[IN THE TRENCHES] Odd Jobs

When you’re starting out in the entertainment industry (or perhaps navigating a dry spell), you may just find yourself doing a few odd jobs here and there. Something to bridge the gaps and pay the bills.

"Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue"
This is about as odd as it gets

Nothing illegal, of course.

Probably.

Then again, this is Hollywood we’re talking about.

Don’t do anything illegal, people!

PA, or Production Assistant – one of the most common first jobs in the business – is almost entirely composed of odd jobs. But it can get subdivided into even odder specifics.

Some friends of mine spent a summer being “Parking PA’s.” That gig is primarily about keeping streets clear overnight so that production vehicles have space to park the next day.

I believe one of the highlights for them was watching over character Billy Batts‘ shallow grave for Goodfellas.

That right there goes to show you that odd jobs can create lifelong memories. And a fine collection of good stories.

Here are a few of mine…

Dangerous

Looking for work early in my industry tenure, I got a short term gig on a behind-the-scenes shoot for Propaganda Films.

I don’t really remember how it came about, but I think I temporarily filled in for a PA and mostly worked at the Propaganda offices. Mostly.

Michael Jackson's "Black or White" video crew badge. MJJ Productions.
A made man

One day I got to be at the rehearsal stage in the middle of Hollywood somewhere.

Which is when Michael Jackson walked through the lobby with a couple members of Another Bad Creation.

The video was Black or White and Jackson was kind of at the height of his career, so it was a pretty cool moment. At the time, anyway. Definitely lost some of that sheen since.

One of the things that video is famous for is the morphing faces at the end, which was something no one had really seen used so effectively before.

Which is a prefect segue to yet another kind of “Morphin….”

Rangers, Mighty Morphin Power

At one point while at NYU, I filled in on sound for a student film. Not because it was something I was interested in, but because so few students seemed to want the gig in general. But it still had to get done.

This led to other student directors hearing about it and asking me to do audio for their projects. Thankfully, not too many.

Anyway, I guess this ended up being a skill set I sort of reluctantly backed into.

Cut to years later and I’m looking for work. A friend of a friend was doing audio for the Power RangersLightspeed Rescue edition – and needed a boom operator to fill in for a day.

Before I could come to my senses, I was in a parking structure in downtown Los Angeles. Sort of near where the locals serve Jury Duty (also reluctantly).

Anyway, it was stressful as I hadn’t done it professionally before and a boom mic in the shot was not a good thing to let happen. After a few set-ups, though, it didn’t even matter anymore.

The production realized they didn’t need sync sound for the action scenes they were doing, so I was sent home. Still, I got paid for a full day with both time-and-a-half and double time because it was a weekend.

And I got to be a (very) a small part of an iconic franchise. Win win.

The King

"On the Road with B.B. King" CD-ROM
A man and his Lucille

Speaking of icons, while working at Wolfcrest Entertainment, we got subcontracted to write an interactive digital biography of B.B. King.

In addition to lots of research, we were flown to Las Vegas to see B.B. in concert, and then interview him in his trailer afterwards.

It was an amazing experience, especially when he referred to me as a “rebel.” I had long hair at the time, so I suppose it was pretty obvious that convention wasn’t for me. B.B. got it.

Ultimately, the company we were working with lost the gig and On the Road with B.B. King was finished without us. Nevertheless, the audio from our talk was used in the final product, including some laughing from we interviewers.

Connected with a blues guitar legend for all of eternity? Check.

Authors Authors

The Rock Bottom Remainders were a garage band made up primarily of authors. An amateur supergroup that would perform at certain book-related functions with proceeds going to charities. Members included Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and Matt Groening.

A made-for-video documentary of the band was conceived and produced, and I was right in the thick of it.

Stephen King of "The Rock Bottom Remainders"
I put that mic on his collar

Returning yet again to my dubious audio skills, I ended up recording most of the interviews, in addition to possibly pushing the dolly during the concert taping.

My credit reads, “Video / Audio Engineer,” which seems like a very generous description of my contribution.

Actually, working on interviews might just be my odd job forte…

Rock and Roll Tape

My very first job after college was working at the syndicated series, Night Flight. One of the Segment Producers there was particularly interested in music and managed to arrange a few interviews with touring bands when they were in town.

