Hey doodz. So, I started writing this from Japan on a Shinkansen train on its way to Osaka, then on a plane from Osaka on its way to Manilla, on a hammock on a tropical island in an eco-lodge in Palawan in the Philippines, a bit more in Manila and finished back in Joburg in South Africa.
For one, it’s been great to take a break from work and just soak up other parts of the world. I haven’t been sketching or scamping or writing or doing anything directly work-related save for a few work emails and the pictures in this post that were drawn on an old iPad Mini 4 with ProCreate app and a dumb stylus. Gotta say, putting my iPad in a cover with a keyboard has given it new life. The iPad used to sit at the bottom of a drawer, I don’t like typing on a screen so I never really took it with me on trips. The little bluetooth keyboard has changed that – I typed 99% of this post with it.
Japan’s been great. I’ve bought a bunch of videogame plushes, visited a bunch of retro videogame shops, saw an old school friend who I didn’t realize how much I miss (he works for the British government in Japan, and somehow seeing him reminded me to be more ‘soft’ and I’ve rediscovered my soft centre) and am amazed at how almost everything is cartoonerized in Japan. A friend who visited earlier this year commented on how proud everyone is of their job, and he’s right – from the chef behind the fryer making Okonomiyaki to the train conductor, everyone takes their job lank seriously and I dig it. The Philippines was also amazing – incredible islands, friendly locals and the best snorkelling I’ve done in my life. But, for the first time in ages, an overseas trip is just for holidays, and not work. I was hoping to get an Annecy trip funded by government but unfortunately they changed the rules after we submitted applications (and paid a R500 joining fee to AnimationSA to apply :/)
Anyways, because I spent the last working part of 4 years focused on getting an IP off the ground and onto TV, I still have some thoughts for anyone Googling ‘how to pitch an animated show to a network’. I used to read as much as I could about making an animated show, so I guess this is some rogue advice targeted at any creators trying to find out more info. I still haven’t cracked it – I don’t have a show on TV. I’m in no ways an expert on the subject. But, I did sell IPs to both Nickelodeon (Moosebox) and Triggerfish/Disney (Dogshow with Cat). Both were different experiences, Moosebox was something I came up with a few days before pitching it, and Dogshow with Cat used to be Bru & Boegie, characters I’m very protective over, and ended up turning into another show. Both have similarities though – they’re both aimed at kids between 6 – 12 years old, they both have short pilots (2 minute episodes) and both have completed show bibles (a document that explains what the show is about – who the characters are, the relationships between the characters, rules of the world, overviews of stories etc, artwork etc.)
Firstly, a preface: I’m grateful to anyone who funds my work. This post isn’t meant as criticism, most of the time I believe everyone’s just doing their best at the time. It’s really meant as advice so that you can avoid falling into pitfalls that may affect both you and the client / network. See it as a stepping stone; where I’ve failed perhaps you can learn. It’s also as a way for me to crystallise my thoughts a bit more about selling an animated show to a network. In addition, any time I find myself self-justifying myself to myself or others, it’s worth looking at my own role in things. The shadow is smart and will try to place blame anywhere but itself. In the end, I can’t blame anyone, and the buck should stop with the creator. I’ll explain some general thoughts and then we’ll look more specifically at the 2 IPs I’ve sold. None of these thoughts represent the companies I’ve worked for, and I’m not an employee anywhere. I guess this is the post I’d have liked to have read before encountering a few things.
Bru & Boegie’s Guide to Pitching an Animated Show to a Network
Your Best Work
Think really hard before you pitch that idea you’ve been working on for years. If you’re very precious about it, it could work against you. Remember, almost everyone you bring on board will want to add their thumbprint to your IP (intellectual property) – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – you’ll want them to have their skin in the game to be invested in your project too – but unless you’re extremely lucky and find an investor who loves your idea as is (this hasn’t been my experience) your idea is going to go through a number of iterations and the end result may bear little resemblance to how it looked going in.
This is the paradox / game that I haven’t yet figured out – the network wants you to be invested 100% in your idea because a show needs a captain with a clear vision, but the network still wants to be able to make a number of changes, some of which may be central to what you like about the show. So begins a game of push and pull and it can steal a lot of time and energy away from the creative work. If the creator’s too much of a pushover and takes on every note given, the network starts thinking the creator is a rudderless boat awash in the ocean, happy to go wherever the tide may take it. If the creator knows exactly what he/she wants and doesn’t listen to the network’s suggestions, the network can just stop funding the project and say ‘the creator’s too hard-headed’, which we’ll get to later.
