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Teamwork

Minimum viable product is, like the current Cult Of Failure, one of those concepts I find tricky given my experience and what I do. Why? Because the standard of children’s media is generally INCREDIBLY high. Sure, we hear people complain about the reboots and the more generic Team Dora shows and there are many areas to improve. But really, a massive amount of kids’ media across books, apps and television is pretty impressive. In books we have a level of artistry and writing that can amaze kids and adults alike. Apps have brought us some astounding creativity and a high level of polish. And kids’ TV is built on 60 years of history – learning, experience, research and hands-on production – and still delivers new surprises all the time.

So I get the concept of minimum viable product but, in kids’ media where the current standard is so high, I find we always need to be aiming much higher. Minimum awesome product or whatever you would like to call it.

While at MIPJunior last weekend, I saw some new concepts and shows from friends and colleagues that hit much higher than what we could ever call a minimum viable product. Some wonderful things that I have no doubt will be hitting various screens in the next couple of years, hopefully along with some of our own work at Mooshku which, as an aside, went down brilliantly during MIPJunior.

Not everything was fantastic, of course. One trailer, for example, was mentioned over dinner as an idea that then was terribly let down by the animation quality. There are other companies with impressive production experience and can make pretty trailers but not always the expertise to create content, story and characters from scratch. And some excellent would-be content creators just don’t know how to get stuff made. There can be parts missing that can let down that push to get well beyond minimum viable product.

So the standard is incredibly high, a minimum viable product is rarely good enough and usually no one person can reach the necessary quality alone.

That’s tough, right?

Sure, but you know what else I saw at MIPJunior? A large community of people helping each other out. Offering advice. Sharing stories of successes and failures. Hints and tips. And the offer of services and expertise where needed. I very quickly realised we all have a lot more in common than it might appear. We are just at different stages or have different strengths. Aspects some find difficult, I’ll realise I struggled with for a long time too in those early days. Other things that even now I could find daunting, others who seem so confident in the industry will reveal they share those feelings too. The important thing is that we find our strengths and use them well, while working with those who have complimentary strengths. And with so many great people around to work with, it’s not as hard as it may sometimes appear.

When I started up Mooshku with Méabh, one of our first goals was collaboration, not competition. We wanted to work with other people, other studios, people we admire with strengths different to ours and helping others out where we could lend our strengths and rich expertise. Now that we’ve got things moving and have momentum, it is so clear that was the right choice. And no better place than kids’ content to get collaborative and reach far, far higher than just minimum viable product.

 

And related to the topic of collaboration and sharing information, I’m delighted to announce a fantastic event from Animation Skillnet and Creative Europe on the erosion of lines between books, apps, games and TV shows. Our panelists are Eric Huang, publishing legend from Made In Me, Curtis Jobling, creator, author, illustrator and designer of Bob the Builder (proper Bob, not new Bob), Miika Tams, Rovio’s VP of Games of Angry Birds fame, and Julie Fox from Awol Animation, international animation distributor. Each speaker will be offering a presentation which will no doubt inform and inspire and then I’ll be chairing a panel discussion with our guests. It is happening at the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin on the 29th of October. Details HERE!

GetReady

I have posted in the past about luck and how it is really about getting yourself in a place of opportunity and putting in the work to be ready to take that opportunity when it comes. A couple of weeks ago at the Cartoon Forum, I saw a lot of people put themselves in the right place to invite opportunity. Most were ready. Some had a glowing track record or were known veterans, some shined with ability and confidence, others had just worked their asses off to make sure that everything they showed was as great as it could be.

Every now and again, though, I could spot a project and group of people and I knew I was thinking what a large portion of the room were thinking: they’re good, but they’re just not ready yet.

Harsh, right? Thing is, I can probably spot it so easily because I was that person once. I had those projects. Pitching Millie and Mr Fluff at the Cartoon Forum was my 6th time pitching there over what must be around 13 or 14 years. And the very first time I pitched there all those years ago, I don’t think I really had an understanding of what it takes to make a show. As it happens, making a show is pretty easy if you’ve got the budget and an ounce of organisation skills.

But making a GOOD show? That’s a whole different matter.

