Q&A With Craig Young

MCMFriday, August 7, 2009

Craig Young works at Amberwood Productions, home of RollBots, where his primary function is to make me crazy. Ha! Just kidding! I was already crazy.

I thought it would be fun to chat with him about the animation industry, what it's like doing what he does, and how many wild animals he eats for breakfast. You should keep in mind that Craig tends to injure himself on a regular basis, so it's a miracle no blood was shed in the creation of this post. Oh, and I've added commentary in the square brackets. Hold on tight! Here we go!

You're a producer, right? What does a producer do? Do you make people cry?

Some would loosely call me a producer, yes. Others would most likely use something a little less flattering. Most often you'll find me eating fancy cookies or heavily debating what a pickle would say to a chicken [note: he really does this. I've seen it].

It should be noted that there's several different types of producers, a few of which would be...Executive producers - they're the head honcho on a series (typically), and usually responsible for finding all the money. Producers - just under the Exec producer...similar responsibilities but more hands on in the day to day running and management of the production. Creative Producers - these types care less about the nuts and bolts and focus primarily on storytelling and art. Line Producers - these guys are generally all about the nuts and bolts, and run and manage all the intricate details of the production...scheduling, hiring, managing, and production planning. They also lack souls [so true]. There's also the Associate Producer - this individual ranks somewhere just above a production manager, and just below a line producer. Much like the Yeti, they're not often seen in daylight in Canada ...and are more common to American productions.

Naturally, I'm a line producer...but I'm migrating slowly towards being more like one of those creative types. I need to regain my soul. However, I dearly hope I never lose my skill for making artists cry.

How long does it typically take to turn an idea into a real, live show, and why?

Oh boy....about as long as it takes a fat kid to fill up a swimming pool with his spit. Having a show picked up and produced in Canada is a lengthy process, which typically takes anywhere from 4-5 years give or take. Here's why... Typically a creator will come to a producer with an idea for a series. To blow us out of the water, that idea should contain at least a few of the following elements:

  • The Hook - what is it about the series or story that will captivate our imaginations? What twists or ideas will make it stand out from all the other stuff out there?

  • Great Characters - what is it about your character(s) that will make us sympathise, route for, laugh with/at, and care for?

  • Conflict - Without great conflict, it's pretty difficult to have great stories. What's your hero's inner conflict? What's the more obvious outer conflict?

  • Design - Do yourself a favour, if you can't draw either A) hire a proven high calibre designer, or B) Leave the designing to the production house. The WORST thing you could do is try to pitch a show with poorly executed drawings riddled throughout your document. Because most of us are very visual types, you could be setting your property up to be unfairly judged before a single word is read.

  • Know Thy Property: Even worse than a poopy design is a poopy pitch. It's one thing to be nervous, but it's another not to be able to answer simple questions about your property. You really need to set aside a good chunk of time and delve deep into what it is you're selling. Even if you've lived and breathed nothing but your baby for years, you need to think about all the angles. As mentioned, you need to know and explain why we will empathise with your hero, what his motivation is, what the set up of the story is, what your character's arc is (this applies more to action adventure rather than comedy), what are other successful antecedents, and what your own motivation for telling this story is? The more you can detail, the more likely we are to be sucked into the world you're trying to sell.

Step 1 - Pitching It to a Producer (6 months, - 1 year):

So to make a long story much longer, it's quite common that a creator will come to us with usually one of these major components missing. Joy. Typically it's design, but often there are certain holes in a property that we have to assist in filling. We do that by asking questions, giving examples, and massaging the property towards something we believe the broadcasters will buy. That process in itself can take anywhere from 3-6 months not to mention the time it took the creator to conceive the idea in the first place.

Step 2 - Pitching to The Broadcaster Part 1 (3-4 months):

Once the creator and the producer are satisfied the show is in a place where it can put its best foot forward, we take it the broadcasters. Sometimes you get lucky and broadcasters will say "YES!" right away and you can head into a development deal. More likely however, they'll give constructive advice on how to make it more appropriate for the programming they're trying to sell.

The advice given is often spot on, so don't take it too hard, cry baby. It generally serves to make your series stronger. ... but it also means more development work before you can re-pitch it. Not only do you want to rework the material, but you also want to make certain you come back to pitch with NEW material. This typically ranges from added designs, a full script, often a fully boarded sequence or two. Never come back with material packaged the exact same way you did before. In order to do all this, expect to add another 3-4 months minimum to get it right (and for both you and the producer to agree on the direction). Naturally this can happen faster, but it's been my experience that in order to do something right, you need to find the right writer, artist, and other required professionals to pull off something that will impress. Finding these individuals, getting them up to speed, and having everyone on the same page and agreeing on all points takes time. Or a gun.

