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Write On

Archive for September, 2010

A Writer’s Intention

When it comes to writing, I’m a mutt. I’ve written documentaries, books, textbooks, instructional videos. The nice thing about this kind of work is you pick up a few tips. I wrote a video on how to run a faster 10k and now I know what a fartlek is. I wrote a Martha Stewart Christmas special and now I can make a Christmas wreath out of a hanger.

rag wreath by heather knitz designs

by heather knitz designs

I even wrote a video course on college algebra when I was desperate for money. This taught me that even though getting older means that the things that seemed impossible when you were young are not only easy but fun (e.g. speaking in public, driving a stick shift, screaming into a megaphone on a picket line), algebra isn’t one of them. But for most of my career, I’ve written dramatic work – plays, some screenplays, and tons of children’s television.

There are those who write prose, people an agent I know refers to “real writers”. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about those of us who write stories that aren’t meant to be the final product, but the blueprint for the final product. Our work exists to be interpreted – by directors, designers, actors – which means that only a percentage of what we originally intended makes it to screen or stage. Occasionally, the result is better than one could have imagined; often, it’s worse; always, it’s different. Does this attract a certain kind of person? I teach in a low-residency MFA program in creative writing and trust me on this one, you can tell the dramatic writers a mile away. The playwriting and screenwriting students are the ones hugging and doing improv and putting on cabarets and one-act festivals. They’re upbeat and unpretentious, and give graduation speeches that are too long and require props. As far as I can tell, dramatic writers are sort of the clowns of the MFA program, minus the seltzer bottle and big pants. Maybe that’s because drama is not only a collaborative form, it’s as low as vaudeville and as ancient as the Greeks. Or maybe it’s all that hanging out with actors.

When you write children’s animation, of course, there are no actors to hang out with. The actors tend to be a bunch of eight-year olds in London, or a studio full of adults doing funny voices in LA. And there are only rarely table meetings, the kind I dreamt about as a kid watching Dick Van Dyke, meetings where you’re surrounded by funny, smart people all talking at once while punching up a script and eating deli and screaming with laughter.

Weavers at Work from The Library of Congress

My life as a television writer is the opposite, a sort of middle-class/Greenwich Village version of a 19th century Jacob Riis photo, the one where some nameless lady is sewing shirtwaists in an Essex Street apartment: it’s basically piecework, with internet access. Alone in my apartment, I pitch, I write, I recoil at the notes, I write again. The more shirtwaists I crank out, the more I get paid. If my stitching gets sloppy, I lose the gig. And let’s not even talk about insurance, since animation is so not covered by the Guild, it’s almost funny, but isn’t.

One of the pleasures of writing animation, however, is the relative control you have over the visuals. (Note: I say “relative”). Sure, there are restrictions. Some people think animation means you’re free to write anything, whereas the truth is you can’t even show running water or a character putting on a sweater. Still, what I write pretty much stays in the script. If I write that an octopus holds a balloon and floats up to the stars, or a jealous heron knocks her husband off a tree branch, or a starfish swoons with emotion (and in closeup no less)… it stays. If you pitch it well enough, if it’s affordable, if it’s good… the sky’s the limit. Within reason.

In terms of pure satisfaction, I’m lucky enough to have two graphic novels out now, books I wrote with my boyfriend/fellow Guild member, Laurence Klavan. We wrote City of Spies and Brain Camp as screenplays, which were handed over to two amazing artists, Pascal Dizin and Faith Erin Hicks, who then directed, shot, cast, acted, designed and edited what they read. I’m still stunned by how faithful both books are to what we wrote, down to the smallest detail… even while they utterly express the personality and vision of the two artists.

It’s about the purest collaborative experience I’ve ever had in my life and of course, I hope both books do well. But I’m not kidding myself. As a business, publishing isn’t TV (frankly, these days even TV isn’t TV); and even the most successful graphic novel sells only thousands of copies, maybe tens of thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands… who knows? Compare this to a single cartoon I’ve written, even a not-very-good episode for a lousy show, which can and will be seen by literally millions of children, around the world, for what I’m sure will feel like forever.

Still, I can’t complain. Whoever said this was supposed to be easy?
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Susan Kim

Susan Kim

Susan Kim has written for more than three dozen children’s TV series, including Wonder Pets!, Arthur, Martha Speaks!, Dragon Tales, PB&J Otter, Ni-Hao Kai-Lan, Handy Manny, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Speed Racer, Reading Rainbow, and Stanley; she has been nominated for an Emmy and Writers Guild Awards four times. She won a Writers Guild Award for the documentary Paving the Way, which aired on PBS. She serves as a member of the WGAE Council

Watching Women in Digital TV

The following was aired on GRITtv

More GRITtv

It’s 2010, and for the first time in history, a female filmmaker won an Oscar for Best Directing. Mind you, we’ve had four women total ever be nominated, so it’s tough to win when you’re not even in the race.

