Monday, September 12, 2011

Writing for pre-school: Nina and the Neurons

Weekdays at 4.45pm Cbeebies is screening new episodes of Nina and the Neurons, a science show for audiences aged 4-6. The current series is called Brilliant Bodies and tackles the sciences of biology and medicine. I was lucky enough to write five eps for this series, two of which screened last week - Heart and Handy Hands.

[How did that happen? I was among a dozen writers selected for a development lab run by CBeebies Scotland and the Scottish Book Trust. Afterwards I pitched 26 episode ideas for a kids' health show. The Nina team was already working on the Brilliant Bodies but asked if some of my ep ideas might fit their series. Result.]

Nina and the Neurons is heavily formatted with similar elements in every show. Each ep usually comprises 13 sequences, of which several are fixed - the titles, a CGI sequence where the Neurons inside Nina's head are activated, a song that summarises the whole series, and the final goodbyes at the end of each ep.

There are usually three experiments per show - a senses experiment in the lab, another experiment out on location, and a final experiment back in the lab. The production team develops and storylines all of these in advance, so the writers don't need to be scientists themselves [a distinct advantage for non-boffins like me].

The challenge with experiments is writing dialogue so the intended audience can understand what's going on. In one of my forthcoming eps [spoilers!], there's an experiment involving replica bones. But some four-year-olds may not know what replicas are, so I had to rewrite the dialogue to call them pretend bones.

Medical science often involves words that are unfamiliar or challenging for a pre-school audience, so there's a need to write an explanation or pronunciation moment into the script. The Neuron characters can be useful for this, especially the young sibling Neuron Bud, with whom some of the audience might identify.

Recaps and repetitions are important learning tools, so several summary sections must be written into each script. [All the requirements are laid out by the production team, which is amazing at helping new writers cope with such challenges.] Arguably the major element of the writer's job is creating and crafting dialogue.

How hard can it be, you may be thinking, writing dialogue for a scientist character and the five Neuron voices in her head? Particularly when the whole thing's already been storylined and the science experiments worked out in advance for you? The writer's task is very specific, but constraint brings it own difficulties.

For example, each time a Neuron is seen speaking requires the creation of new, synchronised animation - which costs money. In-house productions like Nina have very limited budgets, so there's a strict rule about how many times the Neurons can be shown talking new dialogue in each ep [it's about 10 times, if memory serves].

To get around this, eps feature over the shoulder shots of Neurons watching Nina via a viewscreen, with Neurons in voiceover. [Actors saying extra lines is cheaper than extra CGI.] Capturing the voices of the Neurons and Nina is a challenge, but nailing the voices of the regulars is a requirement for writing any returning series.

One thing I found taxing was getting all five Neurons involved in every ep. Each character is related to a particular human sense - touch, sound, sight, smell and taste. Individual eps of Brilliant Bodies focus on different parts of human biology and sometimes there's no obvious or elegant way to involve all five sense.

That's where lateral thinking and imagination are your friend. You can't stray too far from the subject of that day's ep, but a brief diversion to your childish side can offer an answer. The Neurons add fun to the science bits, and are also a useful cutaway device to smooth transitions and storytelling during each ep.

It's all too easy to obsess about the constraints and forgot what is at the core of this show: making science fun and entertaining for the target audience, as well as educational. I wish we'd had shows like Nina and the Neurons when I was growing up, I might have done better at science in school. Oh well, such is life. Onwards!

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