The Children’s Media Conference last week was interesting as always. Lots of positive ideas and people making great things with great missions behind them (the mission is important!). A lot of talk of YouTube which, of course, most of us are very aware of both in terms of opportunities but also challenges. We know a lot of children are going there for their entertainment. My own girls, for example, adore Stampy and his seal-like laugh and gaming fun.
What is a concern for me as a parent are the ads that play before these, which are in no way age appropriate. The last Stampy marathon I watched with my girls was interrupted with ads for Orange Is The New Black, for example. There is a YouTube Kids app in the U.S. It has come under fire but I at least find it encouraging that it is an acknowledgement that kids can and do access content there. Hopefully that will get better and, when right, will go global.
Kids exist. They watch YouTube.
So it was a little disappointing when one speaker who makes excellent YouTube videos was hit with the question: who should be watching your videos? The speaker had already talked about how much kids get from the videos, even using a slide of a toddler watching one of the videos. The answer to who should be watching: well, as per YouTube terms of service so… I guess that’s 13 and over. It was just a little moment where someone was put on the spot and was hit with a question they weren’t quite expecting (though certainly should have been) but it was an abdication of responsibility. That’s always a problem. Kids exist. They watch YouTube.
On the other end, there was a great panel on the 4-6 age group and age appropriateness presented by Mellie Buse and it was fantastic to hear Dave Ingham (Boj, Clangers) and Lucy Murphy (Bing) talk about how they want to tackle subjects relevant to the lives of kids, challenge them, reflect their lives and their world with honesty in a way that is right for the age group. They really think about who is watching what they make. I love that.
So let’s side with Dave and Lucy on this one and remember that kids exist and they watch what we make. And isn’t that fantastic?
We talk about story a lot, and for good reason. For many forms of media, story is key in so many ways to engaging kids. But for me, story is the start. Not the end goal.
Story provides the framework on which everything else sits: look, feel, setting, comedy, emotion, wonder, discovery and so much more. All put together, the idea is that we offer kids an experience. One they feel a part of. One they relate to, one that seems familiar and yet also one that can surprise them and get them thinking. An experience.
And one of the best ways to offer young children an experience is to show them young children experiencing, just like them.
Whenever we write a story for a show or film, we get notes. A script editor, head writer, director, exec, whoever will point out things that don’t work for them, problems or difficulties and often offer solutions too. It is part of the process and a very important one.
But dealing with notes is not always easy because, all too quickly, we get so close to our story that we can have a hard time seeing it any other way. Or during its early stages, we explored it so many different ways that we have already ruled out some suggestions we’re now seeing in the notes. Sometimes it is just hard to know where to start with them.
So here’s a simple tip. It’s something I do. After waiting 24 hours (I always need time for notes to sink in), I rewrite the notes at the top of my document. Not just transcribing them, I reword them in a way that suits me better (how I would have phrased them) and I lay them out so they are line by line, like a ‘to-do’ list.
This does two things. The first comes from rewriting them in my own words. Now the notes are no longer alien. They are no longer an outsider in my story. They are there in my document, in my story and in my words. It makes them personal to me. And so often I find that, even as I write them, my mind is already creating ideas and solutions that I didn’t see while reading them in an email. Usually as I write these notes, I’m actually also writing the solutions or new lines along side them.
The second thing is even simpler. Because they are now laid out like a ‘to-do’ list, I use them as one. When I’m confident a problem is no longer a problem, I strike it off the list. It gives me a sense of achievement, gets me closer to my goal and I always have clear focus on what it is I am actually tackling at any given moment.
It is a simple thing but it makes a big difference to rewrites and polishes.
Every TV episode I write has to justify its existence. Yes, people want volume and that alone can be the aim. For some shows, it doesn’t matter if every episode blurs into the next. But for me, I want to add something. Offer something that hasn’t yet been covered. I approach this in different ways on different shows and different episodes but I usually have the same thought behind it – how might this become a child’s favourite episode?
For that to happen, an episode needs something to define it.
You just have to think about how a child asks for the episode. “I want the one with the balloons!” “Can I see the one about the dog?” and so on. Quite early on, I found myself applying what I have come to call the Friends Title Method. Remember Friends? Of course you do. The episode titles in that show were all “The One With…” There was:
The One With The Monkey.
The One With Russ.
The One Where Joey Moves Out.
They all followed this format. For me, thinking of it that way means that I have clarity as a writer. If I know what the one thing is that defines the story, everything I write serves that and should strengthen it. For kids, it separates out the episodes and makes each one unique in its own way. Every episode offers something a little different and so justifies its existence.
So when I’m working on a story, I ask myself what episode this is and I refer to it with that Friends title system – it’s the one with… And now I always know what defines that episode.
Every character in a show or individual episode must have a purpose. They have to be there for a reason and they should offer something that no other main character can.