In all honesty I think it’s better to follow the latter: do exactly what you want to do, because if the network eventually *does* follow suit, you know you have a real partner on board that believes in your vision. It’s kind of like dating – if you’re upfront with what you’re looking for in a relationship, it saves a lot of time for both parties. If you end up making a show that’s basically a culmination of exec notes, you won’t be happy and the execs won’t be happy. They don’t know what they want otherwise they’d just make shows without creators. If you’re not happy, be sure to communicate what you want – if creative partners have ‘non-negotiables’ that are at odds, it can become apparent to both that it’s time to move on.
So, what to do? Looking at the middle-ground between being Mr. Nice Guy who takes on any note, and being Mr. Not So Nice Guy who has such a strong North Star that the network doesn’t have a say, the process is much easier if it *isn’t* your personal baby. Working together with a creative partner is way easier if you’re not 100% invested in the outcome, because then ‘compromise’ isn’t a dirty word and wherever you end up, you’ve both arrived there together. That way, *anything* that results from the idea is a bonus. You put in 50%, I put in 50%, let’s see what baby we come up with. It’s more like the creator becomes a surrogate mother, as opposed to a baby that’s already been born.
Of course, the flip-side is that you hope you are able to even *sell* your IP if it’s not something you’re completely stoked about. Generally, ideas are a dime-a-dozen. Spongebob may have been a completely different show in the hands of another creator, and I somehow think if you gave Stephen Hillenburg (Spongebob’s creator) ingredients that weren’t a sponge, starfish and crab, he’d have still created an amazing show. What really counts is execution, and the network’s really investing in you as a person. You may have a body of work that instils confidence, or you’ve done something that’s given the network reason to take a chance on you.
Another danger of selling your best work is that the network’s under no obligation to do anything with it, which can be heart-breaking if it’s a project you really care about. You’ve created something amazing, and you have no more claim to it. So, make sure that the contract has a ‘sunset clause’, which means if they don’t use the IP within a certain time (let’s say 2 years) and don’t renew the rights to it with a financial bonus to you, then rights automatically revert to you. This is very important, otherwise you may find that you’ve spent years investing in something and it comes to an abrupt stop (another reason to make sure you’re at least enjoying the process if it all dead-ends).
2 case studies
I kind of came up with Moosebox specifically for Nickelodeon – well, it was a bunch of ideas that I’ve always wanted to do, smooshed together. But unlike Bru & Boegie (which I’ll talk about later), Moosebox didn’t have a history. It was a fresh page for both myself and Nickelodeon. If Nickelodeon wanted to rather turn it into a stage play, I wasn’t too precious about it and though my first prize is a TV show, I’d likely have taken their lead. One of the main characters of the duo (Moose) had no legs to start with and Nickelodeon said it was a non-negotiable that he have legs. It was pretty much a core component to the duo’s dynamic that Catbox – his best friend and accomplice – cart him around and that they were super-dependant on each other, so it required a lot of further development, but because it was fairly fresh to both me and Nickelodeon I relented and gave him legs. The show’s still awesome (in my mind it still would have worked with him without legs) but I wasn’t too married to the characters yet. Lots of people contributed ideas; Nickelodeon, Stuart Coutts, Triggerfish, I hired people to jam ideas with, it was a collaborative effort with still enough of a wide berth provided to me for how I’d like to work, I chose what to use and what not to use, still had quite a bit of autonomy with how I liked to work (production was a pretty lean setup) and was able to settle into my own rhythm of alchemical processes that allows my best creative work. After the pilot, I received further development funding and it was up to me how to use that funding. I like that, partly because the production process goes hand-in-hand with the creative process for me when money’s involved. I know what deals I’ve made with people and know what I can ask of them.
I also learned to create contracts with things clearly spelled out: any ideas that came up during the process, I owned. I worked closely with a production company for a while during development with a loose arrangement and mostly on good faith, but sooner or later water gets murky and clarity is needed. Advice: get proper contracts from the get-go. Seriously. It needs to be clear that you’re paying x person or studio, x amount in exchange for the work they do. If you don’t do this, it’s more-than-likely going to cause an upset later down the line. If you’re working with friends, there’s a whole extra dynamic at play which can go south if you’re not careful. (During Dogshow I wasn’t sure what contract a contributor had signed with the production company and wasn’t sure what I could ask of her. As a result, she wanted to be a co-creator for the input she was having – not good. It’s around this time I wondered why I was giving up so much control.)
