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What’s The Point?! (Labour Day/Back To School Edition)

September 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Mrs. Jewls knows the value of having a good point at Wayside School (Nelvana)

So my sister and I were watching this gritty British underworld drama on Movie Central.  You know the kind – where everyone talks in a Cockney accent and swears, and people get beat up a lot?  Suddenly, all the main characters were dead.  The End.  “Two hours of my life wasted!“ my sister groused as the credits rolled.  “What was the point of that?“ I demanded angrily of the gods of Unsatisfying Endings.

Right up to the end, the writer seemed to have something complex to say about a hero trying to protect the prey from the predators while on a mission of personal vengeance.  But the “everybody dies” ending left me wondering what the message was supposed to be.  Crime doesn’t pay?  Live by the sword, die by the sword?  Lie down with dogs, get up with a really fatal case of fleas?

Not that there’s anything wrong with those messages.  Lots of books and films have explored those themes to great effect.  My point is: as viewers, we shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out what the writer is trying to say!

On the other hand, as writers, we should work hard so the viewers can figure out what we’re trying to say!  So in honour of Labour Day and Back To School Week, here are some thoughts about the never pointless job of animation writing for kids.

When it comes to a children’s series, the person who hires you to write a script is going to want to know what your point is right from the pitch stage.  You can call it the theme, “the learn,” the life lesson, the takeaway message, or to get all Aesop on you, the moral of the story.  It all means the same thing: that special insight that your audience is going to get from watching your story.

“For God’s sakes, somebody teach me a lesson!” ~ Leela, “Yo Leela Leela,” Futurama.

Leela learns it’s hard to come up with story ideas for preschool television on Futurama (The Curiosity Company/30th Century Fox)

They may not ask you to state it explicitly, but whoever is catching your pitch should be able to tell what the point of your story is from the emotional arc of the characters and outcome of the plot.  Every series has its own overall message and the producers and broadcasters need to know if your message fits in with theirs.

Don’t be chicken! Cross over to meaningful storytelling.
(Turbo Dogs, CCI Entertainment)

The Chicken or the Egg?

So when you’re generating pitches, which should you come up with first: the message or a plot idea?  Either way can work.

Maybe you know from the get-go what point you want to make and you come up with a story to illustrate that exact point.  Author Suzanne Collins wanted to criticize the way that television news coverage of the invasion of Iraq had come to resemble reality show-style entertainment.  The result was the dystopian-future young adult novels of the Hunger Games trilogy and an increased demand for archery lessons from teen girls.

Or you may just have a notion that you want to do something with, say, pirates or a big hockey game.  You can reverse engineer a message that will turn your vague idea into a solid story.  Your pirate story could be about not letting greed destroy a friendship.  Sports stories are always good for themes about working as a team, or not cheating, or how winning isn’t everything.  (Although between you and me, in kids’ programming, the heroes end up winning a high percentage of the time.)

Finn communicates his message on Stormhawks
(Nerd Corps Entertainment)

But if you go that second route, it’s best to nail down the message early on so you can choose the best way of communicating it.  Knowing what you want to say will help you decide what characters to use, what story beats to hit and what dialogue to write.  It’s especially useful when you’re editing your drafts and trying to figure out what to cut and what to tweak.  Any bits of dialogue or action that don’t support the theme can be slashed, or should be reworked to contribute to the overall message.

In Your Face!

Some broadcasters and producers want you to spell out the message out for the viewers so they can’t possibly miss it.  You may be asked to take a very in-your-face approach – a style amusingly spoofed on South Park with their end-of-episode “You know, I’ve learned something today…” sequences.

“You know, I’ve learned something today. Family isn’t about whose blood you have, it’s about who you care about. And that’s why I feel like you guys are more than just friends. You’re my family…except for Cartman.” ~ Kyle, “Ike’s Wee Wee,“ South Park.

This tactic is often used when the creators of a series are keen on providing moral or spiritual guidance to their audience.

Eat your VeggieTales. They’re good for you!
(Big Idea Entertainment)

In the VeggieTales videos, at the end of each comic retelling of their bible stories (performed by fruit and vegetable characters), Larry (the cucumber) and Bob (the tomato) talk to the viewers directly to let them know the religious message of the story.  Eg. “What Jesus is telling us in His little story of a father and son, is that God’s love has no limits.  It goes on forever!”

