with Lance Falk
An Interview with a scriptwriter for Hanna-Barbera Animation
was born in San Francisco CA. He moved to LA in 1980 in pursuit
of “something fun that involved drawing,” on film, in print... anything.
For seven years he did everything but drawing. He traveled, attended
functions, skydived and threw theme parties for about 100 people
once a quarter. Then came Lance’s lucky break; a roomate who worked
in the Hanna-Barbera mailroom told him that one of the stockboys
had been fired. He dropped everything, raced over there, and grabbed
the job. In 1986, after a lot of hard work, Lance was promoted from
the stockroom to a Production Assistant. It was a tedious job, but
a good stepping stone for him. He handled the paperwork for the
animation staff in the days before all TV animation went to overseas
Animation Aritst: What made you decide to become a writer for animation features and cartoons and how did your first big break in the industry come about?
Lance Falk: I became interested in writing while a staff artist at HB (Hanna-Barbera) because, since I drew for a living, I felt that I needed a totally non-work-related creative outlet. The late comic book writer/editor Mark Gruenwald had a casual comment in one of his editorials: "When your hobby becomes you livelihood, it's time to get a new hobby." When I read those words I realized at once why I could no longer draw for fun: I was doing it all day for someone else. Writing seemed a good thing to do for ME. I did a bunch of stuff for fun. Some produced radio plays, some spec Star Trek:TNG scripts which got me a failed pitching session (frankly I think they made a huge mistake), and other little things.
Well, my boss at the time, (late 1992) Davis Doi, knew that I wrote on the side and gave me the opportunity to pitch him stories for a series that he was given to produce called SWAT Kats. I wrote an episode for him. He liked it and that led to five other assignments over the two seasons of the show.
After SWAT Kats, I did an 18 month art stint at Warner Bros. on Animaniacs and Pinky & the Brain. Then Davis called me back to work on Jonny Quest. I wrote nine of those for him from our batch of 26. I should add that the Story Editor for both shows was a real talented vet named Glenn Leopold. I learned a LOT from Glenn. He's the best.
I did another stint at Warners, and then bounced back to HB yet a third time to work on some development projects and a series of Scooby-Doo Direct-to-Video features. Glenn and Davis wrote the first two ("Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island" and “Scooby-Doo and the Witch's Ghost") Davis and I wrote the third ("Scooby-Doo and the Alien Invaders" to be released on video and DVD October 10, 2000). The first two videos sold incredibly well and we think that the third might do even better.
As you can see, Davis Doi not only gave me my big break as a writer, but has BEEN my entire career in that area. I could never really thank him enough.
My first break in the industry itself was getting hired as a staff artist on the 1986 incarnation of Jonny Quest by a fellow named Jim Stenstrum. Jim is an amazingly talented artist, terrific teacher, and great boss. Jim was also involved with all the other projects that I mentioned, acting as art director/main designer for SWAT Kats (he also wrote a few episodes), the latest Jonny Quest series, and Director of our Scooby-Doo movies. Obviously, I love working with Davis and Jim. These two guys are the best bosses one could have and I certainly owe much to the both of them. I will work with them anytime.
Animation Artist: Throughout your career you have worn many different hats. You've been a Production Assistant, Model Cleanup Artist, Model Designer, Series Model Coordinator, Asst. Supervisor of Model Dept., Staff Model Artist, Freelance Writer, Actual Post Production Assoc. Producer, Post-Producer Supervisor, Staff Writer, Staff Show Development Writer, Asst. Art Director and Design Coordinator. Which of these jobs have been the most enjoyable for you and how do some of the jobs (like staff writer and staff show development writer) differ?
Lance Falk: All those jobs are similar and slightly different but I can give you a few examples. "Staff Writer" means that you are there as a writer only and obligated to deliver a certain amount of scripts in a certain amount of time. The first half of my JQ stint was this and my first real job as a full-time paid writer. The SWAT Kats scripts were done freelance on the side. (My weeknights and weekends were BOOKED...but it bought me a new car!) My day job was the assistant to the art director (Jim Stenstrum). That's sort of my function on Scooby as well.
