This post continues from last week’s post on The Idea.
So I had a strong concept but it wasn’t quite working yet and I didn’t have a mission. Does a show need a mission? For me, yes. I think every creative endeavour needs a mission. Because getting anything off the ground is hard work. It can be gruelling. To push through the resistance, you need to have a strong sense of why you are doing what you’re doing. “I think this idea is nice” is rarely enough. You won’t last if that’s all you’ve got.
More importantly, you can’t do it alone. You need people to support you, to believe in the project and to help out. You need a reason for them to really care. That is why a mission is so important. It is a driving force. And this project didn’t have one yet.
But what I found at this time is that, actually, I had one. I had recently launched Planet Cosmo and that show seemed to achieve its mission – to introduce children to the planets. It had a clear educational goal and I now had a list of other educational goals I wanted to explore too. But Cosmo wasn’t an easy production. I found I didn’t want to jump straight into another similar mission. Really, what I needed was a palette cleanser. A whole other kind of mission – I just wanted to make kids laugh.
I was looking for comedy.
Sure, inevitably I would want to build something on a backbone of positivity. That’s what I do. But I wanted something that kids could just enjoy. I was working up a few things to fit that brief (a zebra named Richard, a collection of little monsters and so on) when I realised that, actually, this tiger zoo thing might be a really good fit.
I put the two together and Anything But The Monkeys now had a mission: it would be the funniest thing for preschoolers I could possibly make. Not just a project with some smiles or the odd bit of humour (a lot of preschool content has that already). A full-on comedy. I would amend, change and work at it until it made children laugh.
This was a huge step in the project. Knowing the mission can drive everything.
But unfortunately I knew this tiger wasn’t fully carrying the idea. He was funny so why didn’t it feel right?
I spent a long time working this out, trying to find what was missing and came to many different conclusions. The idea of the tiger character was that he would come in to the zoo when required. Like Shane in that western story, Shane. That meant we had no real anchor within the zoo itself. Perhaps that was causing a disconnect as we couldn’t quite lock on to that world? Even then, was the comedy right? He was funny in the way Niles Crane is funny. Or Eric Morecambe is funny. Hmmm… grown up humour. Not child’s humour. And in each one of those examples, they need a counterpart. The straight man. This big tiger needed a partner. More importantly, he needed a partner anchored to that zoo who would provide a child’s point of view – someone who would invite kids into this story and allow them to see the funny side of this tiger. A character who is just like the audience.
Not just a sidekick, that would be a half measure. I needed whole new main character. A new focal point.
I tried a lot of ideas for that (such as the child tiger character seen above) before locking on to an early drawing of a little zookeeper. What if the zookeeper was a child? A little kid running a zoo. That in itself seemed like a strong concept. It could be a pitch all on its own (yes, I was already thinking about the pitch – more on that in another post). And rather than competing with the tiger concept, it seemed to provide an anchor to bring the tiger character in.
My one-tiger show was now a double act and getting this zookeeper right would be the key to the whole concept.
I am often asked about various aspects of creating and producing content and have covered many different parts of that already. But I have never gone through the process of how to create a show from the start all the way through because every project is different. So with Millie gathering momentum, I thought I could use it as a case study and show how the beginnings of an idea can become a show pitch, and hopefully go much further. So here is part 1: The Idea!
It all starts with a mission – the goal. Or at least, it usually does. Millie and Mr Fluff didn’t. It started with a trip to the zoo. The zoo is a fantastic place for families and my girls were very young and loved it and it was great to share in that experience. While there, I began to have silly notions based on animal names. This sort of thing:
But one unexplored idea that I had on that particular trip was the question of what would happen if an animal needed the day off. I thought about this for a while but it was a couple of years later before I would ever answer it.
And it was a simple answer: you would call a stand-in. And in my head, this professional is a large tiger wearing glasses and carrying a briefcase. Very stuffy and upper crust and someone who takes his job very seriously. The core concept and the beginnings of Mr Fluff were now already in place, although I didn’t really know it yet and there was still a long journey ahead.
Now ideas will come and go very quickly. If one seems remotely worthwhile, I find I have to act on it very quickly or else I will lose it. And the other important thing about an idea is that, really, it is nothing unless explored, tested and improved. Everyone has ideas but that is a long way off having a show or a book or anything else. You have to take it further. So I wrote a little story just to get the idea on to a page and I did some drawings. This seemed the easiest and quickest way to explore this and it didn’t matter if they weren’t any good – I didn’t have to show them to anyone.
