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Animated Insights for Non Artists:
Interview with Dean Stefan
by Shannon Muir

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 British series."

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

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