very good friend of mine, a fellow female animation writer, told me that breaking into the animation business is a mix of persistence, luck, and talent. Based on my own experiences of ending up in unexpected places along the way, I added the factor of adaptability in a column I wrote geared toward non-artists in animation.
Now, nearly five years after penning that column, and looking at the state of the industry over the last decade, optimism also seems appropriate to add to that list. To me, exploring the qualities it takes to succeed comes before the mechanics of how to break into the animation business.
The reason I believe optimism plays a role is because I’ve seen many persistent pessimists, so I don’t think that persistence completely fits the bill on its own; a persistent pessimist may make a half-hearted effort out of a sense of obligation or need, but the lack of interest and dedication will eventually show through.
There may not be a straight line to your goal, so adaptability is important. You may have to take a studio-related day job for a while to meet the people you need to know to make things happen. Don’t just stay focused on one path, unwilling to take alternate approaches to the same destination.
Persistence means being willing to try every opening available to you, though you have to recognize the fine line between being persistent and just flat out being a pest. By contacting people too frequently, you will eventually get doors shut on you.
Luck simply is being in the right place at the right time. Talent means not only possessing the knowledge of the mechanics of how to write for animation, but also having a firm grasp on the craft of story—such as character, plot, etc.—that applies to any fictional writing medium.
“...if you are trying to break in, you need a spec script to show that you have an understanding of animation format and storytelling.”
You must decide what type of animation to focus on. While, personally, I would love to do both television and feature films, my emphasis has been on television, largely due to the increased opportunities available. In the large studios, in-house employees (who may not be writers as their sole job) almost completely, if not exclusively, are the ones who pitch features. For example, artists who work at the studio have pitched feature films.
If you are a newer writer who wants to do animated feature films, the only real option is the independent studio route where you “spec” your script (write it for no advance compensation) and then convince others to produce it. The additional steps of securing funding and possibly other independent co-producers, followed by the production and pitching of the feature, are beyond the scope of this article.
Getting hired on an existing television series is the focus of this article.
With new television shows appearing yearly, there is always that potential opportunity for a slot, but you must remember that you are in competition against other established pros and writers just starting out for these limited number of slots.
Again, as mentioned with features, if you are trying to break in, you need a spec script to show that you have an understanding of animation format and storytelling. The spec should never be a script for the show you want to write on, but it should be something related enough that people in a position to hire you can see that you would be a good fit for their show.
After deciding between television and features, the next question is whether or not you want to break into original animation, or the dubbing of animation in other languages, known professionally as ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement, but there are several other descriptions for this). With the boom of interest in anime, there are some people who make a living doing exclusively ADR-related work, though most people I know in the field eventually become versed in both.
Original scripts are easy to spec provided you’ve seen the show, while ADR can be a bit more challenging. Fortunately, most ADR studios are willing to hand out “tests” where they provide time-coded footage and direct translation to see how well you can provide new dialogue that fits the feel of the story; this is the exception to the rule of not scripting the show you’re trying for.
“This is definitely not the time to thrust a script into the professional’s hands and demand that they read it.”
So how do you go about meeting people to get the job? Conventions are one place. More and more conventions related to animation and anime are showing up all the time. Though many guests at the smaller ones are fans of the medium, some professionals also volunteer time to speak at these conventions and sometimes you can approach them after the panels for a brief conversation. If you do this, be clear and concise about what advice you are seeking from them. This is definitely not the time to thrust a script into the professional’s hands and demand that they read it. It is best to meet and begin building a relationship with this person, and then, if they are willing to keep contact, maybe they will read something at a later date. At the very least, you can gain nuggets of information from these professionals.
Another option, depending on where you live, is to join organizations related to animation. Some, such as Women in Animation, require that you either be a professional or student in the animation field. Others, such as ASIFA (of which I’m a member of their local chapter ASIFA-Hollywood) are devoted to the appreciation of the history and diversity of the medium and some members are also active in the industry.
The next step poses the real challenge.
“In most cases, you can only submit samples for evaluation through an agent, manager, or attorney.”
With a polished spec script in hand (never hand out your first draft, just as with any writing!), it is time to approach production companies. Some may take submissions directly from new writers, but this usually happens when they have gotten to know you through networking, and even then, you will need to fill out some sort of release form per company policy.
In most cases, you can only submit samples for evaluation through an agent, manager, or attorney. Personally, I’ve used an attorney for my situations because I seek my own work and then just pay the attorney to take care of the formalities. If you need someone who can legally help you seek work, then an agent is more appropriate as attorneys and managers can not do this for you in the state of California, where I reside. Check local laws to see what is appropriate for your area.
Let’s say that the person you submitted to (a Producer or Story Editor, depending on the show) likes your spec script. The next step is to pitch an episode idea of your own for their series. A writer is provided with a series “bible” to the show that gives information about the overall setup of the series; the background of all the major characters and how they interact with one another; a style guide of ideas the Producers do and do not encourage in story material. Depending on the production, a writer may also be provided with concept art of the major characters. With these resources, a writer then brainstorms possible ideas and then pitches them to the Producers.
Sometimes this can be an oral pitch in a meeting, but often in animation, the writer submits written premises that run from one to several paragraphs in length, depending on the company’s standards. This should give an indication of the pivotal setup, conflict, and resolution of the episode idea without going into too much detail.
After a premise is approved, the story “beats” will be laid out in either outline or treatment form (a treatment resembles a several-page short story of the idea, emphasizing the major points). Sometimes studios choose to cut story ideas at the outline or treatment stage, at which time, depending on the contract, they may pay a “kill fee.”
