Bernie Kay: Scriptwriting for Animation

He reveals his methods

Bernie Kay.

Interview by David Jefferson

Bernie Kay has written scripts for a number of children’s animated TV series, including Bananaman, Telebugs, and The Pondles.

He came over from America quite a few years ago and got a lob in an advertising agency. That is where he got his training as a writer, although he was primarily a producer of television commercials.

While he was at the agency, he met Trevor Bond and Terry Ward. They produced and directed the Mr Men series and later, Bananaman. But at the time, they worked together in animation. Their association continued after he went free-lance and he continued to work with both of them.

He also writes scripts for commercial videos, product demonstrations, and sales conferences. But for this interview we stayed with animation.

DAVID JEFFERSON: How do you set about writing a script for a television series like Bananaman?

BERNIE KAY: Every series starts with a concept – a central idea. Let’s say someone proposes that the main character is going to be a comic ‘super-hero’ and that the stories will centre on him or her. A number of people may then throw ideas into the pot: the person who had the original idea, maybe a director, an animator, and the writer. They’ll begin by trying to put flesh on the bones of the main character, go on to describe – in vague terms – other characters, and then talk about incidents and possible stories.

DJ: And then?

BK: Then they produce a presentation. This can be both a ‘selling’ document to interest backers and a ‘bible’ for everyone involved in the project. It usually includes a description of the central concept, profiles of the characters, a pilot script, and a number of short storylines to show how the idea can be extended to a series.

The process of presenting such an idea and actually getting approvals and financial backing can be a very long drawn-out process. For this conversation, let’s compress the sequence of events and say the idea has been sold to somebody and we are in a position to go ahead and produce the series.

Now we’re in business. At the first meeting of the director, producer, writer – and anyone else concerned – we talk about more storylines, examine what’s been done so far, and then a writer like me will go off and start writing.

When I have the first draft ready I discuss it with the director. He may say this bit isn’t practical, there’s a better way of doing such a scene, or a funnier way of resolving this scene or that and we’ll hammer out a version that works for him.
DJ: And that’s it?

BK: No, Normally, it requires at least one or two – or more – re-writes to get the script ‘right’. And that, essentially, is my contribution. For the rest of the production process, unless asked to contribute, I am an observer.

I like to attend the recording sessions, especially at the beginning of a series. It is interesting to hear how the artists interpret your words. And you get a feeling for their delivery so from then on you can hear their voices in your head as you write. I think that empathy with the Voice Artists contributes greatly to the success of a series. Sometimes, at a recording session, you hear one of your lines delivered in a way that is different to the way you expected and it gives you clues on how best to write for that character.

DJ: What does one of your scripts actually look like?

BK: Some TV stations or production companies require a writer to work to a standard format they supply. Where I can, I like to work to this arrangement – let me show

This is a copy of a script as it was recorded. It includes any adlibs or changes that might have been made during the recording session. A film like The Pondles is distributed overseas as well as being transmitted here. The overseas distributors get a copy of the English script as recorded, and then they can use that as a basis for their translation.

Many people prefer to see scripts in two columns – with vision on one side and sound on the other. I do it slightly different, but we’re talking details. The important thing is that it communicates your intentions accurately and economically to everyone concerned.

A page from a Pondles script.

DJ: And this is the sort of script you would supply for the recording session?

BK: Yes. What the director or his assistant might do to help the artists is put a coloured highlight marker through each artist’s lines to remind them when their next line is coming up.

And it is necessary for the artists to have such complete scripts. If you had dialogue only, they would not appreciate they were sitting on the top of a very tall tree or creeping through an underground tunnel.

DJ: Some words are under-lined. Is that where they have to emphasize them?

BK: That’s right. I try not to do too much of that. Some artists take exception to such detailed instruction. But where I feel it is absolutely necessary for a gag to work, I risk under-lining the obvious.

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