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.
Last year, I started running. Yep. Running. Who would have thought it, right? It was HARD. It’s still hard but I’m getting better. What I’m finding now is that I don’t treat running all that differently to the way I treat work. The same basic ideas get it done, like I would write a script or make a show.
The first thing is obvious: do it.
It doesn’t matter if my run is hard or if I feel like I’m not making progress the way I want to or if I never want to run again when I get back. What matters is that I do it. Once my run is done, that’s the achievement. That’s an important thing knocked off my to-do list and, as long as I keep doing that, I will keep on running and I will get better. That in itself is progress.
But from there, I find a lot of it is about checkpoints – marking that progress. At the start, the goals were things like “run for five minutes straight without needing to call the emergency services”. Now, I really just have three checkpoints in any run. The first is starting (the “do it”). I’ll give myself a little pat on the back even for setting off. The last is the home straight – I’m almost done.
The middle checkpoint, however, is the one that I find needs the most acknowledgement. In my 7km runs, it is the 4th kilometre. On my regular route, the 4th kilometre is when my energy starts to flag. To make matters worse, it is uphill all the way. Those two factors combined make it the hardest kilometre. That’s when I need to really push myself. It’s when I sometimes express inner regret at having started at all. It’s when I want to stop for a pint and burger.
So when I hear on my little app “Distance: four kilometres”, I allow myself a little inner cheer. I made it. I faced that 4th km and won. A major checkpoint has been reached. It’s a victory. If it were a game, I’d save my progress.
Now here’s the thing: on the 5th km, I have even less energy and, actually, most of that is uphill too although not to the extent of the 4th. But I’m so busy allowing myself to bask in my own personal victory that I barely notice the 5th km and, before I know it, I’m hitting the home straight. And no matter how tired I am, I can always do the home straight. So celebrating that 4th km is what gets me all the way there. If I didn’t, 7km just might beat me.
Every production and every task has its own equivalent of my 4th km. On a whole animated TV show, I find it’s getting the first batch of episodes out while everyone is still finding their feet and the systems haven’t settled. When you get a certain number of good episodes delivered, you know the rest is going to be just fine. For a scene, it might be some really good key poses – hard to get right but they set the template for the rest of the shot. For writing, I find it’s when I get down a really strong outline. The rest is just work and refinement and improvement. Each task will have its own version. It’s that point when you have achieved something important and you know you can make it the rest of the way.
So celebrate that point. It doesn’t mean the rest will be easy but acknowledging the achievement along the way will help make it easier. It will help you get to that home straight in a much more positive way. So that your own 7km (production, story, episode, scene, whatever) won’t beat you.
I spent a long time torturing over backgrounds for something we were making recently. Are they too basic? Too plain? Now too shaded? Overworked? Too fancy?
Backgrounds are really important. They are pieces of art in themselves. They can look wonderful in stills or posters and be all pretty and attractive and that can get people buying your work.
But here’s the hard truth: if a kid is looking at your backgrounds rather than what the characters are doing, you have a MAJOR problem.
Kids shouldn’t be looking at your backgrounds unless a character is pointing to something in one or something in that background is a plot point or an important setup piece. I know that sounds harsh to background artists but it’s actually the same for most areas of the process. If a child is lost in a writer’s wonderful prose rather than the action of the scene, the story will be lost. If they are whistling to the underscore rather than listening to what the characters are saying, the story will be lost. And so on.
Everything must serve the story. For backgrounds, that means giving context to the action, establishing the location. Framing it in pleasing ways, drawing the eyes to the characters and the important moments in the shots. Helping to tell the story. Like every other element.
We can all torture ourselves over individual elements, like I was doing about these backgrounds. But what is so important to remember is that it will never just be these backgrounds. It will be characters, dialogue, action, music, sound effects and more. And when it all comes together, what counts is this: does it tell the story in the best way possible?
A while back, someone tried to sell me some system for scoring our work with premade music pieces and some software to make it fit. I apologise if that was you but, from my perspective, that is a HORRENDOUS idea. Sure, library music has its place and I’m not suggesting we won’t all get replaced by software some day but that day is not today and, right now, what the creative process needs is people. Minds, experiences and, most of all, feelings.
We have just finished a pilot for something incredibly exciting. It’s short – just three minutes long – and it is driven by narration so there isn’t much room for playing with the music. Nevertheless, our composer Derek Cronin and I spent a long time talking influences, emotions, flow, beats and much more in order to find the heart of what this pilot needed musically.