Someone had to shoot them, of course, so this is where I came in. I can’t remember all the artists, but I think I shot Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin‘, and I definitely did The Godfathers and Sisters of Mercy, since I still have the invoices.

No one ever tells you, but the most important part of blogging is a bulletproof filing system.


In the end, even the most unusual jobs can still lead to a paycheck, network connection, or your own grab bag of memories. So keep you mind open and ear to the ground and one day you too can share your tales with the world.

Actually, why wait? Ever have any interesting or bizarre industry jobs? Dry cleaning, perhaps? Babysitting? Body disposal?

Let me know in the comments!

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Episodes

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" episode tally as of Spring 2022.
Good luck coming up with something they haven’t done yet

This isn’t a post about the hilarious (but painfully accurate) sitcom, Episodes.

You should check that out, though, if you haven’t. Highly recommended for anyone in general, but even more so for writers.

No, this post is about the sometimes difficult task of coming up with stories when writing for a series. A difficult task we all very much want to be saddled with. When you get an opportunity to write a freelance episode, you jump at it.

Obviously, you start by doing your homework. You watch episodes of the show if they’re already available. If not, the story editor will likely provide you with the show bible and a few completed scripts.

Additionally, you might get a list of loglines for all episodes that have been produced or are in the process of being written. This is to give you an idea of what the stories for the show are like, and – more importantly – identify which ones are already “taken.”

Once you’re up to speed, it’s time for your imagination to get to work.

First and foremost, the series concept and characters are what’ll drive your inspiration. Make sure you dive into that world and explore. Ideas will likely just pop into your head. Some great, some less great, and more than a few half-baked. That’s what we call an excellent start.

But what if you draw a blank for some reason? Or the show has already done all the stories that leapt to mind?

Well, then it’s time to work your craft and manufacture that art.

Write What you Know

Your life and the life of the people around you is where a lot of stories come from. They’re identifiable, they’re real, and they’re dramatic.

If you’re working on a series about super spies saving the world, your life experiences might not end up generating your “A” stories. But they can still provide a nice subplot that’s emotional and gives even a super spy relatable struggles.

Search the Stacks

Barnes & Noble bookstore at the Americana at Brand in Glendale, CA.
For Inspiration and coffee

I’ve talked about visiting libraries and bookstores in the past. There, you can feed off all the stories that came before the one you’re about to create.

Sometimes, just seeing book cover art and reading titles on spines can provide a source of inspiration for something brand new.

It’s also a reminder of iconic storylines and paradigms that can be modified to almost any setting or character. Myths, legends, and fables. All ripe for the picking.

Who knows, maybe even a biblical story could be adapted into an Emmy-winning Ted Lasso episode.

Rip From the Headlines

Hard to type the following words these days, but the news can actually be your friend. On television, on websites, even printed on paper, are example after example of dramatic real-life stories. Life and death. Love and hate. A rich tableau.

Shows like Law and Order even go out of their way to promote the episodes inspired by current events.

An extension of this same type of leaping off point is the documentary category on every streaming service. Some facts are just begging to become fictionalized.

Put Some Lipstick on That Pig

Let’s not forget the classics. Storylines that come up again and again in popular culture.

For me, there are some concepts that I’m naturally drawn to. Favorite themes. Tropes, I suppose.

Archrivals teaming up to battle a common enemy. Or its flipside of two friends becoming temporary enemies. A character searching for something before realizing they had it the whole time.

The trick here is to take these classics and come at them from a new angle or with a new twist, specific to the series and characters.

If you reach the point where you have someone on two separate dates at the same time, or a parent trying to surreptitiously replace their kid’s deceased pet, you might want to go back to the drawing board.

Or just make it your own.

Bank It

Typically, you might pitch three or four story ideas at a time. Of those, you’ll probably only get one or two approved.

Don’t abandon your rejects.

While you’ll likely be most focused on writing out the approved episodes, take a minute and “bank” your rejected storylines.

You worked hard on those pitches. Make sure you add them to a separate and ongoing “story library” document. That way, when you’re trying to come up with new stories on subsequent series, you’ll have a deep well to draw from.

Granted, you’re not likely to be able to use your rejected magical princesses stories for your preschool talking trucks series. But you might be able to use your rejected talking truck series ideas for a subsequent talking car series. Or maybe a talking bicycle series.

You get the idea.

