Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #004 with Sophie Dutton.
Working as an animation scriptwriter and artist, Sophie has been on the crew for some of the biggest preschool shows around. She shares her love for stop motion, tips for working in a writers room and introduces the tiny ghost who lives in her flat…
When did you start writing?
I’ve been a writer ever since I was small. I was a super imaginative child and used to walk around the garden making up stories to myself. I can vividly remember picking three little oval-shaped red berries from a bush and just knowing they were The Three Little Kittens Who Lost Their Mittens – everything was slightly magical at that age.
My grandma gave me a blank exercise book once and I wrote my own little stories in it, mostly about animals and magical creatures like dragons. When we got our first computer it came with a program called Creative Writer 2 which I felt SO cool using – I even wrote a few ‘novels’ on that! I would wake up on a weekend, get straight on the computer and write all day until bedtime. I don’t know where that motivation has gone now!!
Writing was always something that I was encouraged to do by my lovely supportive family – it felt natural to just keep doing it.
What was your first credit as a writer?
While studying English Lit and Creative Writing at Cardiff University, I tried out some modules in scriptwriting and absolutely loved it. Having always been a huge animation fan, it felt like a puzzle piece had suddenly clicked into place in my brain. I could write… for animation?! This became my new mission.
I got my first job at Cloth Cat Animation, where I wrote content for their social media and website BUT ALSO got to help out with development on new projects and even write on pitch bibles and pilot scripts. It was a dream job for an industry newbie like me!
I learned so much there. When an exciting new project came into the studio that needed writers, I was in the perfect place to put myself forward – and luckily I was invited onto the writing team!
The project was Luo Bao Bei, an 11 minute upper preschool show co-produced with Magic Mall in China. I ended up writing 8 episodes for the show, my first official credits as a writer!
Now I’m a freelancer and full-time creative. I made the leap shortly after Luo Bao Bei finished up and so far so good! I do miss working in a studio sometimes though. Christmas parties aren’t as fun when you’re the only employee…
At what point did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
Around the time Luo Bao Bei was finishing up, I was put in touch with agent Jean Kitson by an animation friend, and we arranged to have an informal chat at CMC. I didn’t have any huge hopes of being signed by her (or anyone!) at that time – I mainly wanted to find out more about the agent-writer relationship, what to expect andwhat might help my chances. I had a great chat with Jean over some fancy G&Ts at the Mercure bar and we stayed in touch. To my surprise and delight, Jean signed me up not long after! We’ve been working together ever since.
For many new writers the idea of going into a writers room is an exciting but terrifying prospect. What advice do you have for people who find themselves in a room for the first time?
Remember that everyone in the room is probably a bit nervous as well – even the experienced writers. Don’t be afraid to say things. Keep reminding yourself you’re in that room for a reason – you’re a good writer.
This is all extremely rich coming from me because I usually spend my writers room days inwardly trembling the whole time – but it does get easier. Once you’ve done a few, chances are you’ll know at least one other person in the room which always helps.
Make lovely writer friends! And go for a drink with them afterwards – that always makes me feel loads better.
Was there a moment in your career that made you think, “I’ve got this, I deserve to be here!”?
Getting asked to write on Hey Duggee floored me. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it! When ‘The A Cappella Badge’ came out and I saw all these parents messaging on Twitter saying how much their kids loved it, that was the most fantastic feeling. It’s a dream team to be part of!
Writing on Duggee is a dream for many writers. Can you tell us a bit about your experience working on the show?
I really do love it. I was a fan of Hey Duggee for a long time before getting to write for it, so I knew from the start that the show’s quirky sense of humour and imagination would be a good match with mine.
Just like any other show, there are challenges when trying to get an episode to work, and if anything I feel even MORE pressure sometimes because it such a well-loved series (by me and the world!). But everyone I’ve worked with on it is so lovely. I feel very at home and welcome on the team, even though I came into it at a later stage than most.
Something I particularly love about writing for Duggee is that when delivering feedback, script editor Jenny Landreth and creator Grant Orchard always take the time to say things that they love about the draft as well as what needs changing. Sounds like a small thing but it makes a massive difference to a writer’s mental well-being!
Shows like Hey Duggee are well known for featuring references for parents to enjoy. From experience I know these can sometimes be difficult to get into a final draft. What’s been your favourite nod to adults that you’ve managed to include and are there any times when producers or script editors have completely kiboshed a reference?
Only two of my Hey Duggee episodes have aired so far so I don’t want to reveal too much…! One of my favourites was having Norrie clench her fist and say ‘Crushed it!’ at the end of The A Cappella Badge (a la Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect).
