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JEFFREY SCOTT INTERVIEW: WRITING ABOUT THE ANIMATION INDUSTRY (2003) February 25, 2012

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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)
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JERRY BECK INTERVIEW – WRITING ABOUT ANIMATION’S RICH HISTORY (2003) February 24, 2012

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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)

RANDY LITTLEJOHN INTERVIEW – STORYTELLING AND INTERACTIVE ENTERAINMENT (2003) February 17, 2012

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)

MARC HANDLER INTERVIEW – WRITING DUB ANIMATION (2002, 2009) February 16, 2012

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SHANNON MUIR:  What are the reasons for dubbing animation?

MARC HANDLER: Sometimes it’s just as simple as translating a film so that viewers can watch it in their own language.  In other instances, it means rewriting the entire story of the series — or even merging multiple similar series into one storyline — resulting in a new product that has the look of the original but tells a whole new tale.

SM:  Can you talk about where you started as a writer, and how that led to doing dub scripts for animation?

MH: I used to do street theatre, political theatre, we did sketch-plays supporting Nelson Mandela’s movement in South Africa, women’s rights, etc. I wrote some of the plays we performed — and later I wrote plays for independent theatres. Then I actually studied dramatic writing at USC, went through a masters program there, and afterward, became a staff writer for Walt Disney / Disney Channel — that was all original writing. I met a producer named Heidi Lester who was working on the original Voltron series and she introduced me to ADR (dub) writing, which was a very small area at the time.  Very few animated shows were being imported at that time.

SM: You’ve written for series such as Voltron, which was recrafted for anAmerican audience by removing or re-editing sequences, and series such asCowboy Bebop, for which minimal editing is done.  Can you elaborate on the joys and challenges of each?

MH: I wrote for one series at Saban where we had an episode that just ended half-way through, and the next episode started right there — about 12 minutes in. They had to cut out so much footage — it was wacked. I called up the company and said, “um… this episode ends in the middle…” they said, “oh, I guess we messed up in the editing — well, do the best you can” — somehow I made it seem like one episode — but obviously that’s not very satisfying, because you have to really work hard to figure out a way to connect it up, and in the end you know whatever you do, it’s still going to be pretty bad.

I story edited a show recently where, the whole series was a journey to this mythical place to set up some major event that was supposed to happen at the end of the series, but we didn’t have synopses or tapes for the final episodes so we didn’t know what was actually going to happen when they got to the end of the journey. At the network meetings I kept saying, let’s call Japan and talk to the director or the story editor — they’re real people — I’m sure they’d be happy to discuss this with us and explain what they had in mind — I’ll bring in a translator. Everyone seemed to think this was an odd suggestion, like Japan was Mars and these episodes were artifacts that needed to be deciphered through some mysterious means — and they also thought there might be legal obstacles, like the contracts might not allow us to call the company directly  — very strange — so instead, they just made up a bunch of stuff about the characters and their goals and the world they were in with no idea whether these things would continue to make sense as the series went forward. Needless to say, that kind of thing is frustrating.

I worked on a series called Dinozaurs: In one episode, our young heroes are rushing off to bring an urgent warning to the Dinozaurs that evil aliens are about to destroy the earth. But before the kids can get out of town, they are stopped by a neighbor lady who has lost her cat. The kids forget all about the earth being in danger and spend the next ½ of the episode trying to catch the cat. From an American perspective this seems nuts: I’ve never known an American story editor who would approve this kind of story, but in some of the Japanese productions, they’re working with low budgets on very tight schedules, so all kinds of strange things will get through.

I actually quit working on a network series to do FLCL (Furi Kuri). The network paid more, but it was a chore working with people who really weren’t into anime; I was patching episodes together, and the end result was so-so. FLCL was for a small company (Sync Point / Digital Manga), only 6 episodes — but everyone on the project understood anime and they really wanted to do it right. I was able to write and direct which gave me a lot of artistic input — and we had the original director, Tsurumaki-san, in the studio with us for the first few days, so we could ask him what he had in mind for each character and each scene, and then really try to be true to the original intention. FLCL is a very bizarre series — fun, very wacked —  but though it seems whimsical, it was carefully made with great attention to detail, so we tried to honor that in the American production. I enjoyed that a lot. There was a great moment when one of our actors, Bob Kline, was doing a character and I turned to Tsurumaki-san and said, “Y’know he’s doing this differently than the original actor, do you want me to bring it back closer to the original?” and Tsurumaki-san said “No, no, keep it like this…” he said he was never happy with the original performance of the Japanese actor in that role and he liked the American actor better. So this was a case where we were actually improving on the original production with the input of the original director. — Tsurumaki-san grinned when I showed him about 30 pages of script analysis we had done on FLCL, breaking down all the literary elements, character motivations, etc.  —

Likewise with the Cowboy Bebop movie (aka Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door), we were in very close communication with Watanabe-san. Yutaka Maseba and Haruyo Kanesaku are the Zro Limit Producers on Bebop and they were trading e-mails with Sunrise constantly, getting answers to very detailed questions about how to interpret the various scenes. On Metropolis we communicated directly with Rintarao-san and the Japanese production team in the same way. I think this is a big step forward in the process of bringing anime to the US — getting into direct communication with the Japanese creators — I credit Yutaka Maseba, Haruyo Kanesaku, Shizuki Yamashita, Stephanie Shea, Hikaru Sasahara, and others like them for building those bridges with the creators in Japan — and also with providing writers like me with multi-layered translations, explaining when words have double-meanings, cultural references in the dialogue, and things of that sort. Those are the kinds of things that are lost in a direct translation. TV studios never provide writers with those kinds of detailed analyses of the text, so this is a case where the good independents are really ahead of the studios, leading the way.

SM: Looking specifically at VOLTRON for a moment, you served as story-editor toward the end of the first series and for the follow-up series. When you know that aspects of the content must be altered for the audience the
company is aiming for, how hard is it to stay on top of the new continuity?

MH: We were not aiming for a special audience in either of the Voltron series — we were aiming for all Americans who might like the show.  We assumed this would appeal more to young children — color-coded lions with color-coded heroes is the kind of idea that tends to appeal to children — but we never tried to dumb-down the dialogue or turn it into a cutesy kiddie show or anything like that. We tried to stay with the spirit of the original show in all cases — in fact the reason I was brought in to story edit Voltron 3-D was specifically because they wanted someone from the original show who understood the spirit of the series to make sure we stayed with that and built on it for the new series. Some of the old fans thought the 3-D series was aiming younger – it wasn’t – it’s just that the original fans were older now so it seemed younger to them. The kids who have always been Voltron’s main audience had very strong positive reactions to the old and new versions.

