I met Shion at the Austin Film Festival when she was still at Pixar as a story artist. Since then Shion has gone on to become a writer at Disney on the hit animated show Gravity Falls. This is the type of fun show that many of us would love to write on, so am sure you will enjoy her advice.
Shion Takeuchi is a writer on Disney’s Gravity Falls. She has worked as a story artist on Pixar’s Monsters University and the upcoming Inside Out, and Cartoon Network’s Regular Show. Shion’s work has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, and her personal work has played at various film festivals internationally, including Annecy, Animayo, and San Diego Asian Film Festival. She graduated from CalArts in 2010 with a BFA in Animation.
Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to share your experience with us, Shion. I have a lot of questions, but let’s start with how you discovered your passion for storyboarding and writing. Did you always know this was the direction you wanted to go, or was there a moment for you?
Shion Takeuchi: I really admire the type of person who knew from an early age what they wanted to do. I’ve worked with fantastic artists who basically decided when they were seven years old that they were going to have a TV show. I definitely was not that type, although I did express an interest in storytelling from a young age. I wasn’t really cognizant of the fact that you could get a job doing these sort of things until I was almost ready to apply to college. And even after I got into college I had no idea what I wanted to do. At one point I thought I’d be a character designer.
If there was a moment, it was during my internship at Cartoon Network. I was lucky enough to be an intern on Adventure Time on season 1, before it had ever aired. I really got to see the reality of what the workplace was like. I got to watch these amazing artists not only draw, but envision the funniest and most entertaining scenes, and that’s when I really reconnected to my love of storytelling. At the end of the internship, each intern was given the opportunity to pitch an original storyboard sequence to whoever at the studio was willing to come watch. I was nervous and sweaty and had been up all night drawing. But even punch-drunk, there was nothing more exhilarating than pitching my story to an audience and hearing the sounds of laughter or surprise, and knowing my ideas had connected with someone. The day of my pitch, J.G. Quintel (creator of Regular Show) was in the crowd and offered me a story test to work on his show, and that’s how I got my first storyboarding job.
JS: I am particularly interested in the fact that you went from storyboard artist to writer. This is actually a path I had considered at one point, as I talk about in my book Creative Writing Career. For you, was this a strategy or did you go in wanting to be a storyboard artist and the writing thing came along and surprised you? Was there a plan?
ST: I didn’t get into storyboarding with the idea that I would use it as a springboard into writing. I just wanted to learn a craft and do it the best I possibly could, and a lot of my career choices have been shaped by opportunities that have just kind of popped up. My first storyboarding job on Regular Show was also somewhat of a writing job. Regular Show is what is called a “board-driven show” in that a writer writes episode outlines, but the scenes and dialogue are written by the storyboard artist while they simultaneously storyboard it. The amount of creative control that working in that way affords the storyboard artist is really unique. Eventually the episode leaves your hands and is changed and improved by others along the way, but the first pitch is really completely your own. I had an amazing time working on Regular Show, and it was really my story-telling education. It still blows my mind how lucky I was to be able to learn while also working on something where I was creatively able to fire on all cylinders.
Soon after, I got the opportunity to work at Pixar. That was the next stage of my storyboarding education. There I learned a lot about craft and execution- how to tell a story in the most efficient yet cinematic way. I learned a lot about film language and camerawork, and my choices became more visually sophisticated. The job was very different from storyboarding on Regular Show, because the demands were very different. At Pixar, I worked from script pages that were given to me. The scene structure and dialogue was already crafted, and my job was to stage the action in shots and draw acting choices. Because the script was predetermined, it freed up a lot of decision-making for crafting the visuals of the sequence, and I was able to learn another facet to storytelling. But I did miss writing. And that’s when I realized how much I loved it. I began writing on my own, and when an opportunity came up to write on Gravity Falls, I knew I had to take it.
JS: Do you feel your experience adequately prepared you for writing, or did you take classes and make an additional effort to learn how to write?
ST: It definitely helped, and it created the desire in me to write more. But I feel like I’m still learning how to write. I think learning to write never ends, you just keep doing it more. Every format has its own demands- what works in film doesn’t necessarily work in TV, and in TV an hour-long drama is a totally different beast from a half-hour comedy and from a 15-minute block. Writing is always difficult. If it weren’t then bad things wouldn’t get made! I think the best thing a writer can do to become better is write more, and be careful not to get stuck in a rut. Have new experiences, shake up your thinking about the world. I was surprised at how much the improv class I was taking for fun after work ended up shaping how I think about writing.
