So what’s Mooshku? Mooshku is a word created for children and now a company created for children. Our focus is fun, positive stories and activities across multiple platforms. Mooshku is part of a new phase, a new leap – those who have heard my talks know I value my leaps. A collaboration between Méabh Tammemagi (agency producer for Saatchi & Saatchi among a whole lot of other things) and myself, we’re aiming to give kids the best in a way that works with parents. Our bottom line: if it’s not good for kids, we don’t make it.
The great thing about being based here in Ireland is that we have many wonderful animation production studios and a large bank of talent. We are hoping this brings opportunities for lots of collaborations and we have a rather large ‘people we want to work with’ list already. Our main area is content itself: focusing the aims and making certain they work for a young audience with strength in character and story while utilising all the methods to boost engagement and effectiveness that come from years of experience and research. We produce in-house where content will benefit from that while also offering our expertise to those making their own media and content for children.
Mooshku was featured in the Sunday Business Post here in Ireland at the weekend along with the April issue of Kidscreen magazine and the response has been incredibly positive. So thank you to everyone who got in touch with kind words. It seems expectations are high! Don’t worry – you know I like a challenge and I don’t intend to disappoint an audience.
If you haven’t visited already, check out the Mooshku website. The background patterns offer a sneak peek into some of what we have brewing (shhh! Don’t tell anyone!) and the site will let you know who we are and what we can do. If you know someone who might be interested, please spread the word. Also we’re on Twitter HERE.
So what of this little site? It will be business as usual here. This remains my personal site sharing content and knowledge, stories, tips and whatever else you might ask for. Of course, if you’re curious I can let you know what Mooshku is up to from time to time.
Thanks as always for visiting! See you back here next week.
I was asked a little while ago about how to approach writing a blog. My first thought was, well, you just think of an idea for a post and then you write it. But there is more to it than that and I realised the strategy for writing my little blog is not just about writing a blog. It’s about writing, be it posts, articles or TV episodes. So here is my little guide to writing:
1) Set a deadline
I always post here on a Wednesday. So I know for the rest of the week that, one way or another, I need a post ready for Wednesday. It must be posted. The same is true on TV shows or delivering content – productions are expensive and delays can cost serious money so you have to deliver on time if you’re going to remain working. Deadlines must be respected. Once you realise this, you will deliver. So there is nothing like a deadline to cure writer’s block. Just set one and then stick to it.
2) Jot down every idea
Ideas come and go so quickly. They’re like sparks. So don’t assume you’ll remember a good one and don’t judge a bad one too harshly early on. Note every idea down and come back to them later. This is especially important when writing on a series, where you often have to come up with a large amount of stories. When it comes to that next script, you’ll need a bank of ideas to draw upon. So create that bank – jot down all ideas as they come.
3) Search for ideas
Yes, many ideas just come to us but it’s not always that easy. There are times we have to actively search for them. How do we do that? Depends on what we’re writing. For blog posts, I often go through the process of what I do and I ask myself, is there something interesting here? Is there something I have learned that might help others? I write keywords and see if anything leads somewhere. For stories and shows, I take a similar approach writing lists of activities, places, events and seeing if they form together to become a story. If I get stuck, I’ll start doodling scenes. Often seeing your characters visually can lead to a moment that leads to a whole story.
Yes, you actually have to write. People write at different times of day. I tend to work best in very quiet places in regular hours free from interruptions, leaving the evenings free to clear my head but I know some people are night owls and do their best writing at night. Whatever works for you is fine as long as you do the writing.
It is rarely right first time (for me, it’s never right first time). Whether just a little blog post or a feature script, it’s going to need another pass. It could need several. If you’re on a regular schedule, this is important to factor in when getting close to your deadline – you don’t want to be clicking ‘post’ as soon as you hit that last word. Give it time so you can come back to it and do another pass.
6) Build in a buffer
I never deliver late and I feel uncomfortable even coming close. I want to deliver early or, if something goes wrong, at least on time. To do that, you have to factor in the unexpected. Something can delay you, stop you working when you need to work or you may actually really face a hideous case of writer’s block. So how do you still deliver on time? You build in a buffer. Write more than you need when you can. On my shows, I wrote furiously at the start so I was always a few episodes ahead of schedule each time. That way, if I needed to take a week off for any reason, I had scripts ready to go into the system and nobody was held up. Same is true for blog posts. Have a few sitting there ready to go in case you need them.
