It all has to make sense. Once your audience starts asking questions in their head about why certain things have or haven’t happened, you’ve lost them. They may miss a line or even several lines and they are out of the story. They may not catch up again. They may not want to.
So everything in your story has to make sense. It has to be clear even for the younger children in your audience. It should be clear for you as a writer or a director and clear for everyone in the production. And so there are limits to how whimsical you can go before you start losing your audience and it is very important that you play by the rules you establish at the start of your story.
And therein lies a lovely little bit of freedom.
You see, we tend to accept the world as it is when we are first introduced to it. If we begin a story about a family that owns a spotty elephant and, halfway through the story, the elephant’s spots turn to stripes without any reason, we’ll question that. It could take us out of the story. But very few people will question how a normal family ended up with a spotty elephant in the first place because that’s the world we established right at the start. If a character becomes a wizard somewhere in your story, that needs to make sense in the context of your world. Open the story with a wizard and nobody will question it. A world of chocolate people? No problem. But when it’s a hot sunny day and they don’t melt, you have some explaining to do.
So if you have some fantastic, fun, whimsical concept you want as part of your story, open with it. That’s now your world. It doesn’t mean you’ll get away with anything, as the chocolate people example illustrates, but you’ll get away with that particular stretch.
We will generally accept the world as presented to us right at the start. From there, you have to stick to the rules you establish.
By the way, don’t forget I will be giving a course on Writing and Developing Content for Preschool Media this Saturday, 2nd of November. It’s going to be a really good day full of guidance and tips to help you focus your content in a way that better engages preschool children. Details here: Animation Skillnet.
Here is a simple little scripting tip that will sound obvious as you read it and yet, because of the way we use language, is something often missed as people write.
Make sure actions and visuals play out in the chronological order in which they happen.
This is easily illustrated by an example. Read this next paragraph and play the story out in your head:
Harry laughs out loud almost as soon he enters the room when he sees Lenny hit the floor, after just tripping on a roller skate which sent him flying into the air.
There is no possible way that a scene can play out like this on screen unless you are playing it backwards. We read first that Harry laughs out loud but that doesn’t really happen until after he enters the room so we missed an action there. Lenny hits the floor but we have to rewind the scene as we find out how and why he hit the floor. As anyone reads through the lines (producer, editor, director, anyone), they lose a sense of what is happening because they are having to jump back in time as they read. That is a problem. It creates a barrier between the script and the storytelling and, really, you don’t even want people aware that they are reading a script – you want them to experience the story.
The solution? Just write it very simply as it happens in chronological order:
Harry enters the room. He watches as Lenny trips on a roller skate, flies through the air and lands right on his bottom. Harry laughs out loud.
Now everything happens in order. As someone reads it, every action plays out in their mind just as it will happen on screen. The sentences are functional. Personally, I like to keep them that way because what is important is the action. Your wordplay won’t make it to screen unless it is in dialogue and flourishes of language, as interesting as they can be, can often draw attention to your scripting rather than the actual story. The main thing is that you have clearly set down the order that will then survive to storyboarding, animatic and final episode.
So keep it mind as you write. Make sure actions and visuals play out in the chronological order in which they happen.
Internal Quality Control is the single most important factor I look for in hiring anyone, or even just choosing to work with someone.
It is more important than natural talent, more important than technical ability, more important than experience. Because people can have all those things and still let unfinished work go too soon. They can get relaxed about deadlines. They can do work and not really care about whether it is as good as it can be.
What is far more important is the belief that the work should be great, that any job should be done well and that we should all be striving for excellence. And the belief that it is our own responsibility to make sure that happens. It’s about having a conscience about the work you let out into the world.
When crewing up for projects, I would often give animation tests. I almost never set a tough deadline for the test, and often didn’t set a deadline at all. Why? Because I wasn’t testing how long it would take someone to do the test. I was testing at what point would they choose to send it to me.
That’s a test of internal quality control.
If your internal quality control is set high, you will always aim to do better and it will show. People see it your work and they will see it in you. If it is set low, you won’t be getting the best from your abilities, training or experience. But there is good news: where you set it is simply a choice. Resetting your internal quality control to a higher level is easier than tackling almost anything else you might be struggling with and, in doing so, you will find those other aspects improve much quicker as you aim for better in your work.
It is good for you, it is good for the people you work with. And the best part? You’ll be making great work.
