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The Changing Landscape of Animation May 6, 2013

Posted by shannonmuir in Advice, analysis, animation.
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A couple weeks back I got an email from a young woman thanking me for articles I’d written in the past on non-artists in animation and talking about how there doesn’t seem to be much out there on these areas of the field. Those pieces were done largely in the early 2000s but interestingly enough – and perhaps sadly – her observation remained correct. A lot of what is still covered about the ways people can be involved in animation are the artist and directorial positions; that said, the writer is getting more exposure than the past, but still that usually tends to be all that’s out there. She really thanked me for finding what she had and that someone at least tackled the topic.

I’m mulling over why that hasn’t changed, especially with animation easier to produce than ever before. Perhaps because it has become more of a case where people can write, produce, and direct more on their own and the concern really becomes more about marketing and distribution. Perhaps it is all the changes in the studio system model where things are developed and sent straight to their own networks instead of having to shop around. There’s other factors too and I could probably write a book just on that. The key is that the landscape is ever-changing, especially in the way that created content – animation and otherwise – is ultimately consumed by the end user and that seems to dictate a lot of choices. The two main points here are content being mobile, and content being on demand. The idea of being confined to home at a fixed daypart is long gone.

I think in general a lot of what I’ve written in my columns and books are still relevant when it comes to the larger studio system, but those areas aren’t necessarily the first line of how to break in anymore. It may be very possible to make one’s own way and make a difference in further changing the landscape of the animation industry. The key is to do it smartly and make back on one’s investment in doing so. I wish I had an easy formula to recommend for that, but I don’t. So many aspects are still in flux.

My hope is that people are, despite the unpredictability, still willing to try – as long as they do it in a well thought out manner that doesn’t put their own futures completely at risk. We still need innovative pioneers for animation to grow and evolve.


My Heart Always Aches a Little on Valentine’s Day February 14, 2013

Posted by shannonmuir in Advice, analysis, animation, Writing.
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I’ve been quiet the last few weeks because there have been things going on with my family, the kinds of things that bring you closer together and remind you how valuable a treasure family is.

Valentine’s Day has been a touchstone day for remembering the value of family and the loss of them in one’s life.

Valentine’s Day of 2000, my now fiance’  Kevin and I had come back from a luxurious prix fixe meal at a home converted to a restaurant hiding in Hollywood called Off Vine. I’ve been in love with checking out homes converted to restaurants since my 16th birthday at the now long-closed Patsy Cline’s in Spokane, Washington. Kevin shares my interests in architecture and food. The night had gone extremely well and we had a great time.

I came home to a message on the answering machine. Kevin went off to another room, and I just started playing the message. I didn’t think much of it and figured it would probably just be a telemarketer and nothing important.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The voice on the message was my father. He let me know that his father – whom I was completely unaware was going in to the hospital that day for a routine pacemaker operation – passed away in the hospital the day of the surgery. Out of respect for my family I won’t share further details. It was a message I was completely unprepared to come home to, and remain thankful to this day that Kevin was actually there that night. I’m so thankful I didn’t spend it alone.

From that year forward, Valentine’s Day has never been the same to me. Kevin and I trade off surprising who takes whom to dinner at restaurants (not always converted houses), but that’s about it. Forget the candy, the flowers, and all the rest. It doesn’t replace knowing I’ve gone another year with losing Grandpa Porter Muir in my life far too soon. Thank you, Grandpa Porter, for believing I had a lot of “spunk,” for all the good (and far too few) good times we shared, but most of all for believing in me and supporting me even though I had to be so far away to pursue writing and animation. I still miss you and today I realize it the most.

So my thought to my  readers – whether you have a special someone, or just people you treasure in your life, I hope you think of them today and value the way they make a difference in your life. That’s what Valentine’s Day means to me… treasuring all the people close to your heart.



Wisps of Writing Wisdom: Life Brings Inspiration April 11, 2012

Posted by shannonmuir in Advice, analysis, animation, ebooks, wisps of writing wisdom.
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Always stay aware of the things that can bring inspiration for a story. I once pitched an episode for an animated series – though it ultimately wasn’t considered a fit – simply by overhearing a conversation while stopping into an ice cream shop; a girl came in to apply for a job with someone else and was afraid to ask if she could apply for a job without a resume so a friend had to ask for her. Another animated episode I pitched for a series, that was accepted and produced, focused around my experiences as a teacher’s aide when in school. Recently I got a certificate for Library Technician originally hoping where I previously worked might create an archive position or department I could be a part of, and while that  didn’t happen, I used all that student experience to forge a character in the  ebook THE PHOENIX RISES and my overall library experience to create the book.

