Writing for CBBC

So, I was one of the speakers at the CBBC Writers Day on Friday – a day for working writers who are already working for, or might want to work for, CBBC or CBeebies. As well as a range of guest speakers, the commissioning and development staff talked extensively about what they were looking for. Here are the highlights –

What kind of ideas is CBBC looking for?

We want to find enduring fantasy and adventure stories with strong, memorable characters and unusual settings. Young Dracula and Wizards vs. Aliens have proved big successes, but what could be next?

Is there a show like The Dumping Ground, not set in a school or care home but that has a similarly broad and refreshable cast? Perhaps there’s a show that could be built around characters currently in our dramas, or an older-skewing ensemble show.

We are also looking for low cost comedy ideas that might possibly include CBBC talent and could be set-based (as in Hotel Trubble) or out and about (Scoop).

Any top tips?

Immerse yourself in our content.

Demonstrate a passion for writing for our audience.

Think about how kids watch TV and the different ways you can tell stories (with interactive and online elements)

We can cover social issues within a show as long as it’s done in an appropriate way for our audience

Make sure your idea not only reflects the lives of 6 to 12 year-olds but entertains them too.

Don’t be afraid to pitch something a little different; we are actively looking for bold and original ideas that we haven’t seen before.

Don’t let production issues limit your ideas, but we find shows with a precinct and/or multi-protagonist shows work well for us.

It’s difficult for us to achieve ideas driven by complicated special effects, and we have a couple of period dramas on our slate already, so are not looking for any more

Don’t be disheartened if your idea doesn’t go to commission. The needs of the channel constantly change, and development is about having an ongoing relationship with you and your work.

So, What’s Going On With Wolfblood?

Been a bit quiet on here recently, mainly because I’ve been in London dealing with the tail end of Wolfblood season one. So this is just a quick entry to bring you all up to date.

Our wonderful visual effects bods are wrangling pixels as we speak, and on Thursday I saw the first two episodes fully graded, mixed and generally ready for the small screen. Only I saw them on a big screen, in a screening room, which was rather wonderful. Who doesn’t want to see their vision ten feet high? The directors and the team have made both the locations and our cast look fantastic, and the newly added score was pretty splendid!

I also had a chance to meet some of our European co-producers, and learn a few things about the television landscape on the European mainland. (Fun fact: Midsomer Murders is huge in Germany. Who would have thought it?)

Though alas, the writers’ room plan to sell an Australian spin-off series so we all get free holidays Down Under is not going well. Dingo-blood, anyone?

No?

Anyone…?

The transmission dates are still a closely guarded secret (or maybe they just haven’t decided yet. Closely guarded secret sounds better, so I’m going with that.) But sometime this autumn. More updates from me on Twitter – @DebbieBMoon –  and on the blog, as soon as I have more information…

It’s A Wrap!

At 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, filming on season one of Wolfblood finally wrapped. Of course, the work is far from over – the editing, special effects and composing team still have their noses to the grindstone – but this seems like a good time to take stock of what I’ve learned from my first original TV project.

It’s always more complicated than you think.  Write what seems like a simple scene with your lead actors talking in the school playground – and in practice, that involves dozens of background artistes being carefully directed, two cameras shooting a couple of takes from each of several different angles, and a continuity nightmare.

Put your scene out in the woods, or on the moors, and everything becomes a thousand times more complicated. One of the great things about the finished footage I’ve seen is how it conveys the feeling of a village dominated by nature and the great outdoors – but that’s come at a price. A price exacted mostly by the weather! All filmmaking is a compromise between what you saw in your head, and what you can actually achieve on the budget and timescale. The cast and crew have done wonders, but in future, we may have to pick our battles when it comes to exterior scenes…

Sometimes you get lucky.  Who could have anticipated that there would be a school in the throes of closing –  half-empty and available for us to film in, even during term-time – only a brief drive from the village we were using as the fictional Stoneybridge? That instantly provided us not only with the school sets, but with a production base, a couple of empty halls to build interior sets in – and a ready supply of extras from the remaining pupils!

