Friday, March 26, 2010

The Cutting Room Floor

*Gag above inspired after my final rejection in a round of pitching from 2005.

One of my favorite aspects of writing animation career books is that it requires me to conduct extensive interviews with some of today's most influential animation people. Unfortunately, there's always some great stuff that doesn't quite make the final edit. But, that doesn't mean that it can't be shared in a blog post. Here's some choice bits left out of my recent book, Animation Development: From Pitch to Production, that deserve to see the light of day. I'll do a future post with rescued tidbits from the executive side of the table. But, until then, here's something to feast on from some of today's top creative minds in the animation industry...

On how to create something personal yet universal:
"I just make up stuff that I like. It has to interest me first before I’ll consider pitching it to someone else. If your idea sells you may have to work on it for a few years so it better be something you’re interested in otherwise you’ll lose interest in it really fast."
––Butch Hartman

"It’s all about character. Concepts are good to get someone interested in a project but a concept alone won’t draw viewers back week after week. So go for strong, appealing, and relatable characters to drive your project. When creating characters, I try to think of different points of view, how they might play off each other and the conflicts they might get in with one another."
––Craig McCracken

"Every show really only revolves around a few characters. Get the heavies right and don't worry about the rest. If the supplemental characters are great and the chemistry between your lead characters stink, then it won't save the show. But if your lead characters are right on and the world, episode samples, spelling is wrong nobody cares. They can make GOLD out of
the core group.

I spend most of the time thinking out why these characters need to be together, what they represent, what a young audience will find exciting and accessible about them that I don't think a whole lot else is needed."
––Doug TenNapel

On the effects of fads or trends in the pitching process:
"I don’t pitch stuff based on the latest fad or trend because fads and trends die off and so will your show idea if it’s based on a fad. Also, doing that can majorly “date” your idea and only have it be relevant to the time it’s first aired. A few years down the road and nobody’s going to care about it any longer. It’s like if I were to pitch a show about a Rubik’s Cube right now. Who would want to watch it?"
––Butch Hartman

"I love kids and I love to know the kinds of things they like, but I don't like putting fads in my stories. I have a general rule that I want the technology and culture in my shows to still be funny in 20 years. I barely even let video games be shown in my shows. I just don't like chasing modern props to try to appease my audience's appetite for their own thin, ever-changing, pointless culture.

We're also making cartoons for a global market that will be rerun forever on some cable channel. Does some kid in India really want my characters to call each other "My Nizzle"? Why does a kid in Turkey want my characters to talk about cell phones and Ipods?

As a story-teller, we're trying to plug into that universal human quality that we all share. You know, the way it's funny to fart and wrong to lie no matter what culture you're entertaining. I can build shows around characters that lie and fart but I can't if they just talk about their Ipod."
––Doug TenNapel

On collaboration:
"More minds are always better than fewer. Unless you have too many."
––Mo Willems

On technology:
" I learned directing the digital aspect of the first season of Elmo’s World that those on the cutting edge get cut. The future is in the future. I work in the present tense, which is to say I try to be present and I’m always tense."
––Mo Willems

"I think the internet is a threat to some executives but not the good ones. The bad ones really couldn't recognize a quality show if it slapped them upside the head like a wet fish (now that's a great show idea!)...the good ones are usually a step ahead of the internet, or see through the niche fanatics that promote certain internet phenomena."
––Doug TenNapel

On preparing for a first pitch meeting:
"The best preparation is making sure you can explain your idea clearly and succinctly. You don't need a fancy preparation. Show just enough to make them see what you're seeing. The important thing is to make them feel
––Carl H. Greenblatt

"I try to do as much art as I can . It’s the clearest and easiest way to express the characters for me. When I pitched Foster’s ,I filled a conference room at Cartoon Network with drawing s of the characters and the world and invited the executives to look around at it for a while . I wanted them to get curious about what they were looking at. Only after they were curious did I explain."
––Craig McCracken

All of the time goes into creating the thing, so coming up with the pitch materials is the shortest part of process for me. Many of the characters I pitch have been on my work desk for years so when I finally decide to pitch them I just bang out a page or two of written material and maybe do three to five pages of art.
––Doug TenNapel

What is your take on the role of pitch bibles?
"Honestly I don’t like pitch bibles. I feel they don’t reveal the most important aspect of making a cartoons: execution. You can have the most network-friendly bible in the world but If you don’t have the talent/skills to pull off what you’ve written it’s a moot point."
––Craig McCracken

"Usually I'll type up the pitch in a few days and do little sketches and doodles directly on the printed page. It's not very professional but it forces the executives to consider the visual as they read the material. Shows end up on a screen and there are no words to read in the final form so
it seems odd to have the pitch written in some dry format that is usually only written because the language of Hollywood is the word on the page.

I think overworking a Bible is a bad move. This doesn't apply to everyone because I've seen some incredibly tight bibles sitting on the desk of some pitch executives. They have full color, textured, hard-covers and seventy-five pages of final art and written material. They look good on a desk.