They should contribute in a way that furthers the story somehow, filling a role: mentor, ally etc. Or in a way that can complement or oppose in personality to enhance the group dynamic. Preferably both.
If you are ever in any doubt about just what that character is doing there, remove them. Better to have too few characters than too many.
Character descriptions are incredibly important in nailing down just what kind of person each character is. They should tell us how we will relate to that character. They should let us know why we might care about that character. And they should make clear why each character is different and has earned their role in a show or film. Often, character descriptions can bloat with back story, complex explanations of relationships with each and every other character and lots of tiny details.
Sometimes that stuff is useful. It might spark a story.
More often than not, however, it gets in the way. One thing I do when I am writing is to create my own little reminders of the core character traits at the top of my document or script. So a character description in a show bible might be a few paragraphs but, for me, it would become something like: Very young. Wants to be liked. Things must be fair.
Three sentences. And not even full sentences. Sometimes it might just be one word. If one of those sentences is simply ‘ordered’ that tells me a lot about how that character will react in situations.
What I have found over the years is that the characters that work best are the ones that can be narrowed down to three sentences easiest. If it’s a struggle to find the core traits that sum up that character or if they require lots of ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, it can be an indicator that the character isn’t quite nailed down yet. Or if you find two characters come down to the same basic traits, that too can be an indicator of a problem. So the three sentences can be a good test of how a character is working.
But does such simplicity do a character a disservice? Surely we can’t all be reduced to three sentences? We are more complicated than that, yes? We are, of course. But you still need that clarity to begin with. And you will find that three sentences per character applied to a whole range of situations will still result in a huge amount of variations in action and reactions. Because the aim then is to write them as living beings, not just robots carrying out their three traits like that’s all they are capable of. For example, we won’t write down ‘hungry’ as one of our traits unless constant hunger is a defining quality. And yet our characters will still get hungry. But how they deal with that will change depending on their three main sentences.
So give it a try – reduce your characters to three core sentences and see what you end up with.
I tweeted about this a couple of days ago and then thought it worthy of a post in case it helps anyone. Back almost ten years ago I had to come up with 40 characters and 40 stories to go with them for Fluffy Gardens. It was an evolving world and I didn’t yet know everything about it. What I did know is that I had to write these stories while also directing the show. I didn’t have time to mess about. Some stories came very easily. Others didn’t.
I needed inspiration for those tougher stories. So I created a cheat sheet.
In a simple document, I wrote lists. Everyday events in a child’s life, including mealtimes, washing up, going shopping and so on. Special events, including parties, going to the doctor, a trip to the zoo and things like that. It contains a list of locations: library, shoe shop, waterfall etc. A list of things: crayons, lederhosen, tuba etc. And (very important) a list of character traits: generous, analytical, boisterous etc.
Many of these are broken into smaller parts. For example, here is the listing for Concert:
Concert Dressing up. Getting tickets. Going to see a live performance. Listening to music. Orchestra. Band. Noisy. Getting restless. Loving the music. Singing along. Trying to play the songs afterwards.
Whenever I got stuck for a story, or I had a part of one but I wasn’t sure what to do with it, I would spend some time browsing the list. I would almost never find a ready-made story on it but it would inspire thoughts, scenes, ideas and ‘what if’ scenarios. Before long, a few words on that page would lead me off somewhere else and I would find what I had was a story. An actual story.
I have updated this list a few times over the years but the guts of it have remained the same. And it has remained just as useful since I wrote it all those years ago. So if you ever find yourself stuck for a story, consider making lists and creating your own cheat sheet.
Anyone who likes sci-fi will be familiar with council scenes. In these scenes, we take a well-earned break from the interesting stuff to watch a group of stuffy old people spout exposition and debate ethics while sitting or standing very still. The Phantom Menace had them. A bunch of Star Treks had them. Those Matrix sequels probably had them, I can’t quite remember. Jim from Neighbours has made a career out of them.
But they’re boring.
They are really, really, really boring.
They are so easy to spot in sci-fi but, once you develop a distaste for them, you’ll start to see them everywhere. It could characters spouting exposition and debating in a kitchen. Or a sitting room. Or somewhere else. The main hallmarks are that the characters aren’t going anywhere, don’t have much actual purpose other than to fill in story gaps, the scenes are about as static as can be without being labelled a photograph and often the characters involved don’t even have a role in the rest of the story. Boring, boring, boring.
And you know what? I just spotted one beginning to form in a thing I’m writing. Not a total council scene but close enough. I feel shame and alarm and I have cut the scene completely but I have no excuse for it.
I won’t let this travesty pass without some good coming from it. So now I use my now-deleted half-written scene of boringness as a lesson: avoid the council scenes. Just get rid of them. Look out for them and cut them. They’re boring. They’re boring for everyone but especially in kids’ media. Even your quirky designs won’t prevent the energy grinding to a halt when they happen. So just don’t let them happen. Say NO to council scenes.