So don’t dismiss anything in your life experience, no matter how big or small. You never know what it might lead to.

After the Wonder of Wondercon March 19, 2012

Posted by shannonmuir in Advice, analysis, animation, Books, Conventions, fiction, TV, video games, videogames, Writing.
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I just came from spending the last four days at Wondercon in Anaheim. Normally, this SF and fantasy convention takes place in San Francisco and is a somewhat more intimate version of its “big sister” Comic-Con International that currently is held every summer in San Diego. I’ve attended Wondercon once before in San Francisco in 2007, where I led a panel about animation writing and production to tie in with promoting my textbook GARDNER’S GUIDE TO WRITING AND PRODUCING ANIMATION. Overall, the feel in Anaheim reminded me very much of my San Diego experience, except Anaheim didn’t quite seem able to deal initially with the overflow parking demand Saturday morning. Part of this was that there were also two other conventions – girls’ volleyball and spirit squad – taking up the rest of the Anaheim Convention Center all weekend and they needed parking as well. Wondercon had one-fourth of the upstairs exhibit space, the hall downstairs for registration,  but the upper seminar room levels and ballroom were all Wondercon’s as well.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to attend Wondercon and Comic-Con International as a pro for most of the years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, and as a pro guest my first year, and I am thankful to get this opportunity to be there along with other professionals I’ve come to know and respect over the years. Some of those people presented informational panels on various aspects of the animation industry – creating series on the first day, a general writing panel on the second day, and focusing on writing action in animation on the last day. Even though I have professional animation credits, I love going to these panels and hearing the ancedotes, or getting new tips and tricks myself. No matter your experience level, if you get the chance to hear professionals speak on areas you care about, go for it!

I actually spent most of my time at panels, in part because the exhibit hall is much smaller at Wondercon and you can cover it in far less time in terms of browsing. Other types of panels I attended included: Hollywood and Comics, Spotlight on Mark Waid (who is looking at some revolutionary things in terms of the digital comics space), how to get a job in the video game industry (people from the console side of video games and I wanted to learn more about their companies and jobs, though the majority came from Northern California), the future of tabletop gaming (which got into how people are using technology to enhance or supplement their DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS and similar gaming experiences), the WOMANTHOLOGY comic book panel which got launched via an amazing Kickstarter campaign, how to get press coverage for your comic or webcomic, a great cartoon voices panel hosted by Mark Evanier, and a DC Nation showcase featuring a mentor and great friend. So the panels I went to comprised a mix of business  needs such as getting to know what’s going on in the business,  and find out what areas might possibly have work now or in the near future – and simply a love of the business.

There was also a little bit about the books business too. The last panel attended on Sunday focused on YA literature and in specific horror books and dystopias. One panelist had her book options with a well produced trailer (at least that was my opinion, IMHO, after seeing it screened) to get exposure before a major movie in several markets, then was positioned (only due to past credits in screenwriting) to be able to go then go sell the screenplay of her novel along with her agent immediately following the premiere of the other YA film. We also saw another book trailer, made by a writer who had connections with a very well credited producer, whose book is only at the optioned stage. Several other panelists had books optioned with major studios, though one of them (who actually was half of a writing team) had a film that starts production in April based on that series, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES. One person did ask directly about self-publishing, and those that responded said they were all for it, but definitely stressed the need to hire a well qualified editor or getting trusted professional feedback. This wasn’t just for the possible grammar or spelling mistakes, but for issues such as pacing of a story too.

Some people, when they found out I would be going, asked if I had a booth or panel this year. Both opportunities are great if you can get them. I would have loved to be on a panel but definitely wasn’t in a position to prepare or propose one, though that’s much easier to do at Wondercon I think that at Comic-Con where all the big studios are vying for spots. I’m also not on any projects that would merit renting or sharing a booth, as Comic-Con is more comic art proper with some gaming thrown in due to the San Francisco connections, and a lot less about television and film at least in terms of the exhibit hall.

Overall, I had a great time and am really glad that I attended Wondercon.


Posted by shannonmuir in animation, Interview.
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Jeffrey Scott is a second generation animation writer.  Jeffrey described to me how he got his start when his father “was a story editor at Hanna-Barbera.  At that time they actually had ‘assistant’ story editors.  Well, my dad’s assistant had some upset with H-B and quit.  I was the only person my father could think of to replace him.  So I started as an assistant story editor on Dynomutt: Dog Wonder.  My dad would tell me to write a premise.  I said, ‘What’s a premise?”’ And he’d show me.  Then he’d tell me to turn it into an outline.  I said, ‘What’s an outline?’  And he showed me.  So I was blessed with a six month apprenticeship from a top story editor who, as my father, cared that I learned my craft well.  Then my dad sold a series (The Robonic Stooges) and I took his place as story editor of Super Friends.  The rest is toon history” and launched Jeffrey Scott’s career.