As far as the alterations are concerned, for both the old and new series, in order for the show to be broadcast in the United States, it had to be consistent with US standards – so we had to limit violence and change some
things to make it  broadcastable in the US. That was just to get the show on the air, not to reach a special audience.

None of this presented a continuity problem. When we started the new series we had meetings with the staff, made decisions about where we wanted to go
with the new series, and what we wanted to do with the characters in the new season — I then wrote a show bible so that everyone had the same point of reference – and then we began to write the episodes. There were no special continuity issues. The whole writing staff on that show had a very unified approach — we all got along well and had similar ideas about the show.

SM: Can you describe the process of how a script for a dubbed project evolves?

MH: Yes. Let me focus on the heart of the process first, then I’ll give a more technical, step by step description.

The heart of ADR writing entails watching the original scene, looking at the translation, then writing lines that will convey the meaning of the scene, sound like natural English, and fit with the mouth movement of the character. So the writer’s main tasks are:

1) making sure that the story is being told in a clear, step by step way so the audience can follow and understand it. This is by far the most important part of the job.

2) Writing dialogue that sounds natural and colorful, not stiff, flat, boring, or confusing.

3) Making sure the lines will sync to the picture.  These are the issues that you are dealing with line by line throughout the writing process.

The most difficult part is the first part, making sure the story is told clearly. The most common problem with ADR writing is that writers will follow the translated dialogue line by line so that each line makes sense, but when you put the whole scene together, the scene doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t move the story forward. The essence of the original scene has been lost and the story becomes muddled. — Writers trained in dramatic writing understand that each scene must move the story forward: each scene adds something specific to the story and connects up directly with the other scenes forming a cause and effect chain: what happens in this scene effects the next scene which in turn effects the next scene. If any of the links in this chain are lost, the story becomes confusing. So the writer has to look at each scene and understand how it fits into this chain, what essential developments happen in this scene that will effect later scenes: then he has to make sure that those essential developments get across clearly to the viewer.

Here’s a crude example of the kind of problems that arise around this issue: A character says (direct translation): “I will now return to the space ship. I wish to go to the cargo area. There I will wait.”

The ADR writer changes this into more natural English, e.g. “I’m going back to the ship. I’ll wait for you in the cargo hold.”

This fits the mouth. It sounds okay. So the writer thinks he has done his job and he moves on to the next scene.  But he didn’t stop to ask, why is the character saying this? How does it affect the story? Had he looked more closely he might have realized that something essential is being communicated here, e.g. what the character is really communicating is, “I’m going to the cargo hold to hide the moon pendant so the bad guys don’t find it.” — This is essential to the story. It explains why the pendant shows up in the cargo hold 3 scenes later. Why didn’t the original Japanese writer say this clearly? Probably because it’s typical of Japanese communication to imply things without stating them directly. Stating things too bluntly is considered crude and uninteresting. Implying things is considered intriguing and thought provoking. Japanese viewers are tuned into this, so the original Japanese viewer would have understood that this was all about the moon pendant from the context and the way the line was said in Japanese. But it was lost in the translation and the American writer failed to pick it up, so the American viewer will be confused. – This kind of thing comes up constantly in adr writing. – The good writers analyze the scenes and ask, “Why is this character saying this? Is there a reason that is not readily apparent? What is this scene all about? How does it connect up with the other scenes.” They make sure that the American viewer is able to follow the story just as the original Japanese viewer could.

The next component of the process is to write natural, vibrant dialogue. This is a subjective issue: your idea of good dialogue may be different than mine. However, it’s clear that the visuals should inform the dialogue. For example, suppose in Cowboy Bebop, Jet and Spike walk into some smoky jazz club full of hipsters in sunglasses listening to a cool jazz trio led by an alto sax player. The whole scene is done in a deep blue wash. Jet looks at the musicians and says, (direct translation). “I like the way this music sounds very much.” You naturally want to change the style of the dialogue so that it fits with the mood and motif of the scene. Knowing that Jet is a jazz lover and this is his kind of place, he might say something like, “Man, that sax sure is sweet.” – The words are not the same, but the intent is the same and more in keeping with the mood of the scene. It is probably much closer to the original Japanese if you could translate the nuance along with the literal meaning. So an effective adr writer writes dialogue that expresses the mood, motif and the nature of the character as well as the literal meaning of the lines.

The final issue is sync, i.e. making the lines fit the mouth movement of the character. You’d probably be surprised to know that this is quite controversial within the dubbing community. There are people who think sync is not very important, and others who make a virtual religion of it. For those who focus on sync, it is important not only that the line starts and ends at the right time, but also that it carefully matches the pauses, “labials” “fricatives”, open mouth sounds, and other details. i.e. when a character’s lips come together, they should make a lips-together sound like M, B, or P. If a character’s mouth is open, they should make an open sound like Oh  or Ah. In my own writing, I take these things into account and try to write tight sync. I enjoy seeing scenes that sync up well and I know this will make things easier for the director and the actors. However, I’m also aware that these things have very little effect on most viewers. E.g. Disney’s version of Spirited Away has poor sync — it’s clear that neither the writers, directors, nor engineers paid much attention to this issue — and I think it would be a real stretch to argue that this has negatively impacted the success of the film (though I much prefer their dub of Princess Mononoke which had tight sync and more vivid dialogue). The original Voltron series had dreadful sync for technical reasons too complicated to go into, but the poor sync did not prevent the series from being a hit series. That said, most ADR producers and directors working currently are aware of this issue and prefer tighter sync. Many directors will rework a writer’s dialogue in the studio to make it fit the mouths better, including changing a word like “large” to “big” so that the “b” matches when the character’s lips come together. Rewriting in the studio slows them down, so they appreciate a writer who writes tight sync so they don’t have to stop and fix it. This is much more important in close ups where the mouth movement is prominent; less important in wide shots where the mouth is small.

Those three issues, story, dialogue, sync, are the most important things to be aware of. Here’s a more technical step by step of how the overall process works. Bear in mind that each company is different and each project is different. Typically…

The Japanese company sends tapes and synopses, sometimes scripts to the American company.

The American company sends the tapes or the Japanese scripts to translators to create English language scripts — these are direct translations. If you
read them in English they generally seem very awkward and strange because of the differences in the two languages.

At the same time, if there is any editing to do, the producers and editors are editing the tapes, taking out scenes that won’t work for the US audience.  Some shows have no editing, especially if they are for the
anime fan video market. Some have lots of editing, especially if they are for a mainstream broadcast market. Then…

They call the writer in. If you’re lucky, they send you a tape so you can see it. More often you sign on without seeing the show, just a brief verbal description from the Producer.  In the case of Metropolis, I actually had no time to work on a new project and I was going to turn it down, but they sent me the tape of the Japanese version and once I watched it, it was such an excellent film in every respect, I knew I just had to work on it.