And sometimes you don’t.  Did I mention the weather?

Finding the balance between serial story and story-of-the-week is important.  Every show has a different balance between the ongoing, often character-focused elements, and the events of that week’s episode. Establishing that balance probably does more to pin down the tone and style of your series than any other single element. Quite a lot of the development process was spent examining different options – everything from an adventure-of-the-week format to a fully serialized story – and in the end, it paid off.

And last but not least, casting is everything – because the right actors make your writing look brilliant!

So now it’s a mad rush to finish up the episodes before transmission, which looks likely to be late this year or early next year.  As soon as I have any details on transmission dates, they’ll be on the blog…

Fully Wolf And Fully Human

“… I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

 

So many great characters have a dark side.  From Luke Skywalker tempted by the dark side of the Force to Bruce Banner trying to tame the Hulk within, we love watching another human being wrestle with their darkest impulses – and sometimes what we love best is watching them lose.

The dark side of man is deeply woven into European myth, and reaches its peak in those two classic nightmare figures, the vampire and the werewolf. Though human in appearance (at least part of the time), they’re at the mercy of an uncontrollable animal nature that threatens to well up when they’re exposed to certain cues – the full moon, the smell of blood – and overwhelm them.  They’re dangerous to others, and at best can only exist on the margins of society, where their true nature can be hidden or controlled.

Or can they?

While developing Wolfblood, I wanted to take a whole new approach to the animal nature.  Because I believe mankind is, as Dr. Jekyll observed, “truly two” – or five, or twelve, or any number of facets.  We all carry within us all kinds of apparent contradictions.  We can be gay and devoutly religious: a career woman and a dedicated mother; conservative on some issues and virtually libertarian on others.  And as long as we openly acknowledge the different facets of our personality, and appropriately towards those around us, that’s a good thing.  It’s the interactions between the differing facets of our personality that make us who we are.

So the characters in Wolfblood don’t fear and hate their animal nature.  It’s a valued part of them.  This, of course, meant making some story-telling decisions on how that animal nature is expressed, because once they’re ‘fully wolf and fully human’ (as I told everyone, a lot more times than they needed to hear it!)  the old rules don’t apply any more.

So we rewrote the werewolf myth as a gift rather than a curse, a natural ability rather than an unnatural one, something that empowered our characters rather than tormented them.  Is transformation pleasant or unpleasant?  How much control do they have over when it happens? How far do they remain themselves in wolf form? What part do wolf senses and instincts play in their human lives?  All up for grabs in this new world…

The best part of all this, of course, is that we were able to pick and choose from existing werewolf stories, taking the elements we found useful and discarding others – and there are plenty of myths and legends still waiting to be explored!

Wolfblood Set Visit!

Just back from two days on the Wolfblood set just outside Newcastle. The place of the writer on set is a rather strange one: on the one hand, everyone’s only here because of you and all of this is your baby, but on the other, your role in the practical process is over (or at least, continuing elsewhere) and you’re the only person here who isn’t working their socks off!

But this does allow you the freedom to really observe the production process, and see how the actors and director work with your words. In many ways, this is the most valuable thing you’ll ever learn about writing.  Everything you do as a writer is leading towards this moment – the moment your ideas actually have to be turned into something solid – and the better you know that process, the more practical, inspiring and inventive you can make your next script.

I spent the morning of my first day off the set, taking a good look round the stunningly picturesque village that’s standing in for our central characters’ home. In a heat wave, outside was definitely the place to be – as I soon discovered when I got back to set!

My visit coincided with the last two days of the first block of filming, and first block director Will Sinclair was shooting some final scenes in the school. (CBBC shows are filmed in blocks of four or five episodes, rather than one episode at a time. This allows all the scenes from those episodes which take place in the same location, or feature the same actors, to be filmed at once). Unfortunately, a lot of the classrooms are south-facing, and even with the blinds down, the cast were getting distinctly warm!

