Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Writing For Animation - 26

The Role Of The Story Editor (Cont)

            For reasons already discussed, animation coproductions often have a number of partners, often in different countries, and sometimes with different ideas.  These partners will all want some form of editorial input.  At the same time, the production of animated series can be an organisational tour de force, with different elements being produced in different places, with a tight budget and a schedule that requires a fixed set of deadlines.  Animation is still very labour intensive, and studios cannot afford to pay their artists to sit around waiting for work to arrive.

To deal with this, the contract will usually require those with editorial input to comment and approve the work at particular stages and within certain timescales.  For example, you might have a situation where every script needs to be approved at outline, treatment, and final script stage, by three or four people, usually broadcasters and distributors, but sometimes authors. These will be obliged to respond with a fixed period.  If they fail to comment in the timescale required, the producer is entitled to continue without their input.  Because this means that scripts will have to go back and forth for revision, the producers usually allow an amount of slack in the schedule (and budget) to allow for slippage.

This is rarely enough.  Although there are some broadcasters who will strictly observe timetables and stick to their opinions, there will always be some buyers who pay no attention to deadlines, change their minds at a late stage, and generally disregard their contractual obligations.  We’re in a buyer’s market.  Broadcasters and other investors know that producers cannot take them on without the risk of professional suicide.  How ever much you may be legally entitled to continue production of an episode without the approval of one of your investors, this will not stop them expressing their opinion at a later stage in the process, often with destructive results.

Needless to say, this can make the story editor’s job a nightmare, and I know of many occasions where story editors have buckled under the pressure, either giving up in disgust, or, on more than one occasion, having a nervous breakdown.  How can you supply a series of approved scripts to a tight (or even a loose) production schedule, if those with editorial control don’t comment on time, or, when they do, contradict what they have said before?

When they do comment, of course, they don’t always agree.  This can be a problem, but does not have to be, if everyone respects the process.  We always take the view that if there is any disagreement at outline stage, we drop the story.  A good story editor can find solutions to detailed comments about character, structure, etc if everyone is happy with the basic storyline.

He can only do this if he has direct communication with those making the comments.  For some reason, some producers feel there should be an intermediary to co-ordinate responses coming from different sources, someone to synthesise the different comments and provide the story editor with some sort of consensus.  In my experience, this is always disastrous.  These coordinators are usually neither experienced in scriptwriting or animation production, and their interpretations are rarely helpful, and often extremely misleading.  They also delay the process, since these co-ordinators usually wait till all the comments are received before communicating anything to the story editor.  What is worse, they do not always pass on the story editor’s suggestions and solutions to the editorial team.

The story editor needs to establish a good relationship with those making editorial decisions.  He can only do this if he is allowed to communicate directly, and given some responsibility. He needs to be able to ring up and say I really need a decision now because otherwise we’re going to miss the deadline or The other broadcaster has made a comment which may seem at odds with your point of view, but I think we can accommodate it by making the camel a giraffe. Or even I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. A bullseye is the circle in the middle of a target, and not literally the eye of a bull.  Things do get lost in translation, and many of the best story editors speak more than one language.

If you have established good relationships with the editorial team, story editing a series can be a real joy.  Certainly, that has been the case with many of our series, Hilltop Hospital, Hana’s Helpline, and Igam Ogam.  Others have been much more problematic.  On one series we had four executives who all needed to sign off the scripts at various stages.  Their comments were channelled through a coordinator who had no experience of either scriptwriting or animation production, and who seemed reluctant to pass our comments onto the executives.  One of the executives, who had had an important position at a large broadcaster, changed her mind continuously throughout the production.  Another spent weeks in Detroit on business and delegated editorial responsibility to a freelance who had no experience in television.  When she returned to the UK, she countermanded everything that the freelance had said. 

These horror stories, unfortunately, are not rare.  If the editorial team do not know what they are doing, it is probably best for the story editor to bow out gracefully.  Delays and contradictions in the editorial process can make the scriptwriting so painfully slow that neither story editors nor scriptwriters can make enough money to justify doing it.

Next:  Common mistakes made by writers of animated series.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Writing For Animation - 25

The Role of The Story Editor (cont)

Once you know who you’ll be using as writers, then you need to brief them.  We’ve already discussed the story bible, but some producers/story editors like to gather the writers together to discuss the series, and brainstorm ideas.  It is always good for writers to meet the story editor.  It opens up the channels for later communication.  Story editors are often put under huge pressure, and have been known to take out their frustrations on their writers.  This is much harder to do if you have some sort of personal relationship.
I am not a fan of brainstorming sessions.  Like a lot of writers, I have my best ideas when my mind is somewhere else, when I’m walking, or swimming, or cooking.  I know from experience that I am most imaginative first thing in the morning.  It’s true that I like to bounce ideas off other people, but that is why I work with a writing partner, Andrew Offiler.  We know each other well enough to respond constructively and sensitively to each other’s ideas. 

