Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Writing For Animation -23

The Story Editor – Why you need one.

            Animated series, for reasons I have already explained, have large numbers of episodes. This means that the process of managing the scriptwriting needs to be handled carefully.  The production will often involve teams of artists in different countries, who need to be supplied with scripts, layouts, and voice tracks in a predictable and constant stream.  This is never easy, especially since most animation series are coproductions, and require editorial approval from several people, often in different countries, and with different ideas.

            It amuses me when I read how certain well-known American writers have never had to rewrite a script, and how every story idea they propose is always accepted.  When we made SuperTed, we worked in a tight-knit creative team, on a production that had only one source of finance, S4C, a broadcaster with a very light editorial touch.  As I writer, I was able to talk through ideas not only with the director, but also with storyboard artists and even animators.  I had a first hand knowledge of what was possible, and what made a good episode.  As part of the production team (I later became the producer) I was able to try a few ideas that departed from the norm.  I was in a privileged position, where every idea I suggested was the result of previous discussion, and was taken seriously, and where rewrites were usually done more because I thought they were needed than because of some outside intervention.  That was thirty years ago, and the world has changed.

            I suspect that those writers (all Americans) who write series after series without any rejections or alterations have never worked on a coproduction.  I also imagine that somewhere along the production process, their scripts have been subject to alterations as directors, producers or storyboard artists have said The way we’ve designed the duck, it could never wear that Viking helmet, or the pink lava from the volcano, it’s not going to look like foam, more like a strawberry gelato.. etc.  The more these practical issues are sorted out at script stage, the smoother the production will run.

            I wrote all the scripts for the first three series of SuperTed but, if we were making the series now, I would insist on using a several different writers.  Writers like to write as many episodes as possible for both financial and egotistical reasons, but different writers will provide more options, and ultimately enrich any series.  Apart from the fact that a variety of different writers with different approaches will keep the series fresh, often the funding for a series will dictate that the writers come from different countries.  To access state funding in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, you must use creative people from those countries, and often this means writers.

            I know of several live action series where the role of the story, or script editor, is essentially a management role, and does not involve any actual scriptwriting.  Script editors for long-running soaps, for example, are often young, talented, but not very experienced people whose role is to keep the scriptwriters on track.  With a few notable exceptions, this is not the case for animated series.  The production of an animated series should run like a finely honed industrial process.  As I have already mentioned, scripts, storyboards, timings, etc have to be delivered to different places in the world at specific times. Delays in the delivery of scripts can have disastrous consequences for the budget and schedule.

            However much time there is in the schedule for scriptwriting, it never seems enough.  Scripts can be delayed because the writer fails to deliver for some reason but, more likely, can be delayed because a broadcaster is away or ill, and cannot give the necessary approval.  Sometimes, depressed writers will abandon their scripts in the face of contradictory comments and delays in approvals.  This often means that the only way a story editor will hit the deadline is to write, or re-write the script himself.

            I worked as story editor on a very successful series where all the scripts from one of the coproducing countries were so far from the mark, that I had to rewrite them all.  Even if the writers had been prepared to do rewrites (which they weren’t) I took the view that it would take more time and effort, and risk missing the deadline, if I were to engage in the long process of sending comments back and forth, and getting things approved.

            Of course, the real reason you should use a story editor is to make sure that there is a creative consistency throughout the series, that characters stay in character, that the stories do not depart from the ethos of the series, and that the scripts are as exciting as possible.  If the story editor is doing his job, then the series should get richer as it progresses.   Once the first voice recordings have been done, the story editor will have a good idea of what catchphrases, voice patterns, dialect, etc will suit each character.  Characters, idiomatic phrasing, relationship ideas suggested by one writer can be used to enrich another writer’s script. 

            Given enough freedom and responsibility, the job of a story editor can be a joy.  Too often, though, the pressures of conflicting editorial views, budget and schedule pressures, and breakdowns in communication are enough to make any story editor despair.

Next week:  The Story Editor (cont).


  1. ... a friend of mine from the US - also a scriptwriter - said that being a script editor was like being a ringmaster in a circus where the people who took the tickets had the key to the cages....
    Excellent piece, Robin.As thought-provoking and eye-opening as always.

    1. Thanks, John.

      Yes, that's a good description. Working as a story editor on some series can make you break down and cry, but when it works it's great!

      The important thing is to have the trust (and direct communication with) the people making the editorial decisions. If you have that, it can be very rewarding.