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)

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