interview: Minty Lewis, creator of Bottom’s Butte

Even though we both live in LA, I first met Minty in Austin at the Austin Film Festival! Then we became Facebook friends and I saw that she created a short, so I had to ask her all about it. Follow this super talented lady on Twitter @mintylewis.

Your short has an alpaca and a peanut as the main characters! How’d you come up with the idea for your short?

It’s all kind of blurry when I look back on the origin, almost three years ago at this point. I knew I wanted to pitch something before I knew what I wanted to pitch, so I basically just threw a bunch of ideas at the wall and then saw what stuck for me. One of the things I was thinking about was my aunt Beverly, who has a giant, joyful, reckless personality, but now has Alzheimer’s and spent most of her life in dealing with alcoholism. Specifically, I was thinking about a story of hers in which she decided to audition for a play as she was drunkenly walking by a theater. They called to give her the lead role the next day, but once she sobered up she didn’t have the guts to follow through. The alpaca character (also named Beverly) grew out of me thinking about what it would be like if she could’ve just maintained that sweet spot of drunkenness. Like, maybe great things would have been possible if she could have just held on to that optimism and extroversion and risk-seeking behavior?

Translating these musings into a cartoon character, I’ve landed on a straitlaced alpaca who twisted her bun too tight and turned into a freewheelin’ teenager. The fact that she’s specifically an alpaca isn’t all that important, I just felt like there’d be more range in what I could do with her and the world if she wasn’t a human. People just seem more willing to accept/laugh at dark ideas if there’s a goofy cartoon face in front of them. I’ve always appreciated how nuts alpacas look with all the teeth and the hair, but you can take any creature and make it seem serious/nerdy/sexy/etc. with the details of the character design. The Peanette character grew out of a totally separate path where I was thinking about a “peanut butler,” but after I did some drawings and she turned into a burnout wearing a denim jacket, she seemed like a good pal for Beverly.

RELATED LINKS:

Bottom’s Butte

Behind the Scenes with Busy Philipps and me

Interview with me about the short

Can you walk us through the basic process from pitching your idea, to it getting the short made by Cartoon Network?

Sure! Since I was already working at Cartoon Network on Regular Show, I just sent an email to the development executive to set up the initial pitch meeting. At that meeting, I gave a very basic verbal pitch, with maybe 10 rough concept drawings. She seemed interested, gave me some general feedback, and asked me to submit a pitch bible for her to review with the other execs. I spent the next couple of weeks putting together a formal pitch bible, which included a show title, logline, show summary, character descriptions and designs, settings and setting designs, and 3-5 episode ideas. Based on this document, I was given a contract for development.

Cartoon Network has a unique pipeline where they’ll make a 7-11 minute short before developing a series, so at that point the process became all about getting a short greenlit. Shorts are tricky because they have to function as a pilot (in that they have to set up a world and introduce new characters) but they also need to stand alone without the context of a pitch bible or full series (as in, a short shouldn’t feel like the first episode of series). The execs chose an episode premise from my pitch bible to serve this purpose, and then I went through the stages of writing an outline, getting notes/approval on the outline, doing a thumbnail storyboard, getting notes/approval on the thumbnail storyboard, and then doing a production storyboard pitch. At that point (close to a year after my initial pitch meeting), my short was greenlit.

From there, I began working with the dedicated Shorts Department at Cartoon Network to produce the short. I had final say on everything, but they basically held my hand through all the stages of production, including visual development, casting, editing, hiring freelance artists and musicians, dealing with the Korean animation studio, sound mixing… everything. It took a little over a year from production kickoff before we had a finished short, and now I’m working on some additional development materials (changes to the concept, more episode pitches) before a series will or will not be greenlit.

 

What kind of notes did you get from Cartoon Network during this process?

The notes I’ve gotten from Cartoon Network have been consistently insightful and supportive. They tend to be in the spirit of enhancing clarity or focus, and they’ve never forced me to make any changes I didn’t want to make. At least at the shorts stage, they honestly seem committed to helping artists execute their vision. I’m sure the notes get a lot tougher once you have a series on the air.

 

Let’s say best case scenario, your short gets picked up and goes to series. How would you hire writers? What would you look for?

