Way, way back when we made Fluffy Gardens, we started with a pilot episode. After a significant development period and with a full crew, it took us around 4 weeks, possibly a little more. That was with simple, pretty crude, yet charming animation. A higher level of polish and it would have taken us far longer. For just 7 minutes of screen time. And that’s just the animation itself.
To make 40 episodes (the length of our first series) at that rate would take over three years. But of course it didn’t. With the same crew, we were getting episodes out in just 4 days by the end of the series and looking better than the pilot did.
4 weeks to 4 days.
That’s some difference. That comes with familiarity, knowing the methods, the characters, building up libraries. We got better and we got faster. And that’s entirely normal. That is why it is difficult to break down a series schedule to an exact per episode time period. You estimate it based on an average, knowing the early episodes will take an age and the final episodes will be quick.
The real hard work is done up front. Those early episodes need the focus. They need the scrutiny. They need questions: are we happy with this? Are we doing it the right way? And they need the time. That will pay off hugely down the line.
Thing is, it is true for more than just animation production. Having just one writer or two on a whole show, for example, means they get to know it and they put in that work in finding what it is and, soon, they are doing it better and faster. Your composer will learn new things in those early episodes that they will apply as they go on. Everyone in the process will learn some new tricks in those early days or weeks.
So what’s the point here? It’s this: don’t panic when that early work seems to take an age. It’s normal. That’s going to pay off. Just make sure you start to see an increase in momentum as you continue.
It’s that time again – it comes quicker every year. I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas/holiday season! Thanks as always for stopping by my little blog.
If you’re in Ireland, keep an eye out for the Fluffy Gardens Christmas Special. It will air as always on Christmas morning at 7.50am and also on RTEjr at 10.30am and 2.30pm. Plenty of chances to see it! Isn’t it about time I made a new Christmas special? Isn’t it?!
Oh, one last thing. I just found out that Dino Dog made the Guardian’s Best iPad Apps for Kids 2014 list: YAY!
Just a little Christmas post to wish everyone who stops by a happy, warm Christmas/holiday season. I wish you friends, family, comfort and peace.
Given the subject matter of my site, I should also plant one thought: there is still room in this world for new original Christmas stories and, if they’re good, they can become a defining part of the season for kids of any age. If you have a Christmas story in you and it’s not yet another version of A Christmas Carol, consider developing it and taking it further. Let that thought simmer as we come in to the new year.
And on a related note, I’d like to remind Irish readers that my very own Fluffy Gardens Christmas will be on RTE2 at 7.40am on Christmas morning. 8 years in a row, a Christmas tradition! It will also be on RTEjr at 11.40am and 1.05pm as far as I can tell (it’s just listed as Fluffy Gardens but I’m guessing on the time slot…). It is the most Christmassy of fun Christmas stories and I hope your little ones will love it if they haven’t already seen it.
Have a wonderful Christmas everyone! See you back here in 2014.
We all fall back on certain staples of children’s writing if we think we can do something with them. Series 2 of Fluffy Gardens featured a sports day episode, for example. How many other shows have done that? Roughly around all of them. Every show ever. Using a familiar plot element as a catalyst is not a bad thing in itself. We can often find we have an interesting spin or something to add.
But there is one common story that manages to rub me up the wrong way every time: the surprise birthday party. I gave that away in the post title, didn’t I? Note to self: don’t ruin surprises.
The surprise birthday party story sees most of the episode being taken up with the main characters pretending they’ve forgotten one character’s birthday. Could there be anything more horrific? Well possibly if you were willing to do episodes about car crashes or a burns ward. But in a child’s life, I can think of few things worse.
For a start, it involves a secret. Secrets can haunt parents who, to keep them safe, need their children to be open and honest with them at all times. I must admit it’s a personal thing but I am not a big fan of secrets in children’s media generally.
It involves a very deliberate lie.
It involves a conspiracy in that lie, creating a sense of exclusion. One person is kept out of the secret.
It involves a character feeling awful for most of the episode as a result of that lie. On the very day that they should be feeling wonderful.
And then it eventually throws in a nice happy ending justifying the horror. It’s like sticking a shot of a puppy onto the end of Saw and calling it a feel-good film.
Back when I was writing series 2 of Fluffy Gardens, I wrote some stories that were, in many ways, reactions to stories I had seen as a child with messages I found to be way off what we should be telling children. And I did eventually write a birthday party episode in which characters were planning a party and one of the characters suggested a surprise party. The reaction was pure horror from the other characters. I quite enjoyed that moment.
