Thursday, February 11, 2010

From Batman to Star Wars: Writer Steven Melching Gets Animated

In many respects, animation writing is the bastard step-child of TV and screenwriting. When it comes to the act of writing there is absolutely no difference between writing a script for an animated half hour series or that of a live action sitcom. There just isn’t. Any way you twist the glass it’s still writing. Yet for all the strides the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has made towards protecting TV writers, they still don’t cover animation writers. There is no reasonable or logical explanation for it; it’s just a fact of life. Becuse of this the majority of animation writers are denied the same benefits as their cousin live action writers (with the exception of some prime-time animated series). Most animation writers receive no residuals, spotty health coverage and often times little or no recognition for the job they do to entertain us.

And yet, knowing all that, given the opportunity I would like to write an episode of an animated series somee day. It’s practically the only genre of screenwriting I have yet to tackle. I’ve written feature scripts. I’ve written TV movies, spec’d a few sitcoms and even wrote a rom-com pilot. But I’ve never written a script for an animated series. The reason lies partially in the reality that as low as feature film screenwriters are on the Hollywood totem pole, and believe me, we’re pretty low, animated writers are at the bottom of the totem, deep beneath the ground.

It’s probably for this reason I’ve never had an agent or a manager push me in that direction. But I’m still a kid a heart and I still love cartoons. So to be able to write one would be a fantasy for me. Not something I would do for the money and certainly not for the fame but something I would do for love of the art. I might not be able to retire on it but you can bet your bottom dollar I’d be as proud of it as anything else I’ve written.

The beauty of writing animation is there are very few limitations. Anything the writer can imagine can be filmed without fear of changes due to cast or budget limitations because there simply aren’t any. Of course, it would probably help if I had more contacts in the animation world.

I have one now. Steven Melching . Some of the more recognizable series Melching has been associated with include: X-MEN, GODZILLA, AVENGERS, MEN IN BLACK, THE MUMMY, LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES, two different BATMAN series and the crème-de-le-crème, STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS. In the world of animation Melching is one of my heroes.

Jeffrey Berman: How is writing for animation different from writing for live action TV?

Steven Melching: That’s difficult for me to answer, because I haven’t written much live-action television. But I think there are more similarities than differences, especially given how sophisticated animated television has become in the last 15-20 years in terms of storytelling. It’s no longer strictly for children. There’s been an explosion of animated series for the adult audience, and even shows produced primarily for young audiences have strong followings with teenagers, college students, and beyond. Any stigma attached to watching cartoons after a certain age has evaporated.

There’s a misconception that you can “do anything” in animation, that the only limitation to the storytelling is the writer’s imagination. While there is some truth in that, the fact remains that animated series have budgets and schedules, just like live action. Speaking parts still have to be cast and actors paid, and even though actors can perform as many as three voices, we can only afford to hire so many. Each new character, prop, vehicle, and location has to be designed by an artist, which costs money. And some things are just very difficult and/or expensive to animate convincingly, so we try to avoid them. Things like crowd scenes. There might actually be more differences between writing for cell animation versus computer animation than between animation and live-action. Or between writing gag-driven animation versus action/adventure animation.

One thing we tend to do in animation is “direct on the page,” which is discouraged to varying degrees in live-action. Sometimes it gets as detailed as describing every single shot in a scene. So animation scripts are generally much longer than live-action scripts. For example, a script for a 30-minute action/adventure show is usually between 32-36 pages long, but written in the same single-space format as a live-action movie.
And I’m really only talking about half-hour “story driven” animated series. Other cartoons don’t really even have scripts at all. They start with an outline, but are “written in storyboard” by the story artists and director.

JB:. How has your style of writing changed from early in your career when you were writing for The X-MEN to today where you’re currently working on BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD?

SM: If anything, my style has gotten looser and more readable as I got more comfortable with the medium. I think my craft and confidence has improved to the point that I can use fewer words to say the same thing. (Not that you can tell by my long-winded answers to these questions.)

When I started on X-MEN, I loved to write the action sequences. I took great pleasure in plotting out the mayhem blow-by-blow. But as the years pass I find that stuff less and less interesting to actually write. Don’t get me wrong, I love action. I love dreaming up an inventive setpiece. And I love figuring out how to advance story, explore character, and illuminate theme through action, but actually sitting down to type it all up is sometimes tedious.

