Animation Creation: SVA Alumni on Working with Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network

October 25, 2013

You can tune into any major animation network these days and watch shows created, produced, directed and written by SVA alumni. Among them, there’s Rebecca Sugar (BFA 20­­09 Animation), recently named one of “30 Under 30 in Hollywood” by Forbes. The Emmy Award nominated storyboarder of the Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time is now the creator of the channel’s new series, Steven Universe. There’s Gary DiRaffaele (BFA 2005 Animation), a.k.a. Gary Doodles, who co-created and sold a show, Breadwinners, to Nickelodeon earlier this year. George Krstic (BFA 1994 Film and Video) is a staff writer for Motorcity, on Disney DX, and has written for Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Megas XLR (which he co-created); he has been nominated for both Emmy and Saturn awards. Derek Drymon (BFA 1992 Illustration) was executive producer of Adventure Time and writer on Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants. And there’s Giancarlo Volpe (BFA 1997 Animation), producer-director of three hugely successful animated action shows: Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender and Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars and The Green Lantern.

sponge425All of these alumni agreed to share their experiences and knowledge about developing an animated series with Visual Arts Journal, taking us through the steps of coming up with an idea, pitching it to networks and, finally, creating episodes.

When it comes to conceiving a show, everyone agrees: trying to predict what a network wants is a dead-end. Trends come and go. “Besides, it’s all about timing,” Krstic says. “Do you have something they’re looking for at that specific moment? If they have a lot of shows about animals that season, they won’t want another one. It doesn’t matter if you go in with the greatest show in the world about dogs, if they already have one on the roster, it’s over.” Instead, write about “something you’re passionate about,” Krstic says, “something that you keep banging on a drum about until someone pays you money to make it.”

For some of the alumni, the idea began with a character. Doodles started out with two ducks, Sugar with a chubby, happy-go-lucky boy, based on her brother Steven, who strums catchy tunes on his ukulele. They then chose a world for their characters to inhabit—one that would be the funniest for them to exist in. For Breadwinners, Doodles stuck his ducks in a flying bread-delivery van. For Steven Universe, Sugar had her ukulele-strumming boy join an intergalactic team called the Crystal Gems, fighting to protect the universe.

For others, the idea begins with a concept. “I had a passion for 1980s animé and hot-rod culture,” Krstic says, “so I wrote a world to showcase those concepts—Megas XLR for Cartoon Network.” Once Krstic had the world in place, he asked himself who would populate it, and came up with his core characters.

Audrey Diehl, a development executive at Nickelodeon, says that although networks do seek action shows, in general they always want something comical. “We look for funny characters—special, lovable, fun-to-be-around characters that have an original point of view, with interests and goals kids can relate to. We’re not really interested in characters with adult problems.” She cites SpongeBob SquarePants as an ideal animated character. “SpongeBob is such a distinct, funny, clear character that whatever he does is interesting, whether it’s trying to catch a bus or coping with a pet who prefers to hang out with someone else.”

Networks also like people with a distinctive voice. “Show creators can offer a unique point of view by having a personal connection to the material,” Diehl says. “The characters may be from their childhood, friendships among characters may reflect those in their life—or perhaps they have a weird background they bring to a show, or a specific comedic sensibility or way of drawing that brings out the humor.”

But just how do show creators pitch their ideas to networks? “In animation, it’s pretty open-door,” Drymon says. “There’s a whole department that takes pitches. You don’t need an agent, or 10 years of experience. Networks want young people—35 and under.”

Krstic, for example, got his break when he and his SVA friends “ambushed an executive at Comic-Con” with a student film, he says; months later, he was working alongside Anne Bernstein (BFA 1983 Graphic Design) on Downtown, an animated MTV series created by fellow alumnus Chris Prynoski (BFA 1994 Animation). Cartoon Network development executives, impressed with Rebecca Sugar’s work on Adventure Time, asked her to pitch them a show. A similar scouting process takes place at Nickelodeon, Diehl says. “When someone starts off as a storyboarder or writer, we pay attention to them and get to know them.”

