with Henry Gilroy
Interview by Jenna Glatzer
Gilroy is an animation writer extraordinaire. He's the screenwriter of the
upcoming direct-to-video movie BIONICLE:
MASK OF LIGHT, based on LEGO's brand (which includes comic books, trading cards, software and a toy line).
He was also the co-writer of the direct-to-video ATLANTIS II. But before
that, Henry had already established himself as a television animation writer,
having served as story editor and writer on 24 series, including The Tick, House
of Mouse, Timon and Pumbaa, Batman, Tazmania, and Team Atlantis. He was
also selected to write the comic book adaptations of STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE
PHANTOM MENACE and STAR WARS: EPISODE II.
did you get your start as a writer?
I was studying film at various colleges in the Los Angeles area, when I got a
job in the editing department at Warner Bros. animation. I learned a great
deal about story from the back end of production. Sitting with directors
and cutting finished stories gave me an eye and ear for what is necessary for
written a number of television animations for Walt Disney Television. How
did you break in there, and what has it been like?
Like many animation writers, I got started by pitching a few story ideas for a
particular series at Disney, then one was accepted and I was given a freelance
assignment, then another, then I got a staff writing position, then a story
editor position, etc.... I've been fortunate enough to work on a wide
variety of some of the more popular series at Disney. For example, the Timon and
Pumbaa show was a great exercise in coming up with funny cartoony gags and
comical banter. Then working with Roy Disney on the recent Mickey
Mouseworks and House of Mouse show was exciting because we got to put the entire
pantheon of Disney characters together, including the big three: Mickey,
Donald and Goofy. As a fan of animation, writing for those characters was
truly special, because they are a cornerstone in the world of animation.
I co-wrote Atlantis II, which was a trilogy of atmospheric action adventure
stories, similar in tone to the Batman animated series I worked on at Warner
Bros. I just finished up work on the Lilo and Stitch animated series,
which blends silly sitcom elements with science fiction action-- which sounds
kinda weird, but I think it’s going to go over very well. All in all,
I'd have to say I've been lucky to work on the quality of shows I've been able
to so far. Plus, working on the Disney lot in Burbank is great. The
commissary has the best garlic bread in town.
Why have you focused on writing for animation?
My love for the graphic medium began with my obsession with comic books back at
age five. In my mind, animation has always been an extension of comic
books, albeit they move. My favorite cartoon shows growing up were the
Bugs and Daffy cartoons, along with the superhero series: Superfriends and Thundarr
the Barbarian. I love the strengths of animation to create astounding
fantasy worlds or absurdly anachronistic situations... and make them both
totally believable. There's something about the world of a cartoon, you
watch knowing there is the possibility of anything happening.
one sense, I would think writing for animation would be very freeing-- you don't
have to worry about using too many locations, expensive effects, etc. But
are there any special challenges or limitations for writing for animation?
In my experience, the special challenges have to be the difficulty of subtle
acting. Whenever I get the script of a fresh animation writer and I see a
screen direction that asks for the character to "shake his head in
dismay," I know that ninety percent of the time that it will end up looking
bad in television animation. Depicting a train crashing off the tracks and
tumbling down a mountain is usually more effectively accomplished than the
convincing nod of a character's head. This is important I think for
anyone interested in writing for animation. They should really study the
medium to learn its strengths and weaknesses.
Another thing I believe is imperative about writing for animation is being
clear, yet writing description that will inspire the animator. I work
really hard to try to challenge the artist, so I'll often get to know the
animation crew I'm working with, then I'll write stories with elements I know
they like. This is a good way into an animation series producer's office--
if you know about some interest he has and you pitch a story on it, sometimes
you'll catch his eye enough for him to remember you.
happens when you're a staff writer for a TV show that gets canceled?
If you're working for a big studio like Disney or Warners and they like you,
they'll usually try to find a spot for you on another series. In the past
fat times of multi-year contracts, this was common procedure. More often
nowadays, studios are tighter, so they sign writers up to a "length of
production contract," so if the series gets canceled, they can lay off the
writer with very little notice.
Is it usually easy to pick up other TV work from the
same network, or do the writers generally start from square one again?
If the studio has no other shows in production or development has slowed, the
writer is usually on his own to find his own job-- back to square one. The
big problem with this is in that ninety-nine percent of television animation,
the writer gets no residuals. If you're a TV animation writer at a big
studio (Disney, Warners, Cartoon Network), you're in the Motion Picture Screen
Cartoonist union. If you log enough hours, you get a pension and health,
but no residuals. When I tell aspiring TV animation writers this
their faces drop. Now... feature animation writers (Shrek) and bigtime
animated sitcom writers (Simpsons), they're represented by the WGA, probably
because of the money involved.
me about BIONICLE and how you got this assignment.
