There is a lot to work through on a TV show or film. The concept has to be strong, your characters all solid and in place, the rules of the world locked and the format of the show nailed. These are fundamentals. You do not proceed into production until you have these things all fixed and agreed.
But with production looming and deadlines fast approaching, sometimes you just have to get moving. So out of these fundamentals, which ones can you afford to work out as you go along if things get tight? Which one can you let slip and work out in the episodes themselves?
The answer across the board here is: None of them! Work out what your show is!
Seriously, these things are absolutely essential to the health of your show. Yes, there are details that will get fleshed out as the series builds, some elements might change as you realise that there are strengths you hadn’t previously identified. But you have to know exactly what your show is when you go into production. You must have the format locked, the characters all worked out and fleshed out, the relationships clear, the world shaped and consistent.
Without those, you’re basically playing out your development process on screen. That is not a good idea.
Some things you can’t afford to figure out later. Decide on the fundamentals before you start.
Evaluating your own work and fixing it is REALLY hard. You’ll see things in the work of others that you will have a very hard time seeing in your own work. Your brain will be desperate to convince you that the problems in your work aren’t problems at all. You’ll often come away having no idea whether what you’ve done is good or not.
Why? A whole bunch of reasons but it is all tied into the fact that you are too close to your work. You immerse yourself in it, you give it your all and then you find it harder to see the larger view. And most of all, your brain goes into resistance mode. You might not even be that type of person but your brain will still try to protect you and the work you have done and that can make you blind to things that need fixing.
So what do you do? The first thing is to try to bring in someone else to edit and give notes. But if you can’t do that, if you really have to edit on your own, try to get some distance and then split the process into very separate tasks:
Step 1 – make notes. Do NOT attempt to fix anything. Do not even consider fixing anything. You NEVER have to fix any of this stuff. The only goal is to make notes – what doesn’t work, what needs clarification, tightening, amending. Simple quick notes. The trick here is that if you completely disassociate this from the act of having to fix these things, you’ll be more honest. Your brain will not go into resistance mode quite so much and so it’s like evaluating the work of someone else.
The moment you try to fix something in this stage, your brain will go into lockdown and try to protect you from the hard work of rewrites or re-editing. Don’t do it – you’re only making notes and, when that stage is done, you’re going to let it sit so you don’t have to worry about actually fixing anything. Just make those notes.
Step 2 – Let it settle. Give it some time.
Step 3 – Evaluate the notes and make plans to address them. Again, do NOT go in and do the fixes here. This is a PLANNING stage. Effectively it’s like giving someone suggestions: how about you do it this way instead? Like the first stage, if you get stuck into the work directly your brain will resist and try to save you work by convincing you some things are okay or trying to give you easy yet half-baked solves. You’re just jotting down some plans. You don’t need to consider ever carrying them out.
Step 4 – You’ve got your plans now. You know exactly what you’re doing, right? Hey, the hard work is over. All you have to do now is stick to the plans and do what your past self told you to do. It will take a bit of time but it’s just in the doing now. So work your way through your fixes, follow your plans and implement them as best you can.
Step 5 – Enjoy your good work. You did it.
I find it is still always helpful to get an outside view but being able to have some sense of your own work is a crucial skill. So split it up into tasks and it gives you the best chance of doing a great edit without your brain ruining things by trying to protect you.
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.
If you’re doing anything that involves other people, something that will go places and has got a bit of attention, you’re going to get notes. Notes are part of most creative careers and they can come at all stages of those careers. You need to learn how to deal with notes.
You’ve got to be true to your vision though, right? Well, unless that just involves being stubborn because now every set of notes is a battleground and it’s no fun for you or anyone else and, before long, people are just going to call a halt to the whole process. So instead you’ve got to flexible, right? Got to give people what they ask for? Well, unless that means a total detachment from your work and you are now just a middle person passing notes down the line and you have no investment in making something good whatsoever.
