The creator/Writer talks about creating the show, how he got into animation and writing the Gargoyles comic book
Greg Weisman is the kind of person that seems to have led a charmed life. Wanting to be a writer, he took a "day" job out of college as a development executive at Disney's new Television Animation Division. While doing this, he learned everything he could about the process of creating animated shows. He figured he would write at night, his work would eventually get attention and this is how he would make his mark. Well, life usually doesn't work out how we plan it to, so it should come as no surprise that his day job is what eventually led him to creating his most personal work the Gargoyles TV series.
Subverting long held ideas and beliefs about these beings, Gargoyles tells the tale of a group of "night creatures" who vow to protect current day New York. Mixing aspects of both the past and present, so that the show has an overall richer perspective, Weisman and his team have made one of the most interesting character/creature shows ever created. During our interview he graciously discussed the detailed process of making the show, why he chose gargoyles to tell his stories and how he got into the animation business to begin with.
How did you come up with idea for Gargoyles? And why did you chose gargoyles to tell these stories?
Greg Weisman: Well, the gargoyles came first, the stories came second. (laughs) I've been fascinated with gargoyles since I was a kid. I took a high school trip to Europe, the 8 countries in 5 weeks kind of trip. Even then I collected postcards of gargoyles. Then I sort of forgot about it. You flashforward a few years and I'm at Disney, we're looking for an idea to base a show on. I was running series development at the time at Disney TV Animation. We were looking to develop a show that had a lot of the elements that The Gummi Bears series had.
There was Care Bears and there was Gummi Bears, and Care Bears was very, sort of saccharin... kind of TV show. Where everyone was kind of giving hugs and that kind of thing. Gummi Bears was actually an adventure comedy. It was great fun, it had this terrific backstory, a show created by Jymn Magon. The candy was the inspiration for starting the show in the first place but the series that was created was really great. We felt that Gummi Bears never got the respect it deserved. I don't take any credit for Gummi Bears. Gummi Bears was up and running by the time I joined Disney. I thought it was a great show.
We felt it didn't get respect for two reasons. One was, it's about little cuddly bears. Two was, it had this sort of medieval setting to it. So we set out to create a show that would have a little more edge to it, so the first thing we did is we took these medieval characters and brought them into the present. The second thing we did was instead of making them about little cuddly bears, we made it about little gargoyles. Certainly an influence from the movie Gremlins was in our mind a bit. I just thought gargoyles was the perfect thing. I always had been interested in them and the legend of gargoyles, that sort of predates our series is, you put these scary creatures on your building to scare away evil spirits. And that was actually what had always fascinated me, this notion that you put something ugly up to scare away something even uglier.
So we decided to sort of extrapolate backwards. Why would human beings create these stone statues? What might have inspired that notion? So we came up with this idea of this race of creatures who were good, who protected church stone during the day but came alive during the night. And we came up with the Gargoyles comedy series. Which didn't sell! (laughs)
When that didn't sell we went back to the drawing board a couple of times. We redeveloped it as a drama series and that did sell and there you have it.
What goes through one's head when Disney asked for 52 more shows? I remember seeing that in the supplemental features...
Greg Weisman: Yeah, we had done 13 episodes in the first season on a 10 month sliding schedule which, by the way, isn't a piece of cake. Not that it's killer but it's not easy. Then we had time to do more but they said "52," and I just thought they were nuts. When they first said "52" I literally laughed, I thought they were kidding. They said, "Well, how many do you think could do?" And I said, "Well, we've got 6 scripts in the works, so 6 obviously we could do. We did 13 last year, I think we could do 13 this year without a problem." I said, "If we really pushed it, I think we could do 18." And they said, "What about 52?" I started laughing but they were serious and eventually they did get the 52 episode order.
We had 10 months, sliding schedule to do 52 episodes. After you get over the shock of the size of the number, the job became one of expansion. We had to expand the crews, first and foremost. I had one story editor on the first season, Michael Reaves, we hired 3 more for Season 2. We hired two directors to work under Frank Paur on the art side. We just expanded the crew in LA. We used more of a variety of overseas studios, and likewise, you then have to sit down and say, "Okay, now you're gonna have to tell 52 stories, we have to expand the universe as well." So we added a regular character, we went on the world tour, we did a whole bunch of stuff. We added a whole race of beings and had a great time, actually.
It was a lot of work but I will say, sometimes when you're in the midst of something you don't always appreciate it while you're doing it. Gargoyles was an exception to that. At the time, I knew we were doing something kind of special. Something that might not be repeatable. It turned out to be, professionally.
