Fixing Your Show Before it Breaks
Notes from a former Animation Fixer
I get a lot of DM’s from people asking me the same questions, so I’m going to address some of them here, in one post. Take them for what you think they’re worth. Substitute the word ‘show’ below for ‘comic’ if you’re in that field, and it works pretty much the same.
I was The DreamWorksTV ‘Fixer’ for almost seven years, and I’ll explain what that means in short order down below, along with the nuts and bolts of how you can ‘fix’ your own show before it ever gets broken. Or set up your own comic or creation for the best potential to get interest in the animation markets. But first I want to explain the three most important things I’ve learned from my years in Hollywoodland.
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1.) You can never guarantee a hit. But you can guarantee a good show. And good shows outlive their initial failure.
2.) No one can make a perfect show. So stop working to impress your peers, and work toward impressing your audience. Don’t bottle-neck the show, refining. Let it go.
3.) If you don’t want someone effing up your creation, don’t sell it to Hollywoodland. Creators usually want the money, and they want their perfect, personal vision. But you have to face the harsh reality that the more money that’s involved, the less likely you are to see your personal vision maintained. When lots of money is spent, the more the money-people get scared, and tinker to ‘make it better.’
As I said, nearly seven years fixing shows at DreamWorksTV, and it was odd how many people knew who I was because of it. People I’d never met called me “The Fixer” in hallways, and wanted to buy me lunch. One person even joked, “No one ever wants to have a show struggling, and then see you walk in their door.”
For my first job at DreamWorksTV I was brought in to finish Dawn of the Croods, and get it delivered to Netflix. Or—if I didn’t think it could be finished—to shut it down. It was incredibly far behind schedule, and internally people didn’t like the show. But Dreamworks didn’t know what was wrong with it, or how to get it back on track.
It was a ‘half-hour show’—or a 22 in the shorthand way of referring to the actual running time of 22 minutes—and I heard a lot of ‘reasons’ when I came in to interview for the job for why it was failing. Like: “comedy works better as two 11’s than it does as 22’s.”
Two 11 minutes being the SpongeBob format, as opposed to—say—the 22 minute Simpson’s format.
Yeah. I actually heard that.
Other reasons were “the scripts aren’t funny,” “the animation is too slow paced” and “it was just a bad idea from the start.”
None of those were true.
I took all the materials home on a Friday before my Monday start date; scripts, animatics, model designs, bible, etc., and reviewed everything over the weekend. I could see why people didn’t like the show, but it goes back to the visualization post I made earlier in the week.
First of all, the scripts were hilarious. Brendan Hay is a comedy genius, and we are still good friends all these years later, so I think that tells you how well we eventually worked together.
But his vision wasn’t getting through. The animatics weren’t connecting with an audience primarily because the comedy in the scripts wasn’t landing. Anyone who’s worked with me on King Of The Hill knows you can screw up a great joke for a lot of reasons; poor timing, wrong camera angles, too cutty, too much acting that’s distracting, jokes delivered by characters with their backs turned to the camera, the set-up gets moved too far from the punchline because of added visual ‘gags’ or attempts at physical comedy by the board artists, or directors, etc.
Brendan was inexperienced, and was up against some strong personalities that saw comedy differently than him. He was right, and they were wrong. Once we fixed that, and made his and the other writers’ jokes land the way they needed to, the show started to sing. The animatics got funnier, more charming, and delightful, and slowly began trickling out to the rest of the company as employees snuck around servers to check in on just how badly I must be doing. Brendan and I knew we were on the right track when executives went from asking to have their names removed from the credits, to demanding that they be added on.
Yeah. That happens.
So what did I do on that show, and the ones that followed, in a way that left me friends with Brendan, Scott Fellows, Rad Sechrist, and so many others? I accepted that they were better at their job than I could ever be, and left them to it.
I taught. I didn’t take over.
Hollywoodland is collaborative, but people see it as a ‘star’ system, and that is a common misunderstanding. Everyone wants to be a name like Spielberg, but he’s a one-off. Leave your ego behind, and collaborate. Find people who are better than you at their jobs, and set them free with guidance, not control. Don’t be a Lennie and crush the thing you love.
So what are the basics that I teach?
1.) Write a good script. Don’t start with a weak script thinking you can fix it later. (‘Fix it in Post’ is a thing no one in television production ever wants to hear). Fixing it later is costly, time-intensive, exhausting to a crew that is likely already overworked, and the number one thing that will make your show late. It can also make it worse as the changes start to give the episode a patched together feel.
2.) Follow the basic rules of story if you want a large audience. People whine and complain about three act structure, the five-minute rule, and The Heroes Journey, but they work for psychological reasons that are too complex to go into here. Reinvent the wheel on the personal, not the professional.
3.) The Five-Minute Rule (I knew you’d ask): Capture your audience in the first few minutes. Give them clear goals, wants, needs and drives.
4.) Capture it with heart, not kinetic action. No one has ever walked out of a movie saying; “Wow. I felt nothing, I didn’t connect with those characters at all… what a great film.”
5.) Emotion, emotion, emotion. I’m amazed that I get pushback on this—what I consider THE MOST important thing in entertainment. I’m sometimes dismissed as a ‘romantic’ (true, but beside the point), a ‘shipper’ (also true, but that never leaves my living room to affect my JOB), or told that people don’t want emotion, they want adrenaline, or worse; boys don’t like emotion.