is the single greatest toy-based property I've ever worked on (and in my opinion
ever created). The idea is a great juxtaposition of seemingly super
advanced biomechanical (and obviously synthetic) creatures living in a low-tech
society, on a natural, very primitive tropical paradise island. Most
people go "Huh?" The anachronistic contrast of the concept is
instantly intriguing. The mythology is basic: the villages are
centered in specific geographical locations, a volcano or a lagoon and inhabited
by simple biomechanical inhabitants (the Matoran) who live closely with nature,
leading spartan lives (fishing, sculpting, trading, etc...). Each village
is protected by an elemental hero (the Toa) that corresponds to the geography,
fire guardian and water guardian respectively for volcano and lagoon.
to the mystique are elements of ancient myths common to all cultures that
provide the atmosphere for epic fantasy and adventure. The concept also
includes talismans of power-- masks-- that can be transferred from character to
character to bestow fantastic abilities. I believe it is the mask-collecting
concept that has drawn the immense fan base, as it gives the audience endless
possibilities for change and story advancement. When I try to explain
BIONICLE to people (adults), they just kinda stare at me, but when they see the
toys and play with them and trade masks, they go... "Ohhhhh.
I got the assignment after a meeting with BIONICLE co-creator Bob Thompson.
Bob and I discussed our travels, trekking into Asia and found we had a lot of
philosophical similarities as far as mythology and what we liked about
mythology. I think he saw my enthusiasm for the project, I was pretty
clear about how much I wanted the chance to play in LEGO's BIONICLE
universe-- I think I accidentally stole some of his toys that night.
You've said that writing the dialogue for the Toa has
been your most challenging assignment to date. Why?
There already has been much dialogue written for the BIONICLE characters in the
online game as well as the comic book. Most people familiar with the Toa
(the heroes of Mata Nui) have their own idea of what the characters sound like;
the game and comic are read by the audience, so they assign whatever voice they
imagine to the characters. Then there's the difficulty that comes with the
characters themselves; they're archetypical heroes with elemental powers of
fire, water, ice, etc... so that expectations for how the characters were to
sound invited interpretation of everyone associated with the project. For
example, co-creator Bob Thompson is the mildest, quietest, nicest guy you'll
ever meet, but when he does the voice of Onua (the Toa of Earth), this deep
powerful voice bellows up out of him and scares the hell out of you!
Essentially, I wanted to write lines that I imagined both the BIONICLE creators
and the BIONICLE fans came up with when they played with the toys. My goal
was to stay true to what came before, yet try to give the voice actors a little
more to play with in regard to range.
The other tough part was having enough screen time for all the characters.
Remember, there are six different Toa heroes, and they're not even the stars of
the film. And I'd learned as time went by, everyone has their favorite
Toa-- you should see grown men debating the superiority of fire versus ice.
So even though I had my favorite and maybe wanted to give him a starring role, I
couldn't shortchange the others. It was a delicate balance to give each of
the Toa some resounding character bits, some big action and a few good
"hero lines." I was lucky though, the directors and animators at
the Mask of Light production house, Creative Capers, did a fantastic job of
bringing the Toa to life.
BIONICLE: MASK OF LIGHT is scheduled to come out on DVD
and video in September, before the theatrical film comes out. Any idea why
they scheduled it this way?
I would have to defer to the geniuses at LEGO on this one.
Did you come up with the storyline for BIONICLE?
How much freedom were you given in creating the script?
I co-wrote the storyline with Bob Thompson, Greg Weisman, Alastair Swinnerton
and Martin Riber Andersen. An interesting side note was that two scripts
with different stories were to be generated simultaneously, one by BIONICLE
co-creator Alastair Swinnerton and one by myself. The script that
"turned out best" was to be chosen for production. However, due to
time constraints, the core of my story was accepted for production with a few of
Alastair's great ideas included and we quickly went to script. It ended up
being a terrific collaboration all around.
Bob Thompson gave me tremendous liberty in all aspects of the Mask of Light
script. Remember, this guy had the characters bubbling around in his head
for years, so I thought it was great he was open to fresh ideas. However,
I really made it my duty to stick close by his vision, while bringing my ideas
of comical character and big screen action, all the while staying true to the
LEGO ideals of construction and community. It was tricky, but I
think we succeeded. I can't wait to see how the BIONICLE fans react.
I'm excited for them!
you write specs as well, or do you just work on assignment? Which do you
find more rewarding?
Most of the paying work I do is on assignment. Somebody reminded me
recently that I've worked on a large number of high profile properties, like
Star Wars, Batman, Mickey, BIONICLE, etc... and how come I didn't have some
household name property of my own. I shrugged and responded that I simply
like playing in other people's universes. In the past when I've started
developing my own properties, I'll get a call to work on something cool.
There's no way I would turn down a chance to work on BIONICLE. Or Batman.
Or Atlantis. I'm lucky to have a terrific agent. However, I do
have a few of my own properties that will FINALLY be seeing the light of day
What's your best advice for aspiring screenwriters?
Study the human condition. It doesn't matter whether your characters are
human or robots or what. Relating to the characters as humans is necessary
as everyone responds to emotional reality in storytelling. Understanding
motivation of who and what we are in any and all conditions seems to me to be
crucial to the creation of fresh, true stories.
more about BIONICLE at http://www.bionicle.com.
BIONICLE: MASK OF LIGHT is scheduled to come out on video in September, and
BIONICLE (the feature film) is due out in 2004.