I started with animation, the 2D hand-drawn kind. At a certain point, I recognised a built-in difficulty with the 2D animation system: the dilution of drawings. While setting up a scene, a storyboard artist sketches a character pose. Then a layout artist draws a tighter on-model version of that pose. An animator uses that as a basis for their rough key poses. Then in-betweeners fill in the drawings that are still missing, using the key drawings as their starting point. Finally a clean-up artist redraws all those drawings again with a clean line.
In each one of those steps, the energy that was once in that storyboard pose gets harder and harder to keep. It’s like a far less interesting version of Chinese Whispers, where the end result is a bland approximation of the starting point. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but the chances are pretty high in every single scene.
So people tackle this in different ways. Often the storyboard artists get to put a lot more life into their drawings. They don’t have to stick exactly to what the character looks like so they can be more playful. That way, we hope that they capture an energy that survives in part all the way through, albeit in a diluted form.
But the best way I found to beat this problem is one I saw employed by some making the crazier cartoons of the ’90s – encourage everyone at each stage to push it further.
You don’t just aim to capture what was in the previous drawing. You don’t aim to equal it. You take it to the next level. Got a strong storyboard pose? Try to make it even stronger in the layout. Then again in the animation and so on. Each artist adding to the energy rather than just repeating or, more likely, losing the energy altogether. And you have to keep doing it. You have to push every drawing actively. The second you stop doing it consciously, the energy fades again.
So I realised this many, many years ago.
What I hadn’t realised at the time, however, is that it applies to far more than just hand-drawn animation. It applies to just about everything. It applies to story. It applies to character. It applies to writing. It applies to directing. It even applies in ways to production systems. You have to keep trying to push things further at every stage. Make them more interesting, stronger, better. And you have to do it consciously and keep reminding yourself to do so. Because the second you stop, things slip. They start to get far less interesting and, eventually, stop working altogether.
So keep pushing it further. Do it at every stage. And use every bump, every criticism, every do-over, every problem as an opportunity to ask yourself how you can push it even further. Do this and you’ll end up with something interesting, better and truly alive.
Finding our new zookeeper character was about asking the right questions. Who will bring a child into the show? Who will kids relate to? Who will compliment our tiger character? Who can drive stories? You might notice that these are all about what the character will achieve for the show and the audience. The questions are not so much about the character itself. Having a clear sense of the needs informs the character. Once you are certain on those needs, you can move on to questions about the character, who they are and what they like and dislike and so on.
Answering these questions took some time but, once the goals were clear, the basics of Millie and a whole lot more fell into place remarkably quickly. I had an idea of who she was, what she looked like and a name. Showing kids early on revealed that they were attracted to the designs, although more testing would come later. I also was clear on how she could fit into the stories, even though that meant a lot would have to be reworked or replaced entirely so that she could drive the narrative rather than being sandwiched into what effectively were just Mr Fluff stories.
Oh yes, Mr Fluff got a name too. Mr Fluffington-Strypes, gentleman and master of disguise. The name sounded more than a little posh and yet the fluff made him cuddly, approachable and loveable – and that’s the true Mr Fluff once you get past the airs and graces.
And while these two characters were worked up as designs, the show found its look. A rougher, patchier version of what would eventually become the visual style of the show. Mr Fluff lost his glasses, Millie got younger and cuter and the crayon-like feel for the design happened naturally during this development.
It seemed like it took so long to figure out what this idea would become. So much searching and pausing and wondering. But as soon as Millie became clear, it felt like the framework of this show formed almost overnight. Was it all there yet? No. Of course not. There was much left to flesh out, to test, to challenge and then pull together but the ingredients of the show were in place. And the thing about all the next phases of development is that, unless the visual design bombed with kids (and I knew it was working to a point – I had one challenge to overcome later), the top line pitch of this show would remain intact.
Finally this was a show I could take to a broadcaster.
Or to put it another way, I now had no excuse to hold it back. No reason to procrastinate. No way of justifying tinkering away at it for a few more months. Because truth be told, I think many of us creators would be happier working at our idea than sitting across a desk from a gatekeeper trying to convince them that we have something interesting.
I could make up no more reasons to avoid putting a two-page pitch document together and start showing it to people. The pitch phase was about to begin. One of the toughest and yet most exciting parts of the process.
This post follows on from Creating A Show Part 1 and Part 2.
While working up the new zookeeper character, I knew I would soon have to answer a very important question: what is this? Is it a book, a TV show, a game, an app or something else entirely?
Transmedia is the easy answer but it is not always helpful. Yes, characters and brands often have to work across forms but, personally, I believe you need to know your core platform. Mainly because every form of media is different and the needs of each form are different. So if you’re aiming for all of them at once, I find one of two situations occur: A) you don’t realise the differences in each form and so fail to make the most of the strengths in any form or B) you know the needs of each form and shave the edges off your project so it works for any of them, diluting it to bland nothingness in the process.
For me, I have to know the core form. It’s that old idea of knowing your target if you’re expecting to hit anything at all.
