I am often asked about various aspects of creating and producing content and have covered many different parts of that already. But I have never gone through the process of how to create a show from the start all the way through because every project is different. So with Millie gathering momentum, I thought I could use it as a case study and show how the beginnings of an idea can become a show pitch, and hopefully go much further. So here is part 1: The Idea!
It all starts with a mission – the goal. Or at least, it usually does. Millie and Mr Fluff didn’t. It started with a trip to the zoo. The zoo is a fantastic place for families and my girls were very young and loved it and it was great to share in that experience. While there, I began to have silly notions based on animal names. This sort of thing:
But one unexplored idea that I had on that particular trip was the question of what would happen if an animal needed the day off. I thought about this for a while but it was a couple of years later before I would ever answer it.
And it was a simple answer: you would call a stand-in. And in my head, this professional is a large tiger wearing glasses and carrying a briefcase. Very stuffy and upper crust and someone who takes his job very seriously. The core concept and the beginnings of Mr Fluff were now already in place, although I didn’t really know it yet and there was still a long journey ahead.
Now ideas will come and go very quickly. If one seems remotely worthwhile, I find I have to act on it very quickly or else I will lose it. And the other important thing about an idea is that, really, it is nothing unless explored, tested and improved. Everyone has ideas but that is a long way off having a show or a book or anything else. You have to take it further. So I wrote a little story just to get the idea on to a page and I did some drawings. This seemed the easiest and quickest way to explore this and it didn’t matter if they weren’t any good – I didn’t have to show them to anyone.
The story was about this rather large tiger named Needs A Name (very common in early development) who comes in to replace a sick lion and gets tormented by the monkeys. I called it ‘Anything But The Monkeys’.
It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great either. Something was missing. This wasn’t good enough. The tiger wasn’t quite carrying the story. And I still had no clue what this was going to be (a book maybe?), if indeed it would be anything, and so it just went on my long list of concepts to revisit.
This is the thing with ideas – if you act on them and do something with them, even just the most basic exploration, you will very quickly start to amass a collection. Ideas are not the hard part once you start looking, it is knowing the good ones from the bad ones. Finding focus is far from easy and I was at a point where I had several ideas to develop and not much by way of resources to develop them. I had left Geronimo Productions not long before this and jumping straight back into television was not part of the immediate plan.
So Anything But The Monkeys would join that long list of incomplete ideas.
But I wasn’t waiting long for that silly tiger to start nagging at me. It didn’t help that my kids had already begun making fanart. I knew this idea was strong. That still didn’t mean it would ever be a real anything, but getting upgraded from ‘just an idea’ to ‘a strong idea’ is a pretty big leap. It was time to take this beyond idea stage and really start to work it up. What I really needed was to find what was missing. One part of that was the mission – I had no mission, no real goal. But the other part? No idea.
The answer, as it happens, was to be found in one of the early drawings…
More next week as development begins and I aim to locate those missing pieces.
Minimum viable product is, like the current Cult Of Failure, one of those concepts I find tricky given my experience and what I do. Why? Because the standard of children’s media is generally INCREDIBLY high. Sure, we hear people complain about the reboots and the more generic Team Dora shows and there are many areas to improve. But really, a massive amount of kids’ media across books, apps and television is pretty impressive. In books we have a level of artistry and writing that can amaze kids and adults alike. Apps have brought us some astounding creativity and a high level of polish. And kids’ TV is built on 60 years of history – learning, experience, research and hands-on production – and still delivers new surprises all the time.
So I get the concept of minimum viable product but, in kids’ media where the current standard is so high, I find we always need to be aiming much higher. Minimum awesome product or whatever you would like to call it.
While at MIPJunior last weekend, I saw some new concepts and shows from friends and colleagues that hit much higher than what we could ever call a minimum viable product. Some wonderful things that I have no doubt will be hitting various screens in the next couple of years, hopefully along with some of our own work at Mooshku which, as an aside, went down brilliantly during MIPJunior.