The Art Badge was great too because I could pack in loads of artistic references.Having the rabbits display a giant carrot in a glass case like Damien Hirst was a fun one! That idea that made it from my very first outline all the way to the finished episode (you might say I crushed it).
It’s good to remember that as fun as the adult in-jokes are, we should always be writing for kids first and foremost. If something does gets kiboshed, then I will trust it’s what works best for the episode, the show, and the kids!
What’s your number one tip when it comes to scripting?
This is just something I personally quite like to do: unless a production particularly demands it, I like to leave out saying ‘WE SEE THIS’ and ‘CUT TO THIS’ as much as I can.
There’s nothing wrong with using them once in a while, and sometimes they are the quickest, clearest way to get your idea across. I just like to write my scripts to read like a story as much as possible. I want it to feel immersive and enjoyable to read. Sometimes the scripty technical bits take me out of the experience – might just be me!
Can you recommend any books or scripts that every writer should read?
I really like ‘Writing Screenplays that Sell’ by Michael Hauge.
If you could reboot any TV series or movie from history, what would it be and how would you bring it up-to-date?
It would have to be something stop motion – I LOVE stop motion. I even had a recurring stop motion nightmare when I was little, but weirdly it hasn’t put me off. Pingu was always an absolute favourite of mine, and The Gingerbread Man series by David Wood (though I hardly ever meet anyone else who’s seen that).
Thinking about it now, the simplicity and quaintness of those series is what makes them so perfect to me – I don’t think I could improve them for modern day even if I tried. I just want more of them! I think I’ve had enough of reboots lately anyway – let’s make some wonderful brand new things please!
What are your current writing goals?
I’ve mostly worked in preschool TV so far, so I’m keen to try something a bit edgier in the near future – I have a dark side I’d like to explore! Long term, I would LOVE to work on something stop motion, and I would LOVE to work on an animated feature film.
Disney, Pixar, Laika, Aardman – feel free to slide into my DMs.
If you could travel back in time what advice would you give yourself at the start of your career?
You’re probably going to cry and feel sad quite a lot but it’s okay!
Keep sticking it out even when you want to quit. The feeling of seeing your work animated and spotting your name in the credits on a cool show is the best thing ever.
What advice do you have for writers who are trying to break into animation?
Watch lots of animation!
Before I got my first animation writing job, I would watch an episode of something I liked, then write out a script version of that episode. Might sound a bit tedious but doing that really helped me pay attention to structure, amount of dialogue, scene changes, camera angles etc. The more you watch and study, the more you can develop an instinct for all that nitty-gritty stuff that you might not notice otherwise.
Added bonus: if anyone asks why you’re watching animation all day, you can tell them confidently it is for RESEARCH.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
Feeling disconnected from the episode as soon as the writing is finished. I’d love to be able to see what happens to my scripts as they progress through all the stages of production.
When I was at Cloth Cat I found it so cool being able to peep over people’s shoulders as my scripts were being storyboarded, designed and animated. I even got to meet some of the voice artists. Everyone adds an extra layer of comedy, emotion and magic as the episode goes through their hands. I just love that process, and I’m always curious to see how changes are made, what works, what doesn’t work. I think it would make us all better writers if we saw more of the production side of things.
What makes you laugh more than anything else?
Anyone who knows me knows that I laugh A LOT! My own jokes crack me up wayyy more than they should. I really love dumb internet things – Vines, memes, funny dog videos. Being silly with my boyfriend too – blowing raspberries on his neck will honestly keep me entertained for hours. I have the sense of humour of a small child and I am okay with that!
Throughout August (sorry… AuGHOST) you were sharing some really fun and creative images of a tiny ghost hanging out in your flat. Can you explain more about the project and where the idea came from?
So AuGHOST is an online art challenge created by @Sommerjam and @DavePietrandrea. They provide a list of one-word prompts, one for every day of August, and the idea is to create a piece of ghost-themed artwork based on each of those daily prompts. Everyone is welcome to join in and share their creations – it’s been really cool seeing all the different art styles and interpretations!
I always liked those spooky old photographs that seemed to have ghostly presences lurking in the background, so I decided to create some ‘haunted’ photographs of spots around our flat.
The ghost in my pictures is definitely more cutie than spooky though! I really enjoyed looking around and finding scenarios to explore from the perspective of a tiny ghost. There are so many little hiding places and alternative uses for everyday objects – turns out a Yorkshire pudding makes an excellent rowing boat, and a toilet is a perfect fishing spot… I’m now in the process of turning the series into an art book – my first ever! I’m hoping it will be ready in time for Halloween… updates to follow on my website.
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