IN CONVERSATION WITH MAN OF ACTION STUDIOS’ CREATORS OF BEN 10: BUILDING UNIVERSES FOR GLOBAL AUDIENCES
The Man of Action team consist of four writers, and in front of us were three of them, Steven T. Seagle, Joe Kelly and Duncan Rouleau. They write and produce everything from comic books to games to stage productions, film and television, including the hit show Ben 10.
This session was introduced by Donna Andrews, from Sticky Pictures, and it showcased three of the four partners who have created the Man of Action team, who
Apparently the team got together to protect themselves from being crunched by television production companies, who may deal much more savagely with individuals than they do with companies.
Early on they created Ben 10, an ongoing success story that was created for Cartoon Network. When they heard they wanted a new show, the four Men of Action locked themselves in a room for a week and came up with not one, not two but 20 ideas for cartoon shows. And not just longlines but mini-bibles. When it came time to pitch the ideas, they decided to limit themselves to 60 seconds, whereupon they would move on to the next one. Ben 10 was number six. Sam from Cartoon Network said ‘that’s the one!’ and that was that.
Once the series was commissioned, it took two years to develop, and the network kept pushing them to achieve the best possible result.
Steven T Seagle pointed out that a key element of developing the show as to keep in mind that it was designed for a kid audience. “Comic books are for 40 plus white guys,” he told us. “Kids are different, and we had to put our ‘kid’ hat on and think of the superpowers that they might want that would make their day a little easier.”
The series Ben 10 is now a franchise which has brought in more than $3 billion in merchandise. And as they say “If you’re a parent and had to buy something for your children, we apologise. And thank you.”
In developing Ben 10, the Men of Action said they always went back to what inspired them and they found exciting. “Ben’s character flaws and mistakes were very important,” they felt. “We had to fight to keep them quite a bit, as in the testing bubble there was pressure on us to make Ben avoid mistakes. We had to fight tooth and nail to keep his flaws.”
The series has gone to four seasons now, and each one is different. “We don’t repeat ourselves,” they told us, so for the second series they made Ben ten years older.
Ben 10 had been optioned to be made into a feature film by Joel Silver for Universal. And the Men of Action are going into live action shows as well.
Steven – our company is just the four of us. We want to keep it that way. We don’t want any more men. Our slogan is the four of us make up a single man.
They work with 14 other writers that they supervise when they have more work on the drawing board than they can handle. “We have an interesting hybrid process in the writing,” said Steven. “We do outlines, and we co-write with our head writer. Many of them are women. We work with writers from the comic industry, we work with brand new writers. We are looking for new writers all the time.”
The team help newcomers to the process, as they realise that writers are often brought in and they don’t know the world their functioning in, and they’re given a lot of notes they can’t really understand.
Duncan added that it’s also important to bring in writers who don’t normally do animation, as it brings in a fresh voice. “It’s a great place to bring in new talent introduce them to the world and give them some knowledge. We have been able to place writers as story editors in other productions after they worked with us.”
He said that the challenge now is to integrate all the different platforms together that stories are told in today.
The team said that although very successful, they have found that they don’t require a building to house the team. They all have large offices in their homes, and they meet in one of these if they have to get together as a team. Most of the time they converse via Skype and the internet. They have a person working for them whose job it is to co-ordinate them all, working out what tasks need to be done and by whom, and providing a list.
Steven – “Hollywood has no idea how to work with a writing group. We don’t mind that at all. We have a lot of mystery. We have an opt-in system. But it’s all under Man of Action.”
He added that Hollywood is used to working with a single writer and providing input on how they would have done it differently – but different isn’t always better.
Joe said “We never burn out a project real quick. Fans especially smell that from a mile away. It may look nice but it’s not the way to do it. I like doing comedy too, but my comedy seems to be raw and inappropriate.”
Steven – “We do a lot of partnerships. We are a crew of adept storytellers and writers. We have one or two co-productions going. It’s just finding the right fit to get the project out the door and into the world.” He added that this trip Down Under was the first time the four Man of Action people had travelled internationally in 13 years, they have been so busy.
Interestingly, the panel said that each Man of Action sees the world quite differently, and while they are able to come to a fast consensus, if left to their own devices each would write very differently.
Duncan – “It’s really about trying to make quality. If you do quality, money will follow. That’s not always the case, specifically in Hollywood.”
The four sometimes work on individual projects but they fall under the Man of Action banner. They’re all cheerleaders for each other and get excited by what each other are doing. “We have the best safety net,” said Steven. “It’s great for when you’re halfway through something and you aren’t sure what to do.”
Joe added that although they are all character driven, each one approaches character differently, and often they begin with the story. Steven said he often starts with the end, where they want to go, and work backwards from that.
“Also theme,” said Duncan. “What is this story trying to say? You find the appropriate characters and then you suss out the story that way. Reinforcing that theme. That’s where the four of us really come into play.”
They all keep copious notes because they believe they have to be willing to build build build, tear down, rebuild. You have to keep lots of notes in order to remember your ideas along the way.
“Sometimes you figure out the theme of the main character, the basic flaw, and you build the other characters around that. Then you have other characters going the opposite way.”
The Man of Action team have at least one weekly meeting, which can last an entire day. “We have a trafficker who creates a list of everything that has to be done. That made a huge difference about 5 years ago. You are given a list of the 12 things you have to do today, and one of them may be you have to talk to Joe Kelly about something.”
The final word came from Duncan. “In any kind of relationships you need constant conversation, constant talk,” he said.