The last couple of weeks have been some of the most hectic of our production yet. We are in the process of improving many of our studio systems to make sure we get the absolute best results we can for Cosmo with the resources we have. There really isn’t any ‘off’ time, where the brain can rest. But when I find it, even in short moments, I like to get my iPad out and doodle. Just a few digital brush strokes here and there. Sometimes even just one before I have to switch it off and move on to the next task.
The thing with taking small steps is that, as long as you keep going, you will eventually have a result no matter how small those steps are.
For Halloween, I present the one of my results above – a simple iPad digital painting made with the Procreate app during those little quiet moments. A little witch for Halloween. Hope you all have a ghoulish time this Halloween!
The rules are different in cartoons. Nobody really gets hurt. They can’t get hurt. They’re not even real and have little or no bearing to anything in the real world.
But when it comes to how they affect children, that doesn’t seem to really matter.
Studies have indicated that children are emotionally responsive to cartoons (no surprise to parents there) and cartoon violence and exposure to violent cartoons are associated with increased aggression in kids*.
Now I watched a lot of Road Runner and I haven’t once blown anyone up with dynamite or caused them to run off a cliff and fall until they were a mere puff of dust so we have to be careful about overhyping the ‘dangers’. But I guess the thing with our own experiences is that we don’t have a proper test scenario. We don’t have a control. We can’t fall back on the “well, it didn’t do me any harm” thing because we can’t possibly know just what parts of our personality, reactions or world view were affected (even if in a very small way) by what we’ve watched.
That is, unless you’re a twin and you watched violent cartoons and your twin didn’t.
I don’t have a twin.
The good news in that is that, just as some cartoons can have a negative effect, we can (and do) work to make a positive contribution. Good content is key.
But it seems the old ‘only a cartoon’ thing isn’t backed up in tests.
While I think there is a place for it in some stories, I often find that the concept of a ‘bad guy’ doesn’t quite sit right with me.
Take this line from the opening to the classic Transformers cartoon: “Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons!” Now, nowhere in the opening does it say what the Decepticons do, other than calling them ‘evil’. The Autobots, on the other hand, well the opening clearly establishes that they’re the ones doing the destroying. And these are the good guys?
The idea that it’s okay to destroy (kill) your enemies simply because you brand them enemies or ‘evil’ strikes me as being both naive and quite possibly dangerous.
Not all cartoons or shows these days go in for the destroying of course but the idea that the primary requirement for being ‘good’ is beating the living crap out of those you perceive as enemies is still all over television beyond the preschool years, especially in shows aimed at boys.
I can’t help thinking it contributes to fear, paranoia and says that violence is the acceptable response. Actually… not just acceptable. It’s what makes YOU the good guy.
Of course it doesn’t end at children’s entertainment.
Most screenwriting books will tell you that for any script to work, you must have visible conflict and that means a visible antagonist, preferably with as much screen time as possible. Seemingly, that is usually interpreted in a very basic way: your story needs a bad guy.
Well, to counter that idea, I present one of the most successful entries in the Star Trek series – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which has… (drum roll)… no bad guy. It’s fun, adventurous and, yes, there is conflict. But there’s no bad guy. No evil genius that needs to be destroyed. The good guys don’t have to destroy anyone. The one major threat in the movie is removed not through conflict, not through violence, but through communication. One polite chat with a couple of whales and it turns around and goes home. No bad guy.
And it’s a great movie.
So a story, as it happens, does not need a bad guy.
Pitching a show is a whole world away from creating one and, like anything else, the real way to get good at it is practice. Experience. Learning from your own mistakes and watching the pitches of others to see where they went right or wrong. This is one of the reasons I love the Cartoon Forum, an event where I have pitched unsuccessfully (and learned from failure) and then more successfully (and learned from success). At some point I will post my own thoughts on pitching but here is the most important thing to realise about any pitch, any sale:
People have to want to buy what you are selling.
There are great salespeople and terrible salespeople but even the great salespeople need something worth selling and they need to sell it to the right people. You might blow someone away with a flashy presentation and smooth words but a couple of weeks later that person has to convince their superiors and it is just them and your show document.
That show eventually has to sell itself. Which means that, before you pitch, you need to know that your show will be able to continue where you left off. You need to be sure that the show basics – the concept, stories and characters themselves – will provide the answer to any questions your buyer might have. By the way, that also extends to your audience and the early adopters (usually the parents – be good to them by making something great for their kids).