Working how you were, in that 10 month time period, how long would it take to create an episode of Gargoyles? From concept to completion?
Greg Weisman: Each step of the process you've got 10 months. So you've got 10 months to write 52 scripts, you've got 10 months to board 52 episodes and you've got 10 months to animate. That doesn't mean it's 10 months total. It all has to fit into one 10 months, that's what I mean by a sliding schedule. Each step has 10 months. And that's still pretty intense. 10 months to write 52 means that you're writing an average of 5 scripts a month.
It starts with coming up with springboards. For Gargoyles, I had a lot of people's input but I came up with all the springboards. We'd have monthly meetings with the story editors and everyone else, and I'd go through, "Here are the stories I have percolating in my head." And the story editors would say, "Oh, I like that one." And they would take that. And someone else would say, "I like that one." Sometimes I'd name one and people would be like, "Ehhhh," you know? (laughs) Sometimes I'd skip that one or sometimes I'd make somebody take it because I felt we needed it in the mix. I'd try not to force too many on too many people. They'd come up with premises which would have to get approved and go through me. Outlines and then scripts, usually. At least two or three drafts of a script. Sometimes a couple of drafts of an outline.
Then we'd record everything. We had a great voice director, James Thomason, who did all but one of the episodes. We had just an amazing voice cast. Just a stellar voice cast. Then we go through the design and direction phase. We had great designers both in Japan and in LA. We had other great people too, doing backgrounds and character designs. Prop designs. Every little thing has to be designed. If someone's using a pencil you've got to design that pencil. Storyboards, slugboards, x sheets the whole works. You send this whole huge packet overseas and they animate it.
We had great studios overseas, in particular, what was the Disney owned studio in Tokyo, Walt Disney Animation Japan. We also had good studios in Korea because with 52 episodes, Tokyo couldn't do all the work for us anymore. Then the stuff comes back, you do your editing, call your retakes, do your editing, you do the sound mix which is one of the most fun aspects of the project. We had a great composer, Carl Johnson, and a great music editor Marc Perlman. A great Sound FX editor, Paca Thomas. We'd do these mixes at Advantage Audio and then you do the Online and then the show is out there.
The whole process takes months. An episode from start to finish can easily take 8 months or so. By the time you've started a springboard and gone all the way until it's ready to actually get on the air, that can easily be 7, 8, 9 months. From total start to finish on an individual episode. But then take any one of those episodes and multiply it by 52, and you find that in any given day of my life back then, or any time I'm producing a show, I may be working on a springboard for the latest show, editing a script from a show that's at that stage, going to a voice recording session, and then calling retakes on an earlier episode that's just come back from overseas, and then going to a mix session to hear the final product. All that stuff is sort of going on simultaneously, because you've got so many things going on at once. It's exhausting but it's also exciting.
It seems like you would also have to train your mind to focus on many different aspects of the production on a day to day basis?
Greg Weisman: Yeah, I mean, obviously when you're early in the production schedule you're mostly dealing with scripts, when you're late in the production schedule, particularly very late, you're mostly dealing with post production, but there's a huge chunk of time in the middle where you're dealing with every aspect of it. Because you've got some episodes that you've just started, some episodes that you're just finishing up, and you're right, you've just sort of got to train your mind to jump from one thing to another, to another. Some days it's easier than others. (laughs) Gargoyles was the first show I ever produced myself, and it was still the best professional experience of my career. I just had a great time doing it, we had a lot of freedom on that show, and that's incredibly hard to find these days. It was fun. We had a great group of people.
I know that you do a lot of writing and I was going to ask, on show like Gargoyles, since you are writing a lot of them, do you find that that lends itself to you being able to incorporate your own beliefs into the screenplays?
Greg Weisman: Well, first and foremost, that's what I am, I'm a writer. I can't draw worth a darn. I don't draw, I write, so I guess the short answer to that question is, yes. I try and inform the episodes with I suppose you could say "my values." You try and make the character have the integrity of the character, but there's a little bit of me in every one of those characters. Whether it's Gargoyles, or if I'm doing somebody else's show you've got to find a way into The Batman that makes sense for you. I've written a bunch of Batmans for Warner Bros., and I'm about to write another one, so even if it's a classic character like that you've got to find your entry into the character.
