I just took to Twitter to express my dismay at a particular “learn animation” ad that keeps popping up on my Facebook feed and, well, now it’s going to be a whole post. Hopefully a short one. Here is my issue with that particular ad that reckons it will teach you to animate: the very first pose it opens with is incredibly unclear. It does not sell what is actually happening to the character. It fails at communicating the idea.
Pretty drawings don’t matter if what is happening is unclear. And it’s not just animation. A lovely storyboard panel is no good if what is happening is unclear. A funny line is wasted if your story is unclear and you’re losing your audience. Clarity is everything.
This is especially true when making any kind of content for young children. No matter what part of the process you are in, this is about communication – engaging kids, telling them stories, bringing them into stories and making them feel a part of them. Communication. And if your communication is unclear, if you don’t give them enough context or information or you muddle your ideas visually or otherwise, you’re not going to engage them as well as you should.
It’s the first thing you should ask yourself: is this clear to my audience?
So while it applies to every part of the process, when it comes to learning animation, I’ll take a scrappy yet clear drawing over a pretty yet unclear one every single time.
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.
A very quick thought today that is relevant to many (all?) forms of storytelling but especially to preschool media where you have to achieve clarity for a young audience. It is this: much of story is simply asking a question and then answering it.
An example and familiar question: can your character overcome a challenge? The answer might be yes or it might be no but you need to answer that question if that is the question posed at the start of the story.
Seems obvious, right? And yet when I’m reading scripts, often a lack of a satisfying conclusion can be traced back to not actually asking the question asked. You might have a big finish, a resolution but somewhere along the line the story went in a different direction and you didn’t answer the question asked. You might have answered a different one.
Ask a question. Answer a question.
Can a boxer prove he’s not a bum? Yes. Can a farm boy really take on the Empire? Sure. Can a crew survive an alien brought on board? Mostly no except for Ripley and Jones. Asked and answered.
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!
What happens when the ideas just don’t come? When you have a blank page you need to fill, some story you need to conjure from nothing or you need to find a whole new project without a starting point?
I find that creativity leads to more creativity. If you can get ideas flowing at all, it will bring you somewhere and you’ll be able to find more ideas. If this is the same for you, you need a creative kickstart. Here are three ways I do this:
1) Work on something else. If the thing you’re supposed to be working on is going nowhere, how about starting by coming with ideas for something totally different? It’s like searching your house for something – you’ll find it while looking for something else. Ideas can be like this. Pick something else and get to work. As soon as the brain starts moving, see if you’ve got anything for the project you’re supposed to be working on.
2) Creative time travel. If your ideas just aren’t coming, how about going back to a time when they were? I keep ideas all over the place but most of them are buried in many, many notebooks going back more than a decade now. A lot of the scribbles and notes contained in these notebooks are terrible. But they are creative. They came from a burst of inspiration or a building flow of ideas. Pull out some old notes and leaf through them. Remind yourself of some old silly concepts and your brain will add more to them. Before long, you’ve got new ideas and your creativity is flowing.
3) Cheat. I have mentioned this one before. I keep what is effectively a story cheat sheet for when I get stuck. It is a list of character traits, everyday experiences, story starters and even just silly words. A combination of just a few of these could lead to hundreds of different stories. Keep your own story list of things you like and, when things just don’t come to you, refer back to it and just pluck ideas straight from it. No creativity required to start with. But once you start playing with them, the creativity will come.
So there you have it. Three ways to get your creativity moving on those harder blank days. Get started, get ideas flowing and keep working!
Some time ago, I was having a conversation in which I put forward that we overthink narrative and that the success of YouTube Let’s Play videos offer narrative in a much simpler and wonderfully spontaneous form. A form that those of us in more constructed media are missing (something I have said here before). I questioned the need for anything resembling traditional narrative at all. The very next day, I wrote a post about the need for very traditional and very constructed narrative ideas – how we need to build on the established structures.
You could be reading this and writing all this in your notebook (it’s okay, I know you don’t do that) and be thinking to yourself, well now I don’t know what to believe! Which is fact here? Traditional narrative or not?
Here’s the thing: when you take in every piece of information you get from someone who has made media, had certain successes or failures, has had a long career or whatever appears to make them qualified, you need to think about how that information applies to YOU. To YOUR work.
The one rule I have found over the years is that any time someone says there is a rule, you need to instead write that down as ‘guideline’ or ‘personal piece of advice according to this person’. There really aren’t facts when it comes to this creative stuff. Yes, there are so many things you can learn and should learn but that won’t mean they are always relevant to your work right now. What works for one project in one particular year won’t necessarily work the same for another project in another year. Actually, you can be pretty sure it won’t, hence my rather obvious prediction that the next big successes will come as a surprise to most people.
