There is a lot to work through on a TV show or film. The concept has to be strong, your characters all solid and in place, the rules of the world locked and the format of the show nailed. These are fundamentals. You do not proceed into production until you have these things all fixed and agreed.
But with production looming and deadlines fast approaching, sometimes you just have to get moving. So out of these fundamentals, which ones can you afford to work out as you go along if things get tight? Which one can you let slip and work out in the episodes themselves?
The answer across the board here is: None of them! Work out what your show is!
Seriously, these things are absolutely essential to the health of your show. Yes, there are details that will get fleshed out as the series builds, some elements might change as you realise that there are strengths you hadn’t previously identified. But you have to know exactly what your show is when you go into production. You must have the format locked, the characters all worked out and fleshed out, the relationships clear, the world shaped and consistent.
Without those, you’re basically playing out your development process on screen. That is not a good idea.
Some things you can’t afford to figure out later. Decide on the fundamentals before you start.
The script is everything. It is what sets down the entire story. If it’s not great on the page, it won’t be great in the final work. You have to make sure everything works, is as strong as can be and that the storytelling is clear and impactful. It all comes down to the script so never let a script go that isn’t 100% ready yet.
Remember: the script is everything.
The script isn’t everything. It’s merely the start of the process. The visual storytelling is where a story is really told. The storyboard is everything. Nobody can make a good show from a bad board. So you have to make sure everything works, is as strong as can be and that the storytelling is clear and impactful. It all comes down to the storyboard so never let a board go that isn’t 100% ready yet.
Remember: the storyboard is everything.
The storyboard isn’t everything. It’s a working, evolving document of the storytelling intention. The scenes are where the story is really told. The animation is everything. Your shots are what will make it up on screen. So you have to make sure everything works, is as strong as can be and that the storytelling is clear and impactful. It all comes down to the animation so never let a scene go that isn’t 100% ready yet.
Remember: the animation is everything.
Feel free to insert your own role in any of these stages. Everything you do has to be the best it can be.
Evaluating your own work and fixing it is REALLY hard. You’ll see things in the work of others that you will have a very hard time seeing in your own work. Your brain will be desperate to convince you that the problems in your work aren’t problems at all. You’ll often come away having no idea whether what you’ve done is good or not.
Why? A whole bunch of reasons but it is all tied into the fact that you are too close to your work. You immerse yourself in it, you give it your all and then you find it harder to see the larger view. And most of all, your brain goes into resistance mode. You might not even be that type of person but your brain will still try to protect you and the work you have done and that can make you blind to things that need fixing.
So what do you do? The first thing is to try to bring in someone else to edit and give notes. But if you can’t do that, if you really have to edit on your own, try to get some distance and then split the process into very separate tasks:
Step 1 – make notes. Do NOT attempt to fix anything. Do not even consider fixing anything. You NEVER have to fix any of this stuff. The only goal is to make notes – what doesn’t work, what needs clarification, tightening, amending. Simple quick notes. The trick here is that if you completely disassociate this from the act of having to fix these things, you’ll be more honest. Your brain will not go into resistance mode quite so much and so it’s like evaluating the work of someone else.
The moment you try to fix something in this stage, your brain will go into lockdown and try to protect you from the hard work of rewrites or re-editing. Don’t do it – you’re only making notes and, when that stage is done, you’re going to let it sit so you don’t have to worry about actually fixing anything. Just make those notes.
Step 2 – Let it settle. Give it some time.
Step 3 – Evaluate the notes and make plans to address them. Again, do NOT go in and do the fixes here. This is a PLANNING stage. Effectively it’s like giving someone suggestions: how about you do it this way instead? Like the first stage, if you get stuck into the work directly your brain will resist and try to save you work by convincing you some things are okay or trying to give you easy yet half-baked solves. You’re just jotting down some plans. You don’t need to consider ever carrying them out.
Step 4 – You’ve got your plans now. You know exactly what you’re doing, right? Hey, the hard work is over. All you have to do now is stick to the plans and do what your past self told you to do. It will take a bit of time but it’s just in the doing now. So work your way through your fixes, follow your plans and implement them as best you can.
Step 5 – Enjoy your good work. You did it.
I find it is still always helpful to get an outside view but being able to have some sense of your own work is a crucial skill. So split it up into tasks and it gives you the best chance of doing a great edit without your brain ruining things by trying to protect you.
Signal to noise ratio. It’s important. It’s important generally but especially important when making work for children. Your key plot points, your key messages, must remain clear for your work to have impact.
Bury those key plot points in more information and you risk them getting lost. Have too many key plot points and it all becomes noise, competing for attention and stuff will get missed. If something is not clear, clarify that point or remove it altogether rather than adding explanations. Don’t add bulk. That’s more noise.
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!