And getting the idea is the entire point.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] For Your Consideration

DVD feature screeners for 2021/2022
Have you considered any of them?

Every year, the entertainment industry goes through several prolonged Awards Seasons.

With film, it’s usually the end of the year for the releases themselves, while the campaigns carry over into the next one.

That covers a slew of ceremonies, including the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Critics Choice, PGA, and of course, the Oscars.

Television is also included in the Golden Globes, but is more specifically associated with the Emmys. Beyond those are even more subdivisions of guilds, genres, and even mediums.

So how does someone go about getting one of these shiny trophies?

Unfortunately, just making a great movie or show won’t do it. Therefore, studios and production companies need to reach out and bribe voters.

Boxes and boxes of Amazon Studio offerings for your consideration.
Box of Amazon Goodies, anyone? Perhaps two?

Just kidding.

Kind of.

The truth is there are so many movies and series out there – possibly more than ever – that it’s a huge chore to make an audience aware your project even exists. That’s a big first hurdle to overcome before they can even begin to evaluate its merits.

Enter the Award Season’s first cousin, the Screener Season.

For quite awhile, if you were eligible to vote for one of these bits of media, you received envelopes of theatrical screening schedules, along with a glorious influx of silver gold.

For months, your mailbox would fill with a near endless supply of DVD screeners vying for your consideration. If you were eligible to vote for more than one of these awards, you’d even get your share of duplicates.

These days, DVDs are phasing out as more screeners have migrated to online digital versions.

Regardless of the platform, these screeners are always pushed out side-by-side with email promotions, magazine ads, and commercials designed to entice potential voters to watch (or just remember and vote out of familiarity).

Amazon Studios Screener gizmo.
I mean what is it? Can it see me?

Some studios – most noticeably the deep-pocketed Amazon – go even further, sending their screeners in tiny pink suitcases to promote the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, accompanied by crayons and microwave popcorn for Uncle Frank, or bundled into some sort of USB wireless hotspot for… well, I don’t know.

I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do with that thing.

All of that, and I’m not even in the Television or Film Academy. The most they can get out of me is a WGA or SAG-AFTRA award.

That being said, every nomination, and especially every win, goes a long way toward marketing and promoting those films.

This is a business, after all, and that’s how the award sausage is made.

In a crazy coincidence, I’m looking to my super-intelligent and good-looking blog readers for a little consideration myself.

For Your Consideration (Seriously)

The Mike Wieringo Comic Book Industry Awards – more commonly known as The Ringo Awards – recently opened up to nominations for work released in the 2021 calendar year. Both pros and fans alike are eligible to vote (that means us).

So, if you’ve ever enjoyed anything I wrote here (or hated it all, but would like to be fashionably ironic), please consider clicking over and writing in my indie graphic novel, Blowback, and all the creatives that made it happen (voting ends June 30th).

Here’s a handy dandy guide with the specifics. Feel free to cut-and-paste…

BEST WRITER
James Hereth & Rhonda Smiley – Blowback
BEST ARTIST
Kev Hopgood – Blowback
BEST INKER
Kev Hopgood – Blowback
BEST LETTERER
Kev Hopgood – Blowback
BEST COLORIST
Charlie Kirchoff – Blowback
BEST COVER ARTIST
Kev Hopgood – Blowback
BEST ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVEL
Blowback
FAVORITE HERO
Sgt. Davis – Blowback
FAVORITE VILLAIN
Captain Martell – Blowback
FAVORITE NEW TALENT
James Hereth & Rhonda Smiley

For You Consideration in the Ringo Awards, indie graphic novel, Blowback.
Thank you in advance for the support

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[ETCETERA] Overwhelm

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy knows best

Overwhelm. It’s a far too familiar feeling.

True, you can be overwhelmed with joy. That’s a good thing. But just plain overwhelm? That’s a drag.

Life can be a lot for most of us.

There’s the day job. Trips to the grocery store. Laundry, housekeeping, bills. Add in an aspiration to create (while also writing a blog about it), and it can just be too much sometimes.

So what do you do?

Take a Mental Step Back

Straight up stop what you’re doing for a beat. A big sigh is good. Some deep breathing. Filling your lungs with air and exhaling completely

I find repeatedly telling myself “Don’t panic” can help (seriously). “We’ll get there,” is another mumbled mantra. Just like writing a script, one page at a time, and you eventually end up where you’re heading.

