by Debra L. Eckerling
Reprinted by permission of Script Magazine
Writers’ Program instructor Brooks Wachtel, whose course Writing for Television Animation begins on October 9, was featured in the May/June 2008 issue of Script Magazine. To see the article as it appeared in Script, including 4-color graphics, click here.
“I think [cartoons] are very liberating,” explains animation writer Brooks Wachtel. “If you can imagine it, you can write it.”
Cartoon characters are people too. Okay, well, maybe they’re not people: They’re superheroes and dogs and other creatures. The point of working in animation is the ability to create anything the imagination can conjure. While writing for animation may seem like a free-for-all, there’s a lot more to the genre than meets the eye.
“If you’re going to work in animation, there’s really a tremendous spread of material,” says Brooks Wachtel, who has written more than 100 episodes of animated television and teaches animation at UCLA Extension. “I’ve worked on everything from soft pre-school shows like Clifford, The Big Red Dog to hard action shows like X-Men and Spider-Man and everything in between. So, as a writer, you really have the opportunity to go from A to Z and cover all the letters in between.
“I think that you have to be very aware of your audience,” he continues. “If you’re doing a pre-school show, naturally, you’re doing a softer story. The emotions are simplified and very clear. There’s little jeopardy. You keep in mind that you’re writing for a very young audience.
“On the other hand, if you’re writing a more sophisticated show for an older audience, a Spider-Man or an X-Men, then it’s very similar to writing live action for adults. There are layered stories. The characters are complex. The plots are convoluted. It’s very much like writing a prime-time, live action show. Maybe there are some slight adjustments in terms of the level of violence or sexual politics, but it’s very close to writing live action primetime.”
Whether a show is a syndicated animation program, a Saturday morning cartoon, or a prime time, adult-oriented sitcom, there’s one thing that all animated shows have in common: They get to bend reality.
“You can make up animals that don’t exist in the real world or have people fly around,” says Cherry Cheva, the only female writer on Fox’s Family Guy and author of the recently published young adult novel She’s So Money. “People would pitch a gag where somebody had five legs or two characters were Siamese twins, and it’s not like we had to get a makeup guy to come and do that. It’s only the artist.
“If you want to blow something up, it costs the same to draw it blowing up as it would to draw it not blowing up as opposed to a live action show where [you need to use] special effects.”
Nina Bargiel has written for Lizzie Maguire, a live-action Disney show with animated elements, and Cartoon Network’s Grim & Evil about two kids who win the Grim Reaper in a limbo contest.
“[Creator] Maxwell Atoms did the pilot as part of Cartoon Network’s Big Pick,” Bargiel explains. The network showed several pilots, and then the audience got to pick the new shows, Grim was one of them.
“Cartoon Network then said, ‘This is great but you can’t actually show what the Grim Reaper does because that’s scary for kids.’
“So, [in animation] you can really do anything, but [there are still limitations],” Bargiel explains. “You’re still up against the same standards—standards and practices—but you can be more ludicrous. You 7can’t show a kid climbing up a ladder and jumping off the roof because it’s imitable behavior. With the animated world, you can break all the rules. … A lot of kids’ shows, of course, do that. [In real life] you don’t have the sponge that lives under the sea who’s best friends with a kind of developmentally disabled starfish. On Nickelodeon, you can do that—and it would be really funny
The Writing Process
“As an animation writer, even more than a live-action writer, you have to think visually,” explains Wachtel.
“Animation scripts generally have a great deal of description,” he says. “An animation script for a 22-minute episode can run 36 pages, much longer than a similar live-action script would be. That’s because you have to inspire the layout artists, the designers, the storyboard artists to really let them see what you have in mind so that they can take your vision and elaborate on it and turn it from words into pictures.
“Give them a window into your imagination which will allow them into that movie you saw on the back of your eyelid when you wrote it and then transfer it into a visual image.
“Now in cartoons, unlike live action, they ask for written premises,” Wachtel continues, “so you very rarely pitch verbally. Usually it’s done by email. You pitch a premise and, after the premise is approved, you go to outline, which is the start of actually getting paid for something. The outline can be rewritten. Generally it isn’t, but it can be, and then you go to first draft. You get your notes and go to second draft and polish.”
Bargiel’s experience in animated television is pretty similar.
“You come up with the basic idea,” she says. “Then you’d write a short outline that could be anywhere from a page to a few pages. You’d submit it to the network, and they either give you a yes or a no. Then you go ahead and write the script from that. So, it is pretty streamlined.”
Bargiel explains that initially at Grim & Evil, they would just write outlines and then “let the storyboard artists have their say. Later in their seasons, they did a couple of 30-minute specials and those were scripted. Later, like 2006 and 2007, they moved to doing an outline and then a script.
“The thing with writing for live action is, while you like to think in an idealized writing world you write whatever you want and it gets made, it doesn’t work that way. You write for the sets you have. You write for the budget you have. In the animated world, you can write whatever you want. While it opens up an entirely new world, that was scary to me at first because I just didn’t think that way. I came from a very practical standpoint. And you don’t necessarily need to do so when you’re working with animation. If you need purple rain falling from the sky and a dinosaur cut it two, you can do that. You can bake little children into cakes, and that’s okay.”