And that is how to write. Seems so simple. Of course the challenge is often not how to write, but how to write well. That is a whole other topic but the best way to get to a point where you’re writing well is to keep writing. So write!
Young kids like structure. You’ll hear it about parenting and it is true for content too.
Hollywood movies are generally very structured and they usually follow the same format you will read about in any number of scriptwriting books. Most regular adult viewers won’t be able to identify it consciously but ask someone 20 minutes before the end of a movie how long there is before the credits roll and most will be pretty good at guessing correctly. That is because they know where they are in the familiar traditional structure, having seen it play out in movies over and over across a lifetime.
When you are in the area of preschool content, your audience doesn’t yet have a clear preconception of how structure works. And they want to know. They certainly want to know when the story ends. It can be jarring for children when the end credits roll and it is a surprise to them – they didn’t quite think the story was finished. So you need to help them out with that.
This is one reason circular stories are great in preschool. End as you began but now with a new realisation or a key change. Bringing it back to the beginning can tie your story up very neatly and kids like that. It is also why a very clear format can help children. Dora the Explorer has the “We Did It” song towards the end of every single episode. As soon as kids hear that, they know the episode is coming to an end and they feel satisfied knowing they got the full story. Many other shows (including my own Planet Cosmo) now use similar song endings or key phrases that appear at the end of every episode. Many Peppa episodes end with the family falling over laughing or jumping in muddy puddles. That tells kids, okay now we’re done. Kids don’t want stories left in a limbo. They like their stories neatly packed away, as happens literally in the end sequence of Yo Gabba Gabba.
So no matter what form you are working in, when making content for preschool children try to signal your ending. End neatly and clearly. Leave them satisfied. Don’t leave them hanging.
One word of caution: don’t signal your ending too early. Once kids get it into their heads that the story is finished, they can disengage and go looking for the next story and your lovely warm epilogue will be drowned out by the argument of what to watch next.
When you’re creating for kids and assembling your characters, getting your balance right and making sure that each character fills a role that the others don’t (you do all that, right?), always consider the family dynamic. Are the characters literally a family? If not, do they slot nicely into family roles?
I began thinking of my characters as a family many, many years ago, even before I had built up practical experience in children’s content. What tipped me off to the importance of family was actually deconstructing sitcoms. A huge amount of sitcoms are family units. Even those that aren’t actually families still work as family units. They’re friends or even rivals or people who just put up with the other people but, in sitcoms, those relationships are usually much closer than in real life. In a family, many of the barriers we put up even with close friends are gone, so there’s an honesty there. You can very quickly establish the family pecking order and that helps us get into a show quicker. For example, Cheers was a dysfunctional family unit. As a result, we tend to buy into and relate to the frayed nerves that lead to so much of the comedy.
Taking this back to kids, specifically in preschool, research finds that children are often drawn in by the familiar. They are engaged by things they recognise from their own lives. More than that, it is very clear that young children place massive importance on the family unit. It is their first world, and they use that to help them understand the extended world beyond. Many children will use their own family to assign roles to fictional families. Mum and Dad are easy, of course, but in my family Daisy was Peppa Pig and Alice, being younger, was George. Children will aim to understand other families in terms of how they relate to their own.
So it’s worth looking at your own characters like a family. Given a young child may define (or fail to define) your characters by attempting to match them to their own family, how do your characters really relate to the lives of children? How can you strengthen that? How can you make your unit and roles even clearer?
The family unit you create does not have to match that of your audience exactly, nor could it. But if you think about the lives of your young audience and you make the roles clear, there is a far better chance that your audience will grasp the dynamics very quickly. And remember: like Cheers, you can build a familiar engaging family unit without your characters actually being family… but getting it right does take more work than just assigning family-based labels.
Backstory does not equal character. It can inform and shape the character but the backstory only has value if it does just that and, quite often, it doesn’t.
Characters are in the here and now. That’s what counts.
