Some of us give feedback regularly as part of our jobs. I’ve done this as a director and, more recently, a script editor and I also consult on projects quite regularly and much of that involves highlighting problems or flaws in a concept.
Or, as I prefer to think of it, identifying the areas where we can make that project even stronger and build on the best ideas contained within it.
I’m effectively saying the same thing there but one comes with a positivity that the other doesn’t have. Because I have also been on the other side of feedback, I can tell you with certainty that the positivity matters. When you’re reviewing somebody’s scene, when you’re reading through their script or trying to break down their concept, you’ve been given a piece of work that comes from within that person. It’s personal. It is as personal as it gets.
Feedback needs to be useful and constructive. It needs to be honest but there is a very fine line between honesty and cruelty and I actually haven’t seen an instance in my entire career where that cruelty is warranted, as much as some people might think it’s fine on X-Factor or whatever. Honest feedback can be delivered positively and sensitively. It’s not really about sugar coating or just saying nice things for the sake of it. It’s actually about seeing those good things, which is just as important to the process as seeing problems or negatives. If you don’t have a good sense of the strengths, how can you make it even stronger?
So look for the strengths. That will help guide your feedback and, more than that, it will allow you to deliver that feedback in a positive way. Because as much as you may think it’s just your job or it’s business or whatever, when you are in a creative field and looking at works from creative people, it IS personal.
The first question anyone should ask about a story, whether you’re writing yours, working on telling one in some form or you are evaluating one from someone else: is it fun? Hopefully you won’t even have to ask that. It should be something you feel.
As strange as it may sound, it is all too easy to lose the fun in stories.
You might add spark with conflict. Or rewrite it all to bring out the theme. And what’s really the message here? Are the beats in the right place? Maybe restructure the second and third act. Watch out for safety issues and that imitative behaviour. Oh but that one part contradicts what a character did six episodes ago so strike that. Is the language right? Maybe tweak that. Oh but now it’s too long so you’re going have to cut anything that isn’t absolutely essential to the story. Does that joke really advance the story? Cut it.
Writing is hard. Making TV or film or apps is HARD.
There are so many things to consider and so many passes at any given story. And in all of that, it is just too easy to lose the fun.
Don’t let it happen. Make space for fun. For smiles. For whimsy. For magic. Life has magical moments and you can bring these out even if your story is designed to be very grounded. Does it advance the story? Not really? Okay but is it going to make kids smile and laugh and maybe jump out of their seats to bounce up and down? If it will, maybe that’s more important. It doesn’t mean what you’re making should be a random mess of ideas that made you smile once – it still needs form. But the form should be a way to offer the fun to your audience. It’s like the package and bow around a gift.
Anyone who likes sci-fi will be familiar with council scenes. In these scenes, we take a well-earned break from the interesting stuff to watch a group of stuffy old people spout exposition and debate ethics while sitting or standing very still. The Phantom Menace had them. A bunch of Star Treks had them. Those Matrix sequels probably had them, I can’t quite remember. Jim from Neighbours has made a career out of them.
But they’re boring.
They are really, really, really boring.
They are so easy to spot in sci-fi but, once you develop a distaste for them, you’ll start to see them everywhere. It could characters spouting exposition and debating in a kitchen. Or a sitting room. Or somewhere else. The main hallmarks are that the characters aren’t going anywhere, don’t have much actual purpose other than to fill in story gaps, the scenes are about as static as can be without being labelled a photograph and often the characters involved don’t even have a role in the rest of the story. Boring, boring, boring.
And you know what? I just spotted one beginning to form in a thing I’m writing. Not a total council scene but close enough. I feel shame and alarm and I have cut the scene completely but I have no excuse for it.
I won’t let this travesty pass without some good coming from it. So now I use my now-deleted half-written scene of boringness as a lesson: avoid the council scenes. Just get rid of them. Look out for them and cut them. They’re boring. They’re boring for everyone but especially in kids’ media. Even your quirky designs won’t prevent the energy grinding to a halt when they happen. So just don’t let them happen. Say NO to council scenes.
Children can follow a story easier if they know where everything important is. The reason is quite simple: the moment a child wonders why a character is going a particular direction or what happened to the cow who was there earlier or why the house is now blue and not red, they are out of your story. They are likely not looking at what you want them to look at and aren’t hearing the next important lines you or your writer tortured over. If you’re fortunate enough to engage them again at all, they’ve missed bits.
So make sure your audience knows where everything and everyone important is.