Let Someone Else Calm Your Nerves

Have you heard of Bob Ross?

Give Bob Ross some of your time. He’s not with us any longer, but he can still help. Click on any of the 403 episodes of The Joy of Painting and feel some of that tension float away like a happy little cloud.

The hair is part of the magic

You can also try nature sounds like babbling brooks. Maybe videos of puppies. Do some digging around on YouTube and find your own personal go-to blood-pressure-reducer.

Evaluate the Causes

Are you taking on too much?

Is everything on your plate equally important, or can you prioritize?

Consider scheduling things out at a more relaxed pace. Look at your week, month, and year and figure out what you can reasonably get done, and when.

Maybe you can tackle some projects in the summer, or even next year.

Be Your Own Marie Kondo

Are you working on things that no longer bring joy? Just having all these projects stacked up in your metaphorical inbox can steadily crush you over time. Maybe you can drop some.

You should definitely drop some.

Gently put them on the shelf until you’re interested again. Create an archive folder on your computer where they can comfortably hibernate while you gradually forget about them.

Wait until some future inspiration gives those ideas fresh life and then pluck them out of the mothballs and put ’em back in the rotation.

Give Yourself a Break

80’s Pop Culture Reference. Ask your Parents

A downside of being a creative means constantly having homework. But nobody can do it all, all the time.

That kind of drain can paralyze and depress.

Give yourself a pass every once in a while. In fact, pass on things more often.

We’re only human (or reasonable facsimiles). Saying no to projects or favors or just making time for yourself to do absolutely nothing doesn’t make you less of an artist. But it can make you less stressed.

Oh, the rejuvenating joy of a nap on the couch.

Get Whelmed

Overwhelm is bad, but underwhelm isn’t so hot either. In the end, it’s all about finding some sort of balance.

Remember, being creative is important. But mental health is more important.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Take Me to the Pilot

Otto Pilot and Julie Hagerty in "Airplane!" (1980).
Not that kind of pilot

New Year. New work.

Rhonda Smiley and I are starting off 2022 by writing a spec pilot for a spec series that we ex-spec-t someone to love in the near future.

Well, hope anyway.

Writing is rarely easy as it is, but it’s much harder to write a pilot than it is to write an episode of an existing show.

Existing shows have known characters, a world the reader is familiar with, and a wealth of history. You just have to get in that sandbox and play.

A pilot, on the other hand, starts with nothing at all. Everything that show is supposed to be, you have to lay out for the very first time.

How the hell do you pull that off?

I’m not Chuck Lorre or Shonda Rhimes, so I don’t have all the answers. Ironically, what I have instead, are some of the questions…

HOW LONG [Ace]

What’s your show’s duration?

This one’s pretty simple. Is it a half-hour sitcom? An animated kid’s show with two fifteen minute segments? Maybe an hour-long drama.

Extreme Team, a TV movie I co-wrote, served as a two hour pilot for an hour-long show. I think most networks would be more receptive to an hour-long script for an hour-long show, but

A two hour project could potentially be tweaked to a standalone feature spec if it doesn’t get sold in its original form. Recycling is good for the environment after all.

MY HOMETOWN [Bruce Springsteen]

Where does it take place?

You’re going to have to establish the world your series is set in. Is it the present day? Maybe it’s a period piece.

Is it in a small town? Big city? Outer space, perhaps? Maybe it’s in the Quantum Realm.

If it’s a traditional three camera sitcom, you also need to establish your standing sets.

WHO ARE YOU [The Who]

Annie Murphy, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, and Dan Levy in the pilot episode of "Schitt$ Creek" (2015).
This kind of pilot. This kind of pilot would be ideal.

Who are your primary characters?

More than a format, a television series is about the people who inhabit the show.

The protagonist. The antagonist. The wacky next door neighbor. The will-they-or-won’t-they couple.

If these parts aren’t engaging, charismatic, and multi-dimensional, no one is going to want to tune in week after week (or hour after hour in the binge-watching era).

I’VE GOT A FEELING [The Beatles]

What is the genre and tone of the series?

A comedy needs to be funny. A drama filled with conflict. If it’s a mystery, we better be desperate to see how it gets solved or you’re dead in the water.