The story was about this rather large tiger named Needs A Name (very common in early development) who comes in to replace a sick lion and gets tormented by the monkeys. I called it ‘Anything But The Monkeys’.
It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great either. Something was missing. This wasn’t good enough. The tiger wasn’t quite carrying the story. And I still had no clue what this was going to be (a book maybe?), if indeed it would be anything, and so it just went on my long list of concepts to revisit.
This is the thing with ideas – if you act on them and do something with them, even just the most basic exploration, you will very quickly start to amass a collection. Ideas are not the hard part once you start looking, it is knowing the good ones from the bad ones. Finding focus is far from easy and I was at a point where I had several ideas to develop and not much by way of resources to develop them. I had left Geronimo Productions not long before this and jumping straight back into television was not part of the immediate plan.
So Anything But The Monkeys would join that long list of incomplete ideas.
But I wasn’t waiting long for that silly tiger to start nagging at me. It didn’t help that my kids had already begun making fanart. I knew this idea was strong. That still didn’t mean it would ever be a real anything, but getting upgraded from ‘just an idea’ to ‘a strong idea’ is a pretty big leap. It was time to take this beyond idea stage and really start to work it up. What I really needed was to find what was missing. One part of that was the mission – I had no mission, no real goal. But the other part? No idea.
The answer, as it happens, was to be found in one of the early drawings…
More next week as development begins and I aim to locate those missing pieces.
I have posted in the past about luck and how it is really about getting yourself in a place of opportunity and putting in the work to be ready to take that opportunity when it comes. A couple of weeks ago at the Cartoon Forum, I saw a lot of people put themselves in the right place to invite opportunity. Most were ready. Some had a glowing track record or were known veterans, some shined with ability and confidence, others had just worked their asses off to make sure that everything they showed was as great as it could be.
Every now and again, though, I could spot a project and group of people and I knew I was thinking what a large portion of the room were thinking: they’re good, but they’re just not ready yet.
Harsh, right? Thing is, I can probably spot it so easily because I was that person once. I had those projects. Pitching Millie and Mr Fluff at the Cartoon Forum was my 6th time pitching there over what must be around 13 or 14 years. And the very first time I pitched there all those years ago, I don’t think I really had an understanding of what it takes to make a show. As it happens, making a show is pretty easy if you’ve got the budget and an ounce of organisation skills.
But making a GOOD show? That’s a whole different matter.
There are so many elements that have to be spot-on: concept, story, characters, design, production methods, animation quality, writing, casting, sound, music, timing, flow, momentum… the list goes on. All of those things are important. Some of them are so crucial that the second you spot something wrong you know they just aren’t there yet. And the more you show, the more likely it is the flaws will be revealed. You need footage to prove your concept but it has to be right. Some people get it early and they’re good at it all and I admire those people.
I had to work at it.
I’m sure I have discussed it here before but my first few show pitches were unsuccessful and for the simple reason that I just wasn’t ready yet. Oh there were varying individual reasons – sometimes the concept was underdeveloped, we didn’t have the strength of vision to best integrate feedback, sometimes we just got it plain wrong – but really they came down to that same thing.
So what do you do if you’re in that position? You’ve got the drive, you’ve got the ideas, the skills even. But you’re just not quite there yet. Well, you’ve got options…
What changed everything for me was directing Roobarb & Custard Too. I had the safety net of the show’s creator handling all the writing, I had a massive back catalogue of episodes to study and so as long as I really put in the work (I did) I could make a good show. That was 39 episodes. And over that 39 episodes, studying each one of them afterwards and analysing what worked and what didn’t, I got better. I could see what to look out for in visual storytelling, in the boards, I could spot the rookie mistakes in animatics (mistakes which I had previously made myself). I still had so much to learn but, with that series behind me, I was at a point where people saw us pitch Fluffy Gardens and, whether consciously or unconsciously, they could see that I was ready.
So one of your best options is always to work on other shows first. If you’re a writer, write on other shows. If you want to direct, work on a show with a good director or creative leads. Build up those skills while you have the safety net of more experienced people or prior work around you. Even with that, it’s not enough just to do the work. You have to treat it like study and make sure you actively learn. Question yourself and what you’re doing. Get better.
