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.
There are no original ideas. Everything is a derivative of something else.
There is a small amount of truth to these words in that even things that seem new are usually a progression of ideas, another step forward rather than complete reinvention. My problem with these words stems not from the truth of the words themselves but how and why these words are used. You see, more often than not these words are used in an attempt to justify lack of creativity, lack of effort, lack of ambition and sometimes straight out moral bankruptcy, where someone clones the hard work of someone else for financial gain.
And yet at times we hear similar from some of the world’s greatest innovators. Steve Jobs said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”, echoing Picasso before him. And if they said it…?
Well let’s break this down.
Good artists copy. Great artists steal.
Let us first acknowledge that the world is full of good artists. Good isn’t good enough and neither of these men would have found good acceptable. We want to aim for better. We want to aim for great at the very least. So we can take the first part of that – good artists copy – as a negative. We need to be aiming for the second part.
So now let us consider the difference between ‘copy’ and ‘steal’.
When we copy something, we mimic it. We attempt to replicate the original and, no matter how successful we are (and copying things on a surface level usually lacks the real understanding to replicate anything great), the original remains. So there are now two of what it is we copy – the original and our copy, which we hope will in some way be close to the original. But it probably won’t ever be as good.
Stealing is very different. When we steal, we take the original and make it ours. Whether or not it is right, we now possess it. We own it. The original owner no longer has it. It’s ours.
To be a great artist, to steal, we must do so much more than just copying. Copying is not good enough. We have to make it ours and we have to take it from the original owner. How do we do that? By building on it, changing it, bringing everything we have to the idea and giving it our own personal touch. That’s how we make it ours. And how do we take it from the original owner? By taking the idea and making it so much better than the original owner ever could have dreamed of. By making it so new and so special it now sits in its own category, making what it used to be completely redundant.
The truth is, to really steal and make it worth doing, you have to make it original. Innovate. Yes, you can be influenced both directly and indirectly by others. You can certainly learn from others. Yes, you can build on old ideas. But you have to add to them, put things together in whole new ways and try what simply has not been tried before. You have to set new standards.
You have to aim for different.
Whether the words at the top of this post are true or not, once you buy into the idea that nothing is original and use that to justify what you are doing, you will never get past copying and never find something truly special. To find new you first have to believe it exists.
I am pleased to announce a newGirls Will Be Girls t-shirt in partnership with the awesome Pigtail Pals! A fun, colourful, playful t-shirt with happy little girls being anything they want to be.
Limiting gender role models are everywhere and what I have found having two girls of my own is that it is much harder for girls to aspire to something if they don’t actually see it.
I wrote an article on this subject some years ago after I realised that my girls just weren’t getting the role models they needed or deserved. Sure, many girls will grow up to do amazing things but they have to take on a battle of gender perception on top of all the other challenges we face when we want to achieve.
The first hurdle is simply the idea that we can actually have these aspirations.
That is why I created this image. Girls will be girls. They can be anything they want to be and I wanted to show that in a fun, loving way that kids will really enjoy. Teaming up with Pigtail Pals to make this available as a t-shirt made perfect sense. Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies specialises in providing better role models for children, girls and boys, and is very active in this area, working towards creating a better reality for our children. A reality in which gender is not a challenge. I have been a big fan of the Pigtail Pals mission and I am so happy to have partnered with Melissa on this t-shirt.
You can purchase the shirt here on thePigtail Pals site. I particularly recommend it on the Baby Blue, Sea Blue, Baby Pink, Lilac, Sherbet, White, Lemon or Lime colours. And you should hook up with Pigtail Pals on Facebook here.
Really hope you all like the shirt! And yes, there is a boy’s version on the way!
I have previously stressed the importance of visual simplicity when creating content for young children. But rather than taking that as a given, it is better to get familiar with why this is important.
The answer is not that children are simple.
Quite the opposite. The answer is that children are incredibly complex and, at certain ages, interpret visual information differently. And knowing more about this answer will inform your design choices.
On top of learning new things at a ferocious rate, children are very quickly processing what they see based on what they already know. This can greatly affect how children perceive design. One thing young children try to do, and usually succeed, is put form to abstract shapes. They ace Rorschach tests. They will see monsters in dark corners, faces in patterns, and a whole zoo in their drawings where we adults see nothing but scribbles.
Simply put, they often can make something out of nothing.
So if you have a detailed rock texture, for example, you see it as adding richness. To a young child, you are potentially throwing a whole set of new pictures you never intended. While your characters are busy telling the story, a young child could be staring at that rock texture and seeing snakes, or a clown, or socks, anything, and completely missing your story. Does that mean you shouldn’t use texture? No, not necessarily. But once you start getting detailed, you have to become very aware of the clarity. The edges and shapes become all-important to make sure your audience really put the right forms to what you are showing them. You have to work harder to make each visual element clear to children, while being careful not to overwhelm them.
Another interesting part to this is that children often process their visual information in a certain order. They can work their way through that order and stop when they have enough information to process what they are seeing. That order may well vary from child to child but I have found that shape, silhouette, is usually much more important to the younger end of preschool (two, two and half) than the colour and details within that shape.
So what does this mean for design? Well, it means that if you are using the same character model for more than one character and are relying on colouring and details for kids to tell them apart, you could be in trouble when it comes to the youngest children in your audience. They may well have already categorised the characters before getting to your details, leading to confusion over which character is which.
Varying the silhouette of your characters is really a must for young children.
This really just scratches the surface of things to consider when putting a visual form to your preschool project but even keeping these in mind will help your audience take in your content. You don’t want them confused. You don’t want them looking at one thing while you’re trying to show them another. You do want them to enjoy your story and soak up the entertainment and whatever goodies you are offering them.
