I am often asked about various aspects of creating and producing content and have covered many different parts of that already. But I have never gone through the process of how to create a show from the start all the way through because every project is different. So with Millie gathering momentum, I thought I could use it as a case study and show how the beginnings of an idea can become a show pitch, and hopefully go much further. So here is part 1: The Idea!
It all starts with a mission – the goal. Or at least, it usually does. Millie and Mr Fluff didn’t. It started with a trip to the zoo. The zoo is a fantastic place for families and my girls were very young and loved it and it was great to share in that experience. While there, I began to have silly notions based on animal names. This sort of thing:
But one unexplored idea that I had on that particular trip was the question of what would happen if an animal needed the day off. I thought about this for a while but it was a couple of years later before I would ever answer it.
And it was a simple answer: you would call a stand-in. And in my head, this professional is a large tiger wearing glasses and carrying a briefcase. Very stuffy and upper crust and someone who takes his job very seriously. The core concept and the beginnings of Mr Fluff were now already in place, although I didn’t really know it yet and there was still a long journey ahead.
Now ideas will come and go very quickly. If one seems remotely worthwhile, I find I have to act on it very quickly or else I will lose it. And the other important thing about an idea is that, really, it is nothing unless explored, tested and improved. Everyone has ideas but that is a long way off having a show or a book or anything else. You have to take it further. So I wrote a little story just to get the idea on to a page and I did some drawings. This seemed the easiest and quickest way to explore this and it didn’t matter if they weren’t any good – I didn’t have to show them to anyone.
The story was about this rather large tiger named Needs A Name (very common in early development) who comes in to replace a sick lion and gets tormented by the monkeys. I called it ‘Anything But The Monkeys’.
It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great either. Something was missing. This wasn’t good enough. The tiger wasn’t quite carrying the story. And I still had no clue what this was going to be (a book maybe?), if indeed it would be anything, and so it just went on my long list of concepts to revisit.
This is the thing with ideas – if you act on them and do something with them, even just the most basic exploration, you will very quickly start to amass a collection. Ideas are not the hard part once you start looking, it is knowing the good ones from the bad ones. Finding focus is far from easy and I was at a point where I had several ideas to develop and not much by way of resources to develop them. I had left Geronimo Productions not long before this and jumping straight back into television was not part of the immediate plan.
So Anything But The Monkeys would join that long list of incomplete ideas.
But I wasn’t waiting long for that silly tiger to start nagging at me. It didn’t help that my kids had already begun making fanart. I knew this idea was strong. That still didn’t mean it would ever be a real anything, but getting upgraded from ‘just an idea’ to ‘a strong idea’ is a pretty big leap. It was time to take this beyond idea stage and really start to work it up. What I really needed was to find what was missing. One part of that was the mission – I had no mission, no real goal. But the other part? No idea.
The answer, as it happens, was to be found in one of the early drawings…
More next week as development begins and I aim to locate those missing pieces.
I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with the muck-flinging going on in gaming over the last few weeks. I’d forgive you for steering clear of it. The short version is that a small group of gamers jumped on an opportunity for sexism and harassment and a large group of gamers enabled it. I wasn’t remotely surprised by the small group but I must admit to being pretty taken aback by the larger group – the enablers. I have been aware of these issues of course and have written many times on gender role models but this seemed worse than even I was expecting.
I couldn’t help but think of Scott Benson’s short film ‘But I’m A Nice Guy’ (watch here).
It made me sad.
And then, like any stimulus to the creators among us, it motivated me. I asked myself “how can I make things better?” This is one of the wonderful things I see in other creators and there are so many of us. Instead of just tearing things down or criticising or arguing, we get constructive. We learn. We make. We contribute.
So what can we do?
Well in preschool media we start early and this, in my opinion, is the best place to start. In preschool, things are actually pretty good. Some of the biggest hitters (Dora, Peppa, Doc McStuffins) work across genders and don’t rely on gender stereotyping that might widen the divide or build perception that men and women are entirely different beings. Female role models are in a much better place in preschool than they were some years ago and this is working well for everyone. And many broadcasters and producers are working even harder and actively looking for varied, interesting and positive characters with a better gender balance. This all has a positive effect among both girls and boys.
So let’s keep that up. Watch your male/female character ratio, make sure characters of both genders are actual characters rather than their personalities being their gender and watch for lazy gender signifiers (this happens so often without even realising it and I’ve been guilty of it in the past).