There are so many elements that have to be spot-on: concept, story, characters, design, production methods, animation quality, writing, casting, sound, music, timing, flow, momentum… the list goes on. All of those things are important. Some of them are so crucial that the second you spot something wrong you know they just aren’t there yet. And the more you show, the more likely it is the flaws will be revealed. You need footage to prove your concept but it has to be right. Some people get it early and they’re good at it all and I admire those people.

I had to work at it.

I’m sure I have discussed it here before but my first few show pitches were unsuccessful and for the simple reason that I just wasn’t ready yet. Oh there were varying individual reasons – sometimes the concept was underdeveloped, we didn’t have the strength of vision to best integrate feedback, sometimes we just got it plain wrong – but really they came down to that same thing.

So what do you do if you’re in that position? You’ve got the drive, you’ve got the ideas, the skills even. But you’re just not quite there yet. Well, you’ve got options…

What changed everything for me was directing Roobarb & Custard Too. I had the safety net of the show’s creator handling all the writing, I had a massive back catalogue of episodes to study and so as long as I really put in the work (I did) I could make a good show. That was 39 episodes. And over that 39 episodes, studying each one of them afterwards and analysing what worked and what didn’t, I got better. I could see what to look out for in visual storytelling, in the boards, I could spot the rookie mistakes in animatics (mistakes which I had previously made myself). I still had so much to learn but, with that series behind me, I was at a point where people saw us pitch Fluffy Gardens and, whether consciously or unconsciously, they could see that I was ready.

So one of your best options is always to work on other shows first. If you’re a writer, write on other shows. If you want to direct, work on a show with a good director or creative leads. Build up those skills while you have the safety net of more experienced people or prior work around you. Even with that, it’s not enough just to do the work. You have to treat it like study and make sure you actively learn. Question yourself and what you’re doing. Get better.

Another option is to bring that experience to you. Acknowledge that you might not quite be there yet and find ways of teaming up with people who make up for that. People who bring a wealth of knowledge and have a strong body of work behind them. I have seen this work brilliantly. I remember seeing one nervous young creator presenting a project that was lovely but, on her own, we would have been left wondering if she could have really handled a series. But she had teamed with a production company with a good track record. They didn’t even have to be a part of her pitch. Just that people knew they were there was enough to reassure everyone and it ceased to be an issue. They could then just focus on the lovely project they were seeing. Sure enough, she made a great show.

If you have set up your own production company and your work to date has not been series work or leading the creative, see who you can hire in or at least get consultants. Get experienced directors to look at your animatics, your scenes. Get great writers. Because the truth is, one thing that experience helps with is spotting those mistakes that every industry expert seeing your pitch will also spot.

You have got to be ready and you have to show people that you are ready. That is not something that just happens – it is something you can actively work towards.

So get ready.

MillieAndMrFluff4

Last week we brought Millie and Mr Fluff to the Cartoon Forum. I have mentioned Millie in my last two posts but I don’t feel I have really told you a huge amount about it, partly because I like this blog to be informative rather than just a platform to promote my projects. But Millie is really important for me and I think it deserves a bit of space here.

So why is it so important? Well, Millie is not the first project of mine to make it out into the world since my big move last year (that would be DINO DOG) and it is not the only Mooshku project in development. But it is my first new TV project. Even bigger than that, it is the first Mooshku project to be revealed to more than just a handful of people. That’s a big deal to us at Mooshku. Mooshku’s first stamp on the world of good children’s entertainment is Millie. It is the first project that can now make it to what would be a Mooshku showreel. That’s important, right? It’s the beginning of a new life chapter that could turn out to be a very big chapter.

Here’s the show concept…

Millie is playful child (just like your child) who runs a zoo (okay, not exactly like your child). Her one aim: make sure everyone has a great time at the zoo. So when an animal is sick or needs the morning off to pick up their dry cleaning or is missing for any reason, Millie calls her very good friend Mr Fluffington-Strypes to stand in for the missing animal. Fluffington-Strypes (Mr Fluff to his friends) is an actor, a gentleman and a rather large cuddly tiger. He dresses up and assumes the role of any animal at the zoo.

