Regular readers will know I like to be able to break a character down to the very basics. When you write your story, you have to be able to quickly bring to mind that character and how they act. A simple sense of who the character is really helps give you clarity.
But it can also help you avoid what is an all too common problem: all of your characters coming across the same in your story.
The big test of character is not how great your description is. It’s if the audience knows who these characters are in a single story. In a single scene. They should. Every time. Your characters should be that clear. And how do we do this? Through action. Through how they tackle a situation, react to the unexpected, respond to pressure. So you need to give them situations, the unexpected or pressure.
And you can test this. Give your scene to someone who doesn’t know the show and ask them to describe the characters. Do they get it right? If not, what can you do to fix that?
Here are some things you shouldn’t rely on to make your characters different: funny voices, catchphrases, colours, different tools or weapons, racial stereotypes. None of these things are a substitute for actual personality and the last one is right out.
Know who your characters are. Make them different. Then make them clear.
A lot of creative choices are simply that: choices. That’s all. Got a teapot in a shot? Maybe you make it yellow. Or blue. Or kind of off white. Maybe an art director would prefer it purple to match some curtains somewhere. Maybe the director’s favourite colour is orange and tends to go for orange more. Six different people might pick six different colours for that teapot. And a day later some of those might pick a different colour.
When someone hands you that teapot design and it isn’t the colour you would have picked, you might want to jump in and get that changed… STOP!
Before you put something into the system, ask yourself this: will this change genuinely make it better? Or will it just make it different? Different is rarely enough reason to justify the change. There are enough things in any given story, episode or production that actually need examination or improvement for anyone to spend time just making something different.
Story, engagement and entertainment are what matters. Detail is important in fleshing out a world, the stage for the stories. But it needs to be recognised that so many choices in any creative endeavour are no more than that: choices. We won’t all make the same ones and that doesn’t make a different choice wrong.
So when working with a team or evaluating work, keep in mind that a choice is not wrong just because it is not the one you would have made. Don’t focus on the things you would do differently. Focus on where you can genuinely improve and enhance, always keeping in mind the bigger picture – the storytelling and engagement.
Writers will understand the need for this straight away. It’s that feeling when you save the final version of your file, put it in an email and click SEND. And then you spot the typo. EVERY. TIME.
It just needed one more check before sending. That typo probably isn’t the worst idea thing in the world but it will haunt you. And it may not be a typo – it could be something bigger. It’s not just for the writers either. A scene. A storyboard. A design. They could all do with one last check before you show them.
So buy that time.
Work it so you can take the time to do that final check before you send. To do this, aiming for your deadline isn’t enough. Given that something will likely slow you up somewhere, you should always be aiming earlier anyway but you’ll definitely need some extra time for that last check. So reset your deadline to accommodate that.
Remember: the deadline and the actual time you need to finish in order to meet that deadline are rarely the same thing.
Build it into estimates you give people. If you think something will take five hours, say it will take five and a half. Or six. If it will take a week, build in an extra half day or even a day. It’s check time and it will pay off. Yes it takes more time but it will mean your work is presented in a better form and you may well find you have more to fix than the equivalent of typos.
Always have that time for one last check. If you didn’t need it, great. But usually you will and you’ll be very glad you allowed for it.
When you’re in the midst of a production, or probably life in general, things come at you all the time. There is a never-ending stream of things to do. We might need to get something important done, like this little doodle illustrates below. Easy, right? We go over and we do it.
But in reality, all these other tasks pop up along the way. Looking a little like this…
And there can be a temptation to handle them like this…
This is not the way to do it. Why? Because tasks are like fractals. I’m showing those big tasks that pop up to get in the way of achieving your main goal. But if I went deeper and zoomed into that image, you would see a whole bunch more little tasks and, each time you go to tackle one, you’ll likely see more things that need doing. And your original goal gets further and further and further away. The person tackling things in this order is a very busy person but they aren’t always making the best use of their time.
The thing is, not all of these tasks are equal. They may all need doing but they don’t all need doing NOW. You have to focus. You have to prioritise and use your time as best you can. Instead of being busy, you have to be productive in a very clean way. You go for your core task and you do that knowing that, if it is truly important, other tasks will either depend on it or be made easier by its achievement.
So really how you should approach the task is like this…
Focus on your core task. Get it done. Then evaluate those other tasks, prioritising them, delegating what you can and even making a conscious decision to ignore some – not everything is crucial and some schedules simply don’t allow for every little thing to get done. Focus on what will count when the end product is delivered and do so in a very clear order of importance. Go straight to your main task. That’s how to get stuff done.