Film crews basically divide into two groups. There are the people who are busy primarily during a take: camera operators and grips, sound department, and of course the performers. Then there are people whose main work is done when the camera isn’t rolling – makeup, costume, lighting, and the army of assistants and runners who keep wanderers off the set and make sure everything is where it should be when it’s needed. The director falls into both camps, setting up shots with the camera operators and working with the actors before a take, and watching the footage on monitors during filming.

The area round the monitors, ”video village”, is where everyone gathers between and during takes, and the place you’ll see most of as a writer. On day two, as we moved outside to shoot playground scenes in even hotter weather than day one, I was able to lurk just out of shot and watch the filming process itself. Seeing first hand how hard it is to coordinate a ”simple” playground scene – in fact, two cameras, dozens of background performers and the main cast doing multiple takes is anything but simple – makes you wonder if you should just write about two people sitting in a room from now on!

Of course, the most important location on set is actually the catering truck. A fellow writer did warn me I was likely to put on a stone during the writing of the series – but I didn’t realise that would be largely due to the excellent on-set catering!

Meal breaks also mean an opportunity to catch up with the cast, and, since they haven’t seen the very last episodes of the season yet, let slip a few hints on where their characters end up by episode thirteen. Though I’m not sure I can accommodate one actor’s request that his character turns out to be a werewolf too…

And then the highlight of the visit – a few sample scenes of edited footage. No soundtrack and no VFX yet, but it’s already clear that the show has a distinct visual style and real atmosphere and tension.

Just time to say hello to second block director Declan O’Dwyer, arriving to shoot his first ever scene at the end of the day, and it’s time to head back to the real world. Exit one very pleased writer, already looking forward to seeing the finished product…

House Hunting For Werewolves

Finishing up the last couple of Wolfblood scripts  (incidentally, expect a report from the set soon!),  and that’s got me thinking about the importance of choosing the right location for a story.

When I first started working on Wolfblood, my werewolf family lived in a small town.  The countryside was a place they went at the weekend, a place they longed to be, but everyday life got in the way.  It was only as I started working with CBBC that we realized the countryside was key to this story.

If you were a werewolf, would you live in a town?  Of course not.  You’d live right out in the country, where you could indulge your senses and your animal agility as much as possible.  But you’d still have to restrain yourself in some way –  even in the wildest parts of Britain, there isn’t room to run free without risking being seen by someone.

So, as we discussed setting the story in wilder and wilder places – as Shropshire gave way to Yorkshire, and finally Northumbria –  the theme of the story came into sharper and sharper focus.  Our characters are surrounded by nature, open space, the literal call of the wild – and that just makes restraining their wolf-nature even harder.  The struggle they face, the choice between ‘civilization’ and ‘the wild’, is right there on the screen, and a lot of that is simply choice of location…

Ah, That’s What A Read Through’s For!

So, I spent Thursday at the Wolfblood production office, for the cast read-through.  Seems like a weird thing to do, gathering your cast round a table and reading through the first couple of scripts, but actually, read-throughs fulfill some vital functions.

Firstly, they provide an opportunity for everyone to meet the cast – and in this case, since one or two casting decisions went right down to the wire, for the cast to meet each other!  Then there’s the rehearsal opportunity it provides for the actors. As they work their way through entire scripts for the first time, they can get a feel for how their character thinks and speaks.  One actor’s performance influences another.  Relationships emerge.  The humour of a line, or the subtext, comes out in response to another actor’s take on the scene.  The groundwork is laid for the eventual performance.

The read-through also allows the script, or at least the dialogue sections, to be timed, for a final check that it isn’t running too long.  And it gives the writers a chance to see the actors in action – which enables them to make any last minute dialogue changes to the first few scripts, and to work on those scripts which are still being written with some knowledge of how the characters are being played.

And, let’s be honest, they give the writers a chance to swan around feeling important, and then sit there with a silly grin on their faces, thinking  “Hey, I wrote this!  And look, real actors are actually saying my lines!”  And what’s wrong with that?