Next I wondered what motivated him to start writing about how the business worked in articles and book.  “One of the things I learned long ago was that an artist had to be a businessman to survive.  So about six years ago I contacted the editor of Animation Magazine (Sarah Baisley at that time), and had lunch with her.  I told her that her magazine was great, but that it never mentioned anything about writing, which was (and is!) one of the most important elements of good animation.”  At that time, he “volunteered to write a column on the subject and she happily agreed.  I didn’t do this just for philanthropic reasons, I had a business motive as well.  I knew that with a circulation of 25,000 I would be getting free publicity each time my articles appeared.  It not only increased my recognition in the industry, but several studios have contacted me as a direct result of their having read an article.”

I asked what Jeffrey enjoyed covering about writing, being a writer himself.  “I’ve enjoyed writing all of the articles.  Most of my Animation Magazine articles have been about the technical side of animation writing, including how to get ideas, how to develop a story, how to sell your work, the essentials of a bible, how to pitch, how to get an agent.  Actually, all of my Animation Magazine articles can be found on my website at www.jeffreyscott.tv.  These articles were the basis of my book, which expanded on all of these topics and filled in the blanks.”  The move to put together the book was motivated by the fact that “[d]uring the course of my entire career I had been jotting down notes and putting them in my file, knowing that one day I was going to write a book.  It’s my personal belief that anyone who knows the technology of a subject has a duty to ensure that the next generation knows what he/she knows so they can build on it and improve the product.  Keeping usable data to oneself is a bit selfish.  Many people are afraid to tell others how they succeeded for fear that it will increase the competition and they might somehow lose something.  I don’t believe that.  On the contrary, I believe that by helping others to survive you only help yourself.  Finally, after years of jotting down notes, and having written over a dozen Animation Magazine columns, I found myself with little work to do one spring and decided it was time to write the book.  It was a lot of fun to connect the dots between my columns and turn it into a complete picture of the professional animation writing business.”

As to the responses he’s received to his book: “I’ve been thrilled to hear people’s thoughts about the book.  Everyone that has contacted me has told me how much they’ve enjoyed it, both technically and as an enjoyable read.  I really put my heart into the book, and apparently that comes across to readers.  One person just wrote and told me that she gave the book to her 15-year-old son after she read it.  He read it and was so inspired he’s now writing a cartoon script.  That’s quite heartwarming.  In fact, my true goal for the book is that it gets discovered by some public school administrator who realizes that it could be very effectively used to motivate kids to write.  Which would you rather write, a dry essay on the Puritans or an exciting cartoon script?”

When asked if Jeffrey felt more people should be writing about the animation industry, he responded that “[t]he industry is changing pretty quickly now, especially with the advent of computer animation, and it would be nice if the literature kept up with new trends.  But I’m not aware of a dearth of books in the field.  Hopefully my book, How to Write for Animation, filled in the hole with regard to professional animation writing.”  He felt that someone should consider writing about the animation industry “[w]hen they have something helpful to say,” and in fact admits he’s “not a big fan of ‘armchair experts’ writing about subjects with which they have little experience.  It’s quite honorable for a busy professional to take the time to communicate his or her valuable experience.  But it seems a bit self-indulgent to me for someone who knows little about a subject to give their ‘opinions’ about it.”  As to someone wanting to pursue writing about animation, Jeffrey admits that “I must be honest here and say that I have trouble with the concept of someone wanting ‘to pursue writing about animation’.  If you’re a professional, then by all means write up the experience that you found worked well so that others can use it.  But if someone just wants to write about subjects they don’t really know, they should write fiction, not non-fiction.  So the answer to your question is, if you want to write about some aspect of animation then spend a good 10 or 20 years doing it before you write about it.”  Speaking of someone who goes out and interviews others to compile that collective experiences, Jeffrey indicated that “[i]f someone is solely interviewing professionals and compiling their practical experience into an article or book, then it really wouldn’t matter how much experience they had in the industry, provided they were a good writer and could communicate the material.  This would be a valuable service.  On the other hand, if an interview is interjecting their own views and evaluating the material, it would seem to me to be more appropriate if they had a good deal of animation experience so they could effectively and intelligently make an evaluation” of the business.

