Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #037 with Connie Kucani.
Growing up in Austria as a TV kid, Connie’s turned her love for Saturday morning cartoons into an exciting and varied career in animation. With a day job as a Script Coordinator and a production credit on DreamWork’s Spirit Untamed, Connie is also busy developing her own original projects and is definitely a writer to watch! It was a lot of fun to discuss Connie’s background in Vienna, her important work with HeForShe, and of course, Disney’s The Weekenders.
When did you start writing?
I don’t remember ever not writing. My mum’s still got two ‘books’ I wrote when I was maybe five, one about a heart that dies (dark, I know) and one about a boy who has an accident with his scooter.
When I was eight, I discovered Harry Potter, which changed my life forever – I became obsessed with writing and wanting to be a writer, which lasted until well into my teenage years. After graduating secondary school I suddenly felt I had to grow up and out of my pipe dreams, and decided that if I wanted to monetise my writing skills, I had to do in a sensible way.
I studied English and Journalism & Media Studies, aiming to get into journalism. But I just couldn’t help it – despite my best efforts to stay as no-nonsense as possible, I still managed to land in the children’s programming department at ORF (the Austrian equivalent to the BBC), which is also where I was introduced to the wonderful world of television writing for children – the rest is history!
You’re originally from Vienna. Are you still based there?
I’m not! I moved to England three years ago. Austria’s kids entertainment industry is basically non-existent. When you try to tell people you work in animation, they literally always and without fail think you’re someone who’s in charge of ‘animating’ people at hotel resorts – that’s how outlandish the concept of having a job in animation is.
After my internships at ORF and a couple of months as a production coordinator at the Austrian animation studio arx anima, I knew I wanted to do more, but there wasn’t anywhere else to go in Austria. I’d wanted to live in England my entire life (thanks once again to Harry Potter), so my partner and I up and left and moved to England, without a job or a flat or any friends or anything resembling a support system.
I look back at that time now and think… wow, I was absolutely insane. But somehow it all worked out, and a year in I got my first animation job in the UK at Jellyfish Pictures.
You’re a Script Coordinator for Pop Paper City. How did you land the job and what does your role involve?
The script coordinator position for Pop Paper City came just at the right time, as these things miraculously do sometimes.
I’d just finished working on a feature film at Jellyfish Pictures, and it had been a really challenging job. I was 100% ready to leave production and finally, FINALLY work creatively (having said that, production needs more appreciation – animation wouldn’t exist without producers, coordinators and assistants and their tireless efforts!). I’d been applying for more creative jobs, but couldn’t quite find the right fit – until this script coordinator position popped up!
There aren’t a lot of script coordinator positions in the UK, certainly not in animation, so I felt (and still feel) very lucky. And this one’s not your average script coordinator job either! I’m working on their children’s TV series Pop Paper City, a series that follows a group of paper characters as they get crafty and create adventures together in a stunning-looking paper world.
One of my main tasks is to work with our amazing head writer and our writing team. I help with supervising the writing schedule and act as the studio’s script voice, collecting and passing on the studio’s thoughts (including my own) on all steps of the writing process, from springboards to polish drafts. Once scripts are signed off, I’m the keeper of words and stories as we move into production.
I make sure voice records and animatics stay true to what we imagined at script-stage, and I help come up with new solutions when the scripts don’t quite translate to the screen the way we imagined. It’s the most creative job I’ve ever had and I’m learning so much every day – I absolutely love it.
Often on an animated show, writers will be required to work in stages – springboards, premises, outlines/beat sheets, drafts up to polish – what are the benefits of working in this way and do you stick to a similar process when working on your own projects?
I LOVE breaking down the writing process into stages. Especially when it comes to production this is a brilliant way to communicate ideas efficiently and clearly to your clients, and to check if your ideas and thought processes align. During the earlier stages, you really just nail down the overall story and structure. I’d argue outlines are maybe the most important part of the process, because this is where you make the tough and logistical story decisions. Then once you get to your first script draft, you get to have fun! (And solve all the issues that seemed really minor at outline stage and now have come back to bite you in the butt – yay!)