I started with animation, the 2D hand-drawn kind. At a certain point, I recognised a built-in difficulty with the 2D animation system: the dilution of drawings. While setting up a scene, a storyboard artist sketches a character pose. Then a layout artist draws a tighter on-model version of that pose. An animator uses that as a basis for their rough key poses. Then in-betweeners fill in the drawings that are still missing, using the key drawings as their starting point. Finally a clean-up artist redraws all those drawings again with a clean line.
In each one of those steps, the energy that was once in that storyboard pose gets harder and harder to keep. It’s like a far less interesting version of Chinese Whispers, where the end result is a bland approximation of the starting point. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but the chances are pretty high in every single scene.
So people tackle this in different ways. Often the storyboard artists get to put a lot more life into their drawings. They don’t have to stick exactly to what the character looks like so they can be more playful. That way, we hope that they capture an energy that survives in part all the way through, albeit in a diluted form.
But the best way I found to beat this problem is one I saw employed by some making the crazier cartoons of the ’90s – encourage everyone at each stage to push it further.
You don’t just aim to capture what was in the previous drawing. You don’t aim to equal it. You take it to the next level. Got a strong storyboard pose? Try to make it even stronger in the layout. Then again in the animation and so on. Each artist adding to the energy rather than just repeating or, more likely, losing the energy altogether. And you have to keep doing it. You have to push every drawing actively. The second you stop doing it consciously, the energy fades again.
So I realised this many, many years ago.
What I hadn’t realised at the time, however, is that it applies to far more than just hand-drawn animation. It applies to just about everything. It applies to story. It applies to character. It applies to writing. It applies to directing. It even applies in ways to production systems. You have to keep trying to push things further at every stage. Make them more interesting, stronger, better. And you have to do it consciously and keep reminding yourself to do so. Because the second you stop, things slip. They start to get far less interesting and, eventually, stop working altogether.
So keep pushing it further. Do it at every stage. And use every bump, every criticism, every do-over, every problem as an opportunity to ask yourself how you can push it even further. Do this and you’ll end up with something interesting, better and truly alive.
Very early on in my career, I spent a short time at a games company back in the early Playstation 1 days. Making games required long hours, it seemed, and people stayed at the studio until around 10pm every night. Anyone who dared leave early was judged as they left because it’s hardly fair to leave your comrades working, is it? You have to pull your weight.
But it didn’t take long to notice that most people spent a large amount of their day not working. They chatted about football and Ministry of Sound and DJs. They made lots and lots and lots of tea and others were out for cigarettes every half an hour. It didn’t seem entirely productive. And it was easy to see why. There was a mentality of: well, I’m working late anyway so I can have these breaks and I’m still working hard.
And that rendered the late nights pointless. They were working late for one reason – because a working late culture had crept in. The truth was that nobody really valued the time.
Good time management is essential. And for you to be good at managing time, you have to be aware of its value. Every minute has to mean something to you.
A culture of working productively is fantastic. One of working long is not the same thing. Which is why I’m sure you all know some studio somewhere that has its people working late most nights yet constantly misses deadlines.
All time must be assigned a value. It’s how we can manage development and it’s certainly how we can manage production – juggling stories, scripts, animatics, animation, sound, editing and more on multiple episodes at once. And if things go wrong, the values assigned to specific blocks of time must be reassessed and redistributed. When you have solved that problem and are back on track, you then reassign the values yet again so that you’re not spending time doing things that now aren’t needed. None of that happens if you don’t value time as a precious commodity.
You also have to be aware that the same activities can carry different values in different situations. For example, wandering around a house with a coffee can be essential think time for a writer. For a train driver, it means they have skipped work and there are a lot of angry people waiting on a platform somewhere.
The same rules don’t always apply.
So to achieve good time management and get stuff done, appreciate the value of time. Evaluate and reevaluate it. Never take it for granted and never just slip into the habit of using it up for the hell of it.
One last thing: it is also imperative that you don’t take the time of others for granted too. Value their time. If you send someone a work email on a Sunday, for example, and it doesn’t go frontloaded with an apology you’re effectively saying you don’t value their weekend time unless it’s about a project you are both working on together and have agreed to communicate on over those periods. Even if they are choosing to work, that’s their time (thank them for that later). Draft the mail and send it on Monday. If you do have your team working the weekend, feel bad about it. Really. That will help you get better at managing the situation to avoid it happening in future. The worst thing is that you start to take it for granted. Because when the value of time slips, so will effectiveness and productivity.
Time must be valued and treated as sacred for you and everyone else to stay productive. And if that’s not reason enough, keep in mind that it eventually runs out for all of us. You’ll want to feel you used it wisely.