Wednesday, December 19, 2007

He doesn’t miss a trick or ever lose a beat

Despite one of my first writing breaks being on 'Bob The Builder', I've been a bit off writing for children's animation of late, mainly because animation has a slightly different contract setup to other forms of scriptwriting, which usually involves what's known as a 'buyout'. This means once you're brought into to write an episode for an established series, you get paid once for your script, and that's it. No residuals, no rights over any characters you may have created, no extra cash when your episode gets turned into a book, or used as a part of a christmas annual. All of which may sound a bit petty and money-grabbing, but, well, that's what writers are, usually.

Added to which, there often comes a point in a writer's career when he or she has deftly turned sufficient producer-based sexual encounters to their advantage to the point where they're starting to get their own projects off the ground. At which point they get all hoity, and working on already-established shows feels rather too much like playing in another kid's toybox. This is an unrealistic attitude, which has to be adjusted considerably when winter really sets in, and the writer's many illegitimate offspring are beginning to clamour for school fees and bail money, but sometimes it's good to be ambitious.

But then you get asked to pitch story concepts for Shaun the Sheep. And all that goes out the window and you think 'wheeeeeeeeeeeeee', because Shaun the Sheep is brilliant.

Any-old-way, one of the concepts I sent Aardman back in October has been approved, and I now have to turn in the first draft by January 10th. I'm going to try and cover the process from now on in the blog (without giving away any plot details, obviously), mainly because the whole process of outlines and script drafts and rewrites can be completely bewildering to starting writers (hello people from the Falmouth Professional Writing/Digital Animation Course), and it might be nice to try and demystify it a bit.

Thus far then (and this gives you some idea of how slowly these things move):

Mid-August: asked for ideas. I send in five paragraph-long concepts (this is pretty much how Bob used to work). No money at this stage by the way.

Mid-October: Aardman get back to me - they like one of the ideas (and they received seven hundred in total, so I was quite jammy there), but need me to work it up into a full one-page outline, to give them some idea how it would actually work. There isn't the budget for vast new sets or enormous props, although they could make the new human character that would appear in my script.

The outline then needs to go off to the BBC to make sure it doesn't include anything deeply unsuitable, or depict things that can't be depicted on kids telly. For example, a Bob episode I wrote where various animals run across slow-setting cement had to be changed to various animals threatening to run across slow-setting cement, presumably in case children watching decided to run into building sites and hurl themselves into the foundations. Which I will grudgingly admit is probably fair enough.

End-October: I send off the one-page outline.

18th December: finally hear back from Aardman - the outline has been okayed, a suggested deadline for first script of 10th Jan is set, and I am invited to a Writer's Day at Ardman shortly after. I am also to be sent some development notes (which hopefully include stuff about layout/formatting: Shaun episodes don't have any dialogue in them, so I'm interested to see how you actually set about writing the buggers. Contracts are also sent off to agent, and at some point, amounts of money are going to be mentioned. Aardman carefully lay the groundwork for this by mentioning at every opportunity that the budget for the second series is less than for the first. I'm not suggesting this is made up, by the way, standard procedure for any broadcaster after commissioning a second series is to say 'well done, now make another, and here's less money than before'. The reasons for this will remain forever a mystery.

UPDATE: well okay, BBC children's department have had their budgets cut by ten per cent, but this happens all the time anyway.


Valerie said...

Aardman! You rate, dude. That is rather exciting. And it's interesting to get a peek into the process.

Dan said...

Very cool! I have yet to see Shaun The Sheep, but Aardman's stuff always entertains me. I'll have to catch-up.

Isn't the reason for a budget decrease because the set-up costs of initially creating *everything* from scratch don't factor in now?

Mind you, I remember someone saying Mighty Boosh's second series had half the budget of the first... but looked about twice as expensive! Not sure how that worked, as they didn't reuse any sets from s1, did they?

Anonymous said...

Yay! I love Shaun the Sheep! How cool.

Anonymous said...

I was watching Shaun the Sheep today and wonderful as it is, I was thinking that it would only be an improvement to add some Green Wing type camera work and trippy music. Speaking of which, has anyone in the Blue Cat household been leering at a certain celestially-haired gentleman in the current adaptation of "Oliver Twist"?

patroclus said...

Heheheh, I can quite categorically state that the female members of the Blue Cat household are *so over* that.

Except possibly the cat, I can't speak for her.

Sean McManus said...

Congratulations. Shaun the Sheep is a great programme - one of the few children's programmes which you can enjoy as an adult without having to come over all ironic or pretend you're younger than you really are. I videoed it when it first came on. I was wondering how they wrote it, given it's a silent comedy, so I'll look forward to your reports from the inside. Will you get to meet Shaun at the writers' day?

James Henry said...

Probably, although as a writer I try not to get too close to the actors.

By a strange coincidence, I've just been rubbing curry paste into a mutton chop. Mmm, mutton....

Anonymous said...

You should definately arrange a meeting with Shaun so you can discuss where he feels his character is coming from...... oh a packet of plasticine!

I love Shaun and my wish list for next Tuesday includes the Boxed DVD Set - I wait in hope.