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.
A message to the people just starting out in this whole making content business – the wannabe writers, directors, designers, creators. Don’t be a wannabe anything. Just be it. Go on, change that twitter profile and remove the ‘wannabe’. Whatever it is you wanted to be, you are now it.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could make a show or app that appeals to absolutely everyone? One that appeals to all broadcasters? All distributors, publishers and everyone involved in making things a success? One that every single kid everywhere just loves?
It’s probably not going to happen.
Why? Because people love different things. You want people to have strong feelings – they have to have strong feelings in order to get excited about what you’re doing. But the thing about strong feelings is that, for everyone who really loves an aspect of what you’re doing, someone else will likely have strong feelings in the whole opposite direction.
A simple example from my own history is how Fluffy Gardens excited a few key broadcasters on little more than the look and yet one broadcaster didn’t want it because they didn’t like characters with big eyes. It was that simple.
Now if you aim to please everyone, to have your show be all things to all people, the solution is to reduce the size of the eyes for that broadcaster. Now you have affected the look, the one thing that had some people excited in the first place.
And this is the problem in a nutshell: in aiming to please everyone, it quickly becomes about easing dislikes rather than enhancing likes and loves. You shave off the edges that may put off individuals until you have something that, sure, nobody really dislikes but nobody loves any more either.
Instead, accept that not everyone will like what you are doing. Focus on those who will like it. And then improve it until they love it. Those people will be your champions. They will make things happen.
No show, no book, no app can be everything to everyone. And attempting that risks losing those who really matter to you.
Expectations play a huge role in any story. It is not as simple as having high or low expectations. Personally, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t expect a good story and if a film, show or game is entertaining, we will rarely come away disappointed just because we expected something pretty good.
Where expectations become a problem is in those situations where we expected something entirely different to what we got.
For example, if I told you we were going to watch a film with Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey and you started to look forward to a light, quirky romcom then you would likely come away pretty annoyed when it turns out the movie we watch is Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Next Generation, right? You would a very hard time accepting the movie for what it is because there is a huge disconnect between that and what you were expecting.
If I told you in advance we were going to watch a schlocky horror sequel, you would likely have a better time.
The same is true within the stories themselves and, yes, within children’s stories. Sure, we like twists and turns and surprises but if something in your intro has us looking forward to something that is ignored or forgotten about later on, we will likely be disappointed. It’s Chekhov’s gun: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” (side note to preschool writers: avoid stories about loaded rifles).
So if you’ve got a kids’ story that opens with news that the circus is coming to town, make sure you get to the circus and make that moment as fun as you possibly can. Don’t just make it a throwaway epilogue. Really milk it. Let kids enjoy it because that’s what you told them to expect. Pay off what you set up. Make sure that where the story goes is at least as entertaining as the promise you made when you introduced the ideas.
My advice? When you finish a draft, revisit the opening. If it looks like the story was going somewhere entirely different, change it to reflect where you actually ended up. Don’t ever leave kids hanging, waiting for something that just isn’t going to happen.
Let them know what to expect and then pay that off in the most entertaining way possible.
Animation tests are wonderful things. Sure, they’re pretty good for people hiring because they provide a safety net in case someone with a decent showreel can’t actually do what you need. But that’s not what I mean. Animation tests are wonderful for those doing the tests. Because they’re an opportunity to show not just that you can do a job competently, but that you can offer something special.
Can you get that in a showreel? Sure, but every job is different and I have seen a lot of good showreels in the hands of people not suited to particular jobs. Creating something directly relevant shows what you can do in a far better way*. That is a real opportunity and, when talking to new animators, I always advise to push to get a test even if a studio doesn’t quite think they are ready. No better way to get ready than actually tackling the job.
My first full series directing gig on Roobarb & Custard Too I got by doing a test. There were other factors, of course, but as part of the discussions the rights holders of Roobarb needed to know that our studio could replicate the look they wanted. Well we could replicate it without a problem. That wasn’t an issue. But now we had an opportunity to show them something more, something different. And I did a little test animation test that was quite removed from what they were asking for.
We got the series and I was now directing a 39-episode series.
All because we showed them what it looked like. It took all doubt away and actually showed them that they could get better than they were aiming for initially. And that’s the real desired outcome. Competency is all well and good. Delivering special, something a little better than asked for? That’s how to make an impact.