Anything but the monkeys, who are noisy, playful and terribly messy and far beneath a professional such as Mr Fluff. More often than not, it doesn’t quite go according to plan and so Millie has a day of fun trying to make it all work out and children have lots of laughs along the way.

MillieAndMrFluff5

Millie and Mr Fluff is a short, snappy preschool comedy show. Comedy is one of those things talked about a lot and there are certainly a few great preschool shows that are genuinely funny for young kids (Peppa, Gigglebiz, Ben and Holly, Pingu going back a bit). But there aren’t all that many. So we worked really hard to get the Millie comedy right for preschoolers in the scripts, the voices, the design, animation, music and sound. And it works. It’s funny. That kids also find out about animal traits along the way is a happy bonus feature.

After LONG development, testing and tweaking, Millie and Mr Fluff has really come together to become something special. And we finally revealed the show to the world (well, to Europe) at the Cartoon Forum.

PresentingMillie

The pitch went like this: adrenalin kicked in, I started talking about the show, showed a lot of clips and I could see some people smiling which was nice and then it was suddenly over and people were saying lovely things and writing even more lovely things on little purple cards. The show went down great with a lot of people. They got it. In comments, the strength of the core concept was something people could see. They loved the comedy, the look, the music and a few mentioned in particular how well we knew the characters and how that came across.

One aspect that intrigued people: all of the art assets were created on iPads.

All the interest and positive comments were great to hear given the amount of work we did in development – it paid off.

Huge sigh and a sense of satisfaction… before realising that this is just one stage in the process and we now have a lot of following-up to do. And so it’s off to MipJunior with Millie next. A step in a longer journey but a very important one to me and we came away with the results we wanted. And on top of that, we really enjoyed the Forum and got to hang out with old friends and new friends and that was lovely.

So would you like to see some of Millie? Sure you would! Here is the extended megamix of our trailer with little glimpses of Millie stories and scenes. You can watch it in higher quality by clicking the little Vimeo logo on the clip. Here’s Millie and Mr Fluff:

TryItAnyway

I play games and I love handheld systems in particular. You remember the Gameboy Advance, right? Mine came with me everywhere. There were other handheld systems over the years: the Game Gear, the Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket and so on, but the Gameboy dominated and outlasted them all.

Then one year Sony announced they were entering the handheld market with the PSP.

Sony had come from nowhere with the original Playstation and they completely took over that market, leading to the once-mighty Sega leaving hardware behind. So you can be sure Nintendo took notice when the PSP was announced, especially as it seemed years ahead of the Gameboy Advance in terms of technology.

In what was less than a couple of months later, Nintendo announced a brand new handheld: the Nintendo DS. Conventional wisdom would have said that, to compete with the PSP, Nintendo would need to deliver a machine with more power, better graphics. But this thing didn’t seem to have the power of the PSP. Not even close. And what it did have, to be perfectly honest, looked a little insane. It had two screens. One touch screen with a stylus. And a microphone. Everything their success with the Gameboy had shown they didn’t need.

It didn’t help that it wasn’t the prettiest looking machine either.

Well I’ll probably never know what their thinking was but, to me, it seemed like Nintendo had gone into a complete panic due to the PSP announcement and just threw together this mishmash of a machine that hadn’t even been fully designed yet. It reeked of panic. And I remember reading message  boards at the time and seeing the DS slated continuously for just being a collection of gimmicks.

Even Nintendo themselves didn’t seem to be all that convinced. They spoke of the machine as a ‘third pillar’, as they would continue the Gameboy brand along side the DS.

Well you know the end of the story, right?

The Nintendo DS was released. And it sold. It sold millions. And it wasn’t even down to some amazing software – oh, that came, albeit a little later. The Nintendo DS sold as hardware. The machine itself became the selling point. With it, they captured whole new markets while gamers looked at Nintendogs and thought, what? It’s not even a game!

The Nintendo DS dominated.

Nintendo dropped the Gameboy, never mentioned pillars again and redesigned the DS to look much, much prettier.

They had a hit on their hands.

Nintendo may well tell you differently but it looked to me like they had no idea what they had when they announced the DS. The rest of the world certainly didn’t. But they didn’t have to know. By throwing all these crazy features in and seeing what would stick, by taking that risk, they ensured another generation of handheld gamers would think Nintendo first.