Step 3 - Pitching it to The Broadcaster Part 2 (6 months - 1 year):

You've taken the broadcaster notes into account, and have worked on refocusing your pitch with the producer. On top of that, you now have some fresh new material to show! If you've really done your homework and have listened and executed accordingly (without selling your soul) you may have a shot at going into a development deal with the broadcaster. This isn't always the case, but in this day and age it's very common that the buyer will want to see a little bit more of what a show will be like before committing to a full series. Typically you're looking at a couple more scripts, further bible development, and often an animated pilot or demo ranging anywhere from 90 seconds to several minutes. Expect one more year of joy.

Step 4 - Financing It! (5-6 months):

Your demo is complete and the buyer loves it!! Yay you!!! Just a few months before production right? No way, clown. This only means the frustrating part is about to begin. First you need to finance the show, which entails about 10 different parties all signing off and waiting on the other 9 parties signature before they do so. Financing in Canada is an art in of itself, and is far from being a quick process. Expect to wait another 5-6 months before everything is set in place and full production can begin.

Step 5 - Making It! (52-80 weeks):

Ahh the good stuff! After spinning your wheels like a dummy for all those years, you're finally at the fun stage. Know that this means another year and half (give or take) to make your long overdue baby, but trust me...if you've made it to this point just enjoy the ride. Production is always a challenge when you have anywhere from 50 to 100 creative people involved, but it is truly a rewarding experience when it's all said and done. You'll miss it all once the shows been delivered, so breathe it all in, fool. You done good!! [aw shucks]

What is your favourite project you have ever worked on? (wink wink nudge nudge)

I would like to say it was anything other than your series, but sadly that would be a lie. Rollbots to date, has been the greatest experience of my career. More so than any other project, I was able to fully immerse myself in the creative along with management of the process. It's hard not to look at an episode and not see all the mistakes or things we could have done better, but it was truly a labour of love. I miss it dearly, and the yahoos that shared in the process. The gang at Elliott animation (primarily Dan, Joey, Phil, and George), Howard, Serge, and Adrian from Atomic Audio here in Ottawa, and even your silly arse made for an amazing team. I miss working with all you turds. [well done. I will return your cat by FedEx Overnight as discussed. It was a pleasure doing business with you.]

A close second was a little known series titled Untalkative Bunny. It was the greatest gathering of talent I've had the pleasure to work with to this day, and am proud to say I worked alongside the likes of Graham Falk, Nick Cross, Rob Anderson, Kristy Gordon, Tavis Silbernagel, Troy Little, Shivan Ramsaran, and Philip Craig to name a few.

Amberwood accepts pitches from just about anybody. What kinds of things do you look for in a good pitch? Cash between the pages?

Typically Scotch or a fancy cookie. I believe I covered this earlier, so I won't bore you again with the details. However, I will add that packaging your pitch in creative manner does help to gain attention. It's not necessary, but if it's done right...it's hard not to notice projects locked inside a time machine.

What is the most common mistake people make when conceptualizing a cartoon show?

I think the most common mistake is that they focus too much on the hook of the series, and not enough on character development. A series won't have legs if you don't care about the characters...they need to speak to you in some manner.

What's popular in the market right now? Show about bunnies? It's shows about bunnies, isn't it?

It's shows about eating bunnies and selling their feet to the mafia actually. In truth, I feel there's little point in saying what's hot right now. The market is simply too cyclical to try and sort out what direction you should be aiming in. Create what you love, and chances are during the next few years it will hit a sweet spot if it's an idea worth making. I can tell you that boys comedy aimed at around 10-11 years of age is popular at the moment, but next year it could be boy’s action. Again, do what speaks to you and your chance of capturing the imagination of the buyers is possible. Doing something just because it's trendy is usually a recipe for disaster.

Which do you personally prefer, traditional animation or heathenistic computerizational animation?

I used to strongly prefer 2D classical animation (pencil drawn) as I found the design, timing, and acting conveyed were FAR superior to 3D animation. Bob Clampet, Tex Avery, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball...far too many to name; these guys understood and mastered every aspect of design, timing, and acting...every shot served a purpose. It was hilarious, beautiful and heart warming to watch.

Then 3D animation came along and started spewing out weightless moving characters, with no sense of timing, who on top of it all were completely void of life. I hated it with a passion! ...but slowly people started to catch on and realized if you brought on old school animators who understood the fundamentals you could actually produce something of amazing quality. While there may not be a ton of great 3D animation out there that I love, it's certainly starting to get there qualitatively. I'm the first to admit I'm now a huge Pixar fan.

What's in the works now? Can you tell me? I promise I won't tell anyone.

I'm currently working on a new 3D preschool series called Rob The Robot. I guess its suits my juvenile nature, as I'm really enjoying it. The director on the series is actually the same fellow that supervised that overseas animation on Rollbots! [I have seen it, and it is quite amazing]Aside from that we're doing a 4th season of Benjamin Bear, and working on a few other series that are in development. Those I can't tell you about...unless you want to be knee capped again [those weren't my knees].

Any last words?

Send scotch...my back is killing me!

Watch RollBots on YTV in Canada, the CW4Kids in the US (starting in September) and worldwide at various moments in history I cannot begin to articulate. Also, please send Craig scotch. He hurt his back just answering these questions, so he obviously needs it.

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