Beyond that is the tone, the voice of the series. Is it gritty, supernatural, or absurdist? That needs to come out in the writing.

SCENARIO [A Tribe Called Quest]

What’s the format/formula?

It seems odd to ask what the formula is, because that kind of phrasing makes the script sound cliché or unimaginative. But it’s important nevertheless.

This is a little tricky to establish because a pilot is its own animal. It’s not going to be quite like a typical episode of the show it’s starting off, since it has a lot of table-setting to do.

Still, you have to try to convey what this show is going to be like week in and week out as much as you can within those confines.

THE END [The Doors]

Simple, right? Just answer all these questions while avoiding non-stop exposition and making it irresistible to a studio, network, or eccentric billionaire.

Don’t worry. I’m right there with you and feel your pain. But I have confidence we can all get this done. It just takes a little imagination and a lot of hard work.

Now let’s go sell some shows.

________________________________________________________

Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[ETCETERA] Happy New Year!

Times Square New Years 2022
Onto the next

Make a resolution to be a better person in 2022. The world desperately needs more good people.

Science is real, by the way. Stay safe.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[THREE CENTS] Looking Back to Move Forward

Winter snowfall in Manhasset, New York.
A Land for Winter Wonder

We’ve reached the end of the year. The first full pandemic year, as a matter of fact. And if you’re reading this, you’ve probably survived. Congratulations to us all.

In addition to a flurry of holidays (and occasionally some holiday flurries), this season serves as a milestone for most of us. A moment of reflection.

When I was younger I used to look forward to all the annual retrospectives that would come out in the winter. Newspapers, magazines, Life‘s Year in Pictures.

It was cool to flashback to the previous twelve months, and be reminded of how many significant moments there were.

For a writer, or any creative, I find this a good time to produce your own annual retrospective.

Life Magazine's The Year in Pictures (1987)
Retro Retrospective

What kind of goals did you set for yourself last year, and how well did you meet them?

In the corporate world, this might be considered a self-evaluation. Well, check out your bad self.

It’s easy to get ambitious about all the things you want to achieve. The ever-growing list of dream projects.

I get this same feeling a lot of times at night before I go to bed. I’m preposterously ambitious and anxious to get started on a million or so projects the next day.

It’s not especially reasonable. I suspect my subconscious knows there’s no time to start any of these things as I climb under the covers, so it’s safe to conjure delusions of grandeur for the morning.

The point to evaluating the past year isn’t to beat yourself up for any shortcomings, but to shape what you’re going to try to do moving forward. Reflect back as a guideline. And then set realistic goals for the future based on what you’ve learned.

To quote a script of mine, “dream the possible.”

What are you actually capable of? Not in the perfect circumstances, but in the very messy real world where we all live.

That’s not to say you should let yourself off too easy (“I think I can get a solid paragraph done in 2022 if I really buckle down”). But at the same time, don’t overreach to the point where you’re always defeated and disappointed in yourself.

Be inspired. Be ambitious. But be honest.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Enjoy the Moment

I think I’ve always had a problem with looking ahead.

On the surface, “looking ahead” sounds like a good thing, an ambitious thing. But it can actually be quite problematic.

Edward Norton as Bruce Banner mediating in "The Incredible Hulk" (2008).
You wouldn’t like me when I’m not enjoying the moment

The problem being that when you spend all your time looking ahead, you’re not quite being where you are. Not being in the here and now.

What does this have to do with writing you may wonder? Plenty, I respond (why are we talking like this?).

It’s no secret that getting writing work is difficult. So if you are fortunate enough to get some, don’t let yourself get completely consumed by the notes and deadlines.

Find the time to mentally step back and relish the moment. Be tickled. Be thrilled. Be proud.

Years ago, while on a series abroad, I had a lot of responsibilities. We were far away from home, working a six day week for six months straight, and that stress weighed on me. I think we did a great job and produced a great show. But it’s hard to say I enjoyed it.

Obviously, these things are easier said than done, but looking back now, I don’t think I spent enough (any?) time feeling excitement or satisfaction. That was a mistake.

In these situations, it’s critical to appreciate exactly where you are, not where you want to be next. It doesn’t make you lazy, or unambitious, or stagnant. It’s just essential to your soul to embrace the experience as it happens.

In the entertainment business, a lot of things that seem promising don’t actually come together. Potential work doesn’t materialize, doesn’t get bought, or doesn’t get produced.

