Monday, April 27, 2009

Animated Tips on Writing with Patric Verrone

In 1960 a little animated series appeared from the mists of prehistoric time to take its place as the reigning king of all prime-time animated sitcoms (of course, back then we just called it a cartoon). The Flintstones was an instant classic that lasted six years and was nominated for a prime-time Emmy. Canceled in 1966, it would take over two decades for a successor to be crowned. In 1989 a new prime-time animated series aired on the fledgling Fox Network. It followed the exploits of a politically incorrect, dysfunctional off-beat family called, The Simpsons. Twenty years later that cartoon still reigns at the top of the prime-time animated series list; but not alone. The Simpsons’ success paved the way for the likes of Futurama, King Of The Hill, Family Guy, America Dad and of course, South Park.

As I write this, Animation Domination rules Fox’s Sunday night prime-time line-up, proving that cartoons are not just for kids anymore. And while the artists who create the animated series are struggling to be equally compensated with live-action TV series writers, it’s a safe bet they aren’t going away anytime soon. The beauty of an animated series is that if it’s a hit, it can have a very long shelf life. No worries about aging actors or contrived plotlines getting old. Eventually you’ll find a new audience in the next generation.

With that in mind, this week’s guest interview is with Patric Verrone, prime-time animation survivor, best known for his work on Futurama.

Verrone graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1981 where he was an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. He began his career as a variety show writer including a job as monologue writer for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Shortly after his work on The Tonight Show, Patric went to write on the popular animated program Rugrats and then on to Muppets Tonight (with which he won an Emmy). His animation credits include Pinky and The Brain, The Simpsons, The Critic and Futurama which he wrote and produced, including four Futurama direct-to-DVD movies. Verrone also developed the Cartoon Network series Class of 3000.

Jeffrey Berman: How did you get your start as an animation writer?

Patric Verrone: Although I had written an episode of Rugrats with my wife Maiya Williams (the only produced writing on which we've ever collaborated), I consider my real start in animation to have been my staff job on The Critic. Before that I had worked in comedy-variety and late night but when my old college buddies Mike Reiss and Al Jean left The Simpsons to create a show of their own, I could not refuse their offer. With the exception of two years writing for the Muppets, I've never really left animation.

JB: How much freedom do you have when writing an animated series and what, if any, are the limitations?

PV: Animation has tremendous freedom. Unlike live action, you can write a scene with a hundred extras climbing the Eiffel Tower and have the next scene take place on the moon with elaborate machinery and extraterrestrial creatures and then have the next scene take place inside someone's colon (though I don't recommend it). The only limitation I've ever experienced is the "pencil mileage" necessary to draw thousands of people into a crowd scene but, once the animators resign themselves to the task, they become as invested in it as anyone.

JB: When writing a show like Futurama are you less concerned with plot and more focused on jokes or is the process the same as a live action sitcom?

PV: It's no different than a live action sitcom. Futurama often had intricate plots that relied on satirizing science fiction and fantasy concepts, but, once we had an acceptable outline of the story, job one was packing it with jokes and obscure science and math references.

JB: Can you break down your writing routine on a typical episode of Futurama?

PV: It's a system that was created for The Simpsons, and has permeated throughout the prime time animation world: After getting a basic story premise approved by show creator David X. Cohen, the writer who is assigned to write the episode supervises the breaking of a three act story (using index cards on a cork board). Once that's approved, a portion of the staff spends a few days pitching jokes for each scene in the show with the writer who then has a week to put together a detailed outline that will incorporate a beat-by-beat breakdown of each scene (often with extensive dialogue sections). After getting notes from David and, time permitting, another round of joke pitches, the writer then has two weeks to write a first draft of the script. That draft then goes to the table and the staff spends a day or two per act rewriting and another day polishing it. It then gets read by the cast at a table reading with the animation directors and other executives present, and the writers have about a day to rewrite it before an audio track is recorded. The animators use the script and edited audio track to draw detailed storyboards which David and the episode writer annotate (and sometimes rewrite a bit). That storyboard is turned into a full length rough animation video called an animatic which the writing staff watches and does a day-long line-by-line rewrite. The new lines are recorded, a new audio track is created for the changed animatic, and it then goes to Korea for color animation. Several months later it returns and, once again, the writing staff watches the production and does a final, day-long rewrite (not as extensive as for the animatic because changes are expensive at this stage). The whole process takes about ten months.

JB: What advice would you give to writers that want to break into the world of animation?

PV: Learn auto mechanics. If you don't get a Writers Guild contract (and outside of network prime time it is very hard) you will be paid very little, get few benefits, little creative control or recognition, and have no residuals or back end participation. There's an almost equally non-lucrative way to produce animation, which is to generate it yourself as original online content. If you're lucky enough to garner some interest, you will have a lot more bargaining power when the studios try to take advantage of you and you won't be driving down everyone else's wages by taking the work that established animation writers won't do because of the lack of pay and benefits. My only other piece of advice is, if you do hit it big, hire me.