The original post for this episode can be found here.
John: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name Craig Mazin.
John: And this is episode 528 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show with animation writers fighting to get paid what live action writers get, we’ll look at what minimums and backend really mean, but it’s also a craft episode. We’ll talk about the kind of movie, where the hero is actively trying to find themselves and is the waste paper basket the writer’s most important tool? Plus, in our bonus segment for premium members, is movie dialogue actually harder to understand these days? Craig has opinions.
Craig: Amazing. Absolutely [inaudible 00:00:36].
John: A taste of what’s to come for our premium members. Craig, it’s nice to be back recording with you. It’s been a minute here.
Craig: Yeah. A little bit up and down over here, as we make our way through this insanely large production, still here in Canada, although we’re catching a little bit of a break now, as we head into the holidays. I get to come home for a little bit, looking outside at beautiful Calgary, it is a lovely dusting of snow. Apparently La Nina and El Nino have joined hands to make Il Nino and something enormous is coming apparently. Apparently it’s going to be snowpocalypse up here, which is okay for us. We’ve got an episode, where we need a little bit of snow.
John: Oh, it’ll be great.
John: Yeah, little bit of snow’s also good for skiing. I would love some more snow for that.
Craig: Yeah. I’m not going to do that.
John: Yeah. I’m going to do that, but while you were gone, we replayed the Die Hard episode. This was a special episode we’d done for premium members. We put it in the main feed and I added in a bonus segment for our premium members, where we talked with Steven E. de Souza about the writing of Die Hard, which is so exciting. We did some follow up on that. Megana, can you help us out with a follow up?
Megana: Great. Jeb writes, “You did a great job in the Die Hard episode, highlighting the various Reagan era elements of the film, bumbling experts, idiotic feds, awful Europeans, et cetera, but one of the key elements in the story, is the fact that Holly works for a Japanese firm. As you of course remember, the 80s featured a fascination with Japanese culture, highlighted perhaps best in Karate Kid, but also fear related to the perceived decline of the US, in relation to Japan. Japanese companies excelling in the auto industry, electronics, and even US real estate. Movies like Gung Ho, highlighted those tensions for comedic gain, but that anxiety was real. Anti-Asian hate crimes were rampant in the era and the fact that Holly is working for a Japanese company, building its own towering foothold on American soil, is just one more thorn in all American John McClane’s side. The fact that he prevails and saves the American employees, is a not too subtle message.”
John: That’s a good point. Let’s talk about that [crosstalk 00:02:45].
Craig: [crosstalk 00:02:45] Jeb.
John: Okay. I would say that a person looking at the movie now, who didn’t grow up in the 80s might not realize the degree to which there was this sense that, “Oh, Japan’s going to take over the world,” because they didn’t. Spoiler and it is interesting, because I do sense that at the start of the movie, the fact that this Japanese company is made a little bit more of a thing, but I like that the movie doesn’t feel racist towards the Japanese owners and the Japanese owners are good people and solid.
Craig: Yeah. That’s where I’ll push back a little bit on Jeb. I do agree that of course his pretext is correct. There was a very famous memo written by the head of Sony, that was circulated around American businesses in the 80s, as a warning that they were going to beat us, but also why aren’t we like this? It wasn’t simply a Japan-a-phobia, it was also Japan-a-phelia. There was an admiration and a desire to raise our standards to theirs. They were doing it better than we were. The Nakatomi building is in a not-80s-way, It’s not played for racism jokes. Nobody makes fun of the Japanese culture. The boss is portrayed as an honorable, decent man, whereas the American employee is the cokehead snake. The fact that John McClane saves the day, that’s not I don’t think, a particularly trenchant point about America versus Japan as just, he’s the movie star, he’s the action hero that came to save the day. If anything to me, the fact that it was a Japanese company, which by the way, disappears in terms of importance almost immediately. It’s just not really a thing, I would say reflects nothing more than what was in vogue at the time, which was, yeah and we should make it a Japanese company, because that feels like an 80s thing right now.
John: I would say that the Japanese company helps set up McClane’s initial fear of losing his wife, because not only has his wife moved to the other side of the country, but she’s really working for a Japanese company and will probably end up moving to Japan at some point. I think I remember that. It said that she may actually need to move to Tokyo at some point and the sense of losing all of the stuff that he’s had, to this company is real and yet that’s not the meat of the film at all. It’s misdirected.
Craig: No. There is a really interesting episode, that I think we could do and we’d want to bring in some friends to discuss I would imagine, about the movie Gung Ho, which Jeb cites here, which is a fascinating 80s attempt, I would call it, an 80s attempt by white people, to make an anti-racism movie and spoiler alert, it doesn’t go great, but it also weirdly wears its goofy heart on its sleeve.
John: I’m trying to remember the premise. Is this Michael Keaton or is this Tom Hanks?
Craig: It’s Michael Keaton, although it could have been Tom Hanks and more importantly, it’s Ron Howard. It’s this kind of very… Ron Howard to me, always represents the sweetest, most innocent American point of view, which doesn’t always mean it’s enlightened, it just means it’s not coming at something out of anger or disgust or contempt, but yeah, Ron Howard directed this movie. Starred Michael Keaton and it was about a Japanese company purchasing an American company and it was a car company, changing the way the auto factory worked and how it suddenly became a culture clash and it was Gedde Watanabe and George Wendt and Michael Keaton and very much white savior stuff, but also weirdly at times, beautifully human. You could see, it was actually a little bit ahead of its time. The problem was the time was really behind where we are now. It was ahead of its time and yet behind where we are now, it’s a fascinating thing to look at and I think maybe one day we can dive in. It won’t necessarily be the most comfortable, deep dive we do, but worth examining.
John: Yeah. Now if we were to make Die Hard today, that Die Hard never existed, but it was just being made today. It would not be a Japanese company. It’d be a Korean company, who inevitably was building that building, which brings us to squid game, not squid games, but we have some follow up on that. Megana can talk to us about what Eliza sent.
Megana: Eliza says, “As an avid Korean-American listener, I want to clarify why the show’s English title is Squid Game singular and not Squid Games, as in the Olympic Games or Hunger Games. The last game in the series of childhood games, is The Squid Game. If the last game had been hopscotch, then perhaps the title would’ve been Hopscotch. If one is unfamiliar with the Squid Game as are most English speakers, there’s a desire to encapsulate the entire experience with an umbrella term. However, you can see it wouldn’t make sense to title it Hopscotches, had the last game been different. Squid Game sounds awkward to a Korean speaker and only sounds right to an English speaker. Furthermore, Korean doesn’t have a plural indicator like the S in English. A single rock is Dol, just as a fist of rocks is Dol. The rest of the sentence communicates the nature of the rock, as it relates to its surroundings and condition.”
Craig: Well, Eliza, thank you for that. We love language here, obviously. I think the thing that I was perhaps primarily ignorant of, wasn’t the fact that plurals work differently in Korean, as much as that, apparently there are more than one game that occurs in Squid Game and Squid Game was the last of those games. I just thought the whole thing was just all Squid Game, because I still haven’t seen it. That said, this interested me. What really grabbed me on this single rock is Dol, a fist full of rocks is Dol and I checked with our intrepid Bo Shim over here, because what I was curious about was the Olympic Games, because Eliza mentions the Olympic Games and Korea has hosted the Olympic Games and I asked her in Korean, what do people call the Olympic Games? And she said, that in Korean people simply call them Olympic like, “We’re hosting the Olympic,” and of course this confirms what Eliza’s saying, but now what I want to do, is not say Squid Games or a Squid Game. I just want to call the show, Squid.
