I started with animation, the 2D hand-drawn kind. At a certain point, I recognised a built-in difficulty with the 2D animation system: the dilution of drawings. While setting up a scene, a storyboard artist sketches a character pose. Then a layout artist draws a tighter on-model version of that pose. An animator uses that as a basis for their rough key poses. Then in-betweeners fill in the drawings that are still missing, using the key drawings as their starting point. Finally a clean-up artist redraws all those drawings again with a clean line.
In each one of those steps, the energy that was once in that storyboard pose gets harder and harder to keep. It’s like a far less interesting version of Chinese Whispers, where the end result is a bland approximation of the starting point. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but the chances are pretty high in every single scene.
So people tackle this in different ways. Often the storyboard artists get to put a lot more life into their drawings. They don’t have to stick exactly to what the character looks like so they can be more playful. That way, we hope that they capture an energy that survives in part all the way through, albeit in a diluted form.
But the best way I found to beat this problem is one I saw employed by some making the crazier cartoons of the ’90s – encourage everyone at each stage to push it further.
You don’t just aim to capture what was in the previous drawing. You don’t aim to equal it. You take it to the next level. Got a strong storyboard pose? Try to make it even stronger in the layout. Then again in the animation and so on. Each artist adding to the energy rather than just repeating or, more likely, losing the energy altogether. And you have to keep doing it. You have to push every drawing actively. The second you stop doing it consciously, the energy fades again.
So I realised this many, many years ago.
What I hadn’t realised at the time, however, is that it applies to far more than just hand-drawn animation. It applies to just about everything. It applies to story. It applies to character. It applies to writing. It applies to directing. It even applies in ways to production systems. You have to keep trying to push things further at every stage. Make them more interesting, stronger, better. And you have to do it consciously and keep reminding yourself to do so. Because the second you stop, things slip. They start to get far less interesting and, eventually, stop working altogether.
So keep pushing it further. Do it at every stage. And use every bump, every criticism, every do-over, every problem as an opportunity to ask yourself how you can push it even further. Do this and you’ll end up with something interesting, better and truly alive.
Just a little note today on scripts and why they are so important when developing a concept. Now when I say scripts, that can be the traditional written form or, as some prefer in animation, a fully working storyboard instead. Either way, it is the document that sets out the story. For me, they are more important than how great the concept itself sounds and certainly way more important than what’s in the show bible.
If it doesn’t work in the scripts, it doesn’t work.
That is all.
And tomorrow at Animation Dingle, I’ll be giving a masterclass going through my whole development process as a creative producer. If you’re at Dingle, come along! It is just one of many great things happening there this year. Details HERE!
Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post. When you see it with sound, it will work much better. Sure it seems wrong now but the story will come together in the animatic. We’ll let that scene go but the scenes around it will give it context. Ah, what do kids know anyway?
Making shows and media is hard. Sure, it can be fun and we’ll all talk about it with a smile to people who aren’t in the business but you and I know that it can be hard. There are so many places for things to go wrong. And fixing mistakes? Production problems? Making stuff work that really doesn’t? That’s a nightmare. It can send problems down the entire chain of production and on to the screen.
So how do we avoid that? Well… you know all those places it can go wrong? You make sure that each one of those stages is, instead, carried out correctly from the very beginning. I make it sound so easy! The thing is, every time you get a step right it becomes harder to get the entire process wrong. The earlier you start to get it right the better.
Let’s look at a real example: an animated television episode.
We will assume the concept is already in place (if not, get that right first). So you have your characters, your setting and you know what the show is about. You may even have scripts already. That’s a good start. But this individual episode is all new.
You start with the story idea. Just the very basics, often a one-line concept. If this concept is good, it could lead to 100 different stories and many if not most of them could be really great. So get it right first. Work through lots of ideas and pick the best or pick one that really inspires.
Once you have that idea right, the next stage becomes easier: plotting the story. You’ve got to get this right because your script will be much harder if you don’t. You need to know what happens and if there are early story problems they will become apparent here. Work at getting this right and you’ll have a much easier task on the next really important part: writing the script.
Now your script has to be good because that defines the whole episode. Pulling a good episode from a bad script? Forget about it. Get your script right and the storyboard artist will have a much easier job drawing a lovely set of panels. Get those panels right and the animatic will be a breeze. Get the animatic right and your animation… and your scenes… and your sound… and so on.
Get it right the first time and everything becomes easier. It sends that goodness down the entire chain of production. Get it wrong and you’re struggling every single step of the way and you’re looking at your final episode thinking, the next episode might be better. Or worse, thinking that it’s awesome while everyone else is hoping the next episode might be better.
So start at the start and get your story and your script right. Only let it go to the next stage when these are good. Build on each step rather than constantly trying to paper over the previous one. It can be hard work up front and you might wonder if there is really value in torturing over some of the details but your future self or your director or your whole team will benefit. More importantly, the kids will love what you make.
