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.
In talks and when giving advice to students, one of the lessons from my own experience that I tend to repeat is about the importance of jumping in at the deep end. Don’t wait until you are ready. Just go for it and then figure out how you are going to survive. It is the quickest and best way to make career leaps, and often the strongest way to learn.
Because, when you do that, improving becomes the solution to survival. Worried your quality won’t be good enough? Get better. Worried about deadlines? Get faster, more efficient.
I stand by that advice.
But it assumes you will survive. The unfortunate reality is that some people don’t. Sometimes the job is just not a fit for that person. That can be hard to accept at times. On a couple of productions I have had faith that people will pull themselves up and deliver. At times, I could see they really wanted to make it happen.
But sometimes it is just not a fit. At least, not at that time.
And as much as we all want things to work out for the best, I can tell you from personal experience that it can be far more damaging to a production to put faith in someone who just isn’t going to get there than it is to accept it and remove them from the production altogether.
Weigh up what happens in either scenario…
A) You let the person go. You have a tough conversation on your hands, often very unpleasant. You could be put under pressure to give that person another chance. If you go through with letting them go or moving them elsewhere, you now have a position to fill which can be very tough to do when a production is under way. You have to train a new staff member up in your methods and hope they will be a good fit in your team. You may even miss some deadlines while you get them up to speed.
This brings great uncertainty.
B) You hope they will get there eventually. Meanwhile the others have to pick up the slack, something they may be happy to do at first but will eventually breed resentment. This sours morale. The lack of productivity from this person can lead to a blockage in production so deadlines are missed. If that happens, they will continue to slip later and later. And if this person really is not a good fit, they will end up under severe pressure and stressed, leading to more mistakes. Meanwhile production staff (and creators/writers/directors/producers) have a meltdown worrying about their show/project. This is a downward spiral. It can kill a production and I have seen this come close to happening.
And unfortunately all this is considerably more certain than option A.
Better the devil you know? No. There is no room for ‘devils’ on a production. It is wonderful to have faith in people. It is great to give people a chance, even before they are ready. Without people taking a chance on me at several stages in my career, I wouldn’t get to do what I do now.
But sometimes that job and that person just aren’t a good fit.
Watch for that, try to catch it early and deal with it directly. Because delaying, with the best will in the world, can be poisonous to a production. And it is better to take on the uncertainty of finding someone new than it is to take on the certainty of a poisoned production.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could make a show or app that appeals to absolutely everyone? One that appeals to all broadcasters? All distributors, publishers and everyone involved in making things a success? One that every single kid everywhere just loves?
It’s probably not going to happen.
Why? Because people love different things. You want people to have strong feelings – they have to have strong feelings in order to get excited about what you’re doing. But the thing about strong feelings is that, for everyone who really loves an aspect of what you’re doing, someone else will likely have strong feelings in the whole opposite direction.
A simple example from my own history is how Fluffy Gardens excited a few key broadcasters on little more than the look and yet one broadcaster didn’t want it because they didn’t like characters with big eyes. It was that simple.
Now if you aim to please everyone, to have your show be all things to all people, the solution is to reduce the size of the eyes for that broadcaster. Now you have affected the look, the one thing that had some people excited in the first place.
And this is the problem in a nutshell: in aiming to please everyone, it quickly becomes about easing dislikes rather than enhancing likes and loves. You shave off the edges that may put off individuals until you have something that, sure, nobody really dislikes but nobody loves any more either.
Instead, accept that not everyone will like what you are doing. Focus on those who will like it. And then improve it until they love it. Those people will be your champions. They will make things happen.
No show, no book, no app can be everything to everyone. And attempting that risks losing those who really matter to you.
We have all been told something we’re doing won’t work. For example, years ago we were told by a good broadcaster that Fluffy Gardens wouldn’t work. Broadcasters wouldn’t buy it, kids wouldn’t watch it.
Fluffy Gardens sold. Kids loved it.