So what’s the point of all this on a blog about making content for preschoolers? How does this relate to creating great concepts for children? Simply this: you don’t always have to know exactly what you’re doing and you won’t always predict correctly what will work or what won’t work. Try it anyway.

GoodDrifting

At any point in a creative project (or business or indeed anything) change happens. Sometimes it is the big changes that are expected during creation, early stages and development but other times change happens during production as you learn more about your project, your method or your characters.

Change can be a good or bad thing.

Straight-ahead hand drawn animation offers a pretty good analogy here. If you start with drawing 1, move on to drawing 2 and then drawing 3 and keep going building your animation a frame at a time, you can sometimes hit drawing 100 and realise that your character now looks nothing like the character in drawing 1. It’s like Chinese Whispers. Your drawings have drifted from where you started. You now have a problem and you are going to have to fix it.

So in animation it can be better to plot out your key drawings, always keeping those first couple of drawings to hand to compare. The character in drawing 100 looks like the character in drawing 1 and it all works. But as you draw, you might actually find a way of improving your character. A new angle, an untested pose or just a happy accident can lead to something you decide to integrate into your character. So now you could say that your drawings have drifted but this time it is good drifting.

So what’s the difference? That’s easy: control.

Drifting as a word sometimes has negative connotations. People picture a balloon getting away from you and rising off into nothingness. You don’t want to lose control of your project or your writing, do you?

But I love the word drifting because I picture something entirely different. I picture taking a corner in Ridge Racer. I picture those tight turns in Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift. A controlled slide. This is way better that the word ‘pivot’ because to me pivot implies a complete stop. A pivot happens in place. Drifting on the other hand? That’s a change in direction without losing any momentum. You are around that corner and you’re moving as fast as you ever did.

That’s good drifting.

Change in any project can be a really good thing. Improvements don’t happen without change. But you have to take control of those changes. That’s the difference between losing a balloon and taking the tightest corner in Ridge Racer.

The trick is spotting corners in time.

 

 

Roobarb2000

There appears to be an explosion of older children’s characters and shows being revived with new Teletubbies, Danger Mouse, Bob the Builder, Super Ted and those are only the most recent. In explaining this recent boom in nostalgia, I hear the words “risk-averse” on a pretty regular basis.

But does dusting down the oldies and presenting them to kids today really come with less risk?

My career owes a lot to classic characters. My first meaty children’s show directing gig was Roobarb & Custard Too, a revival of the 1974 UK cult classic Roobarb. With original creator/writer Grange Calveley and of course the irreplaceable Richard Briers, it was really a continuation of the original series – we always thought of it as series 2 rather than any kind of reboot. I have so much love for that show and it was a wonderful experience so I’m certainly not against looking to the past to bring something fun to kids today. But there are some things to consider, some real risks and I know this because we had no choice but to consider some of them. And as my career grew, I realise we should have considered more. Here are just a few examples:

The Landscape:
Many classic shows, especially the older ones, existed in a whole different time and a very different media landscape. Would your classic property really have performed as well in a world with dedicated children’s channels running all day, with VOD and the Internet? Would it have stood up against Peppa? Would it have worked alongside Doc McStuffins?

Nostalgia:
Relevant to parents. Relevant to buyers. Not in any way relevant to kids. You might get it on air, you might get parents happy to leave it on their television and this gives your show a good chance. But that’s not enough. Have you really got more than nostalgia?

The Update:
This is a really big one. Kids’ lives are different now. TV shows are different. You are no doubt going to want to update the show and the characters. You should – many classic properties come from a less diverse time, where certain things were acceptable that just aren’t now. But assuming you took on the property because you liked it, will your changes really make it better? Can you safely say that you can take a classic, a well-loved treasure, and that you can do better than those who made it a success in the first place? What if you lose what was good about it?

Muddled Versions:
Are your characters still out there somewhere in their original form? Will they be if what you do is successful? Will old rights holders rush to get their versions out on to the shelves? Now you’ve got mixed branding on your hands with the danger that each form weakens the others rather than strengthening them. If the changes you make are significant (redesigning characters, for example), you could have a problem.

