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.
Just a little note today on scripts and why they are so important when developing a concept. Now when I say scripts, that can be the traditional written form or, as some prefer in animation, a fully working storyboard instead. Either way, it is the document that sets out the story. For me, they are more important than how great the concept itself sounds and certainly way more important than what’s in the show bible.
If it doesn’t work in the scripts, it doesn’t work.
That is all.
And tomorrow at Animation Dingle, I’ll be giving a masterclass going through my whole development process as a creative producer. If you’re at Dingle, come along! It is just one of many great things happening there this year. Details HERE!
Children’s media is is like a warm, difficult, thrilling, heartbreaking, wonderful vortex of conflicts. Too many to cover in a single post. The obvious example is: what is the product? If you’re making television shows, that’s the product, right? No. Because that’s not what most people are paying for. Your target audience gets it free. Commercial broadcasters are selling ad space and so in a way the audience is the product while others sell products to that audience. What were once secondary revenue streams in licensing are now primary revenue streams for many in the business so toys are the product. And it goes on. That realisation can taint everything. It could make you disillusioned and cynical, unable to put your heart into it. Or it could motivate you to milk those kids for all they’re worth and I’m not sure that’s a good thing either.
What about the audience themselves? Who are you making the content for? Regular readers will know that audience awareness is a huge thing for me and years of time, experience and research goes into shaping content that works for my audience: young children. For me, they always come first.
But the buyers are adults.
TV channels are run by grown ups. Distributors? Yep, grown ups. Even parents who are the gatekeepers of content in their own homes are grown ups. And as is well covered on this blog, children and adults are not the same. They like different things. Some of those adults are very in tune with kids. But not all. And even those who know kids well can still be swayed by their own adult sensibilities just as we all are. That’s normal and to be expected.
So you can pitch to the adults and get your show on television but will it work for kids? Or you can make the best content for kids that few adults see the value of so it never gets a chance. Can you satisfy both? Should you?
These are just the tip of the iceberg. Conflicts everywhere.
So how we resolve these conflicts? Unfortunately most of them can’t be resolved. They are tied into the very core of kids’ media. What is important as you work in this area is that you recognise the conflicts when you find them and you make an active decision on where you stand with them. Otherwise you are navigating at random. For me, my focus is delivering the best for the children themselves. On forming Mooshku, our mission became: if it’s not good for your kids, we don’t make it. On content not being the actual product, I made the decision years ago to treat it as the product regardless. That way I know I’m always aiming to deliver the best package in a TV show, app or anything else. But these are not the only ways to look at children’s media. The conflicts still exist.
Your approach, your own stance on all these conflicts will be your own. What is key is that you have a stance.
A couple of other things:
Next week on Thursday the 12th, I’ll be presenting a case study masterclass at Animation Dingle titled FROM BLANK PAGE TO THE BIG PITCH. Using MILLIE AND MR FLUFF as a case study, I’ll be talking through the process of taking a concept from the beginning of an idea all the way to being ready for that green light – development, pitching, tips and pitfalls and a glimpse into our rather unique production methods for Millie. Details will be up on the ANIMATION DINGLE site!
Lastly, it’s great to announce that a few of my projects have been nominated for the Irish Animation Awards. Planet Cosmo is nominated in the Kids’ Choice category and Best Writer. My app Dino Dog is nominated for Best Animation For Apps And Gaming. And Punky, which I script edited and was creative director on is also in the Kids’ Choice and Best Writer (Andrew Brenner) categories. So that’s nice!
I was replaying Ridge Racer on the PSP. It’s a beautifully smooth fast racing game and it looks excellent. I played it when the PSP came out back in 2004 and it still impresses today. On one track, a night city track from Rave Racer, there is a bridge over water. I had never noticed before but the water is just one flat blurry texture repeated. It’s incredibly simple for such a great looking game. This got me thinking about details.
There are two extremes in handling details when we make content and a giant gulf of grey area in between. At one end, you have the “ah, who cares?” mentality. We’ve all seen this. Sloppy work that looks or sounds unfinished. Someone made the decision to let it go and, in kids’ content, someone may well have said something along the lines of, “it doesn’t matter to a five year old.”
Then on the other side, we have the few works of almost pure perfection. Every shot, every element, every detail is a piece of art. A thing of beauty. If you zoomed into that bush you see in the background in that two-second shot, you would see impeccable texturing and colour as each leaf sways gently in the breeze.
Details matter. They matter to us and, yes, they matter to a five year old because they are part of what makes up that overall experience. So when making kids’ content, the place to aim for is closer to that perfection end. You have to care. You have to want it to be as great as you can make it.