One problem is that, for all the great work we’re doing and improvements we’re getting in actual preschool content, we seem to be seeing an equal and opposite effect in marketing. I see more gender divides than ever in commercials and products. What can we do about that? Well as parents we can try to reject it and as creators we can aim to make our content as gender-inclusive as possible. How can that help? Well what I’m finding in preschool is that the better the actual content, the more it exposes the worst of the commercials around it as archaic and wrong. I’m sensing a much greater awareness of these issues among parents and the better things get, the more the anomalies will stand out. There have been great campaigns to make children’s books more gender-inclusive, for example. And now those big ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ titles begin to look weird in that landscape.
So let’s keep improving the content landscape.
Can we do more? Sure. We can always do more. For me, creating content for children that would enrich and contribute is part of our core mission statement at Mooshku and these recent events have pushed gender issues right up to the top of our list. So some things that were simmering in the background will be shifted to the foreground as soon as we can. If we get it right, we can help children, boys and girls, come out of their preschool years as confident as possible, as well-rounded as possible and as open and accepting as possible.
And then after the preschool years? Well that’s where I’ll challenge those making content for older children to do better. There is a problem. So let’s see what difference you can make.
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.
When looking at actual production for preschool media (television or otherwise), I see one particular quirk occur again and again in the visuals. I see it in animation and live-action, and it’s harder to forgive in live-action for reasons that will become clear later in this post. Pointing out this quirk and showing people how to avoid it is one of the most repeated pre-production/production lessons I have to give, whether working on my own productions or advising others on their own. It’s a simple practical tip but it all comes down to audience awareness so thinking about the fix can really help far beyond visual production – it’s about understanding point of view and that is relevant across creation, writing, direction, sound and every other part of the process.
So here it is. Have a look at this setup…
Character, background, a few details. It’s very simple. So what’s wrong with the picture?
Well, consider the position of the horizon. It’s rising up above the character. For this to happen, we have to be looking over that character, like a very tall adult looks over a child. This is not a child’s viewpoint. This is not how kids see the world. It’s how adults see the world.
Wherever you are right now, stand up and find a horizon or even look at the angle of the ground. Now get down on your knees and watch what happens. The ground flattens out and the horizon drops. If you had a little character in that setup, the horizon would be below the top of that character and you would be looking the character right in the eyes. This is how kids see the world.
This should be really apparent shooting live-action because you would see very clearly whether your cameras are at the height of an adult or a child. So if your setup is for something aimed at young children and you want to make a real connection, the first image should have looked more like this:
Drop the horizon. Those three words help make a connection in storyboarding, layout, background etc. But they also serve as a reminder across the whole process. Is the viewpoint you are depicting really that of a child? Or does it belong to your adult self? Find the child’s viewpoint and you will create something much more relevant with a stronger connection. You will make something that really means something to your audience.
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.
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.
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.
While doing some housekeeping, I came across some old Fluffy Gardens development work. Fluffy Gardens had a somewhat unconventional visual beginning and was then refined in several stages until it was ready for screen. I have put this design process together in some collected images in my GALLERY, including a few explored yet unproduced ideas that have never been seen before outside of the Geronimo Productions (then Monster Animation) studio. I do hope you find it interesting!
I also found my notes to the new animators on series 2 of Fluffy Gardens and among the notes is something that struck me as relevant in any area when you are getting to grips with something new, whether that’s learning a new skill, new software, writing outside your comfort zone, etc. It is written about animation but, if you’re not an animator, consider how this can be applied in your own area. So here it is, a thought from the animation notes of Fluffy Gardens:
1. Don’t get creative!
At least, not at first. The first thing to focus on is just getting basic movement looking as if it came straight from the most controlled scenes of the first series. Walking, picking stuff up, showing different expressions and that sort of thing. They are surprisingly easy to get wrong. So don’t go in attempting anything fancy. Keep everything grounded and just try to get it all working.
But… when you have got that (and be sure that you have first)…
2. Get creative!
Add little touches. Try something unexpected. It may not always work. That’s okay. But look at some of the more special scenes in series 1. You’ll see they’re always simple and never go crazy (well, except for Poppy the Tiger’s dream sequence) but, every now and again, there is an extra touch in the animation. A hidden smile from George the Mean Yellow Dog, a close hug, wet fur, that sort of thing.
Do be careful and certainly go sparingly. But when it’s right for a scene, have a think about what extra you could do. Add something special. Surprise me!
