I’m often asked to help assess whether a project has value or not, whether it’s one to pursue. Sometimes this is done with just the bare minimum of actual content – just a concept or characters or a book that doesn’t really cover much. The expectation is that I review the materials and come back with either ‘this project is terrible’ or ‘this project is awesome’. The bad news is that it is rare that something is instantly awesome. The good news? It is even rarer that something is absolutely terrible.
The reality is that the true answer should look like this: ‘this project needs work here, here and here and then you could have something really great’. What differs from project to project is the amount of work needed and where it is directed.
Great ideas are exciting and such a wonderful place to start. But the execution and development is everything. If not developed well or with additions that don’t fit or with changes that strip the concept of what was fun to begin with, what started as a great idea can still end up turning into a terrible show. And conversely, ideas that initially might seem weak or misguided or derivative can be moulded into really great shows when handled well. Whether initially strong or weak, the idea is just the starting point.
What it comes down to is the execution. It comes down to the work YOU put in and what areas get your attention.
So where does that leave you when it comes to assessing your project? It will usually always depend on one crucial thing: how much you believe in the project. Is this the one? Whether a great idea or not, it’s going to take work. The question is: do you believe so strongly in this project that you want to put all your time into it and really commit to it?
If you don’t, let it go. There are other ideas, more exciting ideas that will push you to make them awesome. But if you do, if you’re sure this is the one, then get to work and turn it into something awesome.
I have never liked the phrase ‘expect the unexpected’. It’s probably because I have made enough TV shows to know just how dangerous the unexpected can be. The unexpected can cost you a good scene. It can cost you an episode. It can cost you weeks and lots and lots of money. Unexpected frightens me. I don’t like it.
So rather than expecting the unexpected, I prefer to turn the unexpected into the expected and then plan for it. I guess that makes my version of this expression: ‘plan for the expected’. I realise that doesn’t sound anywhere near as fun or mysterious but I can guarantee you that it is better.
Step 1: find out what might be unexpected so it’s now expected. Some of this comes from experience, doing it over and over until you refine your methods. Some of it comes from the experience of others, learning from the stories, the test cases, especially the mistakes. If someone gives you a warning, heed it. A lot of it, however, comes from nothing more than some creative thinking and common sense. Run the process through your head a few times. Where could it possibly go wrong, assuming that something WILL go wrong?
Write it down so you have a list.
Step 2: plan for it. Look at everywhere that problems can happen (if you’ve done it well, that will cover a LOT of areas) and make a plan for each one. For me, what I call a plan really comes down to three things. The first is prevention. Simply having gone through step 1 will drastically reduce your chances of bad things happening because you’ll be aware enough to prevent most of them. The second part is the Plan B – what happens if it does go wrong? Have your backup plan ready to go.
The last part is one of the most important parts: time it. Have in your head some sense of the repercussions. If you’re on episode 4 and just about to put scenes into animation and Godzilla destroys your building, how long will it take to get a new building and get the animators ready to start again? Contingency should be standard in a budget (sometimes it isn’t) but often missed in a schedule. To make matters worse, if you pop in extra weeks into your schedule, guess what will get cut the moment anyone suggests a squeeze? Yep, those extra weeks. How you handle that is up to you but it does need to be handled and you’re better trying to grab more time. It’s easier to have to explain to someone why something is early than explain why it’s late.
So plan for the expected. There must be a more exciting way to say that…
Some time ago, I was having a conversation in which I put forward that we overthink narrative and that the success of YouTube Let’s Play videos offer narrative in a much simpler and wonderfully spontaneous form. A form that those of us in more constructed media are missing (something I have said here before). I questioned the need for anything resembling traditional narrative at all. The very next day, I wrote a post about the need for very traditional and very constructed narrative ideas – how we need to build on the established structures.
You could be reading this and writing all this in your notebook (it’s okay, I know you don’t do that) and be thinking to yourself, well now I don’t know what to believe! Which is fact here? Traditional narrative or not?
Here’s the thing: when you take in every piece of information you get from someone who has made media, had certain successes or failures, has had a long career or whatever appears to make them qualified, you need to think about how that information applies to YOU. To YOUR work.
The one rule I have found over the years is that any time someone says there is a rule, you need to instead write that down as ‘guideline’ or ‘personal piece of advice according to this person’. There really aren’t facts when it comes to this creative stuff. Yes, there are so many things you can learn and should learn but that won’t mean they are always relevant to your work right now. What works for one project in one particular year won’t necessarily work the same for another project in another year. Actually, you can be pretty sure it won’t, hence my rather obvious prediction that the next big successes will come as a surprise to most people.
Many have gone before you. Many have tried different things, done the research, had failures and often understood why. These are things you should learn. There are tools of the trade that we should all have.
But unfortunately this won’t give us a simple set of instructions to follow. So they shouldn’t be taken that way. When your favourite author or creator says something that you remember, don’t file it away as a rule. Because it’s not. Instead, think of it as a tool to be considered. A resource you have that may or may not be applicable in different situations.
The core thing here is that everything you hear and read, the very reason you’re reading this right now, should really be to get you thinking rather than to stop you thinking. To provide an insight that will help you in your own work and, if we’ve done our job, the insight will more likely come from YOU rather than the words you’re reading right now.
