There are two bus routes I can take from my house. One is a short, direct trip. The other drives around half of Dublin before getting to the city centre. The ticket for the long route is significantly more expensive than that for the shorter route. Why? Well the bus covers more distance, uses more petrol and takes up more of a driver’s time, I guess.
And yet this is an ass-backwards way to charge for a service.
This is like charging more for a package to reach its destination in six weeks than you charge for it to get there tomorrow. The shorter bus route provides a more efficient service. As a commuter, this is much more desirable and worth paying a premium for. If Dublin Bus actually put some thought into what they do as a service provider rather than people just carrying out an unwanted chore day after day, the long route would be cheaper than the short route.
Provide a service with more value attached, you can charge more for that service.
This is always worth keeping in mind when you are providing a service yourself or indeed hiring someone who is offering a service to you. Consider these questions – How will this service benefit the end product? Will it make creation/production easier? Quicker? Better? Is there relevant, applicable know-how here that few others can bring? Are valuable strengths being applied in the right areas? Is there trust here that carries value in itself? Where can real value be added? And how much is that worth?
It is not just about charging or paying for time. It is what that time brings to any project that counts.
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.
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.
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.
In just about any creative field, we can sometimes hit a point where what we are doing seems like a complete and utter disaster. On quite a simple level I tend to encounter this when writing or illustrating. I might hit a point where I think what I am doing has gone horribly wrong. The story doesn’t work or the drawing looks nothing like what I had in my imagination. But we all know it happens on a large scale too, with whole projects that have so much more at stake. It just didn’t turn out like I hoped. What went wrong? This was a terrible idea. Abandon it and start something new quickly, before it’s too late!
Not so fast.
Keep pushing. Disaster is often simply a part of the process. All it usually means is that you aren’t finished yet. Keep going and finish it.
To give up early is to lose a huge opportunity for something special. We will never know if, actually, it would have turned out great with some more work. If we could have rescued it, turned it around and ended up with something that really did justice to the risk we took when we began.
And don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that any creative endeavour isn’t a risk. Anything creative comes with risk. So give it a chance, put in that extra work to allow that risk to pay off. That is what it takes – work.
I see this on a small scale with scripts and illustrations, where what was once a mess often ends in something really interesting. And I see this across whole projects.
It seems so simple when put like that. Certainly, if you see your job as selling merchandise, an iconic character design is essential. But there’s more to a character than that, right?
For example, she may have an iconic design but does anyone know what kind of personality Hello Kitty has?
Has lack of personality hurt her? Not hugely. Hello Kitty is an exercise in design. What about in the context of classic stories? The three little pigs – how much do we know about them? Well, we know they’re pigs, they’re builders and two of them like to cut costs. That’s more than we know about Hello Kitty but they’re still not exactly what you’d call well-rounded characters.
But then what do I know about Dora the Explorer?
She likes to shout. She’s neglected – after all, what parents in their right mind would let a young child out across the jungle with a monkey? And she has communication issues. The Map, for example, won’t talk to her directly and instead asks the viewers to tell her things. They must have had a falling out or something. Map probably didn’t like being shouted at.
I actually don’t know a huge amount about who she is. What makes Dora tick?
I remember when I pitched Fluffy Gardens, I showed the Paolo the Cat pilot. I was asked whether we had considered just making the whole show about Paolo. After all, he was such a great character. Character? I was puzzled. He’s a red cat. He’s clever and, em… he’s red. That is about as deep as Paolo was back at that time. He got considerably more fleshed out across the two seasons.
The difficulty here is that, sure, maybe it is all about the character but what it is about those characters varies so greatly that finding the common ground is often very tricky. Hello Kitty’s appeal is straight from the visual design and little more. Dora’s appeal is more that she speaks directly to her audience. The appeal of the three pigs comes more from the story and the tension rather than anything specifically about the characters. Paolo the Cat actually had one underlying trait that gave him much more appeal than even I initially anticipated: modesty.
The common factor? Appeal.
The challenge? Appeal comes in so many forms. It must appear simple to the audience and yet can be incredibly difficult to achieve. It is hard to quantify.