Moosebox has had its false-starts, heart-breaks and highlights. Luckily I have someone at Nickelodeon who is a fan of the show, who had quite a lot of input into it and who I feel is fighting in my corner, so there may still be life for it.
At the moment the show has a 2-min pilot, a KIFF beautiful show bible (even if I do say so myself) and an 11-min pilot script with an animatic. After Nickelodeon officially passed on the show, I was promised rights would revert to me. After triple checking this would happen and making sure I hadn’t forgotten about this promise, when the documents were apparently ready and on my contact’s desk, someone at Nickelodeon decided that they actually want to finance 20 x 90 second shorts, so that’s in discussion at the moment. Is this new development real? An illusion? Who knows. Apparently Nickelodeon can drag things on for a while. Time will tell.
Even though a bright future looks likely, I’m holding my breath until the documents are signed and we’re actually working on it.
Dogshow with Cat
Dogshow on the other hand had a bit of a strange journey. Being the most recent pilot project I’ve made, it’s the freshest in my memory.
It started out with me selling Bru & Boegie to Triggerfish & Disney as part of their ‘StoryLab’. I created Bru & Boegie in 2002, have created hundreds of comic strips and self-published a bunch of Bru & Boegie comic books, created animated shorts with them in – I’m very protective over them, nobody knows them better than I do. I pitched it in good faith that should it be selected, both Triggerfish and Disney would have a clear understanding about who they are, so they knew what they’re getting themselves into. When Bru & Boegie *was* selected for Story Lab, I was thrilled – I thought ‘finally a studio is taking a chance, they’re pushing the envelope and trying something different.’ My assumptions turned out to be dead wrong – almost immediately Disney’s compliance department told me I’d need to change the underpants, and then there were questions about their lips. We hit an impasse and I realised if I wanted to gain any ground, I’d be having to fight a lot. Even though I found examples of other kids shows for the same demographic audience that had characters in underpants (there’s even a ‘Captain Underpants’ movie coming out) to support my argument, I didn’t feel like Disney got my show *at all*. Luckily, Triggerfish suggested we take Bru & Boegie off the table and make a new show. I got Bru & Boegie back, but I could have lost them to Disney who I imagine have a big pile of unused purchased IP. For getting Bru & Boegie back from the maws of the shark, I’m grateful. The StoryLab was a success in many ways – we got a trip to LA, got a stack of valuable experience and I got a pilot financed. We re-jigged things and branched off Bru & Boegie’s cat & dog into their own new and different characters and added a new character; ‘Mike’ – a way for me to feel even more invested in the show. I’m kicking myself a little bit because I didn’t make the dog different enough to Bru & Boegie’s dog, so I’ve got to be a little careful about how I use the dog in my passion projects. (I talk more about why you shouldn’t necessarily combine your passion projects and commercial work.)
Even though the DTI (South Africa’s Department of Trade & Industry) pulled out of funding the Story Lab (I believe Triggerfish ended up fiancing the whole thing, I was wrongly under the impression that Disney paid for most of it) the experience taught me a lot. One of them: if I don’t put my foot down, it’s my fault when things go awry. After going back and forth between trying to please Triggerfish and Disney and doing my own thing and after fulfilling my contractual obligations, once the dust had settled and we weren’t in production anymore with a deadline over our heads, I picked apart the process and suggested ways we may do better next time. I’ve erred on the side of being definite in how I’d like to work should the show get further funding, which sounds like it may not fly. It feels like a weight off my shoulders – I laid my cards on the table for how they’d be able to get the best work out of me, and even though Triggerfish isn’t keen I feel like I’ve saved us both a lot of potential grief by getting over my people-pleasing complex and being direct and honest. It was a gamble that I felt was necessary and worth it. It’s a gamble either way when working relationships seem to be at odds with the project, and I don’t know what the right answer is.
One general thing that tripped me up (I’ve thought about this a lot – I really want to learn from this experience) and one that I don’t have any advice for, but can at least share: when I finally relented and agreed to tweak as much as was necessary to make the show into a safe, suitable, appealing IP for 6 – 12 year olds, take on notes in good faith that the investor should call the shots as it’s their money, and let contributors have more of a say – it seemed to create an immediate negative knee-jerk reaction from the studio. They didn’t like that *at all*, they really wanted me to make my own thing.
