You know what advice I LOVE? It’s the advice that has me nodding my head and thinking, yeah, that confirms everything I have thought about my work and my life and the world. This advice makes me feel good about myself and I should remind myself to keep on doing what I’m doing and everything will turn out just fine. Oh look, a butterfly! Isn’t life wonderful?
The problem, however, is that the advice we really need isn’t always as fun to hear. It’s the advice that challenges us, means we might have to change something in how we do things, makes our life harder. Seriously, who wants harder?! Certainly not me.
But that’s the very advice we might need sometimes. Here’s the thing – improvements require change. And change is hard. Keeping that change up is even harder.
I saw one of those videos about how finished is better than perfect. That’s good advice. You’ve got to finish and deliver and faffing around forever, no matter how lovely your unfinished work might be, is no use to anyone. Some people really need this advice.
I was just about to share the video when I thought of some people I have encountered over the years who would watch this and nod their heads and think, yeah, this confirms everything I have thought about my work and my life and the world. I’m going to just throw this work down, shove it in an email, might even stick some words in that email and I’m going to hit send. Finished is WAY better than perfect. When actually, the advice that those particular people need is the harder advice to hear – that they need to spend more time with their work, really push themselves to get it better and better and build up their own sense of internal quality control. Because while finished is better than perfect, great is much, much better than sloppy.
Different people will benefit from different advice. We are not all the same. Not even close.
So listen for the advice that is harder to hear. We may not like hearing it but it might be exactly what we need to hear.
The world is divided into two groups of people – those who will read that heading and say “Hammer Time!” and those who will say “Collaborate and listen!” As it happens, this post is not about MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. It’s about creative careers.
Here’s a thing: creative careers aren’t easy.
I started as an animator many years ago in the days when everything was pencil and paper. I remember seeing older people in their thirties, maybe some in their forties, travelling the world as they moved from production to production in search of animation clean-up jobs or whatever. Even back then, I got this feeling that I didn’t want to be that person. At some point, I was going to want to settle down. To stop having to chase that next job.
I looked ahead and, even just starting out, I knew that continuing exactly what I was doing probably wasn’t going to lead to a place I wanted to be.
I worked hard over the years. Not always focussed. Not always knowing where I was going. But I still amassed a good set of skills and, now, each role I can play in this business helps inform and support the other roles. So I have been very fortunate. I need the work and that is often dependent on productions, just as it was back then. But it’s easier to do from here, settled with my kids, and I can often create my own work in many ways.
And yet it is still true for me that a creative career isn’t easy. Even now, I have to project ahead and look at the path I’m on and try to figure out where that will lead me in the next 10 years. Or 20. I have to stop (no, not Hammer Time or Collaborate and Listen). Stop that day to day, to-do list to to-do list motion that just keeps me on a fixed path. Stop and review – where I am, what I’m doing, whether it is working, where I want to be and how I might get there.
It is a little time out to assess directions and I think it is hugely important. Probably in every career but definitely in ours.
My advice is that you start this early. Not all the time. It might only be once every few years. But do it. Stop. Take a look at where you are. Take a look at where you want to be, keeping in mind that it might not be where you thought you wanted to be the last time you did this. And consider how best you might get there.
We can deconstruct a script, point out the plot holes, wonder if the structure is really hitting the beats in the right place, explore the character dynamics, question the motivations, tut-tut at the typos, throw out the designs, play with the composition, alter the pacing, pull out the examples of what worked and what didn’t and suggest changes throughout hoping those examples apply in this case (they often don’t) and we can, bit by bit, torture over every element, large or small, in what we’re making. And we should. All those elements will help you as part of the process.
BUT the proof is in the reactions of your audience. The smiles, the laughter, the gasps, the cheers and the tears. When everything is finished, that is what counts.
At the weekend, I was at the premiere of the live-action children’s feature GRÅTASS GIR GASS in Stavanger, Norway. I wrote other films in the series but I didn’t write this one so I had a little more objectivity while watching the audience, taking in what hit and what really grabbed the children. The kids had been playing around the Gråtassland theme park all day and so I wondered if the energy would really be there. It was. And towards the end, there was (SPOILER) a chase sequence that revealed one of those crucial audience feedback moments we look for. The loud laughter and cheering from the kids was all the proof anyone would need on whether this movie hit or not.
They were invested. They were entertained. And yes, they laughed. The proof was in the laughter.
