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.
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.
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:
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?
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?
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.