Writing for Animation: Interview with writer and animator Stephen Leonard

This week’s interview is with writer and animator Stephen Leonard, whose most recent accomplishments include making two shows for Dreamworks TV. He talks about how he got into writing for animation, how to build your own opportunities, and his journey from being a production assistant to getting paid to create his own ideas.

Let’s dive in:

How long did you work on SAMMY ‘N’ AMY, which premiered July 2016?

The last week of December 2015 was when it got greenlit, so it was from then until mid-May.

So you do everything – write, produce, animate? 

Yes. So, I have actors who do voices and I have a composer who does music, and I do everything else.

Has that always been your process?

Until I sold my first show, THE DUELING KAPOWSKIS, to Dreamworks, no one would pay me to do anything in animation. I was trying to get into anything I could – as a PA – any department in animation. I was qualified enough to be a PA. I could do backgrounds. I could do coloring. I could do animation. Storyboards. Writing. And I just couldn’t get anything. So, I had to do everything myself.

I’m a writer first. That’s why I moved out here – to write. I had to get better and learn everything as I went because I thought, well, I’m going to have all these scripts that never get produced, so I might as well start making them myself. So I did. Then I guess it just kind of lined up. That’s exactly what Dreamworks TV was looking for because they had super small budgets.

I either have to do it myself or do it at a discount. So, that worked out kind of nicely. If they would have ordered more episodes, I would have outsourced some of it – backgrounds or some of the animation. But it was enough that I could handle it on my own.

So you said you moved out here for writing. When was the transition of “I’m going to write” to “I’m going to create?”

It was actually before I moved to LA. I moved here in the beginning of 2008. In the beginning of 2006, I was like, let me see if I can draw anything. Let me see if I can animate. And I was just using video editing software to animate. So I animated in Final Cut, but I was still drawing frame to frame stuff. I didn’t realize how many frames it took, so everything looked awful. I would draw something on paper, scan it in, and repeat with the next drawing and the next drawing. Color them and animate them and learn how to do it that way. For the first four years, that’s how I did everything – on paper. So it took forever. And I got to the ceiling of how good I could really get because I really didn’t know if the way it was animated was going to look good until I was at the end of the process, and it was in the computer, and I could look at it.

You’re self-taught.

Yes. I had to get good at everything. I eventually went to a tablet, and I was able to do everything quicker. I had to get better in order to survive. Just to make myself better, too.

The whole thing has been a way of convincing people, “Look, my scripts are good. I should get a writing job.” And no one would read my scripts, so I had to make it into a cartoon to show them my writing is good.

When I made something where the animation wasn’t that great, but the writing, I thought, was good, I just kept thinking, “Well, I have to make the animation better; that way it seems more legit.” So even if the writing is good or not, it seems better if the quality of animation is better, too. So I kept gradually finding out how to make things better and better.

My plan all along was that I needed to do this good enough, so that people will say hey, this guy is a good writer, let’s pay him to just write. Then someone who’s better at animating can animate. So that’s kind of how that happened. Gradually I got better until someone started paying me to do everything instead of just one thing. Ideally, I still would like to get paid to do just one thing because if I’m on a show for a bigger network, then I’ll be paid three times more than I would to do everything. So that’s still the goal.

Dueling Kapowskis

What were you doing the whole time that you were writing on the side and animating on the side?

When I first moved out here, I was trying to find a writers’ PA job or any kind of PA job so that I could work in the writers’ room. The first job I got was on a reality show, some awful dating show that no one would watch. And I did a few shows with that company, and it was just way too much work, too little money. It wasn’t what I wanted to do anyway. At least it was in the industry. So, I did that stuff. Then when that dried up, I did freelancing.

I did freelance animation stuff and that’s really hard to find work in or, when you do find it, it’s a lot of work for very little money, so you just kind of hate working on it and following up with people to get them to pay you. I did that for a little bit, while still trying to still get hired an actual show. And then finally, in my third year here or so, I finally got something. Because you have to know someone to get any kind of job, luckily my roommate was working on CALIFORNICATION on Showtime. And they were looking for two PAs for THE OFFICE. So I was like oh sweet, I’m in. If they were looking for one there might be some competition, but with two positions available there’s one to spare. I got in there and worked on that for about 3 years. So, that would be for five or six months in the summer, and I would spend the winters working on my own stuff and pitching.

By then I had moved out here to write for a sitcom or live action or animation – like FAMILY GUY or 30 ROCK – I could write all of it. No one ever wanted to read my live action scripts. It’s hard enough. Everyone is like, “I have a script.” Even if they liked it, what are they going to do? Unless it’s someone who’s actually hiring or has some sort of pull somewhere, it’s not going to lead to anything anyway. But the fact that I actually make my own cartoons is what got me in the door pitching cartoons.

