Picture it: your TV series is about to be greenlit when your two commissioning execs call to say the show is off. Then they ask, "Can you produce a live-action show with an animated character instead?"
Writer-producer Ken Cuperus answered like any of us would: "Sure!" Then, he and his team figured out the logistics of producing a Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style sitcom on a Canadian TV budget.
This is the backstory behind the creation of YTV's kid-sitcom The Stanley Dynamic, which is heading into its second season on Feb. 27. Showrunner-writer-producer Cuperus's success is also being recognized this year in the form of a Canadian Screen Award nomination for Best Writing in a Children's Series.
We caught up with the Winnipeg-born writer to talk about what it's like writing for kids (both three- and two-dimensional) and what's in store for the second season of The Stanley Dynamic.
How did you get your first break writing kids TV?
I first broke into writing kids TV by accident. I was doing sketch and stand-up comedy for a time in the late 90's, and one of my very first writing contracts was for a prime time, late night animated series called, John Callahan's Quads! for Nelvana Animation Studio, which I was suggested for because they were looking for "funny writers." I ended up writing a bunch of episodes, and then was hired on as a staff writer. What I didn't realize was that most of their output at that time was pre-school and kids shows. But, I found I enjoyed it, and learned the craft while writing for dozens of popular animated shows. It was a few years later when I moved into live action multi-cam youth sitcoms.
How did you get your first script into someone's hands?
I was lucky. I never really had to get a script into anyone's hands. It was more a case of being given an opportunity to write a script, and managing not to fail at it. But the advice I would give is to just keep writing, and just keep making relationships with other writers, producers, directors, anybody working in the business. It is not easy to get that first contract — it took me several years of trying — but perseverance pays off. It's a marathon, not a 100-meter dash.
In 2006, you made a shift into writing for major non-kids series Stargate: Alliance and The Listener. What inspired those genre breaks? Which do you prefer?
I never set out to be a kids television writer. My aspirations were always to write sitcoms, and prime time drama. While I started in kids TV, I was always looking for that opportunity that would allow me to try my hand at something else. What happened is that I found I loved –and was really good at — writing for a youth audience. So rather than move totally into drama or prime time comedy when the opportunity finally came, I made the decision to go back and forth, and work in every format. I honestly don't have a preference. I find all TV writing to be equally rewarding. So I just go with what I am most passionate about on any given day. It keeps my job fresh.
On to The Stanley Dynamic, and I'm sure you get this question a lot, but what's the real story behind how Luke was born animated?
I think that a lot of people suspect that Luke's dad created him somehow, because he is a cartoonist by profession. But that's not how I envisioned it. The truth is that he was just born that way. There's no other mythology or "secret origin." He just happened to be born a cartoon, and nobody in our world really questions that. I like the simplicity of this.
What are the biggest technical challenges when filming around Luke?
The truth is that we utilize a very simple technique for incorporating Luke into our live action environment. We simply shoot the scene without anyone there, and then add the animation in later. The actors make this possible by knowing exactly where to look, if Luke is in the scene with them. This is achieved through a rehearsal process where the actor who provides the voice of Luke, works alongside the other actors, as they block out the scene. So the hard work is done during rehearsal so that shooting can run efficiently. When Luke interacts with a "real" object, like holding a fork or bouncing a ball, usually that object is added later with CGI effects.
Are there major Luke-related technical feats this upcoming season?
In season two, we challenged ourselves to push what we could do with the animation. We did an episode where we introduced a second animated character — you'll have to watch to see who or what that is — which required a lot more work on the technical side. The biggest change we made is that we have made Luke a bigger part of the show. He is on screen a lot more this season, which is much more challenging and time-consuming, but I think our audience will enjoy seeing that much more of him.
Canadian TV production is known for having much lower budgets than the U.S., for instance. What are the budgetary constraints that you face as both a writer and producer with an animated character on a kids show?
Yes, our budget is considerably lower here, but that is nothing new for Canadian television, so we know how to make it work. Certain sacrifices always have to be made. Everybody gets paid less for doing twice the amount of work, in order to get the show made under difficult budgetary restrictions. That's just the way it is here. We do it because we love it. In our case, the animation is a very expensive component to our show, and every second that Luke is on screen has to be carefully worked out in advance.
How do you stretch the budget to include Luke on screen as much as possible?
When the budget gets tight, we need to get creative. In a season one episode we had Luke inside a real suit of armour for an episode — so we can still hear him, and it still feels like Luke is on screen and part of the show — but we have very little animation required. There are a few episodes where Luke appears only in a very minor role. This is all for budget purposes. We never did a "Luke turns invisible" episode, but we had it in our back pocket if we ran into budget trouble. The great thing about our show is that we have so many funny popular characters, that nobody notices when Luke takes a back seat. I credit our amazing cast for making that possible.
One of the season's guest stars include the late Alan Thicke. What was he like on set?
Alan was only with us for a week, but in that time he managed to make friends with everyone on the crew. He was incredibly funny, a joy to be around, and was game for everything. He plays a version of himself on the show, and we really pushed the boundary on what kinds of things we had him doing and saying. I was expecting him to ask for some changes in the script, to back away from that, but instead he wanted to push it further. That's the kind of person, and actor, he was: no ego and willing to make fun of himself for a laugh. Amazing guy.
You know, I just want to add that we also had Michael Gross and Jaleel White on as recurring guest stars, and man, they were both the same in that way. Totally professional, super funny, and just the warmest, funnest guys to be around, even when the cameras weren't rolling. I have such respect for all of them. Three huge, beloved U.S. sitcom stars on our show — how lucky can we get?
The Stanley Dynamic begins its second season on Feb. 27 and airs Monday to Friday at 6 p.m. ET/PT on YTV.
About Robert J. Ballantyne
Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.