What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Shannon Muir, and I’ve been a freelance writer since 2000, sometimes in conjunction with other employment and sometimes not. Right now I’m freelancing full-time, and also gone into self-publishing ebooks as well as being hired to format ebooks for other writers. In the past I’ve also been a production coordinator on animated series for studios such as Nickelodeon, SD Entertainment, and Sony. Most recently, I came out of over three and a half years in the childrens’ virtual world space; to be honest, I’m surprised the storytelling and technology elements between animated television and virtual worlds haven’t merged closer together yet. When I got into it back then, I was pretty convinced we were on the verge of most animation moving from television to the Internet. Then again, they thought that a few years ago with Icebox and the like, and we weren’t quite there yet either. I think it would be even harder now for someone without more technical and games experience to break into virtual worlds from an animated television background the way I did. As to my writing, my animation scriptwriting credits are for the series MIDNIGHT HORROR SCHOOL, which was produced in Japan but never made its way to the United States (though it was dubbed in parts of Europe) because it was just too quirky I think to fit our kinds of programming. Imagine all the cuteness of a preschool show but the characters look a bit Tim Burton-like. I did five scripts for the show, three on my own and two with my co-writer Kevin Paul Shaw Broden, and we were the only “Western” writers on the show. The company previously co-produced with other houses and I believe hoped to make their own break into the West, but sadly that didn’t happen. They were great to work with. I actively am seeking more opportunities to write scripts either domestically or internationally. I’ve also written about animation in other ways though. When I got my masters’ degree in Communications, I decided to compare advertisements and PSAs with live-action and animated spokespeople and try to find out which seemed more effective based upon quantitative survey research; I went in with no biases and an eagerness to learn. In the early 2000s, I did blog-style columns for several sites focused on non-artists in animation. Later on, I received the opportunity to write two textbooks about working in animation – GARDNER’S GUIDE TO WRITING AND PRODUCING ANIMATION (which is still in print) and GARDNER’S GUIDE TO PITCHING AND SELLING ANIMATION (available as a PDF ebook on select educational sites) – for which I did “Spotlight Interviews” with many other professionals in the business; after a decade of being in and around the business myself, I loved being able to give back. Most recently, while I’ve started self-publishing fiction via Kindle and other epublishing platforms, I’ve had short stories in both of my anthologies influenced by animation. Two appear in the anthology SEARCH FOR A WOMAN: A COLLECTION OF STORIES AND POEMS LOOKING AT WOMEN FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE; in “Dying Days,” a creation contemplates her “life” as her artist creator ages and dies, while in “Lost Souls,” a woman finds her eccentric animator mother has a secret confession tied up in her animated masterpiece. Things get a little more lighthearted in “When I Grow Up,” from my anthology AT THE END OF INNOCENCE’S ROAD: AN ANTHOLOGY OF STORIES AND POEMS COVERING THE JOURNEY FROM CHILDHOOD TO OLD AGE when a young woman with a tough childhood but now working in a movie theatre and a fan of animated films gets a pleasant surprise. So I guess I always find a way to write about animation.
Well, my first job in Los Angeles was as a Production Assistant on JUMANJI: THE ANIMATED SERIES, and I pretty much held campus jobs before that when I was in school; my other jobs before relocating to Los Angeles were a summer at McDonalds and a salesperson for a used CD store. In between working on shows, I temped a lot. I think to this day the most awkward temp job I had was three months I spent in facilities at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center as an administrative assistant when they were still in the basement of the hospital around the corner from the morgue. My most educational job of all time came from two different stints I got to do at the Braille Institute, one for an executive and one as a temporary assistant where they record their proprietary books for the blind. Most of my jobs though have been in entertainment in some fashion. The longest held job I had before my time in virtual worlds, I spent two years as the administrative assistant and book buyer for The Writers Store, with a long history of service to the entertainment industry and via the Internet serves writers worldwide.
