Monday, 1 July 2019

Breaking Into Children's Animation: Writing For Nickelodeon & Disney with Jay Lender

Jay Lender has done almost everything you can think of in the entertainment industry, and he was gracious enough to share some of his priceless knowledge with Into The Script. 

Jay is best known for his work as a screenwriter, storyboarder, and director on the first three seasons of Spongebob Squarepants, as well as directing the first two seasons of Disney’s Phineas & Ferb. He has also worked as a storyboard artist on numerous other Nickelodeon hits such as The Fairly Odd Parents, and Hey Arnold! 
Jay and his writing partner, Micah Wright have also written, directed, or produced on over 50 video games, including Robocalypse, Transformers, and the Call of Duty franchise. 

They have written two graphic novels, Get Lucky and Duster, as well as co-written and co-directed the 2016 horror comedy They’re Watching. Oh, and they’ve been nominated for a couple of Emmys along the way.

So strap in for a bit of nostalgia and a heap of useful advice and insight from a true industry professional…Mr. Jay Lender.

Your work has spanned across a variety of platforms over your career, and you have had success with everything you’ve done: screenwriting, producing, directing, and storyboarding for everything from animation to video games, novels, and live action film. 

Although they are all different in their own respects, is there anything in your preparation and approach that remains consistent, no matter what kind of project you are working on?

I think the common thread in terms of approach is: do what you like and like what you do.

I try not to work on things I don’t LOVE. 

That’s not always an option, but shoot for it when you can. 

You’ll always do better work if you care.

As for prep, no matter the medium, I do a ton of it.

In animation we learn to plan. 

There are no second takes, no “roll film and let’s see what happens”, no “let’s try that again from this angle”. 

You get into the habit of imagining the final product in great detail, then visualizing it in greater and greater detail, through sketches, rough storyboards, clean storyboards, adding in more and more acting, then sound, and the time-element in the animatic—editing our film before we ever commit to the expensive get-it-right-the-first-time process of animating.

My partner Micah Wright and I brought that work ethic to our live action movie, They’re Watching. We outlined, wrote the screenplay, acted it out before we raised the money. 

We spent months raising funds, doing designs, reviewing head-shots, doing casting… we spent 2 weeks scouting locations and planning every shot. 

We created and rehearsed a musical number.

Scheduled the 21 days of production down to the hour, so we could get everything done on set with a minimum amount of trouble… then experiment if there was time left over. 

I storyboarded the last 12 minutes of the movie—550 or so drawings—so when we went into that freezing Romanian forest for 4 nights we would know exactly how to get each shot in the can before hypothermia set in. 

And it went like clockwork… except when it didn’t… and if we hadn’t kept such a tight lid on things, the surprises would have broken us.

Is that different from any other movie?

Not really… but our very, very experienced European crew thought that we we freakishly well prepared. 

We just thought… “this is how we do it in cartoons, why would anyone do it any other way?”

Anyway, the bottom line is, knowing what you want is crucial if you want to make a living in mainstream creative work. It’s a job. 

You’re spending other people’s money. You owe it to them to know what you’re doing.

And by the way, just because you’re insanely prepared doesn’t mean you already have all the best answers.

Keep yourself open. A good idea can come from anywhere and anyone. 

And watch for those happy accidents—you will still have them no matter how anal you were in the planning stages.

What are some of the differences in your approach of writing for a show like Spongebob Squarepants, where there are already designed characters, each with their own personalities and traits, and writing a live action movie like They’re Watching, where you are creating and developing the characters yourself as you write?

Cartoons—at least comedy shorts like the ones I’ve done—tend to deal with character archetypes. The characters have a narrowly defined set of traits—usually baked in by the end of the first season—that we exaggerate and play with. 

Set up a situation, wind them up, and let them go. 