Cowboy Bebop was just the opposite circumstance. When they called me I said I was unavailable because I was about to leave the country on an extended trip to Asia. But fortunately Kevin Seymour (Animaze) didn’t just hang up on me. We talked for a bit and a little lightbulb went off in my brain: “Any chance I can write these episodes while I’m travelling and just send them in via e-mail?” When Kevin said yes, I signed on immediately, never having seen the show. It could have been a real dog: I wasn’t expecting anything — I think it was the same for everyone who worked on it — just a job. Then as soon as we started working on the first episode, it was, “Hey, this is good…” and as we went forward we all just lit up as we realized what a fantastic series we had stumbled into.  … So ya never know…

If you’re story editing a series, you generally have some meetings with the producers to set the direction of the series, what you want to change, what you want to keep the same, formats, etc. In the case of FLCL and the Cowboy Bebop Movie, we had some meetings just to interpret the show, trying to understand all of the fine points and sort everything out — but this is unusual.  In the case of Tokyo Pig we had a couple of meetings with the producers in which all the writers were present. I think that’s the only time I’ve been to full staff writers’ meetings for an ADR show.  In most cases, as a writer, you have no meetings with anyone — they just send you a tape and a translation script, tell you whatever you need to know over the phone, and you start writing.  It’s pretty helter-skelter and you learn the show as you go. E.g. you write lyrics for 3 or 4 songs, which is very time consuming, only to be told later, “Oh, we forgot to mention, the music department is writing all the lyrics, you don’t have to do that…” Or after you’ve written a section, “Oh, the part where the bird flies in, that’s a running gag, it works like this….” So you have to go back and redo the section now that you know the gag.

In an original series, you usually have some writer’s meetings and you get a pretty comprehensive bible and guidance on these things from the story editors, but with ADR writing, there are often no show bibles, or very thin ones, and the story editors often only come into play after you finish your first draft. So a lot of the time you’re just taking your best guess at everything. If you have an idea for a running gag or a signature phrase for a character, you can put it out there, write a note in the script suggesting that the other writers pick up on the idea. Often there’s not enough communication for the other writers to get the message. For instance, on Gatchaman (Eagle Riders) I had the idea that the ship’s computer could have different “personality settings,” so that it would have different character voices in different episodes. Though the idea was used for that episode, it never passed on to other writers. In other cases, however, running gags or signature ideas do get passed around and become part of the series.

For story editors, the process is different than for writers. You attend meetings with producers – sometimes network executives or other executives on the project. We discuss how the series works, the
characters, the arc of the series (how it changes from the first episode to the last) and all other considerations relating to the scripts. Then writers receive tapes and translations – usually one tape at a time – the
translation may be in hard copy, or it may be sent as an e-mail attachment or delivered on disc. The writer is also given a deadline to complete the script (typically ridiculously short).

The writer takes the tape home and works on his own equipment — video equipment with good frame control is essential — or the alternative is to have the tape digitized and work on your computer rather than on a VCR: this is still rare, but will probably become common over the next few years.

The writer generally watches the whole episode, reads the translation, then goes to work. If you’re lucky enough to be working with a savvy producer like Rita Majkut or Jamie Simone at ABC, they may talk you through the episode letting you know what direction they want to go with it – but that’s rare. Most of the time you’re on your own for the first draft.

To break it down technically: The script will include time codes and dialogue. The time code works like this: each frame has a number, you can see it on the screen — 30 frames for each second of screen time. So when a character starts speaking, we note the frame number where he starts. When he stops speaking, we note the frame number where he stops. Then we write the line to fit in that space. That way, in the recording studio, the engineer can punch these numbers into his recording equipment, so he and the actors and director can
instantly find the location of the line and easily record the new English line at that spot. This speeds up the recording process immeasurably and, more importantly, it allows the actors to maintain their momentum and focus so they can concentrate on their characters and not be slowed down by technical issues.

So the writer’s work is a mix of creative work, writing dialogue, and non-creative detail work, locating and recording time code numbers. Time coding is a boring technical exercise. There are a few people around who only do time codes: sometimes writers farm out that part of the work to these coders (bless them). But usually the writer does his own codes. You can do all of the codes in a single pass before you start writing: some writers prefer that because at that point you’re just focusing on numbers, that frees you up later to just focus on dialogue. Also, by the time you’ve done a numbers pass, you’ve watched every scene and you’re a little more familiar with the episode.  Other writers prefer to do the codes as they go, putting in numbers and dialogue one loop at a time. I work either way depending on how I’m feeling at the moment.

With the Cowboy Bebop Movie we did this all backwards.  We received tapes with no time code so we had to write all the lines first, then later gave it to a time coder who went back and spotted all the numbers. This is a very difficult way to work, not recommended. Similarly, I worked on just time codes for Laputa and Kiki’s delivery services for Disney because they re-edited after the script was complete, so we had to go back and redo all of the numbers. Along with dialogue, numbers must be spotted every time a character gasps, grunts, or makes any kind of sound. So this process typically involves 15 or 16 thousand code numbers on a full length script: you can easily go number crazy doing it.

Putting in numbers entails finding the start point for each loop. A loop is when an actor speaks or makes a sound. So every time an actor will need to say a line, or gasp, or cry, or make any other sound, you need to find the spot where he will begin and note the frame number. — Those numbers later go to an engineer who punches them into the recording system so that when we’re recording we can move very rapidly from one loop to the next without hunting around for spots.  This saves lots of time in recording, but, perhaps more important, it allows the actor to maintain their momentum and focus so they can concentrate on their character and not be slowed down by technical issues.

As I mentioned, the main part of the job is, of course, trying to write great creative dialogue that syncs and moves the story forward, but concurrently, you are trying to provide the director, actors, engineer and producers with what they need to have smooth, efficient recording sessions. So as you work, you always want to keep the recording session in mind. My goal is to make everyone at the session feel that the script is on their side, supporting them, giving them the info they need, notes, codes, whatever it may be. I don’t want them to feel they’re struggling with my script, working to interpret or adjust it, or feeling that there are things missing. Of course none of this ultimately prevents them from trashing the writer. It’s a running joke in the business that when things go wrong at a recording session you always blame the writer, mostly because he’s not there, so he’s a natural target. So when the writer sits in on a session, it ruins everyone’s fun: they have to find someone else to blame. The receptionist!

