Our Work and Family Mix

Our Work and Family Mix

March 19, 2018

Olobob Top was created by wife-and-husband team Leigh Hodgkinson and Steve Smith, but it also features the voices of their children – E (now 8) and S (now 5). In an intriguing article below, Steve talks about the ups and downs of working with your nearest and dearest.

We’ve been married for 9 years and have been through highs and lows just like any other family would in that time. We met when we were both animators, funnily enough whilst being filmed for a Channel 4 Big Brother-style show about animators (long story, tell you another time), and have always been self-employed creatives moving from project to project, through fallow and plentiful times alike. We had worked together now and then, usually when one of us was in charge and the other had to take their instruction – never easy when we’re equals back home – but never on anything so huge as Olobob Top. When we dreamt up our little show our oldest was 3, and our youngest wasn’t even born yet! Creating children’s TV shows wasn’t either of our jobs – Leigh had become a picture book author and illustrator and I ran an animation studio – but we had an idea and even better, we had a reason – our eldest was the perfect age to give us great feedback on what we were planning. We’d always taken our work home with us, but now we had something we shared that required talking about all the time, so trying to not become obsessed was the first problem we encountered. The road ahead was long – we’d never done this before and there was a LOT to learn – so we better not sprint from the blocks in case we collapse before the finish!

To make a TV show you probably first need to make a pilot (a whole episode of the show you want to make) as proof you know what you’re doing… So when it came to making Pic Pic, the pilot episode of Olobob Top, we needed to find children to voice Tib, Lalloo and Bobble. We had no money, so turned to E (then 4), S (then 1), and a kid we knew called T (then 6), who had just the right voice for Tib. At first we recorded them at our house, borrowing a microphone, because there was no way we were taking them to a recording studio – they’d freak out! Everyone was shy. Well, maybe not T. T was never shy. But E was, and S wasn’t sure what he was doing… But their voices were spot on, we just needed to coax performance out of them. And that’s where the dual roles of showrunner and Daddy became a psychological nightmare.

 

Fast-forward a couple of years and we’re definitely not sprinting now, but we haven’t dropped out of the race and are finally making Olobob Top for CBeebies. Now E, S, T and a cast of other children are all coming to a proper recording studio (albeit in a basement with no windows and a tiny booth for the kids to stand/sit/fidget in as I bark lines at them from the doorway). Meanwhile Leigh or I, whoever isn’t in the booth, has to keep everyone happy and fresh in the ‘green room’ – usually playing Lego on the floor, snacking, playing on an iPad (please don’t judge – there was a lot of time to kill) or bashing the unfortunate drum kit and piano that sat threateningly within earshot of the microphone.

We’ve never been so tense! It’s not the fear of wasting money – finally we have money to spend on this show – or the time spent coaxing little voices out of little mouths, but it’s the tug between getting the delivery we so desperately want and the responsibility of taking care of these kids – our kids – and ensuring they’re happy. And of course they aren’t. I mean, they have to spend half-an-hour at a time listening to me or Leigh reading lines to them out of context – they make no sense! – and they have to parrot them back many times over without fluffing, knocking the mic stand, crying, clamming up, or getting distracted by the curtain or the guy with huge headphones sat behind us recording the whole thing on his computer. To give a flavour, sessions would go like this:

Me “So, E, are you ready?”
E “Noooo… Can’t we do something else?”
Me “Well no, because we need to do this, don’t we? We talked about that.”
E “But…”
Me “It’s for Olobob. If you want to be Lalloo you have to say these words.”
E “OK.”
Me “Great! Right, are we all ready? So, first up, you have to say (putting on ridiculously high excited voice) ‘Hello, my name’s Lalloo!'”
E “Mmmm…”
Me “‘Hello! My name’s Lalloo!'”
E (quietly) “Hello. My name’s Lalloo.”
Me “Great! That was great! Well done! Now, one more time – ‘Hello!!! My name’s Lalloo!!!'”
E (louder, better) “Hello. My name’s Lalloo.”
Me “Fantastic! Wow! Brilliant. How about one more – ‘Hello!!!!!!! My name’s… LALLOO!!!!!'”
E (pointing at a cup holder left on the floor) “What’s that?”
Me “What?”
E “That thing.”
Me “Er. Well. It’s for holding cups. But, listen, we just need one more take!…”

