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Writing for CGI: A Talk With Ian Boothby

Ian Boothby, co-writer of Casper's Haunted Christmas, gives us some insight on the pitfalls and joys of writing for CGI.

Ian Boothby.

Starting as a stand-up comedian, Ian Boothby writes for television, radio and theater, as well as comic books. For the past two years he has written for Bongo Entertainment's Simpsons Comics. He was also a contributing writer on Homer Simpson's Guide to Being A Man (Harper Collins). For television, Ian has written for Canvas Cat and Bongo Bat, Zero Avenue, Street Cents, Popular Mechanics for Kids and Skinnamarink TV, among many others. He has also created two television shows, Channel 92 and The 11th Hour. For his efforts he has won many awards, including the Gemini Award for Best Children's TV Program (1987) for Switchback, a show he both wrote and performed in. His relationship with Mainframe Entertainment started when he began writing for Weird-Ohs. Recently, he and his partner Roger Fredericks, another Weird-Ohs' alum, co-wrote the screenplay for the CGI feature, Casper's Haunted Christmas.

Here Ian talks about working with Mainframe, writing for CGI, balancing a freelance lifestyle and collaborating with a production team...

Roger Fredericks.

Heather Kenyon:

You write for television, radio, do everything. Is this what it takes to make a living as a freelance writer?

Ian Boothby: Well I might be a little different in that my prime goal is to work on my own projects. I like working on other projects that I enjoy in the meantime to sort of finance my own personal work. Everything for me comes back to, 'How can I learn something that I can put into my own films or television programs?'

HK: So you're creating your own films, your own television shows, and then taking television series work and other things to pay the bills?

IB: Yes, but not taking just any work. I only take work where I either feel I can learn something or I really enjoy the company that I'm working with. With Mainframe that was the case. I was a big fan of Reboot and always wanted to work with them on that show, but then, of course, it's off the air. Then Weird-Ohs came along and I got the opportunity to work on that show and from that I got Casper.

HK: All things flow into one another.

IB: I've got a pretty strong rule, which is I won't do anything that isn't funny, or doesn't have the potential to be funny. Sometimes you drop the ball later, but it's got to at least have a good chance. To me, the Casper movie was very funny and so that was like, 'Yeah, all right, I'd like to play with these characters. I'd like to take these toys out to the back yard and see what we can do.'

HK: How do you change your sensibilities for these different mediums? What factors do you take into consideration?

IB: It's interesting 'cause the line is really blurred now. It used to be if you were doing live-action you were very limited to the amount of sets you could have and your budget. Any time you had anything slightly special effects-y -- see if that gets past your spell check -- special effects-y, your budget would go through the roof. But then in the world of cartoons, you could have people falling off mountains and flying to the moon, but you couldn't do realism. You couldn't do faces well. You couldn't have small little gestures. At present you have to be much more slapstick-y when you do animation. You have to be much more visual when you do animation. But the line is blurring and there will be a lot of crossover. There's a lot of live-action movies where the special effects are all computer generated. What's the difference between that and CG animation? It's all mixing into one really interesting world where there are no limitations. As a writer that's both scary and very fun.


Sometimes I see stories that are animated but there doesn't seem to be any reason to use this special medium. What elements do you see are necessary for a successful animated story versus a live-action story?

IB: That's an interesting one. Something like King of the Hill you could almost see as being a live-action sitcom, whereas something like The Simpsons, there's absolutely no way. One, you'd never be able to do the timing correctly on the jokes. With animation, you can do all these quick little jokes and little behind the scenes things; you can have multi-layered jokes. Whereas in a sitcom, you really have to do, set up, punch line, set up, punch line. If there's anything in the background, it'll probably be out of focus or take away from the live studio audience laughing. The benefits of animation or what makes a difference from, say, Something About Mary, are the background elements and multi-level jokes.

HK: What about the general elements of the story? It seems like a lot of the great animated films contain elements of magic, fantasy or of looking at the world from a different point of view.

IB: You got a couple things you can do with animation that, at least at present, you can only do in animation, and that is, it can take you to another world. What you really need is for the audience to be able to project themselves into that environment. I saw Dinosaur recently. You couldn't do that any other way than computer animation. That's something animation can do -- take you to a completely different world that has its own rules. But what has been done traditionally, I think, is since you've got animation you feel weird doing a small intimate story about just people and so you go, 'We better take them to the moon.' You're spending all this time drawing something. 'I better do something you can't do in live-action.' So you get a whole bunch of big action, big slapstick or eyes popping out, things like that, but otherwise you feel like, 'Why don't I just do this live-action?' like you were saying earlier.


With Casper, did you run into any specific challenges?