Another option is to bring that experience to you. Acknowledge that you might not quite be there yet and find ways of teaming up with people who make up for that. People who bring a wealth of knowledge and have a strong body of work behind them. I have seen this work brilliantly. I remember seeing one nervous young creator presenting a project that was lovely but, on her own, we would have been left wondering if she could have really handled a series. But she had teamed with a production company with a good track record. They didn’t even have to be a part of her pitch. Just that people knew they were there was enough to reassure everyone and it ceased to be an issue. They could then just focus on the lovely project they were seeing. Sure enough, she made a great show.
If you have set up your own production company and your work to date has not been series work or leading the creative, see who you can hire in or at least get consultants. Get experienced directors to look at your animatics, your scenes. Get great writers. Because the truth is, one thing that experience helps with is spotting those mistakes that every industry expert seeing your pitch will also spot.
You have got to be ready and you have to show people that you are ready. That is not something that just happens – it is something you can actively work towards.
I’m off at the Cartoon Forum this week, preparing to present Millie and Mr Fluff on Friday morning (see the image above). But while I’m away, here is a thought on taking a story to screen:
Hit those key story points hard. Really hard.
As a writer, I would tell you that everything in a script is important. But as a director/producer/editor/consultant/casual viewer I can tell you that not everything is equally important.
In a short television story, there are likely around three absolutely essential story points. These are points that, if a kid missed, the story would cease to have any impact. So in a very generic yet common and perfectly valid example, the key points might be these:
1 – Character has a problem.
2 – Character through some action or event realises there is a solution.
3 – Character fixes problem.
Now there are other parts that will help this story. If I saw a script that was just this, I would recommend that we need to see some failed attempts in there too. But when it comes down to it, if you remove one of these three points you’ve got a major problem. Remove number 1 and your audience doesn’t know what the aim is and so the other points have no impact. Remove 2 and the end will feel nonsensical, pointless or too easy. Remove 3 and your whole resolution is gone.
But when you write a script or your writer hands in the script, there is going to be a lot more in it than just these three things. We hope for lovely character moments, jokes, ups and downs. And they’re all in there together. Rarely does a writer put the absolutely essential points in CAPS (probably would be frowned upon but actually I think there would be some merit to the idea) so it is now up to the rest of the team, director et al, to tell that story in the best way possible. If that team just goes through a script and gives everything equal importance, it could just end up being a bunch of stuff that happens and the key points could be missed. That doesn’t make it a bad script – the script hands you the elements but the storytelling work never ends there, nor should it.
You have got to make absolutely certain that the story will be clear and have maximum effect on the audience. For that to happen, you have to hit those key story points hard. They are essential. They take priority and so, by definition, everything else becomes secondary. So in boarding, animatics, recording, animation, always make certain that those points get the space, timing and emphasis they need. Your episode depends on it.
I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with the muck-flinging going on in gaming over the last few weeks. I’d forgive you for steering clear of it. The short version is that a small group of gamers jumped on an opportunity for sexism and harassment and a large group of gamers enabled it. I wasn’t remotely surprised by the small group but I must admit to being pretty taken aback by the larger group – the enablers. I have been aware of these issues of course and have written many times on gender role models but this seemed worse than even I was expecting.
I couldn’t help but think of Scott Benson’s short film ‘But I’m A Nice Guy’ (watch here).
It made me sad.
And then, like any stimulus to the creators among us, it motivated me. I asked myself “how can I make things better?” This is one of the wonderful things I see in other creators and there are so many of us. Instead of just tearing things down or criticising or arguing, we get constructive. We learn. We make. We contribute.
So what can we do?
Well in preschool media we start early and this, in my opinion, is the best place to start. In preschool, things are actually pretty good. Some of the biggest hitters (Dora, Peppa, Doc McStuffins) work across genders and don’t rely on gender stereotyping that might widen the divide or build perception that men and women are entirely different beings. Female role models are in a much better place in preschool than they were some years ago and this is working well for everyone. And many broadcasters and producers are working even harder and actively looking for varied, interesting and positive characters with a better gender balance. This all has a positive effect among both girls and boys.
So let’s keep that up. Watch your male/female character ratio, make sure characters of both genders are actual characters rather than their personalities being their gender and watch for lazy gender signifiers (this happens so often without even realising it and I’ve been guilty of it in the past).
