Insights for Non Artists:
Interview with Dean Stefan
It's been a staple
for decades -- television shows based on other source material,
be it books, movies, games, or a variety of other things. Perhaps,
however, one of the biggest challenges comes when a television
show (whether original or adapted from prior source material)
generates a spinoff or is remade years later. To take a look at
the pros and cons of working on a sequel or remake series, I exchanged
questions with Dean Stefan, who at the time of the interview worked
as a Story Editor of the 2002 revival of HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS
OF THE UNIVERSE. His credits also include Producer/Story Editor
for JACKIE CHAN ADVENTURES, Story Editor for MEN IN BLACK, Story
Editor for EXTREME GHOSTBUSTERS, Head Writer for CATDOG, and five
years staff writing at Walt Disney Television Animation for shows
like DARKWING DUCK, TALE SPIN, GOOF TROOP, and QUACK PACK.
First, I noted that
Dean's cropped up as a story editor on series that have served
as sequels to successful animated shows like EXTREME GHOSTBUSTERS,
and also been at the helm on series that retell successful animated
stories such as the 2002 version of HE-MAN, in addition to his
work on shows directly adapted from other media. That left me
wondering if he felt any great pressure that he had expectations
to live up to, or not. "Probably more so with HE-MAN then
with EXTREME GHOSTBUSTERS," Dean replied. "Coupla reasons
for that. First off, GHOSTBUSTERS is/was a comedy. I think that
gives you certain license. If you’re funny, many sins are
forgiven. Whereas in HE-MAN, you have mythic-fantasy-action-adventure.
Fans of this genre tend to be pretty hardcore (think of Star Wars,
Trekkies, etc.) They know the world inside and out – they
know the characters. Speaking of which, we had the advantage in
EXTREME GHOSTBUSTERS of having, for the most part, a new set of
characters, with only Janine, Egon and Slimer being holdovers.
So we were creating a new show in many ways. Compare that with
HE-MAN, where virtually all of the principal good and bad guys
are the same as in the old. The challenge then becomes: how do
you keep what’s good, improve upon what isn’t –
attract new fans while not alienating the old. And in so doing,
you wanna still not lose that magical component, that 'likeability'
or charm, that made the old show and its characters so well-loved."
Dean went on to cite
an additional example for comparison. "Another show I worked
on, MEN IN BLACK, had a different set of challenges. You’re
essentially basing it off of a movie. You need to find what elements
of the film can be extracted, extrapolated, and played out over
the course of a series. In that case, the 'heavy lifting' had
been done by others -- Duane Capizzi, in particular." Unlike
the previous examples where he worked with them from practically
the outset, "I was coming in on the 3rd and 4th seasons,
so my challenge was more along the lines of keeping it fresh,
adding a few new characters to the mix. Coming back to the theme
of your question – in a sense, any time you take over as
story editor of a show that’s been around a few seasons,
you’re doing a 'sequel' of sorts. You’re building
on what’s come before.
"Well, as most
of us toiling here in the fields of animation know, you take ‘em
as they come," he said when I asked how Dean ended up working
on his first sequel or remake series. "Remake, reimagining,
retelling, reboot….series based on <<insert word here
-- movie, comic book, stuffed doll, screensaver>>> ...cartoons
seem to come from any and all quarters. So the simple answer is:
I was offered the job. I believe it was on THE MASK."
It seemed to me that preexisting standards to live up to would
present some interesting challenges, compared to story editing
concepts completely new and untested, so I asked Dean what his
take was. "Gives you something to build on. I like having
parameters and rules – long as they can be stretched and
added to. MEN IN BLACK would be a good example. There were a lot
of parameters set by the feature and the cartoon more or less
built on those: A secret organization whose job is to police aliens
who live on earth, unbeknownst to the general populace; the rookie
and the veteran; the cool versus the square; aliens hiding in
unexpected places, up to no good. That’s pretty much everything
you need to build stories on – i.e. an interesting world,
compelling characters and ongoing conflict.
"As for HE-MAN,
I enjoy the epic fantasy world. It’s amazing how a fantasy
setting can give you opportunities to do stories relevant to real
world problems; you can tackle issues such as good and evil, morality,
adoption, addiction – you name it. But because it’s
cloaked in 'another galaxy, another time,' it won’t feel
heavy-handed. Whereas if you did that in a 'gang comedy/kids at
school' kinda show, it would feel preachy and movie-of-the-weeky.
