Archive for the ‘Tips’ Category

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…


Writing For Animation Panel – Actra Conference (What Actors can bring to the craft and Suggested Books)

March 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Animation writers and recovering performers Doug Hadders, Rob Pincombe, Rob Tinkler and Shelley Hoffman get animated at the Actra Toronto Performers Conference last month.

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!


Sketch of the Actra Conference Writing For Animation Panel by Jenny Jaimie Ferenczi. *

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.

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