Thursday, May 06, 2010

Content is King?

Or: I don’t think he is wearing any clothes.

I hear this term used a lot in regards to Animation shows. Usually in terms of what makes a good show. I have long felt that A; I never really understood it and B; I felt it was being used incorrectly so I decided to try and do a bit of digging on the interweb. All I could find was a reference to an article that Bill Gates wrote back in 1996. Here is a brief article on it. His opinion was focused mainly on web sites and how he saw them being able to make money as content creators. According to the linked article he was wrong. Of course at the time the Internet was a much different space but I digress. How does the term apply to an animated TV show?
The dictionary describes the word content as such:

content 2 |ˈkänˌtent| |ˈkɑntɛnt| |ˈkɒntɛnt|
1 (usu. contents) the things that are held or included in something : he unscrewed the top of the flask and drank the contents | he picked up the correspondence and scanned the contents.
• [usu. in sing. ] the amount of a particular constituent occurring in a substance : milk with a low-fat content.
• ( contents or table of contents) a list of the titles of chapters or sections contained in a book or periodical : the contents page.
• information made available by a Web site or other electronic medium : online content providers.
2 the substance or material dealt with in a speech, literary work, etc., as distinct from its form or style : the outward form and precise content of the messages

So in its purest form it is what is in the package, the package in our case being the show. So what makes the content king in a show? That is a simple little phrase that has much to it. I like things like that! Being a science geek I like to try and boil down things to its very essence. If I was better at math I would have loved being a physicist. As simple as they sound Newton’s three laws still apply today. They sound very simple yet we can use them as the basis for figuring out the motion of objects in the heavens. I doubt that making cartoons would be harder than that! Or I could be wrong!

One of the most influential books I have ever read was called the 5 C’s of Cinematography. They are Camera angles, cutting, composition, close ups and continuity. These are only one aspect of the contents of a show but are very important. Other important elements should be seen as narrative structure and design. Narrative structure or story probably being the most important and most elusive part. This is all stuff that is taught in schools and are the fundamental laws of good shows. The difference in these laws versus Newton’s is that while you can’t break the laws of physics no matter how hard you try, you can and should break the laws of film. Doing so will allow you as the creator to explore areas that maybe no one has seen done before. In this way we get innovation. Take a look at shows like Ren and Stimpy or more recently Adventure Time. Both these shows follow the rules mentioned above but also have found ways to break them. Break them in ways that make them very popular.

There are many shows that defy my belief that good equals success. I guess it comes down to my view of good isn’t going to be the same as other folks. I spent many a year working on children’s shows that I wouldn’t watch or even let my kids watch but I have to admit they did something right. They followed the basic rules of good story telling and mostly the rules of good film language. I just didn’t like the contents of the package. Then again they weren’t made for me. For example, some non-cartoon shows that I loathe; BattleStar Galactica and Lost. Going into the details on why I don’t like them would take time and maybe best left to my blog. Although I don’t like them I can see how they follow the rules and break them in innovative ways.

I guess that in my round about and obtuse way of thinking, I have to conclude that as far as animation is concerned, content IS king. Or at least it should be!


Matthew Taylor said...

It's funny that you should post this article after I had spent an hour discussing the matter of content with the students of a local college.

The students had voiced their belief that the content was essentially: everything in the package. That anything you see in a program is a part of it's content.

However, I have always felt that "content" was only half the puzzle. In a way, you mention this with respect to what makes a show "good". Somehow, in my estimation, content, presentation, and delivery are all parts of the package. The symbiosis of the three generates the message. And it's the message which finds an audience.

So IS content king? I don't know. I'd like to think that it isn't, I've been told again and again by more people then not that is isn't. My experience tends to make me think it isn't. But I think it does retain the greatest market share of the three.

Just look at Avatar. Was it's content revolutionary? Not really. Dances with Wolves, Last Samurai, all convey seemingly effective messages. Market analysis is quite to remind us that sci-fi wasn't what sold it. And the environmentalism lilt is permeating everything. So what sold it? Solid Presentation? Yes. Dynamic Delivery? Yes. I'd venture to say that a show like Avatar demonstrates the power that non-content components holds.

I feel Lost was equal parts content, presentation, and delivery. But most importantly, I think delivery sold Lost. Accessibility via digital distribution and a message that was so strong it demanded peoples attentions. It's presentation was top notch, great copy, but it turned away as many as it captured. Lost was about the unanswerable question, and the presentation reflected that. And people hated and loved it all at the same time.

Rob A. said...

Hi Mat.
The debate as to wether this thought is true will go on long after we are dust I suspect.
I don't think that there is anything that anyone could say that would make me think that Lost or Avatar was good at anything other than tuning into what was popular at that given moment in time. 10 years from now I don't think that either of these projects will still be in the minds of people. Other than remembrances of youthful silliness. Much like the A Team or Independence Day....
For me the only ground breaking aspect to Lost was it's ability to NOT complete a single story thread completely for it's entire run. That took some creative non writing......