A couple weeks after I was out here, I was looking for networking things. I found one where I met someone in a Disney shorts program. I kind of started pitching stuff to them. Exactly a year after I was out here, I got in the door at FOX. I started pitching at FOX. I just kept kind of getting these meetings. And everywhere I wanted a meeting I could get it because I could send them a link that says, “Here look. I actually make stuff. I don’t just write scripts. I’m not going to send you a script to read.” They don’t want to read more scripts. It’s like, “Here, watch this two minute cartoon. It will be over in two minutes and you can judge how good it is or not.”

So that’s why it turned into just animation, because that kept opening doors. Even while I was working on live action stuff, I would still spend half of the year working on that and just making money to live off of the other half of the year. That eventually dried up, and it was probably a year that I was unemployed, still trying to find anything I could. I couldn’t find any way into an animated show. And then, I sold a show to Dreamworks.

So you went in and pitched something or you showed them a mock up?

They had an agent I met with. I sent them a link. Actually, three or four different people in one week were like you need to email this lady at Dreamworks TV. They’re looking for people who make cartoons. Random people just emailed me, so I guess I should email this person. I actually knew her through a mutual friend who didn’t work in LA anymore. I had never met her, but I was like, “Hey, we know this person.” I sent her a link to my stuff. They saw it and they were like, “Oh, it’s not god awful – like you’re drawing with a mouse. Come in and pitch us stuff.”

I went in for a general meeting. They told me what stuff they’re looking for, what exactly they’re doing, time frame, all that kind of stuff. I didn’t pitch them anything initially, but I just kind of went to hear what they were looking for. I went home, looked through my pile of ideas for what would fit what they’re looking for. One of them, I think, I had already developed and the other I just kind of made up right then. And that was the one they liked.

That was DUELING KAPOWSKIS. It was based on a little idea I had written – people doing everyday situations in anime style. Okay, I can turn that into something. It turns into a brother and sister – what do they do? They fight every day, but they do it in anime style. That kind of became that. I didn’t even pitch them. I just kind of emailed them the materials.

The same thing happened with SAMMY ‘N’ AMY. When I was finishing up the first show, they just said, “Do you have something else you’re excited to work on? We want to make another show with you.” So I did. They said no. I sent them three more. And they said none of them were any good. I had to send them, like, ten ideas for them to finally pick one. Then that was SAMMY ‘N’ AMY, which I think is a far better show than the first one. But it was harder to get them to make it.

What’s your writing process?

Generally, it’s getting to the point where I try not to waste as much time as possible. I try to either, if I have a meeting with someone or I know I can get in the door with someone, then I will kind of develop something for that. So if it’s for Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon, they look for different little things – whether it’s going to be character driven or content driven, action, comedy, how cartoony… so I’ll try to think in terms of who do I want to pitch this to.

And I’ll have a general idea that I can kind of change here or there. But if I’m writing the actual script, I’ll try to think of, okay, I want to have a sample for cable or broadcast network. I have that in mind and then I develop the idea from that. How far can I go as far as visuals, as far as gore and nudity and swearing and all that kind of stuff. If it’s an adult thing or an animated thing. What kind of visuals? Is it simple or is it super cartoony.

Then I’ll go ahead and develop it and write it. Also, that way I’ll know if it is an adult thing that it’ll be a 22-minute episode or full half hour. It it’s for kids it can be a full 22-minute show or it might be 11-minute episodes. I might develop something shorter and say, “Let me see if I can develop this into short content that can also be longer.” Maybe I can make it so that it’s 11 minutes or maybe I can spit this out as 3-minute episodes depending on who I’m pitching to because now a lot of places are going towards digital, where they want something that can be about 3 minute episodes. I just kind of keep those things in mind.

You are a really self-motivated person. You know what you want to do and you do it. A lot of people have a lot of fear that gets in the way of that.

You don’t want to sit down and write something that you look at and say, “I’m a terrible writer, why am I doing this.”

So did you ever have any self-doubt at all or did you just push past it?

I just try not to think about it. Definitely the more rejection you get, the more you doubt if you’re any good. Clearly, you’re even doubting getting through this wall that’s in front of you. So I keep looking at myself, I’ll go through it and go through it and I’ll get notes from people. And if everyone I know said it’s good, and I think it’s good, what’s the problem? There’s that which can stand in front of you.

Stephen Leonard

Rough designs for a comedic short toon about depression by Stephen Leonard

But yeah, I’m self-motivated. I just want to make stuff for people to watch. So, if I never do succeed…

You already are succeeding!

Well, I’ve guess I’ve already sold two shows, but it’s not my goal. I want to make a show that’s multiple seasons, a full-length show. Multiple people other than me just making it, so the quality will be higher, and there’s more money put into it. And then I’m more comfortable, so once I finish a job I don’t immediately have to find the next thing. I can take time to develop things.

What’s next for you? You’ve wrapped on SAMMY ‘N’ AMY. Are you creating the next thing?

I have a couple scripts I’ve already written. I’ve already gone and storyboarded a few of them too because I’m trying to look for jobs as a storyboard artist to get on a different show, or a storyboard revisionist, which is kind of a lower level artist and then you move up. But yeah, I’m basically just trying to have samples ready or just have things I can pitch ready and develop new ideas that are loose enough that once I find someone to pitch to I can kind of tailor it to them.


