Monday, 21 October 2013

London Screenwriters Festival

Hello fellow scribers!

The last month or so has been a blur of meetings, panels and new ideas galore.  Give me a couple of weeks and I should be able to tell you about some of the exciting new projects I'm now working on.

In other news, the London Screenwriters' Festival has arrived! Billed as the world's biggest screenwriting event and taking place over 3 days, this year the fest will have 100 speakers all there to advise and hopefully inspire you with your own careers.  If you can afford it, I highly recommend any wannabe writers attend.

In addition to all the brilliant speakers, I'll also be speaking on Saturday on two separate panels:

1) 3.30pm – 4.30pm session: ‘Does Writing for Kids Offer the BIGGEST Opportunity In the Business?'

Speakers: Jo Ho, Tim Bain, Alan Gilbey, Debbie Moon

Moderator: Mellie Buse

2) 6.30pm – 7.30pm session: ‘Climbing BEYOND The 2nd Rung On the Ladder To Success'

Speakers: Jo Ho, Darrin Grimwood, Chris Hill

Moderator: Mark Pallis

After both panels, you'll find me in the script chat room where you can ask me in person any questions you may have, so don't be shy!

See y'all on saturday.

Friday, 16 August 2013

How to create & write a US genre show PART 1

How are you my lovely blogettes, still with me even after such a long gap between postings?  I hope so.

So much has happened recently, most of which I'm not able to elaborate on for boring legal issues but here are some highlights:
  • I finished the bible and the full 22 episode synopsis for my US supernatural show.  The producers are now talking with US networks and some pretty amazing showrunners.  We're hoping to find one to run the show until yours truly can get the experience required for such a badass role.  
  • One of my supernatural thriller screenplays has garnered interest from four companies so far. I'm meeting with all to see who can provide us with a happy home. Hopefully this will be my first feature film to get made.
  • Another feature film, a high concept family flick has now made it's way to a studio for consideration. It requires a pretty big budget so fingers crossed! 
  • My role as "generator-of-ideas-for-companies" has gone into full swing with five new projects under consideration: a sci fi TV series, three family films and a ghost story.
  • And finally, I'm now in discussions with the producer of some of my favourite films of all time(!!!) on not one, but two film projects.  I've already met with him on a few occasions but it will be a long while before I don't geek out when I see him.  Just so you guys know how huge this is for me, my cat is named after a character in the films...
All of this is basically to excuse away my tardiness with the blogging.  As you can see, it's been a pretty busy two months.

And now, back to business.  A few weeks past, I asked on Twitter if anyone would be interested in knowing the technicalities behind creating my US genre show and the response was far greater than I had anticipated. Needless to say, I shall be doubly careful what I tweet from now - you guys really are listening.

So, onwards to my new show, a 22 episode behemoth set in the States. As it's currently being pitched, I can't go into much detail on what it's actually about but I can talk a little on how I physically wrote the thing in the hopes that it can help some of you out there, who are wanting to do the same but not knowing quite where to start.

Disclaimer: The following is how my brain generates ideas.  I work this way as it's efficient, which as a professional screenwriter, I need to be.  What I don't do is spend a year or two thinking in broad strokes on an idea - who has the time?  I come up with something then I run with it.  I usually aim to get the bulk of the idea down within a couple of weeks.  Any longer than that and it's too easy to run out of steam...  

In creating a television series, typically, a writer will come up with the series bible, a long document that details what the show is about.  There are entire books written on this subject however, I'll try and touch upon the basics here.

Subjects the bible can cover are:
  1. Introduction, covering a short (a page or so) description of the story including what challenges the leads will face at the end of the first season here.
  2. Themes and Tone 
  3. The World, if your introduction doesn't cover this, you can slot this into the bible.
  4. Backstory
  5. The Characters
  6. Season 1 Episode Synopses 
  7. Further Season Arcs.  If you're aiming for more than one season, brief paragraphs of possible season arcs can go here if you're so inclined. 
Depending on what genre you're going for, they may well be more topics to cover but these cover the foundation.  As long as you have these, you're in pretty good stead.