Back to the writing process: as you’re working your way through the video, you’re stopping at each loop, figuring out what the character should be saying here, and then crafting it to fit into the mouth movement and/or time slot. You come up with a possible line, then speak it out loud while watching the picture to see if it will fit. Then you start adjusting it, shorter or longer. Or you decide it’s not good enough, so you throw it out and try another line. In this way you go over and over the same 3 second spot relentlessly until you nail it down. Then you move on to the next 2 ½ second spot, etc, for 300 to 500 spots per 22 minutes.  By the way, this can have in interesting impact on your relationship with the neighbors: if they happen to be passing by as you are  repeatedly shouting out “I will take over the universe! NOTHING CAN STOP ME! HAHAHAHAHA!” it may tend to color their opinion of you. Well, you probably didn’t want to be invited to their party anyway.

In addition to writing each line, you also put in any parentheticals that will help the actor. Parentheticals such as (sadly) or (harsh) or (shouting out) are usually kept to a minimum in original scripts, however, for ADR scripts, the more guidance you can give the actor, the better. You also have to include notes letting the actor and director know if this line is on camera or off camera and many other technical notations. It’s very painstaking — drives a lot of people nuts. Some people think that’s what happened to me, but those who know me well would assure you that I lost sanity long before I started doing this. That’s probably why it seemed like a good idea.

When I finish the first draft, I do a read through and polish — I don’t know if other writers do this or not.  Virtually all writers who write original episodes do multiple re-drafts and polishes, but with ADR scripts I don’t know if they do.  I read through to feel the flow of the dialogue, usually making small adjustments as I go.

Everything in the script is laid out so it will be easy for the actors and directors to work with it in the recording studio. When we’re finished with the writing, we create “breakdowns,” “loop counts” and other documents to help with the planning and recording of the episode. A breakdown is a technical sheet listing all of the loops for each character, and a loop count with total numbers of loops for each character. When it’s complete, it is usually e-mailed to the company, along with a synopsis telling the story in brief, typically half a page, and any relevant notes.

Then you wait for the producers/ story editors to send notes telling you what changes you need to make for the next draft. As soon as you read their notes, you realize  with absolute certainty that they don’t know squat about writing or anime or anything else, and they certainly do not appreciate the great genius you put into this script —- however, once you begin to make the changes they suggested, you often realize that they’re a lot smarter than you thought, and they actually had a lot of good ideas that have improved the script after all.

SM:  Does it help to know the original language?

MH: I think it’s helpful and more enjoyable. I worked on a live-action tele-novella called La Dama dela Rosa — the most-work/least-pay ADR job I’ve ever done. I speak enough Spanish that I could follow most of the dialogue and have my own take on it — that made it more fun and gave me extra-ideas as I was writing. This would be even more true for someone who spoke Japanese; because the structure of the language is so different from English, there are many more options of how to interpret any given line, so knowing the language would be more helpful. I wish with all my heart I could speak Japanese, but I’m still on the same beginning Japanese book I was on a year ago. I don’t know of a single anime ADR writer who speaks Japanese. It would not make a major difference in their writing, but it would be a nice addition for any of us.

As I mentioned, on the Cowboy Bebop Movie and on FLCL I was working closely with Japanese speakers and I was able to ask lots of language questions. The FLCL script had copious language notes — that was ideal. That process makes you realize how open-to-interpretation it all is. E.g., in The Cowboy Bebop Movie, there’s a scene where Vincent leaves Faye tied up on the floor as he goes out to unleash his nano-machine gas. His parting line to Faye is about Purgatory. In Vincent’s earlier dialogue, he characterizes the whole world as a kind of Purgatory. I went over the script with two native Japanese speakers, both with excellent English skills. One of them insisted that Vincent was telling Faye, “After I leave you can watch what’s going to happen to this purgatory,” meaning, to this world, earth, which is a kind of purgatory. But the other Japanese speaker insisted, with equal vigor, that Vincent was saying, “You can watch what’s going to happen FROM your own purgatory” – an entirely different idea: that Vincent was leaving her tied up, alone, miserable, stuck in her own personal purgatory. This kind of discrepancy is very common. It is not a case of one translator being right and the other wrong. The original writer purposely left it open to interpretation, so an attempt at “literal translation” would not solve the problem. As I mentioned before, fans often talk about literal translations in an absolute way, and someone who is from Japan or lived there will sometimes insist that they know what the line actually means, but the reality is, Japanese people tend to communicate in non-specific ways, through innuendo, implication, and intentionally ambiguous phrasings – especially in stories. Plus the structure of the language is very different. So trying to nail down an exact meaning is very iffy at best.

To use a very simple every day example: The Japanese “O genki desuka” is usually translated “How are you?” A very literal translation of O genki desuka would look something like this:

“Respectfully, healthy is

?”

The “you” is implied. Obviously if you had a character say this, the American viewer would be totally lost. A more sensible direct translation might be

“Are you healthy?” or “Are you in good health?”

This actually makes more sense when you see how this phrase is used in Japan:  they generally don’t use it as an everyday greeting as we do with “How are you?” —  implying “How are you feeling today?” or “How are things going today?” They are more likely to use it after they haven’t seen someone for a long time, the way we would use, “How’s your health?” or “Have you been feeling okay?”

So a translator could choose any of these phrases, “How are you?” “Are you healthy?” “Are you feeling okay?” “How’s your health?” etc., and each would have a different implication in the context of the scene. So if the writer spoke the language, he might look at the scene and say, “Oh, the translator is saying “How are you?” but in this case, the character has been ill so it would be better to have the character say, “How’s your health?” In short, you could make better choices with more knowledge of the language.

SM: Would it help to be more familiar with the original storyline?

MH: The more familiar you are with the storyline, the better.

SM: What kinds of spec scripts are used to get jobs doing ADR?

MH: I have never seen full ADR spec scripts used to get ADR jobs. It may happen, but I haven’t seen it. Saban/Fox ran a few workshops where they taught adr writing and they had people write a scene or two on spec.  That’s enough to see if the writer understands the form and can write to picture, and to get a sense of how they write dialogue. So I guess you could write a few scenes of something and hand it to a producer along with the tape — it’s a bit complicated. Usually, when they hire someone for this, it’s kind of a leap of faith. One comedy show I worked on asked for non-ADR sample scripts — they just wanted to see if you could write funny. Many of the writers being considered didn’t have any non-ADR samples; they only wrote ADR, and the ADR scripts don’t work very well as comedy samples because you can’t get most of the jokes from just reading the dialogue without seeing the picture. ADR scripts are only dialogue and technical notes – there are no scene descriptions, so when you read it, there’s no context for the jokes. In original scripts it’s much easier for the reader to get the joke.  So for an ADR writer looking for work, it might be helpful to have some good strong non-ADR writing samples for an adventure script and/or a comedy script, depending on the kind of project it is, just to give a producer or story editor a feeling for the kind of dialogue you write. But this doesn’t come up often.