Many have gone before you. Many have tried different things, done the research, had failures and often understood why. These are things you should learn. There are tools of the trade that we should all have.
But unfortunately this won’t give us a simple set of instructions to follow. So they shouldn’t be taken that way. When your favourite author or creator says something that you remember, don’t file it away as a rule. Because it’s not. Instead, think of it as a tool to be considered. A resource you have that may or may not be applicable in different situations.
The core thing here is that everything you hear and read, the very reason you’re reading this right now, should really be to get you thinking rather than to stop you thinking. To provide an insight that will help you in your own work and, if we’ve done our job, the insight will more likely come from YOU rather than the words you’re reading right now.
For me, my guideline, my personal piece of advice is: be informed. As much as possible, be informed. And then really consider that information. Think about it. Use it. Or don’t use it but make that a decision rather than just something that happened because you didn’t realise you had tools at your disposal. Let every nugget of information prompt more questions. Your work is your own and you will find your own path.
So traditional narrative or not? Well that actually has a very simple answer: maybe…
Notes, eh? They can frustrate. Just when you think you’re done, you get a new note and have to unravel what you’ve done. Maybe even come up with something else entirely. And can you do that in the time you have? Notes can throw spanners in all the works. But there is something to consider here:
Quite some time ago, we were trying to work out a character for a thing I was working on and we submitted some first options to see if we could get a steer. One of those options was approved instantly. No notes. No suggestions. No questions. An approval.
Cause for celebration? No. I wasn’t happy. That character wasn’t completely ready yet. It wasn’t as great as it could be. It was a first draft. And it could be made better but we didn’t get the opportunity. And this is exactly the thing to keep in mind: notes are an opportunity to make something even better.
Even if you don’t like the note, you now are given that chance: make it better. Take that opportunity. There are times in my career I did not agree with notes I was given and there were times we got too many notes with not enough time to carry them out and notes have to be managed on all sides because they can cause a production to grind to a halt… and yet I can’t think of many cases in which something got worse after we had another attempt. Because it wasn’t just about carrying out the notes. It was an opportunity to make things even better.
Notes, revisions, retakes, redrafts – they are all a part of the process. They come with the job. And when you get them, take the opportunity they offer.
Finished not perfect, right? Sure. You have to deliver and you have to deliver on time – that’s crucial. Respect deadlines. Get your work out and do not let your own tweaks and changes and doubts and endless polish hold you back from delivering.
BUT… you can never let this become an excuse to deliver scrappy work. You have to use your time well and make sure that the work you do is of excellent quality. Finished not perfect assumes your work is GOOD. And the danger of putting all focus on getting it out rather than getting it done well is that some can take that as a justification for scrappier and scrappier work.
You have to get your work finished but it has to be finished really well. Never let that slip.
A clean, clear concept. That’s what we want to see. I find pitching a project mostly comes down to answering one simple question: what is it?
What’s the concept?
Unfortunately finding a simple answer is usually harder than it seems. It is a constant struggle to refine your project description down to the very basics while still making it sound attractive. I have seen this go horribly wrong in pitches, where people talk about every element of their show for half an hour and still don’t answer the question ‘what is it?’ Even being very aware of it myself and working at that, I have still sometimes come back from my own pitches knowing that I need a simpler, cleaner way of explaining what it is.
Part of it is excitement. We can get so excited about all these great things in our show that we start to waffle. It just comes out and we lose control of what we’re saying and sentences wander from one part of our concept to the next. It is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is good and people pick up on that – don’t lose the enthusiasm. But be very aware of the complicated spaghetti-like descriptions that enthusiasm can lead to.
So you need to be prepared. You need to work on your simple description in advance and you need to learn it. Then after you have delivered it, you need to stop talking. Let whoever you are pitching to take it in and ask the questions they need to ask. Answer those simply too. It’s like the advice I see given to people taking the stand in lawyer shows – short answers, answer only what you are asked. The difference between pitching and testifying in a law show, however, is that you need to retain that enthusiasm.
Here is one more thing to be aware of – sometimes your show will change. As it develops, new themes might be added, old ideas discarded. New characters or a new focus is brought in, adding layers to your concept. Your concept will likely grow and find new depth which is all a good thing. But instead of adding each new part to your core pitch, you really have to go back and create a new description. One just as simple as the original but gets across where the show is right now. Clean and clear.