Michael Maurer is a well-known American film and TV writer, story editor, and developer who specializes in family entertainment. He has worked at Disney Studios, Universal Studios, Warner Brothers Studios, DIC Entertainment, and many international companies. Mr. Maurer has recently written multiple scripts for the highly rated Universal Studios preschool series, Curious George, which just won the 2010 Emmy for Outstanding Animated Children’s Program. He is currently writing an animated feature for Starz Animation. To quote Mr. Maurer, “I love to create - let's get those fabulous film ideas off the shelf and onto the silver screen. I'm easy to work with - communication is the universal solvent”.



CG Today : It is indeed an honor to have a conversation with you, Mr. Maurer.
Of Starz, Emmys and Flying Dogs!  An interview with Michael Maurer, writer

Maurer : Thank you. I hope I can be helpful to my fellow toon-makers in some way.

CG Today : How does writing animated films compare to writing live-action stories?

Maurer : They are the same in many ways, particularly from a story structure standpoint. The best of both mediums rely on a strong theme and endearing characters with a relatable goal, who are up against seemingly insurmountable barriers so that we care about them and root for them to succeed. There’s no real difference in basic story telling between “Up” and “Matrix,” other than “Up” is much simpler in structure; but the basics are the same.

The biggest difference that I find between writing an animated feature and writing a live-action feature is that in animation the writer has to visualize a lot of action and comedy sequences and describe them in the script where with live-action that kind of detail is often unnecessary. Animation writers have to be directors to a considerable extent – not so much with live-action – though with today’s action/hero films, it’s not always the case.

CG Today : You are currently a screenwriter for United Independents Group. Tell us about your latest project there.

Maurer : UIG is owned by a close friend and creative associate of mine. Via her company, I am writing an animated feature for Starz Animation. I can’t say much about the project just yet as I am sworn to secrecy under penalty of being deleted – just kidding. I can say that it’s a musical with universal appeal. I also have written a live-action family adventure film that is being financed through Lexicon Filmed Entertainment (my partner’s other company) which is scheduled to go into pre-production this Fall.

CG Today : You describe your film work, for the most part, as family entertainment. How does that differ from mainline films?

Maurer : Family is a bit of a misnomer. The great films all have universal appeal – they are films that touch everyone and are timeless. The recent animated features from Pixar and Dreamworks have all had that kind of universal appeal. “Up” and “Shrek” are examples. So are “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Back to the Future,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Harry Potter.” To me, they are stories for all ages and that’s the kind of stories I aspire to write.

CG Today : Do you ever suffer from “writer’s block”, especially since you are in an industry that has very explicit time constraints?

Maurer : I don’t like the term “writer’s block.” It sounds like some kind of made up psychological malady. I find that when I’m short on ideas the two best things to do are (a) take a walk and look around at the environment; get out in the real world for awhile (b) drink up a good draft of inspiration; watch a movie, listen to some inspiring music. I also find it very helpful to research what I’m writing about on the net and get some visual images. I have gone on Youtube and come up with some really original ideas just from watching the amazing and sometimes stupid things that people post. The other day I discovered the art of “pen twirling.” I’m going to use that in something.

CG Today : Have you always been a movie buff?

Maurer : Ever since I watched “Around the World in Eighty Days” when I was a kid. It was during the day and the theater was empty. I remember my brother and I were lying on the carpet in front of the first row with hands on chins, looking up at the big Cinerama screen. I thought: “hey, I want to make one of those!” It took quite awhile before I did break into the business. But I believe that when you feel that creative inspiration, you should act on it.

 

 

CG Today : You have been a freelance writer. What are the pros and cons of working for yourself?

Maurer : Pros: I don’t have to get up early. Also, I enjoy the variety of work I get to do for a lot of very cutting edge companies around the globe. I like controlling my own destiny. Cons: I sleep too late. Not being able to clone myself. Waiting for bank wires.

CG Today : Vipo and friends: Surviving Time Island, which you re-developed for Vipo Land Enterprises is a lovely adventure tale for young children. What kind of challenges did that present?

