Animation FAQ



Over the years, I've received some interesting questions on the nuts and bolts of writing for animation. Here they are: 

Updated 03/28/14

 Q: I am a writer and I've got an idea for an animated feature. I just have the idea and couple of different endings. I have two contacts through my sister in LA who are producers for big animated companies. I spoke to one and she definitely believes it is definitely a full-length feature film,  that no one has done, yet. She told me that I needed to own it as long as I can, write the treatment, screenplay. I have no experience in writing scripts. Do you have any advice or can suggest any materials that someone like me could follow? I get very frustrated when I write. So far I am just watching as many films as I can and reading other scripts. --Marie

A: I would recommend three things. First, even though "no one has done" a script like yours yet, determine an animated feature that your idea most closely resembles, then hunt around on the web for a copy of that script (there are many resources, some free) and use it as a model/template for your own idea. I'm not telling you to copy it, just to use it to see how professionals execute an idea similar to your own.

Next, you may want to pick up a copy of Syd Field's classic how-to book, "Screenplay." It's considered the industry standard in how to structure a screenplay. Finally, you may want to invest in some screenwriting software to help you make sure your script looks right. I, and most other pros use Final Draft or Movie Magic. Each of these is a little pricey but I think well worth the investment if you plan on writing professionally. I have no doubt that there a few free script formatting programs out there, too. Hunt around and see what you can come up with. Good luck!


Updated 12/11/13

Q: Will you read, rewrite, and/or critique my television script/film script/children’s book/show idea and pass it along to your agents, publisher, and/or influential showbiz types?

A: No. Sorry, I have to be blunt on this one. Since I'm an active writer out there pitching shows and premises, I can’t accept "unpublished" writing samples from "strangers". If you were to send me some of your writing that by coincidence was even mildly similar to one of my "in progress" scripts, books, or a show proposal I was already pitching...that could be a problem.  Taking a writing class at your local c.c. or forming a “critique club” (sounds corny but they do it all the time in children’s literature) with like-minded pals is a great way to get feedback on your writing.  By the way, reputable studios or production companies won’t accept original scripts, treatments, or show ideas unless they come from an agent or are accompanied by one of their own release forms.

Q: I thought you might be able to offer some advice to a writer jumping head-first into the animation industry. While I've been a writer for some time, I've just now been able to gain representation for screenwriting. Would you have any advice for a writer just starting to get work? Should I rely solely on my agent to get me jobs on shows? How would you recommend getting started with work beyond the commercials and website things I've thus far been hired in? I know it's a tough business, but I'm excited to put the work in and willing to take the advice of those who've been there and succeeded.


A: By getting an agent, you've already taken the biggest step toward gainful employment. Having an agent is vital as they set up pitch meetings for you and submit your writing samples to the different shows.To answer your question, no, you should not rely (solely) on your agent to get you work. An agent is better viewed as a useful tool, as in a person who helps you get the work. In the meantime, network and do your best to make personal contacts. The old saw that it's "who you know" has a lot of truth to it. Another bit of advice would be to keep writing script samples for sitcoms, screenplays, anything that your agent can use to submit you for jobs. The more practice/skill you have in writing scripts, the more confidence you'll gain and the more likely you are to get work as a writer.

Q: (follow up to previous question) I'm currently doing all the things you suggest both in the FAQ and your email. I suppose patience is the next thing I have to practice. I'm continuing to write spec scripts for pretty much every cartoon show I see, from Gravity Falls to Littlest Pet Shop to Spongebob and more. I have not done any live action spec scripts, though, so I suppose I should try one or two of those. Would you recommend living in LA as a requirement for success? Right now I know a few people (hence how I got the agent) but I know it's always a good idea to meet more. 

A: Yes, definitely add some live-action scripts to your quiver. You never know what the folks who might hire you want to read. As to whether or not you should move to LA, far be it from me to advise someone to completely uproot their lives on the "chance" of getting work in your chosen/dream profession, but yes, if you're serious about writing animation, you have to live where the work is. While there are small animation production companies sprinkled throughout the US, this is where the big boys and the networks (WB, Disney, CN, HUB, Dreamworks, etc.) are concentrated. Especially when you are starting out, you have to be available to drive over to Cartoon Network to meet with a story editor who'll be giving out freelance assignments on their new hot show, for example.

