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.
In just about any creative field, we can sometimes hit a point where what we are doing seems like a complete and utter disaster. On quite a simple level I tend to encounter this when writing or illustrating. I might hit a point where I think what I am doing has gone horribly wrong. The story doesn’t work or the drawing looks nothing like what I had in my imagination. But we all know it happens on a large scale too, with whole projects that have so much more at stake. It just didn’t turn out like I hoped. What went wrong? This was a terrible idea. Abandon it and start something new quickly, before it’s too late!
Not so fast.
Keep pushing. Disaster is often simply a part of the process. All it usually means is that you aren’t finished yet. Keep going and finish it.
To give up early is to lose a huge opportunity for something special. We will never know if, actually, it would have turned out great with some more work. If we could have rescued it, turned it around and ended up with something that really did justice to the risk we took when we began.
And don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that any creative endeavour isn’t a risk. Anything creative comes with risk. So give it a chance, put in that extra work to allow that risk to pay off. That is what it takes – work.
I see this on a small scale with scripts and illustrations, where what was once a mess often ends in something really interesting. And I see this across whole projects.
Several years ago, I was writing a live-action script for adults. It was a story I was passionate about but it became apparent that the first draft just wasn’t quite coming together the way it should.
It was suggested by someone I trust that the problem with the draft was that I’m often ‘too nice and tend towards sentimentality’.
Well that sucks, I thought. I have a serious writing problem. Too nice. Tend towards sentimentality. A weakness.
Somewhat demoralised, I shuffled home and slumped over my laptop to polish a draft of a Fluffy Gardens story I was working on. I wrapped up the beautifully sweet ending to a lovely story about cute animals being pleasant to each other. It was a good story and it made me smile and, sure enough, that story went on to make many children and parents smile too. Too nice. Tend towards sentimentality…
That was no weakness.
While writing all 80 episodes of that show, that was very much a strength. One that, armed with a new awareness of, I then embraced and developed and would continue to be a strength when applied thoughtfully to the right projects. A strength, not a weakness.
So if you have what you perceive to be a weakness, or what others perceive to be a weakness, is it possible that applied differently it could turn out to be your strength? What if instead of trying to eliminate this ‘problem’, you pushed it further to where it might help rather than hinder?
Welcome to my new website. A new look for a new phase. So what is there to discover?
Well, if you’re reading this, then you have already found the blog, currently titled Positive Preschool & Beyond. With Fluffy Gardens, Planet Cosmo and other shows I made during my time with Geronimo Productions, it became increasingly clear that my mission was to create something meaningful for young children. Enriching positive content. What you will find here on the blog will often come from that mission. How do we communicate effectively with our audience? What do children really need? How do we write a good story? How to do sell a show? And how do we make it? All of these and more will be explored in the blog.
And it is not just preschool. The Beyond part is very important, not just because my experiences in children’s television extends beyond preschool but because so many of the content and production discoveries apply well beyond that age group. So many of the tips and tricks we find in the creative industries apply all across the board – it’s just we give them different names. Often, what we find are simply tools for life. Positive Preschool & Beyond.
I have a new Home page, a Shows page, an About page where you will get a little biography and a Contact page if you would like to reach me.
One new addition to the site is the Gallery where you will find some illustration and design pieces. Sometimes known more for my writing, it is in the images that the words are formed, as I think it often should be.
So that’s the site. I do hope you enjoy it and visit often. You may spot the odd teething problem, especially when it comes to older posts (missing tags, etc.) and old links likely won’t work. If you spot anything especially horrendous, please do let me know!
And if you have found my site relatively recently, here are some posts you might find interesting…
I will be featuring more posts I think might help visitors over on the right, in the Featured Posts section so check back often and feel free to share those that you enjoy.
Lastly, if you are interested in some history, in how I got into children’s content, how I got my first show and how I became a writer, I had a nice leisurely chat with Aidan McAteer from the Flipped Animation Podcast and we went through the whole story. You can find that here.
So many methods, explorations and tips that contribute to making better preschool shows can be summed up in just two words. These two words count well beyond preschool, beyond children’s entertainment, beyond television – and you can adapt the language in this post to suit almost any creative business you are in and it will still be true. Two words that can change your approach and mean you actually communicate the messages you wish to get across.
Always stay aware of who your audience is. Such a simple idea and yet so easily lost.
There are times we please ourselves in order to keep our motivation. We aim to please peers and co-workers for that praise that can give us a boost when we need it most. We must please broadcasters, distributors, financiers, other producers because, without them, we often don’t have a show.