Not everything was fantastic, of course. One trailer, for example, was mentioned over dinner as an idea that then was terribly let down by the animation quality. There are other companies with impressive production experience and can make pretty trailers but not always the expertise to create content, story and characters from scratch. And some excellent would-be content creators just don’t know how to get stuff made. There can be parts missing that can let down that push to get well beyond minimum viable product.
So the standard is incredibly high, a minimum viable product is rarely good enough and usually no one person can reach the necessary quality alone.
That’s tough, right?
Sure, but you know what else I saw at MIPJunior? A large community of people helping each other out. Offering advice. Sharing stories of successes and failures. Hints and tips. And the offer of services and expertise where needed. I very quickly realised we all have a lot more in common than it might appear. We are just at different stages or have different strengths. Aspects some find difficult, I’ll realise I struggled with for a long time too in those early days. Other things that even now I could find daunting, others who seem so confident in the industry will reveal they share those feelings too. The important thing is that we find our strengths and use them well, while working with those who have complimentary strengths. And with so many great people around to work with, it’s not as hard as it may sometimes appear.
When I started up Mooshku with Méabh, one of our first goals was collaboration, not competition. We wanted to work with other people, other studios, people we admire with strengths different to ours and helping others out where we could lend our strengths and rich expertise. Now that we’ve got things moving and have momentum, it is so clear that was the right choice. And no better place than kids’ content to get collaborative and reach far, far higher than just minimum viable product.
And related to the topic of collaboration and sharing information, I’m delighted to announce a fantastic event from Animation Skillnet and Creative Europe on the erosion of lines between books, apps, games and TV shows. Our panelists are Eric Huang, publishing legend from Made In Me, Curtis Jobling, creator, author, illustrator and designer of Bob the Builder (proper Bob, not new Bob), Miika Tams, Rovio’s VP of Games of Angry Birds fame, and Julie Fox from Awol Animation, international animation distributor. Each speaker will be offering a presentation which will no doubt inform and inspire and then I’ll be chairing a panel discussion with our guests. It is happening at the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin on the 29th of October. Details HERE!
I have posted in the past about luck and how it is really about getting yourself in a place of opportunity and putting in the work to be ready to take that opportunity when it comes. A couple of weeks ago at the Cartoon Forum, I saw a lot of people put themselves in the right place to invite opportunity. Most were ready. Some had a glowing track record or were known veterans, some shined with ability and confidence, others had just worked their asses off to make sure that everything they showed was as great as it could be.
Every now and again, though, I could spot a project and group of people and I knew I was thinking what a large portion of the room were thinking: they’re good, but they’re just not ready yet.
Harsh, right? Thing is, I can probably spot it so easily because I was that person once. I had those projects. Pitching Millie and Mr Fluff at the Cartoon Forum was my 6th time pitching there over what must be around 13 or 14 years. And the very first time I pitched there all those years ago, I don’t think I really had an understanding of what it takes to make a show. As it happens, making a show is pretty easy if you’ve got the budget and an ounce of organisation skills.
But making a GOOD show? That’s a whole different matter.
There are so many elements that have to be spot-on: concept, story, characters, design, production methods, animation quality, writing, casting, sound, music, timing, flow, momentum… the list goes on. All of those things are important. Some of them are so crucial that the second you spot something wrong you know they just aren’t there yet. And the more you show, the more likely it is the flaws will be revealed. You need footage to prove your concept but it has to be right. Some people get it early and they’re good at it all and I admire those people.
I had to work at it.
I’m sure I have discussed it here before but my first few show pitches were unsuccessful and for the simple reason that I just wasn’t ready yet. Oh there were varying individual reasons – sometimes the concept was underdeveloped, we didn’t have the strength of vision to best integrate feedback, sometimes we just got it plain wrong – but really they came down to that same thing.
