Monthly Archives: February 2012

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. Who doesn’t love this movie? Anyone? Silly question, everyone loves Khan. Non-Trekkies, stay with me here for a moment. One of the most enduring parts from that movie (beyond Shatner’s wonderful ‘Khaaaaaaan!’) is the Kobayashi Maru – a Starfleet test that presents would-be officers with a no-win situation.

SPOILER: The only person to beat this test is Kirk.

How? He changes his situation in order to beat the unbeatable. He reprogrammes the test and is commended for original thinking.

With this test, it is only a no-win situation if you accept the rules as given to you. The same is true for situations we face on a daily basis. So many people tell us things can’t be done, or they need to be done a particular way, or if you try something you’ll fail and they may as well just be repeating the words ‘Kobayashi Maru’. In reality, the only way to fail here is to actually accept the rules.

Check out this maze example in an article entitled ‘Why Blind Obedience is Killing Your Business’. It is spot-on. You just have to realise that the walls aren’t really walls at all. Many of the walls we face day to day are merely mental constructs.

So we don’t have to play by the rules. We can disobey.

Of course disobedience by itself has the potential to be destructive, often self-defeating. That’s why I like to call it Creative Disobedience. It requires creative thinking and also, where possible, actual creation. That’s a contribution. We can learn more from Kirk here – he could have just chosen not to take the test at all, or his tampering could have destroyed the test. He didn’t do that. He stayed well within the systems of Starfleet in doing the test. He just found a way of getting results in a situation which, on the surface, seemed designed to prevent that.

And that’s the key.

The challenge isn’t really breaking the rules. The challenge is in choosing when to break them, how to break them and how much so that you get better results than you would have if you just did what you were told. That’s what I call Creative Disobedience and it’s something I learned in part from Captain James T. Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru.

Have you ever sat with someone who just talks and talks and never listens? Or have you ever caught yourself talking not to someone, but at them? There is a part of us that demands to be heard. At times, we just want to be validated – we want someone to agree and, if they don’t, we’ll say it again until they do.

But that’s not a conversation, is it?

To lead to something interesting, the sharing of ideas or really learning, we need real conversation. Real conversation requires that we listen at least as much as we talk. Not just nodding our head while we think of the next thing we want to say. We must engage. Connect. Understand.

For us both to benefit, we must really listen.

Film and television provides a great platform for those who like to talk at people. Many of us think this is how it works: people sit in front of a screen and we present our amazing vision. We bombard them with what we want them to see and hear.

But that’s all wrong. Really, it is a conversation.

I’m finding it is often people in preschool television who understand this best. Dora stops to listen to her audience. Elmo listens to children. Barney, whatever you (or I) may think of him, listens. They are all in conversation. Is it any wonder that children respond to these characters? Yes, technically when broadcast the reality is little more that ‘head nodding’ because your television cannot hear what your children are saying (yet) but the answers of so many children have been listened to, considered and often completely understood before that show was made.

For me, the best of children’s television (Sesame Street, for example) listens deeper and asks their audience what they need. The want and the need aren’t always the same thing but Sesame Street aims to ascertain and satisfy both in their conversations.

It has taken me a long time to really embrace this. It often goes against that part of us that demands to be heard. Just last week, for example, I was working on a Cosmo script that had a contentious story element and my first instinct was to ask myself what was truly important to me in the story. That was the right question but aimed at the wrong person. I needed to connect with my audience and engage in conversation. Having been through many excellent conversations with my audience up to this point, in this instance it was nothing more than a purely imagined exchange, which can be just fine if you do it with honesty and stop talking and start listening. A wonderful clarity comes from conversing with our audience, getting to know them and wanting to give them the best. It allows us to untangle what we’re making from our own ego.

Of course it is something we can apply well beyond preschool.

We can take a break from pushing what we want, our precious ‘vision’, and take a moment to listen to our audience. Try it. Try seeking out your audience or even just create them in your mind and ask them:

a) What do you want?

b) What do you need?

Then listen honestly. Consider. And respond appropriately.

It is a conversation.

Voice recording for Cosmo begins today and we’ll be recording all week. I have been buried in the scripts to make sure they are nothing less than excellent and I am very much hoping I haven’t missed something. We will also be making decisions on our animation team this week and beginning to put together our systems and libraries for the upcoming production. So it is going to be a very busy week.

The busy times are a test.

Not really a test of our abilities to stay on top of things. Most of us who make shows have to have developed tight management systems, studio pipelines and tricks for dealing with many completely different jobs at once. Being able to keep up really is such an essential requirement that it just has to be a given or else you go and do something else for a living. And, for me, both writing and directing Fluffy Gardens (as I’m doing for Cosmo) taught me lot about juggling.

No, the real test when things get busy is keeping the most important person in your mind at every moment of production, during every decision: that child who, some day, will be sitting there watching what we have made.