And this applies far beyond animation tests. A show can be described beautifully and that can get people interested to the point where they would like to see more. But a great image can sell a show there and then. It’s not easy but it happens. Everyone has a bit of that “I’ll know it when I see it” thing in them.
So let them see it.
*One little footnote on this – some people are hired specifically to do something just like their showreel or in their own core style and that’s a different situation.
I met a spaceman at the weekend. More importantly, my two little girls met a spaceman. Astronaut Chris Hadfield, who I posted about last May when he both entertained and inspired the world, taught my youngest daughter to shake hands for the first time at the age of five.
And he was awesome.
I have no doubt that Chris Hadfield has completed many important tasks out there in space but one of the most important things he has done, in my opinion, is excite the people down here on Earth. And especially the children.
I have never been to space and maybe I’ll never get there but all the way back in 2010, I began my own mission: to inspire and excite children about space. Through a funny cartoon show, I wanted to introduce very young children to the planets in our Solar System. The real planets, all of which are completely mind-blowing. Whole other worlds. And, for me, that was just the beginning. The idea behind Planet Cosmo is that it would spark questions. That kids could go back to their parents and ask, why is Mercury so cold at night? How many moons do other planets have? What other suns are out there? What other planets are there?
The hope was that an interest would be ignited and that parents would recognise that and feed that interest. The show launched last year.
And you know what?
Planet Cosmo has worked. It hasn’t yet spread internationally as quick as I would have loved (it is, however, already it is making its way to Finland, Portugal and Iceland). But wow, it worked. Right here in Ireland, I have had some of the most amazing mails and feedback from parents. The ones that make me smile the most are those where the parents got involved – made Solar System mobiles with their kids, for example. When it isn’t just about a kid but a whole family sharing in interest in space.
Those are our future astronauts. Our future technicians, engineers. Even right here in little Ireland, software and equipment is being developed for space missions. In the future, who knows? Today’s kids could very well be astronauts. It’s more than just a dream. And right now, they are little astronauts. We are on a planet. In our Solar System. We are all in space. Making that known and igniting the imagination is so important.
Our little astronauts are wonderful.
So I thank Commander Chris Hadfield for doing a far bigger, better job than I could have ever done. I hope he has inspired your children, as he has inspired mine. His book is excellent, by the way. And if you haven’t yet checked out Planet Cosmo, give it a look. It’s often on RTEjr here in Ireland and there is a whole episode on YouTube below for anyone to watch. From here, I would love to continue that mission – to inspire and educate kids about space exploration and the awesomeness of it all. And I know it is a mission many others share so, who knows, there could be new partnerships, new concepts, new forms.
I suspect I shall end up doing a lot more work for all our little astronauts. I certainly hope so.
We have all been told something we’re doing won’t work. For example, years ago we were told by a good broadcaster that Fluffy Gardens wouldn’t work. Broadcasters wouldn’t buy it, kids wouldn’t watch it.
Fluffy Gardens sold. Kids loved it.
Being turned down and told that concepts won’t work is an industry cliché. Every success, small or huge, comes with story after story of people rejecting the idea or saying it will never work.
So when it is your concept they’re saying this about, what do you do?
Well, firstly listen to any criticism. Really think about it and its relevance to your project. If amending something could improve your project and make it a better version of what it is, then do that. Don’t do it because you’re expecting anyone to change their mind. That’s the wrong reason and almost never happens. Don’t do it because they know more than you. Do it if you truly believe your project will be improved. Always strive to make your project better.
Evaluate your pitch and materials. Are you showing your project in the best possible way? If not, learn from that and improve your presentation.
Then accept that the project is not right for that person. That doesn’t mean there’s something fundamentally wrong with your project and it certainly doesn’t mean there is something wrong with that person. We all have different experiences and that person may have tried something similar in the past and it may not have worked for them. Or there may be other quite good reasons why they don’t want what you’re selling and they aren’t going to go into those reasons with you. All it means is that the project is not right for them.
Move on. Quickly. And look for someone who it is right for.
Don’t ever let the negativity drag you down. Don’t completely shut it out either, because you might pick up something useful from the criticism. But don’t let it beat you. Don’t let it stop you. Keep going. Make it better, pitch it better and get it in front of the people who will love it.
Eventually, you’ll be telling your very own story about those people who told you it would never work.