GUEST PERSPECTIVE: Charlie Stickney… Writing For Animation

Hey, screenwriters–

One area of entertainment I’ve never worked in– but often get questions about– is animation.  And with all the booming animated projects out there– Family Guy, The Simpsons, Drawn Together, The Incredibles, The Triplets of Belleville, etc.– I decided to spend a few minutes with my friend Charlie Stickney, a screenwriter, artist, and producer here in L.A. 

Charlie spent several years developing shows for Mike Young Productions, a successful production company specializing in children’s animation like Growing Up Creepie, Pet Alien, and Dive Olly Dive!  Charlie wrote and produced Horrible Histories, where he was also the voice director and directed voice talent like Billy West, Cree Summer, Jess Harnell, Steven Rea, and Billy Idol.  He also developed Voom HD‘s Cosmic Quantum Ray, Junk TV at MTV, and the Irish series Dumped for Telegael Media.  Charlie recently set up screenplays at Revolution Studios and Abu Media, and in what little spare time he has, Charlie works on his popular webcomic, Vince Germain.

Charlie has forgotten more about animation than I could ever hope to know, but he gave me a great intro lesson to the world of animation, how it works, and how to break in…

Charlie—I’m gonna be honest: I know virtually nothing about how animation is developed, sold, or produced.  So my first question is: if you want to write animation, do you also need to be an animator?  Can you write animation if you’re not also an artist?

The short answer is no, you don’t need to be able to draw, or animate to have the ability to write a kick-ass animation script.  However, having a good visual sensibility (camera placement, movement, composition, etc.) is a huge asset in animation writing.
Whereas in a teleplay (and to some extent the screenplay) “directing” of the camera is frowned upon, in the animation script, the “calling of the shots” is often required.

Here’s an example from a show I worked on. 


SMARTY-PANTS stands in a large cell sleeping (SFX: SNORING) – on a
floating cot. A SALAMANDER scurries across the floor in front
of the cell.

                            MAMA SMARTY-PANTS (O.S.)
                Yes, Little Smarty-pants! My precious
                little genius!

a high-security hamster cage (with running wheel), and Artie is in
a small Plexiglass cube with a small lock on the top. As they talk,
one of the Salamanders “investigates” Artie’s prison.

                        (pretends to be bored)
                In case you hadn’t noticed, your baby
                genius boy is in jail!  What kind of
                genius gets caught?

ANGLE FAVORING MAMA as she angrily grabs her bars and glares at Artie.

                            MAMA SMARTY-PANTS
                He invented the greatest, most dangerous
                machine in the universe — THE STRING-O-

back to Mama Smarty-pants, smiles — he’s manipulating Mama.

                Oooh, String-O-Matic — that’s a scary
                name… like “custard,” or “puppy.”

ZOOM IN ON MAMA’S ANGRY FACE as she describes the String-O-Matic.

                            MAMA SMARTY-PANTS
                Like an angry spore knows anything. 
                The String-O-Matic is a work of evil art.

As you can see, calling the shots ultimately means there’s a lot more work for the writer to do. Page counts for a 22 minute animated show can run as long as 35 pages. On the flip side, it gives the writer much more control in the visual pacing and look of the episode (a selling point for the writer who aspires to direct).

It must be noted that there are many exceptions to this rule. Some animation directors don’t like the script to impinge on their artistic freedom.  Others don’t have the time to prep the storyboard artist on how they should visually break down the script, and will send the script back for revisions if the action is “under-called.”   Some shows start with a storyboard first and then hire writers to fill in dialogue to supplement the gags that the artists have already come up with.

A good rule of thumb is to always ask the showrunner before you go to script, to what extent they want the shots called.  If you’re writing on spec, I would suggest trying to get an actual shooting script of the show that you want to write for so you can confirm the format.  If you can’t get a sample, call all the shots.  You can always take them out afterwards.

So… what’s it take to sell a new animated TV series?  For example, if I want to sell a new “traditional” series, I put together a pitch that details the world of the show, the characters, and some samples stories or episodes.  But animation has a whole other component: the animation.  So if someone’s pitching an animated project, do they need to already have drawings of the world and its characters?  Or could having completed visuals hurt the project, since a studio or network may want voice in that development?  Does a writer pitching an animated show need to ha
ve an artist attached to the project?

Having designs aren’t necessary. Having a great idea is.

Equally important is pitching the right project to the right studio at the right time.
If the studios like your idea, they have the numbers for hundreds of artists on speed dial.

That’s not to say that having some hip designs won’t help sell the project.  If the designs are finished, and the scripts are done, the studio has to sink far less money into development to get an idea of what the series would actually be like.

HOWEVER, for a couple of reasons, I would proceed with caution if you want to include drawings with your pitch.

Firstly, many studios like to be involved in the development process.  Others have a style (see Klasky-Csupo) that they don’t like to deviate from. If they think you are too locked into a style of drawing they don’t think fits in with what they want to do, they might pass on your project.

Secondly, your pitch is only as good as it’s worst part.  If the drawings aren’t up to par with the writing, you’re only hurting yourself. If the designs appear amateurish, your writing will appear amateurish.

Thirdly, unless you are a professional animator/work in the field of animation, you are unlikely to have good perspective on what qualifies as a professional quality drawing/design for animation.  The Captain Jetpack drawing that your friend the aspiring artist did, that to you looks like it came straight from a comic book, may be impossible to animate on a television budget.  Or worse yet, to the discriminating (read: snobby) eyes of the studio’s artistic director, Captain Jetpack’s design might be simply deemed not to be any good at all.

So if you have a partner who you objectively know “rocks the house” as an artist, then collaborate away.  Otherwise, stick with what you know, i.e., the script.

If you’re developing an animated project, how do you approach it differently because it’s animated?  In other words, do you develop characters differently when they’re animated?  Do you tell different kinds of stories?  Does the animation free you, or inhibit you, as a storyteller?

Animation definitely frees you as a storyteller.  Budget isn’t the same concern.  It costs the same to have someone draw a house on Mars as it does one in Los Angeles.  But I think you’re right when you say that it might, or should dictate the kinds of stories you tell.

When developing an animated property, I think a good question to ask yourself, is if this particular project is best served by animation.  If one looks at the best animated films —Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouile, Monster’s Inc. – we see a group of subjects, toys, fish, monsters, rats, etc.  that would be incredibly expensive to try to do as live action films.  In fact, trying to make any of those universes seem realistic, might border on impossible.  Yet, when animated we get lost in them.  A world that’s completely inaccessible becomes second nature to us.

So when developing your show, think what about it needs to be animated.  Use that as additional inspiration in shaping where you go with it.  What do you want to show the world that only animation can truly make come alive? If you can’t find that need, then maybe your project would be better off as a live action program. 

While I routinely get killed for saying this, King of the Hill always strikes me as a program that could have best been served as a sitcom.  As funny as it is, it’s still a little flat.  Imagine any episode of that show filmed with John Goodman as Hank, Ryan Stiles as Dale, Katey Sagal as Peggy, Neil Patrick Harris as Boomhauer… heck, let Brittany Murphy, who does the voice of Luanne, play her in real life.  You’re telling me she couldn’t nail white trash?… please.

The truth is for all the advances in CGI (Computer Generated Images), the human figure/actor encompasses a world of nuance that animation isn’t even close to recreating. (Especially when it’s as flat as King of the Hill) Let actors do what they do best — act.  Let animation do what it does best –create new worlds and new ways of telling stories that we’ve never seen before.

Once a new animated series enters development, how does the process proceed?  Walk me through the evolution of a series from the moment it’s pitched to the moment it debuts on TV… and how the writer is involved.

Unlike in television where the writer/creator is often the driving force behind everything, in animation the writer is more akin to the screenwriter; a piece of a large puzzle.  Again, this is contingent on who the writer is, what they’ve done before, who the producing partners are, etc.  So with all those variables, perhaps it’s best if I just walk you through the standard animation development process.

Once a studio has decided to develop a project, they will quickly hire a director/art director.  This person will work on developing the look and the animation style of the show while the writer is fleshing out the series bible.  (Note: The “series bible” is a guide to the world and the characters of the show, not a religious manifesto)  These things are often done in concert with one another, as the style of the animation can often determine the scope of the stories and the world.  (What’s easy to do in 2D cell animation isn’t the same as what’s easy to do in 3D CGI) 

A quick example: Squash and Stretch animation, where the characters are, well, squashed and stretched by boulders and various taffy-pulling machines gone wild, is difficult to animate with a computer.  If you had a show that required a lot of physical squash and stretch gags, (SpongeBob SquarePants) it might be best to develop it as a hand drawn cell animation show. Whereas Robot Wars the Final Battle definitely would be best served as CGI.

Once the bible has been finalized (both in terms of look and written content) the studio will then proceed to hire writers.  This process is different than in television where it’s typical to hire a staff of writers to break down and script the episodes of the series.

Animation writing is more of an open call audition/pitch process.  The studio will call the agencies and tell them that they are going to be giving out writing assignments on a new/new season of a show.  The interested writers will then show up for a big group meeting where the producer/showrunner will tell all the assembled writers what the new series is about, what kind of stories they are looking for, and how many scripts they are planning to buy.  Each writer is then given a series bible and sent home.  The writers are then required to put together pitches for episodes that they would like to write.  If the showrunner likes the idea, they get the job and the chance to write the script they pitched… if the showrunner doesn’t like it; it’s back to the drawing board. From a writer’s POV this is an incredibly unfair process, as you often have to pitch 3-5 one-page story ideas just to land a single writing job. (Or worse, you write up 5 ideas on spec and none of them get bought) But since animation writing isn’t covered by the WGA, *sigh* the studios are able to set their own terms.

(A quick addendum – there are a few exceptions to the writing process that I’m describing.  Most notably, FOX‘s primetime animation programming (The Simpsons, King of the Hill, American Dad, etc.) is covered by the WGA.  Thes
e shows run writer’s rooms more akin to that of other primetime live-action sitcoms.)

Once a script is finished, it is sent to the art department, so they can design all the secondary characters and locations that are in the episode. (The primary characters and locations have already been designed and were in the bible.)  Writers often need to ask what locations they can use/create before beginning a script, as each new element will need to be designed for animation. Think of it like a television show.  On Desperate Housewives they have standing sets (their houses) already built for each of the main characters.  When an episode takes place outside those pre-existing parameters, a new set has to be built, which takes time and money. Studios don’t like to spend money, and hate wasting time (which costs money).  So if you want to be hired again, really be sure to ask your showrunner what the parameters are before you begin scripting (If they want the shots called, how many locations/characters you can create/ what the deadline is, etc.)

The next step is to record the episode.  This is a stage where the animation writer actually has a little input.  The writer is often invited to the recording session to provide clarity, intent, and on the spot rewrites for the voice actors.  This is not to say they get to direct the voice recording.  That’s the aptly named Voice Director’s job.  But if an actor is butchering a joke, it’s entirely acceptable for the writer to politely mention it to the voice director, so they can coax out a better performance.

For the writer, the recording session is usually the end of the line.  As we are focusing on animation writing, I’ll just quickly gloss over the remaining steps of production.

After the script is recorded it’s edited for time. (The actually running time of the episode – 12 minutes, 22 minutes, etc.)  It’s then sent to the director and the storyboard artists who break it down into visual beats.  The animators are then given the finished storyboard and voice recording to work from.  They animate (with computers or pencils), shoot/scan it, and send it to an editor who puts it together.  A post-production mix later, the episode’s ready for primetime.

For those writers who are interested in animation, but may know little about its processes or production, where can they start learning?  Are there good books or magazines they can study?

Off the top of my head I’d say Animation Magazine ( is a decent source for finding out what’s kinds of shows are being developed/produced.
There are scores of great books on animation.  Hit the library.  It’s good for that.

How about animation software?  Are there some good beginners’ programs that writers can use to start playing and experimenting?

Um… you can get free trial versions of Flash and After Effects from Adobe.  These are two of the most used animation and compositing programs.  Other than that, search the web.  New shareware programs pop up every day.

It seems that right now, with TV channels like Cartoon Network and Internet content exploding, there are more opportunities than ever for aspiring animators and animation writers.  After all, an animated short can be produced entirely by one person and posted online… something that can’t be done with a live action film that requires cameras, lights, actors, etc.  As media continues to evolve over the next few years, how will we see the world of animation change?

It’s already changed a lot.  Ten years ago, 90% of the animation was done by hand.  Today it’s a shock when someone pitches a show that’s not designed for the computer.   This trend is mostly driven by cost considerations.  It’s far cheaper to do quality animation by computer than it is to something comparable do by hand.

As for how it’s continuing to change, the technology will continue to become cheaper and more accessible.  The state of the art effects that you see in Ratatouille, will be free shareware that you can use animate on your computer.  So basically anything that you can imagine you will be able to recreate.

Any last words of advice for aspiring animation writers and filmmakers out there?

The important thing to remember is that no matter how good the technology gets, no one will watch it if you aren’t telling a good story with interesting characters.  It all comes back to the writer.  Tell a good story and people will notice. 

Thanks, Charlie!

If you enjoyed Charlie’s advice, be sure to check out his web comic, Vince Germain, at!

And now, for your viewing pleasure, here’s a quick look at some fun animation projects out there…



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One thought on “GUEST PERSPECTIVE: Charlie Stickney… Writing For Animation

  1. buffyFan47

    I’d like to hear Charlie’s and your advice on how an animation writer can protect themselves since – as you noted – they are not covered by the WGA. With tie-in merchandising worth potential billions (see the aforementioned Mr. Squarepants) how does one make sure that someone else doesn’t make gazillions off their idea while they get cut out of the process and don’t make a dime?