Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Writing for animation - 15

The Industrial Process

For scheduling and commercial reasons, animated series for children have a serious number of episodes.  When we started making SuperTed, thirty years ago, it was still possible  to persuade a broadcaster to pay 100% of the production costs. Today a broadcaster will only pay a fraction of this, and the rest of the money has to be raised, usually from a combination of international pre-sales, coproduction, perhaps some “soft” funding from government, and an investment against rights in the series. These rights are only valuable if the series can be sold widely, and can generate further income through licensing toys, books, clothing, etc. 

Animated shows will only generate income from licensing if people know they exist. Thirty years ago, a good episode of SuperTed would gather an audience of 2 million. An episode of a similar show today, shown on terrestrial television in the UK, will be lucky to attract 200,000 viewers.  If shows are  to make an impact on the public consciousness, they need to have lots of episodes, and be repeated often.  For scheduling reasons, animated series are made in multiples of thirteen (one episode a week for a quarter), and usually have a minimum of 26 episodes. In practice, they are often “stripped”, i.e. a different episode is shown every day.  I once worked as a story editor for the American company Dic on a series of sixty five half hour episodes.  Big hits will be made in even greater numbers, though may change the story editor.

This volume of work and the fact that most series have a variety of financial partners have an impact on the way the writing is organised.  International coproductions usually involve several broadcasters, all of which may want to have an input on the content of the stories.  Government subsidy, and the involvement of public broadcasters, will bring obligations.  Certain roles, including writers and story editors may have to be filled by talent from a particular country, or even region.  A typical production contract for an animated series will involve a whole series of approvals that need to be made in writing by the various partners.
This means that the organisation of the scriptwriting of an animated series for children is often a formal affair.  It is usually not possible for a director, or a story editor, to invite all the writers to a meeting and brief them verbally.  For a start, he or she would need to make sure that the brief he was giving them was in tune with what the different broadcasters were thinking. 
It is crucial that everybody works to a brief that has been agreed by all the partners.  This brief is enshrined in a bible. This writer’s bible is a different animal from those bibles used to pitch and market a show.  It is a document that explains, as comprehensibly as possible, the characters, the style, the parameters of what is possible and not, the world, the script formatting, etc..  Once this bible is written and approved, the job of engaging the writers (and ideally choosing them), briefing them, negotiating approvals with the broadcasters, delivering approved scripts on time, etc., is entrusted to a story editor.  Ideally, this story editor will have written the bible, and, ideally, there will be only one story editor for the series.
Over the next few weeks I shall talk about what needs to go into a series bible of this type, what the role of the story editor should be, and what can go wrong with the process if everything is not organised in the right way.

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