Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why My Bosses Can Keep Writing And Making Their Movie

I am behind on my TV watching and even further behind (though there's no schedule) on my writing.

The Dexter spec literally went backwards a few weeks ago--we were basically done with breaking the story, then realized that the actual show had made our B-plot irrelevant--and, though we've come up with an idea for a fix, we haven't fleshed it out enough yet to claim the story to be broken...and yes, it's funny how that phrase works both ways.

Because of this, and a nagging desire I have to write something, I've decided it's time to talk to you again about writing for animation, and why the movie I'm on can stay in production even though the writers--my bosses--are still writing the current draft.

This will be neither a defense of their decision to continue working during the strike nor an apology for it; instead, I just want to explain why, legally, this can happen.

And why, though I'm glad to still have a job, I think it's really, really dumb.

As always, these thoughts are not gospel; they are solely based on my experiences and understanding of things. Try here if you want it from the horse's mouth. I haven't read much of the site because I don't want to be proven wrong and realize I should stop writing this.


Here's the short version: Animation writing (except in specific instances like The Simpsons and Family Guy) is not covered by the WGA, but IATSE...meaning animated films and TV shows aren't on strike.

Why? you ask.

Well, that requires the longer version. Back in the good old days when Uncle Walt was the only game in town, animated features didn't have "writers." The artists and animators came up with the story as they drew, piecing it together along the way.

But Josh, if you're "coming up with the story," aren't you a writer?

Not in this case. Not legally, anyway.

These people were classified as animators. They didn't write "scripts," at least to the best of my understanding. From my experiences here, I imagine they simply put lines of dialogue on the story panels, and if you're drawing everything anyway, that's the only thing that would need to be written out.

So they were designated as animators. As such, they fell under the jurisdiction of IATSE, which in a very general sense tends to represent technicians in theatre, film and television. Honestly my IATSE knowledge is mostly anecdotal, with a little extra info gleaned from the 5 minutes I just spent on their site, so please feel free to correct me if you deem it worth your time.

Okay, you say, but if I go on IMDB, it lists lots of writers on old Disney productions. Snow White alone has eight writers. They have more writers than dwarves! How do you explain that?Well, fine, Mr. or Ms. Smarty Pants, look stuff up, why don't you. My answer is that titles don't mean everything and things got wonky as animation grew in popularity over time.

What does that mean?

Well, for one, there are definitely scripts now. Trust me, most of my job is simply trying to keep the script up-to-date, printing it up for various meetings, breaking it into sequences to assign to individual artists, titling things, re-titling things, dating and re-dating...there's definitely a script.

There also seems to be greater variety in the animation being created. There are projects that give more leeway to the animators to "write" as they draw, and there are projects where the script is the law and for the most part the animation adheres to what's in the pages.

But make no mistake, there are always pages.

Also, it's nice to be credited as a writer, but that doesn't mean jack to the studios or the networks. All of animation is covered by IATSE, so they can pay you less than WGA minimums and there are no residuals for reuse of your work. For all intents and purposes, they're basically saying, "Well, you're not a real writer." Tell that to Andrew Stanton. Or Paul Dini. Or Micah Wright.

But while it's ridiculous, that's exactly what those writers are told.

So there you go. A tiny little hopefully-correct history lesson on animation writing and why I continue to get a paycheck and feel simultaneously lucky and bad about it while friends are getting laid off left and right.

1 comment:

Elana said...

Wow, that's both depressing and really interesting. I'm glad you still have a job, and... I hope that eventually animation writers get a better deal. Because, no residuals on giant kid movies, that seems like the rawest of deals, no?