the project and apply those in a way that can address the notes while creating something you love. You might be asked to cut an element you love and replace it with a new element that is being thrust upon you. So now find ways of making that new element awesome. Make that new element even better than the last one. You might be asked to cut a whole plot point from your story. Use that either as an opportunity to streamline and enhance the rest of it or, if you have the space, now you get to make a whole new scene. That’s a bonus.
Look for the opportunities. Always look to tackle the notes in a helpful way and do so in a way that gets the best from your own strengths and gives you something you’ll love. I have seen some really helpful notes over the years and I have seen the odd stinker but, always, there is an opportunity there to get something great at the end of it no matter what the note is.
Remember: your project can always get better no matter how good you think it is right now.
When you deliver something and the person you deliver it to feels it wasn’t right, there are many ways you can tackle this. Part of it depends on whether it’s just a taste call or a practical or technical requirement. But really you’re likely to end up doing one of these things:
1) Demonstrating why what you delivered was right.
2) Explaining why what they want won’t work.
3) Fix exactly what was asked for and deliver.
4) Consider the request and deliver a working version that solves the issue.
Only one of these is the path of action you should take. 1 is right out – they already got what you delivered and explaining it won’t make it right. 2 might well be true in your case but it doesn’t make the response to what was delivered any more positive. 3 and 4 sound pretty much the same, right? The difference is that 4 takes into account options 1 and 2. Whereas if there is actually a technical problem or a reason why they shouldn’t go for exactly what they asked for, that means going with 3 could land you in more difficulties.
4 is really the only correct response. You have to try to understand the issues, correct the issues or get close to what you’re being asked to do and do so in a considered way so that you get the best from it while making sure you don’t build in more problems or deliver something that isn’t fit for purpose. Aim to solve what you are being asked to solve, deliver something that works even better and hopefully in a way that you like too. That’s the aim every time.
I began my kids’ media career as a director and writing came after that, first on my own shows and then on the shows of others. At that point, one of the strangest feelings was handing over the story. When you write, you immerse yourself in the characters, the world, the emotions, the laughs and you live in that space intensely. It is YOURS. Yes, you get notes and input and it is a collaborative process for sure but you’re the one who has to dive right back into that world to make those collective thoughts real.
And then a weird thing happens. The story is approved for production and you have to hand it over.
It is no longer yours. The production team and the director will take your script and make it THEIRS. They will interpret the lines their way. They will picture it their way. The voice director will get a take that has a whole different sense to the way you heard the line. Lines will get amended in pickups and there could be entire scenes you didn’t write. And on many productions, you might not ever know. There are episodes of shows I have written that I still have never seen. As a writer, it’s a strange feeling to be so close to a story and then just hand it over into the unknown. For people who are just writers, that has to be a tough thing to get used to and possibly even scary at first.
But I think back to where I started, directing Roobarb & Custard Too and working with Grange Calveley who created and wrote Roobarb. I think about how we took the scripts as the starting point and, from there, crafted the visual and audio storytelling from that. How we added visual jokes, puns (which were a big thing in the show), how we shuffled scenes and even had to completely reinterpret sections at times. Even at the time, I remember thinking that there was something special here – Grange had so much faith and trust. The property owner and distributor too. And in turn, I would pass that trust on to our team. It was a show built on creative trust and support.
Since then, I have tried to build every show on that same foundation. It is how I have got the best from every project – letting the people who are great at their job do their job to the best of their abilities. Sure, as a director and a producer I find it is essential to guide and lead and push but in a way that doesn’t stifle our team, preventing them from actually doing their job well. We start from a position of trust (“do an amazing job with this”) rather than suspicion (“you’re going to mess it up”).
So then as a writer, when I hand a story over to a director, to a production team, I do so sometimes with a slight sense of loss and certainly a huge curiosity about what happens next but mostly I do so with trust and support: my words are only the start and the next phase of storytelling is something different. Go make it something great!
Some time ago, I was having a conversation in which I put forward that we overthink narrative and that the success of YouTube Let’s Play videos offer narrative in a much simpler and wonderfully spontaneous form. A form that those of us in more constructed media are missing (something I have said here before). I questioned the need for anything resembling traditional narrative at all. The very next day, I wrote a post about the need for very traditional and very constructed narrative ideas – how we need to build on the established structures.
You could be reading this and writing all this in your notebook (it’s okay, I know you don’t do that) and be thinking to yourself, well now I don’t know what to believe! Which is fact here? Traditional narrative or not?
Here’s the thing: when you take in every piece of information you get from someone who has made media, had certain successes or failures, has had a long career or whatever appears to make them qualified, you need to think about how that information applies to YOU. To YOUR work.
The one rule I have found over the years is that any time someone says there is a rule, you need to instead write that down as ‘guideline’ or ‘personal piece of advice according to this person’. There really aren’t facts when it comes to this creative stuff. Yes, there are so many things you can learn and should learn but that won’t mean they are always relevant to your work right now. What works for one project in one particular year won’t necessarily work the same for another project in another year. Actually, you can be pretty sure it won’t, hence my rather obvious prediction that the next big successes will come as a surprise to most people.
Many have gone before you. Many have tried different things, done the research, had failures and often understood why. These are things you should learn. There are tools of the trade that we should all have.