But if you’re too far over on that scale, problems can arise. Even if you have your eye on all elements, you deplete time and resources and may fail to deliver. But the real difficulty is that it is incredibly rare that someone can keep track of all the details. As focus gets deeper into some areas, others get lost in the system. And people see your end product and think, wow, that looks incredible but the sound mix isn’t so great. Or the music is wonderful in that story kids will never ever understand. Or that would look great in a picture frame but kids have no idea what they’re looking at. You have lost the most important thing about those details – they have to come together to make up a great overall experience.
So you can’t lose sight of that big picture and you certainly can’t lose sight of your audience. Yes, the details matter. But the truth is they don’t all matter, at least not in quite the same way.
The trick is caring enough and having the knowledge to really be able to know which details count and which don’t.
When Namco made Ridge Racer for the PSP, someone made the decision not to spend time or CPU power on the water that is seen on that bridge section for around a second. They were confident in the overall experience, which needed a stable 60 frames per second, and they knew the visual details that would impress: the buildings, the lighting. They knew which details would matter. They knew that if I was looking at the sides of the screen rather than the road while going over that bridge that something else in the experience probably wasn’t working. The result is that the game has always impressed and it took me over ten years to spot that the water is just one flat texture. That’s how to get it right.
Children can follow a story easier if they know where everything important is. The reason is quite simple: the moment a child wonders why a character is going a particular direction or what happened to the cow who was there earlier or why the house is now blue and not red, they are out of your story. They are likely not looking at what you want them to look at and aren’t hearing the next important lines you or your writer tortured over. If you’re fortunate enough to engage them again at all, they’ve missed bits.
So make sure your audience knows where everything and everyone important is.
You can do this in many ways: clear establishing shots, framing shots in such a way that everyone important is visible, sticking to a few set camera angles and not reversing the viewpoint without a damn good reason (3D animators – just because you can move a camera doesn’t mean you should). These are about getting your animatic right and they’re good guidelines to stick with in general.
If your team have set out a clear map of where everything is, this can be a great help – now you have reference. But guess what? Your audience doesn’t have that. Don’t assume that because it makes sense to you, it will make sense to them. Keep it clear, keep it consistent.
Always ask yourself: does my audience know what they are seeing? How have I shown them this?
And watch for places where consistent geography will actually work against a clear understanding. If a path doubles back on itself, for example, that could have kids thinking that characters turned around and are going the wrong way unless that geography is made crystal clear.
On that particular subject, here’s a little confession from my Fluffy Gardens days: we had no idea where anything was. Not a clue. There was a vague map but we shifted it around to suit episodes and individual scenes. Town changed all the time. Bushes teleported regularly. Now some of you might be gasping in horror at this apparent carelessness but this actually worked very well and here is why: we knew our geography was fluid and we used that to enhance our clarity within individual episodes. It is a 2D show. It is broadcast on a 2D screen with a defined aspect ratio. It made sense that journeys should also be 2D: left to right or right to left. So rather than worry about how Paolo travelled south around the mountain to reach Mavis, we instead made each and every journey a simple horizontal one, either left or right. How do we know when they’re going home? When they walk the other way. That made it incredibly clear to children.
Often but not always the going was right and the coming home was left. Why? Because that’s how we read most Western languages: progress is left to right.
In each episode, I watched carefully for these journeys and sense of place at animatic stage.
I equate making television with doing a magic trick. You decide where you want the audience to look and what information to take in. What the audience perceives as happening is more important than what is actually happening. If you do it well, they won’t notice how you did it. In our case, we kept the journeys in Fluffy Gardens clear by keeping the geography fluid. Might seem counter-intuitive at first but it works.
So whether you lock down a location map or allow your geography to be fluid, keep it all clear as events are playing out in an episode. Don’t let either of those methods work against you. Show children where all your important characters are. Show them where the characters are going. Show them where they are coming from. And don’t confuse the two. If a character leaves or enters a scene, show it. And if, when showing an animatic or rough episode, a kid or your producer or an exec or anyone else at all (even a single person who was sending a text through half the episode) has trouble with the geography then fix it.
The most important thing here is this: when writing, directing, designing, storyboarding an episode, you have more information than any child watching. What you know about where everything is doesn’t matter. It’s what the audience knows that counts.
Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post. When you see it with sound, it will work much better. Sure it seems wrong now but the story will come together in the animatic. We’ll let that scene go but the scenes around it will give it context. Ah, what do kids know anyway?
Making shows and media is hard. Sure, it can be fun and we’ll all talk about it with a smile to people who aren’t in the business but you and I know that it can be hard. There are so many places for things to go wrong. And fixing mistakes? Production problems? Making stuff work that really doesn’t? That’s a nightmare. It can send problems down the entire chain of production and on to the screen.
So how do we avoid that? Well… you know all those places it can go wrong? You make sure that each one of those stages is, instead, carried out correctly from the very beginning. I make it sound so easy! The thing is, every time you get a step right it becomes harder to get the entire process wrong. The earlier you start to get it right the better.