"A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" (1973).
Don’t forget to be thankful too

Which is why you can’t wait until the cameras start rolling on a project before you get thrilled about it.

If you advance in a writing competition, feel the validation. If you get optioned, celebrate the victory. You never know if you’ll get to experience something like that again.

The buzzword you hear a lot these days is Mindfulness. Being Mindful. Mindful meditation.

According to mindful.org, Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

This applies to life, relationships, and of course, work.

As we roll into the official month of thanks, don’t miss out on fully experiencing your own life and appreciating where you are. Wherever you are. Always remind yourself to be mindful, thoughtful, and grateful.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Size Doesn’t Matter

Entertainment comes in so many forms. Today, more than ever (though I think they might’ve finally phased out wax cylinders and 8 tracks).

So, while I understand that it’s important for writers to create a brand for themselves, I think it’s also important to branch out occasionally.

Various film formats.
Something for everyone

I speak from experience. A wide array.

Although I’d made short films in high school and took a sketch comedy class in college, I graduated with the intention of becoming a feature film writer.

But despite my growing pile of specs, one of my first opportunities to write professionally was on a syndicated detective show called High Tide. Was I going to turn my nose up at an hour-long run time?

Hell no, I wasn’t. I was thrilled.

If you get an offer to do something outside your brand, don’t reject it out of hand. That thing may end up being what you like writing the most.

Or not. But you should flex those creative muscles anyway. Take some chances. Especially if someone is going to pay you to do it.

HOUR LONG

The interesting thing about working in broadcast television is crafting drama to peak at a commercial break. It’s a challenge to shape your story to build to a cliffhanger strong enough to make viewers stick around to see what happens next.

HALF HOUR KIDS LIVE ACTION

For me, this came about through Mowgli: The New Adventure of the Jungle Book, which I created along with Tim Bogart and Guy Toubes. A lot went into this beyond just writing. Like a lot a lot. But the writing was also a unique challenge.

It was a shorter duration, obviously. And needed to be geared for a younger audience. The most unexpected obstacle, though, was writing for real animals that are only able to perform very specific actions.

We learned very early in production that any sequence where we wrote that Baloo dramatically charged onto the scene was not going to work. The bear did not “charge” anywhere. Lumber, stroll, sit, sure. All day long. But charge? Not so much.

So, once we knew what we were working with, we got busy writing stories that would work.

FEATURE LENGTH

Image from "Extreme Team" (2003),with Chris Pratt, Paul Francis, Eric Mabius, Elizabeth Lackey, and Scott Paulin.
Extremely cold

With Extreme Team, I got a movie into production at last.

Most aspiring screenwriters are very familiar with the feature paradigm, and probably have several specs sitting in their computers. They’re raring to go when this kind of opportunity comes along.

Extreme Team was a television movie, so the classic three act structure gets modified to accommodate those dramatic breaks for commercials.

HALF HOUR KIDS ANIMATION

With animated half hours, you don’t need to worry about the limitations of real life bears, but that doesn’t quite mean anything goes. There’s only so many backgrounds, guest characters, and vehicles in a show’s budget. Someone gets paid to design and draw every one of those things, so dollars and schedule dictate just how much you can dream up.

Rhonda Smiley and I have reached the end of seasons on shows and have been asked to write episodes that take place in settings, or used characters, that had originally been generated for previous episodes.

Recycling is good for the planet, as well as the studio.

Learn to create great stories despite these kinds of restrictions, and you may become a go-to hire for show runners and production companies alike.

HALF OF HALF HOUR ANIMATION

One type of animated half hour consists of two different 11 minute segments (a broadcast half hour is typically 22 minutes of content).

This structure is frequently targeted toward younger viewers or preschoolers, which can come with the challenge of E/I rules. These are requirements to educate or inform. E/I series are staffed with an educational consultant to make sure writers are properly weaving age-appropriate lessons in their stories.

Entertaining and educating? A noble format indeed.

BITS AND BYTES

During my run on Kuu Kuu Harajuku, I was asked if I wanted to also write bonus streaming content for the show. That translated to creating stories that were a mere 3 to 4 minutes long. You can’t even finish microwaving a Stouffer’s Mac and Cheese in that kind of time!

