The Storytellers: Magali McDonald - Animation director, producer, storyboarder and knitter
The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. Everyone in this series is a storyteller, even if they may not always think of themselves in that way. Each storyteller has something unique to share. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About Magali McDonald Animation director, producer, storyboarder and knitter
Part of the Emmy-nominated team of Encantos that created the bilingual preschool animated series Canticos, Magali McDonald made her animation direction debut with Season 03 of the series and has produced over 50 shorts for the brand. Her personal work has been selected for festivals such as Morelia’s international Film Festival, Animasivo and others. Born and raised in Michoacan, Mexico, she studied Animation and Motion Arts at Pratt Institute in their MFA program and Animation and Digital Arts BFA at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico. She currently lives in New York City with her husband Jeremiah, and a whole lot of yarn.
What are the unique challenges of visual storytelling with animation?
In cinema, animation or anything with a moving image, there’s a cinematic language that has to be developed. When movies were invented people thought of it as a theater you just put a camera on. Literally that’s what they did, just put a camera up and have actors move around it on a set. Soon after, they discovered if you experiment with where you put your camera and what you show, you can get different reactions from the audience. There are things that we now know about how our eyes will travel — our eyes will go towards a corner, or whatever is lightest. We can use that information to play with the audience, using perspective to give them a secret. It’s a very different experience than reading a book or listening to a story.
It’s a real challenge to keep the audience in your story and not break the magic of what makes this real.
It’s a real challenge to keep the audience in your story and not break the magic of what makes this real. If something takes you out of it, it breaks the whole thing and your story just doesn’t work any more. Sometimes that’s why you might find something boring or that production value is low. You notice those things because the story isn’t keeping you interested.
When you’re beginning to tackle a story, what do you think about? What’s the process like?
Because I’m in animation production the first thing I think about is ‘How much money do I have?’ The story always comes first of course, but you do have these limitations. Budget can determine things like how many characters you can have. The thing is, with animation, you have to make a world from scratch. When you film something, you hire actors and find a location. But with animation nothing exists. And that is a challenge, and an opportunity to be creative.
Even when the budget is small, you can come up with creative ideas. Take The Simpsons for example. They didn’t have as much budget in the beginning. So they thought ‘How can I make the shots more interesting?’. Putting the camera underneath a character, or up above. Making the scene not so flat. Perspective is free, and you can come up with ways to make it interesting.
So much of your work in the last few years has been on Canticos, Nick Jr’s bilingual animated series. What does it take to make a bilingual story work?
I have to do a lot of translating in my work, and I’ve found that you can’t just translate word for word. Having grown up watching American shows translated to Spanish, I’ve found that those shows had to literally change jokes because the words, puns or context couldn’t translate to Spanish in a way that made sense.
We’re not just making something that can be translated. You have to tell a story in a way that works not just in two different languages but in two different cultures.
At my show, we take it really seriously. We’re not just making something that can be translated. You have to tell a story in a way that works not just in two different languages but in two different cultures. That means you have to have people who have lived in those cultures working together to make the story better. For example, I had a coworker who was pitching the idea that we should do some knock knock jokes with a character on the show. I had to tell him there are no knock knock jokes in Spanish culture. Kids just wouldn’t get that. So we had to think of something more visual that can work in both cultures. And sometimes it can be the other way around. What works in Spanish doesn’t work for an English audience. You have to think about both languages and cultures as you’re crafting the story.
What kind of limitations do you have when it comes to storytelling for kids?
The rule in TV right now is that for preschool shows, the stories are based in curriculum. At least in the US. That’s good, but it’s also very limiting. Sometimes things can just be fun. As adults we don’t just watch educational documentaries. If you look at stuff from Japan or even European children’s books, there’s a lot more fun, silly adventure. It’s not as curriculum based. That’s definitely a US phenomenon.
How do you tell a better story? If you’ve got a story you think is OK, how do you go from good to great?
I get easily bored by sameness. In a lot of animation, and kids stories in general, there’s a lot of sameness. Same style. Same story – the one boy who gets to save the world. When you bring in different voices and different cultures and backgrounds, they will help change it up. Having too many cooks can be bad, but having the same people tell the same story over and over again can also get really stale. Diversity is also how you get better characters. You can tell a story is good if you can connect to the characters in some way. Maybe you see a bit of yourself in them, and you want to be like them. Or maybe you don’t want to be like them, but they’re interesting. Connecting with the characters is really important.
When you bring in different voices and different cultures and backgrounds, they will help change it up. Having too many cooks can be bad, but having the same people tell the same story over and over again can also get really stale.
How do you measure the impact of a story?
Everybody measures things in likes or views now. But for me, the real measure of impact is more personal. When we see kids or fans of the show who are obsessed with the characters, or having a birthday party themed after it, it’s really touching. Moms write letters and say this is the only show I let my kid watch. Those are the things that really touch your heart way more than getting 1 million views.
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