Another cycling analogy here (last one I promise!). This one is about momentum. For me, cycling to work is divided into three very clear types of terrain: downhill (easy), flat (neutral) and uphill (hard). After a long day, those uphills can take a lot out of me and I’m not the only one struggling.
But this post is about what people do on the downhills and flats. Every now and again, I’ll see a cyclist on the same route who takes it REALLY slow on those parts. I can understand that – conserving energy for the hills, I guess. But here’s the thing: on my route most of those downhills or flats end in a hill and the faster you take the easy parts the more momentum you build for the hills. Approach a hill slowly and you have to work so much harder to make progress. Whereas if you take advantage of the momentum you can build on the easy or neutral sections, half the work is done for you when you hit that hard section.
Production isn’t cycling but it still has its easy parts, neutral parts and its hard parts. There will be challenges. There will be struggles. So the more you can take advantage of the easy and neutral parts, the better. You can get that momentum going, you can build a bank of great work, make plans for the tougher sections ahead, create any buffers possible and buy you that bit of extra leeway for when things get hard. And they will get hard at times.
Even if you can take it easy… don’t. Keep pedalling.
It’s a cycling analogy today. I have recently been cycling into our lovely Mooshku studio to make some wonderful things for kids. Cycling is is a great way to travel but it’s not without its obstacles in Dublin city. One of those is a particular cyclist on my route.
When everyone is waiting at red lights (there are actually some cyclists who stop at red lights in Dublin… a few of us), this cyclist moves past everyone and goes to the front. Jumping the queue. Now there is an etiquette question there but that’s not the real issue. The issue is that this cyclist is a REALLY SLOW cyclist.
So this cyclist jumps to the top of the pack and, once that light goes green, every other cyclist is hampered by her lack of speed. They have to find safe places to pass, which isn’t easy in Dublin. And then it happens all over again if you’re unlucky enough to land at the same set of lights again. This cyclist gets in the way of other cyclists and becomes an obstacle in the journey we’re all taking.
So two things here relate to production and they both come from the basic reality that everything has an order in production.
1) Know the optimum order of events. There is usually a very clear set of steps in any production and they have to happen in the correct order. Find out what depends on the elements you are supplying. Who are they critical to? There may be opportunities to skip ahead but you might gain nothing doing so. You might even build in more problems to solve. So know your order. Unlike that cyclist jumping ahead and gaining nothing, assess the production equivalent of the cyclists around you and find that optimum order and try to stick to it.
2) Once you know your place in that order, keep the pace. Don’t slow down. Don’t delay the other processes coming behind you. They shouldn’t ever need to pass you. You must keep up with the schedule. Everything behind you depends on it. Don’t be late.
There are too many stages to animation production, too many potential logjams, to let one part of it break the whole production or put too much stress on everyone else trying to keep to the schedule. Be aware of the order and keep the pace.
Signal to noise ratio. It’s important. It’s important generally but especially important when making work for children. Your key plot points, your key messages, must remain clear for your work to have impact.
Bury those key plot points in more information and you risk them getting lost. Have too many key plot points and it all becomes noise, competing for attention and stuff will get missed. If something is not clear, clarify that point or remove it altogether rather than adding explanations. Don’t add bulk. That’s more noise.
I love creative surprises. I love the little moments of life people can add that I didn’t see coming. The smiles that a spontaneous idea can bring to a scene. Life is full of surprises and getting that across in a story is really important.
But when it comes to production aspects, I don’t like surprises. Not one little bit. This comes from many years of production – concepts to scripts to storyboards to layouts, backgrounds, animation, compositing, sound, music and post. So many processes and so many things to keep track of.
What a production needs is certainty.
In a production, you have to know what’s coming up, when things are expected and what has been planned for. You have to manage your resources carefully and often those resources will have been set down very early in the process. If the needs of the production don’t always match the resources, you need to see this coming from a very long distance so that you can adapt and amend plans – basically so it isn’t a surprise when it happens.
Surprises in a production lead to flusters, misuse of resources and wasted time. So when you’re entering into a production, get to know your production inside and out. Know what you have planned for. If you are lacking any of that information, find it out. Write it down so you can’t forget it. Make sure everyone is aware of what things need to happen and when. And do a regular review of where things are at so you are always kept informed. Avoid the surprises.
If you keep your production as clear as possible, you can save the surprises for where you really want them: in the creativity.
I found myself unusually busy approaching the Christmas break. I had a lot to do and so a lot of things I would normally do at this time (like sending out nice mails to people), I didn’t get to do. It’s unfortunate and I apologise for you missing out on my usual catch up message this time of year. But no matter how good you are at time management, there is a point at which there is not enough time to get everything done. At that point, we have to knock things off our to-do list not because they are done or because they are no longer important but instead because other tasks have a higher priority and you will only get through a certain amount of them.