What is important to realise is that, by getting more familiar with how your audience thinks, you will be better able to approach your project in a way that makes that easy for them.
Many years ago, when I was just moving into children’s programming, I saw what was then Tell-Tale Productions (veterans Iain Lauchlan, Karl Woolley and Will Brenton) pitching a show called Where’s Boo? at the Cartoon Forum. They discussed the design and how their research showed that the simple shapes, clear colours and heavy lines made the character much easier to read for small children. Now sometimes people make outlandish claims at the Forum but this made sense to me and the (now ex) Tell-Tale guys know their stuff.
In the years that followed, I dug into research on how children perceive visual information and conducted quite a bit of my own testing on show concepts and designs. It was only then that I could truly appreciate how right they were. As adults, many of us tend towards complexity, the details, texture and polish. Many of these things have no relevance to preschool children and may even cause problems.
Young children need clarity. Visual simplicity.
I have written before about how I first found the Fluffy Gardens look – I drew the characters with a mouse. It prevented me from using some of the shapes and details that would be pleasing to me as an adult. I ended up with basic, crude drawings. Almost like those a child might do.
Children reacted so positively to these images and I found they were drawn in particular to the large eyes (hence them getting even larger in refining the look). The flat colours, the hard black lines on the characters and the simple easy-to-read expressions all contributed to it working for children, yet often far from what we look for as adults.
Since making Fluffy Gardens, different shows have had different needs. You can see, I’m sure, how Planet Cosmo is an evolution of the same ideas. Aiming at the higher end of preschool age range, Planet Cosmo needed to demonstrate the wonders of space. It needed to feel a little more beautiful, less crude. And yet still we have basic shapes, large eyes and flat colour on the characters. The balance took a long time to find and, throughout development and production, we had to remind ourselves of our purpose.
Because as we work, we tend to drift.
Often we drift towards old habits, sometimes we drift towards new ones. But we drift. This is across all aspects, not just design. It is why we so often play back old character samples when recording voice work for a show – even the actor who defined a voice can find themselves drifting away from it, just a little bit each recording. In classical animation, it is how characters might change when animating straight ahead, each drawing being just a little different from the previous one.
So it is important to reset.
Important to take us back to an earlier realisation and remind ourselves of what we learned. To relearn it. It is rarely enough to learn something just once.
For me, that means pulling out the very early Fluffy Gardens concepts, even more basic than the actual finished show. Appreciating the simplicity, the lack of details. And recognising that what I’m looking at is very different to what we often strive for or appreciate as adults. And that’s a good thing.
So, when working for young children, never fear simplicity. Keep in mind the drift, no matter what end of the craft you are in – writing, designing, directing, animating. Sometimes in our quest to get better, we can forget what is important to our audience.
The last couple of weeks have been some of the most hectic of our production yet. We are in the process of improving many of our studio systems to make sure we get the absolute best results we can for Cosmo with the resources we have. There really isn’t any ‘off’ time, where the brain can rest. But when I find it, even in short moments, I like to get my iPad out and doodle. Just a few digital brush strokes here and there. Sometimes even just one before I have to switch it off and move on to the next task.
The thing with taking small steps is that, as long as you keep going, you will eventually have a result no matter how small those steps are.
For Halloween, I present the one of my results above – a simple iPad digital painting made with the Procreate app during those little quiet moments. A little witch for Halloween. Hope you all have a ghoulish time this Halloween!
Every day, my inbox gets hit with Writer’s Store emails which are usually along the lines of ‘what Hollywood readers want to see’, ‘a do and don’t list for getting an agent’ and so on. And there are no shortage of ‘what broadcasters/distributors/etc are looking for’ articles in our trade magazines and across websites everywhere.
Are they helpful?
Perhaps, in a few isolated cases. If, for example, you desperately want your show on one particular channel above all others and their commissioner hates shows about manitees, it’s good to know that in advance so you can change all your manitees to dugongs or something. That’s helpful. Although it doesn’t mean they’ll like your show.
If you find out that every single broadcaster on the planet has a rule about not showing bellybuttons, it’s good to know things like that too. Doing research on who you’re selling to is important and it is to be recommended.
But really, it comes down to what it says in that image above – it’s all just opinion. Broadcasters, distributors and so on very rarely agree on what they want. You will never please all of them. You won’t even be able to please most of them. Trying will likely only result in an unfocused compromised mess as you create not a show but a checklist with characters (unless some broadcaster somewhere doesn’t want characters this year). And as you create that checklist, you will have neglected to please those who really matter: your audience. Your actual end users. In my world, that’s children.
You may also end up neglecting one other person: yourself.
Our industries are tough at the best of times. If you personally are not passionate about what you’re making, chances are you won’t see it through.
You have to go with your passion. You have to make something you love.
Do you want to know what broadcasters want?
What they really want?
They’re the same as everyone else ‘ they just want something they’ll love. It’s as basic as that. Oh they may have opinions on what they like and don’t like but if they really knew what that thing was, that one thing they’ll love, they’d create it themselves. They’d take it to a producer they know and outline the entire show. But that’s not how they work. It’s not how we work. Most of the time, we just connect with something when we see it. Or we don’t. Usually it’s a surprise rather than something that just fulfils a list of desires we already knew we had.
So you’ve just got to create something you love. Something you think your audience, your real audience, will love and something that the world needs. Something you can feel strong about ‘ because you will need to be strong.
And then you have to put it out there and hope that someone else loves it too. If they do, if they really connect with it and really love it, every rule they ever made about what they want or don’t want will get thrown out right then and there.