One problem is that, for all the great work we’re doing and improvements we’re getting in actual preschool content, we seem to be seeing an equal and opposite effect in marketing. I see more gender divides than ever in commercials and products. What can we do about that? Well as parents we can try to reject it and as creators we can aim to make our content as gender-inclusive as possible. How can that help? Well what I’m finding in preschool is that the better the actual content, the more it exposes the worst of the commercials around it as archaic and wrong. I’m sensing a much greater awareness of these issues among parents and the better things get, the more the anomalies will stand out. There have been great campaigns to make children’s books more gender-inclusive, for example. And now those big ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ titles begin to look weird in that landscape.
So let’s keep improving the content landscape.
Can we do more? Sure. We can always do more. For me, creating content for children that would enrich and contribute is part of our core mission statement at Mooshku and these recent events have pushed gender issues right up to the top of our list. So some things that were simmering in the background will be shifted to the foreground as soon as we can. If we get it right, we can help children, boys and girls, come out of their preschool years as confident as possible, as well-rounded as possible and as open and accepting as possible.
And then after the preschool years? Well that’s where I’ll challenge those making content for older children to do better. There is a problem. So let’s see what difference you can make.
I play games and I love handheld systems in particular. You remember the Gameboy Advance, right? Mine came with me everywhere. There were other handheld systems over the years: the Game Gear, the Lynx, Neo Geo Pocket and so on, but the Gameboy dominated and outlasted them all.
Then one year Sony announced they were entering the handheld market with the PSP.
Sony had come from nowhere with the original Playstation and they completely took over that market, leading to the once-mighty Sega leaving hardware behind. So you can be sure Nintendo took notice when the PSP was announced, especially as it seemed years ahead of the Gameboy Advance in terms of technology.
In what was less than a couple of months later, Nintendo announced a brand new handheld: the Nintendo DS. Conventional wisdom would have said that, to compete with the PSP, Nintendo would need to deliver a machine with more power, better graphics. But this thing didn’t seem to have the power of the PSP. Not even close. And what it did have, to be perfectly honest, looked a little insane. It had two screens. One touch screen with a stylus. And a microphone. Everything their success with the Gameboy had shown they didn’t need.
It didn’t help that it wasn’t the prettiest looking machine either.
Well I’ll probably never know what their thinking was but, to me, it seemed like Nintendo had gone into a complete panic due to the PSP announcement and just threw together this mishmash of a machine that hadn’t even been fully designed yet. It reeked of panic. And I remember reading message boards at the time and seeing the DS slated continuously for just being a collection of gimmicks.
Even Nintendo themselves didn’t seem to be all that convinced. They spoke of the machine as a ‘third pillar’, as they would continue the Gameboy brand along side the DS.
Well you know the end of the story, right?
The Nintendo DS was released. And it sold. It sold millions. And it wasn’t even down to some amazing software – oh, that came, albeit a little later. The Nintendo DS sold as hardware. The machine itself became the selling point. With it, they captured whole new markets while gamers looked at Nintendogs and thought, what? It’s not even a game!
The Nintendo DS dominated.
Nintendo dropped the Gameboy, never mentioned pillars again and redesigned the DS to look much, much prettier.
They had a hit on their hands.
Nintendo may well tell you differently but it looked to me like they had no idea what they had when they announced the DS. The rest of the world certainly didn’t. But they didn’t have to know. By throwing all these crazy features in and seeing what would stick, by taking that risk, they ensured another generation of handheld gamers would think Nintendo first.
So what’s the point of all this on a blog about making content for preschoolers? How does this relate to creating great concepts for children? Simply this: you don’t always have to know exactly what you’re doing and you won’t always predict correctly what will work or what won’t work. Try it anyway.
I sat down to write a post on one of my most important guidelines when making anything: if it can be made better, it should be. Turns out I already wrote that post back when I was making Planet Cosmo.
The reason this was on my mind is that at the weekend I decided to redo a trailer shot I was working on. The shots were finished and were just fine. It’s just I realised this one could be just a little bit better. And so if it can be made better, it should be. The shot are now improved and final picture has been delivered to post. If I spotted something else important at this point, could I do anything about it? Yes, actually. Until the trailer is delivered to its final destination, until I hit the absolute drop dead deadline, I could probably still improve it.
This brings up the question: when do you stop?
When do you stop tinkering with what you’re making to avoid doing a George Lucas on your work? For me, the answer is in two parts:
1) STOP at the last point at which you will still hit your deadline. Implementing a fix too late could mean you miss your deadline. This is not acceptable (post on deadlines here). So your first cut off is the latest point at which you can still get everything done on time. When you’re at that point, you just finish it off and deliver.