We dug out little known bands, identifying instruments and tricks. We went back to the 70s and 80s and discussed the relevance of punk and how one can apply some of that raw spontaneity in an appropriate way for preschoolers. We stripped our instruments right down to create a coherent bed of sound, so that the music in this little pilot might feel like it was actually created by the characters.
It was a huge amount of work for Derek and he tried so many different things but you could hear the exploration in the pieces, the fun and the sense of discovery. And it was work for us too. I guess it would be much easier to just listen to a bunch of software-chosen pieces and select ‘more louder’ or however it works. But in no way could it ever have matched the soul that came from that exploration and what Derek uniquely brought to each moment.
Creation is not just what lies on the surface. Every wonderful piece of entertainment, art, every great story and every feeling we have with it is built on so much more than we can see or hear in that end product. And yet it’s there. That exploration is there. It’s the soul.
I can’t possibly say enough how important music is to any show or film but it’s not just music. Every piece of the whole needs that human attention, that love and that care. That experience and history and life that each individual person brings to it. Every person can contribute to make something wonderful…
…if you let them. If you invite them to. And don’t instead think of it as just a problem that you wish you could solve by pressing a button. Creativity is wonderful in every part of the process. It is to be enjoyed and cherished, not by-passed.
Let’s stay thankful for the amazing creative people we work with.
We’re well into January already but any time someone says that they are making a list, my brain follows with “checking it twice”. Thing is, that’s a REALLY good thing to do. Well done, Santa Claus. That’s how you stay on top of what must be an insanely difficult job, especially when it comes to pipelines and management.
For me, I find there are a couple of very different work situations in which this is crucial. One is in a production or fixed delivery work situation. We know what needs to get done, we know when it needs to get done and it is a case of making that happen on time while getting the absolute best quality. Making that list and checking it twice is key to avoiding pitfalls that will mess up your productivity. It allows you to keep a very clean chain of events, so you can know what needs to be done at every stage.
And while you check that list for the second time, remove the non-essentials. Take out the fluff or what is your equivalent of needless red tape. The fewer steps in a process, the fewer places there are for communication errors or blockages. You just need to be careful that the step you’re removing is not the one that ensures your quality control. Keep a simple, clean list and you’ll always know what you and everyone else needs to achieve.
The other possible work situation for me is both easier to manage and infinitely more difficult. It is when I am working on development or exploring ideas in order to find what might come next. Easier because it usually involves very few people to manage and sometimes it’s just me. More difficult because it doesn’t come with built-in deadlines or clear stages and, the truth is, results are not guaranteed.
Where production comes with a need for order to make it work, creating on your own with a small team can be like floating in a huge sea of chaos with many, many stops to make a cup of coffee. And more coffee. It is fluid by nature. And so some clear goals need to be set down so that you have something to aim for. Something to drive you. And something to acknowledge and celebrate when you get results. Make a list of the core steps. Check it twice. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, set or acquire deadlines.
When you check your list that second time, watch for the parts that don’t really contribute. Most of all, in this work scenario, watch for the grand sweeping barely-achievable goals that are just too big and vague to be any help. Strike off “make a hit show” or “write a series of novels” and instead stick to the individual steps that might get you there bit by bit.
I’m sure he is taking some well-deserved time off now but, when he gets back to work, Santa will be back to making those lists and checking them twice and we can all learn from what that man achieves each and every year.
Seems a post on toxic environments is more relevant this morning than I would have liked. I can’t quite help you on a world scale yet but, if you’re looking to get your mind off what’s going on, here’s a post that may help your work. Let’s start with a little Star Trek…
I finished reading the two volumes of 50 Year Mission, all about Star Trek. One thing that was interesting is that, on just about every Star Trek show, the environment for writers seemed pretty toxic for the first few years. It was adversarial and antagonistic with writers feeling they couldn’t do their job, professional lines crossed again and again and, from what I can gather, probably a large amount of time spent complaining about the situation which led to bitterness, low morale and plenty of firing and quitting.
None of that was good for the shows. In the early shows, they did well in spite of this toxic environment but the effects are there to see in the stories. With the later shows, this environment created problems that they never really recovered from, eventually leading to low ratings on DS9 and Voyager, the cancellation of Enterprise and the end of Star Trek until the 2009 reboot that left behind everyone involved in the previous decades of Star Trek.
A toxic creative environment is bad for everyone. Star Trek was so fortunate that it carried so much weight that it could overcome this problem many times. Most of us won’t ever be so lucky. If we’re working in a very negative space, our work probably won’t survive. It will be too apparent in the final product and we don’t have the big name or Patrick Stewart keeping us going. It can kill our projects.
