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Fri, Nov. 11th, 2005, 05:45 pm
A Peek into Production!

This week I've got the first installment of a series that'll tell you everything you ever wanted to know about how an episode of Codename: Kids Next Door gets made! (Well....maybe not everything, but that's what email is for!)

Today, we start from the very beginning: the story.

About a year after I joined the KND team, I started down the long and twisty road toward being a writer for the show. For a long time I helped come up with story ideas, and a few months ago I got the chance to write my very first episode. And one thing I've learned stands out ahead of everything else: writing a KND episode is a LOT harder than it looks! Even though I'd been watching Mr. Warburton, Mo Willems and Andy Rheingold do it for years, I had no idea how much work it would be! In fact, I'd say that writing that first episode was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life!

On the other hand, it's also super-interesting and lots of fun! Here's how it works:

Step One: Getting a clue

Every episode starts out as an idea. Sometimes it'll be a plot we've been talking about for a long time, but usually the starting point is a logline: a sentence or two, sometimes even a single word, that serves as a springboard for the rest of the story. In the past we've used loglines such as "butt photo blackmail," "homework-eating werewolves," "the Spinach Inquisition" and the word "Vaseball."

As he's collecting these ideas, Mr. Warburton begins to put aside the ones he especially likes and plans where he might want to put them in the season we're writing. There's a HUUUUUUUUGE bulletin board in his office, and up at the top is a line of notecards with numbers on them -- one for every episode of every season! Beneath them are more notecards with episode titles on them, and various marks that show how far they currently are in the production process. At the bottom is a row that's partly empty, with many of the episode names written in red and shuffled around every week or so. This row changes right up until the last possible minute as we make room for new ideas and get rid of old ones that haven't panned out.

Mr. Warburton and head writer Andy Rheingold come up with most of the loglines, but the rest of us at the studio will sometimes offer ideas of our own. We call these "logline pitches," and it can be very nerve-wracking as there's no way to know if our ideas will get picked. If we're lucky, though, and something we write sets off a spark in Mr. Warburton's brain, we'll walk into his office one day and see our idea pinned up on his bulletin board.

Step Two: Plotting a course and pitching a fit

Once Mr. Warburton and Andy have decided they want to turn an idea into an episode, they start the long process of figuring out what the heck is actually going to happen. One of them will spend a few days scribbling notes and drawings in his sketchbook, exploring different possibilities and hashing out bits of scenes and dialogue. Then the two of them sit down to lunch and throw ideas back and forth until they have the basic outline for the story. Once they a frame to hang the episode on, one or the other of them will take another week or so to put together a pitch.

Here at KND, pitching an episode is a little like putting on a solo stage show. First, we write the story out onto index cards (usually around 150 of them) and pin them up on Mr. Warburton's bulletin board.

Next, we pack a whole bunch of people into his not-so-big office -- usually it's Mr. Warburton; Andy; Scott Vincent, the script coordinator; Bruce Knapp, the producer; Oren Kaunfer, the post-production coordinator; Santiago DaSilva, the design coordinator; Guy Moore, the assistant director and me, the writer-in-training.

Then the writer for that episode gets up in front of everyone and tells the story, usually reading off the cards but sometimes making things up on the fly. We're a pretty goofy bunch, so there's lots of arm-waving, funny voices, shouting of sound effects...and if the writer's done their job well, bursts of uncontrollable laughter.

Finally, once the pitch itself is over, the rest of us make comments and suggestions about what we've heard. Would it be better if there were FOUR giant robots? Why did Heinrich eat that gourd? And is Numbuh Four really THAT dumb? We can get a little carried away, and sometimes this part ends up being even funnier than the pitch itself!

Then it's Scott's turn to move the process along. He records the pitch and the commentary on tape, and when we're done he numbers the pitch cards, takes them down off the wall, and uses them along with the tape to write up what we call a beat guide. When you're writing an episode, the beat guide is like GOLD -- Scott writes out the whole pitch and then puts all of the comments in context, so it's easy to see where the problems were and what needs to be fixed!

Which leads us to....

Step Three: Wrapping it up

Once the beat guide is done, it's time to sit down and write out the first draft of the script! The writer takes all of the notes from the pitch and starts revising the story, using the original pitch as a starting point. If we're lucky, there aren't many changes to make and this step doesn't take too long. But if we're not (as was the case with my first pitch, alas) the re-writes can be pretty intense! Even a small problem can mean that the whole episode needs to be taken apart and put back together again, scene-by-scene.

Eventually, though, once we've whipped the script into decent shape, it's handed back over to the other writers....who then find lots of problems with it that you never even thought of, of course, and so you write another draft. The writing process at KND is very collaborative, so once Andy has written a couple of drafts, for instance, Tom will take the script and rewrite parts of it himself.

Being a writer isn't about having all the glory and getting to do things your way, it's about making the episode as awesome as it can possibly be, so we all help each other as much as we can! We almost never write episodes based on our own loglines, and everyone has a hand in the process. While it's Mr. Warburton's vision that holds KND together, it's his team that makes it great!


If you're curious, I've got a few illustrative photos up that y'all can look at:

This is a full version of the image above -- it's Andy in the midst of a pitch!

This is what Mr. Warburton's wall looks like -- every episode we've written so far is up there! You can see a close-up of part of it here.

Tue, Jul. 11th, 2006 05:24 pm (UTC)

Man, you are SO lucky to work there, I wish I could be there! It must be so fun making up the episodes and the names for them!
Too bad you guys live in New York. I'm all the way in California. :(
Oh well, at least I get to see your show. :)

Numbuh 707

Tue, Jul. 11th, 2006 07:34 pm (UTC)

Weeeeeeeeell, considering most OTHER cartoon shows are made in California, I think you're doing all right ^_-