But unfortunately this won’t give us a simple set of instructions to follow. So they shouldn’t be taken that way. When your favourite author or creator says something that you remember, don’t file it away as a rule. Because it’s not. Instead, think of it as a tool to be considered. A resource you have that may or may not be applicable in different situations.
The core thing here is that everything you hear and read, the very reason you’re reading this right now, should really be to get you thinking rather than to stop you thinking. To provide an insight that will help you in your own work and, if we’ve done our job, the insight will more likely come from YOU rather than the words you’re reading right now.
For me, my guideline, my personal piece of advice is: be informed. As much as possible, be informed. And then really consider that information. Think about it. Use it. Or don’t use it but make that a decision rather than just something that happened because you didn’t realise you had tools at your disposal. Let every nugget of information prompt more questions. Your work is your own and you will find your own path.
So traditional narrative or not? Well that actually has a very simple answer: maybe…
A large part of successfully working across a production is about cause and effect and predicting the future. If you are just dealing with things on a day to day basis, you are going to miss what’s heading towards you. You must see what is coming. The difficulty is doing this while also dealing with what any particular day is throwing at you.
Here’s how this happens: you might have a delay in a particular area and now you’re behind in one process. You scramble and maybe you have to find someone else to get what you need that day or maybe that week. That’s your short term and it’s important and it can take a lot of your attention to get that sorted. But that attention is only on the now. Maybe even in the now, it doesn’t seem like all that big a deal – you can handle it. You have got it sorted.
But project to a month down the line. The person you got to fill in has taken a while to grasp the style, their output is just that little slower for the first few weeks and now things are just too tight. Someone else throws a spanner in the works, some other process gets delayed, and that’s all it takes to throw the production into full-on crisis.
That’s just one example – there are so many ways that a small challenge now or, more likely, a build up of small challenges now can lead to a major problem later in the production.
So what do you do? The first thing is to always look at what is coming – what you planned for and what has now changed. Where will the next potential jam occur? What happens when new plans meet old systems? What do you have to do now to minimise the problems that could be coming? Examine your schedule and processes for more information. The next thing is to protect every other part of the process. Because the big problems can come from a build up of little problems, once you have identified one problem, lock down everything else – the more you can avoid any other change in the processes, the better your production will be and the more you can focus on just fixing the issue at hand. It is so often when problems collide that they become a big deal. Do what you can to make sure everyone knows that the parameters in other areas must not change.
The important thing is to make sure things don’t build. Never assume things will sort themselves out. Never put off dealing with a challenge. Tackle it now, lock down and protect everything else and, if you can do that, you’ll never have to deal with an actual crisis.
How long is that going to take? No matter what part of a job you’re doing, this is a very hard question to answer. My old producer will no doubt tell tales of me skirting around an answer for days because I don’t like to commit to something and then miss a deadline. Missing deadlines is not cool. But more often than not you are going to have to pick a figure and stick to it.
When you do, you have to factor in the little things. The parts that, to you, aren’t really the job itself. For example, maybe you’re a background artist and you’ve got a background in progress. You have it roughed out and it’s in good shape and, with the colouring and texturing, you might have another day’s work in it.
But how long will it take to do the housekeeping? Naming the layers? Merging layers or removing the ones that are no longer needed? Copying or uploading the file to where it needs to go? That delivery time? And if you have a single crash and have to wait for it to reopen, even that might push you over that day and now you’re delivering late.
With writing, I find that even digging out yesterday’s notes and trying to catch up with where I was at and get back into that mindset can take up a good chunk of time. It’s not writing time but it needs to be factored in every time. And I can’t deliver once I reach the end of my document. After that comes several passes to catch various problems before it’s even close to being ready to send. All those things are so easy to miss when gauging how long things will take.
But people need to know. They need to know when to expect something because every part of the process in our creative field depends on the previous part of the process.
So when someone asks how long something will take, you’ve got to give it your best guess. Remember to factor in all the little things, things that don’t even seem like part of the job. Give yourself the time to actually deliver.
Notes, eh? They can frustrate. Just when you think you’re done, you get a new note and have to unravel what you’ve done. Maybe even come up with something else entirely. And can you do that in the time you have? Notes can throw spanners in all the works. But there is something to consider here:
Quite some time ago, we were trying to work out a character for a thing I was working on and we submitted some first options to see if we could get a steer. One of those options was approved instantly. No notes. No suggestions. No questions. An approval.
Cause for celebration? No. I wasn’t happy. That character wasn’t completely ready yet. It wasn’t as great as it could be. It was a first draft. And it could be made better but we didn’t get the opportunity. And this is exactly the thing to keep in mind: notes are an opportunity to make something even better.
Even if you don’t like the note, you now are given that chance: make it better. Take that opportunity. There are times in my career I did not agree with notes I was given and there were times we got too many notes with not enough time to carry them out and notes have to be managed on all sides because they can cause a production to grind to a halt… and yet I can’t think of many cases in which something got worse after we had another attempt. Because it wasn’t just about carrying out the notes. It was an opportunity to make things even better.
Notes, revisions, retakes, redrafts – they are all a part of the process. They come with the job. And when you get them, take the opportunity they offer.