Memento was a great movie, wasn’t it? And who didn’t love Godfather Part 2? But we don’t jump around chronologically like that in preschool. There is a very good reason most of the top preschool shows take place in real time, hardly ever even moving on to tomorrow, never mind shifting backwards to yesterday. If 24 had been a preschool show, nobody would have noticed what was different about it.
Generally in preschool, it’s good to stay in the present. Right now. In real time.
Young children don’t always have a clear sense of time. And the younger they are, the harder it is for them to understand. Children live in the moment. They live now. Yes, some actually have surprisingly great memories (like my eldest daughter) but it can be hard to process any true sense of when something really happened. A child might say “yesterday” and that could mean yesterday, last week, last year or five minutes ago. And without truly understanding how the past works, it’s incredibly difficult to really grasp the idea of time in the future.
Back in the early Fluffy Gardens episodes, I made the mistake of writing in too many ‘next day’ transitions. Rookie mistake. Much later with Planet Cosmo, it all takes in real time except for a single story which revolves around bedtime and so required one night-to-morning switch. Making it work took a lot of thought and, even then, I suspect I only managed to get across what was key to the story (bedtime) rather than fully getting across that passage of time, at least with the younger children.
It is okay to do that. You can tell stories like that as long as you know why it is you’re doing it, understand what elements are important to your story and make it absolutely clear, with the understanding that young children are not going to have that same sense of time passing that you do. But unless you really have to, I would always advise staying in the present. Stick to real time. It’s much easier for a preschool audience to grasp and they will be with your characters every moment of your episode.
But that was before just about every piece of knowledge from the entire planet decided to plonk itself right in front of us as we work. And even without that, think about those times you are buried in your work and someone interrupts to tell you something that, actually, has no real relevance to anything you are doing or are ever going to do. That knowledge is not power. It is distraction.
The truth is, there is more in the world than we could ever learn in a hundred lifetimes. We can amass knowledge. Everyone can. In a way, that has completely levelled many playing fields. Knowledge is not power any more. Not on its own.
Action is power – that comes from having drive rather than lots of knowledge. Relevant knowledge is power when applied – relevance and a sense of what is actually important comes from experience rather than just information-gathering. Above all, focus is power. And focus, by its very nature, means shutting some things out because you just don’t have the time or energy for them. Oh, I’m not anti-learning. Not by a long shot and anyone who reads this little blog would know that very well. I feel we should learn about the world and beyond our world, grow, test and challenge ideas. But when we are working, actually immersed in projects, we need focus.
And as it happens, it seems that focus is much harder to achieve these days than finding knowledge.
So in those situations, consider filtering just what information gets in. My rule of thumb: if the information is something I can’t take any action on, I don’t need it.
Every business has its own language and even little niches within those businesses have their own dialects. When you’re just learning the language, often the first words you pick up will be the buzzwords. They’re new and people are just trying them out so they get overused. Most buzzwords will eventually be dropped. Those that aren’t will stop being buzzwords and will be integrated into the language of that business.
It is important that you learn the language. Not just the buzzwords but the actual language.
Why? Because it makes your communication clear. When you’re creating, inventing, making and building, clear communication is key. Luckily the language of preschool content is relatively simple, at least on the content end – vocabulary begins to really build when you get into the actual production. Thing is, unless we hit a point where we are content doing the exact same thing over and over again, that learning doesn’t stop. So I don’t write this as someone who is content being fluent in preschool and speaks it like a native. No, as it happens I am myself currently learning new languages in the software end while developing some new preschool content and discovering yet again just what difference the language can make.
Writing a project document when you don’t know the language is like trying to order in a restaurant abroad by gesturing, making animal sounds and shouting louder. You know what you want and your intentions may make perfect sense to you but that doesn’t mean anyone else will know what you are babbling about.
And so we must learn the language.
It’s exciting. New methods, new terms and new ways of putting thoughts together that can really help solidify your concepts. It’s not always easy (I’m still at the shouting louder phase) but it’s important, no matter what end of our business, or any business, you want to be in. So whatever you’re aiming to do, learn the language. Listen the fluent speakers (that is what I am doing right now) and read, read, read. Then speak it.