There is a third option and it is the best option. It is to take the challenge of the notes and make them work for you. It is to take your skills and your experience and your passion for the project and apply those in a way that can address the notes while creating something you love. You might be asked to cut an element you love and replace it with a new element that is being thrust upon you. So now find ways of making that new element awesome. Make that new element even better than the last one. You might be asked to cut a whole plot point from your story. Use that either as an opportunity to streamline and enhance the rest of it or, if you have the space, now you get to make a whole new scene. That’s a bonus.
Look for the opportunities. Always look to tackle the notes in a helpful way and do so in a way that gets the best from your own strengths and gives you something you’ll love. I have seen some really helpful notes over the years and I have seen the odd stinker but, always, there is an opportunity there to get something great at the end of it no matter what the note is.
Remember: your project can always get better no matter how good you think it is right now.
When you deliver something and the person you deliver it to feels it wasn’t right, there are many ways you can tackle this. Part of it depends on whether it’s just a taste call or a practical or technical requirement. But really you’re likely to end up doing one of these things:
1) Demonstrating why what you delivered was right.
2) Explaining why what they want won’t work.
3) Fix exactly what was asked for and deliver.
4) Consider the request and deliver a working version that solves the issue.
Only one of these is the path of action you should take. 1 is right out – they already got what you delivered and explaining it won’t make it right. 2 might well be true in your case but it doesn’t make the response to what was delivered any more positive. 3 and 4 sound pretty much the same, right? The difference is that 4 takes into account options 1 and 2. Whereas if there is actually a technical problem or a reason why they shouldn’t go for exactly what they asked for, that means going with 3 could land you in more difficulties.
4 is really the only correct response. You have to try to understand the issues, correct the issues or get close to what you’re being asked to do and do so in a considered way so that you get the best from it while making sure you don’t build in more problems or deliver something that isn’t fit for purpose. Aim to solve what you are being asked to solve, deliver something that works even better and hopefully in a way that you like too. That’s the aim every time.
What happens when the ideas just don’t come? When you have a blank page you need to fill, some story you need to conjure from nothing or you need to find a whole new project without a starting point?
I find that creativity leads to more creativity. If you can get ideas flowing at all, it will bring you somewhere and you’ll be able to find more ideas. If this is the same for you, you need a creative kickstart. Here are three ways I do this:
1) Work on something else. If the thing you’re supposed to be working on is going nowhere, how about starting by coming with ideas for something totally different? It’s like searching your house for something – you’ll find it while looking for something else. Ideas can be like this. Pick something else and get to work. As soon as the brain starts moving, see if you’ve got anything for the project you’re supposed to be working on.
2) Creative time travel. If your ideas just aren’t coming, how about going back to a time when they were? I keep ideas all over the place but most of them are buried in many, many notebooks going back more than a decade now. A lot of the scribbles and notes contained in these notebooks are terrible. But they are creative. They came from a burst of inspiration or a building flow of ideas. Pull out some old notes and leaf through them. Remind yourself of some old silly concepts and your brain will add more to them. Before long, you’ve got new ideas and your creativity is flowing.
3) Cheat. I have mentioned this one before. I keep what is effectively a story cheat sheet for when I get stuck. It is a list of character traits, everyday experiences, story starters and even just silly words. A combination of just a few of these could lead to hundreds of different stories. Keep your own story list of things you like and, when things just don’t come to you, refer back to it and just pluck ideas straight from it. No creativity required to start with. But once you start playing with them, the creativity will come.
So there you have it. Three ways to get your creativity moving on those harder blank days. Get started, get ideas flowing and keep working!
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…
Notes, eh? They can frustrate. Just when you think you’re done, you get a new note and have to unravel what you’ve done. Maybe even come up with something else entirely. And can you do that in the time you have? Notes can throw spanners in all the works. But there is something to consider here:
Quite some time ago, we were trying to work out a character for a thing I was working on and we submitted some first options to see if we could get a steer. One of those options was approved instantly. No notes. No suggestions. No questions. An approval.
