Insights for Non Artists:
Interview with Katherine Lawrence
"Freelancing Away from LA"
Among the top questions that I've noticed come up,
either in correspondence to me or being at seminars, is people
wondering if you can freelance in this business away from Los
Angeles. This seems to hold true for artist jobs or non-artist
positions such as writers. Personally, I only know two people
who successfully freelance outside the Los Angeles area, and
only one of those from out of the state. Both are writers.
give readers the best picture of freelancing away from Los
my available resources, I interviewed writer
Katherine Lawrence who currently resides in Arizona though she
didn't start out there. When I asked her how she launched her
career, she replied, "Lots of hard work. No, it wasn't like
'How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.'
Wasn't through the writing at all. I moved to L.A. after college
intending to write scripts, but truth was, I didn't know nearly
enough. Back in 1980 there were only a few books on screenwriting,
almost no contests, and no public Internet. I was left floundering
on my own, and while I did my spec scripts, I hadn't realized
the need for commercial/act breaks, etc., so my live-action specs
television (FANTASY ISLAND stands out in my memory) were inadequate.
Then in 1981 I got to fulfill a many-year-long dream and learned
to play DUNGEONS & DRAGONS," adding that she met fellow
STAR WARS fans who played and were willing to teach her.
"When the CBS Saturday morning series, DUNGEONS & DRAGONS,
aired two years later, I adored the series and realized my first
love had always been animation, since seeing what I now know
to be a Czech production of the Russian fairy tale, THE LITTLE
HUMPBACK HORSE, when I was maybe eight years old," she continued. "So
I sent resumes out to each of the major animation houses, looking
for a job as a secretary (which is what I'd been doing to pay
the bills). As time went by without hearing anything, my attention
focused on Marvel Productions, who produced the D&D series.
It took a full year of letters, phone calls, and resumes every
couple of months before I had the timing right and got an interview
as secretary for the Vice President, Network Development."
did get the job, and she did her best "to learn
everything I could and talked to
everyone at the studio. One of the people I spent time chatting
with was Karl Geurs, producer of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Karl
had a totally brilliant sense of story and a dedication to quality
that made him one of the two best producers Marvel had, in my
opinion. We'd talk storyboards, plot, characters, the original
TSR material, everything about the show, whenever we both had
the opportunity. I never formally pitched to him, nor did a spec
script, we just talked. Then one day he called me down to his
office and told me he'd pitched one of my ideas to CBS and they
wanted me to 'go to outline.' That was one day before my birthday
and so far it's the best
birthday present I've ever received. That script became, 'Citadel
of Shadow,' highlighting the least used character, Sheila, and
introducing Venger's sister. Thus a career was born."
I asked Katherine if she thought she could have found any
way to accomplish
transpired other than moving to Los Angeles. "No," she
affirmed. "TV animation, even in the boom of the mid-1980s,
was based on networking. Knowing people. If you didn't network,
you didn't get work. Today it's theoretically possible to make
the connections via the internet and attending events like ComicCon
International each summer in San Diego, but it would make it
a lot tougher than being in L.A., having face time. Yes, one
story editor comes to mind who lived in Ireland and story edited
via CompuServe, but she had already built her L.A. connections
and her co-story editor lived in L.A. so could attend meetings.
She also had a major reputation as a fantasy/science fiction
which I'm sure helped."
wondered if Katherine ever worked on staff or always worked
that she "started freelancing in
addition to a full-time job as a secretary. Had to write scripts
in two days since I didn't own a computer of my own, so used
the one on my desk at work. Once I quit that job (for various
reasons), I did temp work then got the opportunity to be a staff
Filmation. I knew it was short-term going in, but I was willing
to take my chances. It lasted six weeks and I learned a lot.
Unfortunately that was my last staff job. I continued temping
secretary between script assignments, but it took a major illness
before I went full-time freelance," after getting a case
of mono that became Chronic Fatigue which left her bed-bound
for nearly a year. "Since then I've been freelance. And
in 1993 moved to Arizona, mere months ahead of the Northridge
felt ready to be a freelance away from Los Angeles "[w]hen
I got sick of the riots, the traffic, the noise, the earthquakes,
the general aura of rage that hangs over the city, I knew it
was time to leave. After thirteen years living in the City of
Angels I'd gone from 'I Love L.A.' to 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix.'
It didn't look like I'd ever be hired on staff, so there was
no reason NOT to leave, given the internet and the connections
I'd built up over the years."
factors that need to be taken into consideration when deciding
in away from Los Angeles and yet remain in touch
with the industry vary by the individual, in Katherine's opinion. "I
know a number of screenwriters quite happy to be isolated in
Montana, Wyoming, and other extremely rural locations, but they're
feature film writers, not television. For myself, I was looking
at areas with a major university (for library access and cultural
opportunities), mountains, and easily accessible to L.A. without
being IN California. Where I currently live, I'm a day's drive
from L.A. if I need to have my car with me (as I do if I stay
for more than 1-2 days given the cost of car rental), and less
than two hours by air. I can do day trips in and out same day
if I need to for meetings. And because it's a major business
route, the air fares stay pretty cheap and the planes frequent,
so I can do last-minute trips without stripping my savings. Other
criteria included affordable housing, 24-hour grocery stores,
and good pizza delivery. Hey, I'm a writer!"