At times I wanted to storm out, give up. I wondered if it was all worth it. But in some ways it was easier working with my own children because I was Daddy, and ultimately they wanted me to be happy, so did comply, eventually… On the other hand it was easier working with other people’s children because I was an unknown quantity who for all they knew could flip at any moment and make them cry. *Please note that never, ever happened!

Thinking back, it’s nuts what our children must have thought about what they were being asked to do. They know what TV is, what animation is, but it’s still a huge leap for them to inhabit the psyche of an invented character. Perhaps they never really did. Perhaps they just wanted to please their Mummy and Daddy, bless them, and when they really focused and were fully in-the-room they did make us exceedingly pleased. They broke my heart on several occasions as they turned our penned lines in to beautiful, sensitive, emotive dialogue. However, perhaps they just went along with it like it was normal every day life – after all, what else did they really know? Their parents were always taking them to this weird underground bunker and trying to get them to say weird stuff. Maybe they just thought that was normal. But how odd is that!?

I thought I’d bullet point a few suggestions that may or may not help you, if you ever find yourself working with your kids. Stuff I’ve learnt along the way:

  1. Don’t think you’re the boss – at home, and certainly not at work!
  2. Have fun – that’s all your kids want, and you’re still able to create that, no matter how stressful the job side of things is getting.
  3. Yes have fun, but go further and be silly! Kids will follow you as long as you’re silly. It’s intoxicating! And I found it really loosened them up… And me.
  4. Take your time – short snatches of work with luxurious breaks (snacks a-plenty and time for games).
  5. Prepare the groundwork – don’t drop it on them as you bundle them in the car that, yet again, they’re losing their weekend to satisfy your ambition. Seep it in to their vague timetable well in advance.
  6. However important succeeding at work feels at any given time, it’s not as important as the happiness of your child. Obviously.
  7. Reward your children with things they want, but don’t buy their commitment – after all, they are ‘working’, but you don’t want them to get in to a habit of pandering to the highest bidder. (There was a cinema nearby the sound studio, so we’d sometimes take them to watch a film. Many people do this anyway, right? So it’s no biggie. Plus it was a reward for us as well as them.)
  8. You need to enjoy it too! Kids pick up on your emotions quicker than you do, so relax and enjoy the process.
  9. You’ll remember this forever. Good or bad, working with your child will be a memory that lasts, so don’t hash it up!
  10. Don’t expect your kids to care about their work, your work, or it’s legacy. It’s amazing how quickly the fruits of your combined labours are old news. Life moves on quickly when you’re 5 years old.
  11. In the case of recording children’s voices, expect them to drink lots of water (between every take) and then need the loo a lot… (To be honest I think it was just a distraction technique.)

 

The best thing about recording our children’s performances is that we now have hours of their little sweet voices rabbiting away, all safely backed up for eternity on some hard disk. They’re punctuated with chatter between ourselves and them which, in time, will be a fantastic memento of parenthood at that time. Sure there are horrible moments (remember I nearly walked out) but even those remind me how hard we worked and how we always turned it around and came out laughing.

If you’re embarking on an adventure like this, good luck! Just like parenting it’s full of stand-out times, both good and bad, but ultimately they’re still times you wouldn’t want to miss. They will bring you closer. You’ll learn lots about the temperament of your child, and them about you, and you’ll both be closer for it. I’m full of admiration that our kids let us put them through this, and they never once, well, hardly ever… well… I’m sure they mostly enjoyed it. And so did we.

As an addendum, a search on the web threw up absolutely no posts about working with your own children in this way. So if you found this little story interesting please share it so others might find it.