According to Cheva, writing for prime-time animated sitcoms is similar to writing a live-action sitcoms.
“We send someone off to write [an episode], and he comes back with his draft of the script and then we rewrite it all together, have the table read, and rewrite it again after that,” Cheva elaborates. “[Then we] give it to the artists to storyboard, and they put together sort of a rough version which is in black and white. That’s called an ‘animatic.’ Then we screen that for a bunch of people at work and then rewrite it again. From there we send it [overseas] to the studios to animate and put it in color. Then we get back a cut of that, and then we screen that again at work, rewrite it one more time, have them fix it again with new jokes for whatever didn’t work the last time. Then I think it goes to final editing.
“It takes about a year from the time that somebody is sent off to write a draft to when it actually goes on TV.”
Advice for Writers
“Write. Watch what’s out there. Try to understand it. Get a hold of sample scripts. Go to events where [animation writers] are. Get to know them. Question them. Find out about things. Write spec scripts. Try to get them seen by as many people as possible. Keep current,” advises Wachtel.
If a writer is starting from scratch, pitching an animated series comes with an extra layer of rules.
“Generally what I’ve done is try to get artwork to make the visuals clear,” Wachtel explains. “You do a Pitch Bible, which has the main characters, the world it takes place in, maybe a few script pages, a synopsis of what some episodes would be, and a long synopsis to give an idea of what an episode would be like.
“Some people even do little bits of animation—anything to help clarify what you propose. I think if you were pitching an action show, you then might want some artwork to show the drama. And if you’re pitching something that has really extreme looking characters, you’d want artwork to show that. People have done animations. They’ve done models. I think that some people have even gone in wearing a costume. I can’t imagine that, but I’ve heard of it happening.”
Cheva believes the visual element does help with the writing.
“The big thing in our room is that our show runner and creator Seth [McFarlane] will sometimes draw something and show it to the room,” she explains. “We’ll all laugh and that’s very helpful.”
While some animated television is written for all ages to enjoy, most is demographic-specific. The writers are well aware of the fact that certain types of animation appeal to very different audiences.
“I’ve definitely heard of little kids, like toddlers, watching Family Guy and just being like, ‘Oh, funny cartoon with bright colors!’ Then, of course, obviously teenagers and their parents watch it, as well,” says Cheva.
“I think Family Guy is a cartoon that’s geared towards adults, and then we’re also lucky that kids enjoy it, as well,” she continues, “Hopefully, the adult humor goes right over [the kid’s] heads. If they don’t understand it, they can’t be offended by it. I think that’s the hope.”
Regardless of the show’s audience, an animated program should be based, at least in some part, in reality.
“I always think [writing for animation] should come from a real place that a kid can relate to, regardless of if you’re writing this whacky and crazy show like the two kids and the Grim Reaper,” Bargiel says. “At the end of the day, not to be cheesy, it’s about friendship. A kid can understand if you’re not being genuine and real.
“[In children’s television], you can be silly and fun and insane, but really say something.”
When writing an episode, it’s important to keep track of the most essential element: the story.
“While gags are cute and funny,” Bargiel says, “it really still comes down to the story. You can hang the funny ornaments on the tree later, but if you don’t have a tree to start with, you’re not going anywhere.
“I personally find that once I get the story down, I can go back and punch it up, adding jokes and little visual gags. People really worry about whether it’s funny enough and I think that funny can come with time, but if you don’t have a good story to begin with, it’s just a bunch of random jokes on a page.
“People always ask if it’s different writing for kids. I write what I think is funny, and I take out all the swear words. Honestly if I don’t think it’s funny, I’m not going to put it down on the page.”
Wachtel writes for himself, too. “I think that most writers write for themselves,” he says.
“If I’m writing, for instance, “Clifford, The Big Red Dog,” I might like really intense action, but I know I’m not going to put it in there. I will make that episode of Clifford a story that I would like to watch. … If I’m writing a hard-action show, I know that I can go a little further. I think the trick for any freelance writer is to find something in every assignment that excites you so you’re giving it your best.”
2D or Not 2D
The concept of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) has really transformed the way people look at animation. As far as technology has advanced, there will always be room for the old standard: 2-D Animation.
“CGI has its own challenges for the writer,” says Brooks Wachtel, who has been writing animation since the late 1980s. “It’s close to writing live action in the sense that you have to be a little bit more budget-conscious because they actually have to build things. On the other hand, for the characters themselves, you can write subtle changes of emotion. The faces are more expressive.
“Also,” he continues, “I’d like to say that 2-D animation will always be with us because it has its own virtues, its own delights. I think some shows work better in 2-D, some shows work better in 3-D. It’s a matter of finding out which one is going to work best. I think a CGI Spider-Man is exciting. I don’t know if a CGI Sponge Bob would work as well. That’s a show where the charm and the look of the show is 2D. You wouldn’t want it to look too realistic.”