Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What's wrong with your presentation?

(And what's that got to do with screenwriting?)

The  Teacher has had to do two presentations in the past few weeks - and she'd never used Powerpoint. In fact, I likewise had to do a presentation recently and I'd never used it either.

Both of us have been using computers in business environments since the mid-80s. We both have lots of experience talking in front of audiences - my largest was about 3000, and you can stick me in front of an audience with nothing prepared and I can just talk. The Teacher has spoken in front of a BAFTA audience, and done TV as well.

Speaking in public holds no fears for either of us. But neither of us had used Powerpoint.

The technology of it was no problem - we've used more different software packages than the average person, and on half a dozen different platforms (some no longer extant). Just not Powerpoint.

I hope the Teacher doesn't mind me saying that her first presentation did not go well at all. And it was not the technology that was the problem.

How many times have you seen a presentation where the person threw up slides covered in text and simply said what was on the slide? Does that remind you of anything?

Bad voice-overs.

There are those that say all voice-overs in scripts should be banned. This is nonsense of course, because there is a right way and a wrong way to do voice-overs. The wrong way is to describe what's happening on the screen - telling the audience what they can already see.

The right way is to have a voice-over which adds to what's being shown.

The same thing applies to presentations. What you say should not be what's on the slide, what you say should add to what's on the slide.

That's all. (I know I'm not the first person to say this.)

But there's more. The second presentation by the Teacher went swimmingly, she enjoyed it, the audience enjoyed it. The difference was not only that what she said added to what was on the slide. It was the fact that the slides she created were far more visual - appropriate pictures. The images were bound thematically throughout the presentation - and, to some extent, they told a story.

After the disaster of the first presentation the Teacher and I spent some time analysing the whole presentation thing. While it does depend to some extent on what you are presenting, the closer you can get to proper storytelling the better.

Imagine that each slide is actually a scene. It has its own beginning, middle and end - can you create a conflict on each slide, as well as through the whole presentation?

Can you get the audience emotionally involved? (Humour is always good for this.)

And it's at this point I start to step away from myself in horror.

Because this comes horribly close to the thing I loathe about certain TV shows - they do it on the talent shows a lot, but they've also been doing it on Great British Menu, and other competition cooking shows.

Creating stories that don't exist. For example, in GBM, inventing some issue with the cooking by a certain chef; that something is difficult when there's no evidence that it is; that something may go wrong; that there is risk and danger - which isn't really there; trying to play up their efforts to win, the level of competition.

The hand of the producer is very obvious. These "stories" are utterly fake and it grates. When it's false you are betraying the audience - you are lying to them.

So, if the idea of creating a story doesn't apply to your presentation (it didn't apply to the one that I did) then please please please be clever and don't fake it.

What's on the turntable? "Amalpura" by David Bowie (Tin Machine) from "Sound and Vision"

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Something for the Kids: Q&A #2 and Summing up

To be honest there wasn't much to the second Q&A - but I'll see what I can put together.

Can we do historical? Connal: The current controller doesn't like historical, it's not a cost thing. There's no reason why not otherwise, as long as it's distinctive in period and has relevance. Having said that we are doing "Just William" and have "Leonardo" coming up.

What about animation? Connal: We won't do it though we do have a big puppet thing coming up. It's a very international thing best to go through an animation company.

Jo Combes of the Writersroom had talked about grabbing people in the first 10 pages? Connal: For us we work in 30 minute slots - you have to grab in 2-3 minutes. And you need to know how to structure a good story.

Summing up

There was a lot of information here but whether it's what people were expecting I have no idea. I went there to find people to whom I could promote myself as a scriptwriter. And I succeeded in my quest. Whether anyone else succeeded in getting what they wanted, you'd have to ask them.

I suspect not in many cases - I just hope the person who flew in from Belfast got what they wanted.

What's on the turntable? "Fascination" by David Bowie from "Sound and Vision"

Something for the Kids: Connal Orton

Connal Orton is Executive Editor of the CBBC In-house Script Unit. You can look him up for the rest of his extensive, and appropriate, career. Suffice to say he developed, produced and wrote for My Parents are Aliens and I think that says it all.