So we have to avoid it. The difficulty is that it is something that can come from all ends of the creative chain. Problems and uncertainties at the top can make life very difficult for everyone having to work under that – lack of clarity in decisions or notes, decisions reversed too late, lack of trust in the people you hired to do the job. What much of this comes down to is that those at the top, the ones with the power to make the final calls, need to know that their role is to help everyone else do their best work. Help. Not force, demean into or any other more negative way.
I have been in this position as director of many shows. I have to trust my team to give me their best. I have to help them do that, giving them the right information, the clarity of direction (not just dictation) and, at the right times, the freedom to let them give me something they think might actually be better than what I’m asking for (my big rule for animators, for example, has always been ‘surprise me’). When I get that wrong, and I have at times especially early on, it makes their job more difficult. If it stays difficult, you can be sure that a toxic environment will be created. So you always have to look out for the problems and see where you can help your team do better.
But a toxic environment can also be created from the bottom up. This is often more difficult to deal with because what it usually comes down to is negativity from one or more people that spreads like a slow virus. Maybe someone isn’t suited to the job or has misunderstood the job. Or maybe (and I’ve seen this) they’re just a very negative person who moans out of habit. They complain and mumble and find fault and there is a danger that that viewpoint becomes accepted as normal. It spreads and soon you have a team that spends their time looking for fault, rolling their eyes and being generally unhappy. That’s a toxic environment and it’s no good for everyone, especially the unhappy team.
That can’t be allowed to continue because it will poison your production.
If you’re running a production or leading a creative team in any way, my advice would be to assume first that there are problems you can fix. Look at how you’re doing things and see what you can do to help your team do better. Think of it with that word: help. Actively encourage your team to come to you with suggestions on how to help – better they talk to you than complain to each other about things you never know about. But if after all that it turns out that there are just negative influences in your team, you can talk to them and try to encourage them to do better but it could be a case that you need to separate them from the group or get rid of them altogether.
If you’re on that team, understand that complaining to your colleagues won’t help. Go to whoever can actually change things and explain the situation and ask for help. If you have a very negative person on your team, don’t feed into it. Don’t laugh nervously and agree. If you’re working on something good or something that is giving you some satisfaction, say it. Try to counter that negativity.
Because no matter where you are in a creative process, a toxic creative environment is bad for everyone.
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.
I normally only post on a Wednesday so this might upset the entire fabric of the space-time continuum but, in advance of heading to the Children’s Media Conference, I thought I’d get in a little update on me and Mooshku. Why? Because I don’t often talk about my current work here and it’s no harm to remind you about what it is that I do.
So what have I been up to? And Méabh? And all of us at Mooshku generally?
Mooshku have been consulting on 3 lovely early stage children’s properties for third party companies. That entails evaluating existing content, focussing it for the right audience and also broadcasters and partners and putting it together to make a really strong pitch for a really strong concept. That has included writing concept documents, show bibles, storylines and also sample scripts. Simply put, we have been making lovely ideas even lovelier!
We created, wrote and produced Trufax Tot Cop for the Nickelodeon shorts programme, just one of four international companies selected. It is absolutely KILLING ME that I haven’t been able to show this yet or say more about it. There are very good reasons why I can’t but I’m so eager to show it to you.
Update: I’m now okay to add an image so here he is, Trufax Tot Cop!
We produced animation for a live science show for the Edinburgh Fringe last year and, around this time last year at Mooshku, we were just finishing production on a pixel art music video for GUNSHIP. You probably know I love my pixel art.
And we have been developing our new IP and producing some new animation samples to show them off. They are really pretty and fun and we’ll be bringing them along to the CMC next week. We’ll post some online soon too, I promise! In the meantime, some pictures:
Sticking with our Mooshku mission of collaboration, Méabh produced the live-action for the 52 episodes of Little Roy for our wonderful friends at JAM Media. And Méabh is currently producing The Overcoat for the talented guys at Giant Animation, featuring the voice talents of Cillian Murphy and Alfred Molina.
And on top of all this, I have been doing a huge amount of writing. Over the last 18 months or so, I have written…
5 episodes of the upcoming Wild Adventures of Blinky Bill for Flying Bark in Australia.
4 episodes of a lovely new show I can’t yet name for Submarine in the Netherlands.
2 Gråtass live-action theatrical children’s feature films for Cinenord in Norway.
More than 10 scripts for top secret early development projects for Ireland and the UK (early development for 3rd party companies is a lot of what we do in Mooshku).
