In her latest column, Nancy Cartwright will begin a series of insider takes on the animation industry. This month, she chats with longtime Simpsons producer Mike Scully.
Over the next few articles, I am branching out and asking my industry friends to give me their insider takes. I am going to focus on subjects that professionals need to have some knowledge of and get opinions from a wide range of specialties and hats in the business.
The last article had observations from my good friend Jack Thomas. These responses are from my good friend Mike Scully, a long-time producer on The Simpsons.
Mike Scully was hired as a writer/producer on The Simpsons in 1993. In 1997, he became exec producer, running the show for seasons 9 through 12, generally regarded as the series most consecutive seasons.
He won five Emmys with The Simpsons and a sixth as co-exec producer of Everybody Loves Raymond. He co-created (with wife Julie Thacker) The Pitts for FBC and Complete Savages for ABC. Although both series have been off the air for years, Scully remains "cautiously optimistic" about their renewals.
Three years ago, he came crawling back to The Simpsons, where he now serves as a consulting producer, and is co-exec producing (with Al Jean) and co-writing The Simpsons Movie, which will be released whenever Burger King finishes manufacturing a set of colorful, easy-to-swallow toys.
- He grew up in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and now lives in Los Angeles, where his five daughters provide him a never-ending financial incentive to keep on writing...
Nancy Cartwright: As one of the producers of The Simpsons, what exactly do you do? And what is the difference between an associate producer, a co-producer and an exec producer?
Mike Scully: My main function (and the one I like the most) is writing. It can also involve things like directing voiceover sessions and editing dialogue tracks. Many of the producer titles you see on the show are just fancy writing titles. The longer you've been with the show, the higher the title. It's kind of like being in the British royal family. If you hang around long enough, you eventually get to be king.
An associate producer usually works in the show's post-production department, helping with the sound mixing, music licensing, etc. The exec producer is usually the showrunner and makes all the final decisions on what goes into an episode, especially the script. The best part of being exec producer is you get to decide what restaurant to order lunch from.
NC: How did you get your "lucky break?" And what got you interested in writing for animation?
MS: My lucky Simpsons break came in 1993 when David Mirkin (who was exec producer at the time) read a couple of my sample scripts and hired me. It was my first job on a great show and it completely changed my life. Dave still makes me wash his car every weekend.
I really didn't know anything about writing for animation until I was hired by The Simpsons. I learned quickly just how much fun it is, however. It's so much fun to be able to write anything you can imagine (and then the poor animators have to draw it!).
NC: What are the actors' responsibilities when cast in a show? How much input do you expect and/or want from the voice-actor when casting a show?
MS: The actors' main responsibility is to be incredibly funny so the writers can go home early. Most writers enjoy getting input from the actor, especially when you're working on a new character. Once the actor finds the right kind of voice for the character, it becomes much easier to write because you hear it in your head. Sometimes the actor will come up with a really cool voice that's completely different (and much better) than you imagined when you were writing it. Writers love when the actors make them look good.
NC: Please describe a casting session for a show.
MS: Well, it's been a long time since The Simpsons had a casting session, because we've had the same cast for 18 years, but, usually, an actor comes in and reads a short scene or two from the script for the producers. It can be over very quickly if the producers don't think the actor is right for the part. On the other hand, it's very exciting when you think you may have found the right person.
Even if a producer doesn't like what the actor did in the audition, if there's something they like about the actor, they may ask them to make an "adjustment" which simply means to try it a different way -- maybe change the voice, or change the pace, or to play it more relaxed, or more uptight. Nine out of 10 times, the session ends in rejection, because you can only give the part to one person. Some producers handle rejection more politely than others. I prefer to use a trap door that shoots the actor back to the parking garage.
NC: The animation industry has the reputation of being a very tight-knit group, from writers to animators to voices. What does it take to be successful in this part of the business?
MS: Talent and persistence are crucial, but it's just as important to be pleasant to work with. When people are difficult, word gets around quickly and they don't get hired as often. We're lucky at The Simpsons to have a cast that's not only talented, but fun. Yes, Nancy Cartwright has a violent temper and throws furniture, but we still love her.
NC: So, if I am interested in being a writer for animation, what steps would I take?
MS: First, I wouldn't limit myself to animation. I would try to become a writer -- period. There are only a handful of primetime-animated shows every year and the rest is Saturday morning. Job opportunities are limited. If you can write live-action and animation, you've significantly increased your chances of getting a job.
Through the Internet, you should be able to buy used TV and movie scripts. Read them, study them, look for the way they tell their story and the pace of the dialogue. Learn the art of writing brief, but interesting stage directions. Pick a show you're interested in, come up with a story (beginning, middle and end) and write a sample script. Take your time. You want it to be good, not fast. The more you write, usually the better you'll get. Keep on writing!
NC: And if I were interested in being an animator for an animated show, what steps would I take?
MS: That's an area I don't know as well. I would recommend looking at colleges with solid animation programs. I hear they're getting bigger all the time. Get recommendations from people whose work you respect. All the while, keep drawing!
NC: And if I were interested in doing voices for animation, what steps would I take?
MS: Another area that's not my strength. I would suggest putting a reel together of all the different voices you feel you do and send it to an agent that specializes in voiceover actors. You should be able to find them through the screen actors' guild.
NC: What are my chances of a successful career in animation if I don't live in New York or Los Angeles?
MS: It's definitely tougher in the beginning. There's a lot more opportunity in N.Y. and L.A. Also, many of your potential peers and contacts are in those cities. Eventually, however, you may be able to move out of town and work from a local or home studio. I know one person who does that, but they started out here and still have to come here periodically for work. It's not easy.
On the animation front, there are new studios popping up around the country all the time. The Internet can help you find them.
NC: It used to be that voice overs merely supplemented an artists' desire to act on camera. Nowadays, you can't watch an animated show/film without seeing the name of a celebrity. What are your thoughts about this trend? Should there be a separate category for "non-celebrity" talent?
MS: The celebrity names are just another marketing tool the studios use to sell their animated movies to increase their chance for success. This has been proven false as many times as it has worked for them. In the end, it's all about the quality of the film. I don't think they should separate "celebrity" and "non-celebrity" actors. They're all actors to me.
NC: And finally, what advice would you give someone interested in doing voice overs? What do you recommend?
MS: Really develop your voice to its full potential. Push yourself. You may find voices inside you that you didn't know you had. (You should ignore the ones that tell you to kill and burn things.)
When you put together a sample of your work, make sure it's tight, entertaining and has no weak points. The person listening only has a little time, so if you're saving your best stuff for the big finish, chances are they won't make it that far into your tape.
Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in her career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently, she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disney's Kim Possible and Todd Daring in Disney's The Replacements. To learn more about Nancy's career, listen to her audio book My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy or visit her website.
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