Let’s look at a real example: an animated television episode.
We will assume the concept is already in place (if not, get that right first). So you have your characters, your setting and you know what the show is about. You may even have scripts already. That’s a good start. But this individual episode is all new.
You start with the story idea. Just the very basics, often a one-line concept. If this concept is good, it could lead to 100 different stories and many if not most of them could be really great. So get it right first. Work through lots of ideas and pick the best or pick one that really inspires.
Once you have that idea right, the next stage becomes easier: plotting the story. You’ve got to get this right because your script will be much harder if you don’t. You need to know what happens and if there are early story problems they will become apparent here. Work at getting this right and you’ll have a much easier task on the next really important part: writing the script.
Now your script has to be good because that defines the whole episode. Pulling a good episode from a bad script? Forget about it. Get your script right and the storyboard artist will have a much easier job drawing a lovely set of panels. Get those panels right and the animatic will be a breeze. Get the animatic right and your animation… and your scenes… and your sound… and so on.
Get it right the first time and everything becomes easier. It sends that goodness down the entire chain of production. Get it wrong and you’re struggling every single step of the way and you’re looking at your final episode thinking, the next episode might be better. Or worse, thinking that it’s awesome while everyone else is hoping the next episode might be better.
So start at the start and get your story and your script right. Only let it go to the next stage when these are good. Build on each step rather than constantly trying to paper over the previous one. It can be hard work up front and you might wonder if there is really value in torturing over some of the details but your future self or your director or your whole team will benefit. More importantly, the kids will love what you make.
On a related and not coincidental note, Nelly and Nora from Geronimo Productions launched in Ireland this week. I had the pleasure of working as script editor on the show with two great writers – Andrew Brenner and Emma Hogan. Both of them worked incredibly hard early on crafting lovely stories to get those first stages right and begin the chain of events that would lead to what are now lovely episodes for young children. The core of what those episodes achieve was all there in the scripts and so the production team could spend their time making them wonderful (and that’s just what they’ve done). There are 52 episodes now airing on RTEjr and going global very soon. If you have children, look out for it.
Sorry, that should have had a question mark in the title. Anyone know how to survive a mid-life crisis? I’m turning 40 tomorrow. I am not cool with this at all. Not even slightly. It’s a pretty huge milestone and you know the thing about those first 40 years? You don’t get them back. You don’t get to try again. There are no save points we can reload.
And that sucks.
I guess two things might help. 1) We can try to appreciate what we’ve done well in that time. 2) We can aim to make the best use of time generally, knowing that these milestones come whether we like it or not.
Life is made up of many parts but just looking at work and content, what have I done in that time? Well, I created Fluffy Gardens and that is still one to be proud of, even if I do say so myself. It’s only really looking back on it now that I can see the slight lunacy of taking on directing the entire series while writing it too but if I could do it again (I can’t) I don’t think I’d do it any other way. I love that show and those characters will always be dear to me. And they are clearly dear to many parents and kids even now. So that’s nice.
Planet Cosmo, a show to introduce the planets to kids. I love this show. It was so much fun, I worked with an amazing team and I got to drop in some nice sci-fi references. Best of all is that it did what it was supposed to do – it inspired children. And I made other stuff that I can still really enjoy today: Roobarb & Custard Too, Punky, Dino Dog and more. My favourite? It might still be the Fluffy Gardens Christmas Special.
I once joked to someone in animation that, if there was a hell, you would be forced to watch what you have made over and over on a loop for all eternity. But if you’ve made stuff you like and are proud of, then it’s not hell. It’s heaven. So you better make great content. It feels the same turning 40. If you’re reading this and you’re much, much younger than me (likely!), keep that in mind. One day you’ll wonder about what you’ve spent a large chunk of your life creating. Hopefully you’ll be happy with what you have made.
Am I? I guess. I’m never truly content but that’s a great motivator. I always want to make something better. Something more challenging. Something that will really matter to kids or their parents. Which leads on to the next part: aiming to have something we’re happy with when we hit these milestones. We can’t plan every move and no doubt things will change as we encounter new opportunities but I think if we really care about what we do and genuinely aim for better each time, we’ll hit upon something we’re proud of. For me, that’s building new content and collaborations with Mooshku that will really set up the next decade. The foundations have been put in place.
If your own challenge is not yet finding something you’re passionate about, keep trying different things. That is not wasted time. I animated on features, made commercials in lots of different styles and tried a whole bunch of other things before realising I wanted to make children’s content. Our path is not always obvious.