I always work with variations of these stages – I’ll usually do a springboard, a premise and a beat sheet turned outline before moving on to the actual script. It’s a great way to trip myself up – the moment I have to write down in detail what’s going to happen is when the annoying questions pop up in my head. Like, that bit of action seemed really plausible in my head but now that I’m putting it into words, maybe this old grandpa sprinting around a building in mere seconds doesn’t make sense after all.
What can you tell us about your current projects (if anything)?
It’s been an exciting time for me writing-wise. I’m in talks to write on a few projects that are all at early development stage, including a series I’ve been developing with my friend and director Simone Giampaolo, who I met at Jellyfish Pictures. I’ve also just made it to the quarterfinals of the ScreenCraft Animation Screenplay Competition.
I try not to get too hyped, just in case I wake up one morning and it’s all disappeared into thin air (which might very well happen) – but it sure all feels very exciting!
How do you balance your own writing projects alongside your day job?
I do my best, but it’s definitely hard. I’m an early bird, so I like to make time in the morning to get in an hour or two of writing. It can definitely be a challenge though – I’m someone who brings their all to every project, so finding energy to be creative outside normal working hours isn’t always easy.
I admire writers who manage to write on personal projects on a daily basis – I’m definitely not there yet!
What is your writing routine like? Do you have a dedicated space or any set rituals?
My writing routine changes every time I change day jobs – at the moment I try to get make time for writing in the morning before work, either in my shiny new office or on the train to the studio.
Pre-pandemic I used to go to coffee shops all the time – I love the hustle and bustle around me, the faint smell of coffee, the folk and jazz songs in the background. I’m basic like that.
You recently posted a wonderful photo of you celebrating after seeing your name in the credits of Spirit Untamed. Congratulations! What was your role and how was the experience?
Thanks so much! I worked as a production coordinator for the lighting and compositing department, as part of Jellyfish Pictures’ team.
It was without a doubt the most challenging job I’ve ever had, with long hours and deadlines constantly around the corner.
As you do on projects like these, I made great friends along the way, and once again truly got to understand just how much labour visual artists and production crews put into these movies. It’s one of the reasons you’ll never hear me say a bad word about the quality of animation or VFX in any film – people truly work day and often night to make the stories we love come to life and I’m incredibly appreciative of that.
You’re a writer who has a very clear passion for animation and children’s media.
It’s always great to see people with a genuine love for animation getting work and taking their own childhood interests and dreams full-circle. What were your favourite shows/movies growing up?
How much time have you got haha? I was a TV kid – I would spend as much time as I could watching TV as often as I could, from an early age on.
Austria’s all about high art: classical music, art, history – but all I cared about until well into my late teens were cartoons and Harry Potter (I do really like Mozart though, as any Austrian should, really). When I was really young, around 4 or 5, I was really into Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes.
For some reason I had a distinct understanding that Disney and Warner Bros. were two different film studios and that they made very different content – cue my tiny brain exploding when I watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
In elementary school I really got into Anime: Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Digimon, Ojamajo DoReMi. Then I found my way back into Western animation: as a tween, some of my favourites were Disney’s The Weekenders, House of Mouse and Nickelodeon’s As Told By Ginger.
As a teenager I still watched pretty much everything, but started to get really obsessed with shows like Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, Hey Arnold, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Disney’s Phineas and Ferb. And I never really stopped watching animation!
A special shoutout also to European animation, specifically French animation, which isn’t huge in English-speaking countries but certainly is everywhere else in Europe and has influenced me greatly.
Let’s talk about The Weekenders. This Disney series ran for 4 seasons starting back in 2000. I LOVED it and back when I was in the later years of secondary school. I spent so many evenings watching back-to-back episodes of The Weekenders along with Recess, Lloyd in Space and Pepper Ann on The Disney Channel.
But I’ve never heard anyone talk about it before, especially not with the enthusiasm that you have for it. For those who aren’t aware, can you explain the premise? What makes it appeal so much to you?