We can put so much effort into pleasing all these people and yet not one of them is within the target age range of what we’re actually making. Before long, we can have lost all sight of the children who will eventually watch our content.
And when that happens, we fail at what we do.
Try putting aside the idea of pleasing all those people and instead become audience aware. Know your audience and focus on them. Learn everything you can about them and how best to communicate with them. How best to deliver excellence to them. And then do just that – deliver excellence.
But what about selling to broadcasters? What about co-producers? What about all those gatekeepers and allies we need to impress? Can we really afford to ignore them?
But within all these groups, there are people who are audience aware. There are people who understand their audience and are dedicated to giving them nothing but the best. I have been fortunate enough to meet some of these people over the years. Those are the allies you want. Those are the people who will champion what you are doing. Oh not everyone is going to want exactly what you are making. That’s the way of the world and is true no matter how much you try to please people. But by remaining focused on your audience – effectively your end user – sooner or later, you will impress people who count.
It is what will guide you to make your work better. It is what will have you creating and producing the right content for the right reasons. It is what will make your content count. And it will find you those champions when you need them.
One last little thing to consider… in life, our audience changes many times a day as we meet and deal with different people. Audience awareness can help on a grand project scale and on a moment-by-moment basis.
Many years ago, back in an earlier generation of Monster Animation, I introduced what I liked to call ‘Pizza Friday’. Basically, I liked pizza and by making it a thing and getting everyone else on board, I ensured I got to have it each and every week. Pizza Friday.
Around the same time we bought a huge box set of Muppets on VHS and, every Friday, we would eat pizza and watch The Muppet Show. If I remember correctly, we may have thrown Pizza Wednesday into the mix for a while too…
Pizza and Muppets. A wonderful combination.
Years later, when Pizza Friday was but a distant memory I found that, whenever I smelled pizza, I thought of Muppets. Whenever I saw Muppets, I smelled pizza. Actually right inside my nose – the real smell of pizza. Not just any pizza, but the exact pizza we got from that one pizza place. It was that strong.
Through basic repetition, my brain has been programmed to link Muppets and pizza. Just as I link The Smiths and George Takei (that’s a whole other story). One instantly leads to the other and it’s not a conscious thing. It’s sensory. Visual of Gonzo, smell of pizza. Instant.
Our brains can make connections so easily. And those can be positive connections, negative connections or connections that don’t matter one way or another (like The Smiths making me picture Mr. Sulu). It is rarely conscious. I’m aware of the Muppets/pizza link but how many other associations have we made throughout our lives that we can’t pinpoint? And what effect are they having on our lives?
The obvious one that people mention is because so many of us share this is eating sweet things when feeling bad. A not-always-positive action which is often traced back to a childhood association of sugary treats rewarding good behaviour. But that’s just one example of many. We have so much to deal with in a creative life, so many doors to push open and often face so much resistance that we need to be our own champion. We can’t afford to sabotage ourselves. But what if a negative association is holding you back? What if failures or judgements in childhood or early adulthood have led to associations that prevent you from trying certain things? Or what if a misdirected positive association is causing you to repeat the same mistakes over and over again?
Trickier still, what if you don’t know what those associations are? What if they are so buried in your subconscious that they’re now impossible to identify?
For me, what I do is remember that pizza equals Muppets. And to make that association, one deep in my core on a sensory level, all it took was to put the two together on a regular basis for the period of one VHS box set.
It was that easy.
And if we can do that, surely we can replace or reprogramme any other association by working to create all-new ones. Ones that work for us rather than against us. If something is hard to do, or there’s something holding us back, a hesitation, we can put that task together with something we enjoy. We can reward the positive, the difficult and even the unpleasant but necessary with things that mean something personally to us – whether that is about treats, games, Muppets, pizza, Mr. Sulu or anything that can contribute to the buzz of satisfaction we get knowing we have achieved something worthwhile. Before long, we have a positive association. And at that point, we’ll just enjoy the doing.
As we work, we can create rewards and, with them, all-new associations. Sooner or later, we’ll begin to replace the old ones whether we knew they were there or not.
I was speaking to a group of animation students a couple of weeks back, taking them through my career and how I got to do what I do. Moving from career leap to career leap, everything sounds pretty impressive, even to me and I lived it. But the truth is that I am only ever telling half the story. Actually, much less than half.