What I write here is not a transcription, it is my interpretation based on my hit-and-miss notes. So it may not accurately reflect what Connal said, or what he meant to imply. It's my interpretation of what he said.

Connal had a cool presentation based a flash thing which zoomed in and out - which it would be impossible to represent here. It was essential a compilation of those things that he observes work in Kid's TV. Not that he was saying that this was the be-all and end-all, just that it's what he's observed.

So essentially I can only reproduce in text form the sort of thing he had in a fancy graphic, plus notes as he went along.

  • Children at the centre
  • Active child protagonist
  • Child's point of view
  • Often the Kid's name in the title
  • It's about: Standing out and Fitting in
  • Needs likeability
  • Should be aspirational
The World
  • Everyday: Home and school - children's worlds are shrinking, because of the supposed threats in the environment being pounded into parents by the media. It's identifiable and relatable.
  • Fantasy - LoTR, Narnia but Connal thinks pure fantasy is limited: once you;ve beaten the bad guy, the bad guy is beaten. No legs. (I don't necessarily agree with him but I know what he's talking about.) It's escapism, an alternate reality, imaginary.
  • High concept - The Queen's Nose, My Parents are Aliens etc. A mix of everyday and fantasy, a dramatic metaphor and the ability of the child antagonist to actually do something and make a difference, when in the real world they couldn't.
  • Dynamic action
  • High stakes
  • Emotional intensity (clear differentiation between emotions)
  • Values (clear moral centre - stuff that matters)
  • Visual
  • Renewable - has it got legs?
  • Powers - abilities - wishfulfilment - empowering
To be continued...

What's on the turntable? "1984/Dodo" by David Bowie from "Sound and Vision"

Something for the Kids: Q&A #1

I decided to put the Q&A session in its own blog post...
Following Lynn's talk there was a Q&A session

What do you do about contemporary references that date a script (like technology, since that's what they use)? Don't put them in.

Do alternate methods of storytelling (like voting on how the story goes forward) threaten writers? Garry thought it was a worrying trend; Lynn didn't agree and thought it was just another way telling a story. (Personally I think "group-voted storytelling" is the stupidest idea yet. It cannot produce anything worthwhile.)

If the CBBC target age limit is 12 why is it that all the best shows have older kids in them? Lynn: It's called age aspiration. Nobody knows what to do about the 12-16 group, the most watched show by 14yo girls is Waterloo Road. Channel 4 is probably best placed to deal with that age group.

Impact of audience gender? Garry: Less gender distinction in 6-12, the gender split for The Worst Witch was 50:50 for a show with almost 100% female cast. Lynn: Even shows with boys (Dick and Dom, Ed and Oucho) they represent "older brothers". Tracey Beaker had an equal split.

CBeebie guidelines? No evil baddies. Crazy really because no baddies = no jeopardy = no story. This is down to pressure from the US and internationalisation of Kid's TV especially pre-school. They can be naughty but not evil and have to learnt heir lesson by the end. What they want are naughty protagonists - Bart Simpson.

Why do we have to have children in children's TV? Garry: Well yes, why. It's a limitation of imagination, a narrow interpretation of the idea of having to empathise. Lynn: It's lazy TV programming after all kid's don't play at being kids. (I said this to the Teacher (Foundation/Primary teacher) she said "That's right. Unless it's Ben 10 - but he has special powers.") Lynn: Though generally most adults who are the protagonists in Kid's TV are childlike.

What's on the turntable? "Anyway, anyhow, anywhere" by David Bowie from "Sound and Vision"

Something for the Kids: Lynn Whitaker

Lynn Whitaker is an academic researcher of children's media culture, who has just spent three years researching with BBC Scotland's Children's Department. She taught English and Drama for 10 years. (And lots of other genuine experience which means she is worth listening to - I tend to be very critical of academia especially when it comes to social matters [because most of it is utter bollocks] but she passes the test.)

What I write here is not a transcription, it is my interpretation based on my hit-and-miss notes. So it may not accurately reflect what Lynn said, or what she meant to imply. It's my interpretation of what she said.