The real challenge, I suspect, is weeding out the useful language from the buzzwords.
More often than not when making a point we take small, clear examples from everyday life and use those those to help illustrate a far greater, more important concept. I am about to attempt to do the exact opposite – to use a complex, world-altering discussion to see what it can tell us about making happy little children’s cartoons.
You see, I have been thinking about the recent exchanges between Russell Brand and Robert Webb. To boil it down to incredibly simplistic terms, Russell Brand has been saying we shouldn’t vote because the system doesn’t work for us and we need to make that clear by not agreeing to take part. Webb argues that we’re lucky to have democratic systems at all and not taking part will only make us less relevant, resulting it in being far less likely that it will ever work for us. Phew, that’s a rather grand discussion for two comedians but I couldn’t help but wonder about where I stand.
In my life here in Ireland, I have seen many generations of politicians. And how it works here is that, with every new generation, the previous generation is revealed to have been inept, self-serving and utterly corrupt. Sure, the country has changed and we have had massive ups and downs so not everything has stayed the same but this cycle of apparent corruption and damning the previous generation has remained a reliable constant. And while there are some more pleasant things about what has happened in my life on a government level (not least of which is the amount of support for local children’s content), I must admit to having hit a point where I feel like my actual vote is irrelevant. That particular aspect of our system doesn’t really feel like it is where change happens.
So where does that leave me with Brand and Webb? Well, like almost everything in life, I find myself applying the question to making children’s entertainment and seeing what feels right there. In making animated television shows, we inherited some systems from the old classical animation days but, really, very few of those turned out to be all that relevant and, because of the way the children’s TV industry grew here in Ireland from the ashes of those old movie systems, we all kind of made it up as we went along – we created our own new systems. There was a lot of trial and error involved.
The bottom line for any system we put in place was this: if it doesn’t feel like it’s working, you don’t keep hammering away at the same system in the the blind hope that some day it will. You remove that system and try another. Even if we’re being told we’re lucky that we have Y2K-compliant copies of Toonz, if it’s not working for production there is no point in keeping it. You don’t just change staff. You change the whole system. You move to Flash and completely change your pipeline to work with that. Or Cel Action. Or 3D.
So if Brand were making cartoons, I feel he would be saying something along the lines of “Stop measuring things in footage – it’s not working for you and has no relevance” and Webb would be saying “well you’re lucky to be making cartoons at all”. And both are true. But deciding not to use a particular system does not mean we have to give up the ideal of making awesome cartoons. Quite the opposite. When you’re in production and you have come to the conclusion that a part of the pipeline is deeply flawed and just didn’t give you the results you needed, you would be crazy to carry that same system on to the next production.
A key part of making any production work is identifying where it doesn’t.
And with so much to do, every single part of the process should contribute to making your work better – it should have a positive effect to the on-screen end result. If it doesn’t, don’t give it your time.
So whatever about the politics, whatever about what we may feel about Brand or Webb and comedians generally, it is possible that we can take this discussion to a smaller level, closer to our little preschool content home. We can be thankful we get to make shows at all, we can hang on tight to our ideals of making better and better content and, all the while, being completely open to acknowledging when a system just isn’t quite working for us. When that happens, we can change it.
We had a great day on Saturday talking through writing and developing for preschool media. For the most part, we stayed with the needs of the audience and how best to focus and present the creative in engaging ways. But any work comes with systems that must be dealt with on top of all the fun creative and dealing with notes is part of almost any process. We touched on this a little on Saturday but I felt it worth expanding on here. It’s fantastic to get notes about how awesome our work is but, when we aren’t used to them, more critical notes can sometimes feel like a kick in the gut.
They can feel rotten and can be hard to take when we are so close to our work. That’s the truth of it.