Because for every success there are several failures. Sometimes many failures. I don’t usually get to cover those in a short talk but they are important to acknowledge, hence this post.
I talk about my first job being an animation position on TVC’s Willows In Winter. But in reality, it’s the first job that means something in my career. My real first job was picking tomatoes, a job I was fired from. I tend to talk about Fluffy Gardens as my first self-created show. It is actually the first self-created show that I managed to get off the ground. It is not the first show I pitched. I move on to my next show, Planet Cosmo, pretty quickly and, in doing so, neglect to mention the few show concepts that came in between those two shows. And there are so many more little disappointments, unsuccessful pitches and out and out failures throughout my career.
‘Failure’ sounds like a very dramatic word, steeped in negativity. Failure can bring fear, sadness and, sometimes, can kill our motivation. Why try if it’s only going to end badly? But that is the exact opposite of what failure should do for us. We all need to be okay with failure. In fact, failure is really important. Here are some things to keep in mind about failure:
1 - Failure shows we have taken a risk. No advancements, career leaps or worthwhile successes will come without risk. It just doesn’t happen. If there is no risk of failure, we’re not really doing anything and certainly not trying anything new. So failure shows us we’re pushing ourselves. That’s a good thing. Push further.
2 - When creating, it is all part of a process. Ideas must be tried and tested, and then the results evaluated. We use that information to make the next creation better, more relevant. And nothing is ever wasted. Ideas from that project that didn’t make it will resurface in another project, often in a better form.
3 - In the end, the failures don’t count. This is so important to remind ourselves of because one of the things we all have to move past is our fear of failure. Failures can teach us but they don’t count in any negative way. The successes are what people will remember. When I talk about my career, I can talk for an hour and I’m still covering the successes. I don’t need to talk about the failures because people don’t care. Do you remember Steve Jobs for the failed Mac Cube or the success of the iPod? Which counts? All it takes is a single success to wipe away all failed ventures. Failures don’t count. So don’t fear them.
Not everything you do in your creative career is going to work out. It certainly won’t work out first time. If you’re really striving for better, for something important, failure is more than likely something you will face many times. Be okay with that. Embrace it.
The extent of my sadness about last week’s events cannot be put into words. So much on that tragedy and what should be done has been well covered elsewhere and my little site is simply not the place for it. But in the last couple of days, I find I keep coming back to two thoughts that are relevant here. Thoughts that have been articulated here before in different forms at different times and yet I find I need a reminder every now and then.
The first is true whether you are dissatisfied with some element of your career, want to make your story or script better, want a production to go more smoothly or, yes, even want to avoid repeated tragedies large or small. It is this -
In order for anything to get better, change must occur.
You may fear change and the uncertainty that comes with that. You may feel things can get worse and that change brings risk. It does. But the bottom line is, for things to get better, change must happen. No matter how small or large a thing you want to improve, you must instigate change. You must embrace it. Dive into it. Not just talk about it. You must do it. Do it now. If it doesn’t work, change again.
Because if you keep doing things the same way, you will get the same results. Progress and improvement require change.
My second thought is for all those of us who make content, entertainment or products for children. Children are amazing. They are creative, innovative and innocent. They are wonderful right now and each one has the potential to become a wonderful adult and change the world in a positive way. Through what we do each day, we can reach those children. We can give them so much goodness. We can enrich their lives. We have to. This is our duty and responsibility when we decide to reach out to a young audience.
This is about making a meaningful connection and giving children something positive. Something that makes their lives better. For today and, for those children who make the journey, for tomorrow.
Even with all the tragedies and horrendous things that go on in our world, I think people are pretty amazing. We’re capable of amazing things and I hear stories of goodness every day. That gets lost sometimes among the reported horrors. But perhaps in the grand history of humanity, we’re still in dark times. Each one of us can be a beacon in that darkness. Like a lighthouse. And why would we want to be anything else? Not one of us should be in this business without having the best interests of children, of people, at heart at all times.
To all of my friends and colleagues genuinely working to make the world a better place for children, whether I know you personally or not, you have my love and respect. And to any parent who is part of this recent tragedy or dealing with their own losses, wherever they may be, my heart goes out to you and you are in my thoughts.
I remember listening to a talk from a business coach which highlighted some of the differences in our productivity when the boss is watching. If we’re on our own, we might check emails, send a text message, watch YouTube videos or whatever. But, if the boss is watching, we will work. We will sit at our desk and do what we’re supposed to be doing.
So his tip? Work like the boss is watching.
