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.
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.