John: Reduce everything down to it’s single elemental route, that the fundamental thing that everything ventures out from. Yes.
Craig: I have not yet seen Squid.
John: Not a bit of it. More follow up on our Thanksgiving movies. Lars from Cologne writes, “I finally got around listening to episode 522 and would like to suggest that another reason Thanksgiving movies are not as common as Christmas movies, could be, that Thanksgiving is an American tradition, which would make it tough overseas. That’s also why they’re often sold as road movies, as John pointed out. The event is really just an excuse to get some people who don’t see each other often, but have a lot of history and unresolved issues, to sit down at a table and fight them out. Yes, I think the universality of Thanksgiving is not in it’s favor for a movie.”
Craig: A little bit of editorializing there from Lars, from Cologne. Sometimes Lars, I know this is hard to believe, people just sit down and have a good time. Typically that’s what we do on Thanksgiving, but yes, it’s true, Thanksgiving is solely American, although Christmas is not particularly universal. I think more people than not, in fact, I know that more people do not celebrate Christmas than do, but also a Thanksgiving movie could be very cheap proposition to make. Yeah. I think honestly we figured it out last time, but thank you Lars for the help. Just there’s no narrative built into it. It’s a meal, that’s it. It’s a meal.
John: Yeah. Now back to Christmas though, two years ago, I celebrated Christmas in Korea. This is going to be the Korean episode. It’s really what I’m getting back to you. It’s all going to be about Korea, this whole entire episode and it was delightful to celebrate Christmas in Korea and they really did a number there. They really celebrated it big.
Craig: Yes. Christianity is very big in Korea. Although, I would imagine it is not at this point, quite as big as Squid.
John: Nothing is as big as Squid.
Craig: I do love there’s a… It’s not Squid, it’s Cuttlefish, but there’s this dried Cuttlefish, Korean snack called Ojingeochae. It’s like-
John: It’s [crosstalk 00:11:04] get that for you and then you actually mark in the bag, how much of the Cuttlefish each of you has eaten?
Craig: No, that would be insane.
John: Yeah. No, nothing like the ketchup doritos?
Craig: No, no, no, no. Here’s the deal. The ketchup Doritos and I’m going to say it again. Something happened and I don’t even want to get into it, but something went wrong there and it’s-
John: And now you don’t like them?
Craig: No, I love them, but it’s driven a wedge between me and Bo. No, I started eating that all the way back in 1992, because I was living with my friend, who’s a Korean American named Chin and he introduced it to me. It’s almost squid jerky, is what it is, but it’s actually, you would think, “Oh squid jerky, this right off the bat didn’t sound great.” It’s delicious. Delicious.
John: Yeah. All right. Another piece. This could be umberage inducing, but let’s see how this goes here. Our podcast that you’re listening to right now, is called Scriptnotes. There’s a feature in final draft called Scriptnotes, which is how you leave little notes for things and several people pointed out this week that they’ve started putting a TM after Scriptnotes. A trademark symbol. I did what a person does and I looked at the trademark registry. They used to have a trademark on it, but they let the trademark lapse in 2018.
Craig: Well, why don’t we trademark it?
John: We could try to trademark it.
Craig: I think we should. Let’s trademark it and then let’s sue them.
John: Here’s what I know about trademarks, because I actually had to get a trademark on this other game that we were doing at one point and trademarks exist in certain spaces. It’s entirely possible they could get their trademark for this feature in a software program, called Scriptnotes and we could get our trademark in the podcast called Scriptnotes, but honestly let’s just stop fighting over a trademark and just not-
Craig: Well, the good news is we haven’t started fighting over the trademark. I think we can just stay right here where we are. Obviously they could have said something about it, prior to the abandonment in 2018, but they didn’t, probably because the thing that you’re worried about when you get a trademark, I have a trademark for instance, for my production company Word Games, is that what I don’t want, is another company that does what I do, calling themselves Word Games and then the question is, “Oh, well who made this?” And without question Final Draft the company, could have said there is a marketplace confusion, if we have Scriptnotes as part of our script running software and these other guys are doing a podcast about screenwriting, people might be confused and think that they represent us, but I have a suspicion that they were happy about that.
John: Yeah. One of the challenges when you have a trademark, is you have to protect and defend your trademarks. You have to look for people who are infringing on it and you have to send them letters saying, “Hey, don’t infringe on our trademark.” I sent actually, a very nice email to Final Draft, reminding them that they don’t actually have the trademark on Scriptnotes. We’ll see if they take the little TMs off their videos and such.
Craig: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Look Final Draft, we keep it on a simmer with you guys. Don’t wake the dragon.
John: All right. Back to Korea news. When the agency campaigned, the WGA agency brujaja was settled, one of the points in that, was that the companies who own production entities had to sell down to a 20% stake, basically were limited to a 20% stake. This past week it was announced that Endeavor is selling its content side to CJ Entertainment, which is a Korean firm. I think I may have even predicted that on the show, that that’d be who would buy out this entity, because it makes a lot of sense, because this is a Korean company who wants to do more American production, who has a lot of experience, has a lot of money. It seems like the right outcome for both sides.
Craig: Yeah and yeah, the company’s worth quite a bit of money there. You never know with these things. It’s a little bit like when they make sports deals and then you find out later, “Oh, well it’s not really that much money and the other team paid for half of the money, that they said that they got,” in any case who knows, but it’s impressive regardless either way and yeah, CJ Entertainment’s a real deal.
John: They did Parasite, they did Big Fish in Korea. They’ve done lots of… There’s just two examples of high quality things they’ve done. They are the equivalent of Sony Entertainment for Korea. They are a big production house.
Craig: This is an interesting development. I’m watching it and yeah listen, every time a new company comes into Hollywood, I think there is a reasonable, people get a little bit excited, because they think new buyer-ish person or somebody that will perhaps get and sometimes that’s true. More often than not, the new companies are worse than the old companies and I don’t know exactly what the relationship is with CJ Entertainment and say unions and you always have to wonder, how this is going to go, but as far as I’m concerned, it can’t be worse than Silicon Valley and their attitude towards unions. Let’s see how it goes.
John: All right. Megana, do you want to talk to us more about some bullshitting?
Megana: Great. Brandon wrote in and said, “The discussion on bullshitting for writers was quite illuminating for me. I feel like there’s this proverbial wisdom out there, that you should fake it till you make it, but the saying has always felt a little toxic to me. Is it really okay to say I’m a writer, if I’m not making a living as a writer or should I be honest and tell people my day job, when they ask me what I do? When meeting someone new in the industry, the question of what do you do, is almost inevitable. Any guidance on how to navigate or bullshit a response to this question, would be greatly appreciated.
John: Craig. I think it is fine to identify yourself as a writer, who is not making a living as a writer. What do you do? “I’m a writer, in the meantime I’m working a day job at someplace,” is absolutely fine and valid to say. I think, especially when you’re newly moved here, speaking aspirationally is good and normal and appropriate, but how are you feeling about that?