(originally released 2003)


Posted by shannonmuir in animation, Interview.
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First off, I wondered what got Jerry specifically interested in the history of animation.  “When I was a comic book addict teenager,” he replied,  “I noticed that the Bugs Bunny cartoons on TV seemed funnier than I thought they were when I was a kid. The more I watched, the more I couldn’t believe how great these cartoon masterpieces were.”  Jerry later decided to make a career out of documenting the medium’s rich history.  “After falling in love with the Looney Tunes in my teenage years, I tried to read more about them. How many were there? Who made these? There were no books on the subject. So I started to research them myself. I began by compiling a master list of all old Hollywood cartoons… I met up with Leonard Maltin, who was teaching a history of animation class in New York (around 1975). We became friends and I became his associate on his book OF MICE AND MAGIC (which was published in 1980).”

Jerry’s first book, The Warner Brothers Cartoons (1981), came about when he “expanded my list of Warner Bros. cartoons with my associate Will Friedwald into a book for Scarecrow Press.”  He continued, explaining that, “Scarecrow is a bottom of the barrel, institutional & library books mainly, publisher. We sent them a sample of our filmography. They agreed to publish it. We couldn’t get permission to use pictures of Bugs Bunny, so we published it without any images. That book is still in print!”
“Most commercial book publishers are not that interested in animation books unless it’s tied into a very famous character, movie, or gimmick,” Jerry noted when I asked, in his experience, what the demand for this kind of material seems to be,  “hence my books like THE 50 GREATEST CARTOONS or OUTLAW ANIMATION.”  As far as what’s involved to research a book like this, “for any book about history, you have to love the subject and be enthusiastic about the smallest details of its history.”  In Jerry’s case,  “I love the 1930s and 1960s Warner Bros. cartoons, thus I enjoy researching them. Sometimes you have to spend days and weeks researching the tiniest details, like release dates. Maybe no one will notice, but I’m proud of the small things… I spend a lot of time at the Academy library (in Beverly Hills ) looking at newspaper clippings and digging up trade magazines.”  Jerry’s passion about animation history extends beyond the page.  “I do screenings locally with ASIFA HOLLYWOOD and other groups. I’ve been collecting 16mm cartoon film prints and videos and I love to show films and discuss them with audiences. I’ve also taught at the AFI, UCLA, NYU and the School of Visual Arts . I think showing animation is the best way to communicate about it. I also started my CARTOONRESEARCH.com website to further the knowledge.”

When I asked Jerry what he enjoys most about documenting animation history: “The more people know about animation history, the more people want to see more and know more. It encourages more interest and enthusiasm in the subject.”  However, as far as challenges, he notes that “it’s not a very well paying career, I’m sad to say, I’m an animation historian out of the love of it. I make a living by doing freelance writing, and occasionally write and produce animated films. I previously worked in film distribution, as an animation executive (at Nickelodeon & others), and was a journalist for a trade mag, KIDSCREEN.”

Jerry feels animation history is an area that other writers can still break in to.  “There is plenty of opportunity. As long as animation continues to be made, there will always be stories to be told about their creation. And the whole story of animation’s 100 year history has not been completely covered yet. I want to read more about Terrytoons! I want to see books about Fleischer, Bill Tytla, John Hubley and many others.”

I greatly appreciate your time, Jerry, for giving readers a glimpse into ways to keep animation’s rich heritage alive as non-artists.

(originally published 2003)

The Art of the Interstitial (2006) February 23, 2012

Posted by shannonmuir in Advice, animation.
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Frankly, I’d never heard the term “interstitial” before I took my current animated job.  So when I was first told I would be a production coordinator for 100 interstitials, I had no idea what I was getting into; all my previous experience was on 11-minute stories like those on INVADER ZIM or 22-minute episodes of shows like EXTREME GHOSTBUSTERS and JUMANJI.

Basically, interstitials are short animated pieces, usually used as bridge pieces or filler between longer pieces, but can also air separately depending on the broadcast rules of a given country.  Given that animation is generally a page and a half per minute of screen time, scripts are just a few pages at most.  Storyboards average between thirty and forty pages.

On the surface this may sound very boring and tedious.  I admit that tying to keep track of lots of little pieces, that aren’t any real intense storylines, may not seem appealing at first.  But bear in mind that each interstitial has some sort of beginning, middle, and end – a “mini-story” if you will.  And because they are shorter material, you potentially get exposed to a wider variety of mini-plots, themes, and ideas.  That’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the job.  For our production, the manageability issue was overcome by treating the interstitials in groupings of ten two-minute interstitials, equivalent to the length of one 22-minute episode each.

Also, because they are just interstitials, we’ve had a smaller staff than I’m used to working with. This has required me to fill some script coordinator and post coordinator roles out of the necessity that we don’t have these positions, so they are part of my job umbrella.   Of course, then I can put this knowledge on my resume to help me get jobs later on. This for me has been another excellent reward of the project.

So if a job comes your way to work on animated interstitials, don’t turn it down just because it’s “not a show,” especially if you’re just starting out.

(originally published 2006)

Look Before You Learn (2002) February 21, 2012

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More opportunities than ever seem to be cropping up for non-artists to learn about the animation industry.  A screenwriter’s conference in the Fall of 2002, mainly geared to live-action writers, has several seminars scheduled devoted to animation.  Now in the bookstores, alongside the animation artist-geared books that have been available for years, are books for writing and non-artist aspects of producing animation.  Classes geared specifically to writing animation are available through continuing education, many of them online and available to aspiring writers around the world. With so many choices, and so many people offering advice, how do you sort out the worthwhile stuff from people who don’t really know what in the world they’re talking about?

First off, doubt everything.  Hey, doubt me too, for that matter.  There’s a reason a fair number my columns consist of interviewing others, and that’s because I am well aware that I do not know it all.  That said, there’s also some experience I have that other people at my level are not sharing, and I think — or at least hope, anyway — that insight into the lower ranks of the production ladder really can help someone wanting to break in know what to expect.

A credentials check should be what you do first.  In the instructor biography, on the book’s back cover, look for specific projects people have worked on.  Sometimes they’ll tell you what positions they had on shows or at companies; confirm them.  If all they’ve done is claim they worked for companies but don’t say what they did, the radar should go up.  Be sure to check what that potential instructor or book author did in fact work at that company, and see if those positions at those companies involved animation in any way.  They may have an extensive resume at all the major studios, but if the total experience in animation adds up to very little, you should choose someone with a greater wealth of animation experience.

This industry tends to have a lot of people in it embellishing their resumes.  It also tends to have a lot of people playing up projects that have not been produced; however, this is not necessarily bad.  Not everything that gets developed gets made in animation.  Someone with a lot of developed but unproduced series under his or her belt may very well be good at what they do, and just not been fortunate enough to be with, or find, a company able to make things happen.  Or it could just be that they know enough people to keep getting gigs places but are ultimately replaced on shows because they truly are not capable. On any case, these people still can say they developed such and such a show on their resumes, because it’s true.  They did take a pass at developing the show.  Their version just didn’t get made.  Now if someone says he or she helped create a show, happened to be on staff at the time, and maybe the most they did was gave a suggestion to someone at one point that just happened to be followed — that’s more my definition of fudging your credits.

So do your homework before doing your studies, in other words.

Having said that, experience does not in itself make people good instructors.  I also mean this in the sense of books; someone may write a great creative script but be totally unable to express concepts in nonfiction.  You may be able to glean a lot from that wealth of experience, but if the information is communicated in an ineffective way, much of the impact is lost.  If you have the access to ask other people’s opinions (who have read the book, taken the course, etc.), by all means do so before spending.  It’s your precious money, and you should want to be making an investment, not throwing it away.

As to whether books or classes are more effective, that is up to your own personal learning style.  I do well with either, though I enjoy the ability in a classroom setting (whether online or in person) to interact and the immediacy of asking questions specifically tailored to my current needs.  Others may prefer this road because they hate reading.  Some people, on the other hand, are far too shy to ask questions and feel more at ease being able to learn on their own time.

Essentially, don’t let your eagerness and passion totally blind you into thinking that every class or book geared towards non-artists in animation fits your needs.  Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth and worthwhile experience.

(originally published 2002)

Name that Brand (2002) February 18, 2012

Posted by shannonmuir in animation.
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All the buzz that arose about Adam Sandler’s animated movie 8 Crazy Nights offering to animate brands into the film for sponsors willing to pay makes it sound like product placement is new and innovative to animation.  Since it’ set in a mall, Sony’s been actively soliciting chain stores to see if they are willing to have product placement.  In case you are not familiar with the term, it’s basically the agreement to provide product as props to a show, — or in the case of animation, draw in the props with its logo clearly visible — often in exchange for covering some of the production costs.

However, as someone reminded me, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time product placement’s occurred in animation — just look at a certain famous doll in Toy Story 2.  It’s just never been pointed out so strongly before.  I’m very interested if product placement will become implemented more often as a result of 8 Crazy Nights or not, though it probably would not work in most of the fantasy/SF animated films that make up the bulk of the animated features released today.

Right now, most product placement seems to be confined to feature films.  In television animation, which until recently was perceived as strictly for children, there’s still an instinctive need to protect kids.  Also, with all the merchandising tie-ins to product based on successful shows, companies may not want to muddy things pushing other products.  Product placement on television seems most logical with prime-time and late-night animation offerings.

Since I interviewed for jobs related to this area, I’ve had to ask myself how I feel about product placement.  Ultimately I believe that consumers should be able to decide for themselves, and the use of specific brands visibly in a program is not in and of itself a big deal.  But when the brand names unnaturally get worked into dialogue, I think at that point (largely as a writer) it goes too far.  The dialogue just sounds too unnatural, most times.  The other reality is that the business gets more expensive, and product placement is an avenue to explore to cut costs and find needed props.  It just must be exercised with caution and care, particularly in programs children watch.

I want to stress that while working at a product placement company isn’t an animation job per se, it can put you in contact with companies that produce animation.   This depends, of course, on what animated productions are being done and what kind of product they would use.  If the product placement company doesn’t represent what the production needs (you can always influence them to shift to the brand you represent, but they must need the item to begin with), then there will be no connection with a given animation script.  Still expect the bulk of your work at any product placement company to be live-action, since that’s where most of the work is.  The companies ultimately broker the brand, not the medium.  However, if you want a potential association with animation, it is a possibility to explore.  Be sure to ask prospective employers how often they deal with animation companies and/or how they would feel about handing animated scripts if that’s crucial to you wanting to work in the product placement field.

(originally published 2002)


Posted by shannonmuir in animation, characters, game design, interactive, Interview, world building.
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SHANNON MUIR:  Your early experience in the gaming field included sound design and being a director of photography.  When and how did you make the switch over to game design?

RANDY LITTLEJOHN: During the time I was working as a Director of Photography on Sierra On-Line games, such as Phantasmagoria and Gabriel Knight II: The Beast Within, I acquired some allies that came in handy later – people who believed in me.  The most important of these allies was the video production manager, Bill Crow.  Later, when Sierra On-Line and other companies decided to discontinue doing live action games, rather than sending me to the wolves, I was given the opportunity to use some old skills from my rock and roll band days and early college education as a music major to land a position as a co-sound designer of a game called Lighthouse.  During the production of this game I began lobbying for an opportunity to get into game design, and with the help of Bill Crow, I did indeed manage to get a job as an assistant game designer.  From that time on I remained in game design.

SM: Generally speaking, how is character development handled in game design?

RL: With rare exception (Jane Jenson’s and Christy Marx’s adventure games, for instance) computer games have been controlled by the idea that they are ‘games’.  Thus, arcade-like experiences and artificial puzzle-solving have been the main emphasis in game production, even while the graphic and sound environments have become more and more realistic – even as non-player-characters (NPCs) have become embedded with so-call ‘AI’ (artificial intelligence).  The idea of ‘story’ has largely been used to set the stage for first person shooters and role-playing games.  Once the game begins, story elements become simplistic, linear or at least pre-defined, and ‘underwhelming’, if they exist at all.   With the exceptions mentioned above, character development is something left behind after opening movies and seldom-read documents that come with the game, which outline who’s who, and why they’re doing what.  It is rare indeed to find good character development and multi-layered, gradually unfolding stories in computer games.

Half-Life II seems to be a partial move towards a remedy to this.  The NPCs in Half-Life II have more ability to communicate a range of emotions than perhaps in any game before, except for the days of live-action games.  They are also the most ‘life-like’ of any computer-generated characters in a game thus far. Nevertheless, judging only from the E3 demo, Half-Life II seems still to be basically a ‘shooter’, rather than an interactive drama, albeit in a more realistic universe than usual.

SM: Again, generally, can you paint a picture of how story is determined in game design?

RL: Today computer games are often serial incarnations of a good-selling franchise title.  So the ‘stories’ are extensions of what has already been set up in previous games.  In general, people who are often not professional writers or professional storytellers, but who may be ‘designers’ or ‘producers’ will hash out a story premise for a game, or will decide on a setting populated by a certain kind of characters and monsters, and will pre-define game features.  The operating system and the genre of game will help determine what kind of action will take place in the game.  Sometimes a professional writer will be brought in to take what has already been decided upon and flesh it out.  The professional writer may write a background story that sets the stage for the action and/or will write up biographies for the main characters.  Much of this will never been seen in the game itself, beyond opening movies and cinematics (non-interactive interludes). Sometimes professional writers will even get in on dialogue writing.  But in terms of actual game design, my experience has been that in general, there’s little attempt or little interest in interweaving story and character development into the non-linear, interactive design for the game.  There are exceptions.

