I just took to Twitter to express my dismay at a particular “learn animation” ad that keeps popping up on my Facebook feed and, well, now it’s going to be a whole post. Hopefully a short one. Here is my issue with that particular ad that reckons it will teach you to animate: the very first pose it opens with is incredibly unclear. It does not sell what is actually happening to the character. It fails at communicating the idea.
Pretty drawings don’t matter if what is happening is unclear. And it’s not just animation. A lovely storyboard panel is no good if what is happening is unclear. A funny line is wasted if your story is unclear and you’re losing your audience. Clarity is everything.
This is especially true when making any kind of content for young children. No matter what part of the process you are in, this is about communication – engaging kids, telling them stories, bringing them into stories and making them feel a part of them. Communication. And if your communication is unclear, if you don’t give them enough context or information or you muddle your ideas visually or otherwise, you’re not going to engage them as well as you should.
It’s the first thing you should ask yourself: is this clear to my audience?
So while it applies to every part of the process, when it comes to learning animation, I’ll take a scrappy yet clear drawing over a pretty yet unclear one every single time.
Ever skip a paragraph in a book? Sure you have. Don’t deny it! Ever drift off in a movie? Start thinking about work or what you’re going to have to eat afterwards? Yep. I know you’ve done that. Kids do it too. Some people have this image of children locked to a screen like zombies but, actually, they usually get pretty busy when they watch TV or a movie. They move around a lot. Their attention might not go to you when you’re calling them for dinner but they might see a bird outside or see if they can put their toes in their mouth or whatever.
And the reality is that it’s not always as easy to engage a child meaningfully as some seem to think.
So think about when you drift off in media. There are many factors but there is one common problem I see crop up a lot and it also happens to be in a bunch of scripts that have passed by me in children’s media over the years: you’re just not getting to the story part.
We can call it a lot of different things and it ties into character agency but, really, it’s that simple. You have got to get to the story part. What is the story about? What’s the problem to solve or the challenge to overcome? Don’t get to it in the last 10% of your story. Get there as quick as you possibly can and let it drive every beat of that story. Is it happening too late? CUT ALL THE EARLIER STUFF! Just cut it. Get to the story. Can you do it on the first page? Give it a shot.
A lot of what we tend to write is fluff around the story that helps us as writers find that story and that depth and that world. But it’s not all story. Some of it is just help for us, part of our process. Like scaffolding around a building – you take the scaffolding off at the end so people can just go straight into the building. Get kids straight into your story. Remove the fluff. Get to the story parts.
Always imagine someone shouting in your ear as you edit and write those later drafts: “JUST GET TO THE STORY PARTS!”
We’ve added some new colours to our Mooshku logo. Yes, that’s pretty exciting but not as exciting as our new showreel! This gives a really good look at what we do at Mooshku, with a particular focus on our animation because that’s usually what you do with a showreel. I can guarantee you that there are some things in here you haven’t seen yet.
So check it out below!
Like it? Feel free to pass along the link and share it and show all your best friends. We’re pretty proud of it.
What is harder to show in something like this video is all the development and writing work we do, especially as most of that happens on new projects that haven’t been launched yet. We consult on concepts, help write and put together show bibles and pitch work, define early scripts to set the tone for a show and work out the kinks and answer the inevitable questions and we do this on many types of shows. And not just shows too – the formats are different but the various forms of children’s media often share common goals.
What’s great about doing this is that a) we’re really good at it and b) we love making good stuff for kids. So it is hugely rewarding to help others give their good stuff for kids every chance it can get. Next month, Mooshku turns three years old. Because I’ve been doing this for decades, it’s quite odd to think about how new that feels – it’s barely older than my dog! But really, as a company, we’re young and I was doing a little stock take recently and all those services we decided to offer when we set up our company we have managed to do for people over the last few years. So I’m taking that as a victory.
It’s not an easy business. Anyone in it knows that. But it’s fun. It’s rewarding. It’s always changing. And, as I say in the video, if you can put smiles on the faces of kids… well, you know the rest. If you ever need our services, get in touch.
One last thing to mention. That music track you hear in the reel is a song called Electric Isle by Dream Fiend. You should check out that whole EP and more HERE! Beautiful dreamy happy synth. It brightens up my day.