"Development Writer" works on projects to sell to a client — series ideas, story ideas for established characters, etc. It's fun and the freedom is nice but it's also frustrating because so little development material ever gets made. For everything you see, there were twenty or thirty that were never given the go-ahead. Scooby-Doo was something that we were able to sell.
Without question my time on Jonny Quest was best of all worlds. I got to do a little of everything from writing, drawing, assistant producing, ect, ect. I got to meddle in my story from concept to final edit and sound mix. That's a rare and exciting opportunity which most animation writers never have. It also didn't hurt that Jonny Quest (JQ) is my all time favorite animated series. It really speaks to me. Needless to say, it was the gig of a lifetime. Because our crew came in to salvage a very troubled production in midstream, we had to basically give our lives over to the show for the duration (I think I took three days off in 15 months) but it was a huge amount of fun and challenge.
Animation Artist: What did being a staff model artist and series model coordinator entail?
Lance Falk: A model artist may be tasked with designing anything that is actually animated, be it characters, props, or vehicles. Sometimes, this can be designing or merely cleaning up a designer's rough (Which is what I started doing in '86). We do whatever the producer needs. Most model artists specialize in one area or another. I'm not a great character designer but I'm an ace cleanup artist and pretty okay with prop and vehicle design which I did on Animaniacs and Pinky & the Brain for a few years.
A model coordinator makes sure all the animation models needed for a project are done, on style, and to everyone's satisfaction. Basically, I keep the person in charge of the models free from distractions so that he can spend most of his or her time at the drawing board and designing. I handle most all of the art corrections, making sure our crew draws everything we need (but no more). It's a creative version of Radar O'Reilly from M*A*S*H.
Animation Artist: How long did you do freelance work before becoming a staff writer?
Lance Falk: I was a Freelancer on SWAT Kats which was over a two-year period, then had a few years break at Warners before I got the Jonny Quest staff writing gig.
Animation Artist: What inspires you to come up with story lines and/or gag jokes for the cartoon characters you’ve written for?
Lance Falk: Jonny Quest was easy for me to come up with ideas because the show itself is so well constructed by its creator, the late, great Doug Wildey. JQ was open to straight action, supernatural, light sci-fi, spy drama, ect. Being a big fan of Sean Connery, James Bond, James Cameron, Classic Outer Limits, and of course classic Jonny Quest, it was easy for me to come up with premises for the show. (Laughs) I swear. It is almost as if that show was designed with my own tastes in mind. Here are a few examples to show the diversity of story types in the Quest series. I did a story about the ancient Hebrew legend of the Golem, followed by a straight adventure yarn with a little SF technology, then I did a James Cameron type hybrid of Aliens and the Abyss, then a story in the style of the Classic series, then one that would have been at home on the 60's Outer Limits, and so on. There's room for a wide variety of stories.
SWAT Kats was a funny animal show in the same spirit as Ninja Turtles (but much better, I think. It's a secret gem of a program.) Those stories were a lot more comic book influenced. Our heroes used high-tech gear to combat super-powered bad guys and creatures. I'm almost ashamed of how many comic books I've read in my life and so here was a chance to find out if I'd picked up anything useful from it.
have to admit that my Scooby stories are more "adventury" than you may be used to and our plot for the forthcoming Scooby movie has been fairly accused of being a "Funny Animal Jonny Quest story with a lot of gags."
Animation Artist: Do you have a particular episode you've written that you would deem your favorite and, if so, what is it about that episode that makes it so special to you?
Lance Falk: Yeah. Three come to mind: My SWAT Kats episode "Unlikely Alloys" was pretty ambitious and different with a lot of story for 22 minutes of running time.
My Jonny Quest episode "Nuclear Netherworld" was a labor of love tribute to both classic Jonny Quest and its creator Doug Wildey. I even have Doug in the story as Jonny's gun-toting grandfather.
The Quest episode "General Winter" is probably my sharpest overall script and not only is the animation especially good for that one, but I was most involved in all aspects of production. If I had to point to something that indicated me at my best, that would be it. It really all came together.