So knowing that, here are my top tips for handling notes you don’t particularly like:
1. Don’t react instantly.
Read the notes. Then do nothing. Don’t send a mail, don’t pick up the phone and don’t tear your work apart. Do nothing. Instead, leave them and revisit them the next day. They’ll look different and you have now had time to process them even if you weren’t considering them directly. Sure, there may be some notes in there you still don’t like but the knee-jerk reaction is gone and you will be better able to consider them for what they really are.
2. Remember they are not out to get you.
People write notes to contribute. And you know what? Most do contribute. If there are notes that you vehemently disagree with, remind yourself that the person who wrote the notes is not your enemy. They want to help and their intentions are good. I could have done with someone reminding me this early in my career.
3. Really consider them.
This is so important. You might read something in the notes that doesn’t match with your initial thinking or they may be phrased poorly or even (the odd time) read as offensive but is it possible that the point behind the note might actually make your story better? Or is it possible that you might be able to implement them in some way that would produce, for you, a neutral result – so that you give on the note without feeling like you have lost what you were aiming for? If so, do it. Most of the time, even a note we see as rotten has a very valid point behind it. It’s a sign something hasn’t worked. The truth is, it is the critical notes that have value.
4. Choose your battles carefully.
Eventually you will find a note that, to you, defeats the whole purpose of what you wrote. One that would make you feel terrible if you went with it. You need to save your credits for that one. Don’t waste them on the little things, those things that don’t really matter. Don’t get into the habit of rejecting notes – it will wear you and everyone else down. Save the credits.
5. Those battles? They can’t be battles.
If it becomes a confrontational situation, everyone loses. You win by keeping people happy, acknowledging that something hasn’t quite worked and looking for solutions that are positive for everyone. Keep control, get the results you want while making sure everyone is okay with that. Be positive and stay constructive, not destructive.
And the most important tip of all when you have notes arriving in…
6. Cut off your email.
Don’t check project emails in the evening or weekend. Give yourself a cut-off and stick to it. I would even advise picking a time early Friday afternoon or lunchtime and cutting it off from then. Because someone might send a note on a Friday just as they are walking out of the office, like dropping a little nuclear bomb on your weekend. And you can’t do a thing about it until Monday morning. So let it wait until Monday. Don’t have it on your mind all weekend. You need your weekends, you need your evenings and you need your sleep. So be selective about when you open yourself up to mails.
So those are my top tips for handing those notes we don’t agree with instantly.
I will leave you with just one other thing to consider. I so often preach the value of Audience Awareness – knowing who it is we write for and keeping our audience in mind at all times. One of the wonderful by-products of embracing Audience Awareness is that it can take ego out of the equation. It becomes all about the kids and not in any way about you. When that happens, it stops being personal and you can really see that notes are not about being critical of you or what you can do, but are about seeing if a whole team can give something even better to children.
It all has to make sense. Once your audience starts asking questions in their head about why certain things have or haven’t happened, you’ve lost them. They may miss a line or even several lines and they are out of the story. They may not catch up again. They may not want to.
So everything in your story has to make sense. It has to be clear even for the younger children in your audience. It should be clear for you as a writer or a director and clear for everyone in the production. And so there are limits to how whimsical you can go before you start losing your audience and it is very important that you play by the rules you establish at the start of your story.
And therein lies a lovely little bit of freedom.
You see, we tend to accept the world as it is when we are first introduced to it. If we begin a story about a family that owns a spotty elephant and, halfway through the story, the elephant’s spots turn to stripes without any reason, we’ll question that. It could take us out of the story. But very few people will question how a normal family ended up with a spotty elephant in the first place because that’s the world we established right at the start. If a character becomes a wizard somewhere in your story, that needs to make sense in the context of your world. Open the story with a wizard and nobody will question it. A world of chocolate people? No problem. But when it’s a hot sunny day and they don’t melt, you have some explaining to do.
So if you have some fantastic, fun, whimsical concept you want as part of your story, open with it. That’s now your world. It doesn’t mean you’ll get away with anything, as the chocolate people example illustrates, but you’ll get away with that particular stretch.
We will generally accept the world as presented to us right at the start. From there, you have to stick to the rules you establish.