The Fresh Hit:
One of the main reasons hits hit is because they are fresh and different to what’s out there already. Few of the current generic ‘Team Dora’ type shows will ever hit as big as Dora because Dora was new. Spongebob was new. Peppa was new. Can you achieve that with your classic property? It can be done (Friendship is Magic, Battlestar Galactica in grown-up TV) but you have your work seriously cut out for you if you are taking on pre-existing characters.

So these are just some of the considerations when reviving a classic.

It’s not easy and to this day, ten years later, I wonder if we took the right approach with Roobarb even if we did make something that kids still enjoy. Classic properties can be fantastic to work on because we already love them. Cast and crew working on them often want to do justice to the originals and so you get good work. They can be easier to sell sometimes because they come with a name, a history and a proven track record, albeit in whole different conditions. But when it comes to really making a success, I’m not so sure that a classic property comes with much less risk than a whole new show where you have a blank page to create something tailor-made for the kids of today.

CMC2014

My own personal key takeaways from this year’s Children’s Media Conference:

1) For the most part, television still rules.

2) Print is still very much alive in the kids’ space.

3) Digital interactivity and games cost and people don’t like to pay for them. It’s a difficult space.

4) Some of the most exciting, innovative and most beneficial new content for kids is right in the midst of that difficult space. It’s a wonderful place to be as a content creator.

5) As much as these lines appear to be blurring on the outside, from those commissioning these forms I still get a feeling of definitive divides. TV=TV, books=books, games=games.

6) Very few people seem to see VR in the future of kids’ media or notice it is coming, contrasting with my own view that, for better or worse, I see it as an inevitability. May take a generational shift or two though.

7) No matter what end of the business – whether gatekeeper, knocking at those gates or looking for other routes – everyone is just muddling along trying to figure things out as the media world changes.

8) Many people consider this a transition period. Or is that just an expression of hope? Personally, I’m not convinced it will settle any time soon so we’re either along for the ride or we can try to positively influence the direction.

9) Apparently, I am a ‘high-functioning introvert’.

10) A huge number of people are in kids’ media for just one reason: they want to give kids something great. Those people are awesome.

 

That’s it. Thanks as always to Greg Childs and the organisers for pulling together a really great event. It was fantastic to hear so many varying viewpoints on the panels, to catch up with old friends and meet many Twitter friends in person for the first time. Would you believe some people aren’t on Twitter? Weird. Thanks to everyone for kind words about what we’re doing at Mooshku (one particular project seems to be going down a storm) and about my older work too. After all these years, Fluffy Gardens still gets a LOT of love! If you read this little blog and we never got to meet, be sure to say hello next year.

Tomorrow, I could have a special extra post so check back then…

Development

Development is easily one of the most crucial stages in any project. This is when you take an idea and turn it into something much, much greater than an idea. You make it real. Development leads to a sense of the finished product, it defines so much of the stages that will come later and, importantly, it gives you something you can sell. And if this stage does not get the care and attention it deserves, it is also where you unintentionally build in problems that may only become apparent down the line.

During development you look to change, to improve. You pull apart your concepts and try them in different ways. You try different characters and then change each and every one of those characters until the balance feels just right. You examine designs and styles. What if we try it this way? For development to truly work, you have to be completely open to change.

The hope is that through this process you will arrive at something much greater than the initial iteration.

But if there’s one lesson Gmail, Twitter etc. constantly remind me of, it is this: sometimes it was better the way you had it before.

The truth is, your work can get worse as well as better. It does happen sometimes that the initial instincts in certain areas were spot-on. When each new change brings a whole new set of problems to solve, it can be time to look back and ask, did we have this right before?

So be open to rewinding and taking your idea back to where you started. Keep in mind that this does not in any way mean the development process was a waste – you have to challenge these concepts and explore all other options to truly know it was right to begin with. Remember that if you go in deciding that you had it right the first time, then you’re not really open to change. Others will challenge your choices so be sure you challenge them first.

Push your development. Try different and make it better. Look for any direction you haven’t yet tried and apply it. Does it make the project better? Or worse? Development is one of the most crucial stages of any project so give it everything you’ve got.