Sailor Moon makes several points (Toel Anmation)

Back in the 1990’s, one version of the Sailor Moon anime series as dubbed for Western audiences had an “educational” segment tacked on to the end of each episode. It was known as “Sailor Moon Says…”  In the segment, Serena states the life lesson of the day.  Eg. “Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is believing in yourself, especially when your grades are, eh, less than stellar, or you’re kind of clumsy. But you never know what the real you can do. Set your mind and heart on it and anything is possible!” Hey, if Sailor Moon says it, it must be so.

These days a more common, less overt way of stating the message is what I think of as the “thesis statement” approach.  Somewhere in the dialogue, one of the characters drops the “learn” into the dialogue, perhaps during an “aha” moment when they realize the impact their actions have had on themselves and others.

This doesn’t have to be as clunky as it sounds.  Some memorable movie lines have resulted from the screenwriter slipping a “topic sentence” into the script.  “With great power comes great responsibility.”  “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”  “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”  In a kids’ show, it would probably sound more like, “Gee, I should asked for help right away instead of trying to defeat that giant purple space squid all by myself.”

One series I wrote for went even further.  Towards the end of the episode there’d be an exchange of dialogue that would provide a “script” young viewers could use in real life when faced with a similar situation.  It would go something along the lines of, “I’m sorry I snuck off instead of telling you I’d rather go to the concert than hang out with you.”  “Hey, that hurt my feelings.  I’m your friend and friends tell each other the truth!” “You’re right.  Next time I’ll let you know what I really think.”  The series also had seven main themes to choose from such as “Work Hard” or “Believe in Yourself.”  At the top of each pitch, you had to state which theme your story would use.  While it may sound a little restrictive, it did take the guesswork out of knowing what messages the producers would greenlight.

Brick points out what makes for compelling viewing
on Total Drama: Revenge of the Island (Fresh TV)

With other series, the producers and broadcasters may want you to be more subtle and let the audience draw their own conclusions from the animated characters’ wacky or heroic antics.  But even if said viewers don’t have the analytical skills to articulate what “we’ve learned today,” your story will be stronger if you know what is the point of it all.

So take a moment to think about your message before you write your next pitch or outline and look before you leap because haste makes waste and a stitch in time saves nine.  Then strike while the iron is hot because he who hesitates is lost…

My Black History in Canadian Animation

February 2, 2012 2 comments
The character of Raquel (far left) on The L.A. Complex says a black friend is a TV-only thing.

  

     I was watching the pilot episode of the new live-action drama The L.A. Complex.  In one scene, a struggling (white) Canadian actress Raquel, tries to bluff her way into an L.A. audition for the “best friend part.”  But the producer (also white) says she’s decided “to go another way…we’re going black.”  Cut to a wide shot: the waiting room is full of black actresses.  The producer says, “I really don’t want an all-white show.  You know, it doesn’t really reflect reality.”  Frustrated, Raquel inappropriately blurts out, “So you’re making the best friend black.  It’s just kind of a cliché, don’t you think?  I mean, who has a black best friend?…It’s a TV-only thing.”

It got me to wondering…is the “black friend” a cliché in Canadian animated series or does having a black character in a show’s cast “reflect reality?”

So in honour of Black History Month, I thought I’d touch on the touchy issue of ethnic diversity in Canadian cartoons, specifically black characters.  I’ll use the term “black” even though it makes some of us Canadians uncomfortable.  We usually use the politer-sounding “African-Canadian” or sometimes the more ethnographically-correct term “Caribbean-Canadian” (as most black Canadians are of Caribbean origin.)

 YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND IN ME

 Over the past decade, I’ve written for a few series where the black character is pretty much in the “friend-zone.”  One was the title character’s best friend.

Best Friend: Jamie voiced by Jordan Francis in Carl Squared (Portfolio)

One was a member of a group of friends of the title character. 

One of the friends: Jamal on Ricky Sprocket (DHX Media)

And one was a member of a team of heroes – but the leader was a white guy.

One of the team: Odie scoots in on Class of the Titans (DHX Media)

 So in my experience, when you see a black character on a Canadian animation series, yes, he or she is usually either a friend of the lead or, more likely these days, part of an ensemble of characters.

How does Johnny feel about being part of an ensemble? I’m guessing…Stoked! (Fresh TV)

 

 

Until a show creator manages to sell a production company and a broadcaster on a series featuring, say, the daring adventures of a black superhero from Halifax and his “white friend” sidekick, or the hilarious antics of Caribbean-Canadian family in Toronto, for now most black characters are “one of the gang.”

Black team member (in green) Agura Ibaden in Hot Wheels Battle Force 5" (Nerd Corps)

 

Some might see that as tokenism.  But I see it as an  attempt to reflect the multi-ethnic reality of North American society. 