What complicated matters further is there was not a standard monogamous relationship – myself and the network involved. There was a polyamorous setup, a love triangle of sorts, with myself, Triggerfish *and* Disney involved. It’s my show but it’s not really, I can be overruled at any time, I’ve been hired by an intermediary company for a parent company but the intermediary company has put up all the money. Please note: this isn’t anyone’s fault. We’re all trying our best. I can only talk for myself here, and again it’s worth noting Triggerfish did a lot of cool stuff for StoryLab. Any time I think about Story Lab there’s a tension within me that is grateful to have been part of it, but also wanting to be critical to not make the same mistakes again. I felt like there were too many cooks involved, and as with nearly everything, this is my own fault for allowing it. Animation’s already hard, but we made it even harder. Triggerfish has a good track record with 3D animation, we were doing our best to create a makeshift 2D pipeline from scratch, with every animator using a different software package, I had a few gatekeepers between myself and the contributors so I wasn’t able to get a proper personal rapport, the pilot had to incorporate soccer AND we had a deadline fast approaching. You know that saying ‘KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid’? I learned the value of adhering to this approach after production on the 2-min pilot, a thousand times over. If the end results were always better with a more complicated setup I’d be ok to look at such a setup again, but I’ve found a leaner setup allows for a better result, at least until we plug into a proper 2D pipeline. I understand this goes against the popular belief that ‘collaboration makes everything better’. I’d add to this ‘collaboration with the right people who save you time and who need minimal input’ makes everything better. The ‘everyone has a say’ system can work as long as it’s clear who’s making the final decision. I’ve found decisions by democracy are almost never good for creative work. It’s sometimes called ‘death by committee’.
At the moment the show has a kiff show bible, a 2-min pilot that’s not really representative of the updated show, an amazing pilot script that I’d love to see made and holds a lot of potential. I’ve insisted on working the way I know best to make the pilot – I dig the 11-min pilot script we have and would dig to produce and animate it under my own roof. However, my insistence on working a certain way for the future may have been a deal-breaker. After being critical of the production process and offering suggestions for how I’d like to better work next time, one studio partner has said ‘they cannot recommend me for mainstream animation’ and that ‘I have little understanding of how the process works’, another partner has said they wish to discuss further. I’m keen to focus on the pilot but the studio wishes to find $1m funding for the first season, and would need a distributor to come on board to add their thumbprint and funding. Because this was somewhat different to a standard commercial project where I’m not so emotionally invested, I’ve decided the best thing for both me and the two studios involved is for me to “let it go”, accept that I may not be part of the show’s future, that it really isn’t my show or my responsibility, reset, dissolve my ego around the project to neither oppose or align my ego with the studio or network. I’m reading Eckhart Tolle’s ‘New Earth’ which is helping me identify how ego attachments can cause many problems for me and others. Even as I type, thinking about this project evokes a ‘battle mode’ response in my body that’s not healthy – a kind of ‘I really need to fight for this’ thing.
If I’d done this again I’d have either insisted on either handing it over to a studio with a tried-and-tested 2D pipeline to avoid the many headaches that come with production (I suggested this in the beginning stages but we decided against it), or totally relinquish control and let someone else call the shots, or insist on taking over production 100% myself in-house.
As a note, I’ve been told by Triggerfish that many of the other StoryLab ‘winners’ are experiencing good success with their shows’ development, so all the best to the studio and them.
Passion vs. Commerce
It’s worth making a distinction about ‘passion projects’ and ‘commercial work’. In an ideal world, we’d all be doing our passion projects to earn a living, and if you’re doing that, you’ve won at life – congratulations. However, sometimes the beautiful worlds of ‘passion projects’ and the rule-oriented world of ‘commercial projects for kids of a certain age where child psychologists and compliance departments are king’ don’t overlap particularly neatly.
I’ve watched creators talk about pitching shows, read many stories about how shows were greenlit, heard execs speak about what they look for in a show pitch, and been through two pitches-to-show-bible-with-a-short-pilot processes myself. From the network’s side, they may get the best out of you if you pitch that thing you love because there’s a good chance you’ll go the extra mile to make it work. However, it may not be such a reciprocal relationship.
If you have a project you’ve been working on for a long time and are precious about, my advice here would be to create a project that has some of the elements that you like about your own project, but make it different enough so that if the show dead-ends, it’s not too devastating.