Pitching is a specialized skill. According to Nickelodeon, the preferred format is a four-page write-up, including character descriptions, a paragraph outlining the show’s world and an explanation of episode structures. However, other approaches have been successful. Pendleton Ward pitched Adventure Time with storyboards. Stephen Hillenburg pitched SpongeBob SquarePants with an entire show “bible,” including a song and character sketches. Doodles recalls how he once gave an oral presentation, and thought he’d done well until he opened up his laptop and showed a 45-second clip of what the show would look and sound like. “Wow,” the network executives told him, “that’s nothing like what you pitched.” From then on, Doodles decided to pitch his shows the way they’re intended to be seen—as animation. What’s most important, regardless of format, is successfully communicating the characters and tone of the proposed show. “And if you get them to laugh,” Krstic says, “you’re ahead.”

airbend425Once a network decides to proceed, there are two phases. Phase 1 can last years. The network pays for the creator to develop the show, but it’s not much, so creators usually keep other jobs, developing their shows during off hours. They write a bible and script and storyboard a pilot episode. Once that’s done, the episode is sent to a studio to be animated. Then there’s casting, mixing and scoring. After all that, Phase 2—the creation of an entire season’s episodes—begins, and the show’s production becomes a full-time job.

No matter which phase one’s show is in, Drymon says, it is important to always work on new storylines. “Because when you go to series, it’s go-go-go full production—an enormous amount of work—and there’s never enough material to feed the machine.” When Breadwinners was fast-tracked to series, the network requested 20 episodes. “They put the schedule up on the board,” Doodles says, “and it was endless. It looked like a tidal wave.”

Once Phase 2 begins, show creators are ready to hire writers and artists, which means giving up some creative control. “That’s why I choose people who bring something that makes my show wackier,” Doodles says. Sugar handpicks her team from artists whose personal artwork she admires, trusting that they will elevate the show. When creators are inexperienced, networks will pair them with seasoned producers. That’s how Drymon got hired on Adventure Time, to help Pendleton Ward assemble the show for Cartoon Network. Drymon recalls, “We were going against huge-budget shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons, but we had to do it at a fraction of the cost. So, as an executive producer, I was hands-on with all the department heads—writers, artists, directors, post and animatics.”

This is a tricky stage for creators, because they go from the creative to the managerial side of the business, no longer writing and drawing as much as they previously did and spending a lot of time in meetings, managing writers and artists and delegating work. “When I started, I would not delegate,” Krstic says. “That’s a big mistake beginners sometimes make. But I learned to set my ego aside. Now I delegate as much as possible. I work with people who are amazing writers and artists. It’s very rewarding. I keep learning, and the show gets better.”

Sugar had to navigate that transition with Steven Universe. She began with a team of two—herself and her brother. She then formed a team of writers and artists. Now she spends her days between the writers’ room and meeting with the storyboard teams. Throughout, she strives to keep the process flexible, so that everyone can be creative and build on the previous step, and details are never tied down until the last moment. She also makes sure to toggle the show between fantasy and realism, hoping the push-and-pull between those polarities will create a roller-coaster effect for the audience. “I’m approaching this TV series very differently from the way I approach my personal art projects,” she says. “I think of Steven Universe as a piece of media. It needs to have many levels, so that it can be enjoyed by both kids and adults, so it can remain accessible and flexible and not alienate anyone.”

Throughout a series’ development, writing is key. “It’s hard to find animators who are good at screenwriting,” Doodles says, “and working with a broken script is so frustrating.” So to create and sell Breadwinners, Doodles partnered with Steve Borst, an award-winning, experienced screenwriter who has written for Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Warner Bros. productions.

Drymon, Krstic and Giancarlo Volpe all agreed: in animation, writers need to know how to visualize everything in words as well as story structure.

With animated action shows, this challenge is even greater: in addition to writing individual episodes, creators need to write multi-episode story arcs, which in the industry are considered crucial to success in the genre. Volpe—who has helped formulate season-long stories for Clone Wars, Green Lantern and The Last Airbender—became so skilled and successful at this process that he’s worked alongside Star Wars creator George Lucas. He now has a top-secret show in development at Warner Bros.

Volpe, who got his start designing videogames for Humungous Entertainment, still marvels at his ascension in the industry, a lesson in the value of persistence and hard work. “I worked on Putt-Putt and Pajama Sam, and then ended up with George Lucas.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of the Visual Arts Journal and was written by James Grimaldi.

Images from top down: SpongeBob SquarePants © Nickelodeon; Avatar: The Last Airbender © Nickelodeon.

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