In a way, it’s a good tip for productivity. At least for cutting out those time-wasting activities that don’t contribute. Great for those tasks that are certainties and it’s just a case of getting them done, and it can be a good way of looking at things if your boss happens to be you and your future depends on you getting the work done. But then there’s that old phrase, much repeated in songs over the years – dance like nobody’s watching.
If you’re dancing, what difference does it make if you know nobody is watching?
It removes judgement. You’re free to look ridiculous. You can express yourself in any way you choose without fear and you can immerse yourself in the music and just let go. You’re free to play. The self-expression can make you feel better but there is more to it than that. If you do it enough, you just might get good. By flailing around day after day, you may find some moves that actually look pretty cool. Your moves. You could surprise yourself. And, if you get that confidence up, maybe one day you will feel good enough to surprise someone else too.
I don’t see work as being all that different.
If when we work, we’ve got that spectre of a boss looming over us, we are going to hold back. We’ll be afraid of making a mistake and looking ridiculous. We’re self-conscious. Critical. The result is that we play it safe and take no risks. Or worse, get so tied-up second-guessing the inevitable judgement that we make a complete mess.
I remember on Fluffy Gardens making sure that people felt ready to show me their work before I looked at it. I didn’t want to catch anyone mid-dance. Without me looking over their shoulder, they’d invariably take more risks. Be more playful. After all, if it didn’t work, they could clean it up before I saw it. I got better results on a show where my main request of each animator was ‘surprise me’. I knew they could all do adequate without taking risks. But these days adequate just isn’t good enough. It’s in the surprises that those animators would make the show great.
I think we’re all capable of beating ourselves up enough about our work without adding the permanent shadow of a boss to the process. Instead, we should create without advance judgement. Allow ourselves to play. And allow ourselves the mistakes, those moments in which we might look ridiculous. Through that, we’re more likely to rise far above adequate. All the way to excellent.
So when it comes to being creative, when what you do really has to count, here’s my take – work like nobody’s watching.
There are certain realities of animation production that change depending on the size and nature of the production. Often at a certain point, the creativity has to end to make way for the act of simply getting the thing done.
I have never been a big fan of ‘realities’. Sure, there are genuine limits. But more often than not, ‘realities’ is a term used so we can do less work and be okay with that. Other times, somewhat more poisonous, it is thrown at you by others so you’ll do less work which, in turn, will make those people feel a little better about not putting in similar effort themselves. In either case, it shifts responsibility from the individual and assigns it to the rest of the world.
Accepting the responsibility as ours (as creators, directors, writers, producers - any part of the process), I was all too far into my career when I figured out what I believe to be an important truth: if it can be made better, it should be.
No, that doesn’t mean aiming for perfect (doesn’t exist) and it doesn’t mean missing deadlines, blowing the budget and scuppering the project, hence the all-important ‘if’. It just means aiming for excellence and deciding that, at any stage of the process, improvements can be made.
For example, we dropped the very first episode of Fluffy Gardens series 2 that we animated. When put together, it simply wasn’t as strong as the others and we knew we could get another better episode written and produced within our time. So we did. Just because we made it and put the work in didn’t mean we had to use it. Not when there was a better episode out there. So instead of ending up with 39 episodes we were happy with and 1 we weren’t, we now have 40 episodes we love.
In Ballybraddan, which was one continuing storyline, it became clear late in production that the series was even stronger than the first episode made out. The show deserved a better setup. So we rewrote, rerecorded and reanimated half of the first episode right at the end of production and we made it a far stronger series as a result. The changes to that one episode made all the subsequent episodes better and we were able to do it on time and within budget.
In the production of every show, even after years of development, potential improvements become apparent at various stages. It’s often only in the doing, doing it for real, that they show themselves. Sure, in both cases we could have left things as they were and maybe few would have noticed that they weren’t quite up to par.
But if it can be made better, it should be.
Last week, we got a working cut of the very first Cosmo episode together. It’s good. Actually, it’s pretty great. We have always aimed high on this one and I want it to be as great as it can be all across the show. The animation in particular is superb – I can’t wait to show some of it here on the site. In many ways, the show is even better than I hoped and that’s a pretty fantastic thing to be able to write. It also sets the benchmark that much higher, a benchmark that now every element of the show must reach. And so I spent much the weekend working on completely new design possibilites for some of those elements even in the thick of production.
It’s already really good. That’s a beautiful start when aiming for excellence. All we have to do is remember, if it can be made better…