SM: Is dubbing animation more of a popular fad now that will fade, or do you believe it is here to stay in the mainstream?

MH: Ha. I talked to someone recently who had a possible investor for new projects. I said, “Ask if he’s interested in investing in importing shows from Asia.” He checked with his inside-the-business friends and called me back a few days later announcing that the consensus was: anime is just a minor trend and will soon be out of style.

My answer: That’s what they said about rock and roll.

I have been living in various Asian countries about half the time for the last few years and it is crystal clear to me that, in the coming years, more and more entertainment projects will be imported into the US. This is just a small part of a much larger global trend of countries trading entertainment products the same way they have long been trading food products, technical products, etc.  Imagine asking a Thai four hundred years ago when they first brought peanuts and chile from the Americas whether these foods would catch on in Thailand. I can just feature some Thai old-timer saying, “These chile peppers are too hot! And the peanuts taste funny! Our people will never eat these strange foods!” — Most Thais today eat so much of this stuff, they don’t even realize these foods aren’t native to their country. The music we listen to in the US is a mix mostly of European and African music with some other influences thrown in — but you forget about where it came from and just think of it as American music. The Astro Boy series that I’m working on now is a cultural mix. It’s definitely Japanese, but it there is heavy American influence. We’re moving toward something that would be neither Japanese nor American, but a genre of it’s own with influences from both.

Overall, I think Americans have a very inflated view of the value of their own entertainment products. It’s true American movies are sold around the world.  I’m very happy about that — but if you watch TV in any Asian country, flip the channels and you are much more likely to see period Chinese dramas (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style); Thai soap-operas; Baliwood Indian musicals; Hong Kong kung fu movies; and of course Japanese Anime. These shows are imported and exported from one Asian country to the next, and dubbed into the local language, usually very badly (although I recently saw a superb live-action Japanese dub of an American sit-com, so they’re starting to catch on).

American “youth culture” was turned on in the 60s by English rock bands (who were, oddly enough, imitating American black blues artists). Today young people are turned on by Japanese Anime, Salsa dancing, and World Music, among many other influences. These things are beyond the control of US industries that would rather keep them buying home-grown entertainment products. It is very clear to me that in the coming years, young Americans will be more and more influenced by interesting trends and styles and ideas coming at them from many different cultures: as a country becomes more economically viable, people have more leisure time, and young people start producing new interesting kinds of music, dance, film, animation, and new art forms emerge that reflect their culture. As they burst onto the scene, these forms will often have strong appeal to people in other cultures. Satellites, the internet, and other global technologies allow these new forms to be disseminated quickly to other countries where they can catch on and rapidly become a part of that culture as well. The way hip-hop can move from black neighborhoods to white neighborhoods today, that is how trends will move from one continent to another in the near future: we’re most of the way there already. In the near term, look for powerful cultural trends coming into America from Japan, China, and Brazil (Handler predicts!)

Viewers in most countries are used to watching dubbed films, and American viewers are also starting to get used to it. As dubs get better and better and foreign products get more and more attractive, it’s inevitable that importation and dubbing will expand.

SM:  Where are the dub companies located?

MH: Don’t know. I just work for the ones that call me up. If I had to track them down, I guess I’d go to anime websites, check the credits on anime video releases, and/or check the Hollywood Reporter annual animation issue. In the Southern California area, they tend to be in and around Burbank (where Disney and WB are located), and in the Hollywood and Santa Monica areas. Of course there are also dubbing companies in Canada where they pay even less than American companies do. Going north anyone?

SM: Do you have any final advice for people who want to get into writing scripts for dubbing animation?

Man, this is always the hardest question. I want to give good helpful encouraging advice but if I sounded very encouraging it would be a big fat lie. The truth is, it’s very hard to break into dub writing and if you do break in, it’s very hard to make a living at it. It doesn’t pay well as entertainment jobs go, and no benefits. Many ADR writers are also actors or directors: only by juggling 2 or 3 jobs do they make a passable living, and even then, it’s up and down — good years, bad years.

The problem with breaking in is, there just aren’t that many jobs and it’s so technical that most producers are very reluctant to try a new writer. It has nothing to do with the new writer’s talent.  He may be very talented – but it’s still going to take him a while to master all the technical aspects of adr writing and to get the hang of writing to a picture that’s already there.

A lot of people never get it; others try one script and swear they’ll  never write an ADR script again. They hate it. I’ve known several writers like that. A big issue is writing short or long. You have to be able to speak your lines out loud to the mouth movement in the picture and time the line accurately. It’s very typical for a new writer to write too long, i.e. all of his lines have too many words for the mouth-movement of the character — or too short, i.e. all of his lines have too few words for the mouth-movement of the character. In either case, the director ends up cursing the writer because he has to rewrite every line at the recording session. That means the sessions go long and the producers blame him, the director. And all of this ultimately costs money. This is why, when producers do try new writers, they often choose ADR actors. Typically, the actors have no training in story structure or writing, but they know how to speak lines to picture, so they can accurately time the lines. That’s what you’re up against.

Beyond that, your best chance of breaking in is by contacting a company when they are just starting a new series and they may need to fill out their writing staff. Be persistent in a nice way. It’s hard to find the line between friendly-persistent and obnoxiously pushy.  Try to find it.

If you get a shot at a job, it would be ideal if you could get an experienced ADR actor to help you go over your lines and determine if they are short or long or fit picture. Or ask the producer if you can turn in your first 5 or 6 pages and get early feedback so you can make adjustments at an early stage.

Also, get a high quality VCR with a jog wheel with very good single frame forward and back. It shouldn’t jump when you try to go one frame forward or back, and it should hold a steady picture when it’s on pause, no jiggling. This sounds like funny advice, but it is much more important than you would think.  If you’re very technically savvy, you may be able to skip the VCR and do it all on your computer, but you’d need to digitize the picture from the tape.

Also, take your first opportunity to sit in on any ADR recording sessions you can. When you see how the directors and actors work with an ADR  script, you get a much better idea of how to give them what they need, and you can personalize the script to the particular director and cast.

Of course the other way to do it, the best way, is the Spike Lee way: do your own project. Import your own OVA or whatever and write and produce it yourself. Then you have a finished product to show, not just a spec script. If it’s successful, people will be coming to you for jobs, not the other way around. In fact, now that I think about it, my official suggestion is: import a whole series. Then, when you need some more writers to complete the project, give me a call.