You can do this in many ways: clear establishing shots, framing shots in such a way that everyone important is visible, sticking to a few set camera angles and not reversing the viewpoint without a damn good reason (3D animators – just because you can move a camera doesn’t mean you should). These are about getting your animatic right and they’re good guidelines to stick with in general.
If your team have set out a clear map of where everything is, this can be a great help – now you have reference. But guess what? Your audience doesn’t have that. Don’t assume that because it makes sense to you, it will make sense to them. Keep it clear, keep it consistent.
Always ask yourself: does my audience know what they are seeing? How have I shown them this?
And watch for places where consistent geography will actually work against a clear understanding. If a path doubles back on itself, for example, that could have kids thinking that characters turned around and are going the wrong way unless that geography is made crystal clear.
On that particular subject, here’s a little confession from my Fluffy Gardens days: we had no idea where anything was. Not a clue. There was a vague map but we shifted it around to suit episodes and individual scenes. Town changed all the time. Bushes teleported regularly. Now some of you might be gasping in horror at this apparent carelessness but this actually worked very well and here is why: we knew our geography was fluid and we used that to enhance our clarity within individual episodes. It is a 2D show. It is broadcast on a 2D screen with a defined aspect ratio. It made sense that journeys should also be 2D: left to right or right to left. So rather than worry about how Paolo travelled south around the mountain to reach Mavis, we instead made each and every journey a simple horizontal one, either left or right. How do we know when they’re going home? When they walk the other way. That made it incredibly clear to children.
Often but not always the going was right and the coming home was left. Why? Because that’s how we read most Western languages: progress is left to right.
In each episode, I watched carefully for these journeys and sense of place at animatic stage.
I equate making television with doing a magic trick. You decide where you want the audience to look and what information to take in. What the audience perceives as happening is more important than what is actually happening. If you do it well, they won’t notice how you did it. In our case, we kept the journeys in Fluffy Gardens clear by keeping the geography fluid. Might seem counter-intuitive at first but it works.
So whether you lock down a location map or allow your geography to be fluid, keep it all clear as events are playing out in an episode. Don’t let either of those methods work against you. Show children where all your important characters are. Show them where the characters are going. Show them where they are coming from. And don’t confuse the two. If a character leaves or enters a scene, show it. And if, when showing an animatic or rough episode, a kid or your producer or an exec or anyone else at all (even a single person who was sending a text through half the episode) has trouble with the geography then fix it.
The most important thing here is this: when writing, directing, designing, storyboarding an episode, you have more information than any child watching. What you know about where everything is doesn’t matter. It’s what the audience knows that counts.
Yesterday I saw this article about how children often miss the moral of a story. The article is true whether we’re talking preschool children or whether we’re talking kids in the 6-10 age group. Time after time, children walk away from a story having completely missed the message. Or worse, having badly misinterpreted the message.
The reasons for this are numerous. As the article points out, understanding the outcome requires stages of judgement throughout the story as cause and effect is revealed. As we approach stories as writers, we often work under the assumption that children know why characters are doing certain things whereas it is common that the audience hasn’t looked for a why. The why can be integral to understanding the final message.
Then there is that issue itself – that the moral or main message usually comes at the end. Your one-line sum up about how great it is to be yourself is simply not as likely to stick as the lead-up where each character wants to be just like the other kids and we get a song about trying not to stand out. In providing the negative example to lead to your wonderful positive message about life, chances are you may be planting that negative as the key takeaway of your story.
And then there is the fact that, as covered here recently, kids often miss bits. They’re busy, busy little people and they may not get a key line required for that “aha!” moment.
So what do we do? Well the one place I disagree with that article is the idea that we can’t predict whether a message will stick. I think it’s more likely that people just don’t ask the question. If we accept that getting the point across is difficult, we can do many things to ensure the success of that message. Many are already covered on this blog already so here are just some key suggestions:
- Make sure the message is itself simple and easily illustrated.
- Ensure that your moral/message realisation is as big and exciting as any negative parts.
- Really take the time to celebrate that message.
- Have your message run through the entire story, not just the end. Make it a running theme.
- State any key message clearly without surrounding clutter. Leave no ambiguity.
- Find a way of asking the audience to pay attention. It’s a simple trick but it works.
Do these things and the chances of your core message sticking will increase dramatically. And at that part of the process, there is one great way to know whether it is working: try it out on children and talk to them about your story.