I think most executives know a good idea when they see one and aren't often fooled by impressive type-setting and printing. It really isn't their job to admire the length of a Bible, or even the depth for that matter."
––Doug TenNapel

On maintaining your vision while remaining open to network notes:
"If you aren't flexible, your show will never get made or worse, survive once it's on the air. It's important to be confident in your idea, but to realize which changes won't affect the core and which will changes will alter it from what you want. It's hard to set your ego aside, but I always tell myself there's more than one good solution to any problem, and good ideas can come from anyone. However, most development execs want to justify their jobs and usually they feel they have to make comments to do so. If you blatantly disregard their comments, they won't want to work with you. If you change everything they ask you to, you'll seem like a creator who doesn't know what he want his show to be. Find the balance. Most of their comments are pointless, but think about the root of why they want to change something. Find an answer to the change that makes you both happy."
––Carl H. Greenblatt

On pitching style:
"I have a ton of energy, but it’s very controlled. This is important because you’ve got to communicate that energy and excitement to the people you’re pitching to. If they don’t feel you’re excited about it, then they won’t be. Also, I bring everything I think I need to answer the many questions of the people (or clients) I will be pitching to: written material, drawings, pictures, videos, whatever it will take to get my point across.

Remember, just because you’ve been living with an idea for a year or so (maybe a shorter or longer time) doesn’t mean that the client has. They are blank slates and you will have approximately 10 minutes to fill their heads with just as much stuff as you have in yours. You have to have your pitch down pat. Have a beginning, middle and end.

Answer their questions as best as you can. You may think you have every question answered – which is good – but I can guarantee you they are going to ask you something you hadn’t even thought of. Not that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, it actually adds to the collaborative process and makes the client feel involved. But having them throw you a curve ball may make you nervous. Don’t be. If you have your pitch well thought out and the foundations of your story down, unexpected questions won’t throw you. You’ll be able to come up with a solution easily, or adjust your idea slightly to fit their ideas in."
––Butch Hartman

On the importance of building healthy relationships with executives:
"I build friendships based on who people are as people. Their position doesn’t impress me. However, that being said, it is vitally important to maintain healthy working relationships with execs because they’re the ones who can say “yes” or “no” to your project. Just be yourself and be open to their thoughts and suggestions, no matter how much you may or may not agree or disagree. Remember: you’re not always right. But neither are they. And, if everyone can work together and drop the egos for a second, a great project will be made that everyone can benefit from."
––Butch Hartman

On managing the emotional rollercoaster inherent in the pitching process:
"Emotion has nothing to do with it. If you make TV, this is your job and you realize you’re in it for the long run. "
––Mo Willems

On what you would change about network development if you were able?
"Sure, I’d make it more creator driven, I’d give crews more time, and everyone would get a pony. Actually, if every member of the crew got a small piece of the back-end, you’d have more harmonious and driven teams, but you’ve got a better chance of giving everyone a pony."
––Mo Willems

"I would fire every mid-level anything and only have network heads take pitches. When I brought Earthworm Jim to Universal I pitched to Sid Seidenberg himself! No junior execs, no assistants! I didn't even have an agent at the time. He looked across the conference room table and said, "We'll do thirteen episodes. Now I have to meet with junior executive 1, 2 and 3 then the head of production gets permission from the Chief blah blah to do a 30 second flash cartoon...two years later I'm at where Sid Seidenberg had me in twenty minutes. Things aren't getting better. Most networks know this. Their audience shares are shrinking and even the bigger networks are abandoning simple principles for inexpensive gimmicks thinking story-telling has changed. It hasn't. The human condition hasn't changed in 60 years and it will take another 60 years for most people to realize that."
––Doug TenNapel


allen mez said...

If these are the edited bits than I have to read the rest. Great post. I can't wait to read about the executive side. I pitched a few times at a network to remain nameless. They invited me, I didn't cold call them. I was very well prepared per the above categories and it could have been a soul crushing experience if I let it get to me...unpleasant nonetheless. But like Mo said---Emotion has nothing to do with it, it's about the long run. Thanks David.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Allen,

Thanks for the note. I can totally relate to the "soul crushing" part of pitching. But, when I remember that developing a project is "self-development" I know that no creative time spent is ever wasted time. There's always another meeting you can set up somewhere else... always another project you can create tomorrow. I find it very exciting. And, despite the many bad meetings I've had, pitching projects has launched me into many new jobs and experiences that I wouldn't have had without it.

Michael Sporn said...

I often wonder who the audience is fora book on pitching. If there are 5000 people in the US working in animation do more than 5% of them pitch to executives? Certainly, no more than 10%. That mean 500 people who could practically use such a book.

Are the remaining buyers just voyeurs into a world they don't intend to tread?

Who are all these pitching people?

David B. Levy said...

Hi Michael,

That's a good question. I don't know the exact percentages of animation folks involved in pitching... but, I know its higher than the 5% or 10%. Especially if you include ALL the people involved in a pitch (writers, designers, directors, etc...). Sure, these folks aren't always the one who does the pitching in the pitch meeting, but there is usually a team of people behind a pitch, and my book speaks to all those people. And, there's folks like yourself who have not made a career centered around pitching, but have pitched at various times in different ways. So, I include you in people that would benefit from a book like this.

Yes, there is also a bunch of industry outsiders who also have animation pitch ideas... and although its a long shot to come from outside the industry and break through with a pitch, it has happened. And, at the very least, these folks can be better educated about the process through reading my book.

And, I think ANY animation professional (including, producers, execs, network folks) working in any capacity on episodic animation would find my book of use.

The bottom line is that my publisher would not have even considered the book if there wasn't enough buyers/readers for it.

The focus in the book is about self-development... how the individual can use the pitching process as a means of creating samples of scripts, designs, ideas, animation etc... and how by going through this process you can grow career opportunities, even without having to score the next SpongeBob.

David B. Levy said...

Well the numbers have spoken... as if answering the discussion between Michael Sporn and I on potential readership for this subject. Sales in the first four months of my book, Animation Development: From Pitch to Production were 1,500 copies.

In all fairness to Michael Sporn, I have spent a lot more time with this subject (obviously) and was in a better position to make an educated guess.