Q: I've written a feature animation script. I've contacted some animation studios first but they considered it an unsolicited submission. I've also contacted literary agencies, but most agencies represent only action, fiction, sci-fi, horror, and not animation. It seems that it’s very difficult to submit my animated script to the studios, especially that these kind of scripts are generated in-house. May ask you to mention to me, to your knowledge, some agencies that still accept submission queries from animation writers? Or a production company that deals with animation studios?

A: I recommend contacting The Animation Guild and the Writer's Guild of America's "Animation Caucus" and asking them your perfectly reasonable question. Two animation agencies that I can think of are Gotham and Natural Talent. I'm sure there are more. You can Google their contact information.

Asked and answered prior to 12/11/13

Q: I am an the process of preparing a pitch bible for 52 X 11 (Roger note: 52x11 = fifty-two, eleven minute episodes) animated series and I wanted to know if there is a format or process to prospect advertisers to get them on board. I would definitely be beating the odds if I have an advertiser already.

A: I've never done it that way nor have I heard of anyone else successfully "recruiting" advertisers in order to sell an animated project. That's just not how it's done. The usual method for getting a show on the air is to do a pitch bible (character designs, descriptions, etc.) and then set up pitch meetings at the various networks such as Nick or Cartoon Network (which is infinitely easier if you have an agent). So, to answer your question directly, no. I am unaware of any format or process that is used to "prospect" advertisers.

Q: I'm  trying  to  send  my  animation  proposal  to  Disney.  Since  i  don't  have  an  agent,  I  was  thinking  about  having  my  friend's  name  on  the  outside  of  the  package  as  my  manager  just  to  get  my  material  in  the  door.  If  Disney  is  interested,  then  I'll  get  an  agent  to  take  it  from  there.  Does  this  sound  like  a  reasonable  idea? 

A: This DOES NOT sound like a reasonable idea and I would strongly advise against using that tactic. Focus more on getting an agent rather than submitting directly to studios. If your scheme is exposed (and it will be) you'll completely blow any chance of making a contact at Disney. The people at the studios who take pitches know just about all of the animation managers/agencies and have strong b.s. detectors. They'll spot this one coming a mile away.

Q: (With regard to a writing sample) I noticed that the Fairly Odd Parents cartoon is 11 min's per episode. How many commercials are there during those 11 min episodes? 

A: It's more instructive to look at it as the full half hour (2 - eleven minute episodes, and the rest of it commercials and credits. When writing an eleven minute sample episode, you don't need to worry about the commercials, just write the episode (18-20 pages, screenplay format).

Q: What suggestions would you give someone who is trying to submit a screenplay proposal to talent agencies?

A: I don't have much (any) expertise in the area of screenplay proposal/treatment submission. All of my submissions have been fully written scripts sent to the studios through literary agencies. In general, I do know that you have a lot more in your favor if you have a script (presumably a good one) that you can shop around. Feature "idea men" don't carry much weight out here as a studio is far less likely to buy an idea (thus, an agency is less likely to want to represent an idea/proposal because they can't smell the cash). I'm not saying that it's never happened, just that it would be an even bigger longshot than selling a spec script -- especially for someone without a track record. In short, they want scripts, not proposals.

Check out Syd Field's "Selling a Screenplay: The Screenwriter's Guide to Hollywood" for a good idea of how things work in the biz. His chapter on "Agents and Agenting" is brutally candid. In it he says, "'But I've written a treatment', people say. 'Can't I get an agent with a treatment?' No. You can't sell anything with a treatment. You need a screenplay to show as a sample of you're screenwriting ability. Whoever says otherwise doesn't know what he or she is talking about."  I have to agree with Syd.

Q: I have a teleplay. I've heard there are different formats for scripts. My format consist of the heading, dialogue, and description being 1.25 spaces from the left edge of the paper. The character names above their dialogue are the only things I indented. My page numbers are at the bottom right of the paper. Keeping in mind that there are different formats for scripts, is my format correct?

A: There are two main script formats -- sitcoms and screenplays. With the exception of "act breaks" (the annoying advertising part that pays for everything), the hour dramas are usually written in standard screenplay format. In this format, the margins are small, the dialogue is indented from the action description, and the character names are centered over the dialogue. Sitcom scripts are similar but the margins are wider and the dialogue is double-spaced.

I would recommend that you find a show that is similar in style to your teleplay (half-hour comedy, etc.) and then set about getting a copy of a script for that show. There are various online resources. In order to be taken seriously, you should make your script look like this script from an existing show -- one that was generated by a professional.

Another thing you might want to consider is purchasing some script writing software. These contain script templates for many kinds of television and film scripts and even things like plays, novels, and even radio scripts. I have used both "Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000" and "Final Draft". Final Draft seems to be more popular amongst professional writers, but both are good. These applications can be kind of pricey ($100 - $200+) because of their narrow appeal (professional writers) but I found they seriously increase my productivity and so are worth every penny.

One more thing; the page numbers go in the upper right hand corner.

Q: Do you know of any networks looking for 5 minute animation shorts? Would i get paid if i got my animation short played on t.v.? Is it common for an animation show to look to the public for new characters? What about the Slamdance teleplay competition? They offer a chance to create a new television pilot for the first place winner. Is this one way for a person with a new show idea to get his or her show on t.v.? If so, what if i won the first place prize, eventually got my animation show on fox,but i didn't want to be a writer on my own show because i didn't have enough ideas for that many episodes. How else would i get paid? Can i get payed royalties just for it being my creation or would fox try to buy me out? Lastly, i have a half hour script i want to sell. I heard the minimum price payed to a writer on a half hour show  is $20,956 according to w.g.a. standards. So i figured i'll sell my half hour animation script for that price. Is that a fair price? 

A: Wow. I think you've set a new record for "Most Questions Asked in a Paragraph"! I'm afraid I don't know much about the world of animation shorts other than to say that they make a great components of an overall show pitch. In other words, if your short was something that contained characters and situations that could easily be converted to television sensibilities, it (along with a show bible, character designs, storyboards, etc.) would be a very powerful part of that pitch. I once had a project put into development based on a mock fifty second opening title sequence that my partners and I commissioned.

I'm not sure about the legalities involved in selling such a project. You might want to try contacting an agent who specializes in animation to get your info. I do know that with the exception of the big prime time shows like "The Simpsons", most animation is non WGA (even features!) so I'm not sure how helpful it is to compare live-action Writer's Guild minimums to the MUCH smaller sums paid to writers working under the umbrella of TAG (The Animation Guild).

Q: How does one go about writing for children’s television?

A: As a grizzled veteran of the showbiz wars, I am sorry to report there are as many ways to get into animation writing (accidentally or on purpose) as there are ways to get into a San Pedro bar fight. There are many paths and a lot of them are overgrown with weeds and hard to find. Unlike in the real world where you go to school, get a degree in something, and then have a reasonable chance of getting a job in that something, careers in animation (and entertainment in general) seemed to be fueled by an often imbalanced combination of sheer luck, perseverance, and talent. Oh, and knowing someone that already has a job in your targeted field helps too. A few tips to point you in the right direction:

1) Personal contacts.  If your area college offers classes in entertainment related writing, this would be a good place to start. Classmates with similar interests and goals often end up in a position to help each other. Also, network with any friend or acquaintance who works in the industry. Even if they're not working in your specific area of interest, they might know someone who is and can introduce you or pass on a script. I know it all sounds kind of mercenary, but it's a hard truth. I'm not saying to "use" your contacts (this will quickly gain you a reputation as an annoying leech), just let it be known that you're looking for animation writing gigs and would appreciate a "heads up."

2) Be ready to back up your networking by having a writing sample (or two or three) ready. These serve as your currency in entertainment writing. When you do end up making contact with someone who counts, they'll ask, "What have you got to read?" Sitcoms are the common choice in this area (yes even in animation). I think producers like them because they aren't as long and involved as screenplays and are a quick gauge of whether you can handle character and dialogue (my expertise is in the "funny" shows, I don't know what kind of scripts they read for the action cartoons). I recommend having several samples as a particular producer might have a particular dislike for a particular sitcom. Also try not to pick one of the "big" sitcoms. Even though "Friends" was a very popular show, producers were sick of reading samples for it because everybody and their uncle had written one. A popular up and coming show that looks like it has legs (will last a while so you don't have to write another sample right away) would be a better choice. Get a production copy of a script for the show you are writing and make sure your script is formatted to look EXACTLY like theirs. Deviation from the accepted format brands you instantly as an amateur and your script will be tossed. There are script sources on-line and in your local bookstore.

My experiences as a writer of "Histeria!" illustrate some of the above. I was an actor at the Groundlings Theater. Just to keep busy, I wrote a couple of sitcom specs. It turns out that the producer of Histeria was a Groundlings fan and put out word through their grapevine that he was looking for writers. I followed up on the lead, sent over my specs, responded positively when they ask me to write a couple of trial historical sketches (for which I was paid), and got the job. It turned into a two and a half year gig. Could I have planned it? No. I was ready for the opportunity when it came. I hope this helps you or at least gives some food for thought. When you do end up being a showbiz big shot, don't forget to throw your old pal Roger a bone (networking!). Good luck!

Q: I was wondering what I would need to do to submit an original TV show idea to a TV station. I went to a few websites for the bigger stations like NBC and FOX. For protective reasoning they won't look at an idea/script unless it’s forwarded from an agent. Do I have to get an agent or are they're other ways? I know thousands upon thousands of people submit ideas all the time what must I do to even have a chance of having them even look at my idea?

A: Unless you're pals with a network president or show runner (a producer trusted by the network to come in and take an idea from pitch to production), the ONLY way to get a show idea into the network machinery is through an agent. And then there's the challenge of signing with an agency that has enough "juice" to get your idea the reading it deserves. There are many small and/or underpowered agencies that have a hard time getting the attention of the proper people. An online search should tell you who the major players are in the agency arena (William Morris, etc.). Start with the big boys and work your way down from there. Some writers will caution you against the large agencies, saying that you can get lost in their vast caverns. While that may be true, my thought is that unless your small agency is extremely well-connected, no one pays much attention to them.

Before you start submitting, make sure you have a clearly laid out written treatment of your idea. No more than a page or two, it should be written in a concise manner that clearly states structure, format, characters, etc. If your idea is a sitcom or hour long drama, you should also have a sample spec script (of your original show and/or another existing show -- I'd write both) available. The agency will ask for this. They don't tend to sign "idea people" (who are a dime a dozen) but rather, writers that they can try to put on staff somewhere (and make their 10%). For animated stuff, you can drop the show runner and go directly for an agent (that specializes in this area). With an animated project, you should develop a “mini-bible” (a document that can be anywhere for 5-15 pages and includes: series concept, description of world or setting, character descriptions, and 10, one paragraph story premises).

If an agency likes your idea and spec script, the scenario might go like this:
They sign you. If it’s a network show, they team you up with a show runner (who is always a client of theirs). The show runner goes and pitches the idea to the networks (you might be there, but probably not). The network expresses interest in the idea and your agent works hard to get you a "created by" credit (the show runner will jealously want this credit for themselves as it directly translates into cash), and/or a staff writing job (most likely to happen).

If your idea is for an animated show, your agency will start setting up meetings with the various animation studios and you will go in yourself to pitch to one of their development executives.

Q: What advice would you give a new screenwriter trying to break in? I have written one screenplay and am finishing my second.

A: All of my credits are in television (animation with some live-action) and children's books so I don't know if I'm the right person to ask. I think it was Lawrence Kasdan who said that it took him about ten screenplays before he figured out the format and started to get some interest (if it wasn't Kasdan it was someone of equal talent). With that in mind, I guess my advice would be to keep on cranking it out, then eventually (when you think your skills are up to snuff) submit your work to agencies with literary departments.


Q: Is their any way to copyright or protect my material before I send it out to agents, or is that not necessary?
  
A: It is necessary -- not because of the agents, but because of the people they'll send it to. I don't think ripoffs are all that common (especially in the world of legitimate players) but it does happen. Don't worry about registering your sample scripts (the specs from other shows). The reasons for this are 1) It's not your show, and 2) I think a claim of having a premise for an existing show ripped off would be hard to prove. By it's very nature, a show that's on the air automatically has a large number of writers trying to come up with specs (in addition to the show's staff generating their own premises).

A well-known show with already defined characters in a particular setting is bound to generate similar ideas. (That's just my opinion. If anyone out there with experience in the matter has a better take, please let me know.)

The WGA has a registration service. Check out their website for info on fees charged to members and non-members. I think you can also copyright it through the Library of Congress. I've not done it that way so you'll have to look into it yourself. I think some people also mail themselves a copy and keep it sealed in a safe place (postmark, etc.) -- don't know how effective that would be if you have to go to court. I'd do the WGA method if I were you. (side note: I've been told that trumpeting that your original project or script is "WGA Registered" on the cover page brands you as an amateur -- it is assumed by the reader that your script has been registered.)

Q: I am an aspiring writer/artist/musician with an animated show idea. I have character illustrations, a series synopsis, 12 plot treatments, and music samples that I have worked on extensively. I have a friend who creates and pitches tv shows for a living, but I am not sure about his degree of success in that field. He encouraged me to create the series in the first place. I have no idea how to get my idea in front of people besides my admittedly low-level connection. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Sounds like you have a lot of the components one would need to pitch an animated show. The fact that you're a musician who's able to provide show-related music samples might even give you an edge over most.

With regard to your friend, if he creates and pitches shows "for a living" (meaning he gets paid) he is without a doubt VERY successful in his field and not a "low level connection" at all. In fact, he's about as good a connection as you can get. Is he a professional writer? If so, that means he probably has a "literary" agent (an agent that exclusively handles TV, film, or animation writers). Ask him for a referral to his agent. But before you do, reread my writing FAQ's. You'll see that I strongly recommend having a couple of writing samples in addition to your pitch. Write them, then begin the hunt. If your friend doesn't have an agent, once you get the samples, start the hunt yourself. Pursue any other connections you might have and go to the WGA site for a listing of Guild approved agents. Once you have that, start sending out query letters (try to get a name rather than sending out generic "Dear Agent" letters) explaining that you're interested in representation, have a project (don't go into too much detail), list your samples, and ask if they would be interested in taking a look at one (of the samples). If they say yes, you've got your foot in the door.

You didn't mention where you lived, but it'd be helpful if it was in LA or NY. That's where most of the agencies and the production co./networks are located. It wouldn't be impossible to secure representation if you lived somewhere else, just a lot harder. An agency would be more likely to sign someone who's "in town" and available for the meetings they'd set up. The bottom line is that you need to secure an agent if you have any hope of having your project looked at by anyone who really counts. Good luck!

Q: I'm currently a graphic artist in Orlando, Fl. I need representation to pitch an animated television series. I heard Cartoon Network excepted unsolicited properties and I contacted them. They emailed me the guidelines for pitching shows and I got right on it. I know Cartoon Network isn't the only Network out there, but I don't have any representation which most other networks require for pitching. I'm close to finishing the pitch, and would like to be able to shop to other networks. You mentioned William Morris and ICM on your FAQ page. Do you know of any other angencies or studios that I should contact?

A: Your question is a little challenging for me since you're coming at things from the "art" side of things and you're working out of Orlando. The advice I would give you would be coming from a writer's perspective. That being said, one place you could start your search would be at the Writer's Guild website (wga.org). They have a listing of Guild approved literary agencies. Unfortunately, that's all it is -- a list. They don't include descriptions of the agencies and whether they specialize in animation, have artists as clients, etc. Therefore, I advise you to try and find an animation professionals message board or some artist blogs where you can pose questions and get responses from industry pros. Check out the various links to artist blogs and websites that you'll find on these sites. These links will lead to other links, etc. Then, just like you did with me, ask them your questions in a very polite and succinct manner. More than likely they'll be happy to point you in the right direction.

Now, regarding the Orlando part of the equation. You'll see in the question prior to this one that I say that it's much more difficult to find animation representation or get work in the field if you live outside of LA or New York (maybe Chicago, maybe Atlanta -- Cartoon Network's corporate hdqtrs.). Since you're just talking about pitching at this point and not getting work on a show, there's a little bit of wiggle room, but the bottom line is that eventually you're going to have to do some travelling (or permanent relocation) if you want to have significant contact with an animation studio. It's the old, "ya gotta go where the work is" thing. I don't know if your goal is to pitch a project but remain in Orlando, but I'll have to say that the odds are largely against that scenario working out in your favor.