It’s a thrill to this day to just casually be walking down the street and see people in INVADER ZIM gear. I worked as a Production Coordinator on the short lived second season for Nickelodeon. None of the other shows I’ve worked on seem to have that lasting impact this many years later; even though JUMANJI: THE ANIMATED SERIES and EXTREME GHOSTBUSTERS (both for Sony) both were with well known franchises, particularly Ghostbusters, these haven’t carried the same impact with fandom. I mean, INVADER ZIM went out of production ten years ago. While not officially on staff, the impact I had in the early years of fandom for VOLTRON: DEFENDER OF THE UNIVERSE is pretty awe-inspiring too and was considered one of the premier websites for many years. At one point, World Events Productions worked with me to make the starmap I’d figured out from watching the shows and posted on my fansite the “official” one for their site as well and laid out in a nice graphical design. For the record, as a professional understanding a lot of the issues that need to be struggled with to make the concept accessible to today’s audience by developing the mythos to the next level, plus general production consideration, I’m pretty impressed with where VOLTRON FORCE has gone all things considered. Jeremy Corray and his team are struggling with many of the same issues that I too looked at with my stories years ago, and congratulations to him for getting the brass ring as it were. Getting to be part of, even if not producing a follow-up VOLTRON series, was always one thing I wanted to be a part of (and if the controversial VOLTRON: THE THIRD DIMENSION got a third season, I very likely would have had a chance to pitch for that as I’d gotten to know people at the production company). I do realize if I hadn’t been instrumental years ago to light the fandom’s imagination, they might not have stood by keeping the product alive all this time. Yet I also realize my life has moved on to encompass so much more.
How did you become interested in animation?
When I was really young, my father served in the Navy, and we lived in Japan. I was exposed to a lot of anime obviously, though I couldn’t understand it. I’m not sure, but I’ve always wondered if that has just made me more attuned to following storytelling through action. One thing I saw at the time there was GATCHAMAN, and when I moved back to the States, a show appeared called BATTLE OF THE PLANETS. I learned at a very early age about dubbing that way. Not all that much later STAR BLAZERS caught my eye, and then came the show that changed my life forever… VOLTRON: DEFENDER OF THE UNIVERSE. It felt Japanese animated, and you would think I would recognize it as a dub, but that didn’t stop me from making up my own story and sending in to my local FOX station in Spokane, WA which in turn wrote me that they forwarded it to the production company. Sure enough, I did get a response from World Events Productions including a promotional pack. The marketing materials made it clear that unlike most dubbed series, they had commissioned new episodes. In the meantime, I had continued to develop the idea I had along with my sister and we had what was the equivalent of 22 premises. Now armed with a direct company address and a desire to get direct feedback on what we’d written, we sent that package direct to the late Peter Keefe at World Events Productions. Months went by and we heard nothing; then out of the blue one day, we got a letter in the mail from the Head Writer who had been out of the country, and though VOLTRON: DEFENDER OF THE UNIVERSE ended took the time to encourage us. A couple years later, still serious about the craft, I became interested in the animated series JEM and wrote a short letter to Hasbro using the address on the toy box asking how to reach the production company; it was so well written, and they had no idea I was in high school, that the letter was forwarded to the Senior Manager of Production at Sunbow who called my house only to be told by my Mom I was still at school! She arranged a later time to call me at 6am my time (she was in New York) and I told her what I wanted to do; just as Mr. Keefe had done she agreed to help but guaranteed no response; the result was a lengthy response and a valued quarter-century friendship from a wonderful mentor.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
We moved around when my Dad was in the Navy but I consider my hometown (which isn’t where I was born) to be Cheney, Washington, where I moved in the summer of 1984. I went to junior high and high school there, as well as got my undergraduate degree in Radio-TV/English at Eastern Washington University. In college I found myself focusing on live action production because they didn’t do anything animation specific there for writing (though a lot of the basics are the same it turns out). I ultimately got into the business – moving past just contacting people from afar – after hearing about an opportunity through networks, that were actually built up starting with those people I met as a teenager. I was referred by one person to housesit for a friend of hers to see if I liked Los Angeles and was willing to move down. Then that person needed to go out of the country, who introduced me to another friend, who had connections with a show that apparently suffered through a few rotating Production Assistants and needed someone to get them through the last few weeks of their first season. That show was JUMANJI: THE ANIMATED SERIES. I decided even if I just got these few weeks and ended up moving home, at least I would have worked on an animated series. They liked my work enough they offered me a higher position on a new show just starting up. It’s all about taking risks.