The potential downside is that the network / studio may not be getting the best work out of you, which isn’t so great for them. That’s the gamble you need to make, and I don’t know what the right answer is. I used to think that you should always pitch the projects that you love the most, and put your whole heart into all your work. A colleague suggested not doing this, and I’m seeing the sense in it. In the past, making a project ‘my baby for a while’ was simpler to do because I could be sure my work would make it through production to the end, and the public would see it. With an animated show, there are a number of hoops to jump through and the plug can be pulled at any time. There are also NDA’s so people may never see your work.
Now I think differently – rather pitch an emptier vessel that both you and the investor / studio can fill, so you both feel ownership. Protect your heart a little bit, rather take things slowly, start with a mutt that you can work up into a pedigree. Don’t give them your golden goose – it’s going to be harder for you both to put their stamp on it. It should be something that you at least ‘like’ because if an exec decides that ‘yep, let’s take a chance on creator x’ there’s a chance you may spend years working on that project, and you hope that you can both fashion it into something you (and others) end up loving.
With standard commercial work, the understanding is often a lot simpler: I’m working for you, you hired me because you like my work, I work on a project until we’re both happy with it – job done. However, with a kids show, I think networks are trying to figure out what makes a show successful, and one of the things they’ve discovered is that they need a creator with a strong voice, someone with ‘the vision’, a captain who’s able to steer the vessel to shore safely. In truth, I feel like it’s more of a push-pull game. If the vision is so clear that the network / studio doesn’t have a say, that’s no fun for them – the game is up. If the captain’s just doing whatever the network / studio say, that’s no fun either – the game is up. When working with a network / studio funding the project, the network / studio is the one who decides whether the game is up or not. This can be disempowering and disheartening for the captain for sure, but knowing this dynamic from the beginning can help matters. If anything, smile and enjoy the ride.
Advice from the Pros.
I’ve asked for advice from successful people in the field and results differ. I’ve received the suggestion of ‘going as far out as possible and doing exactly what you want because the network will always pull you back’ (‘Shoot for the Moon & Land on a Star’ vibes). Other advice from a really successful show creator is ‘he realised the network can’t make the show without him – they need him and they’re trying their best, so, have some patience with network execs.’ Robert Downer Jr. (not in the animation field but universal advice anyway) says he listens and nods and then does his own thing anyway.
There doesn’t seem to be any sure-fire formula to success with getting a show on air. I love reading and talking about this stuff, so from memory, some successful stories include:
Rugrats: the creator pitched a bunch of well worked-out ideas that the network wasn’t that keen on, and Rugrats was literally an idea scribbled on a scrap of paper in a her pocket that she pitched as a last throw-away idea, which the network loved.
For Spongebob, the creator Stephen Hillenburg had everything worked out from top to bottom – beautifully painted backgrounds, characters worked out, and even a conch that played the shows’ theme tune. He was able to combine his love of marine biology and animation into one project. Hillenburg had experience for how to run a show from working on ‘Rocko’s Modern Life’. When the show launched, audiences didn’t really take to Spongebob and his friends but Stephen insisted that Nickelodeon ride it out a bit – turned out audiences loved the sponge and his friends. I also remember reading that someone who worked on Spongebob said ‘everything you see up on screen is a compromise’, meaning it will always be tweaked by network notes.
Phineas and Ferb, the creators tried unsuccessfully to get their show greenlit for 10 years (!) until they decided to do exactly what they wanted, and it worked out.
The Breadwinners, I believe they made a pilot for Nickelodeon, Nick didn’t pick up on the series and the creators took a chance and made the pilot on their own dime anyway which got them a foot in the door for a greenlit show. I believe the show didn’t do particularly well with ratings, but still – mad props to them.
Adventure Time – started out as a pilot for Nickelodeon. Nick passed on it, I guess it got sold to Cartoon Network and they turned it into a series, becoming one of their most successful IPs to date.
I believe the legend is Matt Groening came up with the idea for ‘The Simpsons’ (the idea of a nuclear family as a prime time sitcom show) in a cab on his way to a network meeting. The exec (David Silverman I think?) initially wanted to license his ‘Life in Hell’ series (which I love) but Groening was smart enough to not sell his baby. Life in Hell would’ve been a rad show though. The Simpsons debuted on Tracy Ullman’s show, audiences loved it and the rest is history. I believe Groening’s ‘Futurama’ wasn’t nearly as easy a ride to success – the network who picked up the series wanted to give him tons of notes, and he and his team really had to put their foot down by saying ‘we know what we want, please don’t do this’ and they played the balancing act of potentially losing the network’s financing to remain true to their idea. Thank goodness they stuck to their guns. I remember reading that Groening’s said that getting Futurama on air was ‘one of the worst experiences of his adult life.’