Feminine energy! And I don’t just mean women, although female representation would be especially important on a show with two female main characters. What I mean is that I would look for people who are empathic, observant, flexible, receptive… These are qualities that contribute to good vibes in a room and make a writer’s work relatable. I also like weirdos. And this would all be on top of the obvious desirable traits of a pleasant demeanor, similar sensibilities, and a reliable work ethic.

 

If someone was going to pitch an animated show, what advice would you give them?

It really would depend on where they were coming from. The best idea in the world would still be a very hard sell without supporting artwork, so a writer would be wise to pair with an experienced artist in order to present a complete package (or be able to draw). Aside from that, it seems like what studios are “looking for” is always shifting, so I’d just say to make sure they’re pitching something they’ll be excited to work on for years and not just something they think other people will like. Execs can tell when you’re faking it anyway.

 

What are some unique things about writing for animation vs live action?

It is my understanding that the hours are more forgiving and the environment is more chill in animation. On the other hand, the WGA pays A LOT more than the Animation Guild, live action writers seem like they get more respect, and things seem to happen more quickly. Case in point, I’m coming up on nearly three years of working on this project, and even if everything goes perfectly from this point forward, the earliest I could have a show on television would probably be spring of 2018. I’d need to write for live action though before I could give a more complete answer.

 

Something I don’t think everyone knows about animated shows is that some are board driven, and some are script driven. Can you explain the difference between the two?

No prob. On a board-driven show, the staff writers (of which there tend to be 2-3) produce an outline containing the beats of the story, including some key dialogue and joke ideas (outlines are usually 3-4 pages for an 11-minute episode). The outline is then given to a pair of board artists, who translate the outline to a storyboard. The board artists, who receive “written and storyboarded by” credit, fill in all the specific action and dialogue, and make changes to the story as needed. The staff writers give notes and joke pitches on the storyboard, but do not do any first-hand writing past the outline stage. There is no script at all until it is transcribed from the finished storyboard, and then it’s only used for the voice record. Most shows at Cartoon Network are board-driven, and I THINK at Nickelodeon and Disney too, but I could be wrong.

Most (all?) 22-minute animated series are script-driven and have a traditional writers room. On a script-driven show, the storyboarders aren’t responsible for any dialogue, and usually they won’t even work on the storyboard until after all the dialogue is recorded and edited. I haven’t worked on a script-driven show so that’s all I can offer about that process.

I think the idea with the board-driven process is that you’ll get more dynamic and cohesive visual storytelling, but it can get hard to manage a 22-minute story at the board level.

 

Since you work as a board artist, has that experience influenced the way you write?

I was making comics for years before I came to animation, so for me the writing and the visual element have always been pretty closely tied. But comics are where I started figuring out my voice and style, and since I’ve started working in animation those things have shifted a bit. I’ve learned to be more economical with words, my pacing has gotten faster, and my humor is less about tone and more about jokes.

 

Besides being a storyboard artist on Regular Show, you also do the voice of Eileen. How fun is that job?! Do you have any input on the character?

OH MAN. There is nothing not to like about being a voice actor, especially when a job is just handed to you and you don’t even have to audition. It’s easy, it pays well, my family is impressed (even though I work way harder as a storyboard artist/writer), and I have a tangible awareness of my unique creative contributions. It is not lost on me how lucky I am to have been given this sweet, sweet gig. Side note: I’m also doing a voice for my friend Alex Cline’s animated webseries Bill and Jeannie, and it is a deeply delightful production.

As far as my input on Eileen’s character, I was fortunate to have been assigned one of the first episodes where she appeared in season two. Her role in the outline was pretty vague, so my partner and I got to shape a lot of her personality in that storyboard. At this point, though, all of the writers/board artists have contributed to the fine female Eileen is today.

 

Any last bit of advice for aspiring writers and animators?

Make comics! You’ll get better at writing and drawing, and a lot more people will pay attention to your work. Wouldn’t you much rather look at something that someone made to entertain you, rather than something someone made to try to get a job from you? Also comics are a way cheaper in-road to animation than going to CalArts.


 

Thanks so much to Minty for this super informative interview! Be sure to check out her short. Hopefully it’ll go to series!

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