Prioritising is hard. It’s hard because it can feel like a failure if interpreted the wrong way. You can focus on the things that you didn’t get done. But look at the alternative. I often think back to school when it comes to this sort of thing. Every teacher gives you homework blissfully unaware of what homework the other teachers are giving you. Now I was a good student but even I hit points in a school day when I realised that there was simply too much homework to get done to any reasonable standard.
Did I prioritise and do what I can well? I did not. Instead, the feeling that it was now an impossible task gave me the feeling that the entire endeavour was pointless. I was doomed to fail and so why even try if it just couldn’t be done? Having a lot to do can give us a kick and motivate us to get through it. Having what is obviously too much to do is a terrible motivator. Nobody feels good about starting something they know won’t end well.
Cut to years later and my approach is different. I carefully select tasks and the order I work through them to ensure that each one is done well. Once something goes on my list and is in the correct order, I work through one thing at a time and I don’t worry about the next thing on my list until the task I am on is complete. That focus is crucial. And when the list has to be evaluated because it is just too long, I have to look at what I can assign to others and, when things just get too much, what I will drop. Better to get what is achievable done well than fail at the whole lot.
Prioritising is hard. It involves making tough decisions and then being okay with those decisions. It takes consideration, evaluation and a sense of what each task involves. But there are times it just has to be done. It’s an important part of getting things done. So prioritise. Get things done and get them done well. And if they can’t be done, there is always next year.
I remember this phrase from back when I was making commercials (a LONG time ago now) and I’m sure it is still one in very common use. We’ll fix it in post – shorthand for: let’s push the problem down the line and let someone else (or our future selves who may as well be someone else) handle it.
It isn’t just fixing a mistake in post-production either. There are many versions of this. Fixing your flow problems in the edit. Hoping your inbetweens will improve dodgy key animation. Letting your story problems through and hoping to fix them in animatic stage. Compared with some of those, “we’ll fix it in post” isn’t actually so bad.
The more fundamental the stage, the more you simply can’t rely on fixing it down the line. I don’t know if I have ever seen a scenario in my entire career where it has been easier to fix a problem later rather than fixing it right now in its earlier form. Once you build in problems, well, you’ve built in problems. You’ll face enough unforeseen difficulties when making anything that throwing foreseen ones on top could be an absolute disaster.
If something isn’t quite working, fix it now. Don’t fix it in post or anywhere else. Don’t shove the problem down the line or allow it to be next week’s problem. It rarely ends well. I’d say it never ends well except someone will probably hit me with a single example where it worked out okay. Don’t take that chance.
If you’re doing anything that involves other people, something that will go places and has got a bit of attention, you’re going to get notes. Notes are part of most creative careers and they can come at all stages of those careers. You need to learn how to deal with notes.
You’ve got to be true to your vision though, right? Well, unless that just involves being stubborn because now every set of notes is a battleground and it’s no fun for you or anyone else and, before long, people are just going to call a halt to the whole process. So instead you’ve got to flexible, right? Got to give people what they ask for? Well, unless that means a total detachment from your work and you are now just a middle person passing notes down the line and you have no investment in making something good whatsoever.
There is a third option and it is the best option. It is to take the challenge of the notes and make them work for you. It is to take your skills and your experience and your passion for the project and apply those in a way that can address the notes while creating something you love. You might be asked to cut an element you love and replace it with a new element that is being thrust upon you. So now find ways of making that new element awesome. Make that new element even better than the last one. You might be asked to cut a whole plot point from your story. Use that either as an opportunity to streamline and enhance the rest of it or, if you have the space, now you get to make a whole new scene. That’s a bonus.
Look for the opportunities. Always look to tackle the notes in a helpful way and do so in a way that gets the best from your own strengths and gives you something you’ll love. I have seen some really helpful notes over the years and I have seen the odd stinker but, always, there is an opportunity there to get something great at the end of it no matter what the note is.
Remember: your project can always get better no matter how good you think it is right now.
When you deliver something and the person you deliver it to feels it wasn’t right, there are many ways you can tackle this. Part of it depends on whether it’s just a taste call or a practical or technical requirement. But really you’re likely to end up doing one of these things:
1) Demonstrating why what you delivered was right.
2) Explaining why what they want won’t work.
3) Fix exactly what was asked for and deliver.
4) Consider the request and deliver a working version that solves the issue.