You may love your characters and stories but this is the point where you have to look beyond all that. You have to see your show as a package and you have to know that package very well.
Take your show and consider these questions –
Who exactly is your show aimed at?
What is different, unique, about this show?
What does it offer children beyond entertainment?*
What does it offer to specific broadcasters?
What is the format (episode length etc.)?
Why that format?
Can it sustain more than ten episodes?
Have you got more story ideas?
Does it look great?
Is it producible?**
Is all of this obvious in just one short document?
Is it obvious in just one single line?
* Truth is, entertainment should be a given. That’s not a unique selling point.
** No point in having a great show that can’t be produced or funded.
You need to have the answers to those questions and you need to commit to them. They can’t be pasted on to your show afterwards ‘ people will see through that. The answers to those questions need to be part of the core of your show. Yes, you can change your mind on some of them later and a particular broadcaster may request a change but you need to be strong with those answers right at the start so it is clear that your show’s foundations are solid. If I made one mistake on some of my early show pitches, it was hoping others would sort out my show’s weaknesses. Don’t do that. A broadcaster/producer/whoever may help take your show from great to magical but they won’t want to start anywhere below great.
And no matter what, the show has to be a good fit for them.
Even if they love your show, they will need to match the answers to those questions to their own internal brief, their channel’s mission or aims. And they will eventually need to do it without you, without your passion to carry it through.
So before you pitch, know your show. Know what it is and why. And make sure your show demonstrates that.
You have your show idea and you want to take it to the next step – turn it into an actual show you can pitch. So what now?
The familiar approach for creators is to jump straight into developing the characters. Some can make this work but too often I see the shotgun method ‘ create as many characters as possible with back stories that require whole forests to print out.
You need to avoid that. Firstly, back story does not mean you have a fleshed-out character. It is how those characters act in the here and now that matters. Not what they once did in your written history that no child will ever read. But it is also important to realise that long character descriptions tend to send people to sleep and, while you’re not at pitch stage yet and you can always trim, it is vital you keep that end goal in sight to retain focus ‘ especially for yourself. You can get lost in the characters forever, with no idea what you are doing with them. Soon you’ll put yourself to sleep.
Your characters are important.
But there is so much more to a show than just the characters and it is in strengthening the core of your show that will lead you to the characters you need. Yes, you can see many shows with a tight-knit group of characters who play against each other beautifully and you will think “it’s all about the characters, that’s the strength” but that is just a sign that the framework of that show is so solid, so right, that you no longer see it. You take it for granted.
So instead of diving head-first into character development, instead consider spending time on building your framework. And how do you do that? Here’s my suggestion:
Begin at the end.
We all know the cliches about building the foundations, running before you can walk etc. They are all true, to a point. But you have to know where you’re going. No point in building a foundation without knowing what you plan to put on it. Begin at the end. Project yourself to the point where you have a show to pitch. What are you pitching? In very broad strokes, what is it? You won’t have the details yet of course ‘ you don’t need them. What you need is a feel for the answers to some of those questions I posted last week. What you want to hear in your head is someone saying to you, “I love this show because it does….”
What does it do?
Remember I mentioned that some of the strongest ideas begin as little more than an aim? Even if you did not start with your aim, you need to find it. That’s your end goal. Dora didn’t begin with the aim to teach children Spanish but when they found that aim they suddenly had a clear one-line instant pitch. You could replace every character in that show, even Dora, and still have something strong because the aim is clear. And the focused aim informed the character development and they ended up with a mix that children adore. By the way, I mention Dora simply because it provides an example most of us are familiar with – it is not the recipe book for success. If your aim is to repeat what Dora did, there is a long trail of people who have failed to do that for over ten years. Find your aim, not the aim of some other show.
Begin at the end. Project yourself to the end of development to find what you want to have achieved when you get there. Find the aim and any other goals that come from that process. Write them out on a piece of paper and stick it over your computer. When you get stuck or lost, look up at it. Keep the ending in mind and you can start to build a very strong framework from which the characters and every other element can be created, moulded, developed or dropped and replaced.
If you are ever to hit your target, you need a target to hit. Try beginning at the end, project yourself forward to find your goal and you will have the focus you need.