Keep that person in mind at all times and it’s hard to go wrong.

Of course I’m hoping it will be more than just one child. Two or three at the very least…


Monster Animation attended the IFTA Awards on Saturday night and, while Punky didn’t win, it was a great night and a testament to the quality of Irish productions right now. But that was a looooong ceremony. They don’t even televise the longest section ‘ shame they can’t just do it in highlight form live. Still, we had lots of fun and congratulations to all the winners.

It has been a long, long time since I made a short film. Not There Yet, my rant on the Irish transport system is around eight years old now and, in spite of being made pre-Luas, people still bring it up after all these years and tell me how relevant it is (probably not a good thing). And that it made them laugh (that’s a good thing).

For about the last four years, I have been saying to myself, I’ll put in for a Frameworks this year, as I’d love to do another short. Each and every year, I find myself fortunate enough to be too busy to make that full-on directing commitment. This year, it’s Cosmo and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

However, I do find myself around people who can make a short happen, who can help make one great, who can pull elements together, produce it and advise, guide, support and then get it out there into the world. So if any filmmakers/animators/creatives are serious about making a high-quality short this year and would be interested in making something that points in similar directions to my own specialities ‘ cute, charming, funny, in any medium, get in touch directly via the contact page above or my email if you have it. If someone is a good fit, I may be able to help make a great short happen.

To those filmmakers nominated for an IFTA this year ‘ Darragh O’Connell, James Stacey, Kealan O’Rourke and Alex Sherwood ‘ I wish you all good luck. Seems to be an incredible standard of films and I have no doubt any one of you deserves the win. See you on Saturday!

I was giving a talk to the students of IADT last week and one of the pieces of advice I gave was to take advantage of every bit of creative freedom you are offered. You won’t always be offered much. But what if you’re given it all? What if you can do anything you want, with no limits? What happens?

You create the most amazingly creative piece of work ever?

Oddly, no. Not usually.

Instead what often happens is that we just do the same things we always do. We fall back on our old habits (often confusing them with instincts) because we have been given little reason to do otherwise. Being able to do anything and everything is a surefire way to achieve little but a complete lack of focus. It removes all challenge and, really, that’s no fun and it’s certainly not how we achieve our best work. We need our limits. It’s in how work within them or, often, how we challenge them that we find something incredibly interesting. Something that is as unexpected to us as it is to everyone else.

Some years ago, I became very aware of my bad drawing habits. At the same time, I was beginning to create a show. At the early stage of creation, every option was open. After all, at that point, it’s little more than an imagined concept – reality has not yet kicked in. So, in a sense, that was complete creative freedom. But every single one of my drawings looked the same. I had begun to realise the flaws of those bad habits and I needed a way to break out of them.

The answer lay not in freedom, but in limitation.

What I did was this – I drew with a computer mouse. I was so used to a pencil that my hand often went on autopilot, but to draw with a mouse? Well that was a challenge. My arm felt different, I felt a complete lack of control and the results I got were not good drawings. Not by a long shot. They were very crude. But they were different.

Those mouse drawings are what would become the residents of Fluffy Gardens. Refined, yes. But the core of who those characters were came from having to draw them with a mouse. Had I not imposed that restriction, I never would have found these characters.

Many years later, I would come to design Cosmo. Not with a mouse this time. But not with a fancy graphics tablet and huge computer screen either. No, instead all the early development work for Cosmo was drawn with my finger on an iPod Touch, with a screen just a couple of inches high. This image below is the first one that really defined what this show would look like. Building on a style I never would have found without those Fluffy Gardens limitations and now adding a new challenge…

When it came to translating this to a show that would have to fill a television screen, it was actually much harder than doodling them on the tiny screen to begin with. Backgrounds got busy, characters lost some of their charm and I had a terrible time with the colours. Mostly, seemingly, because I could choose any ones I wanted.

So I went back to the iPod but, this time, limited myself to pixels and very small colour palettes. Until I reached here…

Drawn one pixel at a time on a single layer, these images had what I was looking for in the show. They had the charm and they had the colours. And they would go on to form the basis for the design and background development. These limits gave me what I needed and yet they’re what creative freedom couldn’t give me.

They gave me Cosmo:

These particular limitations worked for my preschool aims, where simplicity is a must and yet often harder than it looks to achieve. Each project or creation could use whole different restrictions depending on the desired outcome. I guess the trick is to find a way to prevent ourselves just doing what we always do. And it goes beyond design, of course. When I think about how I have helped others on our shows get the best from their work, I find that comes down to limits too. No tweening in Flash, for example (tool of the devil, I tell you!). No elbow joints. Odd limitations at times and yet, all the while, I’m encouraging animators to surprise me. To use their freedom.

We need limits.

Perhaps real creative freedom is being able to pick and choose just what limits we will give ourselves and maybe, if we’re smart about it, we’ll end up restricting ourselves more and more until something exceptional breaks through.