The below is my actual thought process which doesn't necessarily follow the steps above - quite often, the theme doesn't become clear until you have generated the characters and story - however by the end of writing, I will always go back and include the above topics into the final bible.

To create my show, I first thought about the type of show I wanted to write.  Being a genre writer, I knew I wanted to do a supernatural show with four protagonists.  I thought about the current landscape of similar US shows, for similar target audiences and how mine could fit in yet still be different, how it could have its own identity.  I knew I wanted to go dark with this one, edgy and to shy away from soapy elements (The Vampire Diaries, I'm looking at you); this would be a supernatural show first and foremost.  After coming up with what these supernatural elements were, I moved onto the next part - and the most crucial for me - the characters...

This is key; I always start with the characters. Some people go with plot, particularly for genres such as event sci fi... But for me, characters are king.

I began by writing a biography for one of the leads. This can and will change as you work on the other characters and find the best conflicts for them, adapting as necessary.  When Lead 1 was completed, I moved onto the next, making sure that this new character was as different as night and day.  From there, I created Lead 3 and 4.  Once their basic bios were done, I took a look at the group as a whole to see how they would interact with each other.  Alliances would naturally be formed between the girls; maybe something in their past would echo in their current issues.  Conversely, some of the girls would be antagonistic as their attitude clashes with the others.  This all adds to the fun.  If all the leads had similar lives and interests, that would make for a very boring show.  Conflict is created when people are forced together who wouldn't normally cross each other's paths, with the drama playing out as they attempt to navigate whatever danger is thrown their way.   As such, I created leads from different classes and ethnicities where one or two come from broken homes while another seemingly has the perfect parents and lifestyle.

In the girl's bios, I created some family background then described their characters, perhaps highlighting an incident in their life that has shaped who they are today.  When the four leads were completed, I moved on to the other reoccurring characters.  Usually by this point, you'll already know who some of these are as you would have touched on them in the lead's bios, for example: Lead 1's younger sister who has a habit of stealing, or Lead 2's ex boyfriend who refuses to stay dumped...

You'll also need your antagonist.  Who's the big bad?  And more importantly, what do they want? This last question is crucial to the series and your leads.  Without knowing this, you don't have a show.  Once you've shaped all the people that inhabit your world, it's time to think about well, the world.

Where are we?  In my show, we're in New England which has the gothic architecture my show requires, plus a history steeped in the supernatural.  Wherever you set yours should also be relevant, not least for the story but for the audience and potential broadcaster.  Where you set it has huge ramifications on the budget and can determine what channel will make the show.  If the show is set in the UK, it's feasible that any of our channels could produce it, however, if you set it in America or some other far flung country, you're probably looking at international backing as we just don't have the budgets that would be necessary to realise it.*

Other questions you'll need to ask yourself, why here, why now?  Once you think you've settled on a location, think about whether the show could be shifted elsewhere.  Quite often the first place you considered, is one where many have trodden before.  Sometimes, considering other, lesser obvious options opens up an identity that could make your show stand out.  So, instead of doing another police procedural in London or New York, consider how it would be different if you set it in say Alaska, or Iceland or in a closed community such as the Amish.  And you could have it starring Harrison Ford.  Wait, scratch that last one, I think that's been done already.  So now we know we were are, but how did we come to this?

By this point, we'll have written our character backgrounds but what about the story?  Now's the time to figure that out if you haven't already.  In my show, the backstory takes place many centuries ago, a time when superstition and magic was rife, when belief in the devil was common place.  What events lead your characters to this point?  What is the launching point of your story? We don't need everything here, just whatever is pertinent to your leads and the problems at hand.

That's all for now folks.  The work is calling.  Tune in next time for the PART 2 when I delve into the mindf*^k that is, the EPISODES... 