It does seem like some shows take years from the initial pilot, to getting a series greenlit.
The ‘note under the note’ to Blandsville
Last year at Kidscreen we had a sit-down meet-and-greet with a British producer who seemed to be worth his salt. He said there’s a big gap for music-based kids shows. Even our Disney contact said combining music and a kids show is a good idea. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do as I’ve been in a number of bands and would be combining my love of music with animation, so, I themed Dogshow around music – my Goldfish music videos are successful (each video’s got a couple of millions views on YouTube), I produce them myself and if I don’t produce and animate the whole video myself I sometimes hire people with the budget. (This is also why I was so adamant on making the 11-min Dogshow pilot myself – it’s full of kiff songs, it’d be like 3 Goldfish animated music videos in one). So I thought ‘Aw Yis, this is like combining Goldfish videos and an animated show’ something I’d already dreamed of doing. Now that the bible is done, one big distributor that was interested in the IP doesn’t want to do a music-based show – they’re staying away from music because ‘dubbing into other languages is hard.’
Now, this doesn’t mean all distributors won’t be interested, but it does lead me to the point that ‘animation execs just don’t know everything – the best they can do is let you know what they know, but that may not be enough’.
Pilar Alessandra talks about understanding the ‘note under the note’ – even when a suggestion is given for how to fix something (in an animation script or a piece of animation or whatever), it doesn’t mean the suggestion is right, it just means that the note-giver feels something’s not yet working or needs more attention. Understand the note under the note – understand that when you read in-between the lines you may see what’s being pointed at, but I’d go further and say just because you’re a good cryptographer and know what’s being hinted at, that doesn’t mean you have to heed the advice.
Don’t trust all exec notes as gospel – execs themselves will be the first to tell you this. If anything, you’ll be penalised for following all of the notes given to you. Following all the rules is no guarantee of success.
A lot of the time I discover the process is like ‘The Alchemist’ – we go on a big journey exploring a project, and learn that what we were looking for was right in front of us all along. That’s not to say that the journey isn’t worthwhile, and it’s different than doing nothing. What’s picked up on the way is always useful one way or another.
A bit like music, if you keep following trends, you’ll always be behind the curve. Indeed, if you keep following the rules, you’ll also be behind. Rather, figure out what you love, make that, and tell the myriad of people who will invariably tell you why it’s wrong, to go suck an egg. If you have a knack for knowing what’s going to be popular ahead of time, you’ll really be lucky if you can get a network / studio to commit to bringing your idea to life before someone else does. It seems like a lot has to go right to get a show on air. If you’re lucky, the stars align.
Showing Your Cards
One thing I realised during the development process for both shows, is that you don’t need to show *all* your working processes. If you’re like me, your creative process is sometimes to generate a whole bunch of stuff up-front to give yourself as many ingredients to add to the mix, and then use a bit of alchemy to see what sticks. The issue is, if I show this process to a network / studio it can freak them out a bit. From their side, they may feel the need to provide notes on everything that’s sent to them. What may be better is keeping your cards a little bit hidden (I know it’s tempting to show everything because you’re so excited about the project) but it’s worth letting things bake a little bit, only sending stuff when you’re a bit more definite about matters. Otherwise, you’ll be getting notes on stuff that you may end up throwing out the next day – a bit of a waste of time for the network. They’ll be less likely to provide thoughtful notes next time if it’s all for naught, so rather try gain a whole bunch of ground before you touch base with them, to avoid getting beaten back down to square one.
If finding a suitable partner isn’t working out, the other option of course is just making it yourself. If you have the resources and know-how how to make your own stuff and really want to stay true to your idea (and have a healthy dose of self-motivation) the Internet really has made this possible, though you’ll have to really hit the big-time if you want to make enough advertising revenue on YouTube to compete with the money you may get with a network buying your IP. You could also find a company to sponsor your animated shorts, but again – if your content is ‘too new’ for investors it may scare them off – as much as they may say they like fresh new ideas, my experience has been that anything really fresh and new scares investors. If, however, your content looks like what’s already out there but is slightly different enough to look a little bit new, it (unfortunately) may make life easier to attract an investor.
Most of the companies that fund animation IPs want to own the work outright; it seems to be the rule. I’ve encountered one exception where the network would fund the whole show but owns 80%; that seemed to be the exception rather than the rule.
