Tuesday 4 September 2018

What the world of TV can learn from the world of books - or maybe not.

This blog was supposed to be about what the TV world could learn from the world of books, but it’s morphed into something else really.

I started to think about that question, and the one thing that really sprung to mind was the idea of respecting the story. One thing the book world does really well is that it respects the author and it respects the story. And when I say ‘respects the author’ I mean it respects the unique talent that the author can bring to the table. There are other issues with regards to payment and communication that belong in another blog, but when it comes to creative choices made about my words I feel I am asked and listened to before a change is made.

The same cannot always be said of the world of TV. As a TV writer I am part of a much larger creative process. When I write a book the creative input is usually limited to three or four people – my editor, my agent, my illustrator and myself. When I write a TV episode all that changes.
If I’m not the head writer on the show then I need to get my idea past them – they may have suggestions. Then there’s the producer, the executive producer and the broadcasters (of which there may be at least four). On a recent show I counted up the email chain and there were twenty five people cc’d from one broadcaster alone, if there are four broadcasters you can multiply that by four!
They all have a say on my story. I have to do a pitch and outline and at least three drafts before my story is signed off and they’ve all had a say.

You’d think that story would be fairly locked by the end of all that, but you’d be wrong. I’m just the first part of the process. It then goes to the voice talent and voice director who may want to play around with the lines a little. After that is goes to a storyboard artist who turns my words into a visual form through a storyboard and then an animatic. They may need to chop and change to make the story fit the creative visual choices they would like to make.

More often animated shows are being driven by storyboard artists. Their creative input is vital but can also fundamentally change the way a story is told. The Amazing World of Gumball is at the vanguard of this. I co-wrote the episode this clip comes from, but as you can see from the visual, really, who has had the final creative say here? Not me! But I love what they’ve done!

Then we go to the animators and director who bring it all together.

It might be 18 months before I see the finished result of a story I started with my words. It’ll say ‘written by’ front and centre, but sometimes – not often, but enough to notice – it won’t be much like the thing I wrote and I won’t have been contacted once in all that time to see if I agree with the choices made, but my name is there reagrdless.

I get paid much more to write a TV episode than I do to write a book, however my creative input feels much less when it comes to story. It seems strange to be paid for expertise, but then not to be called upon throughout in order for the show to benefit from that expertise. I understand why – time is money, there’s a schedule to hit and a production company is also paying lots of other people very well to make their creative choices too.

When I get asked what I prefer to write – TV or books – I answer that they each give me different things.  I have much more creative control over my books, but my mortgage doesn’t get paid. I have much less creative control over the TV shows I write, but I’m paid well enough to be able to write the books. Eventually... 

So it’s not a bugbear, and it’s not really what the world of TV could learn from books. It’s more that it’s nice to be respected in a world of words and sometimes I take that for granted. 


Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating to learn about how the different worlds work - and love the illustrations!

Dan Metcalf said...

Great piece Ciaran!

Ciaran Murtagh said...

Thanks guys - glad you liked it. Written in a flurry of kitchen builders and post holiday panic, so perhaps better for not over thinking it !

Penny Dolan said...

A great "grass may not be greener" reminder about all art forms having their limits and strengths. Thanks, Ciaran.

Some time ago I wrote a few educational animation scripts and learned that the characters really had to voice the learning points straight and emphatically. Any gently nuanced phrases that might suit a picture book just wouldn't work when set against so much distracting activity and action.