Being turned down and told that concepts won’t work is an industry cliché. Every success, small or huge, comes with story after story of people rejecting the idea or saying it will never work.
So when it is your concept they’re saying this about, what do you do?
Well, firstly listen to any criticism. Really think about it and its relevance to your project. If amending something could improve your project and make it a better version of what it is, then do that. Don’t do it because you’re expecting anyone to change their mind. That’s the wrong reason and almost never happens. Don’t do it because they know more than you. Do it if you truly believe your project will be improved. Always strive to make your project better.
Evaluate your pitch and materials. Are you showing your project in the best possible way? If not, learn from that and improve your presentation.
Then accept that the project is not right for that person. That doesn’t mean there’s something fundamentally wrong with your project and it certainly doesn’t mean there is something wrong with that person. We all have different experiences and that person may have tried something similar in the past and it may not have worked for them. Or there may be other quite good reasons why they don’t want what you’re selling and they aren’t going to go into those reasons with you. All it means is that the project is not right for them.
Move on. Quickly. And look for someone who it is right for.
Don’t ever let the negativity drag you down. Don’t completely shut it out either, because you might pick up something useful from the criticism. But don’t let it beat you. Don’t let it stop you. Keep going. Make it better, pitch it better and get it in front of the people who will love it.
Eventually, you’ll be telling your very own story about those people who told you it would never work.
Wow. What a year. 2013 was a year of change for me. Here are a few highlights…
I finished the crazy, grueling yet tons of fun production that was Planet Cosmo and we launched the show. At Geronimo we then moved straight into series 2 of Punky, 20 new episodes of that ground-breaking show. Geronimo also developed a new show and brought it to market: Nelly & Nora, a lovely concept you’re going to hear a lot about in the future.
And then… I left Geronimo Productions after 13 years of being its Creative Director.
Now THAT was a big change. It was time for that change, but I didn’t come to the decision lightly. We have made so many great things at Geronimo/Monster Animation (including my own shows) and I very much took ownership of building that studio, turning us from a place to make commercials and production work to a creative force, making nothing but great TV for kids all in-house. And I have always worked so well with producer, Gerard O’Rourke. As he says himself, we are totally different in almost every way and yet we make a damn good team. It seems nuts to let that go. It was nerve-wracking and threw my life into completely new and uncertain territory.
But it was time.
If we hadn’t all guessed it before, 2013 really brought home to me how much I have become ‘the preschool guy’. It became my area of both practise and study many years ago and I found myself delving deeper year on year, and there is a lot to learn. So it is great to be able to share that expertise both as a professional and also in 2013 as a teacher, giving a one-off Writing and Developing For Preschool. Sure it’s a small niche but it’s one that I adore and I am very happy to embrace that. It has rewarding this past year to advise on new projects in that capacity. It is a good time for high-quality preschool and we can always aim higher. And if we can, we should, right?
As 2014 begins, I now feel I have the best of all worlds. I’m working independently with people I know well, as script editor on Geronimo’s new show for example, and on other projects with people I respect yet have never had the chance to work with before. I’m working in forms I never have before, including my first foray into children’s apps. That has been really exciting and I am so looking forward to sharing news with you soon. And I am also building something of my own, a new framework that will play a larger role as we get further into this new year.
It’s going to be a big year for me with new projects and new partnerships.
On top of all that worky stuff, I have a great family with two wonderful little girls who are growing up fast. So I guess you say that all is going well as we move into this new year. I have a lot to be thankful for.
So how about you? What was 2013 for you? What are the plans for 2014?
Whatever you’re doing, I hope you’ll stop by my little corner of the web where we can talk preschool, entertainment, enriching and fun content in all its forms. As always, if you ever want me to cover a subject, answer a question or explore a specific topic feel free to get in contact at any time. I hope you all have a fantastic and fulfilling 2014! Let’s all strive to give kids the best of everything and have fun doing so.
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.