We look on TV and see an abundance of women: Desperate Housewives, The Closer, Damages, Weeds, I could go on. We look at the box office and we see films like Sex and the City and Twilight, which had the highest grossing opening for a film by a female director ever. Even when it comes to comics and heroes, we were given Buffy.

We saw a woman create one of the most influential digital commentary sources, The Huffington Post, and Felicia Day now tweets to almost 2 million followers due to the success of a web series she created called The Guild, which is now sponsored by Microsoft.

All of this leads us girls to believe that we are being taken seriously and our tastes matter. It also points to the fact that we do know our way around this thing called the internet, so why is it still so hard to find female programming online? As the creator of the web series, Downsized, I know this content is out there. I know it’s dramatic and poignant and hysterical and smart and appropriately estrogen-ridden, but I also know that a majority of women have no idea where to find it.

And that’s not because we’re not socially connected. We tweet. We Facebook. We fool around on Youtube. We laugh at Funny or Die. We may even post a comment on a blog about it. What we don’t find is female-centric content.

As a member of the Writers Guild of America, East, I know there are many female digital writers and filmmakers that are actively part of the guild, so we are definitely making video and putting it out there, but it is our job to make sure you can find it. And in our socially connected world, it also our job, as women, to watch it, because as media becomes increasingly more digital, we still need to keep our place in the programming line-up.
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Named “a fresh new voice” by NewTeeVee in 2010 for her work as writer/director/producer/star of the YouTube Official Series DOWNSIZED, Daryn Strauss has been profiled on TV Talk Radio, Script Magazine, and Web Series Network. The independently produced DOWNSIZED was recently invited to screen at the Cologne Conference in Germany, along with shows from HBO and MTV. Daryn is a vocal participant in the web series community and avid supporter of equal rights in programming content, so she is very happy to provide a home for online content geared for women, Digital Chick TV (www.digitalchicktv.com). She has a second series in development.

Jim Jones and Our Stumbling Leader

I kind of feel bad for America’s children, kind of. You see, growing up in my house, the evening news was a given, five nights a week. Dinnertime was always 5:30 P.M. You had to be home, no questions asked. If you were late, you had better have a really good excuse. On school nights, dinner was followed by homework, while starting at 6:00 P.M. my father would commandeer the television to watch the local and national news. At the time, we had four options, and one was PBS in really poor quality.

Writing this makes me realize how much of my youth involved being forced to watch something I did not choose. I am the youngest of nine, which topped out at seven living in the house at the same time during my formative years. I could tell you anything that was happening on Dallas or Knots Landing. I knew who Luke and Laura were and understood when my mother and sisters would talk about them as if they were neighbors. However, when it came to real TV drama, you had to look no further than the news.

My first memories include the much-talked-about clumsiness of President Gerald Ford and the 900-plus people drinking the
“Kool-Aid” in Guyana. The latter, of course, being the image most burned into my brain. I believe at 9 years old, it both frightened and enthralled me. The idea that so many people could let one person direct them to take their own lives was weird and thankfully far away. I don’t recall anyone in my family trying to fully explain the breadth of the scene at the time, but I do remember knowing it was bad.

Throughout the years, my household changed for various reasons and, I should take this moment to point out, never included cable television (to be blamed on my father’s tight wallet). The routine of watching news continued for years to come. I’m sure I didn’t realize then how it was shaping my career path. I learned to be inquisitive. I was even voted biggest gossip in my high school, an honor I wear proudly now as a badge of my journalistic abilities but at the time completely mortified me.

Once I hit college and started hanging around those crazy folks who had CNN and Headline News, I was love-struck. I said, “That’s my calling,” and immediately changed my major from secondary education, never looking back. When they brought the first Gulf War into our living rooms—well, not mine but someone else’s—I was smitten.

I know it makes me sound somewhat old, but here’s why I worry about the kids today. There are so many choices on television. If you meet a family that doesn’t have cable, you’d give them the stink eye. There are few families that sit down and have dinner together and then turn on the TV the way we used to.

Every time a big event happens, e.g., September 11, those of us in the industry think, Well, this is going to change things for good. It wasn’t long afterward that we returned to doing stories about fallen starlets stumbling drunk out of limos with no knickers on and waterskiing squirrels. I blame the attention span brought on by the so-called MTV generation. If I can’t blame that, I have to blame parenting, and if I can’t blame that, I have to blame an oversaturation of “news” on cable TV. It makes me think that someone down the road is going to look back and say, “The first thing I remember seeing on the news is when Lindsay Lohan went to jail.”