I’m sure many of you have seen articles attempting to knock Frozen through theory – how the villain comes out of nowhere, why story parts don’t work as they should and so on. All it takes is going to just ONE screening of that movie with a cinema full of kids to understand why that movie is a hit.
Sure, by all means question the details and try to learn from them. All those elements at the top of this post are important. But never lose sight of the fact that it is the audience reaction that counts. Arguing theory to a room full of cheering kids is a total, utter waste of your time. Listen to your audience. Learn from them. Know your audience and learn how to entertain them. That is paradoxically much more simple and far more complex than what you’ll generally read in a book about writing.
Listen to the laughter and aim to entertain.
Gråtass Gir Gass opens across Norway this Friday the 9th of September. If you’re there, bring your kids and listen for that laughter. Well done to all involved!
When I started writing properly… actually, let’s define that a little before continuing. I wrote scripts and stories a LONG time ago but I don’t really think of them as writing properly. Why? Nobody bought them. And, being honest, I barely pushed them. When you write, you’re a writer. But for me, it was when someone actually took an interest in my writing that the pressure came and I felt it was proper writing. It had to be.
So when I started writing properly, I had to learn to tell a story well. I had read numerous books on scriptwriting and story but knowing the theory and truly understanding it and being able to apply it are very different things. I learned through doing, by having a wonderful script editor who steered me along the way and then by later reviewing the work I had actually done (an important step).
When we learn, it doesn’t always stick. I have mentioned here on this blog that I love having reminders of principals, ideas and anything that I have picked up along the way. But eventually, it goes in. And it becomes a part of you.
And here’s the danger: what you learn becomes formula.
You hit a point where, without realising it, you’re applying the same tricks over and over again. I have seen this in animation and I see it in writing too. When you have been around a while, directing and editing, it becomes easy to spot in the work of others and yet not so easy to spot in our own no matter how long we’ve been doing this.
I am currently writing a short form comedy. Really, these are sketches. Situations, setup and gags. And what’s funny (not good funny) is seeing how desperately, years after having no clue how to form a good story, my mind wants to force a full story in here. A beginning, middle and end. My brain is screaming at me to make these bigger. Okay, so I feel it’s a positive that I like to tell a story that rewards and it is somewhat understandable, going from 80 minute feature films to 2-3 minute episodes, but I’m having to consider this: am I finding it difficult to move away from the story formats because they have become habit?
Possibly. And this is why it’s always so important to try to retain an awareness of our own work. It’s not easy. We can’t do it all the time. But it’s great to take a time out, look at what we’re doing, at what is working and not working (being honest!) and to reset. To refuse access to our usual tools so that we can force ourselves out of the habits. I find I need to do this quite regularly. It really helps because it keeps me fresh, allows discovery of new methods and tricks and explorations and then, at the end of it all, I can revisit my old writing toolbox and find that, actually, a lot of these tools are still really useful. Using them is now an informed decision, not just habit.
So here’s what I recommend: even if you just want to do one thing and you’re really good at it, try writing something completely different. Consider it playtime. Write anything you like as long as you can’t fall into any familiar patterns. Then review and see how it worked out. It will keep your writing fresh.
I love structure and find it an incredibly useful tool. But it comes with its own built-in pitfalls and here is one of them: if you plot your story to a specific structure from the very beginning, there is a danger that you will funnel your characters down unbelievable paths in order to get them to hit certain beats.
If your story target is too clear even before you have a sense of what is happening, what the characters are doing and why, you start to herd your characters in ways that restrict the storytelling. And in the process, often making the characters behave in ways they shouldn’t.
It is an all too common story problem that characters do things to serve the needs of the writer rather than serving their own needs. It happens so easily. I know because I have been guilty of it myself. I have a great idea for a scene but, to get there, I have to push characters in ways that don’t quite fit who they are or what they should want. And because it is all too easy, you have to be very wary of anything that invites that risk into your work methods.
Nailing down your structure before having a sense of your characters and story can do just that.
My advice is: know your premise. Know your characters. Know your starting point. Then let your characters take you where they should go. Let your mind wander in and out of the scenes, each character playing it the way they naturally should without you worrying about the end point of that scene. Make notes on all of that stuff until you have enough to build a story. And THEN sort out your structure.
That way, your characters are living, acting and reacting. It isn’t just an exercise in herding.
