The Born Freelancer on Animation Writing, Part 1

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.


In my last post, I talked about writing radio plays. I especially addressed those of you who would normally never consider such work and pointed out the benefits to you as a working professional. Today I’d like to talk about another genre that many freelancers might not consider but really should: animation.

Here in Canada we have a long and fine tradition of creating animated programming, especially for children. Turn on your television at any time of day or night anywhere in the world and you are bound to see a Canadian animated series showing somewhere in the 500 channel universe. Most were written by freelancers who like to tell a good story just like you and me.

Yes, I have been privileged to spend time down the animation writing mine shaft and have emerged alive with many good memories (as well as a few bad ones!)

What does it take to be an animation writer? My top ten list (in no particular order):

* A powerful, vivid imagination.

* A good sense of story and structure.

* A good ear for dialogue and delineating characters.

* A good visual sense.

* Ability to write to deadline.

* Ability to be a team player.

* Adaptability.

* Ability to really sell a pitch.

* Ability to integrate into a preexisting set up.

* Desire to maximize your output.


Some of these qualities overlap a bit but I have broken it down in order to look at each component more fully.

And so, to paraphrase a popular comedic routine, you may have what it takes to be an animation writer if you possess…

(1) A vivid imagination

Writing animation is very much like writing for radio or a novel. You can make characters fly, travel through time, change shape or walk on their eyebrows. It is a marvelous vehicle for truly inventive writers capable of expressing their imaginative flights of fancy in written form.


(2) A strong sense of story and structure

Most animated shows follow a fairly rigid formulaic structure. Within a very set prescribed time so many things must occur to advance the story in so many ways. Watch a variety of shows and you’ll begin to notice how each show has its own structure: so many scenes, so many acts. But above all else a good story will always be required. A solid story that can be rewritten into many shapes and twisted about by so many external requirements and still survive intact is the best story of all.


(3) A good ear for dialogue, characters

Your characters should not all sound like you nor each other; they usually will require idiomatic mannerisms that make each one distinctive and readily identifiable within seconds. Good dialogue has a rhythm, like music. The ear can tell when there’s too many words when the eye may not always see it. Animated characters are often broadly drawn but depending upon the intent of the series they may still require inspired words to bring to life their chosen characteristics.


(4) A good visual sense

Obvious but often overlooked. You are dealing with a primarily visual medium. Your story and your characters must be portrayed through action as well as dialogue, perhaps even more so (subject to limitations of the budget.) You may have a good ear for dialogue but you can’t keep your characters standing around emoting. This is not live theatre.

(5) Ability to work under deadlines

Like most other genres, animation will impose strict deadlines. But these will often change on you, without notice, and almost always end up giving you less time than you had anticipated/planned for. This is due to the other members of the creative team, e. g. animators, producers, voice actors, producers, etc. all having unexpected changes made in their own schedules. So you must be fully prepared to live by the clock and die by the clock and always know that there is almost never as much time left on the clock as you think there is.


(6) Ability to work as a team player

You may write as an individual. You may write as a partner in a creative writing team. Being such a partner has its distinct advantages when writing animation as one of you may be better at one skill set than another and you end up balancing each other out. But you will also need to take sometimes heavily conflicting direction from a script editor and any number of producers who may have a say. Not to mention network executives who will also have a say. If you are not prepared for all this creative jousting you should look elsewhere for suitable employment.


(7) Total adaptability/flexibility

You may have written a great pitch. You might have written a winning story outline. Your first draft may have delighted everyone who reads it. But suddenly the art director says there’s some budgetary problem and the entire episode you set at sea will now have to be reset on a waterless mountain top (which they have already drawn and paid for). And oh, could you please have the whole script revised by tomorrow morning at 9 am because, as you know, the voice actors are already booked to record. Oh, didn’t we tell you?

(8) Ability to pitch and sell yourself

Your ability to go in and sell yourself is possibly as important as the first words you will submit on paper. Of course it will be those first few stories that you pitch in writing that will either impress or have you blocked when you first try to get in the animation door. Your stories that you pitch will need to be absolutely the best you can muster. If you get the call to go in person to meet a producer or script editor you will need to be brimming with even more story ideas, ready to dive in and show them that you can do even more than they are currently asking from you.


(9) Ability to creatively integrate

You may be the most innovative, creative and inspired writer in the world. But if you want to write for an established animation show, you must know how to integrate into the existing set up. You will have already read the show’s bible and as many scripts as possible that have already been produced to see how it is done. Never mind that you know how to do it better, that can wait until you get your own series. Right now you will need to prove you can work within the existing formula, make it look good and fresh and exciting without rocking the boat too much or trying to innovate too wildly and change the whole foundation of the series. It is a tricky balance. As a freelancing outsider you will be expected to bring in fresh, new exciting ideas. But you will also be expected to stay well within the established formula that sold the series to the network in the first place.


(10) A desire to maximize your creative output

If they like your work, and they like you, you could be on your way to repeat assignments. Other shows may ask you to write for them too. It’s no surprise that the busiest writers in the genre are perhaps the most sought after writers in the genre! If you get really prolific you may step up to becoming a script editor. It doesn’t always happen but if it does you may well be stepping up and onto a fast moving creative conveyor belt that will totally absorb all your time and energy. For the time that you are lucky enough to ride that truly memorable ride, you must be ready to fully commit to it and to give it your all.

If this sounds like you, stay tuned. In a future post I will take you further into the process of getting into the wild and wonderful world of animation writing. Meanwhile…


To prepare, start your research

Start looking at animated shows more critically. Don’t worry at the moment if they’re hiring or out of production. Try to get a sense of their structure, strengths and weaknesses. You may find scripts online as well as show bibles (a document, often quite bulky and usually in a constant state of evolution, which outlines the whole series concept from start to finish.) Get a sense of where your own interests lie. Do you want to write for preschoolers? Young kids? Preteens? Teens? Older kids? Adults? What audience demographic do you feel most comfortable addressing? Who would best “get” the stories you want to tell and the way in which you ideally wish to tell them?


The spec script

Then, try writing a spec (short for a “speculative”) script. That is, a script simply for your own professional development, of a series for which you would wish to work. Most spec scripts (in my experience) are rarely sold but if they are any good they will act as a sales tool to help you get in the door to sell yourself and your stories to another series. Oddly enough, spec scripts seem to almost never help to sell yourself to a series for which the script is written. A series’ producers know their show only all too well and see all the flaws and beginners’ mistakes that an outsider’s spec script contains. But if they like it and it is for another series, they can perhaps more readily overlook its flaws and imagine you writing for them after receiving a period of intensive guidance under their direction.

Please note, although it may be debated in some quarters, this is not at all the same as writing for free or giving away your services for free. You are in reality writing for yourself to upgrade and consolidate your professional skills and to create a document that will ultimately be a powerful sales tool. Your goal is always to be paid for your services as a freelancing professional. However, if you have no produced animated scripts in your portfolio, producers will still need to see evidence of your abilities to deliver a successful script in their genre. Of course, if you already have produced animation scripts in your portfolio you should use them and not bother about spec scripts. If there is a better way to do this (acceptable to producers) almost all writers (myself included) would love to know!


Posted on November 22, 2013 at 9:15 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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