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Book Review: 'Animation Development: From Pitch to Production'

Find out David Levy's secrets to success in animation development.

Levy contends "there are no short-cuts to doing the work and gaining valuable experience." Cover courtesy Allworth Press.

The dream of creating and producing an animated television series is one that is shared by many animation professionals, students and fans. But as David B. Levy states in his new book, Animation Development: From Pitch to Production (Allworth Press), "It is far easier to want your own show than it is to seriously work towards that goal, or even be suited for that goal." As an animation development executive who hears a few hundred series pitches a year, I believe that many would-be creators could glean a lot a lot of valuable information from this book. Levy paints a fairly realistic and candid portrait of the television animation industry and the long road one will travel to create a show. But aspiring creators should be advised: To best prepare yourself for the challenges ahead, you have to read the entire book, and read it carefully.

Animation Development: From Pitch to Production is not a straightforward, how-to manual. In many ways, this is one of its greatest strengths. The book is full of compelling anecdotal information from successful members of the TV animation industry. Stories from such creators as Craig McCracken, Butch Hartman and Tom Warburton clearly illustrate that even the stars of our industry have experienced frustration and failure on their road to producing their own shows. They also share realistic advice for those with less experience looking to create their own series. Warburton, creator of Codename: Kids Next Door, recommends, "Start at the bottom and pay attention to every facet of production. Work your way up so when (and if) you do get your own show you know what you are talking about. You can't lead a team if you don't know how a production is run."

Also useful are the various insights offered by development executives from various studios and networks. Their quotes and tips can help the thoughtful reader leapfrog many rookie mistakes and become a more professional pitcher in a shorter amount of time. There are suggestions on pitch length, utilizing feedback and knowing what the company you pitch is looking for. And there are some candid insights into the pitching mistakes that can turn off some executives. Heather Kenyon of Starz Animation (and former AWN editor) notes that her pet peeve is "episode ideas that end with: 'Find out what happens when…' or a string of questions.' Will Larry save the day?' I don't know. Will he?" These incomplete story ideas are common in pitch documents, but they don't tell the network that the creator can tell a complete, fun and original story with their characters. Insights like this can help a budding creator craft a more professional, sellable pitch.

Cartoon Network's Adult Swim series, Assy McGee, which was directed by the author. © Cartoon Network.

While this book covers all the key areas of the pitching, development and production processes, the information is not generally laid out in pithy rules or easy-to-consult bullet points. Someone trying to brush up for tomorrow's pitch cannot just read the headings or first paragraphs of sections. Many of the true pearls of wisdom and the necessary reality checks are a bit buried in the often-skipped Introduction or the middle of chapters. For instance, Levy's "one hard-and-fast rule" for a pitch bible is on page six of the chapter on pitch bibles, in the middle of a subsection. (By the way, that rule is that "a pitch book should be entertaining in and of itself." Good advice, indeed.) But know that this is not necessarily a criticism, but an affirmation of Levy's central point: As is true for all aspects of animation pitching and production, there are no short-cuts to doing the work and gaining valuable experience.

Yet, several times, Levy makes points that are more opinion than fact. For instance, he states that creators do not need an agent. However, I have seen numerous instances where a good agent has been an invaluable asset in getting a would-be creator's idea out there and negotiating the best deal for his or her services once it is sold. Also, the author states that "for a pitch bible, it would be a mistake not to feature art on every single page." While I completely agree that amazing art can help sell your project, this isn't a hard-and-fast requirement from every buyer. The reception to writer-driven projects varies by network, but it is possible for a strong writer to sell a show with no art at all. What all successful writer/creators have in common, though, is a clear vision for their show, a thorough understanding of the animation process and an ability to work collaboratively with artists to make their vision a reality. A writer who feels uncomfortable diving in to help shape the visuals of their show should strongly consider confining their pitches to the live-action realm.

The process of pitching, developing and producing an animated show is daunting, even for very seasoned animation professionals. While there is no substitute for talent and experience, Animation Development: From Pitch to Production can help demystify this process and is a solid resource for people wanting to challenge the odds and pursue this dream. As Levy aptly states, "As a would-be creator, you have no control over any of the fickle, frustrating attributes of this industry. Your own desire to develop your talent, to persevere even when the odds are against you, and to contribute your voice to the mix are the only things you can count on."

Leah Hoyer is a former attorney who left that life behind to attend animation school and pursue her love of cartoons. She is now director of original series at Disney Television Animation, where she has worked on Kim Possible, Recess and Phineas & Ferb, among others/