So what do you do if you’re in that position? You’ve got the drive, you’ve got the ideas, the skills even. But you’re just not quite there yet. Well, you’ve got options…
What changed everything for me was directing Roobarb & Custard Too. I had the safety net of the show’s creator handling all the writing, I had a massive back catalogue of episodes to study and so as long as I really put in the work (I did) I could make a good show. That was 39 episodes. And over that 39 episodes, studying each one of them afterwards and analysing what worked and what didn’t, I got better. I could see what to look out for in visual storytelling, in the boards, I could spot the rookie mistakes in animatics (mistakes which I had previously made myself). I still had so much to learn but, with that series behind me, I was at a point where people saw us pitch Fluffy Gardens and, whether consciously or unconsciously, they could see that I was ready.
So one of your best options is always to work on other shows first. If you’re a writer, write on other shows. If you want to direct, work on a show with a good director or creative leads. Build up those skills while you have the safety net of more experienced people or prior work around you. Even with that, it’s not enough just to do the work. You have to treat it like study and make sure you actively learn. Question yourself and what you’re doing. Get better.
Another option is to bring that experience to you. Acknowledge that you might not quite be there yet and find ways of teaming up with people who make up for that. People who bring a wealth of knowledge and have a strong body of work behind them. I have seen this work brilliantly. I remember seeing one nervous young creator presenting a project that was lovely but, on her own, we would have been left wondering if she could have really handled a series. But she had teamed with a production company with a good track record. They didn’t even have to be a part of her pitch. Just that people knew they were there was enough to reassure everyone and it ceased to be an issue. They could then just focus on the lovely project they were seeing. Sure enough, she made a great show.
If you have set up your own production company and your work to date has not been series work or leading the creative, see who you can hire in or at least get consultants. Get experienced directors to look at your animatics, your scenes. Get great writers. Because the truth is, one thing that experience helps with is spotting those mistakes that every industry expert seeing your pitch will also spot.
You have got to be ready and you have to show people that you are ready. That is not something that just happens – it is something you can actively work towards.
Last week we brought Millie and Mr Fluff to the Cartoon Forum. I have mentioned Millie in my last two posts but I don’t feel I have really told you a huge amount about it, partly because I like this blog to be informative rather than just a platform to promote my projects. But Millie is really important for me and I think it deserves a bit of space here.
So why is it so important? Well, Millie is not the first project of mine to make it out into the world since my big move last year (that would be DINO DOG) and it is not the only Mooshku project in development. But it is my first new TV project. Even bigger than that, it is the first Mooshku project to be revealed to more than just a handful of people. That’s a big deal to us at Mooshku. Mooshku’s first stamp on the world of good children’s entertainment is Millie. It is the first project that can now make it to what would be a Mooshku showreel. That’s important, right? It’s the beginning of a new life chapter that could turn out to be a very big chapter.
Here’s the show concept…
Millie is playful child (just like your child) who runs a zoo (okay, not exactly like your child). Her one aim: make sure everyone has a great time at the zoo. So when an animal is sick or needs the morning off to pick up their dry cleaning or is missing for any reason, Millie calls her very good friend Mr Fluffington-Strypes to stand in for the missing animal. Fluffington-Strypes (Mr Fluff to his friends) is an actor, a gentleman and a rather large cuddly tiger. He dresses up and assumes the role of any animal at the zoo.
Anything but the monkeys, who are noisy, playful and terribly messy and far beneath a professional such as Mr Fluff. More often than not, it doesn’t quite go according to plan and so Millie has a day of fun trying to make it all work out and children have lots of laughs along the way.
Millie and Mr Fluff is a short, snappy preschool comedy show. Comedy is one of those things talked about a lot and there are certainly a few great preschool shows that are genuinely funny for young kids (Peppa, Gigglebiz, Ben and Holly, Pingu going back a bit). But there aren’t all that many. So we worked really hard to get the Millie comedy right for preschoolers in the scripts, the voices, the design, animation, music and sound. And it works. It’s funny. That kids also find out about animal traits along the way is a happy bonus feature.
After LONG development, testing and tweaking, Millie and Mr Fluff has really come together to become something special. And we finally revealed the show to the world (well, to Europe) at the Cartoon Forum.