(I think I’ve coined a really bad phrase there.) "
When asked if there
was anything else he enjoyed about working in pre-established
universes while bringing his own take to the table, Dean added,
"Well, certainly, you always bring your own abilities and
sensibilities to the show at hand. Presumably, that is why they
hired you. On the other hand, if I were to bring a certain style
of banter that was used in GHOSTBUSTERS to the HE-MAN universe,
it most likely wouldn’t work.
"To go off on
a slight tangent, I think that’s something that inexperienced
writers often don’t understand. Job one is: you need to
write in the vernacular of the particular show you’re on.
For example, you may be hired for HE-MAN because someone loved
your JACKIE CHAN script, but it was because it was a great JACKIE
CHAN script. Don’t give the producers a JACKIE CHAN sensibility
for HE-MAN – give them a HE-MAN sensibility. To put it another
way, you may be the best writer on FRASIER, but when you get hired
to do a script for REBA, then FRASIER-type jokes ain’t the
right tone. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised
at how many writers fall into this 'one size fits all' approach.
So, you really need to find the 'voice' of the show. Each is unique
-- not all action adventure shows…or comedies are created
equal. Finding the language, the tone of the show is as important
as how you approach structure, plot, etc. "
As to what he doesn't
like about working in pre-existing universes: "Well, of course
you can be frustrated if you feel limited. Certain parameters,
backstory and characters are gonna be part of the show –
that’s a given. But I try and go into any show I’m
working on realizing what the realities and parameters are. Knowing
what you’re getting into is always the best way to avoid
frustration – and to keep your sanity."
One of the big challenges
with a sequel or remake series involves the existence of a strong
fanbase of the predecessor show. In regard to his thoughts as
to the importance of the feelings of the original series fans
when approaching a sequel or remake series, Dean explained, "Well,
again with HE-MAN, I’d have to say very important. The fan
base has remained huge for almost twenty years. Indeed, I'd say
a major reason that the show was relaunched was due to the ongoing
enthusiasm of those fans. To ignore them wouldn’t just be
impolite, it'd be downright foolish. They deserve to have something
that they'll be pleased with. And it gives us something to shoot
for: we know if we can please the hardcore, the avid fans, we've
done a good job.
"Having said that,
the danger of this is that if you only cater to the pre-existing
fan base, you may not have a successful show – because they
may not be the target demographic (i.e. kids)," referring
to the goals set by the producers and financial backers of the
show. "So the challenge is to reintroduce characters and
mythology in a compelling way – which will feel fresh to
the old fans, yet understandable to the new."
I met Dean for the
first time at Comic-Con International: San Diego 2002 after watching
him as part of a panel that appeared at the convention in conjunction
with the release of the new HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE
series. "Well, it was great to meet some of the He-Man fans
in person," he said when speaking about the panel experience.
"I wasn’t surprised that they were enthusiastic –
I mean they’ve waited a long time for HE-MAN to return to
the airwaves. They are passionate about HE-MAN -- they really
love the old show, the toys, and the mythology. I knew I had to
be 'on my game' and do my homework, as chances are I’d be
asked questions about some obscure character or some episode from
Season Two of the old Filmation series. And sure enough, some
of the questions were doozies. If anything surprised me, it was
how savvy the old fans were about the realities of the cartoon
business. They understand that this show will have to appeal to
a whole new generation and therefore change and updating are going
to have to happen. I was pleasantly surprised at how readily most
of the old fans embrace change."
I closed by asking
Dean if he would work on another sequel or remake series, given
the joys and challenges he'd cited earlier. "I would work
on any show that I felt I could sink my teeth into. Regardless
of whether it’s a sequel a remake or a totally new idea,
fact is you’ve still gotta come up with fresh stories every
week. So in that sense, it’s always new. When all is said
and done, a sequel or remake has to stand on its own, become an
entity unto itself, and be judged upon its own merits. If it’s
good, it may wind up as popular, or more so than the original.
Consider three of the most beloved and 'original' shows on TV:
FRASIER was a sequel to CHEERS; THE SIMPSONS was spun-off from
THE TRACY ULLMAN SHOW, and ALL IN THE FAMILY was a remake of a
here to discuss this column in the dFX
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.
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