When we start on a new project or a new job, our thoughts often go like this: OMG what am I supposed to do now?! How do I muddle my way through this one and not get fired?! When we reach a certain level, I think we become a bit more sure of ourselves and what we can offer.
If you find yourself in the former situation, there is an easy way to help that. If you are in the latter, it is something that becomes even more important because it is when we get complacent that the real problems can start and soon we find we’re not doing as great a job as we thought we would. So what to do? It’s simple: ask.
Ask how your client would like a job done. Ask how you could be most helpful to your peers or collaborators. Ask and you’ll get the answers you need to do a better job.
Take script editing as an example. I have found over the years that there are many different types of script editors, all offering completely different things and all with the same title. Some take a big picture view looking at theme and form and they ask the big questions. Others don’t want to mess with a writer’s story but will help them tell it better by getting into the details and working on a line by line process. Some are just looking for the red flags and are like a quality control process. All of these have value and they will help different types of writers in different ways. But they won’t all help all the writers all the time.
So if I’m script editing, it makes sense for me to ask: what will be the most helpful to you? What are expecting out of this process? We will often find that the job needs more than we’re told (because what people want and what they need are not always the same thing) but it gives us a fantastic place to start the process.
When in doubt, ask. When not in doubt, ask anyway.
Last week I was at Cinekid for Professionals in Amsterdam on a panel discussing the Dos and Don’ts of Storytelling in Digital Media. It was my first time at Cinekid and I was impressed.
For a start, Cinekid isn’t just a professional’s conference. It has family events and screenings and children are everywhere. This is fantastic. When you walk outside and you’re among families, it is an instant reminder about why we’re talking about what we’re talking about. It was no coincidence that listening to the audience and reacting to feedback was a common thread in our discussions – it is all too easy to lose sight of the audience in this business. To get caught up in trends and advances and all sorts of abstract concepts. Too easy to forget about the kids we want to make great stuff for, and their parents.
Cinekid doesn’t let you forget and I love that.
Cinekid is also home to an incredible media lab. A huge hall full of what are effectively cutting edge toys. Huge screens where your actions will sweep bubbles away. A rolling game where you roll huge tyres to make progress and much more. Some I couldn’t even figure out but there was a little bit of magic in just about everything in the room. That’s if you got a go – the kids liked to hog the best stuff! There is also a co-production market and workshops.
The conference itself covered a good mix of topics. An inspiring talk by Gary Pope. A little bit of frowning at Minecraft Story Mode (I like it and think it contributes nicely!). A great piece of research into girls and media from Pineapple Lounge – the main message: celebrate who she is, not who she feels she has to be. Some excellent insight into virtual reality from Nicoletta Iacobacci and the always wonderful David Kleeman leaving us with some real challenges as content creators (I’ll pick that up in another post). We had a live Let’s Play with the excellent Minecraft educator Wizard Keen (Adam Clarke) and a glimpse into Maker Studios from Robbie Douek which left me conflicted as he told us it was about authenticity while playing a car ad that, as far as I could see, wasn’t labelled as such.
Then there was our panel with Ida Brinck-Lund (consultant for Lego’s Future Lab), Caitlin Burns (business strategist for brands from Microsoft, Nickelodeon and more), Julien Fabre (Ankama) and me, moderated by Warren Buckleitner who guided the whole day. I’d like to think we were brilliant and probably the highlight of the conference but it is always hard to know how our discussions impact others. What I do know is that we covered a broad range of topics and each brought a different view. All four of us are in different spaces and yet similarities could be identified – needing to engage with our audience and also needing to learn and adapt as we work.
No matter how long we have been doing what we do, no matter what history is behind us, we are in an ever-changing space in an ever-changing world and each new media form and device provides a whole new set of challenges. It’s exciting. As I said to Warren on the day, from having made Dino Dog I could write books on how not to make an app. It was a steep learning curve and sometimes that rich history in one form of media is walking you right into a trap in another. That is one huge reason to do your homework. No matter what it is you’re making, no matter how confident you feel, do the research. Learn. Ask questions. And be open to the answers you get.
So there is an easy Do for Storytelling in Digital Media: do your research.
And a Don’t? I guess don’t always assume that the research has been interpreted correctly. If we knew it all, the big hits wouldn’t surprise people the way they always seem to.
So that was Cinekid 2015. My trip also included bicycles, ferries, odd street layouts and the ever-present smell of pancakes and weed. The real highlight? Meeting a lot of really great like-minded people all doing different things. I enjoyed your company and I hope we see each other again soon.
Bank work whenever you can. Waiting for someone to come back to you? Get something for the next step done. Have something fall through? Use the time to get ahead on the work you have or even might have. Push forward and bank the work, even if you don’t need it yet.