If SpongeBob and Patrick find a glowing, radioactive fuel rod we know exactly what’s going to happen: they’re going to pretend it’s an electric moustache, burn flowers into the side of Squidward’s Easter Island Head, things are going to spiral out of control, and the whole town is going to end up exploding. 

Those characters rarely change.

With a feature the characters must change, and you have the luxury of allowing your characters to grow in tandem with the story. 

They may start out as cyphers, or archetypes, but the more you subject them to in the plotting of the story, the more you learn about them, and the more you rework earlier stuff to take advantage of the richness you discovered along the way.

When Micah and I created They’re Watching we specifically wrote Alex as Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. 

The stoner is, after all, a horror trope. 

Having that idea in our head allowed us to instantly know what Alex would do at any moment, with allowances, of course, for the facts that our threats were real, death was possible, and drug use was on the table. 

It was a quick way to essentially prototype the story. 

With that out of the way we were able to concentrate on making his emotions real—unlike Shaggy he is genuinely terrified, and while Alex is funny, he’s not comic relief. 

So back we went into the script to add that subtlety

In the audition process all the actors knew what we were getting at, and we saw a bunch of fantastic Shaggys. But the “aha!” moment came when Kris Lemche showed up. 

Rather than doing “nervous stoner” he did “annoying motormouth”. 

We had no idea where he came up with that… but it worked. It instantly made Alex into a truly unique character. 

We thought of him in that mode forever after. 

We made little changes to the script to take advantage of it. And the fun didn’t stop there, because actors are our collaborators in creating character on set. 

In short order Kris knew Alex better than we did, and that level of investment is exactly what you want from an actor. 

One night during an intense night-vision scene where our characters are searching the woods for an injured co-worker, Kris suddenly yelled “I’m going back to the house!” and took off! We were flabbergasted. It wasn’t scripted that way at all… but it was 100% right for his character… and it’s one of the biggest laughs in the movie.

I guess the upshot here is that in a feature the process of character creation never really stops until you’re done editing.

For several of your projects, you team up with your writing partner, Micah Wright. Can you tell us a bit about that dynamic, and some of the advantages, as well as some of the challenges of having a writing partner?

We complement each other pretty well, I think. 

 Micah has great topline ideas—he’s the one who says “So she unloads the crop duster into the bomber’s engines, it crashes—she runs over to the wreck, rolls a guy over… and it’s HITLER!” And I’m the guy who says “Well, maybe not Hitler.” 

So a lot of the time Micah will spin out a barebones story, and I’ll help him make everything work, smooth out transitions, develop characters, etc. maybe find a twist or two along the way. 

My animation buddies say my superpower is Deconstructo-Vision™. I can see what’s wrong with stuff and how to fix it. Other people’s stuff, anyway.

Micah and I divvy up scenes or sections, and write individually, then we trade sections, make notes and do changes. 

 Finally we combine everything and go through it line-by-line, reading aloud, making more changes and improvements, and putting it all into one voice.

The biggest advantage is that when you have a partner you have someone to carry the ball, both creatively and in terms of productivity. 

Sometimes a partner can instantly crack that problem that’s been blocking you for days, just because they’re not you. 

When you’re exhausted they can keep the train moving forward.

The downside is that when one is not available for a long stretch of time it can slow down a project, or at least make you feel guilty about moving ahead alone. 

 But the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. 

There are some things I can get done without a partner, but having someone to challenge you on your decisions is always a benefit. 

 Even if you’re right, you’ve at least learned to articulate why you’re right.

At any point during a project, if you and Micah each have a different vision on where to go next creatively with the project, what is the process like between the two of you to hash everything out and come to a final decision on it?

We have conflicts like this all the time. 

They can get pretty intense, but the goal is always to persuade, not to bully. That said, the winner of an argument tends to be the one who’s most passionate about their idea. 

I mean, neither of us is an idiot, so if the other guy feels that strongly, maybe there’s something there, right? 

