Finding our new zookeeper character was about asking the right questions. Who will bring a child into the show? Who will kids relate to? Who will compliment our tiger character? Who can drive stories? You might notice that these are all about what the character will achieve for the show and the audience. The questions are not so much about the character itself. Having a clear sense of the needs informs the character. Once you are certain on those needs, you can move on to questions about the character, who they are and what they like and dislike and so on.
Answering these questions took some time but, once the goals were clear, the basics of Millie and a whole lot more fell into place remarkably quickly. I had an idea of who she was, what she looked like and a name. Showing kids early on revealed that they were attracted to the designs, although more testing would come later. I also was clear on how she could fit into the stories, even though that meant a lot would have to be reworked or replaced entirely so that she could drive the narrative rather than being sandwiched into what effectively were just Mr Fluff stories.
Oh yes, Mr Fluff got a name too. Mr Fluffington-Strypes, gentleman and master of disguise. The name sounded more than a little posh and yet the fluff made him cuddly, approachable and loveable – and that’s the true Mr Fluff once you get past the airs and graces.
And while these two characters were worked up as designs, the show found its look. A rougher, patchier version of what would eventually become the visual style of the show. Mr Fluff lost his glasses, Millie got younger and cuter and the crayon-like feel for the design happened naturally during this development.
It seemed like it took so long to figure out what this idea would become. So much searching and pausing and wondering. But as soon as Millie became clear, it felt like the framework of this show formed almost overnight. Was it all there yet? No. Of course not. There was much left to flesh out, to test, to challenge and then pull together but the ingredients of the show were in place. And the thing about all the next phases of development is that, unless the visual design bombed with kids (and I knew it was working to a point – I had one challenge to overcome later), the top line pitch of this show would remain intact.
Finally this was a show I could take to a broadcaster.
Or to put it another way, I now had no excuse to hold it back. No reason to procrastinate. No way of justifying tinkering away at it for a few more months. Because truth be told, I think many of us creators would be happier working at our idea than sitting across a desk from a gatekeeper trying to convince them that we have something interesting.
I could make up no more reasons to avoid putting a two-page pitch document together and start showing it to people. The pitch phase was about to begin. One of the toughest and yet most exciting parts of the process.
This post follows on from Creating A Show Part 1 and Part 2.
While working up the new zookeeper character, I knew I would soon have to answer a very important question: what is this? Is it a book, a TV show, a game, an app or something else entirely?
Transmedia is the easy answer but it is not always helpful. Yes, characters and brands often have to work across forms but, personally, I believe you need to know your core platform. Mainly because every form of media is different and the needs of each form are different. So if you’re aiming for all of them at once, I find one of two situations occur: A) you don’t realise the differences in each form and so fail to make the most of the strengths in any form or B) you know the needs of each form and shave the edges off your project so it works for any of them, diluting it to bland nothingness in the process.
For me, I have to know the core form. It’s that old idea of knowing your target if you’re expecting to hit anything at all.
Here are some things the media form will dictate:
Length and complexity. The strength of focus on narrative. The forms of humour (Slapstick? Wordplay?). The visual design (you can rest on a page in a picture book. Not so with TV). The amount of stories required (if it’s TV, you need a LOT of stories). Cost of development (when you get into animation or coding, costs shoot up). Your relevant gatekeepers (got to know who you’re selling to). The amount and type of partners needed.
There are many more aspects affected by the chosen form of media so it is crucial to know what you’re aiming for. You can change direction along the way of course but best to nail down an initial strategy and see it through as far as possible. And while we may just assume the primary form is the one we are most familiar with, that is not always what is best for the particular project.
So I had to decide. What would it be?
An interactive app or a game? Maybe… but I found myself concentrating on narrative and humour that could contribute to an interactive app but might not necessarily be the primary focus. I set that idea aside as something to revisit later. I knew it could be a great book, whether published physically or digitally. I still think it can be a great book. I can see the page layouts, the wordplay, even some fun printing tricks such as textured sections and sticky jammy parts. Perfect fun for preschoolers. So I was leaning towards a book for a while.
