What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part IV
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and start with Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.
Part IV: The First Lesson
Since this series is called What I Learned…, I figure I should probably get around to that soon. Maybe the first lesson I should share is don’t title a blog post series being about lessons until you have a better idea of what those lessons are. But, I titled it and here we are, which explains why this post took so long to write. I originally decided to frame my experiences on Blue’s Clues within lessons for some reason, so I’ll stick with that.
Let’s start off with a lesson that should be obvious because it’s actually in the show’s theme song. Somehow it’s one that I’ve needed to relearn (repeatedly) over the years.
Because you’re really smart
Before I get into what this lesson is about, you’ll need some background on what I actually did on the show from day to day.
As a storyboard artist, my job was to break down scripts into visual chunks. The storyboards would be used all the way through production so the animation, design, and art departments could work their magic.
Even though the test I did to get hired was drawn by hand on paper, the storyboards we made for the show were mostly digital. Rather than draw Blue, Steve, or backgrounds over and over again, we accessed huge drives that stored their images in all kinds of positions. It was a big time saver, which – when creating a weekly TV show with tight deadlines – is something you want to do as much as possible.
The things we would draw were new characters or objects that we might not have on hand. Then we would scan those in and create the scene in Photoshop. Once we had the scene set up, we imported the script, inserted images, and wrote stage direction in Quark. It was a consistent format that the rest of the team could easily follow. Here’s an example from the first episode that I ever worked on, Blue’s Play:
We had to figure out how to fit everything into the shot, keeping in mind the scale of the characters, objects, and backgrounds. Sometimes things didn’t work out the way the script was written and we had to make changes along the way. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make all those decisions all by my lonesome. Each episode’s director would sketch small thumbnails to demonstrate how they wanted to set up a shot. Sometimes they would hire me on the side to create them, which was sort of like doing two storyboards, but I loved the work.
We had several meetings throughout preproduction on an episode. There were meetings to go over the script, review storyboards, and revisions for each. Additionally, I would sit down with each episode’s director multiple times as we walked through every scene together – mostly verbally, sometimes physically.
We were serious about getting work done in the meetings, but that didn’t stop things from taking a turn into deep discussions of Bert and Ernie’s relationship on Sesame Street, or how that Talking Heads song would fit perfectly into this skidoo sequence. Pop culture, world events, Homer Simpson, and even religion often spilled into our discussions. Shared cultural references were peppered into the show as little Easter eggs that sometimes only we (subversively and proudly) noticed on airing.
The Art and Design departments would use our storyboards, working from our loose sketches to create new characters or backgrounds. Sometimes a small drawing I did for a storyboard would wind up on the show almost exactly as I designed it, which was always fun to see.
But I don’t feel really smart
For anyone to participate in creating Blue’s Clues, you of course had to be creative. You also needed an innate sense of comic timing, a childlike ability to be silly and sweet, and be highly intelligent. When I say anyone, I mean everyone, from the Executive Producers to the Administrative Assistants. In fact, that was one of the best things about my time on the show. Every single person I worked with at Blue’s Clues had those qualities in spades. It could be an adventure just walking to the breakroom for a coffee.
At the time, when I marveled at the amazing team of creatives and their wonderful qualities, I always excluded one person from that consideration. That unfortunate person was me.
I often showed up to story meetings with a knotted stomach. Mostly I saw myself as a backward country bumpkin who somehow managed to slip unnoticed into a Long Island Gatsby soiree. I was working with smart, worldly people who had been to Wesleyan, Rhode Island School of Design, and NYU. I hadn’t even finished college. I wasn’t smart, I reckoned, I just barely squeaked by on charm and banter. I told myself that I would never be on their level, no matter how hard I tried.
Of course, none of that was true. The longer I worked on the show and the more I got to know my coworkers, the less I felt like an outsider. I had to work hard to remember the times that our animation director would refer to me as “brilliant,” or when I could turn a table full of people into hysterics with a simple one-liner. I was complimented. I was promoted, I got salary increases and invitations to work on special projects. The minimizing of my talent and intelligence had been completely fabricated in my own head.
I chatted with my peers on the show and after a while, I learned that a lot of the ones I greatly admired felt the same way as me. Somehow, alongside the immensely creative work we were putting into the world, we felt like phonies. It’s ironic that we were working so hard to foster a sense of self-worth in preschool kids, but as adults, we often struggled to maintain that in ourselves.
I invented imposter syndrome
Okay, I didn’t really. I think it’s been around for a few millennia. But I certainly invented some brand new ways of experiencing imposter syndrome, even in the bright light of evidence that I was doing just fine.
You’d think in the half-century I’ve been on this planet that I would only need to learn this lesson once. In fact, I’ve had to relearn it just about every time I embark on a new project or work with new people. I’m getting better at recognizing it earlier, but sometimes it still sneaks up and nips at my ankles.
If there’s anything I would change about my time working on Blue’s Clues, it would be my perception of myself and my worth to the team. Not overly adjusting upwards to the point of arrogance, just tweaked a couple of notches higher so I could digest my sushi during a meeting.
In Part V, I’ll share another important lesson I learned on the show: When an opportunity comes up to do more, take it.
Tune in next week for the continuation of What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues!