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WonderCon 2011: "Writing for TV Animation" Panel Report

For me this year’s WonderCon had a lot to do with writing and writers—not surprising, you might say, since I’m a reporter. But since I dream of leaving my office job to write for animation, my interest in two of this year’s panels is personal. 

That’s why my first stop at WonderCon, after leaving the office early on Friday, was “Animation: The Write Stuff,” with Mark Evanier, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, and Stan Berkowitz, all winners of the Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement award—”which means our careers are all over” quipped Evanier, who served as the moderator. He started off asking his colleagues how much of what they wrote actually reached the viewer.

“I would say about 10% of what I imagine gets up on the screen” said Alan Burnett. “That’s not to say you’re not happily surprised with what gets on screen and it’s better than you imagined.” For Paul Dini it was 15 to 20%–the more a writer was involved with the storyboarding or voice recording process, “the more [his] vision is realized.” Not being involved with those processes sometimes brought big surprises. One example involved a Sym-Bionic Titan script Dini co-wrote with Genndy Tartakovsky. The two had worked hard on it and were very happy with the result. A year later Dini saw the finished episode and did not recognize a single word of his dialogue: the episode was now entirely about what had been a wordless flashback in his script. Dini was given sole writing credit but felt he only deserved a shared story credit for the episode. 

Evanier asked the panelists to what extent they could write personal stories by “injecting personal feelings into somebody else’s show.” Dini gave the example of Harley Quinn, who arose from the idea of being involved with somebody “who’s the world’s worst person for you–you become this kind of clown that wants to get their attention…we’ve all felt that at some point; you’re not in a relationship but you kind of think you are and you’re hanging around waiting for a reason to stay or waiting for a reason to go.” This resulted in Quinn being a very codependent character, especially during her first appearances. Her debut episode, “Joker’s Favor,” also grew from personal inspiration. “It occurred to me one day while driving home, what if you pissed off the wrong guy and it was Charles Manson?” said Dini, who put himself into the mindsets of each driver. “Little things come to you,” he noted, and they can often be repurposed into bigger, more artistic things.

The panelists were asked which stage of the writing process was the most difficult. “The whole process. It’s a lot of work—it’s laying bricks,” said Burnett. Dini said “I find that if I don’t have a solid outline I’m dead,” and Stan Berkowitz noted that when writers are paid for a script, 1/3 of the check is for the outline, and 2/3 for script itself. “I always felt it should be the other way around,” he said, since the outline was far and away the hardest document to write. 

Next came the issue of CGI: did they have to adjust their methods for computer-animated shows? The answer was a universal yes. Evanier said in CGI a model has to be built for every character, thus forcing greater reuse of backgrounds and old characters to save money. Berkowitz said when you write for CGI animation, “you’re writing live action” and must budget similarly. Dini gave the example of a finale he had written for a Clone Wars episode: everyone loved it, but the Lucasfilm team was unable to animate the scene because they had gone too far over their background budget.

The writers were asked about their favorite never-produced projects. A script for “a feature based on Lupin,” said Burnett. “And it was good. But the money wasn’t there.” For Dini, it was an attempt at Looney Tunes, with an outline about Speedy Gonzales moving to Los Angeles. Berkowitz mentioned an outline that involved Superman tried to stop a war. Evanier’s choice was a pilot for a Daredevil cartoon, a project done in by corporate stupidity. 

When asked about upcoming projects, Berkowitz dropped a cryptic note—”Mr. Burnett and I have worked on a live Batman production that will be premiering in Europe this summer and coming to America next summer.” 

Finally came the question this writer was eager to see answered: Is breaking into the industry harder today? All said yes, it was very difficult; the talent pool was much larger than the amount of available work. Assignments were scarcer, far more so than in the days of Hanna-Barbera, about which Evanier and Burnett traded horror stories. Burnett, who started there in ’81, reached the point of no longer wanting to see the episodes made from his scripts. He jumped ship to Disney, to work worked on shows like Duck Tales, which marked the creative rebirth of television animation. He had made a point I found consoling—work might be scarcer, but it was also better. 

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