Over time we’ve become wiser, less excitable, better able to articulate our thoughts, and more willing to admit a mistake, so the screaming matches are less frequent, and we often come back the next day and say “let’s go with your idea anyway—you were absolutely right about that.” 

Ego doesn’t get in the way much any more. 

It’s one of the benefits of having a long partnership.

Animated shows that you have written for, such as Spongebob Squarepants and Phineas & Ferb have had such huge success, partly due to the fact that they appeal to such a broad audience. 

From a screenwriting standpoint, what are some of the keys to writing material that not only appeals to children, but that keeps their parents watching even after they’ve gone to sleep?

Everyone in Hollywood wants to come up with a magic formula that will predict what people like. Those same people will also throw William Goldman’s famous quote at you: “nobody knows nothing”. 

They all know he’s right. 

You can only game the system so far, after that you have to be genuine and take your chances with the market.

And here’s how you make sure you’re genuine—I tell this story all the time: Someone once asked Warner Bros. director Chuck Jones how he managed to make kiddie cartoons that adults could stand to watch. He responded (and I’m sure I’m paraphrasing) “We didn’t make them for kids, and we didn’t make them for adults. We made them for ourselves.” 

And that’s the key lesson. 

You can only ever know what you like personally. 

Entertain yourself, and someone else will like what you did because they’re just like you. 

The audience can smell a fake a mile away.

On the specific topic of keeping parents and kids engaged with one show I’d say this: The job isn’t to make material for kids that adults also like—it’s to simply make a good show that isn’t hostile to kids. 

If you do that, the whole world can watch and enjoy together.

For our readers that are thinking of trying to break into the industry, whether it be writing, storyboarding, video games, animation, etc. What is the best piece of advice that you wish someone would have given to you when you were starting out, that you could pass along to them?

First off—and I can’t stress this enough—please wait until I am dead. I don’t want the competition. But if you insist on stealing the food from my children’s mouths… here are some thoughts:

Getting hired is about luck, timing and who you know.

When a new production starts up they will hire their friends first, recommendations of friends second… then, with no other determining factors left to them, they’ll hire whoever’s sitting in the lobby. 

Be in the lobby.

Networking is real.  

Take it seriously. 

Meet people and make them want to work with you. 

Be omnipresent for them; pleasantly, hilariously, annoyingly so, if necessary. 

When it’s hiring time they’ll have warm feelings about you, even if they don’t know why. “Yeah, Fredwina Bloggs, I’ve heard of her—she must be good!” With no résumé and no connections you have nothing to recommend you but enthusiasm and availability. 

Have them in spades.

Timing and luck are part of it. Timing you can control… luck you can’t.

Friends, timing, luck and talent may get you a job, but only performance can keep it for you, so learn your job well. 

Learn other jobs so you can float if necessary.

Have a broad skill set.

And most importantly, don’t forget you have value.

Don’t ever say “I love this job so much I’d pay them to work here!” and if you hear anyone say it, smite them mightily.

It may be your dream, but it’s work and you need to get paid for it, and so does everybody else. When you take a low wage you push wages down for everybody. Don’t do it. Don’t work for exposure. 

Be a professional. We make an incredible amount of money for our employers. Without us—without you—they have nothing.

Jay is not slowing down one bit either, look out for many upcoming projects from him, including a 1980s coming of age dramedy based on a novel, entitled Fun & Games. 

He and Micah are also currently finishing up a series pilot called Get Lucky, a slasher screenplay entitled Kimberly Carpenter, and a series of animated shorts called The Nine Lives of Claw.

Kevin Wilde is an up and coming screenwriter, as well as a feature writer for Into The Script.

Everyday is Halloween for Kevin, as he has an unrelenting passion for all things horror. Influenced by the likes of masterminds such as John Carpenter, Stephen King, Kevin Williamson, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie, you can certainly look forward to many horrifying tales that will have you sleeping with the lights on.

You can find Kevin on Instagram and Facebook.



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