Insights for Non Artists:
Tad Stones - Television Series Development In-Depth
One of my
earliest articles dealt some with animation development, but due
to the word count limitations imposed by the publication, and
the general business overview nature of the piece, there really
wasn't much exploration of the development process. The article
also featured more information on development from the executive's
point of view, and not so much about someone
pitching something to become an animated project. To help readers
see the development process from the perspective of someone pitching
a show to executives, and to share his own insights, I exchanged
questions with producer Walt Disney Television Animation producer
Tad Stones. He's been at Disney for over twenty years in features
and television, where he entered the Feature Animation training
program three days after graduation. He started as an inbetweener
on THE RESCUERS after Disney's training programming, and moved
into the story department on THE FOX AND THE HOUND.
is best known for his work at Walt Disney Television Animation.
After being involved in the meeting that set goals for what would
become the television animation, he was soon transferred to the
fledgling division as Manager of Creative Affairs. He created
DARKWING DUCK and produced and/or story edited series such as
ADVENTURES OF THE GUMMI BEARS (third season only), CHIP 'N DALE'S
RESCUE RANGERS, ALADDIN, HERCULES, and BUZZ LIGHTYEAR OF STAR
COMMAND. He's also been a producer on the direct-to-videos RETURN
OF JAFAR, ALADDIN AND THE KING OF THIEVES, and the Spring 2003
direct-to-video release ATLANTIS 2: MILO'S RETURN (comprised of
what was completed of the TEAM ATLANTIS series before Disney decided
not to go ahead with the show).
features and direct-to-video are generally developed in-house,
this interview focuses on television animation. I started out
by asking him if there were any ways, in his opinion, to gauge
the worthiness of a concept to be developed for television. "The
only generalities I can think of are distinctive characters and
a clear central concept. Everything else is about 'the market,'"
Tad replied. "You can waste a lot of creative energy creating
wonderful shows that no one wants so you look at what's on a given
network's broadcast schedule and tailor your ideas in that direction.
I don't mean copy what they have on. I mean analyze their audience.
Are they targeting preschoolers? Kids 4 - 11? Boys? How are they
trying to reach that audience? Comedy? Action shows? Social dramas?
Toy tie-ins? That gives you a notion of which one of your great
ideas is worth pitching to them." He added, "But don't
be too narrow in your thinking. An action show could have a female
heroine and a nice dose of humor that might bring in some girl
Next, I asked
for an overview as to what goes into developing a television series
pitch. "That depends on what stage you're at. Generally,
the central concept and the main characters is enough for a verbal
pitch. An art card showing the characters is a big plus but not
necessary. After that you should be paid for additional development.
Your pitch should be entertaining to a certain extent. You don't
have to be a comedian, but for a comedy pitch you would illustrate
your concept or characters with examples - gags or situation that
are not only funny in themselves but show that the idea has the
potential for many similar, entertaining scenes."
by illustrating using some of his own experience: "In the
early days of Disney TV Animation we would create card pitches
that would make it easy to visualize the show. The breakdown would
be something like: a title card, a card for each main character,
a card or two to illustrate the dynamics between characters, and
a couple of story situations. Typically those shows were fully
animated, comedy adventure shows. If your series idea is a 'talking
heads' show you can get away with less art. The presentation would
be something of a performance with cards being turned at just
the right time to act as punchlines. Keep in mind that the goal
of the pitch is not to illustrate the ornate backstory of your
characters or every potential storyline. Your goal is to demonstrate
in the simplest way why your series would be entertaining, restated
another way: why kids will want to watch your show."
Tad has worked
on original concepts to develop, as well as handed ideas to develop
such as ALADDIN, and what would eventually become known as DARKWING
DUCK. I wondered what specific pros and cons came with handling
a completely original development versus a concept that began
with someone else. Tad illustrated this by detailing the history
of DARKWING DUCK.