I know that some people like the group model.  It works well in America where specialists are paid to be in the room and contribute what they do best.  I suspect that this process is less spontaneous than it sounds, and that the insult specialist prepares a long list of invectives before he arrives.
Because of the international nature of animation financing, story editors rarely get the opportunity to meet their writers, even if they want to.  That is why the bible is such an important document.  The bible never tells all the story, and it is imperative that the story editor keeps the lines of communication open.  Writers need to know about changes to the bible, new characters and catchphrases, technical things that work well, and those that don’t, which types of story work well, etc.  As the series develops, we always prepare a list of subject matter that has already been covered, and distribute it.  I am surprised that more story editors do not do this.  The small amount of time it takes to write up a list of synopses will save a lot of time and grief later.
During the series, the story editor should be building a relationship with those with the editorial control to approve the scripts.  He needs to feed this information back to the writers.  This information will include regional differences Valentine’s Day s not a big deal in Germany or compliancing rules The Australians don’t want our characters to fight, they must simply challenge each other to a show of strength. This could be more personal feedback about the executives.  The Broadcaster has just been on a course with Robert McKee and wants the inciting incident to happen no later than page 3.  You have to write inciting incident in the margin when it happens. Or Don’t send anything for three weeks.  The broadcaster’s gone on holiday. Or The broadcaster has read some research about how many girls like cats.  Can you put a cat in the next episode…

Story editors no doubt have the same observations about the writers they use, but they can remedy any idiosyncratic tendencies or bad habits by rewriting before anyone else reads the script.
            Story editors should let their writers know how many scripts they require from them, and in what period of time.  They are often reluctant to do this, for all sorts of reasons.  For a start, if the writer fails to come up with acceptable story ideas in the timescale required, then the story editor cannot risk missing a deadline.  We always write a few extra storylines, which, when approved, we will give to a writer if they are having too much trouble getting their ideas accepted, believing that it is better to keep faith with our best writers, rather than lose them altogether. 
            Sometimes there are inevitable delays because of the absence, illness, or lack of focus of the broadcaster.  If a writer has to wait weeks, or sometimes months (it happens) for feedback from the broadcasters, he is bound to feel abandoned.  It is especially important that the story editor keeps in regular communication if this happens, or he might lose his writers altogether.

Next week:  More on the story editor

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Writing For Animation -24

The Role Of The Story Editor

            There are different approaches to the management of the scripting process of an animated series, and some people like to make a distinction between script editor, story editor, and head writer.  My ideas were formed while developing a series in Los Angeles for Hanna Barbera, and then acting as story editor for a series for DIC.  Those experiences were very positive. Whatever some of us in Europe may think of the style and content of some American shows, my experience is that they are managed with total efficiency.  My French colleague, Bernard Deyriès, would say that the Americans learned this from the French, and point out that DIC originated in France.

            The success of any animated show depends on choosing the right story editor, and giving him or her enough responsibility to get the job done.  In my book, that job is to maintain a level of quality and consistency throughout all the scripts in the series, and to make sure that the scripts are delivered on time and budget.  This inevitably means that the story editor should choose some, if not all, of the scriptwriters.

Choosing the writers.

Inevitably, the story editor never chooses all the writers.  Sometimes the financing structure will dictate that a certain percentage of the writers need to come from one country, or state.  The various broadcasters, distributors, etc, will have their own ideas about which writers they want.  Sometimes ideas come with writers attached.
This is not always a bad thing.  When we acted as story editors (I work with my writing partner, Andrew Offiler) for The Hurricanes we were given a list of both American and British writers whom the broadcasters wanted us to use.  Some of these were experienced writers with feature film credits, who had an interest in football.  Stan Hey brought his wry humour to several scripts; Dennis O’Flaherty, an American who had written a Wim Wenders film, wrote some very funny and imaginative stories; the late Brian Finch wrote some episodes with a pared down, gritty drama.  Other scripts, by well known writers, were less successful.  One covered seventy pages of scribbled  long hand.

It is really important that the story editor is a very competent writer, with a real understanding of the series, and the support and confidence of the editorial team.  Faced with a script that leaves a lot to be desired, the story editor can either send it back to be rewritten, or re-write it himself.  If the deadline is tight, or if the story editor feels that the writer is going to need to a lot of hand-holding to make the script work, then it is going to be better for him to re-write the script himself.  In this situation, of course, the story editor would not take the writer’s fee, but he might save himself a lot of time and grief.  In the American system story editors are paid a decent amount of money.
Sometimes, scripts re-written in this way can work out extremely well.  When we acted as story editors for a series called Billy The Cat I once received a script from a writer which consisted of two very lengthy scenes, packed with dialogue.  It was obvious that he did not have a clue about narrative structure, and had not taken on board the instructions in the bible.  The dialogue, though, was terrific.  Rather than send the script back and forth, I decided to re-write, constructing a more telling narrative, but keeping as much of the dialogue as possible.  This worked well, and the episode was one of the most successful.
Of course, you don’t want to be spending all your time rewriting other people’s scripts.  In our series, we try and use a team of established writers who we know can be relied on, and others who may not have written for animation before.  New writers bring new ideas to your show.  They keep it fresh. Over the years, we must have given dozens of new writers a start in the animation industry.  It is important to the industry going forward that we all seek out new talent, and encourage the stars of the future.

When we worked on The Hurricanes, we allocated a percentage of the 65 episodes to new writers on the basis of the ideas they pitched.  We essentially said that if anyone could come up with a storyline which everyone liked, we would commission a script.  This wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  The storyline pitch had to be approved by us, the broadcaster and by DIC.  Some writers came up with idea after idea without getting one accepted.  Others had their first pitch approved.  This is a good system for trying people out.  If the writer ultimately deliver a script that you need to rewrite, then you probably are not going to welcome any more ideas from him or her.  If the writer comes up with a script that works, then you have unearthed a new talent, someone who you can call upon for scripts in the future.
It is quite usual for even experienced writers to have to pitch storylines speculatively before they get commissioned.  From a producer’s point of view, this is an efficient and cost-effective way of making sure you are not paying for material you are not using.  When we write for series produced by other studios, we may be told that they have reserved a certain number of scripts for us, but this is always on the understanding that we can come up with storylines that are acceptable to the editorial team.
Next week:  The Role Of The Story Editor (cont)