Cause for celebration? No. I wasn’t happy. That character wasn’t completely ready yet. It wasn’t as great as it could be. It was a first draft. And it could be made better but we didn’t get the opportunity. And this is exactly the thing to keep in mind: notes are an opportunity to make something even better.
Even if you don’t like the note, you now are given that chance: make it better. Take that opportunity. There are times in my career I did not agree with notes I was given and there were times we got too many notes with not enough time to carry them out and notes have to be managed on all sides because they can cause a production to grind to a halt… and yet I can’t think of many cases in which something got worse after we had another attempt. Because it wasn’t just about carrying out the notes. It was an opportunity to make things even better.
Notes, revisions, retakes, redrafts – they are all a part of the process. They come with the job. And when you get them, take the opportunity they offer.
A clean, clear concept. That’s what we want to see. I find pitching a project mostly comes down to answering one simple question: what is it?
What’s the concept?
Unfortunately finding a simple answer is usually harder than it seems. It is a constant struggle to refine your project description down to the very basics while still making it sound attractive. I have seen this go horribly wrong in pitches, where people talk about every element of their show for half an hour and still don’t answer the question ‘what is it?’ Even being very aware of it myself and working at that, I have still sometimes come back from my own pitches knowing that I need a simpler, cleaner way of explaining what it is.
Part of it is excitement. We can get so excited about all these great things in our show that we start to waffle. It just comes out and we lose control of what we’re saying and sentences wander from one part of our concept to the next. It is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is good and people pick up on that – don’t lose the enthusiasm. But be very aware of the complicated spaghetti-like descriptions that enthusiasm can lead to.
So you need to be prepared. You need to work on your simple description in advance and you need to learn it. Then after you have delivered it, you need to stop talking. Let whoever you are pitching to take it in and ask the questions they need to ask. Answer those simply too. It’s like the advice I see given to people taking the stand in lawyer shows – short answers, answer only what you are asked. The difference between pitching and testifying in a law show, however, is that you need to retain that enthusiasm.
Here is one more thing to be aware of – sometimes your show will change. As it develops, new themes might be added, old ideas discarded. New characters or a new focus is brought in, adding layers to your concept. Your concept will likely grow and find new depth which is all a good thing. But instead of adding each new part to your core pitch, you really have to go back and create a new description. One just as simple as the original but gets across where the show is right now. Clean and clear.
Research is taken as a given in some types of stories. We wouldn’t write a novel about life in 15th century France without doing some reading into what life was like in 15th century France. We wouldn’t write a sci-fi story about the ISS without finding out what it looks like and what astronauts actually do up there. We wouldn’t write a show about lawyers without doing some research on the law and how that works, right?
Except that some people try exactly that. They see law shows on television and so assume that they know all they need to know to write a story about lawyers. It’s not really a true understanding, will likely lead to mistakes and lawyers who actually live that life will rightly tear your work to shreds when you make those mistakes. You’ve got to do your homework and look up the information.
Children’s media is different though. Especially in preschool. Stories can be about going to the supermarket and we all know what going to a supermarket is like. Or a story might be based around getting on a train. We know how trains work. They might just be about falling out with friends and that’s pretty easy because there isn’t even a picture we’d have to google for that one.
NO! This is wrong! Because what you know is what it is like to experience those things as an adult. The life of a child is VERY different. They will see things you don’t. What is mundane for you to the point where you don’t notice things is still new and exciting to children. How they react to their world and each other will be very different to you.
It can be incredibly beneficial to look stuff up that you take for granted. Firstly, knowing about kids is crucial. Those ‘Secret Life of 4 (and 5) Year Olds’ and similar shows are fantastic for getting a glimpse into how they interact. If you haven’t watched any, do so. But also look up what people are telling children about the mundane things you think you know everything about. What are educators telling kids about supermarkets? What things to their early reading books point out? A lot of these will have been refined over years with research and they might suggest something you never thought of. Look it up and see what you can find out.
And when you can, ask children. No matter how good you are at this, sometimes their answers are going to surprise you. They are the real experts in their own lives.