Young children, especially early preschoolers, don’t always retain the key pieces of information your stories depend on. No, it’s not because they don’t take in information. Quite the opposite. They soak up information like sponges. The challenge for them is the sheer amount of information they are taking in while their filters and memories are developing.
So when writing, directing or creating for preschool, you can’t take it for granted that the most important line of your script was not overwritten by a child hearing a bird outside and filing that away as what bird calls sound like. You can’t assume they weren’t in the halfway point in the changeover between watching upside down and watching with their face buried in a bag of popcorn when you showed your key visual. Even if they took in the information, it leaves too much to chance to hope that it wasn’t nudged out by them wondering why the car had four wheels in one scene but they could only see two in the next.
Children are always busy.
So if your story depends on key points (and most do), remind them. Have a recap. Have several recaps. It ensures the essential points are remembered. If they missed a point completely the first time around, it gives them a chance to pick it up. Don’t fear the repetition – young kids love repetition. Just recap. The now-classic Cbeebies show Ballamory uses this perfectly, offering well-timed recaps that fit into the flow of the episode so it’s well worth studying that show if you get a chance.
One more little reminder just for you: while we’re often trained in a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach in media, for preschool children it is important you tell.
So remember to remind. Your story will thank you for it.
I have posted in the past about luck and how it is really about getting yourself in a place of opportunity and putting in the work to be ready to take that opportunity when it comes. A couple of weeks ago at the Cartoon Forum, I saw a lot of people put themselves in the right place to invite opportunity. Most were ready. Some had a glowing track record or were known veterans, some shined with ability and confidence, others had just worked their asses off to make sure that everything they showed was as great as it could be.
Every now and again, though, I could spot a project and group of people and I knew I was thinking what a large portion of the room were thinking: they’re good, but they’re just not ready yet.
Harsh, right? Thing is, I can probably spot it so easily because I was that person once. I had those projects. Pitching Millie and Mr Fluff at the Cartoon Forum was my 6th time pitching there over what must be around 13 or 14 years. And the very first time I pitched there all those years ago, I don’t think I really had an understanding of what it takes to make a show. As it happens, making a show is pretty easy if you’ve got the budget and an ounce of organisation skills.
But making a GOOD show? That’s a whole different matter.
There are so many elements that have to be spot-on: concept, story, characters, design, production methods, animation quality, writing, casting, sound, music, timing, flow, momentum… the list goes on. All of those things are important. Some of them are so crucial that the second you spot something wrong you know they just aren’t there yet. And the more you show, the more likely it is the flaws will be revealed. You need footage to prove your concept but it has to be right. Some people get it early and they’re good at it all and I admire those people.
I had to work at it.
I’m sure I have discussed it here before but my first few show pitches were unsuccessful and for the simple reason that I just wasn’t ready yet. Oh there were varying individual reasons – sometimes the concept was underdeveloped, we didn’t have the strength of vision to best integrate feedback, sometimes we just got it plain wrong – but really they came down to that same thing.
So what do you do if you’re in that position? You’ve got the drive, you’ve got the ideas, the skills even. But you’re just not quite there yet. Well, you’ve got options…
What changed everything for me was directing Roobarb & Custard Too. I had the safety net of the show’s creator handling all the writing, I had a massive back catalogue of episodes to study and so as long as I really put in the work (I did) I could make a good show. That was 39 episodes. And over that 39 episodes, studying each one of them afterwards and analysing what worked and what didn’t, I got better. I could see what to look out for in visual storytelling, in the boards, I could spot the rookie mistakes in animatics (mistakes which I had previously made myself). I still had so much to learn but, with that series behind me, I was at a point where people saw us pitch Fluffy Gardens and, whether consciously or unconsciously, they could see that I was ready.
So one of your best options is always to work on other shows first. If you’re a writer, write on other shows. If you want to direct, work on a show with a good director or creative leads. Build up those skills while you have the safety net of more experienced people or prior work around you. Even with that, it’s not enough just to do the work. You have to treat it like study and make sure you actively learn. Question yourself and what you’re doing. Get better.
Another option is to bring that experience to you. Acknowledge that you might not quite be there yet and find ways of teaming up with people who make up for that. People who bring a wealth of knowledge and have a strong body of work behind them. I have seen this work brilliantly. I remember seeing one nervous young creator presenting a project that was lovely but, on her own, we would have been left wondering if she could have really handled a series. But she had teamed with a production company with a good track record. They didn’t even have to be a part of her pitch. Just that people knew they were there was enough to reassure everyone and it ceased to be an issue. They could then just focus on the lovely project they were seeing. Sure enough, she made a great show.