Only one of these is the path of action you should take. 1 is right out – they already got what you delivered and explaining it won’t make it right. 2 might well be true in your case but it doesn’t make the response to what was delivered any more positive. 3 and 4 sound pretty much the same, right? The difference is that 4 takes into account options 1 and 2. Whereas if there is actually a technical problem or a reason why they shouldn’t go for exactly what they asked for, that means going with 3 could land you in more difficulties.
4 is really the only correct response. You have to try to understand the issues, correct the issues or get close to what you’re being asked to do and do so in a considered way so that you get the best from it while making sure you don’t build in more problems or deliver something that isn’t fit for purpose. Aim to solve what you are being asked to solve, deliver something that works even better and hopefully in a way that you like too. That’s the aim every time.
I began my kids’ media career as a director and writing came after that, first on my own shows and then on the shows of others. At that point, one of the strangest feelings was handing over the story. When you write, you immerse yourself in the characters, the world, the emotions, the laughs and you live in that space intensely. It is YOURS. Yes, you get notes and input and it is a collaborative process for sure but you’re the one who has to dive right back into that world to make those collective thoughts real.
And then a weird thing happens. The story is approved for production and you have to hand it over.
It is no longer yours. The production team and the director will take your script and make it THEIRS. They will interpret the lines their way. They will picture it their way. The voice director will get a take that has a whole different sense to the way you heard the line. Lines will get amended in pickups and there could be entire scenes you didn’t write. And on many productions, you might not ever know. There are episodes of shows I have written that I still have never seen. As a writer, it’s a strange feeling to be so close to a story and then just hand it over into the unknown. For people who are just writers, that has to be a tough thing to get used to and possibly even scary at first.
But I think back to where I started, directing Roobarb & Custard Too and working with Grange Calveley who created and wrote Roobarb. I think about how we took the scripts as the starting point and, from there, crafted the visual and audio storytelling from that. How we added visual jokes, puns (which were a big thing in the show), how we shuffled scenes and even had to completely reinterpret sections at times. Even at the time, I remember thinking that there was something special here – Grange had so much faith and trust. The property owner and distributor too. And in turn, I would pass that trust on to our team. It was a show built on creative trust and support.
Since then, I have tried to build every show on that same foundation. It is how I have got the best from every project – letting the people who are great at their job do their job to the best of their abilities. Sure, as a director and a producer I find it is essential to guide and lead and push but in a way that doesn’t stifle our team, preventing them from actually doing their job well. We start from a position of trust (“do an amazing job with this”) rather than suspicion (“you’re going to mess it up”).
So then as a writer, when I hand a story over to a director, to a production team, I do so sometimes with a slight sense of loss and certainly a huge curiosity about what happens next but mostly I do so with trust and support: my words are only the start and the next phase of storytelling is something different. Go make it something great!
I have never liked the phrase ‘expect the unexpected’. It’s probably because I have made enough TV shows to know just how dangerous the unexpected can be. The unexpected can cost you a good scene. It can cost you an episode. It can cost you weeks and lots and lots of money. Unexpected frightens me. I don’t like it.
So rather than expecting the unexpected, I prefer to turn the unexpected into the expected and then plan for it. I guess that makes my version of this expression: ‘plan for the expected’. I realise that doesn’t sound anywhere near as fun or mysterious but I can guarantee you that it is better.
Step 1: find out what might be unexpected so it’s now expected. Some of this comes from experience, doing it over and over until you refine your methods. Some of it comes from the experience of others, learning from the stories, the test cases, especially the mistakes. If someone gives you a warning, heed it. A lot of it, however, comes from nothing more than some creative thinking and common sense. Run the process through your head a few times. Where could it possibly go wrong, assuming that something WILL go wrong?
Write it down so you have a list.
Step 2: plan for it. Look at everywhere that problems can happen (if you’ve done it well, that will cover a LOT of areas) and make a plan for each one. For me, what I call a plan really comes down to three things. The first is prevention. Simply having gone through step 1 will drastically reduce your chances of bad things happening because you’ll be aware enough to prevent most of them. The second part is the Plan B – what happens if it does go wrong? Have your backup plan ready to go.
The last part is one of the most important parts: time it. Have in your head some sense of the repercussions. If you’re on episode 4 and just about to put scenes into animation and Godzilla destroys your building, how long will it take to get a new building and get the animators ready to start again? Contingency should be standard in a budget (sometimes it isn’t) but often missed in a schedule. To make matters worse, if you pop in extra weeks into your schedule, guess what will get cut the moment anyone suggests a squeeze? Yep, those extra weeks. How you handle that is up to you but it does need to be handled and you’re better trying to grab more time. It’s easier to have to explain to someone why something is early than explain why it’s late.
So plan for the expected. There must be a more exciting way to say that…