But I chose television as the first platform for this concept. Why? Because of what motion could add to the slapstick I was aiming for. Yes, a lot of that can come through in a book but this fast-paced silliness was almost begging me to make it move. I was also finding that the concept kept handing me new stories. They were short, basic ideas, almost like sketches and I knew not all of them would work when I finally got the zookeeper character right but, nevertheless, the stories kept coming. Television loves volume and this show could run and run. It was a well of little preschool comedy ideas.
This concept was a television show first and foremost and that brought me back to very familiar territory.
I can’t state strongly enough how important it is to know what your primary form is, even if you want your stories to eventually spin off to everything else too. There are so many variables in creating content and navigating through the choices is not always easy. So every time you make a solid decision, you gain even more focus. It informs all those other choices and offers you a clear direction. You will still have many things to work out but you’ll be doing it with a strong target. You know what you have to hit.
Know what it is you’re making.
And now that I knew what this was, I just had to sort this little zookeeper character.
This post continues from last week’s post on The Idea.
So I had a strong concept but it wasn’t quite working yet and I didn’t have a mission. Does a show need a mission? For me, yes. I think every creative endeavour needs a mission. Because getting anything off the ground is hard work. It can be gruelling. To push through the resistance, you need to have a strong sense of why you are doing what you’re doing. “I think this idea is nice” is rarely enough. You won’t last if that’s all you’ve got.
More importantly, you can’t do it alone. You need people to support you, to believe in the project and to help out. You need a reason for them to really care. That is why a mission is so important. It is a driving force. And this project didn’t have one yet.
But what I found at this time is that, actually, I had one. I had recently launched Planet Cosmo and that show seemed to achieve its mission – to introduce children to the planets. It had a clear educational goal and I now had a list of other educational goals I wanted to explore too. But Cosmo wasn’t an easy production. I found I didn’t want to jump straight into another similar mission. Really, what I needed was a palette cleanser. A whole other kind of mission – I just wanted to make kids laugh.
I was looking for comedy.
Sure, inevitably I would want to build something on a backbone of positivity. That’s what I do. But I wanted something that kids could just enjoy. I was working up a few things to fit that brief (a zebra named Richard, a collection of little monsters and so on) when I realised that, actually, this tiger zoo thing might be a really good fit.
I put the two together and Anything But The Monkeys now had a mission: it would be the funniest thing for preschoolers I could possibly make. Not just a project with some smiles or the odd bit of humour (a lot of preschool content has that already). A full-on comedy. I would amend, change and work at it until it made children laugh.
This was a huge step in the project. Knowing the mission can drive everything.
But unfortunately I knew this tiger wasn’t fully carrying the idea. He was funny so why didn’t it feel right?
I spent a long time working this out, trying to find what was missing and came to many different conclusions. The idea of the tiger character was that he would come in to the zoo when required. Like Shane in that western story, Shane. That meant we had no real anchor within the zoo itself. Perhaps that was causing a disconnect as we couldn’t quite lock on to that world? Even then, was the comedy right? He was funny in the way Niles Crane is funny. Or Eric Morecambe is funny. Hmmm… grown up humour. Not child’s humour. And in each one of those examples, they need a counterpart. The straight man. This big tiger needed a partner. More importantly, he needed a partner anchored to that zoo who would provide a child’s point of view – someone who would invite kids into this story and allow them to see the funny side of this tiger. A character who is just like the audience.
Not just a sidekick, that would be a half measure. I needed whole new main character. A new focal point.
I tried a lot of ideas for that (such as the child tiger character seen above) before locking on to an early drawing of a little zookeeper. What if the zookeeper was a child? A little kid running a zoo. That in itself seemed like a strong concept. It could be a pitch all on its own (yes, I was already thinking about the pitch – more on that in another post). And rather than competing with the tiger concept, it seemed to provide an anchor to bring the tiger character in.
My one-tiger show was now a double act and getting this zookeeper right would be the key to the whole concept.
I am often asked about various aspects of creating and producing content and have covered many different parts of that already. But I have never gone through the process of how to create a show from the start all the way through because every project is different. So with Millie gathering momentum, I thought I could use it as a case study and show how the beginnings of an idea can become a show pitch, and hopefully go much further. So here is part 1: The Idea!