2) STOP when you start making it worse rather than better. It is really important to try things in different ways but it is so crucial to realise when your changes are having an overall negative effect. Sometimes this is obvious. Other times, it is less so. For example, you may have a dull background in one shot and you want to brighten it up. Seems like the right thing to do, right? But what if the new saturated background now overpowers your final scene which was meant to look especially bright and colourful? What if people are looking at your background instead of your characters?
All changes will have a knock-on effect. Remember at the start of this post, I mentioned I decided to change a shot I was working on? That created a matching issue which led to the next shot needing to be changed too. Had that been the start of a damaging domino effect, the change would have created more problems than it would have solved. At that point, I would have to stop and step away from the fixes before everything fell apart. As it happened, in this instance that second fix brought everything together and it worked.
So if it can be made better, it should be.
But know when you’re going to damage your end product, either by missing a deadline or simply making your end product worse rather than better.
Whether you’re writing on your own project or for someone else, you will no doubt have a script editor. A script editor should be your greatest ally as a writer. I know it seems convenient that someone who is script editing would want you to think about how awesome script editors are (disclosure: I’m currently story and script editing a meaty 52-episode series) but I’m coming at this more from the perspective of a writer, having just completed the first scripts for Mooshku’s Millie and Mr. Fluff. I wouldn’t dream of writing a script and not having my editor, Hilary, have input. We need that external view, no matter how good our writing may be or even if we edit scripts too. Good script editors are essential.
This is the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re a writer working with an editor: your script editor exists to make your work look even better.
Your script editor maintains the distance and objectivity that you can lose when you get buried in a story. Your script editor is your advisor, your sounding board, your friend.
The best thing about a script editor is that they are usually (not always, but usually) untainted by any other part of the process. Think about it – the producer needs volume, an easy production and easy sales with minimal explanation. The director wants an episode that’s easy to make and can allow for performances. A distributor wants sales and license deals. Almost everyone on a production has a bunch of concerns that aren’t always about telling the best story.
A script editor, on the other hand, exists to make the scripts better. That’s it. So ideally the bond of trust between you as a writer and your editor should be unshakable.
If it is, here is what a good script editor will do for you:
They will make sure you are telling your story in the strongest way possible.
They will keep an eye on your flow, if you’ve lost sight of anything obvious.
They will listen to your language, make sure it’s correct.
They will look for the pitfalls, those pitfalls that you are better removing or patching before others spot them.
They will be there to nudge, to suggest and even just to talk things through in order to help you overcome any difficulties.
So value a good script editor, trust them and try your absolute best to make that relationship work for you. Try to find the right editor, one you favour and can recommend (I can recommend me and it’s a service we offer at Mooshku but I would also wholeheartedly recommend Hilary who made me a far better writer – get in touch if you’d like details). One you consider your best ally. Because really, out of everyone on a production, the script editor is on your side.
Here is a reminder I like to give when talking to people about making content for children, whether writing, directing, producing and across TV and other platforms. I call it The Barney Test. It’s very simple.
First, watch this…
Okay. I’m guessing you didn’t watch it all but that’s okay. Now the next part – answer this question truthfully: did you love it? Every minute of it? Would you love nothing more than to just keep on watching more Barney?
If you aren’t shouting a big happy “YES! YES! YES!” at the screen right now, you can rest assured that you are like almost all adults on this planet. Barney isn’t meant for you. It’s not meant for me. It is meant for children. And the thing is, children LOVE Barney. Most kids adore him. In spite of what we adults might want to do to the goofy purple dinosaur, Barney has given kids a lot of entertainment and good over the years
This is the point of The Barney Test: it illustrates just how different the tastes of adults and kids are. We are not the same, not even close. It’s great if you can make something you like but if you are guided only by what you like, you lose your audience and miss the potential children’s hit that you have to offer, whether Barneyish or more parent-friendly. And wouldn’t that be a shame?
So if you ever find yourself losing focus, veering towards self-indulgence, pop on an episode and take The Barney Test as a reminder of just who your audience really is.
On a related note, Dr. Maya Götz posted a link to this wonderful document on Emotions In Children’s TV. Download the PDF and give a read. It is a really important reminder of how children experience and process events in stories and the feelings that come from those. The point towards the end about how your work is biographically rooted is so important.