That baby needs a whole blog entry to itself. 

*I should add a note here about genre shows in the UK.  We don't have that many, competition is fierce, slots are few and far between and the ones we do have tend to go to the same five or six writers... all of whom are male.

There was an interesting article in The Guardian this year ( bemoaning the recent Doctor Who season who didn't use a single female writer.  The count is similarly poor for other British sci-fi and fantasy shows.  Now I'm not saying anyone is deliberately being sexist but when you look at the statistics, there is something wrong with this picture.  The numbers don't lie...

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Behind-the-scenes pictures from Spirit Warriors

It's been a frantic last couple of weeks with things heating up on a few of my projects. Something had to give and naturally it was this blog.  

When I first set this up I was hoping to update it every fri but have failed hopelessly!  Thank God I'm much better with my work deadlines...

I took a poll recently on Twitter to see how many of you would like a post detailing how I've gone about brainstorming and writing my new project - a US based genre show - and the response was far greater than I had anticipated.  It will be my next post (just as soon as I find some time to write it), in the meantime, here are some behind-the-scenes pictures from Spirit Warriors that I promised y'all a couple of weeks back.  

Such fond memories...

Jo xx

This was the moment it really sunk in. We were filming my TV series!

Our fantastic lead and a good friend of mine, Jessica Henwick who played "Bo"

The ever brilliant Benedict Wong as evil warlord, Li

Gilles Geary as Trix 

Rapper L'il Simz as Vicky

Karl Rogers as Martin with Tom Wu who played Hwang

Tom's a fantastic martial artist

The beautiful Daphne Cheung as Bo and Jen's mum, Fei-Yan

Killing time with rock, paper, scissors

Taking five 

 Set: Li's Palace

XL Bamboo


Stunts and blue screen


Evil dead, 12 'o' clock!

Sumptuous lighting by our DOP, Mike Spragg

Waiting around...

XL Spear 

 Where the magic happens

 Warrior Exhibit

Exhibit extras

Cool gear 

 Look, it's Benny!

The heart of the show

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Previz, concepts and cgi sets for Spirit Warriors

Previsualization (also known as pre-rendering, preview or wireframe windows) is a function to visualise complex scenes in a movie before filming.  Previz is applied to techniques such as storyboarding, either in the form of charcoal drawn sketches or in digital technology in the planning and conceptualization of movie scenery make up.

For those of you guys who have been following my blog so far, I've just talked about my TV series getting greenlit, the next step for us was pre pre production which is a stage that I find tremendously interesting and by extension, some of you might too. 

Following the press release, teams were quickly assembled, predominately in the art and cgi department.  We also had a team of writers on board (more of that in the next blog entry when I talk writer's room!).

First thing you should know before this gets bloody confusing, "Bo and the Spirit Quest" turned into "Bo and the Spirit World" which finally became "Spirit Warriors", so you'll be seeing things titled with quite possibly all of these names throughout the blog. Personally, I preferred the first two titles as it feels more evocative to me, but I understand the change - it's all about the branding

The series takes place throughout a mythical Chinese Spirit World made up of four smaller worlds that represent: wood, earth, ice and fire.  Below are a few of the concepts created to cover these zones and some of the magic elements of the Spirit World.




Below is a small showcase of some of the amazing previz work created by our SW team led by visual effects supervisor, Christian Jelen (Dredd, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) under the company, Retro Juice.  This might have been a children's show but it was epic in scale and ambition!

As titled!

Here's a short clip of one of our first tests showcasing the "chi power" that Bo, the lead character possesses.

Dragon mentor, Shen reworked concept

 Matte painting of the graveyard in Episode 5 "The Snake Spirit"

Li's palace and a trillion Nian warriors (or as I fondly called them, my ninja storm troopers)

These next few images are the finished cgi sets taken from the actual episodes.  Though our budget was considered high, it was still a balancing act to juggle all the many vfx shots we needed for the show.  One of the ways we got around the high costs of using a vfx house is by hiring freelancers who didn't have high overheads (ie. Soho rents) and have them work from home or in our studio.  This turned out great for the production as we could see the vfx as they were being created and if there were any issues,  they could be dealt with immediately.  