IB: Yeah, in that we had a very limited cast. Say I was doing a live-action movie. I go, 'Okay, I want the street to be full of extras.' It's a little pricey, but you can still get it done. But if I say that to the people at Mainframe they go, 'We've got to generate each character individually,' and that takes a whole heck of a lot of time. So to overcome this, what we did was we went, 'All right. We want a whole bunch of people -- since it's winter -- in snow suits.' So all the snow suits are the same, but a different color. That gives the illusion that we've got a whole bunch of different people. That's the only one real limitation is you can't have a guest character come in or add more characters in later. In a live-action film -- not a problem. In an animated film -- yeah, it is a problem. You've got to cast a new voice and especially with computer, you've got to generate it. And it's so much work to do that. I can't believe the amount of work they do on each of these characters. There's so much depth and precision and so many little details. We were also a little bit limited in that once you built a set, say the house, you really have to use the house as much as possible because it took so much work to make. You're limited by location when you're dealing with CGI specifically.

HK: What was it like working with such a classic character?

IB: That was fun in that you get to put your own spin on him. Both Roger and myself are big fans of animation. So, it's been a kick in the last two years to actually do it. It's been a real thrill. In this, there's a lot of homages to things like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, It's A Wonderful Life, Frosty the Snowman, things like that. We tried to say, 'Okay, Casper's a classic character. Let's see what all these characters would be like if we put them in a Grinch Who Stole Christmas environment.' That's something that Roger and I are known for, merging two genres together, two styles together, and seeing what comes out of the mix. But Casper was definitely fun. We got to play with a couple of things that we always thought were interesting in that Spooky looks a lot like Casper but no one's ever done something where Spooky impersonates Casper. Plus, Spooky and Poyle have a real Burns and Allen vibe to them. We had a lot of fun with that, writing in the old Burns and Allen style for them, and a Three Stooges slapstick-y style for the trio. Then we had a nice, not quite romance, but we had a nice story between Casper and Holly. You can always tug at the heartstrings with Casper. That gives the film just that little extra. To me, what makes a Christmas film good, is you can have all the jokes in the world, but then you have to have that little moment where you really care about the characters. That's what we played with Casper and Holly. And Casper's kind of a sad character at heart in that he really wants friends and he doesn't have friends. He scares everybody, you know? So when Casper actually finally gets a friend, it's a big deal and it's nice.


You started as a stand-up comic. How do you think this helped your writing?

IB: I started off also doing improvisation. Both Roger and I do improv. I think that's more what we use in our writing than stand up, per se, because improv is more communal. What you do is you make an offer on stage and the other person responds and builds on that offer. That's exactly what we do with Mainframe. We go to Mainframe and go, 'All right, we want Casper to be on top of the Empire State Building.' Then they show us what they can do with the animation, what their limitations are and what they can do that really looks cool. We then build on that and go, 'If you can do that and that looks really cool, well, heck, we're going to write a scene on that.' Then they build on that, and we go back and forth. It's really a nice collaborative process. What are your strengths? What are our strengths? Okay, let's put them together and see what we can do. I think in this Casper film, we really both pushed our limitations. There were a lot of times when they sent stuff to us and we went, 'Oh man, that's tricky. I don't know how we can write that.' But then we did. And we'd go to them and say, 'We really want this scene.' And they'd respond, 'Oh, I don't know how we're going to animate that.' But then when we'd see it done, it was gorgeous.

We're at the start of a new medium with CGI, in that in 2D animation, a lot of stuff has been done. It's tough to beat Disney and Warner Bros. and all the classic stuff that's been done. You look at shows now and you say, 'I like it, but you're kind of repeating the old Chuck Jones, you know, Clampett, gags.' But CGI, that's new. What are the visual jokes that you can do in a 3D environment? You could just repeat -- translate 2D jokes to 3D. That's possible. But there's so much more that you could do. That's what we're on the ground floor of, and it sure is fun. I think that's a mistake sometimes people make when they go into 3D. They say, 'I just want to do basically an old Chuck Jones or Bob Clampett cartoon, but 3D it up.' It's like, no! That was their medium. What's yours? What can you do?'


How did you get your start in writing?

IB: I got my start in writing because I was also an actor and the best way to get a part for yourself is to write a part that's exactly right for you. I've written for a couple of TV shows. I've done a sitcom called Channel 92. Roger and I did a sketch comedy show, which we're actually still doing, called The 11th Hour. And in both of those, I wrote parts that were exactly right for me. Then at times when the acting work isn't coming in, the writing work covers it. And times when the writing work isn't coming in, then the acting work covers it. I also still do improv. In Canada, you pretty much have to do at least five jobs to make a living in the arts. Luckily, I can do about five things okay.

HK: That leads perfectly into my next question. How do you handle the precarious nature of being a freelancer?