The pitch went like this: adrenalin kicked in, I started talking about the show, showed a lot of clips and I could see some people smiling which was nice and then it was suddenly over and people were saying lovely things and writing even more lovely things on little purple cards. The show went down great with a lot of people. They got it. In comments, the strength of the core concept was something people could see. They loved the comedy, the look, the music and a few mentioned in particular how well we knew the characters and how that came across.
One aspect that intrigued people: all of the art assets were created on iPads.
All the interest and positive comments were great to hear given the amount of work we did in development – it paid off.
Huge sigh and a sense of satisfaction… before realising that this is just one stage in the process and we now have a lot of following-up to do. And so it’s off to MipJunior with Millie next. A step in a longer journey but a very important one to me and we came away with the results we wanted. And on top of that, we really enjoyed the Forum and got to hang out with old friends and new friends and that was lovely.
So would you like to see some of Millie? Sure you would! Here is the extended megamix of our trailer with little glimpses of Millie stories and scenes. You can watch it in higher quality by clicking the little Vimeo logo on the clip. Here’s Millie and Mr Fluff:
I’m off at the Cartoon Forum this week, preparing to present Millie and Mr Fluff on Friday morning (see the image above). But while I’m away, here is a thought on taking a story to screen:
Hit those key story points hard. Really hard.
As a writer, I would tell you that everything in a script is important. But as a director/producer/editor/consultant/casual viewer I can tell you that not everything is equally important.
In a short television story, there are likely around three absolutely essential story points. These are points that, if a kid missed, the story would cease to have any impact. So in a very generic yet common and perfectly valid example, the key points might be these:
1 – Character has a problem.
2 – Character through some action or event realises there is a solution.
3 – Character fixes problem.
Now there are other parts that will help this story. If I saw a script that was just this, I would recommend that we need to see some failed attempts in there too. But when it comes down to it, if you remove one of these three points you’ve got a major problem. Remove number 1 and your audience doesn’t know what the aim is and so the other points have no impact. Remove 2 and the end will feel nonsensical, pointless or too easy. Remove 3 and your whole resolution is gone.
But when you write a script or your writer hands in the script, there is going to be a lot more in it than just these three things. We hope for lovely character moments, jokes, ups and downs. And they’re all in there together. Rarely does a writer put the absolutely essential points in CAPS (probably would be frowned upon but actually I think there would be some merit to the idea) so it is now up to the rest of the team, director et al, to tell that story in the best way possible. If that team just goes through a script and gives everything equal importance, it could just end up being a bunch of stuff that happens and the key points could be missed. That doesn’t make it a bad script – the script hands you the elements but the storytelling work never ends there, nor should it.
You have got to make absolutely certain that the story will be clear and have maximum effect on the audience. For that to happen, you have to hit those key story points hard. They are essential. They take priority and so, by definition, everything else becomes secondary. So in boarding, animatics, recording, animation, always make certain that those points get the space, timing and emphasis they need. Your episode depends on it.
The Cartoon Forum 2014 is next week and we at Mooshku will be there presenting our new children’s show Millie and Mr Fluff – a comedy about a little zookeeper and her tiger friend, full of fun, disguises and mischievous monkeys. We have lots of animated scenes to show, some great funny moments and a fantastic soundtrack (you’re going to LOVE the music). So I’m really looking forward to the presentation.
There is something special about showing your work to the world, especially in a presentation/pitch scenario where you get to reveal in a way that can offer up the odd little surprise. Presenting is fun. It wasn’t always that way for me. I have pitched many times and the early days were tough. Speaking in front of a room full of people can be a tough thing to ask of even a high-functioning introvert and, truth be told, my early presentations left a lot to be desired. But I learned from experience, watching other presentations and also learning from my own – where they went right and where they didn’t.