The Monkey Palace in Episode 3 "The Monkey King"

Exterior of the Monkey Palace

 Ice World Introduction

 Ice World City

 Outskirts of Ice World

Apocalypse comes! Final episode, "Blood of a Warrior"

And finally, some storyboards and animatics for the first fight in the series.  This so y'all can see just a little of the work that goes into a fantasy series and possibly, one of the reasons why they're so difficult to get off the ground, particularly in this country where budgets are tight.

This entry is essential my shout out to our fantastic vfx artists and the art department lead by production designer Catrin Meredydd, who worked tirelessly to bring to life the Spirit World that had previously only existed in my head.  

Hope you guys found this interesting. 

Next time (for real this time), I'l talk about the writer's room and the production process.  And don't forget those never-seen-before behind the scenes pics! 

Friday, 24 May 2013

How to get a fantasy TV series greenlit (my story)


It's been a fun week of social shenannigans, tweeting, blogging and podcasting for me.  OK, I came to the cyber party late but least I'm here now. With balloons.

Since my "Big Break" blog is getting decent traffic, I figured I should now write about how I actually got a series made and the harsh reality of life as a "neophyte" writer if you don't have a trust fund (not hating on trustafarians, just envious).  So kick off your shoes, take a load off and Iet me spin you a yarn about a young(ish) girl who dreamed of having her own genre show.

It was December 2006.  I'd been working at a TV company full-time for the last two years and I was utterly miserable.  I'd spent every penny I had to buy my flat and now I was stuck in this job I hated in order to pay the mortgage.  All of this meant I felt I was getting further and further away of my scripting dreams.  My commission with C4 seemed like a lifetime ago and I was desperate to get something going.  During this period of woe, I'd written a feature script called Monkey Nut Tales.  I wanted to do something a little different that would showcase my voice and make me stand out, and I believed this was it.

Monkey was about a young girl Mai (11), who's mother is sectioned due to a mental illness.  With no other family in the UK, Mai's grandmother flies over from Hong Kong to look after her.  However, Mai has never met gran or even spoken to her, and the two are soon at loggerheads, especially as Mai (the only English speaker in her small family) is used to running the house and doesn't like being bossed around.  The only time the two come together is in the evening, when gran shells monkey nuts and tells her fantastical stories of her past, usually involving the mother Mai misses so dearly.  But just when it seems Mai is growing close to gran, she learns the reason for the family's estrangement and why gran keeps making excuses not to visit her mum in hospital - gran is ashamed of Mai's mother's illness.  Determined to reunite with her mum, the tenacious Mai kicks off a series of escalating events that forces the old woman to confront her personal demons and rethink her prejudices.

I'd tried sending this script to the BBC via the usual sources but no one there was interested*, however, I knew it had merit and wasn't going to give up, so I retitled the script and sent it to a contact I had met at a scheme.  She read it, very much liked it and called me into the beeb for a meeting.  After we talked about what I wanted to do, my script was forwarded to CBBC who also liked it and called me in for a meeting.  I was asked to come up with an idea with all the heart and emotion of Monkey that would work as a TV show for their target audience.

I came up with the initial idea for "Bo and the Spirit Quest" quite quickly and it was taken into development with the in-house CBBC team.  This didn't mean we would definitely get a commission however.  CBBC then ran a twice a year commissioning process.  All ideas had to be pitched on one A4 page which would then be submitted online.  With the guidance of the CBBC in-house team, I worked up the A4 document and took the unique angle of writing it in the voice of the lead character.  It was an emotional piece, and we felt this would convey the jeopardy and the very real drama of the lead character.  Some anxious waiting later and I was given the fantastic news that I'd made it through the first round and CBBC was taking my show into development!