And certainly if it's something you created, like Gargoyles was for me... on the one hand it becomes you and the other writers as well. It's not like it's a one man band by any means, but at the same time when something's really working, when you've got a group of characters that really are clicking and humming, they begin to tell you what happens next. It just all begins to feel right and that was true about Gargoyles. Not true about every show I ever worked on, but it was definitely true about Gargoyles. The characters began to tell us, the writing staff, what happens next. Things just felt right. When it was working it felt right and you had confidence because you knew this was the story we're supposed to be telling, because it just feels right.
How did you decide you wanted to write for the animation medium?
Greg Weisman: I kinda stumbled into it to be honest. When I got out of college I worked for DC comics. I worked on staff there and I also freelanced for them for about a decade. I spent two years on staff as an editor right out of college. I'm from Los Angeles and I came back here after a couple of years in New York, to go to Graduate School at USC. I wasn't thinking specifically about animation although while I'd worked at DC, I had co-written one episode of an animated show called Jem and the Holograms. Which at the time I didn't view as the start of a career, I viewed it as, "Hey, someone wants to pay me to write something, and I might get a TV credit, isn't that cool?" So I did it with my writing partner at the time, Cary Bates, and it was interesting but it didn't lead to anything and I didn't think too much about it.
When I was in Los Angeles and going to USC, I started talking with people around town, not job interviews because I had another year of school, and I was actually working as a teacher at US, as an English professor, while I took classes on my own. So I didn't have the opportunity to take a full time job anywhere. They were more like informational interviews. It was more like me saying, "What do you do?", "How does this business work?"
One of the people I talked with was [a Disney Executive] who at the time ran Disney's entire Television Division. He and I hit it off and what I didn't know at the time, was that he was starting up a Television Animation division. Disney obviously had it's big feature Animation division, but they had not gone into television until the 80s with animation. He was starting up this division and my resume interested him, because on the one hand, I had this Liberal Arts education, I had studied Shakespeare in Oxford, England and I had this sort of high faluttin' education but I had also worked in comic books. So, I wasn't too proud to work in something like cartoons.
I kept in touch with Gary and a year later, when I did graduate from USC, I talked to him again and I talked to Bruce Cranston who worked for him, and they offered me a job at Disney TV Animation. Not as a writer but as a development executive. A sort of junior level executive and I took it thinking, "Okay, this will be my day job. I'll write at night, I don't know what... the great American novel, the great American screenplay, who the hell knows?" I never did. The job was very much a full time job but it was interesting, and I made it a point of really learning the animation business.
So years passed and I hadn't really done much writing. Other than the fact that I'm constantly developing new shows, writing up proposals and stuff and then I was on Gargoyles. By that time I was Director of Series Development, I wasn't a junior executive anymore. I was more of a midlevel executive (laughs), and had been doing it for 5 years and I created Gargoyles, and I didn't want to give it up. Usually when I would develop a show I would find a producer for it, hand it off and give them a little pat on the butt say, "Go with God." And walk away from it.
With Gargoyles, I didn't want to walk away. I liked the idea too much, I was too passionate about it and so I went to my bosses and said, "Guys, I want to produce this show." Their initial response, lets call it dubious, but they let me give it a shot and sort of the rest is history. I moved from one side of the desk to the other side of the desk, and became a full time writer which had always been the goal, but I came about getting the actual work in a sort of roundabout way.
It always seems to happen like that.
Greg Weisman: It's different for everyone. I don't think there's one sort of right way, certainly when fans ask me, "How'd you do it?" I'd say, "Well, I did it this way but that's not necessarily the path I'd recommend taking." But yeah, that's how it happened for me.
What are you currently working on?
Greg Weisman: I just finished producing the second season of show called W.I.T.C.H. which airs on ABC Family's Gen-X block, and Toon Disney and I think they're starting it up on The Disney Channel as well. The first season airs, I didn't work on the first season, we just finished producing the second season and that should start airing in a month or two. We're just starting to get the animation back and it's looking really good, and I'm very proud. We're doing 26 episodes in the second season and I had a great writing staff, great cast and I'm really proud of it. That's great but that's also over.
I'm freelancing some episodes for The Batman and hopefully Kim Possible. And I'm looking for my next gig. Obviously, and most apropos, I'm also writing the new Gargoyles comic book that SLG Publishing is putting out. So I'm writing that. I've written the first two issues and I've plotted the third issue, and as soon as the pencil catches up a little bit we'll get going on that. The first issue of that book will also come out in 2006.
Gargoyles: Season 2 - Vol. 1 is available on DVD through Buena Vista Home Entertainment.