In honor of Comic-Con International, the world’s largest comic book and popular arts convention which runs through July 26 in San Diego, Write On! speaks with Animation Writer Brooks Wachtel. Wachtel has has written more than 100 episodes of animated television, ranging from Clifford the Big Red Dog to X-Men. He teaches animation at UCLA Extension and is on the Steering Committee of the “Animation Writers Caucus” of the Writers Guild of America. Wachtel also writes and produces documentaries for The History Channel and is a performing magician at The Magic Castle.
How did you start writing animation?
I was working in live action when my agent at the time sent me on an interview at Filmation Studio—they were looking for a writer for a planned feature version of Pinocchio. I had my doubts about any version competing with the Disney classic, but went and had a great interview with Robby London. He forwarded my material to Art Nadel, who was running their episodic division. I—and my co-writer at the time—was invited to pitch for Filmation’s Ghostbusters series and we made a sale. Before we knew it, we sold a She-Ra.
About that time, Robby London went over to DIC, told me to call several story editors, and said to mention his name. He was a well-known executive, so his name opened doors. (It is good to have friends in high places). I pitched for Dinosaucers and sold four episodes (by this time I was working solo).
They were fun and fast to write, so I thought I’d try more animation … and now several years and about 100 episodes later, it became a career.
How has animation writing changed since you got started in the business?
There is a lot less work today. When I first started, there were toy-driven shows that had 63 episode orders. That’s a lot of episodes that often had to be done very quickly. Now, the runs are a LOT shorter—usually around thirteen episodes. The syndication market is gone and with it, many of the smaller studios. Today, the business has consolidated into the majors. There are more staff-driven shows, so it’s much harder for a freelancer to make a living.
However, there’s more variety than there used to be and the boundaries of what you can and can’t do have been extended in both action and humor.
What is your favorite part about writing animation? The greatest challenge?
You can do just about anything in animation. It’s a great place to let your imagination run unfettered. And if you don’t get pigeon-holed as a specific genre writer, you can write in an amazing amount of genres and styles. I’ve done everything from soft pre-school shows such as Clifford the Big Red Dog to comedy-adventure like Tutenstien (which won me my Emmy) to hard-action X-Men-style shows to historical dramas like Liberty’s Kids. (Where I got to write for the great and missed Walter Cronkite).
There aren’t that many places that offer that degree of variety. It can be wonderfully stimulating!
Are there things specific to the animation format that writers need to know?
That’s not an interview, that’s a book! I teach animation-writing at UCLA Extension—it’s a ten-week course and I need every session to get the information out. Let’s just say that you need to be the best writer you can be—then you need to be the best screenwriter you can be, meaning the ability to think visually. It’s visual medium, so tell your stories with images—don’t turn in “talking heads”—that won’t play in animation.
How does someone break into writing animation?
Compromising photos on someone that can hire you is a help. Failing that, learn the format, go to the events where you can meet people who work in the field, listen to what they have to say. Have sample scripts on existing shows that you’ve polished and honed. And be persistent without being a pest (it’s possible). Animation is one of the friendliest parts of TV when it comes to giving new talent a chance.
What is your favorite part about going to Comic Con? Has it changed over the years?
There are few places where one can stand in a food line with a group of Klingons who order in their own language. Comic Con is one of them. I always feel no matter what strange things science discovers, it’s already been matched here at “The Con”. I love the exhibits, panels, costumes, energy of the fans, as well as getting out of town and getting together with my fellow scribes (they’re all here).
To me the problem of Comic Con is its success—it’s almost too vast, too crowded, too frenetic. It’s now a media event and far more commercial than I remember it.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started your career?
Something that’s not really related to the craft of writing: it is on the business end. I wish I’d known the script rates would stay stagnant, for as long as they did, widening the gap between live-action and animation. I wish I’d known how tough it would be to get the same benefits enjoyed by writers on live-action Writers Guild of America shows. In animation there are no residuals, no credit arbitration, no ancillary rights, no secondary use payments. I was hoping that would change—and still believe it will—but I was hoping for a little more alacrity.
Still, I’ve had—and am still having—a ball!Tags: Animation Animation Writers Caucus Author Q&A Brooks Wachtel Comic-Con Debra Eckerling UCLA Extension Write On! Writers Guild of America Writing