Oh, The Weekenders – easily one of my top three TV series of all time, up there with Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Office (I sometimes watch live action shows too!).
Sounds like you and I used to spend our evenings in very similar ways! I was the right target audience for The Weekenders back when it aired in German-speaking countries – I must’ve been around 10-12 years old (but I never stopped watching it and continue to watch it on a regular basis to this day).
The Weekenders’ premise is so simple – which makes it so genius! It’s really just about four best friends and what they get up to on their weekends in Southern California. It might not make for the most exciting log line, but the execution is chef’s kiss.
I literally wrote my Master’s thesis about everything that’s great about the show, but the two main things that make it so good, in my opinion, are its authenticity and its meta qualities.
The series manages to really meet young viewers where they are and to tell authentic stories about deeply relatable and complex characters. To this day, whenever I watch the show I always feel like reuniting with old friends, a diverse group of funny and warm characters, always a witty comeback up their sleeves.
I should also mention – the German dub was amazing! Sarcasm in kids’ series is rare in German-speaking countries. German-speakers don’t really do dry and witty humour, so when English-speaking series get translated, a lot tends to gets lost – but the dubbing team behind the German version of The Weekenders (in German “Die Wochenend-Kids”) did a great job.
And then, of course, the META-ELEMENTS! I am and always have been an absolute sucker for all things meta, especially in children’s media. I could spend hours describing every single meta feature on the show, but the use of Tino as a protagonist and the way he breaks the fourth wall must be my favourite. Someone stop me, I could go on and on! It’s just such a good show.
Sadly, The Weekenders isn’t on Disney+. What else is missing from streaming services that you’d love to see added?
Doug Langdale (the creator of the show) has said that Disney+ has plans to put it on the platform, so fingers crossed! I think I’m quite lucky in that most of the things I like are available for streaming, though perhaps not always in the most straight forward of ways.
With distribution in the UK working differently from the US, I tend to get a bit confused about what to find where – with HBO Max and Paramount Plus not available here yet, I’m constantly confused if any given show’s on Netflix, Amazon Prime or Now TV. I will say that I’d love for European streaming services to be more up to date with current shows – the Ducktales finale aired months ago in the US, yet it’s still not Disney+ in the UK (nobody spoil me, please)!
What’s your number one tip for creating characters?
This might sound cheesy or impractical, but I really need to FEEL a character when I write them. Deadlines don’t always allow for this, of course, but if I can, I always try to schedule some time to just sit and think about a character – their goals, both on a macro and a micro-level, their desires, their dislikes.
With this foundation I then go ahead and find more simplistic labels for them – the goofy one, the serious one, the timid one. This way I feel I can make characters that are easily readable AND complex at the same time.
What are your current writing goals?
On a larger scale, I’d love to get my first writing credit in the next 2 years (meaning, before I turn 30. Not the healthiest way to set yourself goals, I do not recommend this to anyone).
On a more project-based level, I’ve got this animated feature film I’ve been working on and that I’m eager to flesh out more, even just to get it to treatment stage.
Is writer’s block something you ever deal with and if so, how do you deal with it?
Yes and no. Yes in that, I’ve been dealing with it for most of my adult life, and I’ve always found that it has a lot to do with the fact that writing’s mostly a solitary activity for me and I get quite insecure about my work when I sit on it for too long.
No in that, when I do collaborate with people, I NEVER have writer’s block – I wouldn’t know how, especially when it goes beyond just one creative collaborator and affects a chain of production.
My time in production has taught me that, really, a writer’s just as important as an animator, a production coordinator, a lighter, an FX artist, or a production intern. They all show up and do their work – they don’t get production block, or lighting block, so why would I?
What advice do you have for dealing with rejection?
I don’t know that I’m the right person to ask, because so far I’ve not been very good at dealing with rejection.
One thing I’d like to say is that you shouldn’t define your self-worth over your accomplishments, it is not healthy.
When I do get rejected I like to give myself some time to wallow and to self-pity. And then, at some point, you get up and you turn on your laptop and you start again. I’d maybe recommend working on something else for a while – I’m never able to go back to my “failures” (a word that should be used with much caution and nuance) right away.
