Thursday, 27 September 2012

Learning From Your Mistakes - Shows We Never Made

1. One Giant Leap

It is a truism that we learn a lot more from our mistakes than from our successes.  Everyone should be given the opportunity to fail because only then do you learn what you need to do, and discover what you are made of.

We have always had a healthy development slate and a decent success rate but, along the way, there have been ideas that we have nurtured and become attached to which have not made it. I want to share some of these in a series of case studies so that you can avoid some of the errors we have made in the past.  To you, the objective reader or viewer, some of these mistakes may seem very obvious but love is blind and creating any animated show needs passionate involvement.

One Giant Leap

We have a very open-minded approach to finding ideas.  We come up with some ourselves, of course, but also systematically read books written for children and adults to see if they can be adapted for animation.  I remember a colleague of mine from Scottish Television sent me a pre-release copy of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, asking whether I thought it could be adapted as an animated tv series.  By the time I replied saying yes, it looks interesting, the rights had already been sold.  J K Rowling had a lucky escape.  She could still be living in poverty!

We also get ideas sent in the post from the general public.  My colleague, Andrew, reads them religiously and replies politely and generously.  Most of them seem to be written by people who clearly never watch animation on television and whose idea of what appeals to children is often vague and old fashioned.  Occasionally, though, ideas arrive that capture our imagination and that have an emotional appeal.  Our series, Hana’s Helpline came originally from a series of stories sent through the post.

One Giant Leap was also sent through the post, and was the creation of a couple who had no connection with the entertainment business.  I seem to remember he was a criminal lawyer.  Like the best of ideas, it was very simple.  Neil Armstrong takes his teddy bear with him on the first flight to the moon, and loses it. The teddy bear gets stranded and has to find his own way home. 

We loved this.  It was an emotional story but had a lot of potential for humour.  Using the creator’s idea, we wrote a half hour script.  Our astronaut takes his childhood teddy along with him as a lucky mascot on his trip to the moon.  He drops it, but no-one notices except his other childhood toys, long since abandoned, who, watching the news footage, notice something fall onto the moon’s surface.  They build their own rocket and mount a rescue mission.

We were in two minds whether this should be a one-off special, or a series.  One-off specials were notoriously hard to finance even then, when money could still be made from home entertainment formats, and we hedged our bets, creating ideas for a series that involved the teddy bears of other famous people.  We wrote a series of storylines involving Ghandi’s teddy bear, Houdini’s teddy bear and Elvis’s teddy bear.  We imagined that this series could have an educational subtext, introducing children to events in history.

This was a mistake.  Animated specials are shown on holidays and usually aimed at a family audience.  They are shown at times when parents might sit down to watch the television with their children.  Making One Giant leap as a series at that time would mean that it would be shown in the afternoon when children come home from school, and would necessarily be targeted at children aged between six and ten.  Typically, series like this are watched by children without their parents.

We took this idea to the Cartoon Forum, and presented it to a host of children’s broadcasters from all over Europe.  Reaction was at best lukewarm.  Despite some supportive comments from other producers (the late John Coates said it was the only trailer at the Forum with an emotional story), broadcasters were largely critical.  Children are not interested in history, they said.  Teddy bears are for babies, not for 6 – 10 year olds.  Is it in black and white?

Some of these comments still rankle.  Series like Horrible Histories show that children are interested in history if it is presented in an entertaining way.  We later went on to make a show which mixed live action footage with animation about adult celebrities and their teddy bears.  I have to concede, though, that even if children still cherish their teddy bears at the age of ten they may not be willing to admit it.

We had made two mistakes.  We had pitched a series for young children rather than a family special, and we had got the look of the film wrong.  If we were appealing to the target age group for a children’s series we should not be featuring a teddy bear so prominently.  If we were going for a family special the whole thing needed to be more colourful and lively.  Our trailer wasn’t in black and white, of course, but the faded news footage and the lack of colour on the moon meant that the trailer looked monochromatic.  This was not helped by our manipulated black and white photos of historical with their teddies.

You can make shows for a family audience about toys coming to life.  Toy Story shows that.  But Toy Story is awash with colour, and though some of the toys are clearly for very young children, none of them are what you would describe as cuddly.  Toy Story also has a great script.  We were very pleased with our script, too, but unfortunately we couldn’t get anyone to read it

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Character in animation

I have written previously that one of the uses of dialogue in animation is to express character.  As in all movie writing, it is so much more interesting to come up with visual ways of doing this.  Film, and animated film in particular, is a visual medium, and good film writing should aspire to express plot, character and emotion through pictures and action.  Films without dialogue can, of course, seem strange and uncomfortable.  We need dialogue for realism and punctuation.  When used for subtext or humour it can pack a powerful punch.

Some years ago, I went to Robert McKee’s excellent story seminar.  He made some observant comments on creating character through action, and used as an example the opening scene from The Drowning Pool, which features Paul Newman as Ross MacDonald’s famous detective, Lew Archer.  Archer wanders into his kitchen in the morning looking rough, and searches for some coffee.  Finding none, he looks in the bin, where he finds a used filter with some black sludge at the bottom.  He brews up, and knocks back the coffee, ready for the day.

This kind of characterisation is probably too realistic for animation, which relies on exaggeration and illusion.  One of the first things we do when developing a series is to come up with walk cycles for our main characters.  I studied movement at the Laban studio, and was once given an assignment to stand in a crowded railway station and observe how different people walked.  I then had to imitate these walks, carrying my weight in different parts of the body, using different dynamics in the way I swung my arms or lifted my feet.  The way you move expresses something about your personality and when I imitated someone else’s walking style I began to understand what it felt like to be that person.  This was a technique I used later as a professional actor.

I am not suggesting that you can write this. In animated films animators do the acting.  Good animators understand the value of observation and imitation.  They draw their inspiration not just from observing people going about their business, but also from the exaggerated mannerisms of mime and silent movies. The advantage of animation is that it is not bound by realism.  Animators can play around with timing, place limbs in positions that would normally not be physically possible or create walks with multiple legs.

Some characteristics are easy to express visually.  If a character is clumsy you can show him forever knocking things over.  In a live action film, he would knock over glasses of water, vases of flowers or umbrella stands.  In animation, he is more likely to knock over a wall, a house or a line of trees.  In animation, a shy character might climb under a rock, stick himself to the ceiling or disguise himself as a piece of furniture.  Animation lends itself to fantasy and exaggeration, and its characters work best when they are unequivocal and larger than life.

This is why animated films are full of characters who are stupid, accident prone or neurotic, who don’t know their own strength, who are naïve, psychopathic or gushingly emotional.  Normal people don’t cut it.  But then they seldom do.