Here are some things the media form will dictate:
Length and complexity. The strength of focus on narrative. The forms of humour (Slapstick? Wordplay?). The visual design (you can rest on a page in a picture book. Not so with TV). The amount of stories required (if it’s TV, you need a LOT of stories). Cost of development (when you get into animation or coding, costs shoot up). Your relevant gatekeepers (got to know who you’re selling to). The amount and type of partners needed.
There are many more aspects affected by the chosen form of media so it is crucial to know what you’re aiming for. You can change direction along the way of course but best to nail down an initial strategy and see it through as far as possible. And while we may just assume the primary form is the one we are most familiar with, that is not always what is best for the particular project.
So I had to decide. What would it be?
An interactive app or a game? Maybe… but I found myself concentrating on narrative and humour that could contribute to an interactive app but might not necessarily be the primary focus. I set that idea aside as something to revisit later. I knew it could be a great book, whether published physically or digitally. I still think it can be a great book. I can see the page layouts, the wordplay, even some fun printing tricks such as textured sections and sticky jammy parts. Perfect fun for preschoolers. So I was leaning towards a book for a while.
But I chose television as the first platform for this concept. Why? Because of what motion could add to the slapstick I was aiming for. Yes, a lot of that can come through in a book but this fast-paced silliness was almost begging me to make it move. I was also finding that the concept kept handing me new stories. They were short, basic ideas, almost like sketches and I knew not all of them would work when I finally got the zookeeper character right but, nevertheless, the stories kept coming. Television loves volume and this show could run and run. It was a well of little preschool comedy ideas.
This concept was a television show first and foremost and that brought me back to very familiar territory.
I can’t state strongly enough how important it is to know what your primary form is, even if you want your stories to eventually spin off to everything else too. There are so many variables in creating content and navigating through the choices is not always easy. So every time you make a solid decision, you gain even more focus. It informs all those other choices and offers you a clear direction. You will still have many things to work out but you’ll be doing it with a strong target. You know what you have to hit.
Know what it is you’re making.
And now that I knew what this was, I just had to sort this little zookeeper character.
This post continues from last week’s post on The Idea.
So I had a strong concept but it wasn’t quite working yet and I didn’t have a mission. Does a show need a mission? For me, yes. I think every creative endeavour needs a mission. Because getting anything off the ground is hard work. It can be gruelling. To push through the resistance, you need to have a strong sense of why you are doing what you’re doing. “I think this idea is nice” is rarely enough. You won’t last if that’s all you’ve got.
More importantly, you can’t do it alone. You need people to support you, to believe in the project and to help out. You need a reason for them to really care. That is why a mission is so important. It is a driving force. And this project didn’t have one yet.
But what I found at this time is that, actually, I had one. I had recently launched Planet Cosmo and that show seemed to achieve its mission – to introduce children to the planets. It had a clear educational goal and I now had a list of other educational goals I wanted to explore too. But Cosmo wasn’t an easy production. I found I didn’t want to jump straight into another similar mission. Really, what I needed was a palette cleanser. A whole other kind of mission – I just wanted to make kids laugh.
I was looking for comedy.
Sure, inevitably I would want to build something on a backbone of positivity. That’s what I do. But I wanted something that kids could just enjoy. I was working up a few things to fit that brief (a zebra named Richard, a collection of little monsters and so on) when I realised that, actually, this tiger zoo thing might be a really good fit.
I put the two together and Anything But The Monkeys now had a mission: it would be the funniest thing for preschoolers I could possibly make. Not just a project with some smiles or the odd bit of humour (a lot of preschool content has that already). A full-on comedy. I would amend, change and work at it until it made children laugh.
This was a huge step in the project. Knowing the mission can drive everything.
But unfortunately I knew this tiger wasn’t fully carrying the idea. He was funny so why didn’t it feel right?
I spent a long time working this out, trying to find what was missing and came to many different conclusions. The idea of the tiger character was that he would come in to the zoo when required. Like Shane in that western story, Shane. That meant we had no real anchor within the zoo itself. Perhaps that was causing a disconnect as we couldn’t quite lock on to that world? Even then, was the comedy right? He was funny in the way Niles Crane is funny. Or Eric Morecambe is funny. Hmmm… grown up humour. Not child’s humour. And in each one of those examples, they need a counterpart. The straight man. This big tiger needed a partner. More importantly, he needed a partner anchored to that zoo who would provide a child’s point of view – someone who would invite kids into this story and allow them to see the funny side of this tiger. A character who is just like the audience.
Not just a sidekick, that would be a half measure. I needed whole new main character. A new focal point.
I tried a lot of ideas for that (such as the child tiger character seen above) before locking on to an early drawing of a little zookeeper. What if the zookeeper was a child? A little kid running a zoo. That in itself seemed like a strong concept. It could be a pitch all on its own (yes, I was already thinking about the pitch – more on that in another post). And rather than competing with the tiger concept, it seemed to provide an anchor to bring the tiger character in.
My one-tiger show was now a double act and getting this zookeeper right would be the key to the whole concept.
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.