I have seen documents with pages of backstory for preschool characters who are as one-dimensional as they come. That’s just a waste of paper. What’s Dora’s backstory? What’s Peppa’s? Has any preschool child ever asked for more information?
If it helps as part of your creation process, great. Go with it. But don’t get caught up in it or convince yourself you have an interesting character because they had some childhood trauma – that’s a trap. What matters is what a character does in the present of your story. That’s character.
When making any content for young children, there are two very important things to keep in mind. Here is the first:
Preschool children are not little adults.
They are different to you. You can not apply your thought processes, your logic, your taste, your likes and dislikes and expect them to work for preschool children. Doing that will only lead to self-indulgent content that is not age-appropriate and simply not engaging for a young child.
Interestingly, preschool children have or develop early a sense of what is for kids and what is for adults and they’ll often lose interest if they think something is not made for them. That is why one of our first concerns when at design stage is: will children know this is for them? The answer has to be ‘yes’ or your content is in trouble.
So your audience is not you. It is so easy to forget and yet crucial to remember if you are aiming to be any part of making content for children – creating, writing, directing, animating, designing. But there is another part to this:
Preschool children are little people.
They are real people. They are curious, imaginative, thinking, feeling little scientists working out the world and learning at a phenomenal rate. They pick up so much of what is going on around them, long before they can effectively verbalise that they are doing this. So they are not little adults but give them credit for what they are and especially for how much they can understand and learn. They do care about quality (not always gauging the same things you are). They do care about character, about story. They have a clear sense of what interests them and what doesn’t. So the bottom line here is that you cannot just make any old rubbish and expect it to hold your audience.
They are a very discerning audience, especially in a world saturated with children’s content. Just because you can get it on to the TV (buyers are adults) or on to the App Store (those choosing featured apps are adults) does not mean it will hold your audience for any length of time.
So remember who they are not (a little you) and let’s all give kids credit for who they are: amazing little people.
From time to time, I hear writers declare their love for animation because, in animation, you can just write anything. You’re not limited by what you can shoot in physical locations so it is no more expensive to write in a trip to Jupiter than it is to write a trip to the supermarket. Budget just isn’t an issue.
This is not true.
Budget very much is an issue. Animation is time-consuming and costly and the bottom line is that you have to write something that people can actually produce. And in this case the supermarket could be more expensive than the trip to Jupiter due to having to draw all those items on the shelves and animate customers, staff and so on. More characters on screen means more expensive. New characters means new designs (often new rigs and setups) which is also more expensive. Same with new locations.
What you write has to be produceable. More often than not, it has to work within a tight budget. So unfortunately you can’t write anything and expect it to be produced. You have to keep budget in mind. This is the reality.
The trick then becomes not letting this reality cripple your writing.
Sometimes we get notes back on a script and it is so clear that the writer of the notes was not really paying attention. They were checking their emails, on a phone call, reading twitter all while making notes on our script and they missed that one really important scene that explained the bit they said made no sense.
Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Well, that’s often how kids watch TV. They’re shuffling around, playing with toys, stabbing their sibling with a Peppa figure, being called in for lunch for the hundredth time. What they are not always doing is paying attention.
So as unfair as it may seem, sometimes that distracted exec is actually a good gauge of how clear our story will really be to our audience. Given we can’t possibly control a child’s environment, is it our problem if kids aren’t paying attention? Of course it is.
So what do we do about it?
The first thing is to make your content as engaging as possible. There are many ways of doing this and many tips already on this blog and more to come.
The second, and really the subject of this particular post, is for us to accept that, no matter how awesome our content is, there may be times children aren’t paying attention. So compensate for that.
Make all goals clear. Several times.
Run your core ideas through the entire story.
Recap. Several times if possible.
Save your story message for the last scene.
State an important line with other action happening that may distract.
Fear repetition. Young kids enjoy repetition.
So make it easy to keep up. Approach your little 7-minute story like it is a 39-episode series with an essential story arc. What happens if your audience misses episodes 25-27? What happens if someone joins the show mid-season? Give kids an in-point to your episode in several places and never forget this: the one part they miss could be your ending.