By the way, don’t forget I will be giving a course on Writing and Developing Content for Preschool Media this Saturday, 2nd of November. It’s going to be a really good day full of guidance and tips to help you focus your content in a way that better engages preschool children. Details here: Animation Skillnet.
Before I get on to my regular weekly post, I’d like to let you know about a one-off writing and developing workshop that I am presenting with Animation Skillnet on the 2nd of November in Dublin. For anyone interested in developing or writing content for preschool media, I will be offering an intensive day of training, guidelines and practical tips which includes insight from decades of research into children and media and my own years of industry experience, writing over 100 broadcast episodes and leading the creative on almost 300 television episodes for children.
With the recent boom in animation production in Ireland, we need great preschool writers and this day will give a head start to both new and established writers looking to develop or write preschool content. So please do come along! Details here on Animation Skillnet.
And now back to our regular services…
Here is a simple little scripting tip that will sound obvious as you read it and yet, because of the way we use language, is something often missed as people write.
Make sure actions and visuals play out in the chronological order in which they happen.
This is easily illustrated by an example. Read this next paragraph and play the story out in your head:
Harry laughs out loud almost as soon he enters the room when he sees Lenny hit the floor, after just tripping on a roller skate which sent him flying into the air.
There is no possible way that a scene can play out like this on screen unless you are playing it backwards. We read first that Harry laughs out loud but that doesn’t really happen until after he enters the room so we missed an action there. Lenny hits the floor but we have to rewind the scene as we find out how and why he hit the floor. As anyone reads through the lines (producer, editor, director, anyone), they lose a sense of what is happening because they are having to jump back in time as they read. That is a problem. It creates a barrier between the script and the storytelling and, really, you don’t even want people aware that they are reading a script – you want them to experience the story.
The solution? Just write it very simply as it happens in chronological order:
Harry enters the room. He watches as Lenny trips on a roller skate, flies through the air and lands right on his bottom. Harry laughs out loud.
Now everything happens in order. As someone reads it, every action plays out in their mind just as it will happen on screen. The sentences are functional. Personally, I like to keep them that way because what is important is the action. Your wordplay won’t make it to screen unless it is in dialogue and flourishes of language, as interesting as they can be, can often draw attention to your scripting rather than the actual story. The main thing is that you have clearly set down the order that will then survive to storyboarding, animatic and final episode.
So keep it mind as you write. Make sure actions and visuals play out in the chronological order in which they happen.
Internal Quality Control is the single most important factor I look for in hiring anyone, or even just choosing to work with someone.
It is more important than natural talent, more important than technical ability, more important than experience. Because people can have all those things and still let unfinished work go too soon. They can get relaxed about deadlines. They can do work and not really care about whether it is as good as it can be.
What is far more important is the belief that the work should be great, that any job should be done well and that we should all be striving for excellence. And the belief that it is our own responsibility to make sure that happens. It’s about having a conscience about the work you let out into the world.
When crewing up for projects, I would often give animation tests. I almost never set a tough deadline for the test, and often didn’t set a deadline at all. Why? Because I wasn’t testing how long it would take someone to do the test. I was testing at what point would they choose to send it to me.
That’s a test of internal quality control.
If your internal quality control is set high, you will always aim to do better and it will show. People see it your work and they will see it in you. If it is set low, you won’t be getting the best from your abilities, training or experience. But there is good news: where you set it is simply a choice. Resetting your internal quality control to a higher level is easier than tackling almost anything else you might be struggling with and, in doing so, you will find those other aspects improve much quicker as you aim for better in your work.
It is good for you, it is good for the people you work with. And the best part? You’ll be making great work.
The universe tends towards chaos. Low entropy to high entropy. But consciousness seems to tend towards order. We take chaos and put a form to it. We build homes, buildings, society, guidelines, rules. Even on a personal level, we search for purpose, stability. And yet we seem to come from chaos and have these chaotic urges and tendencies still within us. Maybe that’s just the fabric of the universe.
So life is so often an attempt to put order to chaos. To the chaos of the universe and the chaos of ourselves. Life is an order/chaos struggle.
