September 22, 2018

Sublo & Tangy Mustard Writing Process

People on Twitter have asked about my writing process for Sublo and Tangy Mustard, so this post will break down each step.

I always keep an email draft going where I can whip out my phone and jot down and collect any ideas I have for plots, gags, funny bits of conversation I overhear, moments I'd like to see, weird character names, etc. Every few months I send it to myself for posterity and start a new draft. I review the notes from the last few months and sort them into things that might be usable, and group those into different subjects, for instance "Sublo and Tangy Mustard go to a friend's party" or "spooky Halloween stuff" or "gross roommate/apartment stuff" and start thinking about how to order them.

Sometimes in this stage, separate ideas come together. With "Bad Guys" I started off with the idea of having rival mascots they had to fight, and the idea for them to glue Katy to the counter when she fell asleep while Wubhamer was out at a drum circle. The two ideas initially weren't connected but I started to think "what if the reason they have to go fight these bad guys is so that they can fix the mean thing they did to Katy?" That kind of thing has happened a few times.

At every step of the writing process many ideas die (and there's even a couple of episodes I abandoned after we recorded them) but this pre-first draft stage has the most casualties.

Before actually writing a draft, I write a three-line synopsis using the PCR Method, which stands for "Problem/ Complication/ Resolution." I stole it from this site:

It's basically a very condensed three-act structure, boiling a story down to 3 bullet points. It's very useful in identifying the three main story beats and showing you if you're missing one. In particular it's good to have an idea of the ending before you start writing. My endings on Sublo and Tangy Mustard tend to be abrupt twists or disappointments. Often the joke is kind of that there isn't a satisfying ending. I think it works fine episode by episode, but taken as a whole it's a repetitive pattern I should probably break out of.

Once I have the basic story beats mapped out, I start writing, usually in chronological order. Often I'll just dump in chunks of text from those earlier brainstorming notes, to block out what will go where.

The first draft is usually about 150% the length of the final script, and tends to be very shaggy and loose. Then I step away from it for a couple of days, look back and see if there's anything especially exciting to me about the script. This is another point where some episodes stop. If I think there's a germ of a funny solid episode here, I'll go back through it and rewrite and tighten it.

Each episode is a different length. Since I have no set format, I just make them as long as I feel they should naturally be for the size of the story, but I'm generally in favour of being as concise as possible since it's less animation I have to do. An extra page of script doesn't feel like a lot but it winds up being an extra couple of weeks of work when I'm animating later on.

I set a goal - for example, get this 8-page script down to 5-pages - and see if there's any running gags or minor story thread that can just be cleanly lifted out, which usually removes out about a full page. If I can get that 8 pages down to 6, I'm close enough for the highlighting step.

I don't know if anybody else does this highlighting thing, but it's a really simple step I find helpful in tightening up a script and I recommend trying it. Basically you go through and highlight every joke or interaction that you think is really working well, that you're happy with-- all the solid moments where you think "okay, that part has to stay in." I find it faster and less painful to identify the sections that are good, than to look for what's bad.
 After going through the whole script and highlighting the good stuff, what you're left with is usually a bunch of shaggy connective tissue and maybe some surprising realizations about things that aren't working and might not even need to be in there. Often there are sections with little dialogue exchanges that don't add much, since I try to write dialogue conversationally and naturally. I either trim these down to their bare minimum, or excise these chunks completely if possible. In theory, by the end of the process your whole script will be highlighted and the exact page count you were aiming for.

Here's a highlighted page from an early draft of "Art Show." Yeah, I write without script formatting in OpenOffice and then fix it afterwards. I know you're just supposed to use Final Draft.

Since I write the entire batch of episodes at once before then recording them all together, I have some general practices I apply to all of them as well-- Emma Coats' "22 Rules of Pixar Storytelling" is useful as a reference and easy to find online. I also have my own personal list of things to look out for. To close out the post, here's my "Writing Checklist" file from the current batch of episodes. I hope this was useful, and if you want any additional info let me know either here or on Twitter!

September 15, 2018

Sublo and Tangy Mustard #11 - Art Show

I released episode 11 of Sublo and Tangy Mustard, "Art Show," last weekend just before going on a trip to Portland. This episode finds Sublo and Tangy Mustard visiting an art gallery opening at Katy's invitation, since some of her paintings are on display. It continues the thread of her artistic aspirations from episode 3, and brings back some familiar faces from episodes 4 and 8 - Katy's friend Ashley and Sublo's roommate Tito Scaggle.

This episode took me a long time, for reasons I won't get into here. So much for the "one a month" schedule I was hoping for when I started this batch, but I never really expected to maintain that pace. At this point what I planned to do over the span of a year will take closer to two years, but that's what happened with the first batch as well.

As the series goes on I want it to have a sense of continuity. The main plot of each episode should be self-contained so new viewers can follow it, but by watching them in order hopefully a larger story emerges, as we see the characters grow, their relationships evolve and the overall world of the show deepens. Many of my favourite shows are short but sweet, with a finite story told through that hybrid approach. Two examples I always think of are the original UK version of The Office, and the first two seasons of Trailer Park Boys. To me they struck a perfect balance of having satisfying standalone stories while rewarding you for watching chronologically and paying attention. Another of my favourite shows, Clone High, is maybe a more relevant example since it's animated instead of doc-style. In all these shows, everything continues to matter and have consequences from week to week.

The characters are the most important part of Sublo and Tangy Mustard but another big element to me is the specificity of the Toronto setting. Since moving from Toronto to work in LA, I'm perpetually homesick and I've come to resent the way LA infects everything in film and TV. Even if a show isn’t explicitly set here, the city and culture are usually an influence because you can't really close yourself off from your surroundings. And a lot of big cartoons are made in LA, so a lot of big cartoons all kind of feel the same.

There are plenty of shows set in LA or New York where they celebrate what makes those places unique, but not very many in Toronto, or Canada in general. And I always value work that has a strong personal point of view. So I want to make Sublo and Tangy Mustard as accurate and real to my experiences in Toronto as possible. I don't want to prioritize personal details over character and comedy, but if there’s a way to make something funny while also being specific and authentic, I prefer to do that.

An example other people have called out is in episode 4-- Sublo and Tangy Mustard go to a house party in the winter where there’s a pile of coats on the couch, and snow boots litter the front hallway. I set it in winter because that's not the default choice you usually see onscreen, and this little detail reminds me of many actual house parties I attended. Hopefully that kind of personal recollection helps to make the show richer. Bringing up The Office and Trailer Park Boys again, I always loved the regional authenticity in those shows, where the filmmakers never think twice about just portraying their world as it actually is, and you wind up with a lot of neat flavour you might not get with a fictional or more generic setting. And even if you don’t get a reference, you can tell what it means in context and you walk away with a larger cultural knowledge.

...Anyway that's all pretty lofty for a rinky-dink internet cartoon, but it's some of the stuff I think about while making it.