Monthly Archives: November 2013

Nov 27


Knowledge is power. That’s what they used to say.

But that was before just about every piece of knowledge from the entire planet decided to plonk itself right in front of us as we work. And even without that, think about those times you are buried in your work and someone interrupts to tell you something that, actually, has no real relevance to anything you are doing or are ever going to do. That knowledge is not power. It is distraction.

The truth is, there is more in the world than we could ever learn in a hundred lifetimes. We can amass knowledge. Everyone can. In a way, that has completely levelled many playing fields. Knowledge is not power any more. Not on its own.

Action is power – that comes from having drive rather than lots of knowledge. Relevant knowledge is power when applied – relevance and a sense of what is actually important comes from experience rather than just information-gathering. Above all, focus is power. And focus, by its very nature, means shutting some things out because you just don’t have the time or energy for them. Oh, I’m not anti-learning. Not by a long shot and anyone who reads this little blog would know that very well. I feel we should learn about the world and beyond our world, grow, test and challenge ideas. But when we are working, actually immersed in projects, we need focus.

And as it happens, it seems that focus is much harder to achieve these days than finding knowledge.

So in those situations, consider filtering just what information gets in. My rule of thumb: if the information is something I can’t take any action on, I don’t need it.

Every business has its own language and even little niches within those businesses have their own dialects. When you’re just learning the language, often the first words you pick up will be the buzzwords. They’re new and people are just trying them out so they get overused. Most buzzwords will eventually be dropped. Those that aren’t will stop being buzzwords and will be integrated into the language of that business.

It is important that you learn the language. Not just the buzzwords but the actual language.

Why? Because it makes your communication clear. When you’re creating, inventing, making and building, clear communication is key. Luckily the language of preschool content is relatively simple, at least on the content end – vocabulary begins to really build when you get into the actual production. Thing is, unless we hit a point where we are content doing the exact same thing over and over again, that learning doesn’t stop. So I don’t write this as someone who is content being fluent in preschool and speaks it like a native. No, as it happens I am myself currently learning new languages in the software end while developing some new preschool content and discovering yet again just what difference the language can make.

Writing a project document when you don’t know the language is like trying to order in a restaurant abroad by gesturing, making animal sounds and shouting louder. You know what you want and your intentions may make perfect sense to you but that doesn’t mean anyone else will know what you are babbling about.

And so we must learn the language.

It’s exciting. New methods, new terms and new ways of putting thoughts together that can really help solidify your concepts. It’s not always easy (I’m still at the shouting louder phase) but it’s important, no matter what end of our business, or any business, you want to be in. So whatever you’re aiming to do, learn the language. Listen the fluent speakers (that is what I am doing right now) and read, read, read. Then speak it.

The real challenge, I suspect, is weeding out the useful language from the buzzwords.

More often than not when making a point we take small, clear examples from everyday life and use those those to help illustrate a far greater, more important concept. I am about to attempt to do the exact opposite – to use a complex, world-altering discussion to see what it can tell us about making happy little children’s cartoons.

You see, I have been thinking about the recent exchanges between Russell Brand and Robert Webb. To boil it down to incredibly simplistic terms, Russell Brand has been saying we shouldn’t vote because the system doesn’t work for us and we need to make that clear by not agreeing to take part. Webb argues that we’re lucky to have democratic systems at all and not taking part will only make us less relevant, resulting it in being far less likely that it will ever work for us. Phew, that’s a rather grand discussion for two comedians but I couldn’t help but wonder about where I stand.

In my life here in Ireland, I have seen many generations of politicians. And how it works here is that, with every new generation, the previous generation is revealed to have been inept, self-serving and utterly corrupt. Sure, the country has changed and we have had massive ups and downs so not everything has stayed the same but this cycle of apparent corruption and damning the previous generation has remained a reliable constant. And while there are some more pleasant things about what has happened in my life on a government level (not least of which is the amount of support for local children’s content), I must admit to having hit a point where I feel like my actual vote is irrelevant. That particular aspect of our system doesn’t really feel like it is where change happens.

So where does that leave me with Brand and Webb? Well, like almost everything in life, I find myself applying the question to making children’s entertainment and seeing what feels right there. In making animated television shows, we inherited some systems from the old classical animation days but, really, very few of those turned out to be all that relevant and, because of the way the children’s TV industry grew here in Ireland from the ashes of those old movie systems, we all kind of made it up as we went along – we created our own new systems. There was a lot of trial and error involved.