So there it is. First, know your field and know what you’re doing. Then get creative and deliver something special, something exceptional, something unexpected. That’s where the magic lies.
In designing characters for preschool, clarity is key and so we often aim for very simple characters with few details. But in the animation process we then have to take those simple characters and make them live. They need to act, just like a live-action actor does, and tell the story through their actions, their emotions, even their thoughts.
Does that matter for a preschool audience?
Yes. Not in quite the same way that it matters to adults. What a Disney fan or the Cartoonbrew crowd might consider great animation does not apply to preschool. Preschool animation can be simple, can be crude. But I have seen first hand that preschoolers will be more engaged when they believe those characters aren’t simply moving – they are living.
We must make our characters truly live.
But every now and again, an animator takes a look at a basic preschool character, possibly a crude design with little more than a shape, eyes and a mouth, and thinks, that won’t work. Those characters need more details to get across the expressions. How can I work with such basic pieces? Where are the eyebrows?
If you are an animator and have ever thought this, I point you towards puppets and the amazing work that great puppeteers do. Many puppets can’t move their eyes, or eyebrows. They can just open or close their mouths and little else. Some puppets have almost nothing to work with in comparison with animation. But through poses, subtleties, sometimes just a tilt of the head, a puppeteer can make us believe that their puppet thinks, feels, and lives. They can get across any emotion through movement.
We are taught this as animation students, most commonly with the emotional sack exercise (although that is often abused by forcing limbs and more onto the shape), but we tend to forget it soon after. We get used to the crutch of details. Details that, more often than not, we simply don’t need.
I have seen some of the most basic characters brought to life in Fluffy Gardens, Planet Cosmo and more and the best animators know that, to make a character live through movement, really all we need is to master that movement. Watch for the differences the tiniest move can make, the changes in attitude a tilt forward can bring, or a tilt backwards. See how the slightest change or subtle movement of the face can make us believe a character is listening and thinking. Bring the characters and story to life.
It seems so simple when put like that. Certainly, if you see your job as selling merchandise, an iconic character design is essential. But there’s more to a character than that, right?
For example, she may have an iconic design but does anyone know what kind of personality Hello Kitty has?
Has lack of personality hurt her? Not hugely. Hello Kitty is an exercise in design. What about in the context of classic stories? The three little pigs – how much do we know about them? Well, we know they’re pigs, they’re builders and two of them like to cut costs. That’s more than we know about Hello Kitty but they’re still not exactly what you’d call well-rounded characters.
But then what do I know about Dora the Explorer?
She likes to shout. She’s neglected – after all, what parents in their right mind would let a young child out across the jungle with a monkey? And she has communication issues. The Map, for example, won’t talk to her directly and instead asks the viewers to tell her things. They must have had a falling out or something. Map probably didn’t like being shouted at.
I actually don’t know a huge amount about who she is. What makes Dora tick?
I remember when I pitched Fluffy Gardens, I showed the Paolo the Cat pilot. I was asked whether we had considered just making the whole show about Paolo. After all, he was such a great character. Character? I was puzzled. He’s a red cat. He’s clever and, em… he’s red. That is about as deep as Paolo was back at that time. He got considerably more fleshed out across the two seasons.
The difficulty here is that, sure, maybe it is all about the character but what it is about those characters varies so greatly that finding the common ground is often very tricky. Hello Kitty’s appeal is straight from the visual design and little more. Dora’s appeal is more that she speaks directly to her audience. The appeal of the three pigs comes more from the story and the tension rather than anything specifically about the characters. Paolo the Cat actually had one underlying trait that gave him much more appeal than even I initially anticipated: modesty.
The common factor? Appeal.
The challenge? Appeal comes in so many forms. It must appear simple to the audience and yet can be incredibly difficult to achieve. It is hard to quantify.
The solution? Don’t ever think of it in terms as simple as “it’s all about the character”. Character can be many things or sometimes very few things and character rarely exists in isolation. The process is complicated enough and there are so many aims and pitfalls that creating good content is never about any single thing. All aspects must be considered together. Design, personality, dynamic within a group of characters, story, mood, voice, sound, pacing and so much more. It is all part of creating appeal. See the whole and then pick and choose what is relevant for what it is you are creating.
Aim for appeal.
And if you do it right, even if you don’t know exactly how you did it, it will appear simple from the outside. So simple that someone with an interest will look at what you’ve created and think, it’s all about the character.