Mention short screenplays and many writers think “festival material.” Mention animation, they think “Pixar features.” But put them together – you get Animated Television. It’s a huge market. In 2013 alone, one hundred and eleven new animated series premiered across the globe.
(Artist: Robert Atkins)
I’ve been a fan of Zac Atkinson since I first read his Nicholl semifinal script, FINDING NORMAL. Over the years, we’ve traded reads on our spec screenplays and I’ve become an even bigger fan. It’s no surprise that he is a working writer and very much in demand. He has spent the last several years working in animated television and some of his upcoming work can be seen in the second season of Transformers Rescue Bots, currently airing on the Hub Network. I asked him to share a little bit about his job with us.
DG: How did you break in to Animated Television?
Zac: I had just finished my MFA in Screenwriting at Boston University and I moved to L.A. in the fall of 2010 as part of an extension program the school offered. This program required everyone to have an internship, so I went out to find a foothold in Hollywood. After several non-starter interviews around town, I fortunately found an internship with Hasbro Studios because of the amazing executive producer Jeff Kline. Jeff is one of those incredible people who likes to pay it forward by helping other people.
After working as an intern for a short time, a production assistant job became available and I was hired on to an animated TV series. From there I worked my way into a script coordinator and writers’ assistant role where I was able to meet and get to know some amazing animation writers. After learning as much as I could, the writing staff gave me a chance to script an episode. And that’s how I started.
DG: Can you tell us a little bit about what’s involved in writing for Animated Television?
Zac: Animation is a great and wonderful area to work in, and I fell into it by a bit of luck. Truthfully, I have always enjoyed cartoons on TV and at the movies, but I never specifically set out to become an animation writer. I only knew I wanted to be a screenwriter.
I’m extremely grateful to have worked in production first, because understanding how animation is made only makes you better at writing for the medium. There’s a bit of misinformation out there about animation writing because much of it is geared toward children. Just because a story is for a younger audience doesn’t mean it’s simple and easy to produce. Besides, there are a growing number of animated shows and films that are aimed entirely at adults, so to say animation writing is just for kids’ shows is simply incorrect. Trust me when I say writing for animation is just as complex and difficult as writing for live action.
There are some particular things that animation demands in a script which you won’t see elsewhere. As with most half-hour television shows, actual run time for an episode is only about 20 minutes. Surprisingly, a script for an episode of a half-hour animated show tends to run quite a bit longer than most people expect. A 20-minute episode will often have a 30-35 page script. If the general rule is about one page to one minute screen time, it’s closer to about one and one-third to one and a half a pages of script to one-minute screen time for animation. Animation scripts do not use any crazy margins or unusual fonts to extend the page count. Rather, the extra pages come from more detailed requirements in description. The beauty and the curse of animation is that you can do practically anything.
Perhaps you have an action-packed set piece of an aerial combat between non-existing fictional dragon creatures. Well, that action must be called out rather specifically so that the teams of talented artists who will draw the sequence know what should be happening. Additionally, you have to describe these dragon things with enough detail that another team of artists can create the design. How big is this creature? How many heads does it have? What colors might it be? Does it have any special powers? All of this information must be clear and concise in the script and describing everything takes more space on the page. Clarity is so key in all screenwriting, and it goes doubly so in animation. Or consider what are known as the “squash and stretch” style of animation shows where a cat character chases a mouse through a pipe–and he actually squeezes his body through the pipe to come out the other end in a different shape. It’s a fun visual gag that plays quickly on screen, but to describe it clearly on the page will require a bit of clarity and space.
So not only do you have to have all the other things a great story requires (such as strong characters, plot, and dialogue), animation has many more requirements. I have picked up a lot of these other particulars about animation writing along the way, and I’m now looking forward to sharing those as part of a course I’m teaching this spring.
(Artists: Andrea Di Vito and Laura Villari)
DG: Script: Can you share any particulars on your writing course?
Zac: Not too long ago, I met Andy Schmidt over at Comics Experience. He has created this amazing set of online courses that will teach you how to make your own comics. The instructors that run these courses are all working professionals and they offer a great amount of practical knowledge. Andy was interested in expanding into instruction about animation and asked me to teach a course. So, I’m now the instructor for Introduction to Animation Writing this spring.
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