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Digital Media FX - The Power of Imagination

Animated Insights for Non Artists:
Tad Stones - Television Series Development In-Depth
by Shannon Muir

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.

Tad, however, 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).

Since animated 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 viewers."

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."

Tad continued 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.

"Long 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."

One thing 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."

"In general, 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.'"

The concern 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 hands.

"Digression 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."

After talking 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 better."

However, if 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."

When asked 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."

When asking 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."

Lastly, I 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 idea."


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 shanemuir@aol.com.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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