In talks and when giving advice to students, one of the lessons from my own experience that I tend to repeat is about the importance of jumping in at the deep end. Don’t wait until you are ready. Just go for it and then figure out how you are going to survive. It is the quickest and best way to make career leaps, and often the strongest way to learn.
Because, when you do that, improving becomes the solution to survival. Worried your quality won’t be good enough? Get better. Worried about deadlines? Get faster, more efficient.
I stand by that advice.
But it assumes you will survive. The unfortunate reality is that some people don’t. Sometimes the job is just not a fit for that person. That can be hard to accept at times. On a couple of productions I have had faith that people will pull themselves up and deliver. At times, I could see they really wanted to make it happen.
But sometimes it is just not a fit. At least, not at that time.
And as much as we all want things to work out for the best, I can tell you from personal experience that it can be far more damaging to a production to put faith in someone who just isn’t going to get there than it is to accept it and remove them from the production altogether.
Weigh up what happens in either scenario…
A) You let the person go. You have a tough conversation on your hands, often very unpleasant. You could be put under pressure to give that person another chance. If you go through with letting them go or moving them elsewhere, you now have a position to fill which can be very tough to do when a production is under way. You have to train a new staff member up in your methods and hope they will be a good fit in your team. You may even miss some deadlines while you get them up to speed.
This brings great uncertainty.
B) You hope they will get there eventually. Meanwhile the others have to pick up the slack, something they may be happy to do at first but will eventually breed resentment. This sours morale. The lack of productivity from this person can lead to a blockage in production so deadlines are missed. If that happens, they will continue to slip later and later. And if this person really is not a good fit, they will end up under severe pressure and stressed, leading to more mistakes. Meanwhile production staff (and creators/writers/directors/producers) have a meltdown worrying about their show/project. This is a downward spiral. It can kill a production and I have seen this come close to happening.
And unfortunately all this is considerably more certain than option A.
Better the devil you know? No. There is no room for ‘devils’ on a production. It is wonderful to have faith in people. It is great to give people a chance, even before they are ready. Without people taking a chance on me at several stages in my career, I wouldn’t get to do what I do now.
But sometimes that job and that person just aren’t a good fit.
Watch for that, try to catch it early and deal with it directly. Because delaying, with the best will in the world, can be poisonous to a production. And it is better to take on the uncertainty of finding someone new than it is to take on the certainty of a poisoned production.
I am so saddened by the passing of Jimmy Murakami, an animation legend and a wonderful man. Jimmy lived an incredible life and achieved so much (summed up in this Cartoon Brew post). For me, one of his greatest highlights is his movie adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows, a heartbreaking and beautiful animated movie with music by Roger Waters. I loved listening to Jimmy’s stories about the making of this film and he not only tolerated my barrage of questions on the movie but seemed to delight in telling more and more stories.
And nobody could tell a story quite like Jimmy.
It was only a few years ago that I found out that Jimmy had also directed ’80s Roger Corman sci-fi almost-classic Battle Beyond The Stars, with an all-star cast. Well that was a whole new barrage of questions and, yet again, Jimmy welcomed every one of them and was kind enough to send me old articles on the movie and feed my every interest.
That was the thing about Jimmy – he went out of his way to help anyone who was interested, and not just when it came to talking about his career. Jimmy seemed to love the new generation, the underdogs, and would always offer advice and support unconditionally. His stories entertained but also inspired.
And the stories of his life outside animation and filmmaking? Wow. Jimmy lived. He really lived. His stories were colourful, certainly not always PG, and always left me with a smile. That’s if I could steer him away from talking about Chinese co-productions.
Jimmy Murakami is a legend in animation and one of the biggest names in Irish animation. In a way, he mentored every single one of us. His influence will always be felt here. And now he is gone. I will regret not pushing him for even more stories. Not spending more time with him (we mostly caught up at animation events and it was only in recent years that I got to know Jimmy better). And most of all I will regret not pushing to make our screening of Battle Beyond The Stars and Q&A happen, something Jimmy and I had been planning for some time and we talked about just a couple of months ago. Sometimes you really do just run out of time. I’m sorry we didn’t make this happen, Jimmy. There are stories you would have shared that now we’ll never hear.
But let’s be thankful for all the stories we did hear. Thank you, Jimmy. You will be and are already missed.