Craig: How will I put it? I understand Brandon’s squirminess about this. I would say Brandon, that the saying fake it till you make it, isn’t really, at least for me, it’s never about just straight up lying about stuff that you wish were true, because that’s delusional and that’s dishonest and misleading. I think fake it till you make it is more about, “Hey, I believe I have the capability of doing something intellectually. Right now, I’m terrified. Let me just behave like I’m not terrified and then I won’t be scared, once I get into it.” In terms of describing yourself, if you’re not making a living as a writer, it’s a little weird to stick the word aspiring on, because that sounds weird. What I would say, is I’m working on a screenplay. I think this is perfectly fine. Say, I’m working on a screenplay. I have a day job, but I’m working on a screenplay. It’s going really well. I’ve got some interest from X, Y, or Z. If you have no interest from X, Y, or Z and it’s just, you’re writing a screenplay at night while you’re working during the day, then no, I wouldn’t say I’m a writer, because that’s not really true. I am a writer, does implies certain things and the reason I’m saying don’t say that, is not because I’m feeling like there should be forced humility, it’s more that I’m just concerned about the follow up questions you’re going to get. What are you working on? Who do you work with? And then you’re stuck. I’ll tell you the question I always get. If somebody doesn’t know who I am and they say, what do you do? And I say, I’m a writer. I work in television and movies and the next immediate question, is: what have I seen? Every single god damned time. Have I seen anything of yours? Since all those questions are going to be forthcoming, you might want to just make it more about the process itself. I’m working on a blank.
John: Yeah. I think the “ing” forms are really helpful here. To say that you’re writing is great. When you say that you are a writer, then you’re going to get the follow up question, “Oh, what have you gotten made?” Or if you say, I’m a novelist, it’s like, “Okay, well, where’s your book?” But if you say, I’m writing a book for this or I’m working on stuff. That is true and honest and also basically where you’re at in the process.
Craig: Correct. Totally.
John: Yeah. A bit of news and follow up here. Last year, as we came through the contract negotiations, we added paid parental leave to the deal for writers. For the first time, writers who have new kids have, I think it’s eight weeks of paid parental leave. Effective January 1st, 2022, the health fund will offer coverage for infertility treatment, for those who have a medical diagnosis of infertility, available to all participants with active coverage for them and their spousal dependence, with a lifetime cap of $30,000 with no deductibles or copays.
Craig: No deductibles or copays. Lifetime cap of $30,000. Oftentimes it does cost more than $30,000 and of course, if you want to have more than one child, then you’re going to need that infertility treatment coverage later, you then will have to probably dip into your pocket, but let’s not underplay the fact that, that’s a big amount of money that you used to have to pay for entirely by yourself and while my wife and I, very luckily did not have any infertility issues. I think we’re the exception of so many.
John: My husband and I had infertility issues.
Craig: Well yes. Right there is a big one. John, you guys aren’t having another kid, I would imagine?
John: You know what, with this $30,000 bonus, maybe so. I’m just saying-
Craig: Maybe you and I should have a kid, because if you think about it, who’s going to inherit this podcast one day?
John: Yeah. We’re experienced parents at this point. We really know what we’re doing. Yeah. I have a kid who’s going to be heading off to college in 16 months. The thought of having a brand new child, while I love babies, I think we’ve established on this podcast, I absolutely love babies.
Craig: Love them.
John: Love them.
Craig: Love babies.
John: But I don’t want to have another four year old, for example, or another 10 year old.
Craig: No, no, no. At all. This is great news and I think I always, in these moments, want to tip my hat obviously, to the Writers Guild for, we represent half of the trustees on the health fund and they’re the ones who make these decisions. We don’t actually negotiate these in contracts. This is something that has to be worked out between our trustees and their trustees, but I also tip my hat to the companies, because they have half the trustees too and this doesn’t happen unless the companies agree and there are certain areas where I think everybody starts to find their collective humanity and their shared experiences and there are people on both sides, management and labor, who know the pain of wanting to have a child and struggling and this is a fantastic thing and I tip my hat both to the Writer’s Guild and the companies.
John: Yeah and it’s also important to note the distinction between, there was no more money added to the pot for this. Basically, it’s reprioritizing how you’re spending the money that’s in the pot and that you’re going to start covering fertility treatment, as opposed to paid parental leave, which was part of the contract, because it’s additional money being put in there, to actually pay for that fund. That’s the difference there. That’s why that was a contract thing and this was just a decision made by the folks who run the fund.
Craig: What they cover and what they don’t cover medically, is always going to be part of their decision and they do run the numbers and they generally do have to balance the budget. I hope that they did that by removing nonsense alternative treatments, that don’t do a goddamned thing.
John: Yeah, I imagine so. That’d be great. All right. I was going to lead us into this Netflix topic by talking about Netflix numbers, but I feel like I’ve talked about Netflix numbers so, so much, that I’m just tired of talking about Netflix numbers.
Craig: John, your discussion of Netflix numbers is the most listened to discussion, ever in Scriptnotes history.
John: I would like to congratulate my friends, Rawson Thurber and Ryan Reynolds for the number one movie of all time on Netflix. It’s fantastic. It’s great. Wonderful. I’m so happy that it’s happened. I hope that you guys get the equivalent of backend off that. I hope for every time they send out a press release about how much money or how many viewers it’s had, you get a ca-ching. That would be fantastic. They won’t, but let’s get into how money works and how backends work, because this past week, a bunch of things showed up on my feed and a lot of questions showed up in my feed, about writers getting paid and backends and residuals. I think it’s because animation writers right now are going through negotiations about increasing their pay, because animation writers are generally not covered by the WGA, covered by the Animation Guild and people had natural questions about backends and profits and scales and minimums. I wanted to have a little segment here to talk about the difference between minimums, which is something that’s being handled by the Guild contract and what writers actually bring in, which is handled by their own contracts. We have a lot of terms to define here, but hopefully we can make sense of where money comes from and how it gets to writers.
Craig: Yeah, totally normal thing to happen when you’re looking at one group of writers, like animation writers, who aren’t doing as well as Writers Guild writers and what will happen is, people will point towards Writers Guild writers and say, “Here’s what their experience is. Here’s how they’re treated. Here’s what they get,” and some of the things that they’re pointing to, are things that the Writers Guild has not gotten them at all and more interestingly then by implication, they don’t need the Animation Guild to get them either because we are, the term is an overscale employment base, at least certainly in features and in television, where the overscale occurs most notably, is in the double job description, writer/producer. A lot of things happen under the heading of producer and the Writer’s Guild doesn’t touch or affect any of those.
John: Yeah and it’s especially complicated in TV, because the number of weeks that count against gets wild, but let’s start with some really basic things we can talk through. I want to discuss the difference between the contract, which is the big contract that’s being negotiated every three years, versus individual writer contracts. I want to talk about when writers get scale and when they don’t, profit participation and residuals and the idea of CPI and increases. Basically, how much things ramp up over the years, because that also gets confusing. Craig, can you talk to me about the difference between the contract and what’s in the contract, versus what’s in an individual writer’s contract?
Craig: Sure. For the Writer’s Guild and this holds true as well for Animation Guild, the collective bargaining agreement is also known as a Minimum Basic Agreement. Minimum Basic Agreement, simply means nobody that is in our union can do worse than this. That’s what it is. They could also call it the worst case scenario document.
John: It’s the floor.
Craig: It’s the floor. Now our individual contracts by design, already incorporate everything that’s in that contract. There’s a clause in our individual contracts that say, under no circumstances can anything in this contract be construed as doing something worse than, the terms of the Minimum Basic Agreement. However, obviously in our individual contracts then, there are lots of things that our lawyers, managers, or agents, well, not managers legally, but our lawyers or agents can get us, that are better. A lot of those things are almost boiler plate at this point, because everybody gets them. Some of them have to do with you and your individual status and work history and perceived value to the company, but most contracts I would argue, have at least some aspects that are better than the Minimum Basic Agreement that the Writer’s Guild or the Animation Guild provides.
John: Back in episode 407, we talked through understanding your writing contract and it was you and me at the Guild, along with some Guild lawyers and we literally walked through what an individual writer’s contract looks like and some of the things that are in there, are essential about this is how much you’re getting paid for your first draft, for your rewrite. These are the optional steps, the guaranteed steps, but also carried in there is, this is your net profit definition and this is what your backend looks like and you laugh now, but we laugh every time, because movies are designed to never actually achieve net profits. Only a handful of movies each year, each decade, could be considered net profits. Something like a Blair Witch Project is so successful, that there’s just no way to hide the money that’s coming in there, but they achieve this process for never actually becoming profitable, by continually siphening out for the money that’s coming in and charging fees against things. You could never actually hit those profits. Those things are still in your contract, but they’re not actually meaningful. The confusion I saw from people on Twitter is, “Oh, that means they writers don’t get anything for the movies, they make,” and it’s, “No, we get residuals and residuals don’t have anything to do with profitability,” and I think that’s an important thing to distinguish. Craig, can you talk to us about residuals and how residuals get calculated in a broad sense?
Craig: Residuals are calculated on a gross basis and a number of people in this discussion on Twitter, were saying that residuals needed to happen for the Animation Guild, so that they could participate in the profit of things and then some people said, “Well, the problem with the Writer’s Guild, is the residuals are only there for profits and nothing ever shows profits and they should really be based on the gross,” and the answer is, they are. That’s exactly what they are. Residuals have nothing to do with the profitability of a movie. They have everything to do with how much the movie grosses and by grosses, we mean the amount of money that comes into the studio, regardless of expenses. Now, the residuals are defined in such a way, that the only part of the money coming in that matters, is for movies, not the ticket sales and not exhibition on airplanes, but all the other stuff afterwards. The now dead videotape and DVD market, but online rentals, online sales, the sale of the movie to streamers and cable outlets and networks overseas, all that gross comes in and then there is a formula that is applied to it. Is it a great formula? No, but it’s formula and it generates money.
John: And it’s important to stress that, that formula and the recalculation of that formula, happens every three years in the contract, the MBA and that, that is where the residuals are calculated. Your individual contract might have something like hand waving towards residuals, but that’s not where your residuals are coming from. Your residuals are coming from this Minimum Basic Agreement, that applies to all film and all television that’s done underneath a WGA contract, which is good, which is how you want it and it also means that there can be consistent accounting for it and the WGA can actually collect that money on your behalf.
Craig: Which is why your agents, managers, or lawyers, should never commission that money and if they are, ask them to please stop, because they didn’t negotiate that term, the Writer’s Guild did and while it is true that, I guess I would characterize it as every three years, we have the opportunity to adjust those formulae, when in reality they’re adjusted almost never. Once they’re there, they’re there for a long time.
John: They largely get baked in and the things that, when you get news about what changed in the contract, it could be the thresholds for certain things may have changed a bit, but the actual percentages rarely change or what counts rarely changes. Only when there’s a brand new thing that you have to figure out, how are we going to treat this new thing that’s existing, do you sign a brand new residual and as we said many times on the show, figuring out how we’re going to handle residuals for movies that are made for a streamer and only show on a streamer, a movie like Red Notice is complicated, because if that movie was made by a studio and then sold to a Netflix, the residual will be based on what that sale price was to Netflix, but because there’s no sale price, it’s tougher to figure out what the residual is and it’s going to be a big focus in negotiations.
Craig: It will always be lower. Until something changes, the way that Netflix does things in general, works very much in their favor, surprise, because there isn’t much of an independent and this does tie back to Netflix. You have an article here that you linked to, we’ll throw it into the show notes, from Variety about Netflix’s data expansion being a flex, which is a very nice way of saying the thing that you and I have been saying for a long time.
Craig: Which is, that Netflix just continually manipulates data to make it sound like everyone is watching Netflix every minute of the day and every new thing that comes out, is the biggest thing that Netflix has ever done, because just the data is a big, huge hailing storm of hot air and what’s bizarre is, a lot of people do watch Netflix. It’s incredibly popular. I don’t know why they need to do that, other than to say that they have a total black box control over who watches what and when they report it, meaning how many people have seen this and similarly therefore, how they deal with residuals, which usually is some large buyout, works in their favor, almost always.
John: Yeah. Now, here we’re talking about the back end of what’s happened and everything. The movies come out, but let’s talk about initial compensation, which is also crucial here and one of the things I’ve noticed with the animation writers talking about, is their initial compensation is just dramatically lower than equivalent conversation would be for a live action writer, a WGA writer. They’re trying to raise that initial compensation. This is something that we’re really talking about scale. We’re talking about, this is the minimum that you could be paid to do this job, to write this script, to be working on this show and that’s where we’re trying to increase here. Now again, we’ve got to stress, that is the minimum they can pay you, but certainly for future writers, you want to be working above scale and your goal is to get above scale as quickly and as thoroughly as you can, so you’re not being stuck at the absolute minimum they can pay you for things.
Craig: There are two limits that impact how people are paid in general. One is the floor, which is obviously as you mentioned, something the union sets and the other is whatever the perceived ceiling is. That may be the biggest difference, because there is a difference between the floor, but it is not a massive difference. The massive Delta is in the ceiling, where the most highly paid writers in live action are paid vastly more than the most highly paid writers in animation and I’m talking about with the exception of maybe some Pixar features and things like that, but when we talk about television, when we talk about animation writers for television animation, not WGA television animation, the ceiling is just nowhere near what the ceiling is on the live action side. That is where you can start pulling people up a bit.
John: Also, we should make sure the ceiling is not defined. You’re not going to find some contract that says, this is the most we’ll ever pay. They just have this internal thing. The company will say, “We never pay more than this,” and I’ve been through this in my own experiences. You probably have been too. It’s, this is the most we’ve ever paid for this. This is the most we’re willing to pay. We don’t go above this line.” [crosstalk 00:34:24]
Craig: It’s the market price and that line, they will go over that line. It’s just not today, but that line is a market line and every now and then something seismic occurs and that line changes, because somebody gets paid a whole crazy amount, because somebody really, really wanted that person. That part can change. The issue with more than anything in animation writing, non WGA animation writing, is that they haven’t yet zeroed in on those people, that are worth an enormous amount. That starts to change, because at that point, instead of a factory floor, you have a factory ladder. For animation writers, they have a double problem. The Animation Guild does have low minimums. They don’t have residuals, they don’t have credit protections and in the marketplace, that group of animation writers doesn’t have a cadre of extremely high paid people, that are setting a progression for everybody else.
John: Now, there have been notable animation showrunners who have made fantastic deals at places and that’s awesome for them and they can hopefully use some of that power to get writers paid more, but that’s the exception rather than rule. There are very few big animation showrunners, who could pull that off and it’s not like live action TV showrunners, who do get those 10 figure deals.
Craig: Yeah. Pretty much everyone that’s running a show on television, is getting paid pretty darn well, when I talk about live action. Some people are being paid numbers that require extra digits. You have deals that are approaching a billion dollars at this point. It’s insane, but certainly a number of people being paid in the hundreds of millions of dollars and I don’t think that is happening at all in non WGA televised animation and in the cases sometimes where it is, I think you are dealing largely with the production entity. It’s just a different culture and what it comes down to is and this is where I feel for the people who run the Animation Guild, because they are trying. I have talked to a couple of them over the years and I know, they know and they’re not delusional. They’re not sitting there going, “No, our numbers are great.” They know and what they’re dealing with is a cultural problem that the industry does not value the animation writers, the way that the industry values the Writers Guild writers and that is a cultural problem that also needs to be attacked and in that circumstance, the partners they need unfortunately at the Animation Guild, are the agencies because agencies do this too. They look and see, “Well okay, those people are being paid that, so let’s not really concentrate on that, because 10% of that isn’t that much,” but they can drive that up too. They’re the ones who push the market around.
John: Now, you hit on this early in the discussion, but it’s important to note that in television, someone who’s staffed on a TV show, they’re going to get paid a certain amount for their writing services, but also as a producer. As a staff writer, as a story editor, as a consulting producer, they’re getting a separate paycheck, that’s covering their producing services for a show and their writing services will tend to be listed at scale, but everything else about their producing services, is a part of their individual contract negotiation. It’s important to notice that if you’re a newly staffed writer, you might see in your contract that, “Oh, it looks like I’m being paid scale,” but you also are being paid separately as a producer and that’s just the weird way that we decided to do television, which is frustrating for folks who come from the feature world.
Craig: Yeah. In one aspect, when you do come from the feature world as I did, you look at it and go, “Well, man, I’ve been paying a lot in dues, that these producers and television haven’t been paying at all.” In features, I paid a 1.5% of every dollar I ever made and television, I pay 1.5% of basically minimum, because the companies have used the producer valve, as a way to essentially pay out more, that doesn’t get applied against, for instance, healthcare and pension and the writers who take this money including myself, recognize that there’s less in dues to pay as well and you get more perceived power, because you’re a producer. For the animation writers, I’m not sure that this relief valve is there. I think basically they’re saying, this is scale. That’s what you get and there is nothing else, but there is and part of it is just figuring out how to push that marketplace forward. For me, if I were running the Animation Guild, I’ve got to be honest, I wouldn’t start right today since it’s… Look, they’ve lost over and over and over, okay? It’s quite a losing streak. How do you turn around a losing streak? Maybe you start with something that doesn’t cost money at all, but is about dignity and that would be credits and if you begin to open that door with credits and dignity, then you start to push ahead on how to make something out of those credits, because right now everything seems to be decided by the companies with a reactive position from the Animation Guild, because they don’t have the strength or backing really to get something done. It’s possible that now with the new leadership in IA, which did threaten a strike for the… We almost had an IA strike for the first time in Hollywood history. Maybe they could throw a little muscle behind the Animation Guild, which is part of IATSE. It’s complicated.
John: One of the other challenges with the Animation Guild, is that Writers Guild represents just writers, Animation Guild represents not just animation writers, but also everyone else who works in animation and their interests are similar, because they’re all trying to make great animated projects, but it’s not quite analogous to the WGA, where everyone’s doing the same job.
Craig: Correct and there is a conflict that can occur, because you have story artists who, if you’ve worked in animation you know, they are writing with pictures and they often throw a lot of dialogue in as they’re pitching and there is a blending of how writing functions in animation, that our terms in the Writers Guild don’t really artfully cover and those people have to be taken care of too. I think sometimes part of the problem is, that people who’d have a title and function that is very similar to what we do in the Writers Guild will say, “Wait, they got that and I’m getting this and it’s not fair and also I should be covered by the Writers Guild.” Can we just, once again John, point out that that cannot happen.
John: It cannot happen. Here’s the challenge, is the folks who are represented currently by the Animation Guild, they are represented by a union and the WGA cannot come in and say, “No, no. We are taking these writers out of your unit and putting them into the WGA.” That just cannot happen. That’s just not federal law. That’s just not going to happen. What can happen is on new projects that are not covered by the Animation Guild, they can be covered by the Writers Guild and there’s a push to get more new projects covered by the Writers Guild and I have a show that’s going to be an animated Writer’s Guild project. It is doable. It’s hard to do, but that is the way you are going to get animation writers covered by WGA contract, is by setting up new projects and new places, that do not have already coverage by the Animation Guild. That’s just how it’s going to have to happen.
Craig: New employers is a huge part of it. The problem, is that new employers generally aren’t stupid. They can look and see which one’s going to cost them more and it’s the Writers Guild. That’s definitely going to cost them more.
John: And that’s why there’s a push to get a bunch of animation showrunners to say, “Hey, we will only do new projects at places that can offer WGA contracts,” because there are some folks who are worth it, they’re willing to do a WGA deal at certain places. That’s how I was able to get the one I just did.
Craig: Yeah, years and years and years ago I was hired by Bob Weinstein, to write an animated movie and I said, “I won’t do it if it’s not WGA,” and what they did was, they just made a company.
John: Yeah. They [crosstalk 00:42:39].
Craig: They made a new company and that new company became signatory to the Writers Guild and that new company existed solely to employ me to write this movie and that’s fine, it’s a bunch of paperwork and as you say, it can be done, but if it’s done on an ad hoc basis, because they really want you to write something and they really want me to write something, that is not going to ever really move the needle, because the vast bulk of stuff that’s done, is done at places that are fully married into doing things through the Animation Guild.
John: Yeah, but you get the point of the wedge in there and you can start to make some changes and that’s-
Craig: Tip of the spear.
John: Tip of the Spear. We’ll do it. Around the office this week, we started talking about the kinds of movies where you have the hero, who is undergoing transformation, which is true to all movies hopefully, but where the point of the story, is that the hero is changing and transforming. They’re not going on a quest for something else, but they’re actually struggling to find themselves from the start of the movie and the two things that were making me think about this, this past week, the Kendall Roy character on Succession, especially this season, you see that he’s desperately trying to figure out who he is and he’s trying to organize this publicity and to promote this image of himself. But really, he’s trying to figure out who he actually is. He wants the world to tell him who he is. He wants the press to reflect back what he wants to see and the answer is, you’re an asshole and that’s not a great answer for him to get, but I was also thinking about this article, it’s a letter sent to Blair Braverman, who writes the column for Outside Magazine and it’s about a writer who moved to a cabin off the grid and she figured like, “Oh, here I’ll be able to write every day and it’s going to be great. I have this fantasy version of what my life is like and it was just miserable,” and I wanted to talk about this as a movie construct and also maybe a TV construct as well, but this idea of characters who enter into the story, looking to transform rather than going on a quest, where the transformation happens along the way.
Craig: Yeah. It’s really… Partly what this wonderful essay is talking about, is the over romanticization of writing, which will have another little thing we want to mention about that, but what’s fascinating to me about these movies, is that they aren’t necessarily doing something that any other movie isn’t. In fact, they are necessarily doing something every other movie also necessarily does. Somebody changes, but what I like about movies like this or stories like this on television, is that the character is aware of it. Whereas when they’re not aware, which is probably the majority of the time, we might be aware, but we understand at the end, she is different than she was when she started and in these kinds of stories, the character says, I don’t know who I am or I don’t like who I am. I want to figure out who I’m supposed to be and then they are somebody different at the end and that is simply about a self-awareness. There’s a meta aspect to this character who understands that they need to figure out the nature of themselves, as a protagonist in their own story.