The solution? Don’t ever think of it in terms as simple as “it’s all about the character”. Character can be many things or sometimes very few things and character rarely exists in isolation. The process is complicated enough and there are so many aims and pitfalls that creating good content is never about any single thing. All aspects must be considered together. Design, personality, dynamic within a group of characters, story, mood, voice, sound, pacing and so much more. It is all part of creating appeal. See the whole and then pick and choose what is relevant for what it is you are creating.
Aim for appeal.
And if you do it right, even if you don’t know exactly how you did it, it will appear simple from the outside. So simple that someone with an interest will look at what you’ve created and think, it’s all about the character.
Welcome to my new website. A new look for a new phase. So what is there to discover?
Well, if you’re reading this, then you have already found the blog, currently titled Positive Preschool & Beyond. With Fluffy Gardens, Planet Cosmo and other shows I made during my time with Geronimo Productions, it became increasingly clear that my mission was to create something meaningful for young children. Enriching positive content. What you will find here on the blog will often come from that mission. How do we communicate effectively with our audience? What do children really need? How do we write a good story? How to do sell a show? And how do we make it? All of these and more will be explored in the blog.
And it is not just preschool. The Beyond part is very important, not just because my experiences in children’s television extends beyond preschool but because so many of the content and production discoveries apply well beyond that age group. So many of the tips and tricks we find in the creative industries apply all across the board – it’s just we give them different names. Often, what we find are simply tools for life. Positive Preschool & Beyond.
I have a new Home page, a Shows page, an About page where you will get a little biography and a Contact page if you would like to reach me.
One new addition to the site is the Gallery where you will find some illustration and design pieces. Sometimes known more for my writing, it is in the images that the words are formed, as I think it often should be.
So that’s the site. I do hope you enjoy it and visit often. You may spot the odd teething problem, especially when it comes to older posts (missing tags, etc.) and old links likely won’t work. If you spot anything especially horrendous, please do let me know!
And if you have found my site relatively recently, here are some posts you might find interesting…
I will be featuring more posts I think might help visitors over on the right, in the Featured Posts section so check back often and feel free to share those that you enjoy.
Lastly, if you are interested in some history, in how I got into children’s content, how I got my first show and how I became a writer, I had a nice leisurely chat with Aidan McAteer from the Flipped Animation Podcast and we went through the whole story. You can find that here.
So many methods, explorations and tips that contribute to making better preschool shows can be summed up in just two words. These two words count well beyond preschool, beyond children’s entertainment, beyond television – and you can adapt the language in this post to suit almost any creative business you are in and it will still be true. Two words that can change your approach and mean you actually communicate the messages you wish to get across.
Always stay aware of who your audience is. Such a simple idea and yet so easily lost.
There are times we please ourselves in order to keep our motivation. We aim to please peers and co-workers for that praise that can give us a boost when we need it most. We must please broadcasters, distributors, financiers, other producers because, without them, we often don’t have a show.
We can put so much effort into pleasing all these people and yet not one of them is within the target age range of what we’re actually making. Before long, we can have lost all sight of the children who will eventually watch our content.
And when that happens, we fail at what we do.
Try putting aside the idea of pleasing all those people and instead become audience aware. Know your audience and focus on them. Learn everything you can about them and how best to communicate with them. How best to deliver excellence to them. And then do just that – deliver excellence.
But what about selling to broadcasters? What about co-producers? What about all those gatekeepers and allies we need to impress? Can we really afford to ignore them?
But within all these groups, there are people who are audience aware. There are people who understand their audience and are dedicated to giving them nothing but the best. I have been fortunate enough to meet some of these people over the years. Those are the allies you want. Those are the people who will champion what you are doing. Oh not everyone is going to want exactly what you are making. That’s the way of the world and is true no matter how much you try to please people. But by remaining focused on your audience – effectively your end user – sooner or later, you will impress people who count.
It is what will guide you to make your work better. It is what will have you creating and producing the right content for the right reasons. It is what will make your content count. And it will find you those champions when you need them.
One last little thing to consider… in life, our audience changes many times a day as we meet and deal with different people. Audience awareness can help on a grand project scale and on a moment-by-moment basis.