We see that in the stories we tell. The very nature of story is about overcoming obstacles. The struggle against adversity and the struggle to master a situation once seen as beyond our control. When we as an audience identify with that struggle, when we really buy into the needs of the characters, we connect. But here’s the thing – it isn’t just about the story as a whole. This is right down to scene level. Right down to individual movements. They all tell a story. And it’s a story about putting order to chaos.
Even down to getting our legs going the right way. We take it for granted. But have you seen children go through that slow process of learning to walk? Or even a young baby trying to pick something up? The level of mastery required just for us just to touch our nose is incredible.
Order on chaos. That’s life. And animation is life.
In animation, we aim to create life. And it is a medium for control freaks. Think about it – you get an actor and you get a bunch of different takes and you can guide them and hope to pull them towards what you’re looking for but, really, every take is a unique moment and once it’s gone, it’s gone. In animation, you can shift an eyebrow up one millimetre, you can hold a smile for three frames longer. You have complete control. You have order. And you need order.
But if you want it to feel alive, really alive, we need to feel that chaos trying to break through. The order shouldn’t come so easily. It’s a struggle.
And the struggle we feel in animation shouldn’t be the animator wrestling with software and losing. It should be the struggle of life. The inconsistencies, the little failures, the quirks, the differences that come with every unique moment in time. Every moment should be a story in itself.
Bring order to your animation. But never so much that you lose the life.
One of the hardest lessons early on in a career is finding out that, actually, we don’t know everything. And, yes, we need to find out more. We eventually realise that our ignorance is not a strength (“I’ll bring a fresh approach by not knowing anything” – ahem, no). So what do people do with that realisation?
It seems to greatly depend on what end of the business you are in. I have found that writers usually seek help, sometimes to a fault immersing themselves in books on Hollywood and structure rather than actually writing. To those writers, I say this – write more! But this post is for the others, often the directors, the creators, the developers, who tend to bury this realisation and continue to stumble along blindly. Why do we do this when it seems so obvious that we should learn from the research, successes and failures of others? I suspect it is because people in this position must constantly push so hard to open doors that their self-belief, whether real or as a persona, is crucial to getting ahead. To seek help or guidance could seem like a break in momentum. A step backwards.
But breaking our momentum is sometimes essential. We need to pause to evaluate what we have, to make it better. And sometimes we need to take a step backwards to get a better look at what we have created. And to challenge it.
To do that, we often need to seek guidance from those who have had their own successes and failures or those who have studied the lessons of the past. Those things we find out through trial and error others already know and we can bypass many obstacles by finding that out before we get there ourselves.
This can work at all levels. People call me up for guidance on preschool, writing or production, for example, but I too will seek out guidance in many areas as I work. On Planet Cosmo, a valuable contributor was Educational Consultant, Brian Neish. Now I did my homework and research on the educational methods but actually having the assistance of Brian, someone who had tackled this area many times over, meant we could avoid common mistakes and make our educational portions even better.
Seek guidance. Value it. Budget for it. It will make your work better.
But don’t always act on it.
This is the disclaimer. Not every piece of advice you get will be right for your project. In the fine print of any project development, it should say “be aware your work can get worse as well as better”. Guidance must be evaluated, considered carefully, and acted upon if it will contribute positively to your project. But I have seen some known names in the business miss the point of certain projects and offer guidance that negatively affected the end product. Guidance that, on another project, could have been gold. It is not that these people don’t know their stuff, it is just that every project is different and not every piece of advice applies in every case. By the way, that does not mean the process has been a waste – challenging your project just as a broadcaster or distributor will is incredibly important in building real confidence.
So how do you know? How do you know if it will be right or wrong for your project? Well, mostly through experience. But I will offer one of my own guidelines:
If a suggestion can make my project a better version of what it is, I will gladly take it on and act on it. But if that suggestion is attempting to turn the project into something it is not, I will usually reject it.
Be true to the project, whatever that may be.
So seek guidance. Recruit top level people with experience to help. Value that, be open to it and take on any suggestion that will help make your project better. But in the process, never lose sight of what your project is.