On a related and not coincidental note, Nelly and Nora from Geronimo Productions launched in Ireland this week. I had the pleasure of working as script editor on the show with two great writers – Andrew Brenner and Emma Hogan. Both of them worked incredibly hard early on crafting lovely stories to get those first stages right and begin the chain of events that would lead to what are now lovely episodes for young children. The core of what those episodes achieve was all there in the scripts and so the production team could spend their time making them wonderful (and that’s just what they’ve done). There are 52 episodes now airing on RTEjr and going global very soon. If you have children, look out for it.
Yesterday I saw this article about how children often miss the moral of a story. The article is true whether we’re talking preschool children or whether we’re talking kids in the 6-10 age group. Time after time, children walk away from a story having completely missed the message. Or worse, having badly misinterpreted the message.
The reasons for this are numerous. As the article points out, understanding the outcome requires stages of judgement throughout the story as cause and effect is revealed. As we approach stories as writers, we often work under the assumption that children know why characters are doing certain things whereas it is common that the audience hasn’t looked for a why. The why can be integral to understanding the final message.
Then there is that issue itself – that the moral or main message usually comes at the end. Your one-line sum up about how great it is to be yourself is simply not as likely to stick as the lead-up where each character wants to be just like the other kids and we get a song about trying not to stand out. In providing the negative example to lead to your wonderful positive message about life, chances are you may be planting that negative as the key takeaway of your story.
And then there is the fact that, as covered here recently, kids often miss bits. They’re busy, busy little people and they may not get a key line required for that “aha!” moment.
So what do we do? Well the one place I disagree with that article is the idea that we can’t predict whether a message will stick. I think it’s more likely that people just don’t ask the question. If we accept that getting the point across is difficult, we can do many things to ensure the success of that message. Many are already covered on this blog already so here are just some key suggestions:
- Make sure the message is itself simple and easily illustrated.
- Ensure that your moral/message realisation is as big and exciting as any negative parts.
- Really take the time to celebrate that message.
- Have your message run through the entire story, not just the end. Make it a running theme.
- State any key message clearly without surrounding clutter. Leave no ambiguity.
- Find a way of asking the audience to pay attention. It’s a simple trick but it works.
Do these things and the chances of your core message sticking will increase dramatically. And at that part of the process, there is one great way to know whether it is working: try it out on children and talk to them about your story.
Young children, especially early preschoolers, don’t always retain the key pieces of information your stories depend on. No, it’s not because they don’t take in information. Quite the opposite. They soak up information like sponges. The challenge for them is the sheer amount of information they are taking in while their filters and memories are developing.
So when writing, directing or creating for preschool, you can’t take it for granted that the most important line of your script was not overwritten by a child hearing a bird outside and filing that away as what bird calls sound like. You can’t assume they weren’t in the halfway point in the changeover between watching upside down and watching with their face buried in a bag of popcorn when you showed your key visual. Even if they took in the information, it leaves too much to chance to hope that it wasn’t nudged out by them wondering why the car had four wheels in one scene but they could only see two in the next.
Children are always busy.
So if your story depends on key points (and most do), remind them. Have a recap. Have several recaps. It ensures the essential points are remembered. If they missed a point completely the first time around, it gives them a chance to pick it up. Don’t fear the repetition – young kids love repetition. Just recap. The now-classic Cbeebies show Ballamory uses this perfectly, offering well-timed recaps that fit into the flow of the episode so it’s well worth studying that show if you get a chance.
One more little reminder just for you: while we’re often trained in a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach in media, for preschool children it is important you tell.
So remember to remind. Your story will thank you for it.
I like lasagne. I like to think I know a good lasagne from a bad lasagne, at least to my particular tastes. If a chef makes a lasagne that is absolutely disgusting, I don’t need to know how lasagne is made to be critical of that lasagne. I certainly don’t need to be able to make a better one in order to earn the right to be critical.
The point here most likely seems obvious already – if we have an interest in a particular subject, we don’t necessarily need to have all the skills ourselves to know good from bad. If you love action cartoons, for example, and have grown up immersing yourself in them, there is a good chance you would be able to sit at a desk approving or rejecting action cartoons. Or you could be a critic and write up reviews.
The difficulty, however, comes when you actually have to make something better.
In my first example, I can’t help a chef make a better lasagne because I’m not a chef and I don’t know how lasagne is made. I can’t tell them what they did wrong. I can’t give pointers on better ingredients to use. And I certainly can’t step in and demonstrate how to make a great lasagne.
My usefulness ends at being able to say if I like it or not.
So if you want to make content, it is not enough to have just looked at similar content. You have to go deeper. You have to take an interest in the process. You have to look at the ingredients, you have to learn how others have made things in the past – getting the recipes where possible. You have to know how and why people got to their end results. The theory, the history and the practice. Most of all, you then need to work at it – try, examine what went wrong or right and try again. Adjust your recipe as you learn more.
I won’t ever be able to make a great lasagne by just looking at a well-prepared one. And we can’t make great content just by looking at the finished product either. Go deeper.