The universe tends towards chaos. Low entropy to high entropy. But consciousness seems to tend towards order. We take chaos and put a form to it. We build homes, buildings, society, guidelines, rules. Even on a personal level, we search for purpose, stability. And yet we seem to come from chaos and have these chaotic urges and tendencies still within us. Maybe that’s just the fabric of the universe.
So life is so often an attempt to put order to chaos. To the chaos of the universe and the chaos of ourselves. Life is an order/chaos struggle.
We see that in the stories we tell. The very nature of story is about overcoming obstacles. The struggle against adversity and the struggle to master a situation once seen as beyond our control. When we as an audience identify with that struggle, when we really buy into the needs of the characters, we connect. But here’s the thing – it isn’t just about the story as a whole. This is right down to scene level. Right down to individual movements. They all tell a story. And it’s a story about putting order to chaos.
Even down to getting our legs going the right way. We take it for granted. But have you seen children go through that slow process of learning to walk? Or even a young baby trying to pick something up? The level of mastery required just for us just to touch our nose is incredible.
Order on chaos. That’s life. And animation is life.
In animation, we aim to create life. And it is a medium for control freaks. Think about it – you get an actor and you get a bunch of different takes and you can guide them and hope to pull them towards what you’re looking for but, really, every take is a unique moment and once it’s gone, it’s gone. In animation, you can shift an eyebrow up one millimetre, you can hold a smile for three frames longer. You have complete control. You have order. And you need order.
But if you want it to feel alive, really alive, we need to feel that chaos trying to break through. The order shouldn’t come so easily. It’s a struggle.
And the struggle we feel in animation shouldn’t be the animator wrestling with software and losing. It should be the struggle of life. The inconsistencies, the little failures, the quirks, the differences that come with every unique moment in time. Every moment should be a story in itself.
Bring order to your animation. But never so much that you lose the life.
One of the hardest lessons early on in a career is finding out that, actually, we don’t know everything. And, yes, we need to find out more. We eventually realise that our ignorance is not a strength (“I’ll bring a fresh approach by not knowing anything” – ahem, no). So what do people do with that realisation?
It seems to greatly depend on what end of the business you are in. I have found that writers usually seek help, sometimes to a fault immersing themselves in books on Hollywood and structure rather than actually writing. To those writers, I say this – write more! But this post is for the others, often the directors, the creators, the developers, who tend to bury this realisation and continue to stumble along blindly. Why do we do this when it seems so obvious that we should learn from the research, successes and failures of others? I suspect it is because people in this position must constantly push so hard to open doors that their self-belief, whether real or as a persona, is crucial to getting ahead. To seek help or guidance could seem like a break in momentum. A step backwards.
But breaking our momentum is sometimes essential. We need to pause to evaluate what we have, to make it better. And sometimes we need to take a step backwards to get a better look at what we have created. And to challenge it.
To do that, we often need to seek guidance from those who have had their own successes and failures or those who have studied the lessons of the past. Those things we find out through trial and error others already know and we can bypass many obstacles by finding that out before we get there ourselves.
This can work at all levels. People call me up for guidance on preschool, writing or production, for example, but I too will seek out guidance in many areas as I work. On Planet Cosmo, a valuable contributor was Educational Consultant, Brian Neish. Now I did my homework and research on the educational methods but actually having the assistance of Brian, someone who had tackled this area many times over, meant we could avoid common mistakes and make our educational portions even better.
Seek guidance. Value it. Budget for it. It will make your work better.
But don’t always act on it.
This is the disclaimer. Not every piece of advice you get will be right for your project. In the fine print of any project development, it should say “be aware your work can get worse as well as better”. Guidance must be evaluated, considered carefully, and acted upon if it will contribute positively to your project. But I have seen some known names in the business miss the point of certain projects and offer guidance that negatively affected the end product. Guidance that, on another project, could have been gold. It is not that these people don’t know their stuff, it is just that every project is different and not every piece of advice applies in every case. By the way, that does not mean the process has been a waste – challenging your project just as a broadcaster or distributor will is incredibly important in building real confidence.
So how do you know? How do you know if it will be right or wrong for your project? Well, mostly through experience. But I will offer one of my own guidelines:
If a suggestion can make my project a better version of what it is, I will gladly take it on and act on it. But if that suggestion is attempting to turn the project into something it is not, I will usually reject it.
Be true to the project, whatever that may be.
So seek guidance. Recruit top level people with experience to help. Value that, be open to it and take on any suggestion that will help make your project better. But in the process, never lose sight of what your project is.