Gary Sperling

As I help develop scripts for a New Show, parallel development is happening on the art side. Led by Chris Bailey and Alan Bodner (art director on the tragically ignored Iron Giant), a Leica reel (or “animatic”) is being produced. This filmed storyboard, from a script by the producers, will be shown to focus groups next month.

Checking out the artists’ work today, I am, as always, impressed by the talent on display. This is especially striking to me because, as my wife was deeply chagrined to discover the first—and last—time we played Pictionary together, my own drawing ability is shockingly limited. (“In what conceivable way does that resemble a waffle on a plate?!”) The same sad lesson has been learned by my kids, who now understand that Daddy can’t make a wombat any better than they can.

There are those who feel that this particular deficiency renders me unfit to work in animation. Unfortunately, this includes many of the artists who surround me. Nothing personal. They resent all writers.

The short version of why: In the pre-television “Golden Age” of animation, animators were largely left alone to produce what is unquestionably a great body of work. Then in the early ‘60s, The Flintstones ushered in an era of TV cartoons where the stories were longer, more plot-driven, and, most importantly, aired weekly. Producers turned to those who had experience feeding a voracious production machine—namely writers. Result? Animators felt like their medium was hijacked. Resentment ensued, which has only gotten worse as most cartoons have gotten less and less cartoony.

At a recent meeting of the Cartoonists’ Union (animation writers don’t belong to the Writers’ Guild, another long story), it was like the Sharks versus the Jets as artists and writers faced off. I half-expected to see chairs kicked over and X-Acto knives brandished.

Artists also suspect that writers are slumming, and they may have a point. My guess is that if you root around in the drawers of a cartoon writer, what you’ll find is a live action feature or spec script. (I plead guilty to a winsome little romantic comedy.) If you look in the drawers of artists, by contrast, once you get past the comics and the Star Wars collectibles, I’ll bet you find designs for a cartoon that doesn’t involve writers.

Of course, artists aren’t the only ones with a low opinion of cartoon writers. In fact, if you analogize the old adage that “Those that can’t do, teach; and those that can’t teach, teach gym,” cartoon writers are regarded as the P.E. teachers of the entertainment industry. It certainly doesn’t help that so many cartoons are terribly written.

It’s a tough one. On Nightmare Ned, one of the shows I’m proudest to have worked on, the storyboard artists freely changed the scripts. So much so that they shared writing credit in addition to their storyboard credit. But that show had a producer with a good story sense. There are numerous examples of artist-run shows that crashed. Delicately put—not all writers are Artists and not all artists are Writers. Frankly, not all artists are Artists, but now I’m nitpicking.

Meanwhile, we’ve got a show to test. Based on my experience, focus testing can make astrology look like an exact science. Put a group of 8-year-olds together, and it’s Lord of the Flies time as the strongest personality emerges early and vanquishes the weak. Still, there’s no denying the reactions of kids as they watch a show.

In Sullivan’s Travels, a movie director (of such classics as Hey, Hey in the Hayloft) renounces comedy and goes out in search of suffering. Ending up on a chain gang, he and his fellow convicts are led in, chained together, to watch a movie with some poor-but-decent folk. When a cartoon starts, the place erupts with laughter. As Sully himself finally gives in and guffaws at Pluto chasing his own tail, he has an epiphany—maybe making people laugh isn’t such a bad thing. Even the delighted convicts are transported from their dreary lives. It’s the ultimate focus group!

Uncontrollable laughter and a life-changing revelation? Definite pickup. Judging from our recent ratings, it wouldn’t hurt to have that kind of captive audience all the time.

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