It all starts with a mission – the goal. Or at least, it usually does. Millie and Mr Fluff didn’t. It started with a trip to the zoo. The zoo is a fantastic place for families and my girls were very young and loved it and it was great to share in that experience. While there, I began to have silly notions based on animal names. This sort of thing:
But one unexplored idea that I had on that particular trip was the question of what would happen if an animal needed the day off. I thought about this for a while but it was a couple of years later before I would ever answer it.
And it was a simple answer: you would call a stand-in. And in my head, this professional is a large tiger wearing glasses and carrying a briefcase. Very stuffy and upper crust and someone who takes his job very seriously. The core concept and the beginnings of Mr Fluff were now already in place, although I didn’t really know it yet and there was still a long journey ahead.
Now ideas will come and go very quickly. If one seems remotely worthwhile, I find I have to act on it very quickly or else I will lose it. And the other important thing about an idea is that, really, it is nothing unless explored, tested and improved. Everyone has ideas but that is a long way off having a show or a book or anything else. You have to take it further. So I wrote a little story just to get the idea on to a page and I did some drawings. This seemed the easiest and quickest way to explore this and it didn’t matter if they weren’t any good – I didn’t have to show them to anyone.
The story was about this rather large tiger named Needs A Name (very common in early development) who comes in to replace a sick lion and gets tormented by the monkeys. I called it ‘Anything But The Monkeys’.
It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great either. Something was missing. This wasn’t good enough. The tiger wasn’t quite carrying the story. And I still had no clue what this was going to be (a book maybe?), if indeed it would be anything, and so it just went on my long list of concepts to revisit.
This is the thing with ideas – if you act on them and do something with them, even just the most basic exploration, you will very quickly start to amass a collection. Ideas are not the hard part once you start looking, it is knowing the good ones from the bad ones. Finding focus is far from easy and I was at a point where I had several ideas to develop and not much by way of resources to develop them. I had left Geronimo Productions not long before this and jumping straight back into television was not part of the immediate plan.
So Anything But The Monkeys would join that long list of incomplete ideas.
But I wasn’t waiting long for that silly tiger to start nagging at me. It didn’t help that my kids had already begun making fanart. I knew this idea was strong. That still didn’t mean it would ever be a real anything, but getting upgraded from ‘just an idea’ to ‘a strong idea’ is a pretty big leap. It was time to take this beyond idea stage and really start to work it up. What I really needed was to find what was missing. One part of that was the mission – I had no mission, no real goal. But the other part? No idea.
The answer, as it happens, was to be found in one of the early drawings…
More next week as development begins and I aim to locate those missing pieces.
Last week we brought Millie and Mr Fluff to the Cartoon Forum. I have mentioned Millie in my last two posts but I don’t feel I have really told you a huge amount about it, partly because I like this blog to be informative rather than just a platform to promote my projects. But Millie is really important for me and I think it deserves a bit of space here.
So why is it so important? Well, Millie is not the first project of mine to make it out into the world since my big move last year (that would be DINO DOG) and it is not the only Mooshku project in development. But it is my first new TV project. Even bigger than that, it is the first Mooshku project to be revealed to more than just a handful of people. That’s a big deal to us at Mooshku. Mooshku’s first stamp on the world of good children’s entertainment is Millie. It is the first project that can now make it to what would be a Mooshku showreel. That’s important, right? It’s the beginning of a new life chapter that could turn out to be a very big chapter.
Here’s the show concept…
Millie is playful child (just like your child) who runs a zoo (okay, not exactly like your child). Her one aim: make sure everyone has a great time at the zoo. So when an animal is sick or needs the morning off to pick up their dry cleaning or is missing for any reason, Millie calls her very good friend Mr Fluffington-Strypes to stand in for the missing animal. Fluffington-Strypes (Mr Fluff to his friends) is an actor, a gentleman and a rather large cuddly tiger. He dresses up and assumes the role of any animal at the zoo.
Anything but the monkeys, who are noisy, playful and terribly messy and far beneath a professional such as Mr Fluff. More often than not, it doesn’t quite go according to plan and so Millie has a day of fun trying to make it all work out and children have lots of laughs along the way.
