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Interview with Henry Gilroy
Interview by Jenna Glatzer

Henry 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.

How 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 compelling storytelling.

You've 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. 

In 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.

What 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.

Tell me about BIONICLE and how you got this assignment.

BIONICLE 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.   

Adding 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.  Cool!"

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!  

Do 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 very soon. 

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.   

That's all!

Learn 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. 

 

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