When you’re making a series, you have to think long term. Are you making 26 episodes? 52? Double that? Where are all those stories coming from?
When the stories come in, there is one consideration often missed: is this going to affect other stories? Does it blow an idea without making real use of it?
Sometimes small details can have an effect on a later story and we usually encounter these after it has happened. A writer might have a great story idea about the main character not wanting to eat vegetables and then coming to love them. Until you realise that the last four episodes showed that character munching into vegetables. You might plan an episode about the first experience on a skateboard only to remember that there was a skateboard scene in a montage in a previous episode. A story might have your character bitterly disappointed that the boating trip they have been looking forward to all year has been cancelled but kids know that your character goes boating every second episode and it is no big deal to wait for the next trip.
Stories affect other stories. So when stories come in, or you’re the one writing them, you have to consider the series as a whole and you’re better looking for these things in advance. It is important to ask yourself: does this rule out anything in a future episode or use up a great idea that could be a whole story in itself?
Sometimes that will be hard to spot. No reason generally to avoid a character eating vegetables, for example. So you just deal with that new story suggestion when it comes in. But you can definitely look for a story point that might be blowing an entire future episode. If you see a beach story coming in that has a brief throwaway surfing moment, for example, it would be worth considering saving that idea for a whole story around surfing. Or you might suggest an amendment – if the surfing moment has everyone surfing really well, maybe it would be an idea to restrict it to just a couple of characters so you can do a story later about how one of the other characters has trouble learning to surf. If you show everyone surfing well in one shot, you’re establishing a default that is hard to go back on.
When making a whole series, you need stories. You’re going to need lots of them. So keep a lookout for the needs of stories yet to come and avoid breaking them or blowing them too early. Your future self will thank you.
Ah, notes. We all love notes, right? I know the first reaction to notes is usually negative (that’s normal) but it’s important once we get past that to see how they can help and how best to tackle them. Different people give different notes. Some are consistently great and helpful and others might not always seem useful initially. You have to get to know the notes you’re dealing with and the person you are getting them from and so each project often requires a different approach when it comes to notes.
But here’s something that is useful no matter what kind of notes you’re getting: look beyond the notes themselves. Look for the intention behind the notes.
Almost every note has a problem to solve or a question to answer. But sometimes the problem listed in the notes is not actually the real problem. It might be a symptom of something else that has been missed or has become unclear. It might even be about something outside of the work that you’ve made so far – a request that has come in from someone else that is now being applied in the form of a note passed on to you. Sometimes acting on a note immediately as described can actually cause more problems than it solves if you don’t know the intention behind it.
This will be especially relevant if specific suggestions are given. When people give notes, I love when they give suggestions on how to fix things. Firstly, it shows they really want to contribute positively and, secondly, it gives a really great starting point for the fix. But it is just a starting point. The solution offered may not be the fix. And your reaction to it might be “that won’t work” and you might even be right. But look for the intention behind it. What is it trying to solve?
Look beyond the note itself and try to find the intention behind it and you’ll then understand what you need to achieve and, more often than not, the real solution will become clear.
And if you’re reading this and you’re someone who gives notes, here’s a tip: you can help people get to the best fix by making clear why something is a problem or why you’re asking for something. No matter what side of the notes you’re on, knowing the intention always helps.
Production has to keep moving. That’s how it works. Scripts lead to boards which lead to animatics which lead to everything else. Every element in a production depends on the previous elements. And so a single jam in the system can cause no end of delays and put everyone in a situation in which they have no idea when there might actually be a show.
That’s why we have schedules. That’s why we have deadlines.
One of the hardest things new people coming into animation from college have to face is the pace of a fast moving production. Meeting deadlines is hard. And so, so crucial. If you’re new, meet your deadlines!
But it may not surprise everyone to know that this advice has to be given to people at all ends of the business and at all ranges of experience. Those of us in the midst of production, running shows and delivering shows must keep moving. That’s how it works. It is an age-old analogy but it applies: in each part of production, the train is leaving and you just have to get on.
I learned this very early on as a director. I have worked on many parts of production and I think the director has more decisions to make every day than anyone else. Every minute involves a decision that will affect the show. Many small, some huge. And you just have to make the decision. Hold something up and it will bite you in the rear end. Hold it up for long and it may bite so hard you might never quite recover. Production has to (say it with me)… keep moving.
So yes, this is advice to new people but it’s also a reminder to every other person involved in productions at all ends. The train is leaving the station. So get on!
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?