IB: I think the way you handle it is, you don't put all your eggs in one basket. Do a whole bunch of different things. It's weird, because the main rule about writing is they say, 'Write what you know.' But then you go, 'I'm writing for Road Runner. They've got explosives and a coyote chasing around.' This is a world of fantasy, but you know what you like. So write from what you know in the real world for live-action, but write from what you like when it comes to animation. If I was writing for a genre that I didn't enjoy it would become very obvious very fast. I think that's why you get a lot of really mediocre animation. People are just going for any job: 'I've got to take any work that comes along because anything is good. Anything will help me along.' No, I don't think so. I think you've got to take only work that you enjoy. Then you'll bring that joy and interest to the project. That'll make a much better television program or film. That's sort of how I go about things. I do multiple things. I do improv. I do my own stuff. I work freelance for good companies. Not a lot of people do that but that's a real rule of mine. In doing that, you sort of dodge a lot of the freelance bullets.


You're lucky that you can do that, that you're not starving, so you can pick and choose.

IB: Oh, I starved! I've had a few years of that, but you make your choices and you stick with it. But I've had the hungry years as well. Definitely.


Now, it seems like Casper wasn't a case where you and Roger just wrote a script and handed it to Harvey and then left. It sounds like you were really involved in the production with Mainframe. Is that the case?

IB: Yes it was. What had happened was we had been writing on Weird-Ohs already, so about once every two weeks we'd go sit with all the animators in a big room and jam on ideas. In that way we got to know them and they again told us what the limitations were, and even more importantly, we were asking them, 'Well, what do you guys want to animate? What's fun for you to animate?' We'd get a good vibe from the room. If you have an animator animating something that they like, they're going to do a better job. So we kept that relationship. We had meetings every once in a while but then when they're doing their thing we'd leave them alone and let them work their magic, and then they'd leave us alone and let us write our thing. Harvey was very hands-on, and Mainframe was very hands-on. Both Roger and I live just a couple of blocks away from the Mainframe animationoffices so we would be able to pop over. Plus, I knew a couple ofthe animators on this because I also write for comic books and I knewa couple of them from the comic scene in town as well. So we already had a little bit of a pre-existing relationship. They're just all great guys and girls to hang around with.


That's good. I think when you have the writers and the artists interacting that lends itself to a much more cohesive story and project at the end of the day.

IB: I've been in so many projects where you write a script, get a check, which is lovely, but then Bob's your uncle, you're off. Then you watch the show months later and go, 'That was my name at the beginning? But a giraffe was the police officer? What the...?'I've sat down with friends to watch a show and I say, 'That was my joke,' about once every two minutes.


It was a luxury then that you got to work with Mainframe so closely.

IB: It was a luxury. It was also a luxury working with a company -- it sounds like I'm kissing ass -- but that does such great work. We'd write a scene and then a couple of months later, we'd go in and we'd see the scene and take our jaws off the floor, and go, 'You guys are great! Oh my gosh!' And that would so pump you up to write morestuff because you're going, 'Did you see what they did? Okay, nowwe really have to write this.' It would be so exciting. Of course,that's encouraging to the animators, too, 'cause they're working in a big vacuum there. Who knows if the joke's funny anymore after you've been working on it for a month? It's nice to have someone come in and say, 'That's good.' We're going to see that, come Christmas. The footage I've seen so far, I was really, really pleased with.


In animation, there's a real struggle, because there's some studios that are letting the 'board artists almost write thewhole entire thing. Then there's other studios where the writers are writing everything and then like you said, just getting a paycheck. It seems like somewhere there has to be a middle ground, but it's really hard for animation studios to find that ground.

IB: You've got the John Kricfalusi way, which is where the animators themselves do the writing, and then there's also The Simpsons style, which is the writers write it all and then the animators take over. There's almost like animators first or writers first. Those are two very distinctive styles, and there's some really hilarious Ren and Stimpy cartoons and there's very hilariousSimpsons cartoons. Then there's some studios that just wantto turn around and make a buck and so they buy a property and say, 'We got our animation studio that's going to do it, great.' And then,'Who are the writers?' 'Well, these are some writers who have written animation with boards.' 'Good! Them. Okay.' And you're there in the business of selling the toy or whatever it is. They're making a buck. And fair enough. But something like Ren and Stimpy or The Simpsons both work, because they've got a lot of heart to them.Ren and Stimpy were Kricfalusi's creations and he really cared. And Matt Groening was very hands-on with The Simpsons because he really cared. You've got to have someone who gives a damn. I think 80% of the projects out there, people don't give a damn and you can tell. But with Casper, luckily, it was obvious they really did care. And that was swell.

It's really important to make comedies as funny as possible. A lot of times something is called comedy and it just -- it is not funny. I think we've got something here that hopefully is funny and that we'll be proud to show all our friends. Here's the other thing that is really cool for both Roger and I. A Christmas special airs forever -- just airs forever. It's so nice to have something that ten years from now, they'll probably be showing. So much of your work is disposable. It's on for however long the TV season is and then it's done, unless Nick at Nite picks it up in thirty years, but a Christmas special lives on for a long time. And to make it with Mainframe, was really a great experience.

Heather Kenyon is editor in chief of Animation World Magazine.