If you have set up your own production company and your work to date has not been series work or leading the creative, see who you can hire in or at least get consultants. Get experienced directors to look at your animatics, your scenes. Get great writers. Because the truth is, one thing that experience helps with is spotting those mistakes that every industry expert seeing your pitch will also spot.
You have got to be ready and you have to show people that you are ready. That is not something that just happens – it is something you can actively work towards.
I’m off at the Cartoon Forum this week, preparing to present Millie and Mr Fluff on Friday morning (see the image above). But while I’m away, here is a thought on taking a story to screen:
Hit those key story points hard. Really hard.
As a writer, I would tell you that everything in a script is important. But as a director/producer/editor/consultant/casual viewer I can tell you that not everything is equally important.
In a short television story, there are likely around three absolutely essential story points. These are points that, if a kid missed, the story would cease to have any impact. So in a very generic yet common and perfectly valid example, the key points might be these:
1 – Character has a problem.
2 – Character through some action or event realises there is a solution.
3 – Character fixes problem.
Now there are other parts that will help this story. If I saw a script that was just this, I would recommend that we need to see some failed attempts in there too. But when it comes down to it, if you remove one of these three points you’ve got a major problem. Remove number 1 and your audience doesn’t know what the aim is and so the other points have no impact. Remove 2 and the end will feel nonsensical, pointless or too easy. Remove 3 and your whole resolution is gone.
But when you write a script or your writer hands in the script, there is going to be a lot more in it than just these three things. We hope for lovely character moments, jokes, ups and downs. And they’re all in there together. Rarely does a writer put the absolutely essential points in CAPS (probably would be frowned upon but actually I think there would be some merit to the idea) so it is now up to the rest of the team, director et al, to tell that story in the best way possible. If that team just goes through a script and gives everything equal importance, it could just end up being a bunch of stuff that happens and the key points could be missed. That doesn’t make it a bad script – the script hands you the elements but the storytelling work never ends there, nor should it.
You have got to make absolutely certain that the story will be clear and have maximum effect on the audience. For that to happen, you have to hit those key story points hard. They are essential. They take priority and so, by definition, everything else becomes secondary. So in boarding, animatics, recording, animation, always make certain that those points get the space, timing and emphasis they need. Your episode depends on it.
Whether you’re writing, directing, producing or any part of the process of making content, you will encounter difficulties. Some you see coming, others you don’t. Some are minor annoyances, others are catastrophes. They all have one thing in common: you don’t want any of them to negatively impact the finished product.
What you certainly don’t want is a big problem late in your production, when there are too many parts of the process finalised to go back a step and when any delay will push you well past your deadline. You must avoid a panic late in your project. Panic by definition involves a certain lack of control and this can happen so easily when a new problem hits just when you need it the least. Your aim must be to retain control. But can you really choose when problems will occur or reveal themselves?
Sure you can. You do this by making the decision to panic early instead. Get it out of the way.
Right at the start, work on the assumption that something will delay you. Take on that little moment of panic on day one. So now you can’t aim for on-time any more because, in reality, that will lead to you being late. Instead, you have to aim for early. That builds in a buffer for those problems that may arise (just like I suggested about writing in an earlier post). It also helps you get to those problems a little earlier which may well be just the extra time you need to deal with them.
Next: Call a crisis point the moment you get a feeling in your gut that something is not working. Declaring a crisis is not a negative. Quite the opposite. By recognising a problem as potentially damaging, it allows you to take the uncontrolled and form a strategy to control it. You can reassess your aims, you can pull apart your systems and rebuild them, you can shuffle your teams or replace people completely. Bottom line: you have to acknowledge the problem before you can deal with it. Don’t wait until that problem has snowballed and is out of control. This is as much a note to self as it is to anyone reading this because any time I have seen that happen it has bitten everyone involved in the ass every single time.
While carrying out both of these points, never assume it will all work itself out eventually. It never does. Problems must be dealt with head on.
And then: Enjoy a calmer ride to the finish line. If you got your panic out of the way right at the start, built in that extra time, tackled every problem recognising that you have a crisis on your hands, you will have saved yourself a whole lot of worry later in the process and will likely have a far better product as a result. It’s that age old homework comparison. If you leave it to the night before it’s due, you’re in for a night of panic and possibly scrappy work that you don’t have time to review. Do it early, on the other hand, and you’re relaxing that night as you pick off the last few typos on a great piece of work.
