In her bi-monthly column, Nancy Cartwright chats with Carolyn Omine, Simpsons writer and consulting producer.
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.
So far I have interviewed my good friends Jack Thomas (The Replacements), and Mike Scully (The Simpsons). These responses are from my good friend Carolyn Omine, a long-time writer on The Simpsons.
Carolyn has written for The Simpsons since 1997. Episodes she has written include: "Little Big Mom," the Night Of The Dolphin segment of "Treehouse Of Horror XI," "The Great Money Caper," the Wiz Kids segment of "Treehouse Of Horror XII," "Sweets and Sour Marge," "The Strong Arms Of The Ma," "Smart & Smarter," "A Star Is Torn," "Ice Cream Of Margie," "The Homer Of Seville" and "N is for Nerder." She has won four Emmy awards with the show. She also directs the vocal performances.
Omine was born and raised in Hawaii where she worked as a baby photographer and sang with a rock band in Waikiki. She moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, and began doing improv and sketch comedy. In 1989, she was asked to join the writing staff of Stand By Your Man, the American version of the British sitcom, Birds of a Feather. She has written for several sitcoms, including Full House and for other animated shows, such as Aaahh!!! Real Monsters and The Wild Thornberrys.
She lives with two cats and a small human boy.
And now for your questions:
Nancy Cartwright: How did you get your "lucky break?" And what got you interested in writing for animation?
Carolyn Omine: I was writing and performing a lot of sketch comedy and improv. One of my fellow performers was Mark Steen. His sister, Nancy Steen, was an established television writer/producer. My day job was working for a very successful literary agent. One day, Nancy called my boss looking to hire one of his writer-clients. I said hello and transferred her to my boss. After he hung up, he told me that Nancy said he should represent me as a writer. He told her that she should hire me. She said, "Have her write a spec script and maybe I will." I wrote a script and she hired me to be on the staff of Stand By Your Man. It was an incredible break.
Writing for animation does offer a lot of freedom. You aren't necessarily bound by the laws of physics, really, which are fun, but not actually the draw for me. The draw for The Simpsons was the excellent writing and that they didn't get network notes. I've written for other animated shows, mainly for fun. I was working on a sitcom and during my hiatus I wrote a Real Monsters because my friend, Mark Steen, (once again!) was running the show and the best part was that he practically put my first draft on the air -- there was very little rewriting.
NC: As one of the few voice directors for the show, how much do you rely on what the actor's do to contribute to the final product?
CO: We have fantastic actors. It is so satisfying to write for them. I've worked on many shows where your writing was limited, because the actors were limited. We got orders like, "He can't do irony -- so don't write those kinds of jokes." or "Don't write anything with "Ss," because of her lisp!" Or the actors would paraphrase everything. I've written with great writers before The Simpsons, but their good stuff never quite made it through the filters of network notes and actor adlibs. After you get your heartbroken watching jokes get mangled, it's hard to keep morale up. Why spend time on the wording of joke when the actor's just gonna do whatever?
The Simpsons' actors are a dream. First of all, they are so capable that we are never limited in what we can write for them. And they are very respectful of the writing. They adlib occasionally, but only after giving us what we wrote. I would say 90% of the time, our actors give us exactly what we hoped for -- some times it'll be even better than we imagined. It's so much more fun to write jokes knowing that they will be given a chance. We take great care and have a lot of fun playing with the wording of jokes. And that makes a huge difference.
NC: Please describe the writing process for a show.
CO: We all pitch ideas for stories. The show runner, currently Al Jean, decides which will get made into scripts. We each get about one script a season. Usually you get to write the idea you pitched. Sometimes you get assigned an idea that Al or Matt wants written, or sometimes an idea you pitched will be written by someone else.
Stories are pitched out with a small group of writers over a couple of days. Then the writer of the episode is sent off for a week to write an outline. He gets notes on the outline from Al and a few other writers, and then you get two weeks to write a first draft of the script. Then the staff will go over the script, page by page. The script will go through several rewrites before the table read.
After the table read, we'll rewrite the script again just before it is recorded. About three months after it is recorded, we'll watch an animatic (rough line-drawing animation of the episode). We'll do a rewrite then as well. About six months after that, we'll get it back in color and do another rewrite. This usually has to be a smaller rewrite because at this point we are limited by time and expense as to what can be re-animated. We'll often have to get very clever and change lines to fit the existing mouth flap (and our actors are amazing at helping us with this!) or having a character, whose mouth isn't visible, speak, etc.
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?
CO: I don't think of myself as being in the animation industry. I just happen to write on an animated show. I've heard that it's very difficult to break into animation voicing and I can see why. There isn't a real need for "fresh" talent, because the people who do it are so good and have such range that they are always fresh. I have no idea where one would begin.
For writers, I think it's the same whether you write for animation or live action. You need good writing samples. I think your best bet is to write a spec pilot. You need more than one sample and they all have to be great. To be successful in television, you need lots of perseverance and luck.
NC: So, if I am interested in being a writer for animation, what steps would I take?
CO: See above. And write good samples. Get people to read them. Keep improving them. I'm often given scripts to read and I don't have a lot of times to read scripts by new writers (I can barely keep up with all the reading I have to do for my job), but when I have read someone's script and I give notes -- I am shocked at how often that is met with such resistance. I've been writing for television for 17 years. I get notes and I make changes -- that's the gig! A good writer is not defensive and in love with their first effort. You should always be looking to make it better. Other writers on staff have had the same experience -- new writers beg you to read their script and then don't want to hear your suggestions.
NC: And, if I were interested in being an animator for an animated show, what steps would I take?
CO: I have some guesses, but I'm really not the one to ask. I have no idea how you would break into this field.
NC: What are my chances of a successful career in writing for animation if I don't live in New York or Los Angeles?
CO: A few years ago I would have said your chances are very small. But these days, with animation getting easier on home computers and you can get things up on YouTube, etc. I think more things are possible. But this is a business where a lot of people get their breaks by knowing someone, and it is just much more possible when you are in physical proximity to the majority of the business.
NC: It used to be that voice overs merely supplemented an artists' desire to act on camera. Nowadays, you can't watch an animated film without seeing the name of a celebrity. What are your thoughts about this trend? Should there be a special acknowledgement for "non-celebrity" talent?
CO: Voice acting is a very different skill from regular acting. Not all actors can do both. A big name doesn't do much for an animated film unless that actor can also deliver good voice acting. We've had some great actors on The Simpsons, but when they are just using their voice it falls kind of flat. For the most part, our regular actors do a better job than the celebrity guests. There is a special skill to putting all the emotion and intent in the voice. There is a way of being "big" and yet subtle. Some actors can make the transition quite easily. Often when I'm watching a big budget animated movie with big stars I think, "Tress, Nance or Hank would have killed with that line."
NC: As a single mother, how do you balance your family with your career?
CO: The Simpsons has been kind enough to let me cut my schedule down to three days a week. I also moved next to the studio. I have a six-minute bike ride to work, so I ride home at lunch to see my son. It truly is the best of both worlds. I never feel overwhelmed by motherhood, because I have built in breaks where I have to report to my very fun job. And, when I'm with my son, I appreciate the time more.
Also, though I am in a serious relationship, I am a single parent, and as my son grows, it's important that he sees I am more than just his mommy. I hope to strike a successful balance between career and home life so that he will also strive for that kind of balance in his life. If I am able to achieve that (my son is only three so the jury is still out) it will be my proudest achievement.
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.