And I do say North American rather than Canadian society. 

 

Wyatt adding diversity to 6Teen (Fresh TV)

According to the 2006 census, the Canadian population was 2.5% African-Canadian, mostly living in urban areas of Ontario and Quebec.  On the other hand, Asian and South Asians make up about 11% of the Canadian population.  Yet you don’t see them represented as often in Canadian-made animation. 

So what’s up with that?

 

The faces of North American reality shows are reflected in the cast of Total Drama World Tour (Fresh TV)

 

Well, consider that the US is an important market for Canadian animation.  Their population is ten times ours with African-Americans making up about 12%.  Having a US broadcaster aboard can make the difference between a series going into production, or dying at the development stage. 

 

 

 

Piper: a member of the crew of Storm Hawks (Nerd Corps)

 

 

So from a sales standpoint, it’s good for business if your show reflects America’s ethnic diversity.

 

 
 
 

Custard (in centre) from The Save-ums (DHX Media)

 

It’s interesting to note that in even in preschool animation – which often dodges the issue of ethnicity altogether and broadens their international marketability by having a cast of animals characters or brightly-coloured creatures – sometimes care is taken to give a non-human character a black vibe, for example Custard from The Save-Ums (voiced by African-Canadian actor Jordan Francis) or Tyrone and Uniqua in the US series The Backyardigans.  Those producers feel it’s important for young children to have their “reality” reflected vocally.

 MORE IS MORE

 Of course, I’m not saying we have too many black characters in Canadian animation.  What I’m hoping for is that in future, show creators will include even more characters of all ethnicities in their series.  I’ve also written for Asian-Canadian and Latino-Canadian and First Nations characters in the past and it would be great to write for them more often.  Canadian animation viewers from a non-European background ought to be able to see themselves  represented onscreen, especially when TV programming is supported by Canadian tax dollars!

 So to all the writers, show creators, production companies and broadcasters out there: Canada welcomes  people of all cultures and ethnicities to make this country their home.  Let’s help our animation industry reflect our reality.

Is Ruby's best friend Louise (left) a "bunny of colour" on Max and Ruby? (9 Story Entertainment/Nelvana)

 

David Dias Twitter chat transcript August 14, 2011

October 18, 2011 Leave a comment

As if his recent appearance on TV Writer Podcast (linked in the post below) weren’t enough to inspire and inform, here’s a link to the transcript of his August 14 twitter chat session!

http://www.tvwriterchat.com/2011/08/transcript-from-aug-14-2011-chat.html

Categories: Uncategorized

David Dias interview on TV Writer Podcast

October 18, 2011 Leave a comment
click picture to view podcast

Need some inspirational and helpful hints on working in the animation industry?  Check out this fun and informative podcast.

Canadian animation writer/creative producer/story editor David Dias speaks with TV Writer Podcast host Gray Jones in a one–hour interview jammed-packed with tasty tidbits.   “All the ins and outs of writing animation for all ages, including many great tips on breaking in, pitching, and getting your idea off the ground. ”

FYI: TV Writer Podcast is sponsored by Scriptmag.com and Final Draft (the makers of screenwriting and production software.)  
 
Totally true personal anedcote: long ago, the producers of this animated series I’d been assigned two freelance scripts on wanted all their writers to use Final Draft.   (Up till then, my writer friends and I were using MS Word and Movie Magic Screenwriter).   After I bought the new program, the story editors took over writing the scripts for the rest of series.   As we say in the industry, “ARRRRGH!”  I was so annoyed at having to lay out hundreds of bucks and having to get up to speed on a whole new program just to write two scripts!   But as it turned out, Final Draft became the software used by most of the series I’ve worked on since.   Bottom line, whatever scriptwriting software your story editor wants you to use, you pretty much have to use too.  Just remember to keep the receipt.   It’s tax deductable.
Categories: Uncategorized

Sponging Off the System: Are Animation Writers Merchants of Stupidity?

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Does Spongebob soak up frontal lobe function?

Once again, animated television – the beloved medium which puts roofs over our heads, coffee in our cups, and digital cable programming into our PVRs – has come under attack.

Some researchers from the University of Virginia showed 20 4-year-old kids an episode of Spongebob Squarepants then had them do some tests to measure their “executive function.” 

Executive function.  Sounds like a cocktail party for a bunch of CEOs, but apparently it’s something happens in your frontal lobes.  It comes in handy when you want to learn stuff, keep organized, control your impulses and learn from your mistakes.  (If my lobes had better executive function, I probably would not have gone to see Green Lantern this summer.)