People have their own methods of course but for me one simple thing changed presenting from being a nerve-wracking horror to being a rush: more preparation. Preparation firstly in making absolutely sure your concept is ready (I wrote a post on that once) and then actual pitch preparation. Writing it, rewriting it, saying it (because writing is not the same as talking), knowing it. You hit a point where you know your material well enough that you can veer off or answer a question when required and not trip up. You can ad lib and tell a story of something that happened that morning because you know the key points and the material rather than just learning words. At that stage, you’re not reciting. You’re in communication with your audience.
And like a show itself, communication is what it’s all about.
If you can communicate your show well, you’re giving it the best chance. You have to have a great show of course but even the best shows need to be presented well. There will still be hiccups. I still get nervous. I may stumble over a word or two. A video might not play when it supposed to. I might realise I’m still in my dressing gown and slippers. Having written this post about enjoying presenting, I have pretty much guaranteed something will go horribly wrong to make me regret that. But if I’m really prepared, I can pull it together and keep going.
So what about Millie and Mr Fluff? Well it’s a lovely funny show for young kids with a strong hook (I’ll tell you more about that some other time!). We’ve had a fantastic response so far and did some testing early on and refined it and the reaction from kids and their parents has been amazing. We’re excited about bringing it to the Forum and getting to show it off and we have some really entertaining clips to show.
If you’re coming to the Cartoon Forum, I hope we’ll see you in our room: Friday the 26th at 9.45am in the Pink Room.
And if you’re presenting there yourself, enjoy it. Go prepared, have fun and good luck.
I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with the muck-flinging going on in gaming over the last few weeks. I’d forgive you for steering clear of it. The short version is that a small group of gamers jumped on an opportunity for sexism and harassment and a large group of gamers enabled it. I wasn’t remotely surprised by the small group but I must admit to being pretty taken aback by the larger group – the enablers. I have been aware of these issues of course and have written many times on gender role models but this seemed worse than even I was expecting.
I couldn’t help but think of Scott Benson’s short film ‘But I’m A Nice Guy’ (watch here).
It made me sad.
And then, like any stimulus to the creators among us, it motivated me. I asked myself “how can I make things better?” This is one of the wonderful things I see in other creators and there are so many of us. Instead of just tearing things down or criticising or arguing, we get constructive. We learn. We make. We contribute.
So what can we do?
Well in preschool media we start early and this, in my opinion, is the best place to start. In preschool, things are actually pretty good. Some of the biggest hitters (Dora, Peppa, Doc McStuffins) work across genders and don’t rely on gender stereotyping that might widen the divide or build perception that men and women are entirely different beings. Female role models are in a much better place in preschool than they were some years ago and this is working well for everyone. And many broadcasters and producers are working even harder and actively looking for varied, interesting and positive characters with a better gender balance. This all has a positive effect among both girls and boys.
So let’s keep that up. Watch your male/female character ratio, make sure characters of both genders are actual characters rather than their personalities being their gender and watch for lazy gender signifiers (this happens so often without even realising it and I’ve been guilty of it in the past).
One problem is that, for all the great work we’re doing and improvements we’re getting in actual preschool content, we seem to be seeing an equal and opposite effect in marketing. I see more gender divides than ever in commercials and products. What can we do about that? Well as parents we can try to reject it and as creators we can aim to make our content as gender-inclusive as possible. How can that help? Well what I’m finding in preschool is that the better the actual content, the more it exposes the worst of the commercials around it as archaic and wrong. I’m sensing a much greater awareness of these issues among parents and the better things get, the more the anomalies will stand out. There have been great campaigns to make children’s books more gender-inclusive, for example. And now those big ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ titles begin to look weird in that landscape.
So let’s keep improving the content landscape.
Can we do more? Sure. We can always do more. For me, creating content for children that would enrich and contribute is part of our core mission statement at Mooshku and these recent events have pushed gender issues right up to the top of our list. So some things that were simmering in the background will be shifted to the foreground as soon as we can. If we get it right, we can help children, boys and girls, come out of their preschool years as confident as possible, as well-rounded as possible and as open and accepting as possible.
And then after the preschool years? Well that’s where I’ll challenge those making content for older children to do better. There is a problem. So let’s see what difference you can make.
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.