John: Yeah and as we looked at examples of things, The Graduate comes up, where we have a kid at the end of college, who starts trying to figure out who he is and what he wants in life. In Good Company feels like the same kind of movie. There’s a heavily gendered component to this, where you have a lot of women who are going through this transformation. Under the Tuscan Sun, How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Eat Pray love, but even recent examples, like Tick Tick Boom, is that you have a guy who’s trying to stage his show, but really he’s trying to figure out his existential angst, is over turning 30 and this sense of doom. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I want.
Craig: Am I successful? Am I not successful?
John: Yeah. Exactly. Should I take this advertising job? And it’s really about figuring out who he is and being a musical, he can sing through his frustrations there and I think its so important to stress, that every movie’s going to have some hero transformation ideally, but it does feel so different when the character starts wanting to transform.
Craig: Yeah and there’s something that is amusing about the whole thing. When they do this and this is the part of these stories I generally don’t like, what they’re doing is looking at you in the audience and saying, “You know this feeling right? You’re scared too. You don’t know who you are or you’re unhappy with who you are or you think you’re not yet where you’re supposed to be. You’re freaking out, let me show you a fairy tale where I figure it out. It’s going to make you feel good. It’s figure-outable and the fact is, that it’s generally a simplification of how that process goes, because the real process of figuring out who you are in life, is a process that ever ends and then you die. And of course in these stories, there’s a conclusion and I think I find that the conclusion is always amusing, because the last scene is, I did it. I’m happy. I’m self-actualized, I’m pleased and then we never see the next scene, where they have to wake up and then they have diarrhea or something and the next day begins again and they’re like, “Wait, actually, I’m still just… Ah, man. I’m still me.”
John: Yeah. Taking off our movie lenses, because obviously we’re looking for closure in a movie, I think two series that do a very good job of characters trying to find what they actually want, Search Party, which I love, which is ostensibly about trying to figure out what happened to this missing girl, but it’s really the central character trying to figure out who she is and what she wants and her arc in transformation, but of course, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend starts with this woman on an existential quest, I don’t know what I actually want in my life and transforming everything and transforming everyone around her as she does it and because it’s a series and doesn’t have to resolve in movie time logic, it can go through all the ups and downs and the moments of realization and moments of self doubt, that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to fit into a classic two hour movie structure.
Craig: Yeah and those journeys are fascinating, because they are actually dictated or at least they used to be more like this, not necessarily by what the character’s experience was and how they were following a path and arriving in a destination, but rather more how well is the show doing, because when it’s doing really well, they can’t figure their shit out yet. They’re going to have to wait until the show is ready to conclude, at which point they will figure their shit out and that’s why one of my favorite endings for a who am I, what am I supposed to be journey, is the Sopranos, because it begins with a man going to therapy as a villain, but he’s going to therapy to try and figure out who he is and what his problems are and he never gets it. He never figures it out and then he’s murdered and that’s pretty much the way life works, except minus the villain and the murder part, occasionally there’s murder.
John: Occasionally there’s murder. You put a great article in the show notes here about a writer’s advice to other writers and let’s tie this in because I think it harkens back to the article I listed, which was the woman moving to the cabin. Talk to us about what you put into-
Craig: Yeah, it is a wonderful little story here. Somebody has written a… I’ll just talk about the woman that it centers on, is a Polish author name and I apologize, I’m murdering this name, Wislawa Szymborska. If you are Polish please right in and help me. I’m sorry. I’ll just call her Ms. Szymborska. She was a poet. She died in 2012, at which point it was discovered she had destroyed about 90% of her writing, which is amazing. Despite that or perhaps because of it, she won the Nobel prize in 1996 for poetry. Now here’s what I love about this and this ties into this romantic search for self and particularly as writers figuring out, am I a writer, as one of our questioners asked or how do I describe myself as a writer? Or should I go to a cabin and try and write there?
Craig: She wrote an anonymous column for a Polish literary journal, called Zycie Literackie. Again, I screwed that up. I’m sorry. It means literary life. She did this from the 1960s to the 1980s and the column in literary life was called Literary Mailbox and I’m quoting now from this article, “The idea was that aspiring writers would send in their work and receive helpful advice. Mainly, the article says Szymborska advised them to stop writing at once and destroy all their work.” This is like the dark iron curtain version of Scriptnotes.
Craig: “The aspiring writers,” I continue to quote, “imagine that being an author will bring them happiness, fame, and fortunes. Szymborska tells them to get a grip. Writing is a ridiculous profession, she argues persuasively. Failure is inevitable. Success is highly conditional and mostly feels like failure as well,” which I’ve got to tell you is absolutely true. What is her positive advice for poor wretches out there attempting to be writers. I quote from the article, “Her advice is monumentally sensible. Don’t be a narcissist. Work much harder. The best writing utensil is a waste paper basket. Life is short, yet each detail takes time. Don’t be a utopian, but keep away from the void for as long as you can.”
Craig: I’ve got to tell you, I feel like even though Ms. Szymborska and I lived at the same time, somehow I think the two of us may have been scrambled together in the simulation, because man, she’s just putting beautiful Nobel worthy, poetic words to how I feel all the time.
John: Yeah. What she’s saying, also reminds me of the Kendall Roy thing I mentioned at the start of the last segment, which was basically people write into her or they want to be writers, because they have this perception of, “Oh, if I have these things, then I will be happy,” and she’s there to tell you, no, you will not be happy, just as Kendall Roy could get the company and he will not be happy.
John: He just wants someone to tell him what he wants and no one can do that except for himself and in many ways, her saying, “No, you don’t want this. You’re not good at this. Stop doing this. It’ll only going to lead to misery,” is a gift in some ways. We’ve talked on the show, different times, there have been some people who’ve come up to us at live shows over the years like, “Thank you so much for your show. You convinced me that I did not want to be a screenwriter,” and I think that it’s a huge success, because if we’ve driven some people away from it who recognize like, “Oh my time is better spent doing something else.” That’s great.
Craig: Completely and I think I really just want to underscore again, success is highly conditional and mostly feels like failure as well and it must be hard to believe, but-
John: You and I are pretty successful and yet we often feel like failures.
Craig: Well and the success in specific, because when it happens you think, “Okay, the thing is, it’s still just me and my meat suit, moving around and thinking and worrying and all the rest of it and it’s hard to describe.” Success never feels like success. The word itself is promising a mirage that you never get. You have to be just okay with all the stuff in between, because there is no cake.
John: Listen, you’re not going to enjoy every moment of sitting down and actually writing, but if you actually hate writing, if you actually hate the process of doing this, but you’re just doing it because you think it’s going to feel great when you’re successful, you should stop right now, because that’s not likely to happen. You’re not going to feel good being a famous published author, if you don’t feel reasonably good, being an unpublished author.
Craig: No and the cabin won’t help you and being alone won’t help you and the herbal tea won’t help you and for God’s sake, if you ever see a movie where an author suddenly gets a burst of inspiration and then there’s a typing montage and then a novel erupts, just understand that’s the writing equivalent of watching porn. It’s not how it works. It’s fake. Never, ever, never think that, that’s what happens. It has never happened. It will never happen.
John: The worst part of Misery for James Caan, was he had to write a book.