Caillou celebrates his intellectual superiority.

Anyway, the Spongbob kids reportedly performed more poorly than the 20 kids who watched an episode of Caillou or the 20 kids who drew pictures instead.  This led to the researchers to conclude that fast-cutting quick-paced shows like Spongebob could impede the learning process.

Okay, lots of folks, including a spokesdude from Nickelodeon, have already pointed out the flaws in this study…including the small sample size and the fact that Caillou is a preschool show and Spongebob is aimed at older kids.  Or that the study didn’t try leaving a gap between the watching of the programs and taking of the tests.

But what if the results aren’t bogus?  What if a study with a larger sample of kids comes up with the same results?  What if we, the animation writers, are contributing to the stupidity of children?

The solution to this particular problem seems pretty simple to me.  PARENTS OF PRESCHOOLERS: DON’T LET YOUR KIDS WATCH SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS BEFORE THEY TAKE AN EXECUTIVE FUNCTION TEST!

Let’s say some kids shouldn’t watch TV before trying to learn something.  (And let’s say I shouldn’t have watched two of episodes of Kick Buttowski on YouTube before writing this post.  Think of how more coherent it could’ve been!) 

Then let’s say parents should control what shows their kids watch and when they watch them and for how long.  After all, raising and educating their children is their job. 

Our job is to provide a product.  Some might say a seductive, addictive product…

Can too much Andrenalini impede learning?

ARE WE BIG ANIMATION?

TV has often been blamed for producing a generation of obese, socially-misfit couch potatoes with attention deficit disorder and an inability to relate to real people…but enough about animation writers. 

This is about the children and the money we make writing for them.

Is animation the Big Tobacco of television programming?  The more eyes on screens and the more brand loyalty generated for spin-off merchandise, the higher the profits for networks and production companies.  Which leads to more work for us, the animation writers and story editors. 

By making our scripts as entertaining as we possibly can, are we part of a system designed to hook viewers at an early age, leading to a lifelong dependence on the medium?  After all, they do call it viewing habits.

Well, whether the general public realizes it or not, writers, story editors, producers and network execs all work towards keeping their kids’ shows age-appropriate, with positive messages about friendship and cooperation, self-confidence and persistence, consequences for one’s actions and all that good stuff.   And animation has had a long association with educational programming, teaching kids about the world around them and helping them with literacy and numeracy and problem-solving skills.

Lots of things in life are bad for you if consumed in large amounts…booze, Facebook, Chocolate Cheerios…and TV is no different.  It’s up to parents, caregivers and teachers to help kids learn to moderate their consumption of, well, everything.

But I’m willing to do my part.  So hey kids, turn off that TV and go run around outside for a while.  Just not when my episode is on.

Categories: Uncategorized

Professional Spewicide? As easy as falling off a blog…

August 5, 2011 Leave a comment

A 24-year-old reporter recently quit his job as a bureau chief for a Canadian TV network. In his blog, he wrote a lengthy post to tell his friends, family, and followers exactly why he was fed up with the broadcast news industry.

His beefs included (a) his network owned the copyright on his work product (b) as a reporter, he wasn’t allowed to state his personal opinion on issues (c) the networks think if their news reporters don’t look like Ken or Barbie, they’ll lose viewers (d) the Prince William and Kate tour of Canada got way too much media coverage.

My first thought was…he’s 24, and he was a already a bureau chief?  Impressive!  I’ve got Super-VHS tapes older than this guy!

Life's a Chilly Beach when you hate your job.

My next thought was…maybe he should’ve researched the current climate of his chosen field before he got into it.  If you can’t take the cold, get off the rink!

My final thought was…won’t every potential employer be able to read his Jerry Maguire-like manifesto online for years to come…and judge him for better or for worse on his public declaration of how much his job sucked?

Another disgruntled employee, this time of an upscale grocery chain, emailed his letter of resignation to everyone in his company.  In it, he slagged over his supervisors and co-workers in a vitriolic and possibly libelous way.  The email got posted online and went viral.

People seem to get a vicarious thrill out of these “I quit and f*** you” stories – maybe because a lot of people wish they could afford to quit their own soul-sucking job and would love to expose their horrible bosses to the derision of the whole wide world web.  

Beware of a flaming mouse.

 But thanks to the archival power of the internet, the flames from the bridges someone e-burns today may be blazing brightly for the rest of their career.  People might want to think twice before they click on that incendiary “send” or “post” button.