I asked Katherine what benefits she felt living in Arizona,
response: "Breathing!" She continued by saying, "Not
just physically but psychologically. There's a level of tension
in L.A. where it feels to me like everyone's on edge. While that
was exciting when I first arrived there, now it's tiring. I also
have a large two-bedroom corner apartment, wrap-around patio
with a view of the mountains, wood-burning fireplace, and my
own washer and dryer, for the cost of a studio in the Valley!
My state taxes were cut in half, my car insurance dropped, and
did I mention breathing?
enough, I actually got more work once I moved. People don't
precisely where I moved, but they remember me
as someone who left L.A. and moved to either Arizona or New Mexico.
It's all about being remembered. Being yet another faceless writer
in L.A. meant I was
forgotten when story editors put lists of potential writers together.
And did I mention breathing? Being in a place with its own water
sources that doesn't depend on an earthquake-vulnerable aqueduct?
I may be in a zone that matches L.A. for probability, but we
have far fewer fault lines, and it's not going to destroy our
interstates and sources of food and water when we do have large
quakes. On a very pragmatic level I realized it was insane and
suicidal to continue living in L.A. Yes, my career would possibly
be more successful if I came back. I know this. And I have NO
chance at live-action television staff positions from here, and
there's almost no live-action freelance work these days. It's
not to say some things haven't gotten more difficult. "Jerry's
Deli doesn't deliver here. Well, not without FedEx fees (I imagine)," Katherine
started out light-heartedly. Then, shifting to a serious tone: "Yes,
after nearly ten years here, I'm starting to be forgotten. But
the animation business has changed a lot since I started in 1984.
There's FAR less work, and a lot of animation writers have had
to find other sources of income, some of them leaving the business
altogether. So I can't blame my location for lack of work. Thanks
to a wonderful agent, I still get assignments, usually from story
editors I've worked with before. It's just harder to make a living
in animation writing, no matter where you live."
a couple shows Katherine wishes she'd gotten a chance to
for. "First, JACKIE CHAN ADVENTURES which is simply
wonderful. I watch it and wish it'd been on when I was a kid.
Jade is such a terrific character, and I really admire Jackie
Chan for the live-action segments that end each episode. Second,
BATMAN BEYOND. Wow. Total brilliance on every single level, especially
the writing. Okay, three. KIM POSSIBLE is great. I hope it has
a long life and maybe even a movie. ("Call me, beep me,
if you wanna reach me .... " <sorry, love the theme song
too>)" What's she's enjoyed writing most over her career
was her work on X-MEN: EVOLUTION. "I got to write for two
characters I've loved since I discovered The X-Men: Wolverine
and Rogue. And I got to bring in my English Lit degree with Shakespeare
quotes! If that had been my last credit (and it wasn't), I'd
have died happy."
favorite memory in Katherine's career to date came "[a]t
the WGA's Animation Writers Caucus Annual Meeting in 2001." She
points out that "almost no one was working that October.
So one could compliment a fellow writer without it being 'sucking
up.' They had no work to offer! But at that meeting I arrived
planning on thanking one writer in particular for her wonderful
work on my favorite show. It took time, given the large group
of people and how many who wanted to talk to her, but I finally
got my chance and we chatted. Late last year when I heard of
her death, I not only mourned her, but was incredibly grateful
to have made the effort to thank her for her BATMAN BEYOND scripts.
Hilary J. Bader. I hate knowing I'll never get the chance to
chat with her again, comparing industry stories, and never see
a new script from her. She was extraordinary."
exchange closed with me asking Katherine that if she were
today, did she think it would be possible now
to launch a career as a freelancer from anywhere. "I wouldn't
suggest anyone try and break into animation these days, unless
their first love is the SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS age group. That
part of animation is still doing moderately well, or so it seems.
My personal favorite, the action adventure genre, is now limited
to only a few shows and those story editors tend to (for good
reason) use the writers they've worked with before.
"But if you want to write for Hollywood, yeah, I firmly
believe everyone needs to spend SOME time there. Getting a feel
for the Hollywood culture is essential. It's not unique, but
different. I was in a conversation with a software documentations
writer and a NYC book editor one evening and even when we used
the same terminology, the definitions were different. In television
it's important to be there for "face time." I miss
out on a lot of meetings because I'm simply not there. Most of
them are "meet and greets" that don't generate immediate
income possibilities, but that doesn't mean they're not useful.
I don't get chances at development work since lots of in-studio
meetings seem to be essential these days.
one wants to sell a script or two, yeah I think you can live
work via the Internet, and count on luck.
If you want to begin a full-time career, I believe you need to
be there, or close enough to get into L.A. easily and frequently.
An eight-hour drive is a bit too far to fit those criteria. For
myself, I have no desire to move back full-time, though of course
I'd happily come back for a staff position,
staying at Oakwood Apartments while keeping my place in Arizona.
My heart's no longer in L.A., for all it'll always be in animation.
For me, animation is magic. I can write about castles as easily
as shacks, and they don't cost any more to produce! For someone
who loves science fiction and fantasy, to do it for television
and the mass market ordinary animation still works best."
Thank you so much, Katherine, for sharing your thoughts.
here to discuss this column in the dFX
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.
In 2003, Shannon joined the Animation Writers Caucus of the Writers'
Guild of America, west, following the sale of several scripts
to a Japanese company. 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 continues
to that dream reality, whether it be actively writing or working
on a production, or writing articles about the industry.
You can email
Shannon Muir at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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