Lynn initially described what it's like at BBC Scotland's Children's Department - the fact the staff is generally younger than elsewhere; that they have outings and do things that kids might do; run drama workshops with kids not just for the casting process but also as research and to keep them in touch with their audience.

Because Kid's TV is the one area where those that make the content cannot be the audience.

And this is vitally important to understand. If you're producing content for kids you have to know kids.

But not all in the garden is rosy. Management has a tendency to frustrate the producers (when Lynn says "producers" she means anyone involved in the production of content - including writers). And compliance restrictions cause confusion.

The classic anecdote was the talking sprout in one show: they were not allowed to show the sprout getting speared by a fork and eaten. But they could show it being scooped up and eaten. Just no spearing.

Her view of the production seemed slightly at odds with Garry's rose-tinted version, she sees CBBC as being risk-averse.

For writers she sees the comedy short-form content being the best way in, and perhaps the best content because kids like to laugh.

Kids are "differently" discriminatory. We may despise High School Musical, but a child may love it and love the Chuckle Brothers just as much. It's not for us to judge - we are merely adults with fixed ideas and we tend to laugh a tenth as much as a child on a daily basis.

To be continued...

What's on the turntable? "Round and round" by David Bowie from "Sound and Vision"

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Something for the Kids: Garry Lyons

Garry Lyons is an award-winning screenwriter whose work includes The Worst Witch, Leah's Trials and musical adaptations of The Secret Garden. He is also a lecturer and the Programme Director for the MA in Writing for Performance at Leeds University.

What I write here is not a transcription, it is my interpretation based on my hit-and-miss notes. So it may not accurately reflect what Garry said, or what he meant to imply. It's my interpretation of what he said.

The initial thrust of Garry's talk - well, he was presenting an academic paper he'd written but that's fine - was Kid's TV drama as a training ground for new writers. He cited Paul Abbott who wrote for "Children's Ward", Stephen Moffat who wrote "Press Gang" and Russell T Davies who wrote "Dark Season" and others.

It's because the BBC has its own production department for Kid's TV and it's own structure (CBBC) completely separate from the rest, that it is able to produce innovative TV that can break the rules. And has done all through it's history. It can create drama with more imagination and freedom, and is not constrained to the rigid "naturalism" of mainstream TV drama.

We have to say "mainstream" rather than "adult" because "adult" tends to suggest other things.

Because Kid's TV has less visibility, after all most adults don't watch it, it gets less interference. Although that is not as true today as it was, there is still greater freedom than in mainstream TV.

Do you remember Kid's TV when you were young? There will no doubt be shows that left their mark on you (for me personally it was Sky by Anglia TV - never repeated though it is out on DVD now - very scary fantasy; my script Air is inspired by that story, though you won't recognise it).

What Kid's TV does is help to shape our national identity, which is why it's essential that we have home-grown TV for kids. Now that is part of the BBC's remit, and they are putting more money into it. But commercial TV is no longer forced to produce Kid's TV by law, so they don't. In 2004 £139m was spent on Kid's TV, in 2009 it was £87m.

But no competition for CBBC means no innovation. Where are the long-running series now? The Worst Witch (killed by global success and stupidity); The Queen's Nose; The Demon Headmaster; replaced now by cheap easy-to-produce kid's soaps?

And yet: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings (no, I wouldn't call it kids entertainment either), Narnia - and the live theatre which is now booming: like The Railway Children usually produced in Railway museums with real steam trains (awesome).

But with a global market out there it's a matter of re-packaging the fundamental Britishness for the global market as well as the home market. (And it's Britishness that sells - it's a global brand in itself.) But it seems that Kid's TV is already ahead of the game, already the major productions have global funding - makes management harder but gets good product out there.

This story is not a tragedy.

What's on the turntable? "Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes" by David Bowie from "Sound and Vision"

Something for the Kids: Introduction

I'm going to divide my report on the "Something for the Kids" event into four bits, this introduction and three of the talks during the two sessions (maybe a fifth part if I decide to do a summing up). With all due respect to Jo Combes of the BBC Writersroom she essentially went over stuff which you can get from their website and I don't need to repeat it (I didn't write it down anyway).