Maurer : I had a great time working on the “Vipo” series, which stars an adventurous Flying Dog with big ears named Vipo. I not only got to re-develop the second season of the series but the studio asked me to write all 26 scripts.

Vipo was one of the most challenging series I have ever worked on. In the first season, Vipo was a Geography-based educational series that featured the flying dog traveling around the world to different famous cities where he got into adventures with all kinds of animals. For the second season, the studio wanted to adapt Vipo into an adventure series. The first challenge was to create a whole new world for Vipo – a world where we could bring back many of the CG animal characters from the first season. The solution was to send our hero and his friends back in time and strand them on the mysterious “Time Island.” So the question then became where would the stories come from – what would be the adventures on Time Island? The answer was to give the series two distinct elements – Vipo and friends would build a village so they could survive on the island – and then Vipo would need to go on some kind of quest to figure out how to get home again. For the quest, Vipo would have to retrieve all four of the powerful “season stones” that were stolen by the Rulers of the Four Seasons and return them to Time Master, the ruler of the island, if he wanted to get home again. In addition, every good comedy series needs a comedy villain – so I created Ogg and his band of Goggs, a bunch of green, warty island creatures who are determined to get the stones before Vipo does.

The biggest challenge was juggling all these balls, especially as these were only 11 minute episodes. Keeping the stories simple and interspersing Vipo’s “season quests” with the village stories were the keys to making it all work. We just saw the first final episode for Season Two and it looks terrific, thanks to the wonderful work of Snowball Studios, a CG animation production house located in Israel.

CG Today : One of your co-workers, Joe Fallon, the Story Editor for Curious George, says you are very funny. How fulfilling is it to bring laughter into people’s lives through entertainment?

Maurer : This is a very interesting question. As a writer who sits in his office alone most of the day, I sometimes have to remind myself that there’s an audience out there. I was a writer/story editor on the NBC live-action sitcom, “The Facts of Life.” When everything is live on a stage like it was with “Facts,” you really do enjoy the immensely satisfying feeling that people are laughing (or crying) at what you wrote. I miss that a bit with TV animation. One thing that helps is to go on Youtube and watch clips from shows I’ve written and read comments from people who watched those shows and enjoyed them. I ran into a producer at Disney recently who told me his inspiration for getting into the business was watching some of the shows I had written for. That was nice to hear. Art is really all about communicating to an audience – and it’s great to know that I am helping to entertain and maybe even inspire them.

CG Today : “I smiled from ear to ear reading the pilot script! I was in awe of how wonderfully Kookatoo came to life.” This is a quote from Melissa Leonard, of Skedaddle Productions about your work on the pre-school series, Kookatoo... Tell us about the process of developing a character.

Maurer : Great question. It would probably take me two weeks to answer it properly – and I’m still studying the subject constantly. To keep this brief, let’s just take one aspect of what makes a great character.

Besides having a unique personality and some endearing character quirks, one of the most important things is that we (the audience) can relate to the character and his situation or his goals, and how he goes about dealing with the challenges that face him throughout the story or the series. Take Bugs Bunny – why is he such a likable character? In part, it’s because we can relate to him.

If you think about it, Bugs is really just an average guy wanting to live peacefully in his cushy rabbit hole (like the rest of us) but he’s constantly finding a double barrel shotgun in his face. But rather than being terrified, or angry or resentful, he responds to this assault with humor and with a cool confidence that says I can handle the difficulties in my life and enjoy it at the same time.

We can all relate to people who, when things are going badly, don’t take it all so deadly serious. And that’s what I like about this carrot-chomping character called Bugs. But what about Elmer Fudd? We like him too, don’t we. Why? Because he’s just your average poor soul, who keeps trying and failing to “shoot that rabbit.” But he keeps trying – and who hasn’t tried and failed many times – and given up. You’ve got to admire the little hunter’s persistence while we laugh at his incompetence at the same time. If we had made Elmer a ruthless killer we’d be turned off – can’t relate to that.

So creating characters that we can understand and relate to makes them endearing and long lasting. If you can’t identify and care about your characters then they either need to be given some relateable qualities (perseverance, dedication, imagination, curiosity, courage, etc.) or perhaps the situation you have put your characters in isn’t bringing out the best in them.

 

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