(interview originally conducted 2002, revised and released 2009)

INTERVIEW WITH CRISPIN FREEMAN – ANIMATION DUB ACTING (2001) February 15, 2012

Posted by shannonmuir in animation, Interview.
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When I attended the Gathering of the Gargoyles 2001 convention, I got the chance to hear Crispin Freeman, who’s built a resume in dubbing animation brought to the United States from other countries. This is an art sometimes also referred to as ADR, or ‘automatic dialogue replacement'(though it can also apply to dubbing done to make last minute corrections to any animated project). Crispin’s known for being the English voice of ‘Zelgadis’ of  Slayers, and ‘Touga’ of Revolutionary Girl Utena, among others.  Crispin’s also been a script adapter for Pokemon. Here’s a couple questions I posed to him about animation dub acting…

 

SHANNON MUIR: What special challenges are there for actors dubbing foreign animation?

 

CRISPIN FREEMAN: Well, it depends on the show and the script.  The first is whether or not the script has been adapted to match the lip flap of the characters on screen.  If it has, then the actor’s job is simpler (not necessarily easier) since you don’t have to waste a lot of time trying to rewrite lines on the fly that don’t match.  If it has been adapted prior to recording, then it’s a matter of trying to make an authentic and honest read for the character you’re portraying in the rigid form handed to you, namely that your performance has to match the lip flap on the screen as opposed to animators matching your vocal performance.  The next level is to try to get across the original intention and subtlety of the original show, while still making it work to an audience of a completely different culture.  It definitely is tricky.

 

SM:  Briefly describe what a dubbing session is like.

 

CF: I go into the studio by myself and stand in front of a microphone with a TV in front of it.  The director and recording engineer are there and sometimes a producer.  Sometimes I’ve been able to read the script or watch the show ahead of time, but many times, I’m seeing both animation and script for the very first time when I get up to record.  I wear headphones, I have a music stand in front of me with the script and I look at the TV.  The animation appears on the TV with the Music and Effects from the show in my headphones. I get three beeps in my headphones as the time for my line comes up.  Where the fourth beep should be, I say my line and try to match the lip flap on the screen.  Usually, we have to go back and try the line again to adjust the read or the match to lip flap or even the script.  We usually go one line at a time until we finish an entire recording session.

 

SM:  Does a dubbing script look different than a typical animation script?

 

CF: Most of the dubbing scripts I get are merely straight Japanese Translations with timecode telling the director exactly where the line falls in the course of the show.  Those don’t look anything like the scripts that I get from other producers who are doing the voices first and the animation later. In those, they’re written more like a screenplay, except that every line a character says has a number so that they can keep track of everyone’s lines and in what order they go.

 

SM:  If an actor wants to go into dubbing, what do you feel he or she can do to prepare?

 

CF: Take class.  Find people who are teaching acting and voice acting.  Contact licensing companies in your area and find out how and when they hold auditions so you can try out.  Get to know people who are doing what you want to do.  Once you’re in class, you’ll meet all sorts of people in the business.  Pick their brains about how and what they do and how they got

there.  Keep smilin’ and have fun.

 

Crispin, thanks so much for taking the time to share insight into the world of animation dubbing.  For more information about Crispin Freeman, visit his official website.

 

(originally published 2001 at Suite101.com)

HILARY J. BADER INTERVIEW – WRITING ANIMATION FOR THE WEB (2001) February 14, 2012

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[AUTHOR NOTE: This is a reprint of an interview I had the honor of doing with Hilary J. Bader not long after I met her in 2001, and a relatively short time later she passed away. I encourage looking at it, not only as a chance to see more about her and her work, but to compare it to the state of the industry today. I also did a post later remembering her that is currently available at digitalmediafx.com.]

Animation on the Web initially looked poised to take the industry by storm.  Startups like Icebox.com rose to the challenge of providing content but did not last.  Some avenues for animation on the Web have weathered the storm, including the original offerings from WB Online.  One of the popular features at WB Online is Gotham Girls, detailing the adventures of the women of Batman‘s Gotham City — Batgirl, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn.

 

Hilary J. Bader works as the principal writer for Gotham GirlsRecently she graciously answered some questions for me about writing Animation for the Web.

 

 

SHANNON MUIR:  How do you come up with ideas for Gotham Girls?

 

HILARY J. BADER: Since the Webisodes are so short,  (3 to 4 minutes) the scripts don’t take me much time to write, however, it takes me a few days to come up with an idea that I can set up and pay off in just three minutes.  Mostly I toss the characters into bizarre circumstances (in my imagination) then if something comes out of that, I flesh it out.  When I’m in the midst of coming up with a story, everything I see is fodder for that story.  I get my car washed, “Hmm.  What if Harley and Ivy ran a car wash.” I go to the dentist.  “Hmmm. What if Barbara Gordon had a toothache when…”  You get the idea.  I go through dozens of ideas before I find one or two that seem to hold up as stories.

 

SM: Is there any difference in the script for a web-based animation like Gotham Girls versus a TV half-hour such as Batman Beyond?

 

HJB: Because it’s animated using the computerized animation method known as) Flash animation and not normal cell animation, I try to simplify the action somewhat.  In some ways it’s closer to a comic book than a cartoon.  You try to make your point using fewer images, or make a point using a single strong image. You’ll notice there are a lot more still moments in a Flash animated work.  Although I’ll put in stuff I don’t think they’ll be able to do, sometimes the Flash Animators amaze me and find ways to pull it off.

 

SM: Does the fact a story’s being done in web animation put limits, if any, on your storytelling?

 

HJB: Not on the storytelling.  In fact, since there is no network censor you have a bit more freedom.  The limits are due to the time constraints.  Most Webisodes run for a maximum of three to four minutes.  This is the norm for several reasons – number one being it would take anyone with a dialup modem a lifetime to download a long cartoon.  But at the same time this limit opens up more possibilities.  You get to make a single point and, for me, that makes the point come across much clearer.

 

SM: What are your thoughts on the future of web animation?

 

HJB: More, better, longer.  As soon as enough homes have faster computers with mega-mega-bytes of memory and every household has a cable modem or DSL or(whatever the next step in online access is) then Flash will be replaced by the next (yet to be created) computer generated animation  which will rival cell animation.

 

The only constraints then will be habit and money.  Right now, the industry seems to feel that, though people will sit in front of their TV and watch 22 minutes of entertainment, their attention spans shorten in front of a computer screen.  It may be true, but I think even that is going to change as the technical quality of online products improves.

 

Of course, that means product becomes more expensive to produce.  Then, the webmasters (companies with a strong presence on the web) will have to find a way to make money from this new, improved, more expensive product or it won’t be “worth” doing.  But I have faith that both these things will happen.

 

 

Thank you so much for your time, Hilary.  I really enjoyed learning more about Web animation from you.