Ultimately, I chose not to make the episode (in spite of everyone telling me otherwise) because I felt it didn’t do justice to Mrs. Toasty the Sheep, who cracked under the stress of planning the party. So I never got to express my horror at the surprise birthday party.
I have mentioned before that, for young children, television is not one-way communication. No matter the form, even with traditional stories, kids love being involved and the more you can do to help them feel involved the better.
In an early segment of Sesame Street, James Earl Jones recited the alphabet at a slow, deliberate pace. The letters appeared before he spoke each one. Heavily studied (as always with Sesame Street), the producers identified what they then called “The James Earl Jones Effect”, which was a result of the beautifully clear, powerful voice combined with the long gaps. Watch the segment below…
What the team found was that children would readily take up the invitation to join in as James Earl Jones recited the alphabet and, on first watch, would say the letters along with him. But as children got more familiar with the segment and the alphabet, they would say the letters before James Earl Jones could. So it was clear that the segment did its job and children were learning the alphabet but what also came from that is that children love knowing what’s happening and they love getting in there first and getting it right.
There is a real sense of empowerment that comes from knowing what the next letter is and that’s a thrill for kids. It is one of the reasons young children love a favourite story or will happily watch a favourite episode over and over. They adore knowing what comes next. They love the repetition. And it really engages them in communication. They aren’t just watching – they are taking part.
This is the James Earl Jones effect.
You can apply this no matter what form you are creating. For example in Planet Cosmo we engaged the audience directly and asked them questions, making them a part of the experience. Fluffy Gardens had a much more traditional straightforward narrative but, right from the first episode, there were sections written in that would repeat so children would begin to know the rhythm and know what’s coming. Even on first watch, there would be parts of an episode where the young audience already knew what was coming because we set it up deliberately for that to happen. And I knew those episodes could run and run. Far from getting boring, within our target age group, each repeat would become even more enjoyable.
This is something that comes with audience awareness. It happens when you’re not asking ‘what story do I want to tell?’ but instead asking ‘what experience do I want children to have or be a part of?’
Several years ago, I was writing a live-action script for adults. It was a story I was passionate about but it became apparent that the first draft just wasn’t quite coming together the way it should.
It was suggested by someone I trust that the problem with the draft was that I’m often ‘too nice and tend towards sentimentality’.
Well that sucks, I thought. I have a serious writing problem. Too nice. Tend towards sentimentality. A weakness.
Somewhat demoralised, I shuffled home and slumped over my laptop to polish a draft of a Fluffy Gardens story I was working on. I wrapped up the beautifully sweet ending to a lovely story about cute animals being pleasant to each other. It was a good story and it made me smile and, sure enough, that story went on to make many children and parents smile too. Too nice. Tend towards sentimentality…
That was no weakness.
While writing all 80 episodes of that show, that was very much a strength. One that, armed with a new awareness of, I then embraced and developed and would continue to be a strength when applied thoughtfully to the right projects. A strength, not a weakness.
So if you have what you perceive to be a weakness, or what others perceive to be a weakness, is it possible that applied differently it could turn out to be your strength? What if instead of trying to eliminate this ‘problem’, you pushed it further to where it might help rather than hinder?
One of the hardest things starting out in any field is knowing if what you’re doing is actually any good. We are so often completely unable to evaluate our own work and the closer we are to it the harder it is. Is that nagging doubt a sign we shouldn’t send in that script or submit that drawing? What if it’s actually pretty good? What if we think it’s good but that’s just pure delusion and we need to bin it and start from scratch?
How do I know if it’s any good?
I faced this so often in the early days of being a children’s writer. I was tortured by self-doubt and yet, at other times, so stubborn about things I thought would turn out great on screen. I couldn’t effectively evaluate the quality of my work.
Now when you are just getting started, the quick fix solution seems obvious: have someone else evaluate it. This can be a really good idea, especially if you are giving it to someone who is an expert in their field. I was fortunate on Fluffy Gardens to have a wonderful script editor who helped me become a better writer. Before that, I got great writing tips from a good author friend. You can learn a lot from the critiques, notes and suggestions of others and that will help you get better.
But it doesn’t really solve the problem and the thing is, you need to solve it. Why? Well…
1) The opinions of others are just that – opinions. Ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 different notes, often conflicting. They may all be valid in different ways but might not be right for what your work should be or suit your particular strengths. You may end up having to sift through many suggestions, leading you back to the initial question – how do I know if it’s any good?