For me, my guideline, my personal piece of advice is: be informed. As much as possible, be informed. And then really consider that information. Think about it. Use it. Or don’t use it but make that a decision rather than just something that happened because you didn’t realise you had tools at your disposal. Let every nugget of information prompt more questions. Your work is your own and you will find your own path.
So traditional narrative or not? Well that actually has a very simple answer: maybe…
A large part of successfully working across a production is about cause and effect and predicting the future. If you are just dealing with things on a day to day basis, you are going to miss what’s heading towards you. You must see what is coming. The difficulty is doing this while also dealing with what any particular day is throwing at you.
Here’s how this happens: you might have a delay in a particular area and now you’re behind in one process. You scramble and maybe you have to find someone else to get what you need that day or maybe that week. That’s your short term and it’s important and it can take a lot of your attention to get that sorted. But that attention is only on the now. Maybe even in the now, it doesn’t seem like all that big a deal – you can handle it. You have got it sorted.
But project to a month down the line. The person you got to fill in has taken a while to grasp the style, their output is just that little slower for the first few weeks and now things are just too tight. Someone else throws a spanner in the works, some other process gets delayed, and that’s all it takes to throw the production into full-on crisis.
That’s just one example – there are so many ways that a small challenge now or, more likely, a build up of small challenges now can lead to a major problem later in the production.
So what do you do? The first thing is to always look at what is coming – what you planned for and what has now changed. Where will the next potential jam occur? What happens when new plans meet old systems? What do you have to do now to minimise the problems that could be coming? Examine your schedule and processes for more information. The next thing is to protect every other part of the process. Because the big problems can come from a build up of little problems, once you have identified one problem, lock down everything else – the more you can avoid any other change in the processes, the better your production will be and the more you can focus on just fixing the issue at hand. It is so often when problems collide that they become a big deal. Do what you can to make sure everyone knows that the parameters in other areas must not change.
The important thing is to make sure things don’t build. Never assume things will sort themselves out. Never put off dealing with a challenge. Tackle it now, lock down and protect everything else and, if you can do that, you’ll never have to deal with an actual crisis.
You know what the problem is with solving problems? You get a buzz from it and people praise you for solving the problems and that feels good and makes them think you’re great. So why wouldn’t we want that? Because it requires that you find yourself in a situation filled with problems. Problem solvers need problems. They thrive on problems.
Know what you don’t want in your production or business or life? Yep, it’s problems.
Instead, what is much better is to be one who avoids problems. Removes problems before they happen. Sets things up in a way that there will be no problems. It is a quieter role, not as dramatic, doesn’t always get the glory but it is a much, much better way to be.
Don’t get hooked on problem solving. Don’t buy into the drama of the big solutions to disasters. Be the one who avoids problems altogether and the one who rewards others who do the same.
If you’re making content for children, one of the most basic requirements is that you know children. You have to know your audience. If you’re creating, writing, directing, animating child characters, you have to know what children are like at that age.
Kids and adults are not the same thing. Approach your audience like adults and you’ll get it wrong. Approach your characters like adults and, yep, you’ll get it wrong.
And be aware that children of different ages vary hugely. Sure, a 36 year old might be pretty much the same as a 39 year old. A 3 year old child is like an entirely different being to a 6 year old. They are not the same thing.
There are far too many things to cover in one post (and I shouldn’t – reading bullet points is not the same as knowing what kids are like) but you have to remember that young kids are SMALL. They are curious. They are explorers. They learn fast and soak up information. They often think in absolutes, not grey areas. They don’t do subtlety. They get REALLY excited about things. More excited than you ever get and often about things that you find utterly mundane. And they can go straight to REALLY upset in an instant. They can switch emotions with no transition. They are animated, expressive and, when young, usually have very few reservations or social barriers. They have challenges you never face. And they don’t let it hold them back. The smaller ones have to climb just to get up on a chair. You can be sure they’ll climb up on to the kitchen counter to get a glass. They have achievements every single day, often several a day. That means tying their laces or something else you take for granted. They will eat sweets until they are sick and then do it again the next day. They probably don’t care in the slightest about the pretty scenery out the window. They could well be picking their nose and eating it at this very moment. And they can do exactly what an adult just told them not to do and it doesn’t make them bad kids.
And most of all: they are all different.
But the one thing they aren’t is adult. You’ve got to know what kids are like. It’s so important.
Writers will understand the need for this straight away. It’s that feeling when you save the final version of your file, put it in an email and click SEND. And then you spot the typo. EVERY. TIME.
It just needed one more check before sending. That typo probably isn’t the worst idea thing in the world but it will haunt you. And it may not be a typo – it could be something bigger. It’s not just for the writers either. A scene. A storyboard. A design. They could all do with one last check before you show them.
So buy that time.
Work it so you can take the time to do that final check before you send. To do this, aiming for your deadline isn’t enough. Given that something will likely slow you up somewhere, you should always be aiming earlier anyway but you’ll definitely need some extra time for that last check. So reset your deadline to accommodate that.