Now go on. Have a good day and show off our showreel somewhere!
It is the Space Year 2030AD. The world has entered a darker age. Once-specialist 3D riggers and effects artists now litter our cities in little more than derelict shanty towns, their place taken by automated software. Children’s media is produced by just two warring multi-national cybernetic toy conglomerates, having bought out or destroyed every independent creator of children’s media. The network once known as YouTube hosts nothing but children’s infomercials. The Great Adult Colouring Book Crash killed off publishing for good. The few remaining apps, now sentient, search through back alleys and dumpsters for coins, gems and smurfberries.
Bob the Builder is getting relaunched. Again.
Some say the world never truly recovered from the incident in 2019AD when over 7 million children disappeared into a Minecraft server and were never seen again. I think many of us thought it never would.
But there is hope. There is a new generation of children born amidst the chaos. And a secret underground swell, once little more than whispers and rumour, is taking hold. These are the new children’s media creators. Inspired by the renegade spirit of the early YouTubers and with legends of the rough and ready puppets and animation of the first days of children’s media, these new creators put everything on the line to bring fun to kids. They gather in secret locations, broadcasting shows made with little more than scraps and enthusiasm. Shows with energy and fun not seen in a decade. The conglomerates try their hardest but they can’t put them down – these kids have nothing to sell and nothing to lose.
And the closest thing they have to a skill is the drive to make kids and themselves laugh and smile. To brighten up a day with a story or a joke. In 2030AD, the dawn of a new age, this is the only skill that counts.
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!
I aim for shows that are safe for children. That parents will be happy letting their children watch. That was my first requirement when coming up with Fluffy Gardens. Cosmo has more of a comedy edge but I still want it safe for sensitive children.
Does this mean the watering down of children’s entertainment? The censorship of all that’s fun and interesting? The removal of the very things children love the most?
No. No, it does not.
Yes, there are some shows out there that seem absolutely soulless. Maybe they are. Perhaps they’re the products of committees or several years of conflicting notes. I don’t know.
But television that is safe for children does not automatically equal bland, dead television.
Most striving for better television or educational content are not trying to turn your children into grey, boring automatons. It is not some conspiracy to make your children conform.
Besides, that’s what school is for, isn’t it?
Yes, I believe children’s television should be safe and age-appropriate. I think, ideally, it can educate. But, in doing so, I also think it should challenge. It should provoke thought. Independent thought. Ask children to think about the world they live in. To think about who they are and maybe even present some positive messages to give them the confidence to be who they are against the opposition they will face at times in their life.
For that, if anything, children’s television needs a spark.
Here’s why we could do with more relevant local content here in Ireland:
My daughter calls wool ‘yarn’.
She has used ‘you betcha’ instead of a simple yes.
She once called nappies ‘diapers’.
She frequently uses the phrase, ‘reds under the beds’.
Okay, so I made that last one up but, as good as some of the US television is, we may have just a touch too much of it here in Ireland. The balance is a little off. Worse still, the US shows we get are often the least educational because they travel easier when it comes to localisation. We’re likely missing some of the best the US has to offer.
Language is just an obvious symptom. An indicator that a child’s world view is being formed. It actually goes much deeper than language. And it’s important to realise that what seems culturally relevant on the outside might not be on the inside. For example, colouring Barney green and calling him Seamus wouldn’t really make the show any more Irish. It’s just window-dressing. And yet a show with a purple dinosaur in a fantasy world could be culturally relevant to Irish children if the core delivers something needed by those Irish children and presents it in a way that works with the culture and ideals. Culture does not equal window-dressing. We need to look deeper.
It’s not always easy.
But it’s important.
Not just Ireland of course. Every country could do with good relevant local content.
Today is the birthday of the late, great Roger Hargreaves, creator of the Mr.Men and Little Misses.
We all get nostalgic about the shows from our past. For any of you in the US, you won’t know many of the shows I grew up with. What happened in the UK in the early ’70s was pretty magical.
I feel it was a golden age of children’s television.