I'll be staging the release of the posts over the next couple of days. Oh and I'll be writing "Kid's TV" rather than "Children's TV" because it's less typing.

What was it about?

So what was this thing I went to? I have no idea what to call it, it wasn't a conference or a seminar or... It was just an "event" (not the event, you understand just an event), that had something to do with writing for Kids TV. It was organised by the Louis Le Prince Centre and the BBC Writersroom, for the Institute of Communication Studies and the School of Performance and Cultural Industries at the University of Leeds. Which is a mouthful.

It was free, and there was food, which was also free. And it was very nice food. Very very nice food.

The trouble with this event (if it was a trouble) was that I don't think the people who went really understood what it was. I know I didn't. And I know with certainty, from some of the comments from the audience, that some were expecting an a-b-c of "this is how you write for kids and this is how you get your script to someone important so they'll make it". And it really wasn't that at all.

It was a lot of talking around the subject of writing for Kids: is Kid's TV important; what's the nature of the business as it is now; what's good; what's bad; and how things may go in the future. Because currently there is only one UK outlet for writers writing for Kids, and that's the BBC.

I had applied quite late to go to it and was told it was full up, but that I was on the waiting list. Then they changed the number of attendees and I was included. Huzzah! They were surprised at the level of interest, but I suspect it's because people thought it was the thing that it wasn't.

Now I live just over the Pennines to Leeds so it wasn't a big journey for me, except I had to use different trains (I got rid of my car). And nearly managed to miss the important one.

I was saved by a broken loo on the train. (The driver needed to use the loo so had to use the one in the station thereby delaying the train sufficiently for me not to miss it. I live such an exciting life.)

Anyway we turned up in Leeds on time and I took a taxi to the University - it's uphill for a mile, I'm not walking that (though I did walk back). I was early so spent time chatting to people, well mostly a person, (hi Dionne!) and met up with Kulvinder Gill who I'd met at the London Screenwriters Festival (hey Kulvinder!).

Finally we were ushered through to the theatre the lights dimmed and the excitement began. (Actually the lights didn't dim at all.)

To be continued...

Other posts in this series

What's on the turntable? "Space Oddity" by David Bowie from "Sound and Vision"

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bringing it into focus

On the writing front I am getting feedback on Running some of which is causing me pain, but in a good way.

I am in the process of talking to producers about a script or two and I have succeeded in getting onto the BBC's TV Drama - The Writers Festival in Leeds in July - on the very flimsiest of commission history, but I was completely honest. Which means if you have flimsy commissions you might be able to get on it as well.

I failed to get on Something for the Kids however, they are fully booked.

So this is all good writing stuff.

Oooh, what else? OMG - it happened to me, another writer wrote the pilot for a TV series that I was going to write - almost exactly the same premise as I had planned. The only difference was he made his setting rural where I would have made it urban. I've read it and it's jolly good.

After a quiet low-numbers period during the holiday my Shooting People profile numbers have shot up again, now at 145 views per week. But why does nobody actually contact me...?

In other news

The Daughter is still set fair for Bolivia in a couple of months - she'll be traveling along the most dangerous road in the world. Though maybe they'll use the alternative route. Then she'll be looking after the big cats (and other endangered species - but mostly the big cats - and snakes - and big moggies). She likes dangerous things.

I mentioned almost exactly two years ago that the Boy would be appearing as Fat Sam in a school production  of Bugsy Malone. Well that production is finally happening but there're problems: the Boy got a lot taller - and it was decided that the production would only involve the drama students at the school. Which the Boy isn't.

But he is a saxophonist. So he's in the band instead - a band composed mostly of teachers. He gets all the solos, and his adjustments to the supplied have been greeted with approval.

And then they lost Laughing Boy from Dandy Dan's mob. And the Boy got cast, so now has to run from stage to pit and back through the production. Which is slightly problematic as the saxophone reed dries between times. Such are the trials of success.

The Teacher continues to teach, and has applied for a Deputy Head position.

What's on the turntable? "A Passion Play (part 2)" by Jethro Tull from "A Passion Play" - specifically "The Hare who had lost his Spectacles"