Saturday, March 3, 2007

Writers and Artists Part II - Taking a chance on the new

Today I was thinking about "new talent."

I'm at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen - watching stand up comedians, sketch artists, improv groups... There's also a very large film festival here, with full length films... shorts... stuff like that.

A lot of agents and managers are here to sign and look for new talent, and more than a few people are here looking to find new comedic voices to write for them... which got me thinking about the different paths toward a person's first shot, and how the very path in which writers and artists are found and hired shapes their feelings toward each other.

My story first, if you'll indulge me.

My first job was writing on Johnny Bravo. To say I had little idea of what I was doing is an understatement. Whether it was jokes that were inappropriate for children's television, or simply mediocre animation story telling, I was learning on the job and I knew it. As I'm sure, by the way, did every artist on that show.

I'm sure I came off as a jackass. I'm sure, at points, I still do. :)

Couple that with the fact that since I didn't know whether my first job would be my last job, I split my attention between comedy and writing animation, with most of my chips on comedy. But by the end of the season - when cartoons started coming back, and I started seeing my words turned into the kind animated stuff I loved as a kid... it became something I wanted to continue doing.

I admit that now, but I didn't know then, obviously. What I knew about the HOWS of animation you could fit in a thimble, although that didn't diminish my enjoyment of it. And my desire to get better at it. And my being thrilled to find a new way to do what I loved to do - write comedy - in a different format.

But that's how I got my shot. I could have been a car crash, I could have been brilliant... I was... something of a fender bender that learned, I think, as I went. And I think that's a learning curve that writers get, that artists get much less of.

Correct me if I'm wrong - because these are just theories - but when an artist gets his or her first job, it's based on a portfolio. Be it boards, character designs, student films... there's a body of work that shows a network, a studio, or a producer that that artist can handle a job. The opportunity might be a position a level or two above the one they've done before - but you pretty much know what you're getting... it's right there on the page.

Its different for writing. Because you have to take so much more on faith. Yeah, somebody can write a great spec script, but you don't know how long it took. Yeah, you can read a great freelance script from another show, but you never know how much others put into it. And yes, you can test writers with freelance scripts... but you never know how they'll do on a production schedule, and you have to cut slack for them not knowing the characters as well as you do.

So, consequently, writers get hired with a lot less certainty in their skills than artists. But once you're hired, you're hired. You'd have to kick an employee in the face, or pee in the Executive Producer's office, to be let go.

I'm sure, as an artist with talent who can execute their job to the standards in which they were hired, looks at a shaky writer who cranks out one, two or three scripts that need work (but hopefully improve along the way) and it triggers an arched eyebrow, or an annoyed grumble.

Artists don't get to suck when hired. Mostly because, you probably don't. You've got a big ass portfolio of not sucking to prove it. If your designs don't match the show, it's obvious pretty fast. If your boards don't work with the show, you learn that after one pitch. If your timing blows, you see it fast. And so on and so on and so on. Even if you're a bit hacky, if you're hacky in the way the show wants you to be hacky, you're probably not going anywhere.

But writing is subjective... and if you (producer / studio) have seen somebody KILL on stage, and make a room or a theater roar with laughter, you already have somebody saying "This person HAS to be hilarious!"

Whether they can tell a story or not is the surprise.

I saw several comics today I would love to come in and pitch the shows I work on. If I like the logline, it'll go to premise. If I like the premise, it'll go to outline. If I like the outline, it'll go to script. That person gets to follow their idea all the way up until the point where it's obvious they're still looking for the skillset to do this regularly. and if they write a great script, they'll get a second one. It's only fair.

An untested comedy writer's portfolio is the script writing process - the ability to learn by doing on someone else's dime, really. Artists don't get that luxury, and I think that's another thing that drives a wedge.

I don't have a solution on this one. I don't even have a theory. But I do think it's one more perceived unfairness that creates tension.

How do you hire a new writer, without burdening or marginalizing established artists?



Bob Harper said...

You've touched on another point why somw artists resent some writers. To get a job as an artist requires a strong portfolio and sometimes an enduring test, then if you get hired a three month probation period.

Now the question is, how did an artist get to that level of getting hired at a shop. Even if they are fresh out of school, it has taken years of training, either self taught formal - whatever. Long weekends and late nights, honing your craft and even now countless hours learning new software.

