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Producing Animation: The Development Process

What is the role of a producer during development? Plenty! This month's Producing Animation excerpt by Catherine Winder and Zahra Dowlatabadi details the process.

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The development phase is the phase in which the creative foundation for a project is set up through visual and written materials. Inspired by an idea or a vision, writers and artists strive to capture the unknown. To some, it is a seemingly simple process; however, it is much more involved than one might imagine. To start with, there are no hard and fast rules to development. The approach taken is dictated by the property, its source and the people initially attached to it, such as the creator (hereon referred to as the seller) and the buyer. Putting together a strong development team to bring the concept to life is one of the most important steps in creating a successful project. While it can be challenging to match up key players who have a creative chemistry, when the right people are in place, there is no limit to the potential of a project.

The Role of the Producer During Development

It is fundamentally important that a producer be involved in the development phase as early as possible. Working closely with the buyer and the writer, the producer has input into how the script is created. During this process, one of the producer's primary duties is to determine how to make the project suitable for animation. Working with a select group of artists, the first step is to establish the appropriate style and quality of animation. Factors that directly influence this process are the story content and the project's budget and schedule. Equally as important is satisfying the buyer. Just because a property is in development, there are no guarantees that it will get produced. The buyer needs to be completely confident that investing the significant funds required to start production is a sound business decision.

In exploring the possible paths to developing a project, the producer needs to assess its strength and weaknesses. If the property is based on written material, it may be used to create the visuals. On the other hand, it could be the reverse, whereby the visuals drive the script and a writer needs to be identified. It may be, however, that the project is based on a property that already has both elements in place (such as a comic book). In this case, the creator may act solely as a consultant or may be responsible for either the visual or written material, depending on his or her experience. In all of the possible scenarios, the producer works with the creative executive, who is typically the representative of the buyer, and the seller, to find and interview the appropriate candidates to attach to the project.

In order to keep costs down, projects with lower budgets (such as a television series) use freelance artists. When negotiating and hiring talent, the producer needs to be clear as to whether they are "attaching" the talent to the project or simply bringing them on as "work for hires." If someone is integral to the project's success and is instrumental to selling it -- such as an "A-list" writer or top director -- the producer will probably attach them to the project. This ensures that the talent is available should the show go forward. If the talent is not crucial to the project, they would most likely be hired only for their specific services. The producer needs to be cautious in terms of who gets attached and who is guaranteed to play a role on the production should it go forward. If the buyer is not impressed with an artist's work, yet they are attached to the property, it could hinder the project getting picked up for production. Another item for the producer to consider before hiring an artist for the duration of the project is how easy or difficult it is to work with him or her. Getting a project produced is challenging enough without having to deal with personality conflicts.

Features, on the other hand, are generally created by staff producers, directors and visual development artists. Writers may or may not be on staff. Studios that are dedicated to feature filmmaking frequently have a number of artists on staff who focus solely on conceptual artwork. As the primary storyteller, the director guides the artist(s) toward his or her vision. If no talent is initially attached to the project, the producer will select visual development artists, and possibly a director, to develop the look of the show. (Chapter 4, "The Core Team," in our book Producing Animation, includes more information on this process and a detailed description of the role and responsibilities of a director.) In those cases where the director is already on board, he or she works with the producer to review portfolios and find the appropriate talent for the project.

In television, unlike features, the overall creative visionary on a project is the executive producer, who is often referred to as a "show runner." It is their responsibility to oversee the storytelling process and manage the directors or production designers. In both cases, the producer typically negotiates deals with the artists and creates a schedule for visual development. Working closely with the executive producer, the director, the seller and the creative executive, the producer makes sure that everybody's notes are addressed.

When a writer is attached to a television series from its inception, he or she creates a "bible" prior to writing a script. The bible sets up the concept, characters, their world and some potential story lines. Using the submitted written material, a pilot is created for the show. Note that if the property is the writer's concept, depending on their background, the writer typically plays the role of the executive producer.

In both television and features, the producer, in cooperation with the writer, generates a schedule based on the key milestones of the script as it evolves from premise to final draft. The writer is given creative notes by the producer, the director (if on board), the seller and the creative executives at every stage of the scripting process. The purpose of this input is to make sure that the script is meeting the project's creative objectives from a narrative perspective as well as in terms of character development.

It falls on the producer's shoulders to pace development appropriately, allow creativity to thrive and meet long-term schedules. Although it is essential to adhere to schedules in production, applying strict deadlines to development can at times hinder the creative process. The producer has the balancing act of ensuring that the creative team has enough time and money to achieve their artistic goals and that the quality of artwork created is suitable for production. As a result, the producer has to use his or her intuition to know when to push and when not to push. An artist's worst fear is working with a producer who has an assembly line approach toward artistic endeavors. And yet, how can network delivery deadlines be met if there is no schedule? Can a studio afford to lay off hundreds of talented and trained artists because the next project is not ready for production?

It is the nature of development to move slowly. Unlike a film in production, which has a set schedule, a concept in development can take many months -- or even several years -- before it is greenlit, as it is constantly changing and evolving. An important responsibility for the producer is to keep the buyer and other significant players excited and enthusiastic about the future product. In the case of a larger studio, one approach to getting a project funded is by obtaining the support of other division or ancillary entities within the company, such as the consumer products group or the Internet. The more revenue a project is likely to generate, the more quickly funds will be released for its production. Items that can help bolster the case for making a particular feature include a potentially successful toy line or soundtrack. Another option is to contact other division heads to see whether a feature can be made into a television series or has potential for a direct-to-video sequel.

One important item to note prior to getting into the development process is confidentiality of material. Starting at this stage of the production, it is critical for the producer to establish ground rules safeguarding the project from piracy. Confidentiality policies and procedures typically apply to script, characters and software development, and must be adhered to throughout production and post-production (i.e., story reel, dailies, rough-cut tapes, etc.).

The following topics are also covered in this chapter of Producing Animation: Visual Development, The Writing Process, Script Stages, Writer's Deals and Production Scripts.

Catherine Winder has worked as both an executive producer in television and feature animation. Her background in development, as well as production with studios from around the world has given her a rare global expertise in the field of animation. In her present position as vice president production for Fox Feature Animation, she is overseeing production of the studio's 2D traditional and 3D CGI animated movies. She has co-written Producing Animation with Zahra Dowlatabadi.

Zahra Dowlatabadi, an award-winning producer, started her animation career in 1986. Since then, Dowlatabadi has worked in almost every major studio in Los Angeles along with many internationally acclaimed animation studios and talent. Dowlatabadi is the founder of an organization entitled Animation Team, which assists studios with production staffing needs ranging from qualified line producers to experienced production assistants. She also has co-written a book entitled

Producing Animation with Catherine Winder for Focal Press.