Storyboard by Stephen Leonard

And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve set up meetings and pitched to some places last week. And even though I’ve pitched, I’m not going to sit at home waiting by the phone, so I’m making new stuff. I’m always trying to draw – get better at drawing, get better at poses, design new characters, so that I am a better board artist. I’ve been doing gif stuff and website stuff just to make sure my best stuff is out there, so if I am applying for storyboard artist jobs, I have top notch samples.

Even while I was working on KAPOWSKIS, I was pitching stuff to Cartoon Network trying to get the next thing going. And while I was working on SAMMY ‘N’ AMY, I went and pitched my short idea to Nickelodeon. So I had to develop that show and that idea, then storyboard it because they wanted a complete storyboard to be pitched to them. I had to take a week off of my SAMMY ‘N’ AMY work to do that. It’s easier when you already have a pile of ideas or even just ideas plus designs, that way I don’t have to make up new designs while I’m working on something. And that way when I get meetings, I have a pile of stuff and don’t have to work and develop new stuff at the same time.

Always try to be developing new stuff. I run into a bunch of new people that have that problem. They think, “This is my idea. This is what’s going to make me big and make me rich.”

And what they don’t get is like, if you do sell it, or if an agent takes you on – if that’s your goal to get an agent – the first thing the agent is going to ask is, “Okay, so what else do you have?” They don’t just want to sell one thing. They want to keep selling.

[bctt tweet=”The first thing the agent is going to ask is, “Okay, so what else do you have?” #screenwriting” username=”Any_Possibility”]

A lot of people don’t really get that. And then they look at what I do, and they’re like, look at all of this stuff. Maybe a lot of it’s garbage but look at all the stuff you’ve made. You always have something else so that if I have like 10 different shows that I’ve made on my site, if someone clicks through them and they like one of them, they’ll be like, okay I like this – maybe not for our network to make this show, but he must have something else. So they’ll ask, “Okay, what else do you have that’s along the lines of this?” I’ll try to have something ready or at least have a couple loose ideas that I can then quickly develop and figure something out.

But that’s kind of the important part too. If your goal is to create a show, which I think every writer wants to do, even if they’re like I’m good being a staff writer for my career, you still want to have original pilots because often times that’s how you get staffed. People don’t necessarily want to read specs scripts of existing shows; they want to read spec pilots. So you still need to be able to develop new stuff and new ideas. You just always want to have a pile of new stuff that’s ready to go.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

It was on one of the first couple of movies that I worked on after college.  My boss was just awful. She was lazy. She’d take a smoke break every ten minutes, so I’m stuck in the office doing her work. She’d give her work for her next job on the current show to me, and I’m like no. This is your job. And when she’d mess up, she’d blame me – all that stuff.

So, some of the guys in the department that I got along with and liked, one of them said, “This show is like any other. Eventually it will end.” So in the entertainment industry, ideally you want to work with everyone you like because it’s supposed to be a fun job and a fun industry. We’re not sitting here doing some sort of boring paperwork job. It’s a creative process. So it should be fun. But if you’re in a position where you really hate your boss or you hate someone else in the writers’ room or whatever, and it’s just unbearable to stay, eventually this job is going to end. It’s not like I’m going to be here for 30 years on this show working for this person.

So that makes it easier. If you start getting too frustrated with something, it’s still short term. I think that was always good for me. Because there were definitely some times where I was like, man, I cannot deal with this person more than a couple of months. Plus, you don’t have to.

It’s also just kind of the mindset that maybe someone thinks that about you. So always put your best foot forward because in a couple of months or when the show ends, you’re going to be looking for another job. You don’t want to be unbearable to work with.

What’s your best advice for people aspiring to do what you do?

Stay proactive and don’t sit on a script that you think, “This is my good script.” Because you may look at it in a year and be like, that script wasn’t that good. I was just waiting to get a job from that? Always keep making new stuff. If you’re a writer, you’re writing. Or find some other little thing you can do to separate yourself.

[bctt tweet=”Stay proactive and don’t sit on a script that you think, “This is my good script.” #screenwriting” username=”Any_Possibility”]

That’s how I got into animating, I didn’t always draw. I was 26 when I started drawing because I made a movie, and was like no one is ever going to see it. How do you shoot something and get anyone to see it unless you have a big name in it or it’s some mind blowing new idea? So, I was like maybe I can do cartoons. Not that many people do cartoons.

I started drawing awful cartoons, and people were suddenly interested. And even when I moved to LA, I would go to some networking things and would be like, “I’m a writer,” and people would go “eh.” But then I would introduce myself and say, “I make cartoons,” everyone’s like “oh.” It’s a much better reaction because it’s some other thing you can do that’s not just, “Oh, I’m a writer.”

Always find some way to separate yourself from other people.

For more ideas on how to become an animator, check out this post from Zippia