Collaboration vs. Working Alone
This is something I’ve been wondering about quite a bit. Mostly I’ve worked alone for the 10 years I’ve been doing animation – it allows the inner voice to come through clearer amongst any potential stronger wills that are trying to have their way, I don’t need to be in a studio setting to create an animated short, and if I want to bring other people in, I usually do it remotely over the Internet, or with short visits to have some face-to-face time.
I don’t think there’s a definitive answer here for what’s better, but what I do know is that if you’re working with the wrong people, it’s better working alone. Working with the *right* people, however, is a real joy.
For Dogshow, I insisted on getting Greig Cameron to write the pilot script. Greig liked my Moosebox short, has a wealth of experience writing for the 11-minute format, is also a musician and played the same videogames I did when we were younger, and he just ‘gets’ my humour. He nailed it so well and made a gem of an episode script, and it helped me realise that if I could just find a few more people like him who don’t need that much input, who ‘get’ the idea quickly and then are happy to take the ball and run with it until the end – that’s ideal.
What I’m not sure a huge fan of is when a collaborator stops often to say ‘now what?’ If I figure out that it would have been cheaper and faster for me to do the work myself, that’s no good.
– It’s pretty much as simple as that.
I met a friend in Japan who works for Government. He believes our purpose here is to work together as we always build better things together. I think he’s right, if everyone is doing something that the other can’t do, or at least doing it better. Then you get synergy – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The opposite extreme is working completely alone, being like a sovereign state. As my friend explained, there’s nobody more sovereign than a homeless person – that person isn’t tied to any institution or belief or organization – the homeless person can do whatever he / she wants, but doesn’t have the resources to do that. Another example of an extreme sovereign state is North Korea. They can do whatever they want to do, they don’t subscribe to any rules and don’t take orders from anybody. I believe it’s a great place to live.
I suspect the answer is to initially do the hard work of digging deep to get to the gold nuggets of ‘what is this show about’ and once that’s done, letting contributors put their own stamp on things and stepping back to allow this (and making sure everyone knows where they stands with contracts).
A big one. In general, be prepared for a lot of uncertainty. ‘Promises made and promises broken’ seems par for the course, teaching you the Buddhist principle that ‘attachment is suffering’. A network can be in love with you one day, and drop you the next. I’d also suggest that anyone who tries to put stars in your eyes, remove them promptly and ask for the promise to be put in writing – nothing’s worth anything unless it’s in writing. Don’t accept less in exchange for future promises of great spoils and riches, unless you go into it fully aware this is pie-in-the-sky thinking, possibly used as a ploy to pay you less.
With pitching competitions, they’re selling dreams. Sure, dreams can come true, but statistically it seems like the shows that are greenlit by studios are created by industry veterans – people who have worked within the pipeline for years and know how the machine works. It’s great that big networks like Nickelodeon and Disney are reaching out to places like South Africa to get a feel for whether anything may be a sleeper hit – it’s not a massive investment to them, and with the Internet acting as a means for any creator to potentially score direct revenue, my guess is that networks may as well get a piece of that pie if they can ‘in case’ something blows up. The things that blow up, though, are often not like anything else currently available, so in my opinion that’s even more reason to go further left field in your show creation.
With all these rules and thoughts it’s easy to forget the reason you’re doing animation in the first place. One of the reasons I like makin’ stuff is the ability to embody my sense of humour and possibly evoke a laugh. Humour is always king. If something’s funny, it’s funny. If jokes were able to be made by computers, that’d be weird. I’m bad at telling jokes, but know someone who writes good jokes. If humour’s part of your show, it’s really easy for plot to stand in the way. Sometimes trimming down a script results in most of the funny stuff being cut to make sure the plot ‘makes sense’. Remember, these are 6-12 year old kids. A pie to the face may be funny, but a clever hipster reference to an obscure pop-culture thing may not land.
There’s a tendency to want to do LANK clever stuff – plot twists, high-concept stuff, to prove to the network ‘hey, I’m a clever dood’ – but remember, these are 6 – 12 year olds you’re making stuff for. When I was that age, I didn’t watch cartoons because of the plot twists – I watched because I liked the characters and they were entertaining doing whatever they were doing. If anything, I didn’t like the shows that were too plot heavy – it got in the way of my enjoyment. I did not like Scooby-Doo at all, and didn’t like any blank-canvas characters that were wrapped around clever scripts. Boring. I really liked more physical comedy / character-based shows where ridiculous scripts (that were easy to follow) were wrapped around interesting characters: Cow & Chicken, Dexter’s Lab, Powerpuff Girls, etc… Don’t try to be too clever. It may get in the way of things.