With the Kuu Kuu Close-Up, the assignment was to essentially write a monologue. This would keep new animation to a minimum, while providing action by cutting in existing moments from the show.

Challenge accepted.

24 thousand views is not too shabby

THE REST

In the other duration direction, you have mini-series, limited series, and lest we forget, the classic open-ended television series. Unique writing challenges there include things like character arcs over the course of an episode, season, and even an entire series run.

So don’t let yourself get stuck in just one kind of storytelling. Flex those creative muscles and take on new things, unfamiliar things, different things.

Despite their differences, all these formats still require a compelling narrative with a beginning, middle and end. If you can imagine and convey a good story, then it shouldn’t matter how long it is, or how big a screen it will reach an audience on.

Entertain. Enlighten. Move.

Keep your options open. You never know where opportunities may arise!

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] When Art Requires Craft

Lightning strikes the clock tower in "Back to the Future" (1985)
Change is good. Sometimes great.

There’s an aspect – the glamourous aspect – of writing that’s all about the magical alchemy of creation. Tapping into your muse and dreaming up rich characters, dynamic relationships, and deep dramatic conflict.

Sure that’s part of it. But there’s another side of professional writing that’s less about the art, and more about the craft. The nuts and bolts. The – to quote Tim Gunn – “make it work” moments.

This is when you have to use logic and critical thinking to effectively (and deftly) sew back up a script that’s been torn apart, while still keeping all the good bits intact.

Notes are frequently a trigger for these times. But there are a host of other causes too. Budget constraints, bad weather, prop failure. Even retconning. This skill set is especially crucial mid-production, when locations may already be reserved, actors cast, and even scenes shot.

Ian Rickett, a writer on 3Below: Tales of Arcadia and Wizards mentioned once that he actually enjoyed solving these kinds of problems. Working in the room to fuse pages, scenes, and plots can be quite a challenge. But if done well, the results can be even better than the original.

This came to mind last week while watching the Back to the Future episode of The Movies That Made Us on Netflix.

Storyboard showing the originally-scripted atomic test that would power Marty's return home in "Back to the Future" (1985)
I don’t think anyone is missing the nuclear explosion

Thanks in part to the addition of three DeLoreans, the budget for the movie had ballooned to over 18 million dollars, and the studio decided that savings had to be found before production could begin.

The easiest answer was to cut the expensive atomic bomb test that had originally provided nuclear energy for the jump back though time.

But what would happen in its place? With mere weeks to go before cameras started rolling, writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had to come up with an answer. Checking out the Hill Valley set at Universal Studios, inspiration struck.

Maybe, if they added a clock to the top of the courthouse, they could have it hit by lightning and know exactly the time the DeLorean could get a charge of that critical 1.21 gigawatts.

Not only was that idea incorporated at that key moment in the film, it was also carefully woven into the entire story, all the way back to the beginning and that seemingly innocuous flyer about saving the broken clock tower. That’s the craft of writing in full effect. Perfection.

When I was working on the syndicated series, Born Free, there was an episode that ran long in post production. To help it hit the required runtime, the B story was edited out.

Artwork for the syndicated series, "Born Free" (1998)
Every moment is precious… to the budget

Ever thrifty, though, the production company didn’t want to just throw those precious scenes away.

Instead, to save both schedule and budget, I was tasked with incorporating that unused footage into the subsequent episode I was writing.

To do so effectively, I had to do more than just randomly drop those scenes into a new script. I needed to account for the existing attitudes, energy, and – most importantly of all – the dialogue and story as I folded it into mine.

In the end, it was as if it was designed to be there the whole time. Seamless.

Not too long before that, during production on Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book, we had an actor not return after a day of shooting an episode.

Again, thanks to super tight schedules and budgets, we weren’t in a position to merely reshoot those same scenes with a new actor. Instead, we had to scramble to rewrite the parts of the episode not yet filmed to explain his absence and give their remaining role in the story to an entirely different character.

Stressful, no doubt. But the kind of creative adversity that provides a real sense of achievement when you finally triumph over it.

If you find yourself working on a production – maybe even your own – expect to use all aspects of your creative skills, both artful and practical. Problems are unavoidable, but an open mind and the ability to keep your eyes on the big picture can help you navigate every kind of script obstacle.

Maybe, like Ian, you’ll even look forward to the challenge.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, available now at Amazon and comiXology.

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