The massively multi-player on-line game Earth and Beyond makes a gallant attempt at interweaving an evolving story and interesting characters into their game engine.  A professional writer with a background in drama was finally hired (after some false starts) to oversee the narrative elements of the game.  Professional writers were also called in to help with dialogue writing (Christy and myself, among others).  This game, however, is an exception to the usual computer game, and missing is any kind of autonomous narrative activity by NPCs.  In addition, the NPC animations are very limited.  This game does not try to represent a ‘real’ experience.  It’s very much a ‘game’.

SM:  Considering your educational background in drama, are there things that you feel you be improved in the approach to character and storytelling, and can you provide an example of the feel of a game might differ whether or not such principles were applied?

Randy responded by citing from a work-in-progress paper:

RL: I think that the masses are ready to spend money for an interactive drama that leaves the trappings of “computer games” behind.   Whoever builds this groundbreaking system is going to get rich.

My intent is the creation of a new kind of interactive experience that is comfortable and compelling for the masses. This new art form would immerse the experiencer inside of a reality very much like what he or she is already familiar and with – film and television.

My primary interest can now best be described as R&D in “interactive drama.”  By focusing on drama instead of storytelling I free myself from the restraints of preconceptions of linearity in my search for a method of ‘interactive dramatic narrative presentation’.

In my imagined design the moment-to-moment experience is not defined.  Nevertheless,  a satisfactory dramatic experience demands there to be a definite beginning, middle, and end, which will support a rising level of tension until the dramatic climax and resolution are achieved.  My goal is to create a system in which the dramatic and narrative support elements and principles and macro-level structure are pre-defined, in order to achieve “drama,” but in which these elements are active in a non-linear, non-branching way at the micro-level.

In a nutshell I want to create an environment in which the player and AI-smart NPCs, each with their own goals, biases, and methodologies, co-create the narrative at the micro-level, in real time, as their actions trigger the results of dramatic situations that are pre-defined.

I have long believed that combining a story/drama world-authoring engine with something like Haptek’s “People Putty” (www.haptek.com) represents some of the major software components of such a project.  At one time the People Putty engine was being considered for an adventure game at Sierra.  I was present for long demos and was able to talk at length with the founder of Haptek, Chris Shaw.  So I am very familiar with what they’ve done.

People Putty creates 3D animated agents and provides for their 3D environments.  These agents are low-polygon creations covered by photo-realistic skins.  Their software automatically creates “fidgets,” eye blinking, reflections, shadows, etc. and provides for an environment for the characters to be in.

Agents can respond to input.  The input can be from a keyboard, mouse, or through spoken words.  Text input can be embedded in scripts with emotional and movement cues.  Code embedded into text input can also cause the agents to physically morph, change costumes, change backgrounds, etc.  In other words, scripts written for the agents to speak can also be embedded with code that will cause other actions as well.

A big deal is made out of the fact that these characters can morph in real time into new characters as demanded by the user via scripting.  But it is more interesting to me that these agents can be “taught” to react with “apparent emotion” to objects within their physical environment – including to other agents.

Much of what Haptek has achieved is now also available by way of the characters in Half-Life II.  The work that is left to be done is the creation of an experience that is based on a ‘drama engine’, focused on a dramatic experience.  The bias of ‘game-thought’ is central to role-playing, first person shooters and massively multi-player on-line games.  I seem room for a new paradigm for the masses that leaves game-thought behind.

I see technology advancing at an incredible rate, but few people outside of academia seem to be thinking about how to evolve the tools of drama so that they can work in an interactive environment.  That’s my interest.  But this interest needs a test bed.

I look out there and see that all of the components (though dispersed in various non-entertainment fields) are now available, and if combined, could lead to a new kind of interactive entertainment – call it interactive drama – or interactive drama worlds – call it working towards an evolution of drama towards preparation for a real ‘Star Trek Holodeck’ experience.

I envision a system combining interacting modules into system to support life-like NPCs with the ability to ‘act’ – call them ‘synthespians’.  The list of modules would include at least the following: Adaptive Learning, Pattern Recognition, Expert Systems, Speech Processing, and Text Parsing.  But I do not envision creating autonomous agents that are truly ‘aware’, of course.