If an outline or treatment gets approval, it moves on to script stage. Depending on the production, a script can be one of two types. One looks like a live-action shooting script, where scenes are described generally and specifics are left to the director; this particularly holds true with many of the 3D movies that you see and is referred to as a “master shot” script.
The other format, used more often with the 2D cel animation style, calls for the writer to suggest all the shots to the storyboard artists—including camera movements such as pans (moving through the scene from left to right) and tilts (moving the view up and down).
Animation format could be an article of its own, but here are samples of the two different styles to give you an idea. Please bear in mind, I’ve increased the type size for easy reading; it is normally 12 point.
First we have the master shot format:
The other is the format where the shots are called out. Compare using the same sequence of events:
As a freelancer, you need to know if the production company belongs to any union because this will influence what rate of pay you are offered, how much room there is for negotiation, and if there may be additional expenses on a new freelancer’s end to absorb (such as an initiation fee). Currently, animation productions in the United States can fall into one of three categories:
1. Coverage via The Animation Guild (IATSE 839 Local)
The Animation Guild covers animation writers at most of the major studios and some smaller ones. Its origins go back to the days of “storymen,” when the storyboard artist also wrote the story. Now, in today’s market, where most of the script (story) writers do not do storyboards, this has changed dramatically. The last estimate I heard put writers at about 10 percent membership in this union, while the rest of it consists of people in other facets of producing animation (storyboard artists, sheet timers, etc.). If The Animation Guild covers a company, current union rules dictate pay rate, health, pension, and other matters.
2. Coverage via The Writers Guild of America (WGA)
In recent years, the Writers Guild of America managed to get all of prime time network animation covered by the WGA with the assistance of all the writers on United States primetime network shows issuing a collective work stoppage; that has now set a general precedent for prime time animation to tend to be Writers Guild of America covered versus coverage through The Animation Guild (if covered at all).
Also, individual animated shows or features can negotiate for WGA coverage, if so desired. This means the production company is willing to abide by a set of rules agreed upon with the WGA for how they will pay health, pension, and deal with other matters for writers. At the time of this article, this option can vary by production based on numerous factors.
By deciding not to go with either union agreement, this leaves companies completely free to set their own prices, usually lower than unions, but not always true. The upside, however, is that this may give someone breaking in a little more freedom to negotiate. Due to high competition among existing union members, the reality is that a non-union production is statistically more likely to provide a first credit, but you should still try to get the best deal possible so as not to lock yourself into low payment offers in the future.
For writers outside the United States, I suggest doing the research and seeing if there are any guilds or unions that cover animation. Find out what you can about these organizations so you are knowledgeable and prepared when you’re offered a freelance script with a production company in that country. I do know that in some cases, citizenship with a specified country will be required to get a job, either due to governmental requirements or those defined by partnering production companies (even these tend to have a basis in the law of the partnering production company’s home country).
After the final script is turned in, the writer generally does not have any further involvement with the animation process. Story Editors or Producers may rewrite dialogue for production reasons, such as mouth movement that comes back animated incorrectly when there is no time to redraw, or if there are last minute changes by legal or broadcast standards and practices (also known as BS&P for short). Depending on the production, writers may or may not receive personal copies of their finished episodes. Often, the writer sees the finished product when it first airs, or in the case of direct-to-DVD productions, when it hits the store shelves.
Now that I’ve told you the steps and choices you can make, I’ll briefly share my own story. My first credits came through a non-union company for a show based in Japan that has only aired in Japan in Japanese.
While unemployed and looking for a day job, I saw an ad on the job board of a major production company’s website. Normally, I really avoid these, but this particular ad was so professionally well written and clearly explained. Not only did it cover what was being sought (Western writers to work on a show being produced in Asia), but it also listed the terms it would be under (non-union). It felt like the person who submitted the ad at least understood the business.
I sent a resume and proceeded with caution at every step. It became a great lesson in global production and an honor to be one of only two Western writers selected to work alongside the Japanese writers for this show. Like the process I outlined in this article, I pitched written premises and got them approved and ultimately went to script on everything I submitted. Once I turned my scripts in, I didn’t get to see the final product until much later at a special screening arranged by our United States contact at her house in Manhattan Beach. I could see the actions I’d scripted play out before my eyes, though I couldn’t understand what was being said as the characters all spoke Japanese, now thanks to my script being translated. Still, the experience of knowing that the underlying core of the story and character actions came from me was simply magical and an experience I thoroughly enjoyed.
SHANNON MUIR is the author of the book GARDNER’S GUIDE TO WRITING AND PRODUCING ANIMATION published by GGC Inc., designed to be informative for everyone interested in the process but primarily geared to the independent animation writer/producer; it covers the production of original and ADR animation. Her animation script credits include several episodes of the Japanese television series MIDNIGHT HORROR SCHOOL, where her scripts were written in English and then translated into Japanese for production.
Previously, she wrote monthly columns for Digital Media FX (http://www.digitalmediafx.com), and for Suite101 (http://www.suite101.com), geared to non-artists in animation.
She’s also held production positions on animated series for several major companies. Full credits are available at http://www.shannon-muir.com. All script samples Copyright 2008 Shannon Muir, based on the literary material graphic novel FLYING GLORY AND THE HOUNDS OF GLORY VOLUME 1 Copyright 2005 Kevin Paul Shaw Broden and Shannon Muir. All rights reserved. Used by permission. The ongoing webcomic can be seen at http://www.flying-glory.com