The bottom line for any system we put in place was this: if it doesn’t feel like it’s working, you don’t keep hammering away at the same system in the the blind hope that some day it will. You remove that system and try another. Even if we’re being told we’re lucky that we have Y2K-compliant copies of Toonz, if it’s not working for production there is no point in keeping it. You don’t just change staff. You change the whole system. You move to Flash and completely change your pipeline to work with that. Or Cel Action. Or 3D.

So if Brand were making cartoons, I feel he would be saying something along the lines of “Stop measuring things in footage – it’s not working for you and has no relevance” and Webb would be saying “well you’re lucky to be making cartoons at all”. And both are true. But deciding not to use a particular system does not mean we have to give up the ideal of making awesome cartoons. Quite the opposite. When you’re in production and you have come to the conclusion that a part of the pipeline is deeply flawed and just didn’t give you the results you needed, you would be crazy to carry that same system on to the next production.

A key part of making any production work is identifying where it doesn’t.

And with so much to do, every single part of the process should contribute to making your work better – it should have a positive effect to the on-screen end result. If it doesn’t, don’t give it your time.

So whatever about the politics, whatever about what we may feel about Brand or Webb and comedians generally, it is possible that we can take this discussion to a smaller level, closer to our little preschool content home. We can be thankful we get to make shows at all, we can hang on tight to our ideals of making better and better content and, all the while, being completely open to acknowledging when a system just isn’t quite working for us. When that happens, we can change it.

We had a great day on Saturday talking through writing and developing for preschool media. For the most part, we stayed with the needs of the audience and how best to focus and present the creative in engaging ways. But any work comes with systems that must be dealt with on top of all the fun creative and dealing with notes is part of almost any process. We touched on this a little on Saturday but I felt it worth expanding on here. It’s fantastic to get notes about how awesome our work is but, when we aren’t used to them, more critical notes can sometimes feel like a kick in the gut.

They can feel rotten and can be hard to take when we are so close to our work. That’s the truth of it.

So knowing that, here are my top tips for handling notes you don’t particularly like:

1. Don’t react instantly.

Read the notes. Then do nothing. Don’t send a mail, don’t pick up the phone and don’t tear your work apart. Do nothing. Instead, leave them and revisit them the next day. They’ll look different and you have now had time to process them even if you weren’t considering them directly. Sure, there may be some notes in there you still don’t like but the knee-jerk reaction is gone and you will be better able to consider them for what they really are.

2. Remember they are not out to get you.

People write notes to contribute. And you know what? Most do contribute. If there are notes that you vehemently disagree with, remind yourself that the person who wrote the notes is not your enemy. They want to help and their intentions are good. I could have done with someone reminding me this early in my career.

3. Really consider them.

This is so important. You might read something in the notes that doesn’t match with your initial thinking or they may be phrased poorly or even (the odd time) read as offensive but is it possible that the point behind the note might actually make your story better? Or is it possible that you might be able to implement them in some way that would produce, for you, a neutral result – so that you give on the note without feeling like you have lost what you were aiming for? If so, do it. Most of the time, even a note we see as rotten has a very valid point behind it. It’s a sign something hasn’t worked. The truth is, it is the critical notes that have value.

4. Choose your battles carefully.

Eventually you will find a note that, to you, defeats the whole purpose of what you wrote. One that would make you feel terrible if you went with it. You need to save your credits for that one. Don’t waste them on the little things, those things that don’t really matter. Don’t get into the habit of rejecting notes – it will wear you and everyone else down. Save the credits.

5. Those battles? They can’t be battles.

If it becomes a confrontational situation, everyone loses. You win by keeping people happy, acknowledging that something hasn’t quite worked and looking for solutions that are positive for everyone. Keep control, get the results you want while making sure everyone is okay with that. Be positive and stay constructive, not destructive.

And the most important tip of all when you have notes arriving in…

6. Cut off your email.

Don’t check project emails in the evening or weekend. Give yourself a cut-off and stick to it. I would even advise picking a time early Friday afternoon or lunchtime and cutting it off from then. Because someone might send a note on a Friday just as they are walking out of the office, like dropping a little nuclear bomb on your weekend. And you can’t do a thing about it until Monday morning. So let it wait until Monday. Don’t have it on your mind all weekend. You need your weekends, you need your evenings and you need your sleep. So be selective about when you open yourself up to mails.

So those are my top tips for handing those notes we don’t agree with instantly.

I will leave you with just one other thing to consider. I so often preach the value of Audience Awareness – knowing who it is we write for and keeping our audience in mind at all times. One of the wonderful by-products of embracing Audience Awareness is that it can take ego out of the equation. It becomes all about the kids and not in any way about you. When that happens, it stops being personal and you can really see that notes are not about being critical of you or what you can do, but are about seeing if a whole team can give something even better to children.