As a metaphor let me give an example: stage sets are only designed to the degree that they will be used. If a door in a flat is to be used, it is built strongly enough so that it can be used.  If the door will never be used there doesn’t even have to be an opening in the flat – just a door painted on the surface.

Drama is smoke and mirrors – it only needs to seem real.  There doesn’t need to be “real” understanding by the machine, or “real” communication.  It only needs to appear to the experiencer that there is real intelligence, understanding, and communication.

This is what I mean by synthespians: I’d like to explore the potential of creating autonomous agents with “dramatic character”.  In other words, I’d like to see autonomous agents with goals, biases, and abilities to carry out “intent” – all inspired by the principals of drama.  I’d like to explore the possibilities of autonomous interaction between agents that move forward by the principals of drama.  These agents would have as much potential to be “aware of”, interact with, and change their persistent environment as the interactive drama experiencer.

I envision an experience in which synthespians and the experiencer interact in a “drama-world” made of theatrically atmospheric environments saturated with exposition (story elements), dramatic potential and events orchestrated by a “drama-engine”.   I see a dramatic work arising from an environment where, given certain starting criteria, there can be an emergent and yet dramatic story. This emerging drama would be co-created by the synthespians with conflicting goals and biases and the experiencer as a result of their actions in the drama-world.

I am especially interested in the potential of creating a dramatic situation in which an autonomous “sidekick” or “partner” would join the human experiencer in an adventure/ quest.  I envision a human stranger in a strange land, with the sidekick being the liaison, as well as potential friend, helper, and fighting partner.  This sidekick would be an AI-smart ‘synthespian’ that can apparently learn and reason, who is afflicted with needs and desires, as we all are, and who is motivated by a strong dramatic goal that is in conflict with the state of the ‘drama-world’.

Invisible in all of this is the “dramatist” in the background – behind the curtain, who uses a new kind of tool to ‘direct’ the theatrical potential of the experience by inputting narrative elements, inherent conflict, characters (with wants, needs, goals, schedules and action abilities) and dramatically “soaked” environments through a software interface, and where the user does not have to be a programmer – just a dramatist.

What I see is an interactive drama for the masses who have computers, but who are not ‘gamers’.  The masses will be drawn to this experience because of three things: it’s familiar like TV and film, the interface is simple and intuitive, and because the synthespians are emotionally evocative and their plight is understandable and just.   There are no brainteasers laid artificially and superficially into the design.  If there are to be puzzles, they are puzzles that evolve out of the dramatic backbone of the experience.  In fact, everything that can be considered a trapping of ‘game thinking’ would be absent from this new kind of interactive dramatic experience.  Though the designer knows that the experience will have a beginning that sets up the narrative, a middle with evolving conflict, and an end with a good resolution – know one knows how the dramatic experience will evolve.  Going from A to B to C will be a non-linear, yet emotionally powerful, experience.

SM: How do you feel a change in viewpoint could be injected into the existing interactive entertainment arena?

RL: I don’t know.  As large corporations have bought up smaller game companies the tried and true gaming genres have become dogma, even though the interactive entertainment industry is just a child compared to TV, which is a child compared to film, which is a child compared to thousands of years of dramatic evolution in theatre.   But large corporations are good at making money and loath to take a risk.  This puts the brakes on the evolution of interactive entertainment – for now.

It will take a design team to create such an experience – not just a designer.  The team will be composed of a programming lead, a dramatist/ storyteller/ writer, an art lead, and a sound/music lead.  There will be no talk of ‘levels’ and such.  There will be no talk of whether the experience will be a shooter, a role-playing game, or a massively multi-player on-line game.  There will be no mention of the word ‘game’.  Instead there will be talk of ‘narrative environments’, synthespians, synthespian directors, motivations, subtext and goals, emotional environments, and real-time adaptive music.  There will be talk of the macro-level ‘drama engine’, which provides for a three-act structure, like an umbrella, over non-linear narrative development.

I suspect that some day, someone with vision will be in a position to create a dramatic and interactive computer experience for the masses.  It will become the biggest thing ever.  And then everyone one will want in.  Suddenly the bean counters and marketing people who now advise against risk will be clamoring to be a part of the new ‘next great thing’ – before it’s too late.

SM:  How likely do you think it is that this will actually come to pass?

RL: I think it’s inevitable.

SM: What can consumers who would like to see this kind of storytelling approach in their interactive entertainment do?

RL: Support ‘games’ that include story and character development.  Write to the big interactive companies and tell them that you demand strong, non-linear storytelling and well-developed, believable characters.  Don’t have low expectations about what is possible.

Thank you, Randy, for sharing your insights.

(originally conducted 2003)