I sat down to write a post on one of my most important guidelines when making anything: if it can be made better, it should be. Turns out I already wrote that post back when I was making Planet Cosmo.
The reason this was on my mind is that at the weekend I decided to redo a trailer shot I was working on. The shots were finished and were just fine. It’s just I realised this one could be just a little bit better. And so if it can be made better, it should be. The shot are now improved and final picture has been delivered to post. If I spotted something else important at this point, could I do anything about it? Yes, actually. Until the trailer is delivered to its final destination, until I hit the absolute drop dead deadline, I could probably still improve it.
This brings up the question: when do you stop?
When do you stop tinkering with what you’re making to avoid doing a George Lucas on your work? For me, the answer is in two parts:
1) STOP at the last point at which you will still hit your deadline. Implementing a fix too late could mean you miss your deadline. This is not acceptable (post on deadlines here). So your first cut off is the latest point at which you can still get everything done on time. When you’re at that point, you just finish it off and deliver.
2) STOP when you start making it worse rather than better. It is really important to try things in different ways but it is so crucial to realise when your changes are having an overall negative effect. Sometimes this is obvious. Other times, it is less so. For example, you may have a dull background in one shot and you want to brighten it up. Seems like the right thing to do, right? But what if the new saturated background now overpowers your final scene which was meant to look especially bright and colourful? What if people are looking at your background instead of your characters?
All changes will have a knock-on effect. Remember at the start of this post, I mentioned I decided to change a shot I was working on? That created a matching issue which led to the next shot needing to be changed too. Had that been the start of a damaging domino effect, the change would have created more problems than it would have solved. At that point, I would have to stop and step away from the fixes before everything fell apart. As it happened, in this instance that second fix brought everything together and it worked.
So if it can be made better, it should be.
But know when you’re going to damage your end product, either by missing a deadline or simply making your end product worse rather than better.
At any point in a creative project (or business or indeed anything) change happens. Sometimes it is the big changes that are expected during creation, early stages and development but other times change happens during production as you learn more about your project, your method or your characters.
Change can be a good or bad thing.
Straight-ahead hand drawn animation offers a pretty good analogy here. If you start with drawing 1, move on to drawing 2 and then drawing 3 and keep going building your animation a frame at a time, you can sometimes hit drawing 100 and realise that your character now looks nothing like the character in drawing 1. It’s like Chinese Whispers. Your drawings have drifted from where you started. You now have a problem and you are going to have to fix it.
So in animation it can be better to plot out your key drawings, always keeping those first couple of drawings to hand to compare. The character in drawing 100 looks like the character in drawing 1 and it all works. But as you draw, you might actually find a way of improving your character. A new angle, an untested pose or just a happy accident can lead to something you decide to integrate into your character. So now you could say that your drawings have drifted but this time it is good drifting.
So what’s the difference? That’s easy: control.
Drifting as a word sometimes has negative connotations. People picture a balloon getting away from you and rising off into nothingness. You don’t want to lose control of your project or your writing, do you?
But I love the word drifting because I picture something entirely different. I picture taking a corner in Ridge Racer. I picture those tight turns in Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift. A controlled slide. This is way better that the word ‘pivot’ because to me pivot implies a complete stop. A pivot happens in place. Drifting on the other hand? That’s a change in direction without losing any momentum. You are around that corner and you’re moving as fast as you ever did.
That’s good drifting.
Change in any project can be a really good thing. Improvements don’t happen without change. But you have to take control of those changes. That’s the difference between losing a balloon and taking the tightest corner in Ridge Racer.
Whether you’re writing on your own project or for someone else, you will no doubt have a script editor. A script editor should be your greatest ally as a writer. I know it seems convenient that someone who is script editing would want you to think about how awesome script editors are (disclosure: I’m currently story and script editing a meaty 52-episode series) but I’m coming at this more from the perspective of a writer, having just completed the first scripts for Mooshku’s Millie and Mr. Fluff. I wouldn’t dream of writing a script and not having my editor, Hilary, have input. We need that external view, no matter how good our writing may be or even if we edit scripts too. Good script editors are essential.