In the world of media, I have seen a lot of unrealistic expectations over the years. I see people with what might be the beginnings of an idea who expect others to throw a fortune at them to take it off their hands and actually do the work to turn it into something good. These people tend to wonder what is wrong with the entire industry when that doesn’t happen. Oh you’ll regret it when I’m rolling in money and this is the biggest property on the planet.
I also see a lot of more humble people daunted by how intimidating the industry can be. Gripped by that fear and a sense that they don’t have what it takes. Afraid to sit down and really develop their idea because it may end up awful and it will all go horribly wrong. I’m not a writer. I’m not a creative. I can’t draw. How will I get anywhere?
And this may come as no surprise to some of you but, regularly, I see these two things in the same person. Because the fear of sitting down and doing the work can often result in a defensive need to offload a project long before it’s ready. Someone take it! Now!
This is a fun business to be in with lots of wonderful people doing wonderful things. But the truth is, it comes with hard work. Sitting down and just doing the work, often on your own before anyone else believes in it, comes with the territory. It’s what you take on when you decide this is what you’re going to do. You have to work hard to prove what you’re doing has any value or has a place in a world saturated with high-quality media already.
It’s not an easy path to walk down.
But if you do, if you put in that work, you will find people who like what you’re doing. You will get to know why something you tried didn’t quite take and you’ll be better prepared next time. You’ll find the enthusiasm grows as you get closer, as you help others on their projects and as you get to be a part of the process. Then, when you find champions for your own work (and if you stick at it, you will), you realise you can do it. You have probably already been doing it. It’s not easy. It’s unlikely that someone will ever dump a truck full of money at your house for your concept, even when you put in the work. But it is still rewarding. It is still worth it.
So do the work. Keep your expectations realistic and do the work. Enjoy it and keep doing it.
A lot of people have passion for their own work and the desire to create something wonderful. The dream of really really take ownership of their work. And yet, more often than not, those people achieve much more when working for someone else than they do on their own projects. They might tinker away at their projects once a month or so. Or just wish that’s what they were doing and then feel bad that they haven’t actually achieved anything. Sound familiar?
So how do you focus yourself on your own work when you get a bit of time? For me, there are several ways of doing it but what they really come down to is replicating the pressure of having a job. When you’re an employee, usually someone tells you what they need and when they need it. And once you have a goal and a deadline, you have a target and you get to work and great things happen.
When you have your own projects, you probably know your big end goal. But you may not have broken it into smaller tasks yet. And I’m willing to bet you have no deadline.
So set a deadline. Better yet, get yourself a deadline. What’s the difference? If you set a deadline, you can shift it. You get busy and so you put it off for a week. Two weeks. Months. But if you acquire some sort of external deadline, that’s likely to be fixed. An application to a funding body. A submission to the Cartoon Forum. A trip to a conference or a market. Set up a meeting for that market with someone important and then put that date in your calendar. Congratulations – you just got yourself a deadline.
Now put that in whatever diary you use to keep track of what you’re doing, whether it’s your phone calendar or a series of scrappy post-its stuck to your computer. Break down what you need to do into smaller goals and create smaller step deadlines between now and your fixed deadline. Never lose the pressure of that big deadline. In fact, if it doesn’t feel pressured enough, get more deadlines to meet. Become a gatherer of deadlines.
Then meet every one of them. Before long, your project will have turned from an idea to a developed pitch concept and, if you keep at it, hopefully much more than that.
Every moment is precious. We only get a certain number of them. In childhood, I think they are even more precious because they become part of who you grow up to be. Everything can influence us one way or another and it can be so hard to predict what experiences will impact us in what ways.
So imagine you can sit a kid down for eleven minutes of their life. Or seven minutes. Or maybe even just five. And you can tell them anything you want. They might not remember it but, at that moment, you have an opportunity to tell them something. You could make them laugh, tell jokes and brighten up their day. You could tell them something you wish you had known at that age, something that might make being a kid that much easier. A trick to tying shoelaces, perhaps. Or you could tell them something that might help them grow up to be a better adult. Something that, if they take it to heart, might help other kids.
When you make a show or write an episode or make an app, you get to do just that. You get to communicate with children. You have their attention and you can tell them something. It doesn’t have to be something important but it can be.
You get to a little moment of their life. Use it well.
