Myth: They’re easy to create.
It’s just a cartoon, right? Or, it’s just a bunch of actors running around in costumes, how hard can that be?
Each cartoon, and many live action kids’ shows you see on TV can take up to one year to make, start to finish. They contain many moving parts, all which must be coordinated and executed without fail. Because the costs of making TV continue to escalate, the stakes grow every season. Careers are made and lost based on the success of shows. And the world of kids’ TV is fraught with financial peril. They’re very expensive to produce, and there’s no guarantee that any of them will succeed. Here’s a look at some of the complexities involved:
First comes the episode idea, and those must be approved by either the production or the network. If a writer pitches twenty ideas, generally only two or three will be approved, and that’s on a good day. Usually, several writers will be vying for a spot on the schedule, and so competition can become tough. Writers are sometimes pitted against their friends, and a success at pitching time means career advancement. A lot of creative muscle is flexed during the pitching phase.
Once an idea is approved, the writer writes a treatment. That’s a one or two-page outline of the episode idea, containing the story beats that are planned. This stage is difficult because the writer must envision the entire episode – and must do it fairly quickly. It’s a bit like describing the plot of an epic movie while riding on an escalator. Quick! Can you finish the story before you reach the second floor?
A treatment will go through several revisions, then the writer is allowed to write the first draft. The script must accurately reflect all of the story lines that have been seen thus far, in previous episodes, as well as the character development that has taken place. The script may also need to reflect elements like theme park attractions that may be built years in the future (mostly for Disney scripts), and the script has to take into account the possibility of merchandise that may use ideas from the script.
Once a script is delivered, it passes through the hands of multiple colleagues, each of whom will have notes or revisions. The network will also have a chance to offer notes – and may actually choose to kill the entire script at this point. Actually the script can be killed at any point – even after it has gone through twenty drafts. These things happen.
There are issues like sexual content, violence, innuendo, cultural faux pas – and scripts must always be written with an eye toward the global audience. Things that are hilarious in Denver, Colorado may fall flat in Mumbai, India. For a show to truly succeed, it must remain firmly rooted in universal themes with universally relatable themes. Even simple things, like having signs with text appear on screen, are discouraged. A child in China won’t be able to read a sign written in English.
At some juncture, the script will be approved to go forward into production. Now storyboard artists, directors, a special effects team, the sound department and music will all be brought into the mix. And actors must now be cast to voice the script. That means a casting director will be in touch with agents and managers, calling in a roster of talent who can audition for the various roles. Once those are cast, the script will be recorded, embellished, and finalized as a radio play.
Now the animation team steps in. Generally these are overseas – so full teams are dispatched to help oversee the creation of the actual product. The end result must be color-corrected, timed and sweetened with the musical underscore, sound effects and any other elements required to make the story work.
The visual is mixed with the audio and the end result is shipped off for broadcast. By the time an episode reaches the airwaves, it has been touched, revised, altered and otherwise massaged by several hundred people.
And hopefully, kids around the world will soon be smiling.
- Breaking into Television Writing (editingaddict.com)
- Monday Morning Editor Picks: TV Writing Products (scriptmag.com)
- TV Drama Structure: Why TV Is the Future, and How to Write for It (scriptmag.com)