2) Ultimately, you must become your own quality control. You have to seize responsibility for your own work and relying on others to tell you what is right or wrong can be a dangerous crutch. You have to be the one pushing for greatness. You have to be the one who knows what is best. You have to be the expert in your own work. If you hand in a script, you have to know it’s damn good.
So what’s the solution?
The solution lies in distance from your work. Time. I learned so much writing those first forty episodes of Fluffy Gardens but that’s not actually where I made the biggest leap as a writer. That came afterwards. You see, months after production and probably half a year after the scripts had been finished, the episodes were on repeat among other shows. All those feelings I had while writing were gone. I had distance. Now I was just someone watching a television show. I saw those stories in ways I never had before. I could see parts that really worked, and many that didn’t. At the same time, I was watching and studying many other preschool shows so I also had context and comparisons (doing your homework is essential).
Not only could I see these strengths and weaknesses in the finished episodes, I could see them in the scripts. Rewatching and rereading those forty episodes, I was building up a massive list of things that I felt worked and didn’t work. And they were all about my work, not about what worked or didn’t work for someone else.
Distance through time.
But the great thing is that you won’t always need that time. You see, once you have begun to properly evaluate your older work, you will see things to look out for in the work you are doing right now. You will have a far greater awareness and start to build up an objectivity that was next to impossible before. And it is so important that you do this because your work won’t always get better on its own. Practice makes perfect doesn’t work if you’re just repeating the same mistakes over and over because you can’t see them.
You can make a start on this right now. Have an old script? Dig it out and go over it. Be a harsh critic. Do it with other scripts. Make a list of strengths and weaknesses. Then see if you can find those same elements in your current work. Use what you learn to get better right now. If you don’t have an old script you think is suitable, write one. Write a script this week, get it into what you feel is good shape and stick it in a folder somewhere. Leave it. Continue working and learning and revisit it in six months time. Is it as good as you thought? Are some parts better? Worse?
The important part of this is that you begin to grasp a real awareness of your own work. An honesty about your work that you can apply now. And it works for writing, drawing, directing. It may well work for everything. Before long, you will have a good sense of whether your work is good or not no matter how deep you are buried in it.
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.
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 huge challenges writing scripts for young children and I think many of them come from the simple reality of what we are doing – working with just words. Words can very quickly become abstract, lose meaning. As I went through in an earlier post, descriptions can fall away until you have just talking heads in a void and they all sound like the writer.
I think a good test of character is whether you would know who is speaking if the names were removed. Do the characters think and act differently? Do they speak differently?
We engage different parts of our brain when dealing with spoken word than we do when reading and writing. So just because something looks okay on the page doesn’t mean it’s going to sound okay when recorded. I write my stories out loud, saying each sentence over and over in different ways until it sounds right. I have done that since the very first Fluffy Gardens story and do it to this day. I’m not the only one. Ken Levine and David Isaacs (of Cheers/M.A.S.H. fame) dictate their scripts, working them out verbally as someone else types them out.
But saying them out loud in your voice may not be enough.
Writing in character voices is key to making those characters sound different, to get their personalities to come through in the dialogue. Because their voices will greatly affect the choice of words you settle on. If you’re just writing in your voice, you will pick words you will use. If you try words you would never use, they’ll sound awkward and weird. Put on a the voice as you write and you’ll very quickly find yourself putting sentences together differently.
For example, I recently rewatched an episode of Planet Cosmo and found myself laughing at Lifter’s choice of words – “Are you sure, sweetie? I can rustle up quite a breeze!” I thought, oh that’s good, I would never use the phrase “rustle up”. Then I had to remind myself that I wrote those words. But in a way, I guess Lifter said them. I just listened and wrote them down.
So it’s really important to write in character voices.
But I would take this a stage further and say that those of us reading scripts (script editors, producers, directors etc.) should try to read in character voices. You might not yet know exactly how they should sound but give it a go based on what you know of the characters. It will make those lines read very differently. For example, Cranky in Punky (written by the wonderful Andrew Brenner) has lines that can look very harsh and not age-appropriate on the page. But Cranky’s voice (Paul Tylak) gives her a comic quality that completely disarms the lines and makes them work beautifully. They become very funny. Similarly when I wrote Dad in Planet Cosmo, some of his lines looked rude, selfish and sometimes even mean. But say them in Dad’s voice and they become light and funny, losing their weight. How those words sound out loud in a character voice is what counts – that’s what children will hear.
It is always a challenge to make characters work and a greater challenge to make them work well. Working with the character voices is a way of helping their inner personalities and differences come out, and a great way of getting those words on (and off) the page.