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Length Matters

There are many ways in which writing for animation differs from writing for live action television. Let me not count the ways. Let me just concentrate on one: Length.

When you’re writing for live action, you’re generally writing a half-hour or an hour-long script (by which I mean, of course, a 22-minute or 45-ish-minute script).

In the world of TV animation, you’re often not writing a 22-minute script. You’re writing an 11-minute or a 7 ½-minute or even (god help us) a 5-minute script.

These shorter formats were kind of invented for animation series, as far as I know. Aside from a puppet show that I story edited and wrote for recently, I don’t know of any other live action dramatic series that runs less than 22 minutes per episode.

The 11-minute format was the first break from tradition, the idea being that younger kids might be more receptive to shorter, less complex stories. Soon they were everywhere. Once the mould had been broken, and hell didn’t freeze over, anything was possible. So,when we were developing Max & Ruby for TV, we came up with the idea of 7 ½ -minute stories. I don’t think anyone else was doing them then. (Now I know why!)

The main reason for that decision was that Max (the younger bunny rabbit brother to older sister Ruby) would only utter one word per episode. Admittedly, he would say that one word several times per show, but all of his other communication was delivered with facial expressions. On the other hand, Ruby almost never stopped talking!

As we developed the structure of the show, we felt that it would be difficult to maintain that conceit for 11 minutes, and determined that three 7 ½-minute stories per half hour might better serve the structure. (This meant that over four seasons and 52 half-hours, I actually story-edited 156 stories – something to consider if you’re in the development stage, looking at that fertile soil ahead of you and wondering how many stories it might yield.)

Since the introduction of the shorter format shows, there are fewer and fewer animation series that run 22 minutes anymore, especially shows that are aimed at younger kids.

Here’s the interesting (some might say crazy) thing. When it came to determining how much to pay for an 11-minute script, the natural conclusion was that the fee should be a comparable percentage of the 22-minute fee (let’s not get into the fact that there isn’t a negotiated minimum fee for a 22-minute script for animation – that’s a discussion for a whole different blog). So if the going rate for a 22-minute script is, say, $7500, then an 11-minute script fee should be half that, and a 7 ½-minute script, a third of it.

Makes sense, right? Well, that’s just another example of how the creative arts differ from math.

Anyone who’s ever written anything knows that the hardest part is coming up with the original idea, figuring out how the story and the conflict should develop and finally how the story is resolved. Certainly a longer script requires more twists and turns, an A story and a B story, perhaps with a running gag. But working out the spine of the story, discovering whether it has legs, and ensuring that it’s different enough from other stories in the series, but not so different that it doesn’t fit with the style of the show – those are the toughest challenges.

In a show like Max & Ruby, the format worked like this: Ruby has an agenda. Max has an agenda that is diametrically opposed to hers. Max expresses his agenda with one word that may or may not be precisely what he wants – often it’s a word that Ruby misconstrues. Max’s agenda always throws Ruby’s agenda off course and she nobly tries to keep going, usually trying to get Max to see her perspective, which of course she can’t.

Generally their missions collide three times, each collision being (ideally) funnier, and causing escalating frustration in Ruby. In the end, Max gets his way, usually helping Ruby to get hers as well, but not in the way she imagined. And in every episode, Max’s word becomes the punch line – the moment when Ruby finally sees what he was after all along.

Try doing that in 7 ½ minutes. Try doing it 156 times. And then tell me that writing a story for Max & Ruby is a third as challenging as writing a 22-minute story and therefore warrants only one-third as much of a fee.

It’s one of the reasons some writers actually veer away from working on 11-minute or 7 ½ minute scripts.

Then there are those of us who actually spend most of their time there. Next time you meet one of us, consider buying us a drink. Chances are we’ll need it – and won’t be able to afford it!


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