We had Paddington Bear, still wonderful to watch today. Classics like Bagpuss. The Flumps ‘ which is still fantastic. The Mr. Men. Clangers. And, of course, Grange Calveley and Bob Godfrey’s wonderful Roobarb.
Pure entertainment. Driven by experimentation, freedom and the spirit of play ‘ just like the children the shows were made for.
Those shows will always have a special place in my heart and I admire and look up to the artists and creative talents involved. By the way, Toonhound is a great site for info on many UK children’s classics.
But those times are gone.
In recent years, we’ve had Barney, who hates parents and wishes them dead. The Teletubbies, who I suspect hate children too. What happened to children’s television?!
Well, actually… my daughter Daisy counted from one to ten in Spanish to me at about age two and a half from watching Dora the Explorer. She has learned from shows like SuperWhy. She has sung with the Wonderpets and danced with the Imagination Movers. She has laughed and laughed at the hilarious and fun Peppa Pig and had her heart warmed by the beautiful and wonderfully-honest Humf. I could keep on listing shows.
And, hey, that Fluffy Gardens show isn’t all that bad either. You know, if nothing else is on.
What makes many of these shows special is that they are not just entertaining, they have a clear educational goal. And those that don’t, especially in the UK shows, really offer a huge amount of fun, yet in honest and totally grounded childlike ways.
So, yes, sometimes I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s wrong with television. Or, importantly, what we can do better (and if we can, we should). But it’s worth taking the time to see that there have been some really good shows recently for younger children.
Perhaps we are living in a whole new golden age of children’s television? Albeit a very different one.
For those of us over this side of the Atlantic, though, no matter how good it gets, it’s hard to think we’ll see the total creativity and experimentation of the UK golden age of children’s shows again any time soon. The spirit of play has become secondary to the need to control. The need to license, exploit. But we’ll still have the inspiration, the history and the shadow of those greats egging us on to do better. Reminding those of us who care, why we’re doing this.
We owe a lot to the likes of Roger Hargreaves and probably always will. I know I certainly will. Happy birthday, Mr.Hargreaves!
I’m a big fan of marketing guru Seth Godin‘s words of wisdom. Because, while Godin’s area has been called marketing, I think his words are more about general life. Probably one of the reasons he’s so popular ‘ most of what he says can be applied to just about anything.
And much of what Godin says about marketing is that, really, your product is your marketing.
This recent post of his hit home - read it here (it’s short). This little gem says so much that is relevant to anyone in children’s entertainment, especially those indies or people struggling out on their own. We all know it’s a saturated market. We’re still here, but we know that, really. And many of us, after seeing so many shows that make it and so many that don’t, hit a point where we realise the hard truths about the work we create…
Got a fun show? Who cares? There are thousands of fun shows.
Got a show with hilarious characters? Great. So has everyone else.
Great design? Nice. That’s a bonus but it’s nothing to get excited over.
A show on the cutting edge of a trend? Too late. If it’s a trend, you missed it.
The world is full of funny, happy shows with great characters. If any one of these things is your selling point, the unfortunate truth is, the world doesn’t need your show. Or my show. The whole industry could shut down today and children would never run out of shows to watch.
That doesn’t mean shows without something really new won’t do well. Many people in the chain will be looking at what did well before and make positive decisions based on that. It’s flawed, but it happens. In fact, many of the big companies will be doing just that because, with shareholders, they’re usually looking for the ‘safe’ option, especially now. And the big companies will have the budget to push hard, give away the right deals to get air time, shelf space and so on. To a certain extent, they can make a hit.
The small people, on the other hand, can’t compete.
But, as a result of that, the small people, the indies, actually find ourselves with an opportunity.
We don’t have shareholders to please. We don’t have teams of advisors telling us what the market wants based on information on what once worked.
We have freedom.
We can act and adapt quickly.
We have the ability, the need, to take risks.
We have passion.
But what we absolutely have to have, is something special. Something that delivers to children something they need. Something beyond fun, or nice characters, or action. This is an opportunity to create content that is really good for children.
As Godin says, “the challenge is to be edgy and remarkable and to have the market move its center to you”.
The children’s entertainment world has spent the last ten years looking for the next Dora or the next Spongebob, all while missing that what made Dora and Spongebob special is that they weren’t really the next anything.