 As a professional animation writer, you need to be especially careful about what words you put out into the public forum.  As tempting as it may be to gripe openly about a hellish gig that’s driving you nuts, writing negative things about a client can actually violate the terms of your contract.  

Re-read that non-disclosure clause.  It limits you to brief “non-derogatory” comments about the show you’re working on – the kind of newsy tidbits you’d slip into a bio or post on your blog.  Signing a contract means you agree not to publicize anything else about the production: what’s in the series bible, the story lines, your drafts, the terms of your contract, any of those annoying notes you’re being given…

And it’s not just the comments you deliberately post to the public that you have to watch.  These days, you need to be discreet in your private communications as well. When every email, text message, tweet, blog or social media posting can be copied and forwarded by accident or on purpose, no form of digital communication is 100% private. 

So limit any work-related rants to the verbal kind, and deliver them only to your partner, your agent, your therapist, your bartender, or your friends – where the hearsay rule applies.  Anything else could be professional spewicide.

Thumper says, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all...unless you've already swept the room for listening devices."

What Bugs Me In Animation?

June 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Bugs and animation have long enjoyed an insectuous relationship.  And why not?  Bugs come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours; they can walk, crawl, wriggle, hop and fly.  That gives animators a lot to, er, draw on.

Bugs come with a built-in hero/villain dynamic that we can tap into for character and story.  Bugs instinctively arouse our sympathies or fears; they can be cute and vulnerable or scary and dangerous.  They pollinate our plants and make us honey; or they can suck our blood or kill us with a venomous sting.

That’s not what bugs me.

What does bug me?  Inaccurate bug anatomy.  Specifically: number of legs.

Take a look at Jiminy Cricket, one of the first animated insects to hop onto the big screen.  The first thing you notice about him, other than that he’s quite a snappy dresser, is that he has two arms and two legs.  Total number of appendages: four.  That’s TWO less than his real-life cricket counterpart.

This bugs me.

I  don’t know why exactly.  Intellectually, I get that it’s easier to animate four limbs than six.  Similarly, hands are often simplified in animation: four digits (three fingers and a thumb) rather than five.  When it comes to digits or legs, four of anything in a design is enough to give the impression of “lots.”

 I had hoped that computer-assisted animation would usher in a glorious anatomically-correct era of insect animation.  In 1998, two rival movies with CGI insect characters were released: Antz (Dreamworks) and A Bug’s Life (Pixar/Disney).  To my amazement, the ants in Antz actually had six legs!  To my disappointment, the ants in A Bug’s Life had four.  To their credit, their grasshopper villains had six.  The caterpillar had even more.

Canadian productions have gone either way when it comes to insect limb count in bug-based animated series.

Roboroach

In Roboroach (Portfolio Entertainment/Helix Animation) Rube the cockroach has six legs but his brother Reg has four.

Erky Perky

In Erky Perky (CCI Entertainment/Ambience Entertainment) both bugs have four limbs.

In Maya the Bee (developed by Thunderbird Films and Studio 100) the bees have four limbs, but Flip the Grasshopper has six.

Six-leggedness seems to be used when animators want to give emphasize the “bugginess” of a character for comic or scary effect.  When characters have four limbs, they more closely mimic the human behaviour the animators are sending up by anthropomorphizing bugs.

Let’s face it.  When a character sings, dances, moralizes, and wears a three-piece suit, gloves and a top hat, and carries an umbrella, he’s not really an insect.  He’s just a little person who just happens to have a green exoskeleton!

And that’s the important thing to keep in mind when it comes to writing for non-human characters.  Talking insects (or animals or robots for that matter) stand in for humans.  Their characters need to be just as consistent, their actions as well-motivated, their reactions as believable as if they were actual people.

What does set insect characters apart is any non-human capabilities they might have: flight, strength, flexibility, multitasking, the ability to cling to the sides and undersides of objects, or to bounce back from being squashed or swatted with no lasting physical damage.  A canny animation writer will exploit the visual possibilities to the fullest.

Exploit a bug's non-human abilities and your writing will shine.

And one last thing that bugs me about bugs in animation…inaccurate portrayal of gender roles in insect communities!  In nature, it’s the females who do all the work in beehives and ant colonies.  The male drones just hang out and mate with the queen.  Of course, if you’re writing for a children’s series, that’s a scenario that’s not going to, er, fly.

Bee Movie's "Pollen Jocks" ought to be in the home hive, barefoot and impregnating.