John: Ah, all right. It’s time for one cool thing. My one cool thing is, one that I know Craig is very excited about, because I tipped him off about it. This is The Game Master’s Book of Non-Player Characters and the resource for really D and D, but there’s this whole weird thing where you can’t say D and D, but you can say fifth edition and it’s designed for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It’s not made by the official Dungeons and Dragons people. It’s written by Jeff Ashworth and what I love so much about this, is that the writing is just so good and it’s all these characters you can use for different adventures or different encounters in underground locations or big cities or small towns. Their characters are so specific and let me see if I can get just an example of one character’s description here, because I just love the little box descriptions on people. This is Boo Boo Crawford, a foppish man of middle age, with an overwhelmingly large explorers pack, strapped to his back a few pots and pans hanging from the straps of his chest, holding a guidebook like a mask. That’s your first initial taste of Boo Boo Crawford and they talk through what he’s actually trying to do, what his goals are, what his wants and needs are. It’s so useful and I kept imagining Craig finding voices for all these characters. Craig, does very good voices when we play D and D.
Craig: I try my best. I’m excited to look through this, because I really do believe that fun and interesting NPCs are half of what makes the experience fun. If you don’t have them at least here and there, the conversations become incredibly utilitarian. They’re not really conversations. There’s also not conflict. Part of it’s figuring out how this other person works. In this other game I DM, there’s a council of three people that make decisions for the town and the way that the module presents it, it’s talk to the three people, see if you can convince them and I’m like, “Okay, but who are they?”
John: Yeah, I would say the official adventure books, don’t do a great job describing those characters and this is what I was [crosstalk 00:56:34].
Craig: Yeah, this exactly. One of the things I did, was I decided that there would always be a vote and there’s three of them. The vote would always work one way or the other, except that one of them is just incredibly indecisive. It’s really just about, we’re no longer trying to convince this woman to why your point of view is the best. You really need to help her. You need to give her therapy, so that she can figure out why she can’t make a decision about things and the characters can engage in that way and it’s more fun and what I like about this resource is, sometimes when I’ve got 30 minutes before we’re playing, I’ve got to figure out who these three people are, being able to turn to a book and finding some great ideas would be lovely. This sounds like an amazing resource. I purchased it within seconds of you texting me about it. I’m very excited.
John: I want to give one more character description here, because this is actually useful for all of us as writers. This is about Fresticia and Pillow, a barefoot girl around eight or nine years old with dark skin, a missing front tooth in her innocent smile and her hair tied up in fluffy pigtails atop her head, dressed in a black dress with a scrappy red scarf tied around her neck. She is trailed by a skeletal cat. Two sentences. I got a whole picture there.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah, exactly and what’s the story with the cat and all that is great. Sometimes it’s all you need, is just a little bit of a starter and then off you go. Great recommendation, if you do play Dungeons and Dragons. I know they say game master. It is obviously the dungeon master, but of course there’s Pathfinder and all these other lovely games. John, my one cool thing and this is a 10 year odyssey of trying to find the best email client for Mac. I dumped the mail app a long time ago. Fooled around a few things, landed on Air Mail and I’ve been using Air Mail for many, many years. I think I might have convinced you at some point to use Air Mail, but there’s a new one now that I’m using, that I find much, much superior to that and it is called Canary. Canary works beautifully, far fewer errors or weird buggy techies. It’s also fast, fast, fast, fast, fast and it is for Mac OS and iOS and the two sync between each other flawlessly. I find it to be an excellent email client. I recommend it highly.
John: That’s great. I think I’ve told you this before, but I switched over to Superhuman at Rachel Bloom’s recommendation and.
John: Superhuman. I think Craig, you may want to check it out. Superhuman only works with Gmail, sits on top of a Gmail.
Craig: Oh, I got a problem with that.
John: All right. I’m entirely in the Gmail ecosystem, but it is ridiculously fast and it does such a great job of sorting stuff out, so I can get to inbox zero super quickly. I’ve been loving Superhuman, but it’s not to everyone’s taste. Interesting with superhuman. The onboarding process, you basically apply for it and then they make an appointment and then you have a half hour Zoom with the superhuman tech who walks you through everything.
Craig: I’m never going to do that. Ever, ever. I don’t want to talk to somebody.
John: It’s better. It’s better.
Craig: I obviously have some Gmail addresses as everybody does, but I don’t have only Gmail.
John: Yeah and you and I never actually email each other. We’re only texting.
Craig: Yeah. Emails… Megana just email’s for old people, right?
Megana: What? I email a lot.
Craig: Well, you’re old.
John: It’s a sensitive subject there, Craig.
Craig: Yeah. Oh, you thought I was asking you from the young person’s point of view?
Megana: Oh God.
John: You can reach Megana Rao. She’s our producer of Scriptnotes. you can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli after this week is by Timothy Fajda. If you need an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter. Craig is sometimes @Clmazin. I’m always @JohnAugust. You can find the show notes for this episode and all firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also where you can find the transcripts and sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing.
John: We have t-shirts and hoodies. They’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. It’s dicey, whether you can get one of those t-shirts or hoodies by Christmas, but try. They’re really nice. They’re really soft. You can sign up to become a premium member @scriptnotes.net. You get all the back episodes and bonus segments. Like the one we’re about to record on why movie dialogue is so hard to understand. Craig and Megana, thank you so much for a fun show.
Craig: Thanks guys.
Megana: Thank you.
John: Craig, we are talking about this article that Ben Pearson wrote for Slashfilm. I saw it passed around all over Twitter this past week, looking at whether and why movie dialogue has become harder to understand over the years. We’ll start with the first question. Is the thesis correct? Has movie dialogue become harder to understand over your lifetime?
Craig: I think so. I think so. I am a sound obsessed producer and I struggle all the time, all the time, when I’m watching things. Sometimes I play things back. I struggle with the way they mix things and I wasn’t even aware of how grumpy I was about a lot of it, until I read this article and thought, ah, okay, I’m not nuts. I’m not nuts.
John: Yeah. I approach it from a couple different ways. They talk about Christopher Nolan in here who seems singularly uninterested sometimes in actually, us being able to understand what his characters are saying, but also having worked on enough sets and worked with enough sound people, I know that we have tremendous technology to record sound and mix it properly and I don’t think the problem is technological on any level or that our sound professionals are not extraordinarily good. I think they all are and I want to make sure we are not throwing any of them under the bus, because it’s not their fault.
Craig: No, not at all. In fact, we have more technology now than we ever have, to present excellent sound to people and I don’t mean excellent sound like everything is crisp and clear and quality, but even just beautiful. This is a problem that everybody who works on a mixing sounds stage, is well aware of. They’re fighting against this all the time. Similarly, on stage the sound recording team, which is the sound mixer there and the sound assistant, who’s wiring everybody up and the boom operator, they’re always worried about sound and they always want to make sure that we’re not picking up stuff, we shouldn’t be picking up and that the lines aren’t being muffled or squished by the movement of clothing or anything and I support that tremendously. It’s one of the first things I say early on, on a production is how important sound is to me and I let the first AD know that to me sound, it’s more important the sound is good during a take, than if I don’t know, a light gets a little wonky, but that’s me.
John: Yeah and I think you’re probably also willing to say, for this shot, I don’t really care about sound. I’m not anticipating using the sound for this. You can tell people when it’s the priority. We have to understand everything here clearly or that should be the default, but if there’s some wide shot, where you’re just not going to care about the sound, you know you’re not going to use the sound, you can also tell them that, so that the sound person’s not trying to kill themselves to get sound, that you’re not going to be able to use.
