The W Files

Profiling Screenwriters at Work

Animation writers take home the Humanitas Prize

by Erin Hawkins

It may take a village to raise a child, but it took an “action guy” with a fondness for shoot-’em-up stories, a woman who trekked to the Arctic Circle at 15, and a musician who sang at Hugh Hefner’s wedding, to write the story that would win the 2006 Humanitas Prize for children’s animation.

Screenwriters Michael Stokes, Alice Prodanou, and Steve Sullivan come from different backgrounds personally and professionally, yet they’ve all made their mark in the world of children’s animation, having written numerous scripts for a wide variety of 2D and CGI productions. Besides being prolific, Stokes, Prodanou, and Sullivan have earned reputations for their imaginative dialogue and memorable stories. Last June, their work received the prestigious Humanitas Prize for Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends–“A Froggy Day in Sunny Patch” which the three collaborated on.

Founded in 1974, the Humanitas Prize recognizes television screenwriters whose stories go beyond entertainment and reveal the common humanity of life. Taken at surface value, “Froggy Day” is a simple story about the friendship between Miss Spider’s insect children and a frog called Felix, who doesn’t eat bugs. On a deeper level, the show addresses issues of trust, cooperation and even xenophobia as Miss Spider’s family must protect Felix from the anti-frog campaign of the villainous arachnid Spiderus. Felix, on the other hand, must deal with his outsider status in the amphibian world and reconcile his feelings towards his parents who see his tiny friends as nothing more than dinner.

The Humanitas may be well known in the world of screenwriters, but Prodanou says there’s still a degree of confusion about the award for those out of the loop. “Some of my friends thought we’d won some sort of UN humanitarian award,” she says. “It’s always really nice to be recognized for your work, especially when it’s an award specifically for screenwriting and one that honours humanitarian values.”

Stokes, Prodanou, and Sullivan have all worked extensively for the Toronto-based children’s animation production company Nelvana. The three first worked together on Nelvana’s Rolie Polie Olie, a show about a boy living in a world inhabited by robots. Prodanou says she was thrilled to be reunited with Stokes and Sullivan (who also served as story editor) a few years later when the three writers each wrote a section of the three-part “Froggy Day,” which plays like a short movie. Prodanou credits Sullivan’s talents as a story editor for the seamless transitions between each act. “He really did an incredible job,” she says. “We had such a great team on the series–super writers Nadine van der Velde and Scott Kraft, our producer Pam Lehn, and our directors Neil Affleck and Lynn Reist. And it was so wonderful to hook up with Michael and Steve again. I only wish I could have been with them when they picked up the award.”

Yes, as fate would have it, Prodanou was committed to attending a friend’s wedding in France that fell during the same time as the Humanitas award ceremony. What’s more, Prodanou lives in her hometown Toronto, Sullivan is based in L.A., and Port Perry, Ontario, native Stokes now splits his time between Texas and L.A., so the wedding also prevented the three from being together for the first time.

Sullivan and Prodanou had met twice, first at the 2004 Annie Awards in L.A., where they won an award for Rolie Polie Olie, and again the following year at the Daytime Emmy Awards, where they scooped the top prize for Outstanding Special Class Animated Program, for Rolie Polie Olie. Although Sullivan and Stokes have worked together for years, it wasn’t until the Humanitas ceremony that they finally met in person. “The first time I met him, we won money,” Sullivan says with a laugh. “It was really surreal and quite wonderful.”

Sullivan had sneakily applied “Froggy Day” for the award without telling his co-writers. Stokes says he was shocked when he found out they received the nomination and flabbergasted when their names were called for the $25,000 prize. “Sally, my wife, and I flew to L.A. She was laughing because she said it’s the only time writers get treated like stars. She claims that in the rush to get my photo, she got completely knocked out of the way. It isn’t quite true, but it’s a funny story.” Stokes’ other career involves writing scripts for action and horror films, so the humour of winning an award that celebrates humanity was not lost on him. “Given my action background, it’s not something I ever thought I’d win,” he says. “What flea market did you get that from?”

After receiving his masters in film study at Toronto’s York University, Stokes got his first big break in the mid-nineties when his “urban action” script Jungleground was finally turned into a film starring wrestler Roddy Piper. Eight years ago, Stokes moved to L.A. and has since penned numerous action scripts in addition to writing and story editing children’s shows such as Jane and the Dragon and The New Babar. Stokes is quick to acknowledge the peculiarity of writing dialogue for adorable animals and shifty guys who want to blow things up good. “I can’t kill as many people as I do in action films,” he laments. “People frown upon that for some reason. I tell my wife that one keeps me sane while working on the other–but there’s no telling which one it is.”

Prodanou is remarkably prolific for someone in her early thirties. After graduating from university in 1998, she did a four-month internship at Alliance Atlantis which led to a job as a script coordinator at Nelvana, where she soon began chalking up writing credits, including her current work on the animated tween show 6teen.

Although Prodanou moved from staff writer at Nelvana to freelance in 2004, she looks back at her staff days as her second education. “What I experience now as a freelancer is that you write your script and many months later, you see the finished product. You’re not that involved in what happens after the writing process. When I was on staff at Nelvana, I was friends with animators and came in contact with the various stages of production. You’d see the storyboards and people working on the models. I guess I got a good window into what was involved in production.”

Of her Daytime Emmy experience, Prodanou says the win was completely unexpected. And although she didn’t get to clink glasses with perennial nominee Susan Lucci, she did see Ellen DeGeneres and several soap stars and wound up with a very nice trophy to add to her collection. “I wasn’t expecting to win,” she says. “I was packing up my gift baggy just when they called us.”

Even though she has made it in America, Prodanou decided to remain living and working in her hometown. Prodanou still gets a kick writing for Nelvana, which produced her favourite childhood shows like Ewoks, Droids, and Strawberry Shortcake. “I still remember seeing the polar bear logo at the end of the shows,” she says. “There really is a great market writing for children and youth here in Canada.”

Before he began screenwriting, Sullivan made his living as a singer-songwriter. He has worked in musical theatre, written pop songs for major music publishing companies, and toured with Tom Jones. And yes, Sullivan did indeed serenade Hef during the wedding reception of the playboy’s second wedding: “I sang ‘Just the Way You Are,’ while he danced with his daughter,” says Sullivan. “Not many Humanitas winners can say that.”

After being hired as a staff writer on the early-nineties sitcom Head of the Class, Sullivan wrote and produced several episodes of Empty Nest as well as several pilots for live action shows. It wasn’t until 2000 that Sullivan began writing and story editing in earnest for children’s animation. Indeed, his animation credits are so extensive, they almost fill an entire page of his CV. Sullivan laughs at the volume of scripts he’s written for children’s shows. “I don’t know how many trees I’m responsible for killing,” he says. “You’ve got to turn out a lot of words to make a living. Live action pays quite well compared to animations, but it’s great making kids laugh.”

Although his work as a writer pays the bills, Sullivan continues writing music. In “Froggy Day,” Sullivan wrote the droll lyrics to the song, “Could I Have Been Wrong About Frogs?” a tune which marks a crucial point in the story when Spiderus–voiced in George Sanders-esque glory by the late Tony Jay–realizes that not all frogs are out to get bugs. “I really try to get a laugh whenever I can get it,” Sullivan admits. “I’ve actually met a few comedy writers who are musicians. It’s like Dave Chappelle says, ‘All comedians think they can be musicians and every musician thinks they’re funny.’”

Canadian Screenwriter summer 2018 is on newsstands now. View excerpts, and subscribe here.

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