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Someone wrote me looking for advice and insight on writing for prime-time animation, so when I had the opportunity to meet up with FUTURAMA's Supervising Producer, Patric Verrone, I asked if he would be willing to share this information with readers. Patric agreed, and I greatly appreciate his time. To give you an idea of his experience, his animation credits include PINKY AND THE BRAIN, THE SIMPSONS, THE CRITIC, RUGRATS, and FUTURAMA (which began running its final season of episodes in Fall of 2002).
First off, I wondered how Patric ended up involved in prime-time animation, especially given he also has some non-prime time animation credits, and these two areas rarely (if ever) cross over. "I started out as a variety show writer," he explains, adding that he was a Johnny Carson monologue writer in the late 1980s. "Actually, I started out as a lawyer. But even before that, when I was an undergraduate, I was an editor of THE HARVARD LAMPOON. There I met more than two dozen men and women who went on to become important writers. Two of them were Mike Reiss and Al Jean who, after running THE SIMPSONS for two years, created an animated show called THE CRITIC They invited me to work on it and I could hardly refuse." After completing two seasons on THE CRITIC, Patric moved over to the Jim Henson Company for a couple years working on MUPPETS TONIGHT! before coming to FUTURAMA. He'd been involved with FUTURAMA for four years when I shared questions with him.
As someone who has worked in the production of non-prime time animation, I felt it was important to clarify the process by which prime-time animated stories come together, so Patric explained: "Prime time television animation is much more like live action television than it is like daytime or feature animation. It is writer driven. The scripts are written and then heavily rewritten by large staffs of writers. In prime time (and by that I mean NETWORK prime time) the writers cast and direct the voiceover actors, supervise the editing of the dialogue soundtrack, comment on character designs, give notes on the storyboards, do more rewriting after the animatic, do a lighter rewrite after the final color screening (again, directing the actors in the additional dialogue that needs to be recorded), spot the music and sound effects, and supervise the final sound mixing and editing." In non-prime time animation, "the writers often 'drop the baby on the doorstep' after a rewrite pass by a small staff (or just a story editor) and don't see the project again until it's finished." He further added that in features, "writers often work hand in hand with storyboard artists up front and, again, finish most of their work before the actual animation is even begun."
When asked to define the skill-sets needed for someone to write competitively in the prime-time animation market, Patric said that "[y]ou need to be willing and able to sit in a conference room for twelve hour days, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, rewriting scripts line by line. It also helps if you can direct actors, edit, design, compose music and lyrics, and brew beer. On FUTURAMA, everyone had to be able to do at least a majority of those things." In other words, it seems you need be a jack of all trades willing and able to take anything and everything. As far as preparing yourself for the challenge, "[i]f you want to write, write. It's a craft. It's a learned craft. Getting a job as a production assistant or writer's assistant is a common way in, but the important thing is that you will need a sample. Often many samples. Write spec half hour comedies. Don't spend a lot of time writing a spec animated show, but it might get you work elsewhere and, again, it's a learning process, so I wouldn't reject it outright either. Read scripts. Watch what's on TV and in theaters. Write as much and as well as you can."
"Half hour comedies are what gets read," Patric responded when I asked what samples are appropriate for someone wanting to break into prime-time animation. "For a long time it was SEINFELD and LARRY SANDERS, then MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, now EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Soon it might be SCRUBS or something I can't predict. Don't write a SIMPSONS. Writers on FUTURAMA have gotten hired off of everything from a DARIA to BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. As for the odds, if you don't live (or plan to live) in L.A., zero. You need an agent to get the sample script read." As of Fall 2002, "only THE SIMPSONS and KING OF THE HILL are making new episodes and the showrunners at both shows have plenty of writers they know they want to hire in their in-boxes already. So the odds of getting into prime time animation these days are very, very slim."
Then we got into issues of union representation, and whether or not prime-time animation fell under the WGA's jurisdiction. "All television animation is covered by the WGA unless IATSE Local 839 (the Cartoonists Union) already represents the studio," Patric clarified. "839 has deals with Disney, Warner, Dreamworks, and several smaller houses. The problem is, many animation houses (like Nickelodeon) are rabid union busters and so, despite both WGA and 839 efforts, neither union covers them. WGA coverage is superior to 839's (in my humble opinion as WGA west Secretary-Treasurer). The WGA gets a writer minimum script fees, a pension plan, health insurance, credit arbitration, and the all important residuals. 839 has a fine health insurance plan, a decent pension, some minimums, and they're working on credit standards, but they are not the kind of union that will be able to deliver residuals."
I closed by asking
if he felt prime-time animation would be a trend that may come and go
in cycles, or do you think it would have longevity. "THE SIMPSONS
and KING OF THE HILL are likely to stick around for a while. Non-network
prime time animation is also likely to continue (I'm talking MTV, Nickelodeon,
Comedy Central, etc.) but I don't think network prime time animation will
grow beyond its current programs in the future." As to why, Patric
elaborated, "Animation simply isn't produced on the same kind of
schedule as other prime time network shows - it has a much longer lead
time and that extra time conflicts with the snap judgments that executives
are forced to make when they order, air, and cancel shows. It would take
a daring and patient network executive to order a new prime time animated
show nowadays and I just don't believe such a beast exists."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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