This is the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re a writer working with an editor: your script editor exists to make your work look even better.
Your script editor maintains the distance and objectivity that you can lose when you get buried in a story. Your script editor is your advisor, your sounding board, your friend.
The best thing about a script editor is that they are usually (not always, but usually) untainted by any other part of the process. Think about it – the producer needs volume, an easy production and easy sales with minimal explanation. The director wants an episode that’s easy to make and can allow for performances. A distributor wants sales and license deals. Almost everyone on a production has a bunch of concerns that aren’t always about telling the best story.
A script editor, on the other hand, exists to make the scripts better. That’s it. So ideally the bond of trust between you as a writer and your editor should be unshakable.
If it is, here is what a good script editor will do for you:
They will make sure you are telling your story in the strongest way possible.
They will keep an eye on your flow, if you’ve lost sight of anything obvious.
They will listen to your language, make sure it’s correct.
They will look for the pitfalls, those pitfalls that you are better removing or patching before others spot them.
They will be there to nudge, to suggest and even just to talk things through in order to help you overcome any difficulties.
So value a good script editor, trust them and try your absolute best to make that relationship work for you. Try to find the right editor, one you favour and can recommend (I can recommend me and it’s a service we offer at Mooshku but I would also wholeheartedly recommend Hilary who made me a far better writer – get in touch if you’d like details). One you consider your best ally. Because really, out of everyone on a production, the script editor is on your side.
Wouldn’t it be great if, one day, people will ask, “Violence? What’s violence?”
Oh, some of you are going to say it’s in our nature and it will never end. The real monster is man and so on.
In our nature? Perhaps. Now. In the past.
But we evolve. We change and improve. Walking on all fours was in our nature until we evolved to walk upright. Grunting was part of our nature until we created language or moved beyond our teenage years. We have all changed for the better.
We can always change for the better.
Many years ago in darker times when dragons walked the earth (maybe), I was making a health informational safety video for children. It was a general subject that affects us all but they wanted to wrap it up in a fun cartoon for kids. Why? Because that’s where they could make a difference. In a single generation, they could make real change. That stuck with me. I knew it to be true because I grew up on Sesame Street and look what that show did. Media has an effect and that can be positive or negative – regular readers will know that’s a running theme on this blog.
So I aim for positive. And the great thing is that I know so many others are aiming for positive too. But when our Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with horrific images that shake us to our core, worrying about our colourful shows, silly characters for cartoons and apps may seem indulgent. Trivial. Pointless.
At the very least, for a brief moment we can give some children a smile, maybe even a laugh. But it’s much more than that. What we offer children now through media becomes part of the world view of the next generation. We can do some really great things for kids, in very big ways or just in small ways. It all counts. Going back a few years, the messages in Fluffy Gardens weren’t really designed to help kids be better kids. The hope was that the stories would help those kids have the chance to become better adults. Will they? Well, those stories are just such a small part of some children’s lives and the characters will likely be long forgotten about as children grow but it all contributes. So for me when I’m coming up with new developments now at Mooshku one of my main missions is to offer kids something funny and exciting today while contributing positively to the adults they will become tomorrow. This is something I try to carry through all my work.
And if you give something positive, a message that can get children thinking, that many adults should already be thinking about, or you are inspiring a love of learning and exploration and a desire to do better, you stand a chance of making some change in a single generation. No, it’s not the same as getting on a plane and volunteering to be an aid worker or taking to the streets in protest right now and the effects are certainly hard to measure and rely on a lot of faith and time but that doesn’t make it trivial or pointless. If anything, it just serves as a reminder of the importance of getting it right.
As strange as it may seem sometimes when we’re hunched over our desks creating funny little characters, we have the potential to do some good. It all counts. In the meantime, be excellent to each other.
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.