JB:  How much freedom do you have when it comes to story and character development for a series like STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS? And what, if any, are the limitations? 

THE CLONE WARS is a unique case. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on shows based on beloved properties with long histories and devoted fandoms (X-MEN, BATMAN, HE-MAN, TRANSFORMERS), but never one where the original creator was actively involved. I mean, George Lucas is personally involved in every stage of the process, from approving (and often generating) stories, giving notes on scripts, supervising the design, to shaping the final episodes in the editing room (which can involve a lot of rewriting and restructuring). Also, the director is king at Lucasfilm. That’s just George’s filmmaking philosophy. In large part the script serves as a means to generate film to edit, which then illuminates what elements need to change. It’s a fascinating process.

As a writer for CLONE WARS, I can’t say I had much freedom in terms of the big picture, for several reasons. George Lucas and supervising director Dave Filoni have very specific goals in mind for the stories. And since the series takes place between two movies, there’s only so much development that can take place, at least as far as the major film characters are concerned. Where there is latitude is with the supporting characters, as well as the ones that were created for the show. As a writer, my challenge is to capture that very specific STAR WARS tone, find fun ways to keep the story moving, and invent new little details that are surprising.

JB: In animation what comes first, story or plot? And why?

SM: Story, for sure. To me, story is the broad strokes, the beginning-middle-end, the journey of the characters. Plot is the logic and mechanics required for the story to track and make sense. With some shows, CLONE WARS in particular, a third element is very important: theme. In fact, that often came first. What is the story really about? The answer to that question informed every other aspect of the writing.

JB: Can you break down your writing routine on a typical episode of BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD?

SM: It always starts with a call from producer/story editor Michael Jelenic. He tells me what heroes and villains they want to use, and which ones they don’t. Sometimes he has an idea for a story for me to flesh out, and sometimes he asks me to pitch him ideas. Once we hone in on a story we’ll get together with producer James Tucker and we’ll try to break the story in the room. Throw around ideas, and come out of the meeting with a strong idea of what the “A” and “B” stories are, how they relate, and what the character arcs and relationships are.

Then I go home and write it up in a few pages. Michael and James will give me their thoughts on that premise, and then I’ll either revise it or flesh it out further into a 10-12 page outline that lays out the story scene-by-scene. Then it’s back to Michael and James for another round of notes. Unless we discover major problems with the story, I don’t usually rewrite the outline. I just keep the notes in mind as I write the first draft script. Then another round of notes and another draft. Hopefully the script is in pretty good shape at that point, and Michael does the final polishing himself.
A couple weeks later comes the best part, the cherry on the sundae: the voice recording session! It’s always a blast to go into the studio, see the cast and meet the guest stars -- and we get some GREAT guest stars. One of my favorite memories is seeing comedian Fred Willard in the booth with German horror actor Udo Kier. It’s really satisfying to hear the script come alive. As the writer, I am sometimes asked to clarify things for the director or actors, and write new dialogue on the spot. 

JB:. What is the best advice you can offer to someone who wants to break into the world of animated series as a writer?

SM: Make sure it’s what you really want to do. Don’t think of it as “slumming,” or as a way to earn some quick and easy cash, because it’s neither. Producers can smell that attitude a mile away. It’s vitally important to love animation, and understand its strengths and weaknesses.

Aside from that, I’d give the same advice to someone who wants to break into live-action. First, write a spec animation script (or two) for a current show in the genre you want to find work in, like action/adventure, action/comedy, comedy, or pre-school. Then make contacts with producers and executives any which way you can. Ask them to read your stuff. Or better yet, put yourself in a position where they ask to read your stuff. Get a job at a studio or network, or on a show as a script coordinator or producer’s assistant, so you can move in the right circles. Learn the world and the players. Read animation scripts and watch animated series. Animation is a rather small and insular community, and it can be very difficult to crack, so you have to be patient, and above all, persistent.

1 comment:

  1. Great Article! I love the "behind the scenes" stuff & Batman: The Brave & The Bold is my favorite cartoon right now.

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