Compare that to reading a couple of scrfeenplay books, maybe attending a seminar and two and spending a year tops on writing samples and "BAM" you are now qualified to be a writer.

I've seen it ot even a lesser degree where PAs got their shot at a gig, based on their relation with story editors.

Now we know that writing is a craft and the ones that go the "quick" usually suck. But the scarifice is minimal to become a professional writer compared to a professional artist, Seeing as now I have done both, I can testify to it.

Now to the question of how a newbie should enter this business. Same goes for a vet that needs to get better. Learn the history of animation. Research it. If you were to try to write for Bollywood, you wouldn't even start without knowing what is allowed or forbiideen or desired by that kind of audience and genre. Ask animators what drives them crazy about some writing. Spend a couple of hours a week at community art school and take drawing, get some drawing books and start doodling at least an hour a day in a little sketchbook or notepad (Moleskine is best). Don't worry of how well it is drawn, be crazy and loose.

Watch cartoons, read comics, not just the modern ones but vintage ones and see why you laugh. Was it the visual gag? Snappy line? Ask others why it was funny. If you are in the SoCal area, go to the Animation Archive and get "learnt".

Also expand your mind by watching and reading other things, same goes for cartoonists who want to create shows. Watch Chaplin, Marx Brothers, Billy Wilder flicks as well as some of the newer stuff. Read comics old and new. Read classic books, watch plays, the list goes on.

Above all, see how all of this applies visually. Practice writing and sketching a short gag with no dialog, it's okay if it is stick figures, just try to visualize it. Show it to someone and see if they get the story, or laugh etc. And then do it again better.

Steve Schnier said...

I learned to write, simply by writing. I had an idea for a series, wrote a one page pitch, knocked on doors (3 of them) and sold the show. When we finally went into production I hired an old time comedy writer (all the way back to Sid Ceasar) and learned the ropes from him.

Of course, when I started to write - I had been out of school and in the business for 10 years. Having a solid foundation in animation was a distinct advantage in writing for animation. It was only after our first 1/2 season that I discovered those screenplay books.

Kent B said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, and your experience may be different from mine - But usually on the script side, the studio will hire a story editor - and the story editor is the one who is ultimately responsible to the studio for the consistency & quality of the finished scripts. So the story editor will be the one working day to day with this "talented but inexperienced" new writer. The story editor will work with the new writer, "editing" and re-writing, if needed, the new writer's stuff so that it will be accepted and work for the show. If there are problems along the way, it would be the story editor's call to yank the work from the new writer, and send them off with a kill fee, or to work with them to finish an acceptable finished script. The studio is relying on the story editor to tell them if this writer can "cut it" or not.

Now in many ways, it's the same with artists. Believe it or not, there are unscrupulous artists out there who go around town showing portfolios of other peoples' work, and claiming it as their own. I've found that the only way I can judge an artist's work is to give them a "test". Now I like to be able to pay them for the test, if I can, so I'll try to find a small assignment (boarding, designing, coloring, etc) and pay a few $$. I've only rarely been disappointed. The "fakes" will usually find some excuse for not being able to take the assignment.

Sib said...

I'd take the time to answer this, but I'm too busy wracking my brain, trying to remember whose office I peed in/face I kicked on the other side of town.

wurdhurlr said...

kent b nailed it. Any script-driven show that doesn't have a competent show runner and/or story editor to comb through scripts and make them pretty should never have been greenlit. It's a problem with the system that shows scuttle through the development process and into production without either. Any story editor or writer-producer who gives unworkable or unrealistically complicated scripts to artists with the expectation that said artists should "fix everything" has no business in the business.

But for all the whiny purists who think writers have no place in animation, remember this -- artists often need writers as much as writers need artists. As a writer/story-editor/producer I feel priviledged to have worked with so many brilliant artists during my career in animation. I am in awe of their talent. And for you artists who also have great grasp of story sense? I bow to you yet more humbly. Kudos on the hyphen -- I can't draw worth shit.

But hey, what about all the great artists who can't quite grasp character, who don't have an ear for dialogue, or who can't structure a story? Are we supposed to believe that there are so many brilliant artists with a fantastic grasp of story and character that they could create and run every cartoon in production? I sorta kinda doubt it. I can't draw and I don't expect artists to write. Unless they're good at it. Then please, by all means do. Huzzah for variety! Pip pip for respect!