 

(originally posted 2001 for Suite101.com)

Blog Tour de Troops – Interview with a Veteran… My Father November 12, 2011

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Welcome to Blog Tour de Troops. You should have found me from Michael E Mustizer’s blog. After this, the following stop will be Jennie Coghlin’s blog.  Read through to the end to find out how reading this blog can help you earn a free ebook from me and get one for the troops! I think it’s a bit longer than some of the other participants’ blogs, but it’s for a good cause and I learned a lot the answers to this myself, which is why I left it at this length.

SHANNON MUIR: This Veteran’s Day weekend, we’re paying tribute to veterans and giving away ebooks to soldiers. Growing up, I thought for quite a while that being a veteran meant that you had to actively serve in war, not just serve your country. What makes this an interesting misconception for me is that my own father, John C. Muir, served in the Navy for 24 years (of which I was a “Navy Brat” with him for most of the latter 12, during which time I lived in California, Japan, and the Hawaiian Islands). I decided for this “Blog Tour de Troops” to talk to my Dad about what being a veteran means to him, as someone who has served, and the impact it had on his life and about the views he gets of today’s veterans while now working on staff at Spokane Falls Community College in Washington State. Dad, I’m going to start of by asking, what made you decide to get into the service, was there any reason you chose the Navy specifically, and how did you end up staying almost a quarter of a century?

JOHN MUIR: That is a complex tale, though plenty of current service people have similar reasons. I wanted to go to college to better myself and get a good job but I didn’t have job skills that could get me hired at a wage that would pay for college and I didn’t have large scholarship offers. My folks were temporarily unable to help with college tuition. And, not a problem now, I was facing the draft if I wasn’t going to school. That would have been two years service with no choice as to what I would do. Military service was still a civic duty and expected, though we were not then in a shooting war with anyone. This was post-Korea, in 1960. There was no GI Bill at that point.

My choice was to volunteer for four years in the Navy with promised technical training as an incentive. The Navy definitely had the best technical schools at that time. I figured that technical skills would let me earn enough at a Radio Shack or TV repair store to get me through college. I wanted to be a nuclear power plant operator (I grew up next to the nuclear complex at Hanford,Washington) but the Navy had enough of those and I settled for an Electronics field enlistment. After Recruit Training, I received orders to Basic Electronics School and was told that I would be a Communications Technician. After I graduated from that school I received orders to Motion Picture Operator School (16MM and 35MM) for further transfer to a shadowy, secretive base that you would later know as KamiSeya, Japan. That was totally unexpected and a great disappointment, but I consoled myself with the thought that colleges had to need movie operators, so it would probably work out. And Japan would be good duty.

Arriving in Japan, I found that the theater had burned down while I was in transit and I had almost no purpose or useful skills. I was given some general electrical and mechanical work but quickly figured that this would not grow into useful job prospects after discharge. Still wanting to go to college as soon as possible, I gamed the system, re-enlisted for six years (which cancelled the remainder of my first enlistment) for Advanced Electronics School and would let me out after seven-and-a-half years with skills and some money saved up.

That sort of worked and did get me a good equipment maintenance school and experience on high-end electronics. At about the six year point, I was assigned to the Communication Training Center in Pensacola, Florida on the support staff.Vietnamwas heating up. I began preparing to enroll in a college or university in my home State. I also tried getting the feel of college by taking night classes at Pensacola Junior College. I also met your future mother and married her just as my seven-year point was coming up.

When we got back from the short honeymoon, there was a note taped to the trailer door that said the Captain wanted to see me right away. He had just gotten the local Junior College added to an experimental education reenlistment incentive program and was able to nominate one sailor to be enrolled until a degree was obtained, with fully paid tuition and books, and all Navy pay and allowances, Would I be the one? It was yes or no right then because he had to provide a name to Headquarters the next day. It was yes, though it obligated me to about four more years. And a year later, I was handed, and directed to sign, an application for the Warrant Officer program. I complied because I was way too young to be a Warrant Officer and it wasn’t worth making a fuss. They picked me.

After that, it was rather late to turn back and I was beginning to enjoy Navy life now that I was committed to it. For a technical geek, Warrant Officer was the best possible job. After my twenty-fourth year, though, it seemed to be time to take the family back to the States and use my now existing GI Bill to get that degree.

SHANNON: When you got out of the service, you used the G.I. Bill (used to fund post military training) to go back to school. What was it like returning to school after all those years in the service?

JOHN: It was a little strange but not as different as current vets find it. I hadn’t been shot at any time during my twenty-four years and did not have to go in-country during the Vietnam War. No PTSD issues to deal with. It was just different, not way-different. And I had prepared a bit by taking night classes at the Honolulu campus of Roosevelt University of Chicago during my last year of service. Those were Computer Science courses with a large number of military students attending and mostly active duty or retired military instructors working part time.

My degree program at Eastern Washington University was a modified Management Information Systems degree with a Library Research emphasis and I mixed with both geeks and business majors. That field of study didn’t even exist when I would have been first ready for college. The GI Bill did help a lot and I had my retirement pay but I still had to have a part-time job in a local bank doing data entry and word processing automation to make ends meet for a family of four. That was in line with my original goal, just deferred a bit. It was educational and pleasant but I was definitely of a different generation from the majority of the students. The first day of class, I showed up early and was first into the classroom. The second student in asked if I was the instructor.

SHANNON: Moving ahead, you’ve been working for a Community College in the Information Technology department for about as long as you spent in the service. Over the years, have you met a lot of veterans returning to school?

JOHN: There were fewer early on. I started in 1991 and we saw more active duty military from Fairchild Air Force Base than veterans. There were, and are, quite a number of faculty and staff who were vets. However, nobody said much about their prior service and there was no vets club or additional services. There was a Vets Office for VA paperwork in the Financial Aid area of Student Services with a staff of one and a couple of workstudies.

There are many more vets attending now, and they have greater adjustment problems, but are getting more recognition now than earlier and more assistance.

SHANNON: From what you’ve gathered, what has it been like for them, generally speaking?

JOHN: Their lives have generally been far more stressful and very different than mine was, but I seem to have more empathy with them than many of their never-served peers. Many of them have had experiences that their sheltered peers can’t imagine and it is hard for them to connect. Many have been wounded or traumatized and it doesn’t always show. One of the guys in the Computer Science program two years ago had been a Navy Brat on both sides and had a goal of becoming a Master Chief Petty Officer at a younger age than either of his parents. Wounds received while doing convoy protection on shore in Iraq got him a disability discharge before he made Chief Petty Officer. He was looking for a new goal and had a positive attitude but still wore his Navy uniform ballcap almost every day.

