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Animated Insights for Non Artists:
Interview with Katherine Lawrence
"Freelancing Away from LA"
by Shannon Muir

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.

To give readers the best picture of freelancing away from Los Angeles based on 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 for
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."

Katherine 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."

Then I asked Katherine if she thought she could have found any way to accomplish what 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 book writer, which I'm sure helped."

I wondered if Katherine ever worked on staff or always worked freelance. She reminded 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 writer at
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 as a
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 Quake."

Katherine 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."

The factors that need to be taken into consideration when deciding an area to live 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!"

When I asked Katherine what benefits she felt living in Arizona, her first 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?

"Oddly enough, I actually got more work once I moved. People don't remember 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 worth it."

That'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."

There's a couple shows Katherine wishes she'd gotten a chance to write 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."

The 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."

Our exchange closed with me asking Katherine that if she were just starting out 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.

"If one wants to sell a script or two, yeah I think you can live far away, 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.


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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 shanemuir@aol.com.

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