Craig: Which they know.
John: They know.
Craig: They know and the reason why we say in wide shots, the sound and dialogue isn’t particularly as important, is because we’re far enough away, that we can probably put another take in their mouth if we need to.
John: Let’s talk about that, Craig, because I think most listeners probably don’t have a sense, the dialogue they see characters speaking, it may not be the actual take that they are… Editors do magic all the time.
Craig: All the time. Keep in mind that obviously when we’re watching people talk, there are a few shots where we see them both at the same time, like wide shots and then once we get into coverage, meaning, okay, but now I’m over a shoulder to you and I’m over a shoulder to you or I’m clean on you and I’m close up on you, some of the dialogue is off screen. It’s off camera and we can put any take in there. We can also take a word that you might pronounce a little funny and find another take where you said the word correctly and just drop it in there with an audio edit and you’ll never know. Dialogue editors can do incredible things, but only if the dialogue has been recorded cleanly and there wasn’t the sound of a truck going under it and if the producer in the room in television, me the show runner or in features, typically the director, cares to make it sound good.
John: It’s the producer or director saying, “No, no. This has to be good and we are going to either do another take, so we can get this right. We’re going to not do that noisy thing, so we can get one clean thing. We are going to get coverage. We’re going to get wild lines. We were going to spend the time to do this,” because time is probably the biggest reason why some dialogue is not recorded as cleanly as it could be.
Craig: And for me, I just have an ear on it. If I’m watching a take and it’s really good, but there’s one word where, because somebody shifted in their jacket, the lab is all screwed up, then I ask the sound people, do we pick it up on the boom and also, is there another take where I could just stick that line in or is it the kind of thing where I could edit around, but the biggest impact I think the director or show runner can have on dialogue and the clarity of dialogue, is talking to the actors, because there is and this article sites something that I absolutely believe is true, a contagious mumble-core-ism, that has infected everyone and it’s bad.
John: Let’s get into this, because you’re also an actor. You are on sets, where you’re having to make choices about how you were going to-
Craig: I’m a great actor.
John: You’re… I’m sorry, Craig, you’re a great actor., Who’s honest at making choices about how you’re going to play a line.
John: And one of the choices you could make, is to bury the line or mumble the line or just not bring a lot of attention to the line, basically set it internally and you’re choosing not to do this. Talk to us about the decision about realism in delivery of things, versus the heightened thing that you might do, so people can actually understand what you’re saying.
Craig: Well then once again, comedy gets it. Clarity and understanding is essential to appreciation of something, generally speaking. In drama, what can happen sometimes with actors, is in their reasonable desire to avoid indicating, emoting, overdoing, pushing, they get small, they can get really quiet. Sometimes in rehearsals, things that are just a normal conversation, like the one you and I are having, get slow and whispery. Part of it is a little bit of a fear, part of is a little bit of an insecurity. The one thing that I really don’t like doing is table reads, because I find that really good actors recognize that this is unnatural. They don’t want to be judged for their performance in that room, sitting around a table and they get mumbly. They just don’t want to be on the hook for it. Sometimes it’s about comfort. It’s about getting the actors comfortable through a few takes, so that you can start to get volume and clarity and things aren’t too whispery or mumbly.
Craig: Some of the whispery/mumbly stuff is just pretense and some of it is a lack of caring. I’ve got to tell you, the thing that they cite here is Bane and I love doing my Bane impression, but I missed a bunch of Bane stuff, because I just didn’t understand why I would miss it, because it seemed like they were actually taking the audio from him, from the mask and not just re-recording it and then filtering it through the… Because, if you’re going to wear a mask, other people have to at least understand you. By the way, if in Bane, he had been, [inaudible 01:08:47] and then Batman was like, yeah and [inaudible 01:08:51] and then he’s like, “No, seriously, I do not… Say that again slowly.” [inaudible 01:08:56] and it would’ve been awesome, but they didn’t do that. Everybody understood them except for us where we were like, “What?” I do think that it’s important for the show runners and directors, to carefully and respectfully get the actors to place where you know people are going to be able to appreciate the words they’re saying.
John: Yeah. I also wonder whether sometimes actors don’t have appreciation of how much editors and directors and posts and everyone else, can help them get to that quiet place. I think they may think that they have to be super, super quiet to hear, because they would be whispering in real life and don’t understand that, no, no, no, we can actually see the effect you’re trying to achieve. Let us achieve the effect, rather than you thinking you have to do it all yourself. They don’t want to feel stagey and theatrical in that way, but no, we can get you to that volume place appropriately, just give us a little bit more here, so we can record it.
Craig: Yeah and a lot of times what I will do, is make a note that a word or two has been garbled a little bit. The other thing is that enunciation is a big deal for people, who’ve been trained in theater on stage. Enunciation is not necessarily something that has been strictly drilled into people, whose primary experience has been in television or film and some people struggle with enunciation and for me, rather than becoming a speech therapist, I just make notes and I think to myself, “Okay, if I really need that one clear, I’m going to go in there and say, this word got a little bit garbled,” but not, in my mind I think I’ll loop it.
Craig: I can get that later and I can blend it in and it’ll be really good and looping, which is our all encompassing term for recording the line again later in a sound studio and then dropping it into the film, has become better and better and better to the point now where I’m way more comfortable believing that it will blend and that we will not notice a discontinuity in sound between naturally recorded voice and looped voice later.
John: Working on a serious television show now, you’ll also get a sense of, these are actors who I know are just fantastic at ADR and looping and they are people who can say, okay, no, this is going to be fine, we’ll get that in the room, versus there might be other people like, you know what, it’s actually not their greatest skillset, is being able to hear what they did and match it and you might want to get that wild line or get another take, there on the set.
Craig: Yes and one of the nice things about doing episodic television, is while we’re shooting, we’re also editing. I can go and sit down with Bella Ramsey and say, “Oh, we’ve got 20 minutes. Let’s bring our sound team over here. I just need you to say this line, because it’s off camera and it was a little funky on the mic, so let’s get it nice and clean now and then we can drop it in,” because we know it’s easy to do. We can start actually looping before we ever get even to proper post, which is advantageous.
John: But, underlying all of this is you have to care and the fact that you do care, is why you’re going to get some good sound. Basically, the answer to this question about movie dialogue and how to get it better, is just it’s caring and it’s making sure that the caring comes from the very start.
Craig: It’s caring and as much as I love when people have complimented a show I’ve made, about how it looks, when I get a compliment about how it sounds, that’s the thing that just warms my heart the most and I think I’ve seen this interesting look on the face of people in post, when I talk about this and it’s sad, because the look is, finally. Do you know what I mean? They’ve been neglected and it’s not right and look, maybe it’s just me, but sound to me is like smell. It’s a weird one, except that’s where all the memories come from. It’s just a faster root to my weird under brain and that’s what I find sound can do.
John: Love it. Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you John.
- Endeavor sells its content side CJ Entertainment
- WGA Health Fund now eligible for infertility treatments.
- For tips on understanding your contract, check out episode 407
- A writer who moved off the grid and hates it advice by Blair Braverman
- Have You Considered Accountancy? How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Writers By Wisława Szymborska (Edited and translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh) review by Joanna Kavenna
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