Writing For Animation Panel – Actra Conference (What Actors can bring to the craft and Suggested Books)
On Feb. 23, 2011Canuck animation writers Doug Hadders, Shelley Hoffman, Robert Pincombe and Rob Tinkler addressed the ACTRA Toronto Performer’s Conference. (ACTRA is the Alliance for Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists – the labour union representing Canadian performers in English-language media.) The subject? Writing for animation, of course! All four have extensive acting and performing backgrounds and so had a unique perspective to give the actors in attendance.
Topics covered included:
Use Your Natural Strengths
-Actors have good insight into words and the physicality of characters.
-You must write in what the character does as well as what they say to provide a guide for the board artists and animators to bring it to life.
-Always read your dialogue out loud so you know whether it’s easy to say or not. It it’s awkward or difficult, get rid of it. Remember that people reading won’t hear your incredible voice doing the characters. If it’s only funny because of how you read it, the dialogue likely needs work.
-Keep the focus on the simple idea.
-As you add onto the idea things can get confusing and muddy your pitch. As long as you know what the core idea of your show is about, you’d be amazed how adaptable it is.
-The core idea is the driving force of your show. The reason behind what your characters do that will carry it forward into story forty-three or season five. Anything else is just “stuff that happens” Without this. It is the reason the viewer care enough to keep tuning in.
-A Pitch is conversation. You want to provide enough information to draw people in and get them adding their thoughts. Too much information makes people feel like there’s no room to grow and work the idea.
– It takes years and years and years to get stuff on the air in animation especially so always have more than one poker in the fire.
-The panellists warned that pitching is generally a challenging process. Although Doug did say there is always hope and then described a pitch meeting in which he left with options on three ideas. The other writers then hit him with a chair. Repeatedly. Like with blood and brain bits and stuff.
-Don’t limit your pitching to Canada. This is an international business. A good idea has no borders.
– You are the key to getting work initially. Agents may get you meetings but you have to do the connecting and writing to build a rep. When that happens agents and you become moe of a team in getting gigs.
-Agents real value is that they free you from dealing with money and negotiations so you can be creative and maintain the creative relationship with the show/producer. Without that buffer, things can get messy.
-Get Final Draft. It’s generally the industry standard and it’s worth every penny not to have to figure everything each time. Also, when you do get an assignment, ask for a sample script, then clear it out and use it for template so you know your margins and formatting match any quirks their show may have.
How do I protect “My Idea” before pitching?
-The writers were all in agreement: You don’t.
-Ideas are a dime a dozen. The only thing that makes them unique is how you approach them and no one can duplicate that. Stop worrying about that and get out there and pitch.
Yes but… how do I protect my idea? It’s really good.
-Truthfully, if the idea is good and unique, you’re less likely to have it stolen.
-There are few people in this industry who will steal your idea. Reputations are important in a business that has so much interaction between players. And everybody is looking for a good idea all the time. Yours may not be the idea they want in the end but they are glad to hear what you’ve got to pitch.
You don’t understand. This idea is amazing and could make serious money.
-Not if you spend so much time worrying about protecting it that you never actually pitch it to everyone. Your idea is safe. And even if it isn’t, ideas are a dime a dozen. You’ll need way more than one idea to move forward in the biz.
Do you guys hire new writers?
-All four panelists are open to new writers provided they act professionally, are fun to work with and show they can write. The best shows to go for are ones that are going into a second or third season or are late in the first. When story editors are at episode 36 and still need another 16 episodes, fresh ideas are much-needed commodity.
-All agree that writers who make themselves a pleasure to work with on a series are much more likely to get a second script. Who cares how well you write if you’re a pain in the butt?
-Keep all your writing professional, including correspondence and e-mail. One new wrier recommended by Hadders lost any chance at the gig when his e-mail introduction had no punctuation or capital letters.
I have a great feature script. Will that help me get work? Can I sell it?
-While it not impossible for a new writer to get work based on an original feature script, it is unlikely they will sell it. Most features are internal projects from established animation studios. The majority of animation writing work in this country is for television. If you want a career, your chances of making money and building a resume are better there.