TheDogPooStory

Anyone who actually manages to make things happen will face resistance. It comes with the territory. We push past the doubters, the negativity, we persuade the gatekeepers, we build a strong case for each and every choice we make and we don’t take no for an answer. The ability to do this and continue doing it is essential to making awesome stuff happen.

But here is what is so often missed: the knowledge when to stop doing it is often just as essential.

Getting so used to having to push hard can lead to pushing out of habit. Someone questions your idea? You push harder. But hang on, what if they have hit upon something important? What if they are right? Even if you face very little resistance, is it possible you are just doing something under the pressure of your own momentum rather than because it is the right thing to do?

When pushing any idea through, it is so important to ask yourself: does this actually serve my core aims?

I was writing a story for Planet Cosmo which aimed to introduce children to planet Uranus. Uranus is pretty amazing because its rotation is at a whole different angle to the other planets, like it is tipped up on its side. Always looking for the character angle in the story, I ended up with Cosmo looking after a dog. Cosmo wanted to play planets by spinning around but this dog just liked to roll. Eventually Cosmo sees Uranus rolling and realises that the dog wasn’t getting it entirely wrong after all.

We wanted a lot of comedy in the show and this dog had so much potential for humour. One of the core rules with a dog is picking up its business, if you get my meaning. Dog poo. And Cosmo’s Dad not wanting to pick up dog poo and then having to do it led to a couple of very funny scenes in the early drafts. We knew kids would find it hilarious. Not all broadcasters would find it quite as funny. It could be dealbreaker for some of them.

And so there was resistance.

The question became: do we push this through or not? When pushing becomes second nature through necessity, the first reaction to resistance is usually to push harder. Think about the laughs we’ll lose. We should be going for edgy. Come on, it’s just dog poo. All dogs do it.

All these thoughts went through my head very quickly. I wrote an email to my script editor, Hilary, asking for advice on it. About a minute later, I wrote her another mail telling her to ignore the first email. In those 60 seconds, I had decided the dog poo was out. Why? Because it didn’t serve the core aim which, if you remember, was to introduce children to planet Uranus. It was as simple as that. If anything, the problems it would cause could reduce the chances of some children seeing the episode which would go completely against that aim.

If I had firmly believed that it would benefit children to see those dog poo gags, I would have pushed. But the truth is, to push here would have been pushing out of habit. Pushing for no other reason than I was facing resistance and I’m used to having to push in that situation.

As it happens, that poo-free dog story is still probably the funniest of the bunch.

Having the determination and the stamina to push ideas through is essential. But try not to push just for the sake of pushing. Always ask yourself: does this actually serve my core aims? If the answer is no, let it go.

KeyThingsToRemember

When making any content for young children, there are two very important things to keep in mind. Here is the first:

Preschool children are not little adults.

They are different to you. You can not apply your thought processes, your logic, your taste, your likes and dislikes and expect them to work for preschool children. Doing that will only lead to self-indulgent content that is not age-appropriate and simply not engaging for a young child.

Interestingly, preschool children have or develop early a sense of what is for kids and what is for adults and they’ll often lose interest if they think something is not made for them. That is why one of our first concerns when at design stage is: will children know this is for them? The answer has to be ‘yes’ or your content is in trouble.

So your audience is not you. It is so easy to forget and yet crucial to remember if you are aiming to be any part of making content for children – creating, writing, directing, animating, designing. But there is another part to this:

Preschool children are little people.

They are real people. They are curious, imaginative, thinking, feeling little scientists working out the world and learning at a phenomenal rate. They pick up so much of what is going on around them, long before they can effectively verbalise that they are doing this. So they are not little adults but give them credit for what they are and especially for how much they can understand and learn. They do care about quality (not always gauging the same things you are). They do care about character, about story. They have a clear sense of what interests them and what doesn’t. So the bottom line here is that you cannot just make any old rubbish and expect it to hold your audience.

They are a very discerning audience, especially in a world saturated with children’s content. Just because you can get it on to the TV (buyers are adults) or on to the App Store (those choosing featured apps are adults) does not mean it will hold your audience for any length of time.

So remember who they are not (a little you) and let’s all give kids credit for who they are: amazing little people.