Finding our new zookeeper character was about asking the right questions. Who will bring a child into the show? Who will kids relate to? Who will compliment our tiger character? Who can drive stories? You might notice that these are all about what the character will achieve for the show and the audience. The questions are not so much about the character itself. Having a clear sense of the needs informs the character. Once you are certain on those needs, you can move on to questions about the character, who they are and what they like and dislike and so on.
Answering these questions took some time but, once the goals were clear, the basics of Millie and a whole lot more fell into place remarkably quickly. I had an idea of who she was, what she looked like and a name. Showing kids early on revealed that they were attracted to the designs, although more testing would come later. I also was clear on how she could fit into the stories, even though that meant a lot would have to be reworked or replaced entirely so that she could drive the narrative rather than being sandwiched into what effectively were just Mr Fluff stories.
Oh yes, Mr Fluff got a name too. Mr Fluffington-Strypes, gentleman and master of disguise. The name sounded more than a little posh and yet the fluff made him cuddly, approachable and loveable – and that’s the true Mr Fluff once you get past the airs and graces.
And while these two characters were worked up as designs, the show found its look. A rougher, patchier version of what would eventually become the visual style of the show. Mr Fluff lost his glasses, Millie got younger and cuter and the crayon-like feel for the design happened naturally during this development.
It seemed like it took so long to figure out what this idea would become. So much searching and pausing and wondering. But as soon as Millie became clear, it felt like the framework of this show formed almost overnight. Was it all there yet? No. Of course not. There was much left to flesh out, to test, to challenge and then pull together but the ingredients of the show were in place. And the thing about all the next phases of development is that, unless the visual design bombed with kids (and I knew it was working to a point – I had one challenge to overcome later), the top line pitch of this show would remain intact.
Finally this was a show I could take to a broadcaster.
Or to put it another way, I now had no excuse to hold it back. No reason to procrastinate. No way of justifying tinkering away at it for a few more months. Because truth be told, I think many of us creators would be happier working at our idea than sitting across a desk from a gatekeeper trying to convince them that we have something interesting.
I could make up no more reasons to avoid putting a two-page pitch document together and start showing it to people. The pitch phase was about to begin. One of the toughest and yet most exciting parts of the process.
This post follows on from Creating A Show Part 1 and Part 2.
While working up the new zookeeper character, I knew I would soon have to answer a very important question: what is this? Is it a book, a TV show, a game, an app or something else entirely?
Transmedia is the easy answer but it is not always helpful. Yes, characters and brands often have to work across forms but, personally, I believe you need to know your core platform. Mainly because every form of media is different and the needs of each form are different. So if you’re aiming for all of them at once, I find one of two situations occur: A) you don’t realise the differences in each form and so fail to make the most of the strengths in any form or B) you know the needs of each form and shave the edges off your project so it works for any of them, diluting it to bland nothingness in the process.
For me, I have to know the core form. It’s that old idea of knowing your target if you’re expecting to hit anything at all.
Here are some things the media form will dictate:
Length and complexity. The strength of focus on narrative. The forms of humour (Slapstick? Wordplay?). The visual design (you can rest on a page in a picture book. Not so with TV). The amount of stories required (if it’s TV, you need a LOT of stories). Cost of development (when you get into animation or coding, costs shoot up). Your relevant gatekeepers (got to know who you’re selling to). The amount and type of partners needed.
There are many more aspects affected by the chosen form of media so it is crucial to know what you’re aiming for. You can change direction along the way of course but best to nail down an initial strategy and see it through as far as possible. And while we may just assume the primary form is the one we are most familiar with, that is not always what is best for the particular project.
So I had to decide. What would it be?
An interactive app or a game? Maybe… but I found myself concentrating on narrative and humour that could contribute to an interactive app but might not necessarily be the primary focus. I set that idea aside as something to revisit later. I knew it could be a great book, whether published physically or digitally. I still think it can be a great book. I can see the page layouts, the wordplay, even some fun printing tricks such as textured sections and sticky jammy parts. Perfect fun for preschoolers. So I was leaning towards a book for a while.
But I chose television as the first platform for this concept. Why? Because of what motion could add to the slapstick I was aiming for. Yes, a lot of that can come through in a book but this fast-paced silliness was almost begging me to make it move. I was also finding that the concept kept handing me new stories. They were short, basic ideas, almost like sketches and I knew not all of them would work when I finally got the zookeeper character right but, nevertheless, the stories kept coming. Television loves volume and this show could run and run. It was a well of little preschool comedy ideas.
This concept was a television show first and foremost and that brought me back to very familiar territory.
I can’t state strongly enough how important it is to know what your primary form is, even if you want your stories to eventually spin off to everything else too. There are so many variables in creating content and navigating through the choices is not always easy. So every time you make a solid decision, you gain even more focus. It informs all those other choices and offers you a clear direction. You will still have many things to work out but you’ll be doing it with a strong target. You know what you have to hit.
Know what it is you’re making.
And now that I knew what this was, I just had to sort this little zookeeper character.
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.