Millie and Mr Fluff is a short, snappy preschool comedy show. Comedy is one of those things talked about a lot and there are certainly a few great preschool shows that are genuinely funny for young kids (Peppa, Gigglebiz, Ben and Holly, Pingu going back a bit). But there aren’t all that many. So we worked really hard to get the Millie comedy right for preschoolers in the scripts, the voices, the design, animation, music and sound. And it works. It’s funny. That kids also find out about animal traits along the way is a happy bonus feature.
After LONG development, testing and tweaking, Millie and Mr Fluff has really come together to become something special. And we finally revealed the show to the world (well, to Europe) at the Cartoon Forum.
The pitch went like this: adrenalin kicked in, I started talking about the show, showed a lot of clips and I could see some people smiling which was nice and then it was suddenly over and people were saying lovely things and writing even more lovely things on little purple cards. The show went down great with a lot of people. They got it. In comments, the strength of the core concept was something people could see. They loved the comedy, the look, the music and a few mentioned in particular how well we knew the characters and how that came across.
One aspect that intrigued people: all of the art assets were created on iPads.
All the interest and positive comments were great to hear given the amount of work we did in development – it paid off.
Huge sigh and a sense of satisfaction… before realising that this is just one stage in the process and we now have a lot of following-up to do. And so it’s off to MipJunior with Millie next. A step in a longer journey but a very important one to me and we came away with the results we wanted. And on top of that, we really enjoyed the Forum and got to hang out with old friends and new friends and that was lovely.
So would you like to see some of Millie? Sure you would! Here is the extended megamix of our trailer with little glimpses of Millie stories and scenes. You can watch it in higher quality by clicking the little Vimeo logo on the clip. Here’s Millie and Mr Fluff:
The Cartoon Forum 2014 is next week and we at Mooshku will be there presenting our new children’s show Millie and Mr Fluff – a comedy about a little zookeeper and her tiger friend, full of fun, disguises and mischievous monkeys. We have lots of animated scenes to show, some great funny moments and a fantastic soundtrack (you’re going to LOVE the music). So I’m really looking forward to the presentation.
There is something special about showing your work to the world, especially in a presentation/pitch scenario where you get to reveal in a way that can offer up the odd little surprise. Presenting is fun. It wasn’t always that way for me. I have pitched many times and the early days were tough. Speaking in front of a room full of people can be a tough thing to ask of even a high-functioning introvert and, truth be told, my early presentations left a lot to be desired. But I learned from experience, watching other presentations and also learning from my own – where they went right and where they didn’t.
People have their own methods of course but for me one simple thing changed presenting from being a nerve-wracking horror to being a rush: more preparation. Preparation firstly in making absolutely sure your concept is ready (I wrote a post on that once) and then actual pitch preparation. Writing it, rewriting it, saying it (because writing is not the same as talking), knowing it. You hit a point where you know your material well enough that you can veer off or answer a question when required and not trip up. You can ad lib and tell a story of something that happened that morning because you know the key points and the material rather than just learning words. At that stage, you’re not reciting. You’re in communication with your audience.
And like a show itself, communication is what it’s all about.
If you can communicate your show well, you’re giving it the best chance. You have to have a great show of course but even the best shows need to be presented well. There will still be hiccups. I still get nervous. I may stumble over a word or two. A video might not play when it supposed to. I might realise I’m still in my dressing gown and slippers. Having written this post about enjoying presenting, I have pretty much guaranteed something will go horribly wrong to make me regret that. But if I’m really prepared, I can pull it together and keep going.
So what about Millie and Mr Fluff? Well it’s a lovely funny show for young kids with a strong hook (I’ll tell you more about that some other time!). We’ve had a fantastic response so far and did some testing early on and refined it and the reaction from kids and their parents has been amazing. We’re excited about bringing it to the Forum and getting to show it off and we have some really entertaining clips to show.
If you’re coming to the Cartoon Forum, I hope we’ll see you in our room: Friday the 26th at 9.45am in the Pink Room.
And if you’re presenting there yourself, enjoy it. Go prepared, have fun and good luck.