Hopefully when you hit your next big milestone, you’ll have an easier time with it than I am. In the meantime, go make something awesome. Now excuse me while I sit in a dark room and listen to The Cure…
You might be surprised at the amount of thought and balance that has gone into the credits on shows I’ve made. It seems like a simple thing: people are hired to do jobs, that’s the credit they get. When shows are made by small creative teams, all adding wonderful new layers to your show, it’s rarely that simple. Your Production Assistant may have ended up a Compositor. An Animator may have shifted to Background Designer for a few episodes. And so on. It happens a lot and I love being open to when that happens. There is nothing wrong with people getting help or giving help in different areas.
Where it gets tricky in credits is where one credit might downplay another. For example, if that Animator above designed 5 great backgrounds and yet your main background person designed 290 then it wouldn’t quite seem fair to have both names up there equally. Maybe at this point your Background Designer is renamed Lead Background Designer or the Animator gets an Additional Backgrounds By credit. So credits are like a story in themselves – you have to think of them as a whole and consider the knock-on effect of each part.
I feel this needs to be right because I believe strongly in this: everyone should get proper credit for what they do.
It is important for two reasons. Firstly, the people working on these shows deserve their credit. They’ve earned it and it becomes part of their future calling card. But also because someone else at some point is going to read those credits and that could have an effect. If they see a Character Designer credit on a show with amazing character designs and then hire that person but their design skills don’t quite match because the credit was incorrect, that creates a problem. If someone buys a show on the strength of key talent and that person didn’t do what the credits say they did, that creates a problem. It is as important for others watching that the credits be as correct as possible as it is for the person credited.
So the main take-away here is: credits are actually important. Let’s aim to credit people correctly.
What has me thinking about this is the whole Zoella ghostwriting issue. Zoella, a personality I wasn’t all that much aware of, has a book out. It has done brilliantly as far as I know and it turns out that there was a ghostwriter involved. So people in publishing know this isn’t anything new and think it’s unfair to single out Zoella. I totally agree. My real issue here is nothing to do with Zoella or that there is another writer involved. It is that her book cover says very clearly “A first novel by…”. It’s not just a celebrity endorsement. It may be a flat-out lie. Or it may not be. We don’t know because there is an assumption that this lack of transparency is just fine. Some people have expressed surprise – don’t we know books like this are ghostwritten? Well, no. Because it doesn’t tell us that on the cover. It tells us something else entirely. Either the author’s name on the front of a book means something or it doesn’t. If it means nothing, let’s abandon it altogether so we’re not in misleading or false advertising scenarios. If it does mean something, then make it mean something. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writers getting help or having multiple writers so, in this case and in other ghostwriting cases, how about just crediting the other writer on the cover too? Or have a Presents credit on the cover, with the real author’s name on the inside (like the Fighting Fantasy books).
Either way gives the proper people credit while also not misleading the people reading those credits. If credits are allowed to become meaningless… well, then credits becomes meaningless.
When I pick up my Creating A Show posts, I’ll be getting into pitching. Pitching is a crucial stage and rarely easy but there is some fun to be had with it too. For introverts, though, pitching can sometimes seem terrifying, daunting or just something we’d really rather not do. As someone who has been labelled a ‘high-functioning introvert’ in the past, I might gather some thoughts and do a Pitching For Introverts post someday but, right now, I wanted to just point out one advantage many introverts have while pitching. There are generalisations here and everyone is different but many introverts should recognise what I’m describing below. It can give you an edge in a pitch scenario.
Here it is: introverts are rarely surprised.
Many of us spend a huge amount of time in our own heads. We play things out over and over, especially when we know a stressful scenario is coming our way. Now preparation is key to pitching or indeed anything else so I would always advise as much preparation as possible for anyone but often we introverts take that much further, whether we like it or not. We play out a gatekeeper asking us the roughest, toughest questions. We see them poking holes in our concepts. We watch as they pick up our show bible, find that one gaping flaw and then fling it into the bin. And we do this while getting dressed, while eating breakfast and at 4 in the morning when we should be asleep. Over and over again. We can be our own worst enemy when it comes to confidence but not when it comes to exploring potential outcomes.
So by the time we walk into that meeting, there is very little chance that something will happen that we haven’t already played out a hundred times. And usually it goes much, much better.
This is a good thing. We can identify problems before they happen. If we need to make a change, we can. If we know something might be a tricky issue but there is a good reason why certain decisions were made, we have those responses prepared. Things get easier and better the more times we do them. And for many of us, the first time we pitch a project to someone isn’t really the first time we’ve pitched it because we have driven ourselves demented with the conversation for weeks in advance. So we go in better.
I’m not saying extroverts don’t do this too. We’re all different but I know some extroverts seem to play things out live and in the moment more than the introverts. But whatever kind of person we are, I think the main thing is to be prepared. Whether by structured preparation time or the repetive mental run throughs (preferably both), play it out all kinds of different ways. Try not to be taken by surprise. Be open. But not surprised. And that’s where we can have an advantage.