Something that’s not given too much coverage is how the show actually gets made. I like making my own stuff with as few moving parts as possible – there’s less that’s likely to go wrong, and there’s less chance of ‘broken telephone’ / communication being misunderstood. If you’re an animator plugging in with an animation team and want to both animate AND direct, I can advise not making the same mistake I did on Dogshow – it’s not a good idea and very easy to lose perspective. Perhaps better to not animate and only direct rather. If you’re used to working a particular way I’d suggest taking control and insisting on working your way, or if the studio / network insists on doing it their way, then maybe consider that it may be much better for everyone if you relinquish control completely, let them figure out how to make it (it’s not so much your problem now) and understanding you’ll have to be alright with whatever result is produced. I haven’t yet handed production of a short over to someone or a studio completely but I would definitely look at this for any subsequent projects.
I’d suggest being careful with who you bring onto your team, and make sure it’s all in writing what the obligations are. If someone decides to work for less for you, unless they’re completely selfless, they’ll be ‘giving with attachment’ and may want recourse later on down the line. If things aren’t clear, bitterness may enter the equation, so make sure you pay people properly and make sure you get paid properly in case the ‘big thing’ doesn’t happen – at least you’re all squared up.
I’ve read before that Charlie Chaplin is the king of physical comedy. Watching some of his films, I totally see how many animated shows borrow from him. Bugs Bunny is basically an energised talking Charlie Chaplin in a rabbit suit. Spongebob is a bit like Charlie Chaplin. Tom & Jerry: very much like a physical comedy Charlie Chaplin skit. Basically, If you study Charlie Chaplin’s character, how he stages physical humour, how he very often plays the unlucky underdog that gets himself into ridiculous and precarious situations and figure out how you may be able to mould some of that into your character, you’re probably on a good wicket.
Collaboration can be a joy when people are doing what they do best, you’re allowing them to do what they do best, and when what they do gels with what you want to do. It can also be a real struggle when you’re not on the same page – if anything, a useful exercise in ‘how not to do things 101’. Don’t let anyone steal your voice – however difficult that may be. If you figure out the secret formula to getting a show on air, please do let me know, I’d love to hear it.
[EDIT 24/04/2017: Added’Bucks’]:
Someone asked me what kind of bucks are involved. My response below:
“Hi. So, to get to your question. Yes, it pays fairly well. There’s a fee for the outright purchase of the IP, then a development fee that’s used for pre-production, and then a production fee to make a 2-minute short. Thereafter, if they want to invest more, there’s a further development fee to make a proper bible, an 11-min script and animatic. I found I started running low on bucks during this last development process as it took longer than I thought, I paid a few people to help me with ideas, some art and with the long script, but it can be up to the creator how he/she wishes to go about the process. I took a long time to gestate and think about it. The numbers: it was enough for me to survive on for the time it took me to work. Not so much that I could pay my bills AND buy a fancy new car or anything too extravagant, but, reasonable, and it allowed me to put some money away in savings too. There’s also back-end built into the deal, so I think I get about 2% of all potential future merchandise sales. The clever creators (George Lucas and Steven Hillenburg) I think insisted on keeping merchandise rights, as that’s where the real money is I believe.”
[EDIT 24/04/2017: Added ‘Reading Material’ heading]:
Some books I’ve found to be super useful:
The Coffee Break Screenwriter by Pilar Alessandra
We had Pilar come and talk to us in South Africa as part of the StoryLab. She’s awesome, and this book really helps demystify how to write a script. While I don’t think it should ever be a ‘paint-by-numbers’ affair, by following this book you definitely can take that approach and it’ll help you to pin-point what your story’s actually about, it’ll help you to figure out who your main character is, and by answering the questions the ‘wizard’-style approach takes the blanks you fill in and presents you with amazing stuff back. Superb book for a better understanding of an industry-standard approach to script-writing for pilots, TV series and movies.
Animation Writing and Development
So, I’ve only got a third way through this book. I got pretty bored as it’s fairly laborious, but it has a good section called ‘Human Development’ in Chapter 4 that goes through the psychology of various ages, so you can get a better idea of your audience if you’re ie. developing material for kids aged 6 – 12. The printing I have is from 2005 and glancing through it, it still looks pretty relevant.
I hope I can spend the second half of 2017 doing more creating and less explaining and validating – it’s creating that brings me joy.
Thank you for reading, I hope you found some of it useful.