"To clarify, I was assigned the name DOUBLE-O DUCKS, a title
Jeffrey Katzenberg thought would make for a good show. The first
attempt was a spy parody with little heart. I didn't believe in
it at all. Neither did Jeffrey. The difference was that I was
ready to wipe my hands of it and move on, Jeffrey wanted me to
try again. Having got the bad, obvious idea out of the way, I
eventually ended up with a freelance secret agent who was more
Shadow or Green Hornet than James Bond. He was also vain (the
catch phrase, 'He looks good while doing good' gave us a lot of
mileage. Inexplicably. But the show didn't gel until I gave him
a hyperactive daughter. 'What if Batman had to raise a female
Calvin?' (think Calvin and Hobbes). Everybody loved the show except
for the lawyers who said the rights to the 'Double-O' name belonged
to the guys making the Bond films. We held a contest to name the
duck and Alan Burnett won with the suggestion, 'Darkwing.' I added
'Duck' for silliness and a legend was born. Alan left soon after
to story edit the BATMAN animated adventures with Bruce Timm.
way of saying that DARKWING was an original show. Original is
much better because no one can tell you that the character wouldn't
do a given action... at least in the early stages. There are no
preconceived ideas to limit you or steer you away from what you
want to do. The only real cons are about selling the show. It
used to be that all the networks developed original ideas and
routinely tossed in favor of series based on known franchises
- movies, comics or toys. Now network and cable is more open to
the original idea... although they may point to something else
to copy. 'Get me the next SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS!'"
As to the
pros and cons of being assigned an idea, "the pluses of being
assigned an idea are simple. 1) There's already interest in the
idea and they're willing to pay you money to develop it. 2) You're
not starting with a blank page. The minuses come with that sullied
page. It can be tough to create a series that's based on a movie
that went out of it's way to wrap up all the loose ends or to
create a world based on a toy that has little innate story potential.
(Try to find an episode of RUBIK, based on the Rubik's cube puzzle.)
Also, executives may have their own ideas on what's important
about the original property or the interpretation of the characters.
Who's to say their interpretation is wrong? Answer: they do, if
they're paying the bills."
Next I wondered
if being asked to develop an idea on an existing property (such
as ALADDIN) usually guaranteed the series will get made. "Depends
on who asked that the existing property be developed," Tad
responded. "If it's the people who control the airtime the
answer is 'yes.' But even at Disney, a TV version of TREASURE
PLANET is developed without knowing if it's going to have a home.
To get made the movie has to be a hit and the spin off series
has to hit the broadcaster's target audience. There are few guarantees
in the entertainment industry."
to keep in mind is the 'hook' of your show. It needs a clear concept,
and a draw that will make people tune into more than just the
premiere episode. Tad defined hook this way: "The hook is
not just a concept that has lots of potential for stories or gags
and colorful characters; again, it is assumed that any idea pitched
will have those. It's the element of your show that will make
kids want to watch as soon as they hear about it. Notice I didn't
say, 'as soon as they've watched it.' The hook is the alleged
edge you have over the other guy on the air. If your hook is strong
enough, that's all you need to pitch. Most pitchers include a
bit more." Hooks can be three types: high concept (an intriguing
premise packed into a few, action-packed words), marquee value
(the ongoing adventures of currently popular characters owned
by the studio or to which the studio has acquired rights), or
a marquee star (you know a high-profile actor who wants to do
an animated series). Basically, Tad says, "you'll know one
when you hear it."
broadcast executives don't like to read," he pointed out
when asked if visual aids are helpful for a pitch presentation.
"They're busy and they always have a stack of scripts to
get through. And that to the fact that animation, even talking
heads animation, is a visual medium and it's clear to see why
visuals can help an animated pitch. Some people try to make the
artwork look exactly like a finished frame of film. I personally
find those presentations sterile. It may also turn off an exec
that doesn't like the background style you've chosen. Drawing
can be sketchy as long as they read clearly. These drawing tend
to have more life to them and also send the message, 'We're not
locked in yet. We're open to your thoughts.'"
I immediately followed up with involves those of us who want to
pitch shows but can't draw. I asked Tad what he recommended. "If
you don't draw talk to your artist friends. Often they'll work
gratis for the chance to show their work. They may hope to step
up from storyboard artist or character designer to art director.
Don't have any artist friends? GET SOME!