Casablanca, arguably one of the greatest films of all time, would not be the same without the emotion in that film, and I’m not just talking about Rick and Ilsa, as important as that is. The maître d’ watching Rick arrange for the newlywed husband win at roulette grabs my heart every time. The emotion of the French anthem being sung to drown out the Nazis is intense. “Your winnings, sir,”—okay, not emotional, but a great laugh—which is also important. On, and on, and on.
Jurassic Park is one of the greatest dramatic horror/action films ever made, and it’s nothing without the core relationships, most importantly between Dr. Alan Grant, and those kids. Gravity Falls, the twins and the surrounding characters. The intensity of Tom Cruise versus Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men when Cruise knows it may well cost him his career. That’s not a romantic moment, but it’s a lengthy scene that is damned emotional, and continues far beyond that famous “You can’t handle the truth” meme.
I could give more, but look at any real hit, or memorable film. You want a show that connects, and grabs an audience? Give them emotion, or stand aside and let someone else have the fun.
6.) Create unique and memorable characters that are appealing, interesting, and interact engagingly and entertainingly, through conflict. Don’t give me jerks who have a ‘character arc’ where they become better people. I don’t care. After you’ve spent five minutes at a party with a jerk, do you give a $#!+ if they find happiness after you’ve gotten sick of them and walked away? Conflict does not mean you are horrible to people, and then deserve redemption. Conflict is opposing goals, and the best intentions for how to achieve them, then LEARNING from the other person to GROW your own, personal point of view. Pride and Prejudice, folks.
7.) Design appealing characters, and cast for skill, and talent. Again—find people better than you at everything.
8.) Hire people you like to work with, not people whose genius is legendary, and are also legendary pains-in-the-ass. In the end it may not be a ‘brilliant work of art that impresses your peers’ but it will be done, it will be great (I would argue better than it would have been with the Pain), and you’ll enjoy the process—and life—much more.
9.) Surprise people. With comedy. With drama. With emotion. With character twists.
10.) Learn the nuts and bolts of EVERY job on a show, and understand what it takes to do it. You can’t give good guidance if you don’t understand the process. Greg Daniels knew visual storytelling, and why a joke worked from one camera angle but not another. I learned a lot of what I know from him. And I’d bet serious money he knows even more now.
Never assume you know it all. Always be learning.
11.) The most important note is the one you don’t give. If a show is 95% there, do you really need to spend hours tweaking that one scene that’s not quite hitting it perfectly? To make it something that only you and your closest friends will notice or care about? No. People have lives and families. Let them go home to them.
12.) Leave your audience happy.
Your audience is obviously the most important thing, no matter whether it’s small or large. If you’re doing it for you, and people who think like you, great. Much easier to target an audience of people who share your brain. If you’re doing it for a broader television or internet audience, you have to take more into consideration.
A great example from Croods: We had screened an animatic to executives for notes, and one of them—a woman—gave the note that Thunk had done something that creeped her out. Brendan and I pushed back, saying he’d done it before, and that the ‘creep factor’ was what made it funny. The executive graciously backed off saying “maybe it was just me.”
After she left, because Brendan and I had an open policy to speak up, one of the other women on the crew said, “That Thunk thing also creeped me out. I didn’t think it was funny.” When we tried the same push back, she said, “Yeah, but those other times were creepy as well, and made me cringe, not laugh.” Brendan and I opened it to the room, and every woman in it agreed.
We pulled the gags.
Our audience was boys and girls. Just because boys don’t see it as creepy, doesn’t mean it isn’t. Life lesson, that.
Consider Harry Potter (no comments about Rowling, please. It’s not pertinent to this discussion). It was marketed to 6-11 year old boys. The smallest book reading market there is. But those boys all loved it. Enough that they told their sisters, who started reading it, and also loved it. The boys’ parents never stopped hearing about how great the book was, or read it to their boys at night, and were captivated themselves. Before long the audience grew exponentially because Potter was the incredibly rare kind of series that crosses demographics by being emotionally true.
But first it had to sell to those boys. And wouldn’t you know it? Loaded with emotion, those books.
SpongeBob is the same story. It nailed its core audience, but had enough adult humor to cross over to parents and college students.
A final note: This is about selling your ideas, not following artistic vision. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve gone my own way hundreds of times, and made no money, but gotten tremendous personal gratification from what I created.
Rule 2 above, and focusing on demographics often irritates ‘artistes.’ But when you move beyond self-publishing and want to sell something to a wider audience, it’s no longer about art. It’s about commerce. You want to make art? I applaud and encourage you. Luxuriate in it. Feel proud. Create what moves you. But don’t come whining to me if you don’t make money off it. But please do come lord it over me if it strikes and you get rich. Nothing would make me happier. You’ve attained the best of all possible worlds, and in that regard, I love being proved wrong.
There’s a lot more I could say about fixing a show, or creating a good one to begin with, but this is about fixing it before it breaks, not spending hours in HR, learning how to fire people, or how to get fired, or having to know what a bar-chart is, and why you need to stop fearing it, and learn how to read it.
So go with God. I wish you massive success, and I hope you never see me walk in your office door, unless I’m just stopping by to say hello, and bringing cookies.
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