SHANNON: What kinds of services are available on your campus for veteran students?

JOHN: One vet, after getting a Masters Degree in Social Work, got part-time work at our sister-community-college across town about five years ago and created a Veterans Center there to provide a place where vets could relax among people that they felt safe with. Our campus acquired him full time about two years ago to do the same for us and to organize a vets student organization. They now have a very small vets center in what was designed as a seminar room in one of our newer buildings and an active presence in the Student Union building common area. They are much more visible and sponsor veteran-related ceremonies for Veterans Day, Memorial Day, 9-11 and Armistice Day

Our Vets Center counselor is actively seeking a larger center for our students because their room is always full. We are trying to find them a couple more computers for the center because he reports that they find most of the labs too crowded for some of the vets to feel comfortable. Some have trouble sleeping and it catches up with them. The counselor reported that one vet recently went to sit in his car to find a quiet, safe space and woke up eight hours later, having missed three classes.

To help understand vets and their possible problems, faculty and staff are offered training on identifying and dealing with victims of PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.

SHANNON: Did you have similar services available to you when you were going to school on the G.I. Bill? If not, do you wish you had?

JOHN: All that we had was a VA desk in the Financial Aid area for processing paperwork. The Vietnam-era vets were not always keen on having their prior service known. The idea of a veterans organization on campus was unthinkable – some academics were still working to keep recruiters off campus. Fortunately, there were off-campus programs for Vets that needed help. My service was so non-traumatic that I didn’t have any particular problems re-adapting. There was only one panicked moment in the late ‘80’s when I realized I was outside without a hat and afraid that the Master At Arms would see me and put me on report for being out of uniform.

SHANNON: Are there things you are observing in the younger generation of veterans that are very different than the way you remember things when you retired in the 1980s?

JOHN: They are definitely more stressed than we were and the type of service many have experienced has left them with different habits. They have more in common with Vietnam in-country vets. In extreme cases, they don’t like people they don’t know behind them and sit at the very back of rooms. Loud noises cause reflex sheltering responses. Most are less obvious than that but they have experiences that are not easily understood nor freely communicated.

For as good an insight as I can think of to explain something of what they may be feeling I suspect The Hurt Locker may be the best available source. I don’t try to keep up with the latest movies but it got a lot of kudos. In books, David Drake’s Hammers Slammers stories, based on his Vietnam experiences, give some of the same feel.

On a very positive side, we are, I believe, the only two-year school in the country with an Orthotics and Prosthetics program to learn to make artificial limbs. Many of the students in the program are vets and may have chosen that program because they know buddies with artificial limbs and how much those can mean to the wearers.

SHANNON: Are there things that you can still easily relate to between today’s generation of veterans and yourself?

JOHN:  We have a lot of negative experiences in common: the boredom, isolation, grinding workloads and unfathomable orders, for examples. We can compare C Rations to MREs for food value (or as weapons). I haven’t had the combat experiences but I fully expected to go in-country during Vietnam and had psyched myself for the prospect.

Despite the difference in generational outlooks, I seem to make more of an effort to understand what they think and feel than their peers do. There is some feeling of shared experience among us.

SHANNON: Any last thoughts?

JOHN: You might want to check out a 6 minute interview that was on NPR Morning Edition Sunday with author Karen Fischer-Alaniz from Walla Walla. Her book is titled Breaking The Code. It is particularly interesting because it has to do with veterans affairs and a particular form of PTSD that might be called the Vow of Silence.

Karen’s father was in the Navy during WWII,was discharged after, and never said a word about what he had done or where he was. On his 81st birthday, he gave Karen two notebooks that she spent a great deal of time deciphering but they contained letters about his war experience.She thought they were important enough to put them in book form and it will be out soon. Her father is still alive and was also part of the interview.

He was in my old line of work and, when he was discharged, the emphasis on the absolute necessity for security was so impressed upon him that he was unable to talk about it at all. In many ways, he still is. His job, she finally figured out was breaking Japanese codes. Me, I was just a Teletype mechanic, but I understand what pressures he was under. We were getting more relaxed by my time, though. There is obviously more than one kind of PTSD, and the psychological may be worse than the traumatic.

There are two main things that I learned from my service. The first was the apparent randomness of life. The Navy certainly changed me when I was at a pliable age, but it didn’t do it predictably. What would I be now if the theater hadn’t burned down? Why did the Captain ask me to be his nominee for a degree program that you couldn’t even apply for? Other apparently random happenings really weren’t. I was steered into my specialty by a “special offer” at Recruit Training for a fourth choice of what I wanted my specialty to be, when there were only three blocks on the form for choices. There was a series of duty assignments that were not usual, and one very irritated officer who made assignments indicated that he had been overruled by someone with clout who got us pulled out of the Aleutians in time for you to be born in California.

The second is that attitudes change over time toward the military. This is a relatively benign time for veterans and they get respect and aid. In a different time they would have been called “baby killers” and spat upon. In another time, they would have been ignored and told that they were unneeded and should find real work. The service people are much the same in each case but the culture’s view of them does change. Our honored vets could be demonized at any time, or ignored. This isn’t a new thing. Call it military relativism. Rudyard Kipling captured it in “The Ballad of Tommy Atkins”. I paraphrase:

Oh its Tommy this and Tommy that

And Tommy, step aside.

But its “Special Train for Atkins”

When the trooper’s on the tide.

Whatever they do or say about us, stand tall, people, and soldier on.

SHANNON: Thanks, Dad. I appreciate you taking the time to share your insights. I hope we’ve helped bring some insight and understanding about veterans that people may not otherwise have thought about and raise awareness.

JOHN C. MUIR, in addition to working with electronics in and out of the Navy for his entire career, remains an avid reader and spent years writing Play by Mail game review articles for all the major magazines in the 1980s and 1990s (PAPER MAYHEM, FLAGSHIP [U.S.], GAMING UNIVERSAL); at one point, we both appeared with separate articles in issues of PAPER MAYHEM on a couple occasions as I got my start there writing Play by Mail opinion and fiction pieces. Also, he thought material like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis made good bedtime stories for young girls such as my little sister and myself. My admiration of hobbits is all thanks to him.

If you comment to my blog post and provide an email address – whether to share your own experiences, or what you learned – you’ll be eligible for a FREE copy of my ebook THE HEART’S DUTY via Smashwords, which offers it in multiple formats. It’ll also enter you to win a brand new Kindle. Also, you will help get ebooks to troops as the proceeds of this tour go toward the purchase of Kindles for troops, and I’ll provide free copies of THE HEART’S DUTY as well.

Thanks for being a part of Blog Tour de Troops, and don’t forget to keep touring to Jennie Coughlin’s blog!