Remember: the deadline and the actual time you need to finish in order to meet that deadline are rarely the same thing.
Build it into estimates you give people. If you think something will take five hours, say it will take five and a half. Or six. If it will take a week, build in an extra half day or even a day. It’s check time and it will pay off. Yes it takes more time but it will mean your work is presented in a better form and you may well find you have more to fix than the equivalent of typos.
Always have that time for one last check. If you didn’t need it, great. But usually you will and you’ll be very glad you allowed for it.
Ah, notes. We all love notes, right? I know the first reaction to notes is usually negative (that’s normal) but it’s important once we get past that to see how they can help and how best to tackle them. Different people give different notes. Some are consistently great and helpful and others might not always seem useful initially. You have to get to know the notes you’re dealing with and the person you are getting them from and so each project often requires a different approach when it comes to notes.
But here’s something that is useful no matter what kind of notes you’re getting: look beyond the notes themselves. Look for the intention behind the notes.
Almost every note has a problem to solve or a question to answer. But sometimes the problem listed in the notes is not actually the real problem. It might be a symptom of something else that has been missed or has become unclear. It might even be about something outside of the work that you’ve made so far – a request that has come in from someone else that is now being applied in the form of a note passed on to you. Sometimes acting on a note immediately as described can actually cause more problems than it solves if you don’t know the intention behind it.
This will be especially relevant if specific suggestions are given. When people give notes, I love when they give suggestions on how to fix things. Firstly, it shows they really want to contribute positively and, secondly, it gives a really great starting point for the fix. But it is just a starting point. The solution offered may not be the fix. And your reaction to it might be “that won’t work” and you might even be right. But look for the intention behind it. What is it trying to solve?
Look beyond the note itself and try to find the intention behind it and you’ll then understand what you need to achieve and, more often than not, the real solution will become clear.
And if you’re reading this and you’re someone who gives notes, here’s a tip: you can help people get to the best fix by making clear why something is a problem or why you’re asking for something. No matter what side of the notes you’re on, knowing the intention always helps.
Production has to keep moving. That’s how it works. Scripts lead to boards which lead to animatics which lead to everything else. Every element in a production depends on the previous elements. And so a single jam in the system can cause no end of delays and put everyone in a situation in which they have no idea when there might actually be a show.
That’s why we have schedules. That’s why we have deadlines.
One of the hardest things new people coming into animation from college have to face is the pace of a fast moving production. Meeting deadlines is hard. And so, so crucial. If you’re new, meet your deadlines!
But it may not surprise everyone to know that this advice has to be given to people at all ends of the business and at all ranges of experience. Those of us in the midst of production, running shows and delivering shows must keep moving. That’s how it works. It is an age-old analogy but it applies: in each part of production, the train is leaving and you just have to get on.
I learned this very early on as a director. I have worked on many parts of production and I think the director has more decisions to make every day than anyone else. Every minute involves a decision that will affect the show. Many small, some huge. And you just have to make the decision. Hold something up and it will bite you in the rear end. Hold it up for long and it may bite so hard you might never quite recover. Production has to (say it with me)… keep moving.
So yes, this is advice to new people but it’s also a reminder to every other person involved in productions at all ends. The train is leaving the station. So get on!
A while back, someone tried to sell me some system for scoring our work with premade music pieces and some software to make it fit. I apologise if that was you but, from my perspective, that is a HORRENDOUS idea. Sure, library music has its place and I’m not suggesting we won’t all get replaced by software some day but that day is not today and, right now, what the creative process needs is people. Minds, experiences and, most of all, feelings.
We have just finished a pilot for something incredibly exciting. It’s short – just three minutes long – and it is driven by narration so there isn’t much room for playing with the music. Nevertheless, our composer Derek Cronin and I spent a long time talking influences, emotions, flow, beats and much more in order to find the heart of what this pilot needed musically.
We dug out little known bands, identifying instruments and tricks. We went back to the 70s and 80s and discussed the relevance of punk and how one can apply some of that raw spontaneity in an appropriate way for preschoolers. We stripped our instruments right down to create a coherent bed of sound, so that the music in this little pilot might feel like it was actually created by the characters.
It was a huge amount of work for Derek and he tried so many different things but you could hear the exploration in the pieces, the fun and the sense of discovery. And it was work for us too. I guess it would be much easier to just listen to a bunch of software-chosen pieces and select ‘more louder’ or however it works. But in no way could it ever have matched the soul that came from that exploration and what Derek uniquely brought to each moment.
Creation is not just what lies on the surface. Every wonderful piece of entertainment, art, every great story and every feeling we have with it is built on so much more than we can see or hear in that end product. And yet it’s there. That exploration is there. It’s the soul.
I can’t possibly say enough how important music is to any show or film but it’s not just music. Every piece of the whole needs that human attention, that love and that care. That experience and history and life that each individual person brings to it. Every person can contribute to make something wonderful…
…if you let them. If you invite them to. And don’t instead think of it as just a problem that you wish you could solve by pressing a button. Creativity is wonderful in every part of the process. It is to be enjoyed and cherished, not by-passed.
Let’s stay thankful for the amazing creative people we work with.