Then, when I’ve spent enough time away, I have enough emotional distance to go back and see what might’ve gone wrong. Or sometimes I wallow some more. Like I said, I might not be the best person to ask.
If you could reboot any series or movie, what would it be and what would you change?
SIGH, probably none. Maybe Harry Potter. If you’re reading this and you’ve heard of any Wizarding World reboots/remakes/spin-offs/sequels/prequels/plastic wand manuals in the making, please, PLEASE hit me up.
I’d take what the fans love so much about the original film series and combine it with the complexity of the books.
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)
I discovered Typin’ Toons earlier this year, a podcast by an American animation writer called Kendall Michele Haney, and I absolutely love it! It’s a great insight into American animation writing, from day-to-day writer’s room anecdotes to good, old-fashioned writing advice or even more business-y deep dives.
A really great podcast that made me feel less alone as a writer, despite the fact I don’t work in the US.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
To sit down and just write. Something I’m having to tell myself every single day, when I get distracted by things like books on writing theory, or podcasts, or YouTube videos, or a bit of lint under my desk. Stop faffing around and just WRITE, for goodness’ sake.
What are the biggest misconceptions that people have when it comes to writing for animation?
That you can do anything you want – there are limits, just like in live action.
Yes, you can do more outlandish things more easily and in more believable ways, but like in live action, there are budgets and limits to people’s skills and software.
Writers have to be more conscious of these limits and truly understand that one word in a script can mean hours, days, weeks of extra work for production.
I think it would do every animation writer good to work in animation production for a few months, to really understand the medium they’re writing for.
You’re heavily involved with HeForShe. This is a fantastic initiative that advocates for men to join the fight for gender equality. When did you first become involved?
I’ve been part of the Vienna chapter of the UN Women movement HeForShe since its founding days 5 years ago, as their head of PR and Social Media. I was in my early twenties back then, finding my way into feminism and all things gender equality, and I was sick of constantly complaining and not actually doing anything.
I found a group of like-minded people, who, like me, felt that to really achieve gender equality we needed men to join the fight, and we needed to make feminism truly understandable and relatable for your average person, something that wasn’t happening much in Austria and still isn’t (at least in comparison to the UK).
Together we founded HeForShe Vienna and have been able to start some big conversations in Austria about the role of men in gender equality.
In many ways, it’s one of the most important things I do, and it has a major influence on all my writing, in all the best ways.
As a female working in animation, what has your experience been like and what changes do we still need to see from the industry to bring balance?
I’ve been quite lucky and have not made any negative experiences personally, but one thing I have noticed is that the key storytellers on most projects are usually men, and this directly impacts the stories that are told and how they’re told.
I’ve seen many male artists across the entire animation pipeline struggle with telling female characters’ stories authentically. Some have come to me or other female colleagues for advice, but many aren’t even really aware why they’re struggling in the first place, which is usually when I tend to make my grievances known – always in the form of dialogue! And that’s what feminism should be all about: dialogue and communication.
We all live in a deeply patriarchal world, with structures and tropes and routines that are informed by centuries of gender inequality, and that includes storytelling and filmmaking. We’re often completely unaware of this, men as well as people of other genders, which is why it’s so important to keep an open mind and listen to minorities in our industry and invite them to contribute in meaningful ways, especially women of colour, people with disabilities and people from the LGBTQIA+ community. This is the only way we can we truly tell stories for and about everyone.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
Writing. Which is also the best part. Would not recommend. But would also whole-heartedly recommend. It’s complicated.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Steve Carrell, John Mulaney, a really dry and sarcastic joke, a juicy look to camera. Sometimes myself – I know, I’m disgusting, I’ll shut up now.
What’s your favourite Mulaney bit?
Oooh, that’s a tough one. I mean, all of his Kid Gorgeous Netflix special, really. I watch it maybe once a month – it’s just so deliciously funny. I quote his impression of Mick Jagger shouting “Not funny” in pretty much all of my conversations.
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