How do I show you I can write?
-You will need to show a prospective employer, a story editor or a producer, a sample script, known in the biz as a spec. It should be animation. And know that there different kinds of shows out there – action adventure or frantic comedies aimed 8 to 12 year old boys, tween sitcoms, pre-school shows, etc.
-Write the kind of show you love and if you love them all, write a spec for each. Show you can adapt to different shows. Pick a series you like and study, the pacing the speech patterns and then write your self an episode.
-Then show it to people and get feedback. How you take feedback is an important mark of a true professional. Don’t send in any spec until you are sure it’s truly ready.
What books are there on Animation Writing?
-The panel has all been trained “on the job” and had no specific books to recommend offhand. Pincombe promised to compile a list of helpful books on animation writing and post it here (though all agree there’s no replacement for just sitting down and writing). See the list below.
-Avoid any books that try to teach you “how” to write as opposed to practical guides for formatting, what to keep in mind when crafting stories etc. any book with a “guarantee” on the cover is a guaranteed no.
Since I haven’t actually read the books below – although I plan to order a couple of them – I cannot personally vouch for them. But I have chosen books by authors that I believe come from a place of experience. None of them are dilettante animators!
So as promised, here are some helpful books:
How to Write For Animation
by Jeffrey Scott.
Jeffrey currently writes a blog for the Animation World Network about all things animation and judging from the clarity of his blog, I’d say his book has something to offer.
Animation Writing and Development: From Script Development to Pitch (Focal Press Visual Effects and Animation)
by Jean Ann Wright.
According to her bio animation consultant Wright was an assistant animator and writer with Hanna-Barbera, has written for DIC and Filmation, taught animation writing and development. So I feel pretty good about recommending this one.
Writing for Animation, Comics and Games
by Christy Marx.
Marx has credits in virtually every area of media and animation and can provide a broad nuts and bolts guide to building a professional approach to the craft.
The Screenwriter’s Manual: A Complete Reference Of Format And Style
by Stephen E. Bowles, Ronald Mangravite, & Peter A. Zorn, Jr.
Some writing courses use this as a textbook. It is useful for general formatting of numerous kinds of scripts.
Now get out there and write!
More on the sources of the most excellent advice contained above:
Rob Tinkler began his voice-over career in theatre school dubbing characters on Sailor Moon. Since then he has voiced over 100 characters on over 40 diverse animated series including the Carebears, Undergrads, 6Teen, Beyblade and American Dad. As an actor he has appeared in The Blobheads, Relic Hunter, Harold & Kumar got to White Castle and The Facts of Life Reunion! Writing credits include the League of Super Evil, The Bobroom, Wayside and Grossology.
Doug Hadders began his media career as a radio announcer, moved on to playing tough bikers on TV and hosting Opening Soon on the Food Network. He has won the Phil Hartman Award for Outstanding New Comedian at the Phil Hartman Comedy Festival and received the Al Waxman Memorial Scholarship for Film and Television Production. Animation writing credits Urban Vermin, Chop Socky Chooks, Di-Gata Defenders. He is currently story editing the second season of Sidekicks with writing partner Adam Rotstein.
Shelley Hoffman has enjoyed a long and varied career as a stage actress and comedian before focusing on writing. She was a producer on Loving Spoonfuls, featuring saucy grannies and their secret recipes. With writing partner, Rob Pincombe, Hoffman has developed, story edited or written for dozens of animated series and kids TV shows such as Caillou, Kid vs. Kat, Bakugan Battle Brawlers and Atomic Betty.
Rob Pincombe is one of the creative minds behind the Canimation blog. After a comedy career that included a stint with the Second City Touring Company Rob became a storyboard artist for numerous animated series before turning exclusively to writing and developing for TV. With writing partner, Shelley Hoffman, Rob has developed, story edited or written for dozens of animated series and kids TV shows such as Kid vs. Kat, Dino Dan, Grossolgy and Max & Ruby.
*Click here for more about sketch artist Jenny Jaimie Ferenczi.