Sunday, May 27, 2007

When an outline is a premise

Hey there! Finally found something that "doinked" me enough to post about.

Apparently, there was some discussion about "long premises" on the TAG BOARD
because, suprise, if you ask people to complain, they do. Damndest thing.

Here's the post in question:

A short while ago we posted "Complaints TAG Gets." We also sent out letters and printed an article in the newsletter.

And whattayaknow? E-mails flowed in confirming that yes, there are execs in 'toonland who insist on outlines (mislabeled "premises") that studios don't pay for. Who would have thought it?

I also got a phone call from the creator of a show asking: "What's TAG's position on two or three page "premises" that have guarantees of outlines and script (and accompanying fees) attached to them?"

The answer is, premises longer than a page which are part of an outline and script payment guarantee aren't the issue. It's long premises that end up orphans -- that is, without an outline, script or money trailing behind them -- that are the problem.

I keep wondering what studios think they're doing. Who the hell wants to waste long days of their lives working for free?"

So here's the deal. I don't know who complained to TAG about this. And, for the record, on any show I do - SCRIPT DRIVEN STUFF mind you - a premise is a page, maybe a little more.

Outlines? They're 3 to 4 pages and on 11 minute comedy cartoons, I avoid them. I find they hamstring the writer and that once the story starts being written, it takes a life of it's own. But the problem is, a network or studio has signed off on the outline and anything aside from that is a surprise. Premises are the "spirit" of the story... a spring board, if you will.

But the minute you go into a board driven show, that premise has a different responsibility. Because on a board driven show, you go from premise to a pitch board, to a final board. That means a network has two bites at the apple on that story - the thumb pitch (which is invariably loose) and the final board, which at that point, is done.

Compare that to a script driven show where you can tweak it at the premise stage, the first draft stage, the second draft stage, the final stage, the record script... and then finally the board.

Is it any wonder that executives, studios and networks want to see more detail in the premise for a story... if that story is more of a "spirit" of an idea that blows into a full fledge board?

That being said - there are board artist / story artists that are amazing at this - that can go from a logline to a finished cartoon - and it's better than almost anything out there. Dave Thomas, for example (El Tigre) always amazed me with his ability to take an idea and blow it into a full board with dialogue that's true to the characters, heart, story and big, big laughs.

But the freedom to tell those kind of stories in that manner of production comes with trust. Not every story board artist can do it, just like not every person who considers themselves a writer can write. The difference? A shit first draft can be turned into a better second draft and a solid final draft.

But a drawn board is pretty much finished. As well it should be, or that board artist is doing a hell of a lot of redrawing, and re-re-drawing.

If you ask me, the "bigger premise" debate is more "give us more information about what this story is" before you move on to the storyboard issue.

I reiterate. Premises I look for are about a page. Outlines, if I need them, are around 3 or 4 pages. And then, there's the script. And if a writer I trust drops in a premise I like, I may not even request an outline, but they'll still be paid accordingly.

It boils down to "What kind of production are you on?"

As always, I suppose. As always.


s.r. hulett said...

FWIW, the complaints I received initially were that some studios wanted long premises (actually outlines) and then didn't pay for them because they were "premises", as magically defined by the studios. (These complaints included story editors at two different companies.)

I stopped writing animation scripts eighteen years ago. My purpose now is to make sure that writers (and everybody else under TAG's jurisdiction) is properly paid for work performed.

Studios, in my experience, don't make it policy to short-sheet employees for the sheer fun of it. But production execs, managers, and others sometimes pursue agendas that are abusive. For example, some years back an over-eager production manager had a group of DreamWorks Animation assistant animators doing 12-14 hours of animation per day, the last six of which were "off the clock." The assistants put up with it because they thought (hoped) it was a pathway to being full-time animators instead of mere assistants. Studio execs, however, knew nothing about this cute manuever being practiced by one of their production managers.

When I informed them about the free overtime going on at their Lake Street facility -- and they confirmed it -- they put a stop to the practice.

I don't have a big problem with writers doing longer premises IF there is a longer (and paid) writing assignment attached to the back-end of said premises. But I have a problem if there isn't. In the final analysis, you look at these things on a case-by-case basis.

Steve said...

I hear ya.

I left a message over on the tag board to make sure you knew I wasn't discussing this to start a flame war with you...

...I thought it was an interesting (if not cryptic) comment, but it made me think about the issue.

All the best...

- Steve

Anonymous said...

Every board driven show that I have worked on, went from premise, to outline, to storyboard, to animatic. The execs get to bite at the apple and make changes at each of these stages. Not just at the premise and finished board.

I don't think a premise should ever be more than a page in length. I've found that if they're longer than that, it's been filled with bells and whistles that are in there to sell it, rather than to simply explain the story.