"Allow me to digress," he continued. "One. Unless
you're presenting an idea based on your comic book, play, short
story, comic strip or a commercial property that you legally represent,
don't try to pitch a series until you've worked in the industry
for a year or two. You may think you know what it takes to make
an animated series but you don't, even if you've read volumes
of articles just like this one. The rules are always changing
and you need to get a feel for what you need to write story after
story based on a single concept. You need to experience the joy
that Executive Notes or Broadcast Standards and Practices notes.
Seriously, learn the craft before trying to be top dog. Even if
you manage to sell a concept, it will be assigned to more experienced
part two, somewhat more related to the topic. While you're delivering
your premises, outlines or scripts, hang around the artists. Compliment
the work that looks good to you. Maybe you can go out to lunch
with some storyboard guys, learn what drives them crazy in scripts.
'What was the worst thing you every had to board?' A script is
not a cartoon show. It takes drawings to make it a cartoon. Lots
and lots of drawings. Learn everything you can about the visual
interpretation of scripts. You may make some good friends. Friends
you might ask to illustrate a series pitch someday. More importantly,
you will become a better writer."
Once you have
the pitch ready, the presentation must make an impact for your
show to get off the ground. I asked Tad what pointers he could
share. ""Einstein said, 'State your idea in the simplest
way. But not simpler.' Pitch as much material as you think it
takes to sell your idea but cut out needless details. Be energetic
but not obnoxious. Listen. Be flexible but not limp. You believe
in your idea but are always open to the wonderful suggestions
offered by those you're pitching to. If possible, arrange to have
Michael Eisner be your father in law."
about his thoughts on a successful pitch, I asked what not to
do in a presentation. "Don't hit on the person you're pitching
to. Conversely, don't initiate a physical confrontation. Don't
push your Amway line. More seriously: Answer the stupidest of
questions or comments politely; it may be that your presentation
wasn't as clear as you thought it was. Don't just look at the
guy you think is the most important in the room...you could be
wrong. Don't be stingy with ideas if they ask about details or
potential stories. Don't be rude; the people are not just judging
the idea but to a certain extent they're judging you. You want
them to think that working with you would be a candy coated pleasure."
As to early
signs that executives just aren't interested in your pitch: "Snoring
is usually a bad sign. Leaving the room and not coming back is
another hint that the pitch isn't going well. However, I recently
pitched a show late in the day and thought I was bombing. Turned
out I wasn't, they liked the idea and began pitching other possibilities
for the project. They were just tired. Their Starbucks fix had
worn off." Also, don't forget that "you can get a show
all the way through the development process, through animatic,
through a focus group with flying colors and still not have it
be bought. Sometimes they have more shows than slots. Sometimes
you're in competition with a series that hits their target audience
your show pitch isn't accepted, the problem may not necessarily
lie with the concept. Make sure to find out. Tad suggests to "pitch
your show to some honest friends to fine tune your pitch. Listen
to them if they say things like 'I don't get it,' or 'What kind
of stories could you get out of that?' or 'You smell funny.' Practice
pitches will tell you if your idea has merit. These practice pitches
might just be informal conversations in the hallway. If your buds
like the show and the execs don't it's probably about their perception
of what they need in a show. Your show has to fit into their schedule.
The Sopranos is a great show but not the perfect companion piece
to ROLLIE POLLIE OLIE."
if the animation business has remained traditionally cyclic or
not, Tad commented that, "in general, August through September
is a bad time to pitch a show because development slates are full,
people are on vacation or everyone is fixated on how the new shows
are doing in the ratings. Shows now debut in August, September,
January and even June, largely due to cable networks experimenting.
This shifts the development season around. A practical fact: the
end of the fiscal year is in September. Development budgets are
tapped out by then. I'd say January through April, possibly May,
is the primo time to pitch shows but there are no set rules."
about the reality of someone with no prior animation credits being
able to pitch a television series, Ted suggested referring back
to his earlier answers but added, "Studios and networks are
always looking for good ideas. They're hungry for them. Make sure
you have the experience to execute your idea."
wondered if someone could make a living just developing shows
on development deals, or if the reality was that you need to have
multiple irons in the fire. "It depends on how much money
you need to live on," he replied. "If you're young and
single, maybe. If you have a family, probably not. You need script
assignments and ideally a staff position. You certainly can't
live off the money that you would get for developing a single
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.
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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