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Discipline and lots of it. Because I work at home writing (whether I had a script assignment, or prose, or whatever this holds true) it is so easy to get distracted by doing other things. I find I work best setting myself concrete goals, such as I need to get a certain number of scenes done or word count in terms of prose when I’m writing the indie self-publication stuff. Then I try to look at other things around me as a treat to work towards. Of course, one must stop to eat and also can’t work consistently so have to take breaks without turning them into temptation to wander off.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I like it either when I get to directly create or be part of a team that helps bring something that didn’t previously exist to life. There’s a thrill in the creative energy of it all, whether solo or as a team.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Although I can work solo (which I’ve done a lot of the last six months since getting laid off), and a very motivated and determined person, I actually really prefer being part of a team effort because I like the contact with people and hearing their ideas and learning from their views on things. Unfortunately, most people assume I like to work alone due to my personality, so I often end up working alone even when managing a team.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Word processing programs are my friends no matter whether I’m writing or doing production work, with spreadsheet programs right behind (when writing, I use them to track things like word count progress). When doing production work, added specialized programs depending on the production and exact assignment get added to the mix.
Giving up regularly seeing my family back in the Pacific Northwest. Yet, if I stayed with them, I wouldn’t have all the opportunity to do the things I’ve done.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Define “animation greatness”. Some people would argue the fact I worked with Jhonen Vasquez on INVADER ZIM (though I rarely saw him) would count. I saw Ted Koplar, the CEO of World Events Productions, at Comic-Con last summer, and finally met him face to face (we’ve talked on the phone once many many years ago). The fact I can count other people with impressive resumes amongst what I consider my close friends (and no I won’t name drop) could be too; one I’ve known for twenty-five years. Occasionally I get emails from people who seem to think after all these years, I am somebody. I guess to me, everyone is part of needing to make it happen and we’re all great in our own ways. However, I think touching story was from last year at an entertainment industry wide memorial service of people who passed away in the industry sponsored by The Animation Guild and ASIFA-Hollywood (the latter of which I belong to). People knew my background with VOLTRON and I was asked to speak about Peter Keefe and the influence on my life. At the last minute I decided to add a closing where I quoted some lines from Lance, my favorite character in the show. Unbeknownst to me, Michael Bell (who voiced Lance in the original series) was in the audience to speak about a friend of his. I went to sit down and the next thing I know, Michael Bell comes up the aisle and shares a short antidote on Peter Keefe, and then on his way back down the aisle gives me a “high five”, That is the most personalized brush with greatness I think I’ve ever had.
Truthfully, I could choose several. Right now is one of them. If not for an unexpected reprieve for basic living I’m not sure where I’d be right now. I’ve been unemployed for six months. In theory, I could change careers and start my life over anywhere that might offer me a job. I have a lot of skills. Yet, and I hope that’s clear from my story, the animation industry is something that goes to the core of my soul. I’ve been chasing it my whole life, and been in and around it a long time now. A career switch might enable me to exist, but not to live, if you get the distinction. The going may be tough, but I’m not giving in.
As I said in the beginning, while looking for animation freelance writing or the chance to work on another show, I’ve been writing. My full books are more womens’ issues/romance in nature; think the dying art of daytime drama moved to book form. Additionally, I started regularly doing reviews of books for a blog called SciYourFi, which features science fiction and high fantasy written largely by indie self-published authors.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Unfortunately, not really.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Be aware that animation is a tough field, regardless of the economic times. Jobs may last several months or several years depending on the nature of the series or movie. Be prepared to constantly be on the move, to be flexible, to go where things lead. I know if I hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have survived fifteen years so far in Los Angeles. I originally came here to only be an animation writer, but came to find that I loved working in production – though it took a little for me to realize that I will admit. I can’t give advice to artists specifically because I’m not one, but I think this kind of approach is true regardless of what job you are going for. Be willing to seek opportunity, take risks, and don’t limit yourself.