Animated Insights by Shannon Muir.
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Animated Insights for Non Artists:
A World of Choices
by Shannon Muir

It's kind of funny looking back, but I grew up thinking that writers and actors were the only jobs you could get on an animated show if you weren't an artist. Not until I actually came to Los Angeles and got the chance to visit the Jumanji production offices (where I'd end up with my first job) did I see all the people that made a show come together. Even then, I didn't see all of them. Recordings and post-production didn't happen in-house at that studio, like it does at some others.

You may be sure you know exactly what you want to do. If so, more power to you. When I first got to Los Angeles, I thought I did. I knew I wanted to write for animation. Period. However, after taking my first job as a Production Assistant, I began to realize how much I needed to know and how many choices I really had. If I'd had access to those career options before I came to Los Angeles, perhaps I would have approached things differently. I really don't know.

My background definitely does influence the approach I have on my columns. You see, every time I write one of these pieces, I primarily envision a young person who doesn't live in a major metro area, doesn't have access to an extensive library or bookstore -- just plugged into the Internet and driven by a dream. While I try to make these accessible to everyone, this is the audience I want to reach the most. Who knows what new perspectives may lie within that can be brought to this industry that might change things for the better? Even if it's just one person, I wouldn't want that person to miss out becoming part of this community.

Because, once upon a time, I knew a little girl in a relatively small town who dreamed of working in animation but had no clue of all her possible roads until after she wound up in Los Angeles. Though lucky to make contact with several professional writers from her Washington State home while growing up, and fortunate enough to have access to a university library, that was all she knew of the industry. Much remained ahead left to learn. If there's anyone out there who's anything like that, I'd like to make it a bit easier on them. So much of what I learned in my early years came from other professionals reaching out to help me, and now that I'm in a position to do so, I want to start giving back.

Also, not that many people are offering resources to the non-artist in animation, at least not yet. I honestly don't know of many other websites. Acclaimed animation writer Jeffrey Scott does a regular column for Animation Magazine. As far as books go, only Producing Animation (by Catherine Winder and Zahra Dowlatabadi) has come out to touch on the areas of budgeting, scheduling, and roles of the non-artist staff. If you're interested in timing, there's usually a chapter devoted to timing and exposure sheets in many books geared to animators, but that's about it. I only know of three books that deal with animation writing in whole or in part. The latter of these is J. Michael Straczynski's The Complete Book of Scriptwriting, Revised; the comprehesive books are Marilyn Webber's Gardner's Guide to Animation Scriptwriting: The Writer's Road Map, and a new book from Jeffrey Scott simply entitled How to Write for Animation (which goes above and beyond his magazine column). With the exception of Mr. Straczynski's book, the others titles have appeared relatively recently, indicating an emerging need (or at least the acknowledgement) of resources for the non-artists in animation. I would love to be joined by more non-artist viewpoints whose backgrounds are similar or different from my own, and I am willing to add my voice to the world of resources, especially for those just considering their career options.

As to my own choices, I've been in Los Angeles for five and a half years and don't really regret any of the choices I've made, I just wish I'd had more information at the time. I got out of animation production a year after moving here to further my education in screenwriting, since writing is what I moved down here to do to begin with. I'd written a few sample episodes of shows, but saw places I could improve. Honestly, I didn't feel I could concentrate while I was on a production. I made sure to still go to Comic-Con International: San Diego yearly to keep in touch with writers I'd met, and later went on to write articles about the business. So I never drifted totally away from animation, but might have benefited from having more resources to plug into and decide my course of direction.

At first, I felt reassured that distancing myself from the production side to focus on writing was the way to go. During a panel discussion at Comic-Con in 2000 that I was moderating on "Breaking and Entering: Careers in Animation," one of the panelists encouraged me to share my background. I admitted I'd previously worked in production but got out to further my writing education, because a writer was what I wanted to be. As the panel continued, I began to learn by listening to the panelists that many of them survived doing other entertainment-related jobs, particularly administrative work. At the very least, that allowed them to keep networking until opportunity came. That's what I was doing at the time, so I felt pretty solid about what I was doing.

What really opened my eyes was when I took a class offered at UCLA Extension in Animation Writing. One of my instructors, Greg Weisman (who I've since invterviewed), began his career as an animation executive, then became a producer, and then expanded into writing, story-editing, and voice directing. This completely boggled my mind. For some reason, I had gotten it into my head that I couldn't have used my production road to break into writing, that one would keep me from the other. Greg was living proof that was the farthest thing from the truth!

What I learned in the end was that in order to become the best writer I could be, I had to not limit myself. Producers can be writers, after all. I'd been a Production Assistant and Coordinator, a path that ultimately does lead to the rank of Producer. These things are not mutually exclusive.

So, as soon as I completed my education at UCLA Extension, I began looking around for any way back in. I had one interview (for which I made it to the second interview round) for a Post Production Assistant on a fairly long-running prime-time animated series before being offered the Production Coordinator slot on Invader Zim. In that process, I learned yet another thing, which is don't sell yourself short. I'd been out of actively working in the industry -- though I'd still been networking and writing about it in the interim -- for almost four years, and initially thought I should come back in as a Production Assistant because I'd been gone so long. Now that I've been a Production Coordinator again, I've seen going back would have been a mistake for my resume and myself. I stumbled a few times, but the inherent qualities were still there. Now I'm prepared to keep on going, wherever things may take me.

My advice to you: be prepared to do likewise. You never know where this industry may take you. So choose where your interests seem to be, but if you are offered a job in a different area of animation that you seem qualified to handle but isn't what you dreamed, consider giving it a try. You may learn that this different area is where your heart truly lies. Perhaps you'll just learn more about the animation business in general to make you better prepared to pursue that long-term dream. Regardless, you should find every way to can to inform you of your paths for career growth.

If people find what I do helpful, I would appreciate hearing about it. Let me know what works and what doesn't. I mean, I can write for my own credits and personal satisfaction, but if no one else gets anything out of it, I'm not accomplishing what I set out to do. That's what it's all about to me. So get in touch, let me know where I can bring you more information. Odds are, it's something I could benefit from myself.


Click here to discuss this column in the dFX Forums.

Shannon Muir is known in the animation industry for her work as a production coordinator for Nickelodeon's Invader Zim. She also served as a Production Coordinator for Extreme Ghostbusters and a Production Assistant for Jumanji: The Animated Series. Muir is an accomplished writer and often participates on panels or as a guest speaker at conventions like Comic Con International.

Muir moved to Los Angeles in 1996 from Cheney, WA (population approximately 8,000), knowing she wanted to be part of the animation business. Since then, she's never strayed far from making that dream reality, whether it be actively working on a production or writing articles about the industry.

You can email Shannon Muir at shanemuir@aol.com.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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