"Scooby-Doo and the Alien Invaders" came out pretty sharp, so it may very well be my best work. Time will tell. Of course the fact I was following up the work of Davis Doi and Glenn Leopold didn't make me look too bad either. It will certainly be the most watched of my stuff since these videos sell wonderfully and get record-breaking ratings on Cartoon Network.
Animation Artist: In the course of your career to date, what has been your most challenging obstacle? What made it so challenging and how did you overcome the obstacle?
Lance Falk: The Real Adventure of Jonny Quest wins hands down because of the punishing schedule and cleaning up the huge disaster of the previous team for that show. It was like working at a fire station, keeping a huge number of potential crises under control all while under intense scrutiny from management (because of liberties taken by the previous team). But, by God, we did it by just keeping our heads down and pushing. I'm very grateful that the Hanna-Barbera bigwigs let us come in there and follow our own creative instincts (which is why there are two distinctive versions of that year's run of the series). Our episodes are the ones where Race Bannon does NOT have a Montana twang in his voice.
The Scooby script was the hardest thing to write because of the overall length (over three times longer than the biggest thing I've written so far) and was certainly different in tone from my body of work because it was reliant more on comedy than action. I worked very hard to please both the hard-core Scooby fans AND my own actiony interests. I think I pulled it off, but time will tell. Luckily, I was the CO-Writer with Davis Doi and he kept the balance between mystery and humor in tight rein.
Animation Artist: What are the differences between writing a script for one feature animation like Scooby-Doo and animation series like Jonny Quest?
Lance Falk: Series work has to be cranked out on a weekly basis. Video features are longer but we have time to polish them a lot more and the longer running time gives us the leg room to tell a more sophisticated story and boost production values in other ways too. The best of all worlds for me, would be to do a JQ or Space Ghost feature length story. That's a little dream of mine. The advantage of series work is that with such a short running time, one has to get right to the meat of the story. No messing around. That's kinda fun too.
Animation Artist: Can you walk us through the production cycle of an animated film you've worked on like Scooby-Doo and the daily details that were your responsibility as the Design Coordinator?
Lance Falk: That's really hard to answer because it was different day to day. I might spend a day rendering drawings with markers for color reference, fine-tuning aspects of the story, putting notes on the storyboard, designing rough models, meeting with the background designers, getting reference together for our small army of artists, etc. etc.
Animation Artist: When you were younger was there a particular person that served as an inspiration for you? Who was that person and what, specifically, do you find most inspiring about him/her?
Lance Falk: Outside of the two guys I work for, I'd have to say that my mentor was an incredibly talented artist named Tony Sgroi. Tony was in the animation business since World War II; worked everywhere in town at one point or another including as layout artist on the classic Jonny Quest show. Tony was a fixture at Hanna-Barbera for decades doing every kind of art assignment you could name from designing characters, storyboards, layouts, presentation illustration. We shared an office for about seven years and a day didn't go by where his drawing ability didn't amaze me. I wish I could say that his drawing ability rubbed off but certainly, the guy's tireless work ethic, professionalism, versatility, and easiness to work with influenced me a great deal. Tony was a blueprint of gentlemanly comportment and professionalism. Sadly, he passed away about two years ago.
Animation Artist: What are some of the projects you are currently involved with?
Lance Falk: As of July 2000, we're doing pre-production on Scooby-Doo video #4 (a meat and potatos chase story called "Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase") and some personal projects for fun. These videos are popular enouch to keep me working at least half the year. We might roll directly into video #5. I hope so since Jim and Davis wrote a fantastic "Origin Story" for Scooby and the gang. If all goes well, you'll be seeing that one in the fall of 2002.
Animation Artist: Some of our readers are interested in pursuing animation scriptwriting as a career. What would you recommend to them in following this path?
Lance Falk: As cynical as it sounds, you need to know someone. I've seen good people unable to get work because of the lack of proper connections and I've seen lame writers get a lot of work because they've cultivated relationships with the right people. (no names, sorry) I don't mean to be so discouraging but I've never seen evidence to the contrary. It's harder to prove your ability as a writer than as an artist. Any artist good enough will get work eventually but I can't say the same is necessarily true for the budding wordsmiths out there.
Animation Artist magazine is grateful for the time Lance Falk took to share his excellent insight with Animation Artist readers.