Scripting comes with struggles. I find one of the most common struggles is marrying what you want with what would actually happen. You might need a character to go somewhere to serve the story but there is no way that the character would ever go there. You want a core aim for your B-plot character but they keep getting swept up in the A plot and won’t focus on anything else. You want a theme of acceptance but your characters require such a turnaround to get there that it just isn’t plausible.
Those struggles happen all the time. If you’re having a hard time with one of them, you’ll hear ‘it feels contrived’. And it IS contrived. It is all contrived. But if you’re crafting a story, it is your job to make it feel like it isn’t.
This post isn’t about that struggle. It is about what happens when you beat it. When you win.
You’ll get a flash of inspiration. Suddenly the dots will connect. You have a way of making your character do exactly what you want in a natural, believable way. Or you rephrase a goal or theme and everything falls into place. Those are wonderful moments.
Here’s the tip: make absolutely certain that your realisation, that clarity, actually makes it into your story. It is no good if just you know why it all makes sense. It has to be there in the story, in the script or in the boards. That’s where it counts.
It sounds obvious, right? And yet is all too easy to have the pieces fit for you and actually miss that you have to make them all fit for everyone else too. You won’t be around to explain it to the audience. So when you’ve overcome a story struggle, a character challenge, a theme obstacle, get it into the script in the clearest way possible. Nobody should see how you struggled with that. If they do, you still have work to do.
I normally only post on a Wednesday so this might upset the entire fabric of the space-time continuum but, in advance of heading to the Children’s Media Conference, I thought I’d get in a little update on me and Mooshku. Why? Because I don’t often talk about my current work here and it’s no harm to remind you about what it is that I do.
So what have I been up to? And Méabh? And all of us at Mooshku generally?
Mooshku have been consulting on 3 lovely early stage children’s properties for third party companies. That entails evaluating existing content, focussing it for the right audience and also broadcasters and partners and putting it together to make a really strong pitch for a really strong concept. That has included writing concept documents, show bibles, storylines and also sample scripts. Simply put, we have been making lovely ideas even lovelier!
We created, wrote and produced Trufax Tot Cop for the Nickelodeon shorts programme, just one of four international companies selected. It is absolutely KILLING ME that I haven’t been able to show this yet or say more about it. There are very good reasons why I can’t but I’m so eager to show it to you.
Update: I’m now okay to add an image so here he is, Trufax Tot Cop!
We produced animation for a live science show for the Edinburgh Fringe last year and, around this time last year at Mooshku, we were just finishing production on a pixel art music video for GUNSHIP. You probably know I love my pixel art.
And we have been developing our new IP and producing some new animation samples to show them off. They are really pretty and fun and we’ll be bringing them along to the CMC next week. We’ll post some online soon too, I promise! In the meantime, some pictures:
Sticking with our Mooshku mission of collaboration, Méabh produced the live-action for the 52 episodes of Little Roy for our wonderful friends at JAM Media. And Méabh is currently producing The Overcoat for the talented guys at Giant Animation, featuring the voice talents of Cillian Murphy and Alfred Molina.
And on top of all this, I have been doing a huge amount of writing. Over the last 18 months or so, I have written…
5 episodes of the upcoming Wild Adventures of Blinky Bill for Flying Bark in Australia.
4 episodes of a lovely new show I can’t yet name for Submarine in the Netherlands.
2 Gråtass live-action theatrical children’s feature films for Cinenord in Norway.
More than 10 scripts for top secret early development projects for Ireland and the UK (early development for 3rd party companies is a lot of what we do in Mooshku).
And I have been writing the full 20 episodes of the new Karsten Og Petra series and a Karsten Og Petra feature film, also for Cinenord. This is one that is particularly dear to my heart. This series is so lovely. If you haven’t seen anything from it yet, you should look it up. It is preschool perfection (I can’t take credit for that – it was perfection even before I got involved!).
And I’m working on something lovely for Karrot (of Sarah & Duck) and a nice new show I can’t yet mention but will be a lot of fun.
That post turned out even longer than I expected. We’ve been busy! Really, we’ve been doing what we love to do: make really great stuff for kids. We have our mission to bring kids something really good and we’re strong on that. And we also love collaboration and working with others. We don’t see competition – we see a community. So far, that ethos is working wonderfully for Mooshku.
So that’s the update. If you’re at the CMC, do say hello! It will be lovely to catch up with old friends and meet some new ones too.