While this was happening, I was making some hard choices about my home.  I realized if I were to commit to making my show happen, I had to focus - writing had to become my full-time job and though having a show in development was amazing - particularly as I hadn't even written so much as an episode on an existing show before - it didn't pay enough for me to live on (BBC rates depend on experience and as a new writer, I was on some of their lowest rates).  I made the hard decision to sell my home and live off the profit.  It was an incredibly risky move, one which just about everyone questioned.  I was the only person in my family to have been able to buy property on their own and now I was gambling everything on a dream!  It was a tough pill for them to swallow and more than one member thought I'd lost my mind but you know, I had this dream that I just couldn't shake.

After the flat sold, I only had enough money to live on for one year.  That's one year to get my writing career going or I told myself I'd have to quit and get a real job.

It was the most finite deadline I've ever had to work to work with and while incredibly stressful, it did teach me more discipline.  With my script editor's guidance, I started working on the show's bible: I wrote an A4 page on each character's biography in their own voice; outlined a basic season story arc; came up with possible episode synopsis and generally created the world and the rules.  I went through several more commissioning rounds, with the documents I was commissioned to write getting progressively longer.  When the bible was finished, I was commissioned to write a pilot script.  This wouldn't necessarily be the one that would be shot but would show the scope of my idea.  Finally it was all done and we just had to wait to be told whether the show would the go ahead or not.  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited...

(The actual selling doc. Note: first name change for the show. Discussions on whether we needed the "s" in "worlds" continued for several weeks)

Meanwhile, CBBC had prepared a selling document which they took to Mip Junior, the world's showcase for children's television programming.  This basically would be the testing ground for the show.  Here broadcasters around the world would hear of the show and let their interest be known, if any.  I was informed it was one of the best received shows at the event with international interest.  Off the back of that, I remained positive as I waited some more.

I watched CBBC announce all the other shows they were making that year but there was no word on my own.  I was told it was because my show was so ambitious - a cutting edge martial arts fantasy set in a mythical world - that the budget was the greatest cause of concern; we'd have to build the world physically in a studio and also in CGI, but that wasn't all.  Who would play our lead?  She would need to be East Asian, a great actress, young enough to pass for fourteen and perform martial arts.  The only actress anyone could think of at the time was Katy Leung from the Harry Potter movies but she was already in her 20s.  I had no doubt we would find her though and kept referencing Field of Dreams. "If you build it, he will come"...

As I waited for news, I watched my funds decline and really had no idea what I was going to do. Moving home to ma wasn't an option - my brother still lived with her and there was no room for me.  Other than my executive assistant skills, there was nothing else I felt I could do that would provide a steady income and the thought of working full time in an office again caused depression to rear its ugly head.  Maybe everyone else was right?  I had gambled everything away and only had myself to blame.  Despite my fears, I forced myself to remain positive and worked on other projects while waiting for news.

Then, ten months into my one year deadline, on my BIRTHDAY (I jest not), my show was greenlit.

Huzzah!  Much celebrations ensued.  It was real.  I had a go show.

I HAD A GO SHOW!!!  I wouldn't need to get a real job after all!

We were granted one of the biggest budgets a CBBC drama had been given at the time and from then on, it was all guns blazing.  We had nine months to get the scripts going, source a studio, begin the casting process and do all the prep work (storyboards, set design, create cgi concepts and previz etc) with preproduction set to start at the beginning of 2009.

As hard as I had worked to get to this stage, life was about to kick into high gear.

Next time, I'll reveal what it's actually like to write (and be the creator of) a CBBC show, how we found our amazing lead, Jessica Henwick, plus some never-seen-before pictures from the set!  Stay tuned for more...

*This script has subsequently gained a ton of love and opened many doors for me at various companies and broadcasters.  So the lesson here?  Keep pushing, keep flogging your work.  Polish when possible but trust your instinct.