And I have been writing the full 20 episodes of the new Karsten Og Petra series and a Karsten Og Petra feature film, also for Cinenord. This is one that is particularly dear to my heart. This series is so lovely. If you haven’t seen anything from it yet, you should look it up. It is preschool perfection (I can’t take credit for that – it was perfection even before I got involved!).
And I’m working on something lovely for Karrot (of Sarah & Duck) and a nice new show I can’t yet mention but will be a lot of fun.
That post turned out even longer than I expected. We’ve been busy! Really, we’ve been doing what we love to do: make really great stuff for kids. We have our mission to bring kids something really good and we’re strong on that. And we also love collaboration and working with others. We don’t see competition – we see a community. So far, that ethos is working wonderfully for Mooshku.
So that’s the update. If you’re at the CMC, do say hello! It will be lovely to catch up with old friends and meet some new ones too.
Let’s talk about Paulie’s robot. Rocky was a film series that began with a very human story, about things we could all relate to. It had heart. It had truth. By film 4, it was nations versus nations, montage after montage and Paulie had a robot for some reason. It seems quite far from where Rocky started.
Now a lot of people liked Rocky 4. Rewatching it now, it has almost no movie there in between the fights. But people really liked it. Paulie’s robot, however, was what would later become known as ‘jumping the shark’. Named after an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie actually jumped over a shark, the term has come to mean the decline of a show or movie series that can be marked by a moment of writing desperation to try to retain any sort of interest.
Rocky 5 attempted to undo the robot and take Rocky back to his roots by having him lose all his money and allowing the focus to stay with a more human story. It’s a lot closer to the original in most ways and yet isn’t all that popular among the Rocky movies. Rocky Balboa, the movie that eventually followed, would be better received. And yet Rocky Balboa couldn’t have been the movie it was without Rocky 5 trying to pull the series backwards. Rocky Balboa is a natural progression from where we left Rocky in Rocky 5. It moved forwards. It would have been a far harder movie to make if it had to follow Rocky 4 instead, if it had to build on a world that contained Paulie’s robot.
So what’s happening here? Why were we okay with Paulie’s robot in a series that began so grounded and yet not so keen on the next movie that tried to bring the series back to its roots?
There are a lot of factors but one huge one, in my view, is that a story or series must progress. It must move forwards. It is very difficult to successfully go backwards. Rocky 2 built on Rocky (barely, but just enough). Rocky 3 built on Rocky 2 and was already beginning to morph into something else. Rocky 4 built on Rocky 3. It’s a ridiculous movie and, put side by side with the original, it’s hard to see them existing in the same universe and yet it is a result of a move forwards. It built each time and we accepted that, robot and all.
Rocky 5 attempted a rewind. Now that’s not the only issue with that movie but Rocky 5 is incredibly jarring following Rocky 4. It feels like something broke Rocky.
Generally, you have to move forwards. You have to progress. If you don’t, you will very quickly find you are churning out more of the same, and the audience will drop away. Had Rocky not progressed, even while risking the ridiculous, I’m not sure it would even have made it to five movies. At a certain point, your audience will think, I’ve seen this already. This series has nothing more to offer. And when that happens, you will have a very hard time getting them back.
You move forwards and offer what the audiences expect plus something extra. Something new. Something that retains interest. And yes, sooner or later, maybe you’re going to jump that shark. You’ll give Paulie a robot. That’s a risk. But if you hadn’t progressed along the way, you may not have lasted long enough to write your wonderful shark-jumping moment.
I was at a roller disco a few weeks ago (I’m the roller disco king). It was my daughter’s birthday party and I thought the idea of roller skating was a little bit crazy because of the varying abilities of the kids and the potential for accidents. Nevertheless, the kids got on great. Even those who were skating for the first time just went for it.
Sure, they fell over a lot but they got up and kept going. And one kid who fell over a lot soon started to get the hang of it and the speed of progress was pretty astounding.
I was skating around and I saw him skating with all the other kids and he was doing brilliantly. It was like he had done this many times before. He looked smooth and confident. I gave him a big wave and said “Well done!”
And he fell on his backside.
I broke his flow. I was just trying to be encouraging but I interrupted him while he was making real progress. He had focus, he had momentum and I pulled that away from him. I guess at least I was being encouraging so he got up and set off again with a smile. I wonder how much worse it would have been had I shouted something like, “Bring your feet together! Go faster! Not that way, this way!”
So today’s thought is very simple: when someone is doing something good, let them do it. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t become an obstacle. Just allow it to happen.