Daily Variety Peter Lawrence Writing Note

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The following appeared in the Daily Variety on September 20, 1995. The citation is Street, Rita (1995-09-20). Doing toons the write way. Daily Variety.

Doing Toons the Write Way

Writing for animation is a fairly new art form because in the medium's early days, cartoons were created in bullpen sessions and drawn on storyboards, rather than having full written scripts. Writers would have been considered middle men. But as the industry changed and cartoons became the central focus of Saturday morning children's television, hectic schedules demanded tighter deadlines, which were easier to meet with complete scripts.

Dale Schott, a writer for Nelvana's "Rupert the Bear," started out as a storyboard artist and even directed episodes, but found writing "more satisfying" as it offered him more control. Still, Schott admits "it's a shame there's no longer time to develop the story visually. It's just a reality of the business."

Renegade animator John Kricfalusi, however, is well-known for railing against this machine. Says the outspoken creator of "The Ren & Stimpy Show,""The early cartoons of the '30s '40s and '50s are the most successful in history. They were created by cartoonists drawing on storyboards in the same way a symphony is written on sheet music. The special medium of animation has a special language. You don't describe music in words, so why do people write animation?"

Lane Raichert, story editor and head writer for Klasky Csupo's "Santa Bugito," added, "There are two schools of thought. Some people think you can just write live-action style scripts and that's good enough for animation. The other school says you shouldn't even write in animation -- just do up boards and have a jam session. I'm in the middle. I feel you should respect and have a knowledge of animation. It's a more visual medium and it improves the product if you're able to write accordingly. But most of all, you have to remember you're writing for a storyboard artist."

Others, such as writers Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn, who wrote for the live-action "Moonlighting" show a few years ago and now are part of the acclaimed writing team for another Klasky Csupo production, "Duckman," emphasize they are live-action writers. "We write our stories as one camera film scripts that are very character driven," says Osborn, who along with Reno, found the animation process "creatively daunting because of the lack of limitations."

But the team also found the possibilities exciting.

"No actors' schedules to deal with, no weather, no locations. We could put a scene on the moon or in somebody's head," says Osborn.

The pair says their experience directing actors came in handy.

"We learned to trust the acting abilities of animated characters while the animators learned to trust in the real moments characters can create without resorting to gags," Reno says. "A movement of an eyebrow or the right word can be enough to entertain."

Walt Disney TV producer Greg Weisman has had the same experience while writing his dramatic action-adventure series, "Gargoyles."

"This is a different kind of show," he says. "Our characters can have a conversation. It's not about talking heads, but playing for emotion. With 'Gargoyles,' we have the freedom to slow things down instead of putting a joke in because it's been 20 seconds."

Other writers, however, would be out of a job if they couldn't pack every beat with a gag. Paul Rugeg of Warner Bros.' "Animaniacs" says the methodology for creating the wacky world of "Animaniacs" was "definitely a group effort. We'd all talk about our ideas and then go back to our offices. But as soon as I'd get another idea, I'd run out and show the other writers who would either plus it, laugh or ignore me.

"There is a common gripe from the animation community about live-action writers making the jump to animation, and that's the limited ability to keep it 'visual.' "

"This isn't the medium for heavy plot-driven shows," says story editor Vince Calandra of Nickelodeon. "I'm always preaching, let's see it, not say it. There's nothing worse than seeing 20 pages of script with front to back dialogue. It's no fun for the artists to draw talking heads."

"Jonny Quest" producer Peter Lawrence seconds that motion.

"Very few writers in this or any other field actually write visually."

The new version of the Hanna-Barbera Quest classic, set to debut in fall of '96, is expected to be heavily action-oriented. Lawrence believes the writing of these sequences is so strong that each of the episodes will "have enough material or potential to develop into a movie."

It seems reasonable to expect that such intense writing would fetch an appropriate wage, but typically, animation writers make only about half the pay of their live-action peers -- a major issue in the animation world.

Says Raichert, "The argument goes -- the scripts are longer, the shelf life is longer, why then is the pay less?"

It's a question that bothers Craig Miller, chairman of the newly established Writers Guild Animation Writer's Caucus. Formed barely a year ago, the goals of the sub-entity are to "provide health benefits and health plans, information as to how business is being conducted, going rates, and to bring representation under the Writer's Guild, where we feel it belongs."

Miller adds the Caucus hopes to reduce the number of rewrites expected without additional pay.

The issue of royalties is the other bugaboo in the animation writing scene. Live-action writers receive royalties, but currently, animation writers don't. For studios and animation houses, it's an issue complicated by the fact that artists who draw cartoons are also seeking royalty payments.

However, more than a few long-form writers are making a good living in toons, and enjoying themselves while doing it. According to Steve Hulett of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Local 839, the union that handles most of the animation writers working inhouse at union animation shops, feature writers are pulling in between $ 50,000 and $ 100,000 per pic.

Screenwriter Irene Mecchi came to Walt Disney Feature Animation with sitcom credits "My Sister Sam" and "Valerie" under her belt. Together with the Disney story team and co-writer Jonathan Roberts, Mecchi went on to write "The Lion King."

"In animation writing, your involvement continues for years, which is great," says Mecchi.

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