But… shouldn’t we all be aiming for processes and productions with no panic whatsoever? Sure. And that’s exactly what it looks like when you have taken control of your production and carry out these steps routinely.
1) Aim to deliver early. 2) Declare every crisis immediately. 3) Never assume it will work itself out. 4) Enjoy the ride.
Directing animated television shows is hard. It’s a huge amount of work, but it’s also really tough to everything right.
I know this from personal experience because it took me many years to get good at it and I had to direct, complete and review a large number of episodes to figure out how best to tackle certain aspects (for those counting, I have directed 215 television episodes and I’m still learning things). I can also see that directing is hard from watching pilots, development work and even a large number of completed broadcast episodes that fall into the exact same traps I did early in my directing days. Some just aren’t as good as they could be, even when the story is good and the writing is sharp.
So how to get better? How do you make sure you’re doing the writing justice and not losing anything in translation? Well, looking at storyboarding and how cuts work is incredibly important because poor flow can kill a great episode. A director and storyboard artists must share many skills. But this post is about the importance of timing.
Timing is something outside the control of the board artist and should ultimately always be in the hands of the director. I have previously mentioned the importance of animatics and I would always spend as much time as possible on my own cuts. Setting up and first passes are fine to delegate. But take control of those last passes yourself because, as director, you’re likely the only one who really has a sense of all the elements that will make up the final episode.
And it is in balancing the elements that great timing comes together. It is also where it can go wrong.
The difficulty with animation is that all the parts are separate. The animation and movement is separate from the still storyboards. The voice track is separate from the visuals. The sound effects track is not only separate but often added at the very end, meaning you haven’t got it when you’re putting the animatic together. Same with music. Miss one of these elements when you play out that episode in your head and you will end up with a timing problem later on.
For example, what if you don’t leave enough time for that foghorn sound and it ends up clashing with an important vocal line? What happens if you leave too much time and a joke is killed because we have dead air for a few frames too long? What happens if you don’t have enough time to get that character over the other side of the room and so your cut jumps? What happens if your conversations sound too close together and kids don’t have enough time to really take in the important lines?
You can avoid all these problems by focusing on timing. Not just the timing of what you have in front of you, but the timing of all those elements that aren’t yet in place. As you watch your animatic, you need to have a second screen in your own mind filling in all the blanks and have to be listening to the whole soundtrack like it is music. You always need to have a sense of the final episode, like it has already been completed in your mind.
From there, the best piece of advice I could give is to do multiple passes, each with their own separate aim. If you try to tackle every element at once in a single pass, I’m willing to bet they’ll merge together, your focus will shift to some particular problems and you will miss something. So separate out those tasks. Tackle one at a time. The passes I have done vary depending on the show but here is how I put together an animatic of Planet Cosmo:
Story Pass – this is to make sure I’m telling the story well. Clarity and flow are the big issues here so this pass could involve many panel revisions.
Voice pass – I listen to the animatic without the visuals. Does it sound natural? Is there enough space around key lines that young children get to take them in? Are there gaps that feel too long or unnatural? Listen for the beats, for the music that’s in the voice track.
Effects and music pass – On this pass, I’m watching while being very conscious of where the effects and music will go. If you have an action with an important sound effect, get it clear of the lines. Find a natural gap in the dialogue and get it in there, even if this sound effect doesn’t exist yet – do it in your mind. Again, listen to the beats. Be aware that music can glue separate scenes together (this is not always desirable).
Laughter pass – Yes, I did an entire pass just putting in laughs for the characters. Why? To punctuate the episode, the jokes and the fun moments. And kids love laughter.
Squeeze pass – This pass exists with one purpose: to get rid of anything that isn’t absolutely essential. If something just isn’t as fun enough, remove it. Feel like you’re doubling over on something? Remove one. And have your episode length in mind all the time.
Final Pass – With this pass, I just try to watch the episode as if I was watching on television for the first time. Instead of going in and editing as I watch, I’ll quickly scribble down a note so I don’t break the viewing flow. This is where that last bit of tightening or stretching will be done. The last chance to get it as great as it can be. Always remember that your show must be clear on a single watch with no explanations.
Sound like a lot of passes? It is. Because getting a great animatic together is one of the most important parts of the process and should never be rushed. A great animatic is how you get a great episode. It is possible to kill a great animatic with poor animation but great animation will never save a bad animatic.
Because timing is so important, it is essential you give it what it needs and what it deserves: time.