I think the trick to really getting things done and delivering is not about keeping up. It’s not about measuring everything to hit that deadline. It is getting well ahead of it. You see, something is going to get delayed or some problem will crop up somewhere. It could be really small but it will happen. If you’re on track for hitting that deadline and then a problem or delay arises, you’re no longer on track.
So any chance you get, push forward. Get ahead.
Will this ever cause problems in itself? It can come with a risk. Let’s say you have delivered a script or submitted a scene of animation and you’re waiting for feedback. If you get stuck into script 2 or that next scene, there is a possibility that the notes from the first one will change how you should have approached the next phase. But you have already begun to work through ideas and problems so, even if you have to make considerable changes based on that feedback, you still have a head start.
Keep going. Push ahead. Bank the work for when you need it. Your future self will thank you for it.
Mario is one of the most well-known plumbers in the world. So when my pipes break, inevitably I call Mario. But Mario won’t fix my plumbing. And I can’t even get his brother on the phone (I get some message about ghosts in an old house).
Okay so they are famous now and maybe I just can’t afford them. But actually that’s not it. It’s because they just happened to find that, after all that plumbing training and apprenticeships and years of honing their skills, they were suited to another line of work: jumping platforms to collect coins and rescue princesses (with karting at the weekends). And that line of work is either more important to them or it pays better. Possibly both.
Stay with me here – this has a point, honest.
Often we will find that people have trained for a certain thing and might even be really excellent at that thing. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is what they should be doing. Even if they (you, me, anyone) are fantastic at it. It is not wrong to want to try other things. To explore and test and allow your career to veer in another direction. It is not wrong to turn down a gig because you would rather be doing something else that is more important to you, even if you are the perfect choice for that gig. Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you must always do it.
And getting older doesn’t change that. You will always find new interesting things to focus on if you look for them.
You may love what you do and it may work out perfectly for you and you could be completely content with that forever. For the others, those who get restless or find you shift around your careers adding new jobs and new skills or even moving in whole other directions, go with it.
You might already be an awesome in-demand plumber but maybe you should be out jumping platforms instead.
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.
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!
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.
Last week, I was in Edinburgh to take part in a panel discussion on gamification, organised by IPA Scotland and Creative Edinburgh. Thanks so much to all involved for the invitation, the conversation and the hospitality. We had a very broad mix of interesting panellists all doing different things and each offering something unique. Being in children’s media with a background in television, I questioned initially just how close I actually am to gamification. But in reality, we use the principals in preschool media all the time and I could of course see that directly when I took some of those principals and applied them to Dino Dog, a digging game for children.
We offer rewards. We often do this as stories unfold but where you’ll see it much more blatantly is in our faux interactive television with our “can you find…?” and “you did it!” and then in apps, patting our audience on the back to keep them going or to nurture that word people love in preschool media: empowerment. Gamification isn’t a million miles away from the James Earl Jones effect, which I have written about here before.
But is it a good thing?
I think it can be a great way to engage children in good media and that is something that can be taken much further in interactive forms such as apps. We can use basic gamification to help children learn to read or count or learn about the world. So yes, it can be a very good thing when used well. But I wonder sometimes about the more long term effects, specifically how we create an expectation for reward or praise for very basic tasks. Isn’t reading its own reward? Isn’t learning to count awesome in itself?
And then what about later in life? There is a little moment of selfishness in my life that stayed with me. It’s not a pretty moment but I’m going to tell you about it right now. I made my first 40 episodes of Fluffy Gardens, my first show. I wrote it and directed and anyone in the business will know the workload that entails. We finally wrapped the series and I thanked each person involved because the show simply would never have been as good without them. It wouldn’t have happened without our producer. There were so many people to thank. And I remember in a quiet moment wondering: who thanks me?
At that point, I had to sit myself down and give myself a stern lecture about this being entirely the wrong question. When you hit a certain point in your career, you become the one who thanks others. And if you’re doing this to be thanked, to seek out that warm sense of validation, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Now at certain points people will come back to you and thank you (parents who can see what you’re giving their kids, for example) but you shouldn’t expect it. You should do it because it’s right and because it’s good and because you can make something that you can give to others.
If you have trained yourself in your life to expect that gamified reward, that achievement unlock sound, that warm thanks, that street parade thrown for you, then two things will happen for sure. One – you will be constantly disappointed in your life. Two – you will give up long before you have a chance to do something truly fantastic.
Life is not a well-structured progression of rewards like Link’s Awakening. And Dora won’t always be around to tell us we did it. Gamification can be a great tool to engage people but let’s just be careful about how much or how strongly we use it.
And now with this post written, I’ll get that completion buzz by crossing ‘write site post’ off my to-do list and then watch obsessively how many people share this post on Twitter or Facebook and feel good or bad depending on those numbers…
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.