JS: Say you met a high school kid who wants to write and can draw fairly well, would you recommend a similar path to the one you took, or what would you advise?
ST: It’s hard to say, because I feel like so much luck was involved in my path. I forget who this quote is attributed to, but I completely agree with “Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation.” I do recognize that my storyboarding skills put me in a place to better seize the opportunity to get into writing- how else could I have met the creators of shows and worked with directors at Pixar- but I also think that if writing is the eventual goal, why not get started right away? There’s no better time than right now to create something, put it out there, and have a direct line to others. More than my resume, I made a student film called When the Time Is Ripe that has surprisingly continued to get me work years after. It was because of my short film that I got both the opportunities at Pixar and on Gravity Falls.
JS: Coming from that background, what are your thoughts on story structure? Does it have to be followed in these big animation studio systems?
ST: To me, story structure can basically be summed up as “Beginning-middle-end”. Every story has structure, even if it’s avant-garde. The structures that studios follow are more formulaic in their rhythm, but structure is universal. So yes, structure must be followed. I think there’s a difference in how to execute the same structure that comes down to taste and craft, but that’s more about style. An example that makes me laugh is the meme that was going around comparing Toy Story with The Walking Dead. The parallels are eerie, but I never would have thought to compare the two because of how different their execution is. But even the least conventional film-making uses structure. When I saw Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, which is this really trippy and experimental film shot entirely from a first-person POV, I wasn’t expecting to find structure in it. But there totally is, albeit a very simple one. The film is an exploration of the Tibetan Book of the Dead put into a narrative, it just happens to be a very unconventional narrative form.
JS: Can you recommend any books to read or other ways an aspiring writer should make sure they have the foundation upon which to build their craft?
ST: I’ve only read a few, but one of the best books I’ve read was Alexander Mackendrick’s On Film-making. Mackendrick was a very prolific film-maker who worked at Ealing studios for years before it shut down, and his book is the least gimmicky and most direct articulation of how to approach storytelling I’ve ever read. Not to say other books aren’t helpful or useful, but Mackendrick is on another level, and his approach as a director is unique from other story structure books. It helps to know what a director looks for, what their process is, because ultimately a script is a blueprint for directors to build from. Another book that was an interesting read is Syd Field’s The Screenwriter’s Workbook which talks a little more about process for writers. And something else I always return to, funnily enough, is an internal memo that David Mamet wrote, chewing out the writers of The Unit about what constitutes actual drama. It’s a google search away, and always makes me laugh for how truthful and solid the insights are.
JS: I will second the recommendation of the Mackendrick book—I loved it. Can you share specific ways aspiring writers (and storyboard artists) can get into these companies?
ST: Internships, assistant positions, any way you can build relationships with people who are in these companies and eventually get the opportunity to show your work is helpful. Many major companies do creative internships or fellowships which are highly competitive, but are a great way to break in. For animation: Pixar, Dreamworks, Disney, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon all offer internships for college students or recent grads. Unfortunately once outside the bounds of college, you can no longer apply. A lot of friends broke into the industry doing PA work on shows for a few years, and then transitioned into artistic positions.
For writing: It’s much the same. Internships are offered to college students, but becoming a writer’s assistant or PA can also get your foot in the door. Luckily there are also writer’s fellowships offered by major studios every year that anybody can apply to: Warner Brothers, ABC, and NBC have great programs which require you to write a few samples to get picked from a pool of applicants. And if selected, you receive mentorship from actual working producers and showrunners.
JS: What about other, more generic, resources? For example, we met at the Austin Film Festival. Do you have positive things to say about the AFF or recommend other events or classes?
ST: The contest route is definitely another path to take to receive recognition, and there are many contests to choose from. AFF is very reputable, amongst a few others, but a lot of contests are more akin to moneymaking enterprises. AFF is a great place to go to be inspired and to meet other people at a similar level and hopefully create a support system. Whatever helps you write more will only make you better.
JS: Thank you again, Shion. Before I sign off, do you have a last bit of advice you feel you should leave us with? Maybe something I forgot to ask about or a summary of your points above?
ST: For beginning writers: Writing is hard! Don’t be scared. It’s a powerful thing to take a part of yourself and shout it out to the world. Be truthful. If it’s true, you will connect with that part in someone else. Don’t take yourself too seriously, it’s just writing. Take yourself seriously enough. Stay inspired. And always use 12-pt Courier.
Shion’s interview along with other greats, is included in the upcoming sequel to Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, check out another book in the series – Military Veterans in Creative Careers!
To follow Justin Sloan and receive his summary of structure booklet from Creative Writing Career: http://eepurl.com/bbpNjv