Mikey Heller makes up one of the creative writing supremos that power the cartoon juggernaut. We asked him a little about how he got to where he is.
Have you had many odd jobs before getting where you are?
Yeah. I had a bunch of jobs when I was in high school…
One was being an animator for a now-defunct video studio that did health related videos for gyms.
I would just animate title screens and stuff. In college I worked at a dining hall and I would try to do cartooning for extra money, but never that much money!
After college I was chopping salads for a long time, that was one job. I was doing production assistant stuff, different video things, around where I lived. As a production assistant I worked for WFXI, that’s the PBS station.
We’d just try anything. That was definitely an odd job in itself!
And how did you finally manage to get a proper gig?
I was in New York, and I had a pretty nice job at a website called SmilesForAll.com. That lasted for a bit and then after that I was just doing stuff on my own. I was just cartooning for cash.
I had been doing a comic strip called Time Trabble online for quite a while. At that point maybe four or five years.
My now-boss, Daniel Chong the creator of We Bare Bears, was developing the cartoon and he had liked some of my work. As a result, he reached out to me at one point about doing some creative writing and creating stories for the show.
I did that for a bit, I freelanced from New York, and then eventually it led to being offered a full-time gig so I moved out here for the ‘big thing’, the ‘big old job’.
Tell us about the team writing process.
It’s a very great and interesting process. I’m one of two full time writers forming creative writing on the show.
We break stories by taking an idea that someone has offered us, an idea we have, an idea presented us by the director and creator of the show.
Between the two of us we beat it out, just like the beats of a story in notes. We try to do this with the director and the creator and other people who work on the show like the storyboard artists.
We want to include everyone in the process.
When it moves to the next stage everyone is already on the same page about this particular story.
When it comes to typing out outlines, that’s what gets handed to the storyboard artists is these detailed outlines, that, we do on our own. But when we try to break the story and get the details down, we like to hear from everybody.
How do you get the dialogue right, do you read them out?
For a dialogue in the outline we will have the ideas of what they need to say, maybe just lines. Then the storyboard artists as they storyboard, will fill in the rest of the dialogue themselves.
Underneath a certain panel will be the line that they need to say. That dialogue will be transferred to a script, maybe tightened or revised in some way.
We’ll have a hand in that as well, and then that will be recorded. If they need anything else later, they’ll get those lines later in case certain scenes need to be revised or redone. So everyone kind of has a hand in the dialogue.
What happens when someone disagrees with a part of the story?
Well, people often disagree in the room. Ultimately we have to do what’s best for the story.
The more people agree on a certain concept, perhaps that’s the shining light and that’s the best move for the story.
I’ve never witnessed a big fight or disagreement.
I think the staff of the show, the reason why we all work so well together is ‘cos we all have the same tastes and ideas’ and tend to have a certain mindset about how a story should work.
So big disagreements don’t happen a lot, but finding the right move or decision for a story can be a big group effort sometimes.
Do you write episode by episode or do you write everything and then send it to the animators?
We just go episode by episode.
We’re kinda working on a group at a time, and we just hand those off and we’re done with them. It’s sort of like an assembly line. After us it’s the storyboard artists.
We have, six storyboard artists in the studio and they all have four to five weeks to work on their episode.
It’s usually two people to one episode and after that it’s handed off to the next crew of people, design stuff like backgrounds and characters and props and the storyboards being edited into X-sheet form.
So it’s a long creative writing process but there’s a lot of overlap. Episodes are continuously being worked on after we’ve started writing them.
Stuff is eventually shipped off to Korean studios to be animated, and then that stuff, after many months, comes back and gets edited here.
So we might be writing a new episode, but then an old episode we wrote a long time ago is still being worked on. It’s just a continuous process of things going out and coming back.
Creative writing is ‘your thing‘ but you also draw, but you’re not drawing on this cartoon?
No. In our writers room we have walls with drawings. When we’re beating our stories it’s always great to have storyboard artists listen on pitches of the stories and they’ll illustrate ideas.
I’ll do that as well, I’ll doodle something to explain what I’m talking about. So that’s definitely helpful, but I myself don’t have to draw for the show.
Would you like to?
I don’t think I can [Laughs]. For storyboard artists, it takes a lot of skill besides just being able to draw well and that’s something I’m not trained in, and it is a lot of hard work!
Do you still do your own cartoon strips?
Yeah, I still do my comic strip. I took a break for a bit when I moved here just because I had a lot going on, but recently I got back into it just so I can keep it alive.
I feel like it’s an important thing in my life and I should keep it going.
So I still do that.
How is it going?
Good. I do it just for myself. Not a lot of people read my comics.
It’s had a few lucky ones that have kind of spread all over the Internet. I often joke that my website is probably the last place where people have actually seen my comics!
They’ve probably seen it on Tumblr or image sites that just host other content. It’s just something for me to just have an outlet for something silly, and to motivate myself to work on something.
Is We Bare Bears enough to take up your time?
Yeah. Work is usually nine to six. There’s plenty of people who work on all sorts of stuff, not just their own show, but they freelance for other things as well.
Just being as good as I can at creative writing, that’s all I have to worry about so I stick to We Bare Bears.
How does it work to be creative from nine to six?
It can be hard!
Often, it can be after 5pm and we still have a huge problem to deal with, I’ll be like ‘it’s never gonna happen’, ‘cos every idea we have are called ‘five o’clock ideas’ which means we may have tapped out.
Although there have been occasions where after five we had great epiphanies about how to write something.
But to be creatively engaged all day can make you feel tired. Like you don’t want to do anything else.
Which is tough because
Everyone who has a creative job wants to be creative all the time.
Especially on their own projects at home.
So you just have to buckle down and commit yourself, because once you’re in it, it’s great. But if I get home and I’m like ‘I gotta draw a comic, but I don’t feel like it, I’m tired’, I have to fight that feeling and once I get going I’m like ‘oh right, I forgot, I like to do this’.
And what happens if you have an idea for the show at midnight?
I usually tell myself after work to stop thinking about the show. I’ve had plenty of creative writing ideas about the show after work, but for the most part I try to keep thinking about the show just AT work.
Would you like to have your own show one day?
I think that would be super awesome!
I think I have a lot to learn before about creative writing before I could even begin to imagine what that would be like. To produce your own show, that’s like every aspect of producing a show all rolled up into one job.
Perhaps I’m not even fit to do it! But it would be fun, right, to at least imagine?
You want to stay in this industry?
Yeah. I have always wanted to work in comedy and television.
And would you like to release a book of your comics?
Yeah. That’s sort of been a goal of mine for a long time.
I have so many comics on line but they’re all very… it’s just a ‘grab bag’. Some of them don’t really fit if I were to collect them all into one. They’re all different sizes and formats and styles.
If I were to release a book, I would pick and choose. I wouldn’t have an omnibus of everything. But I also want to make stuff that’s just for a book. Those are long-term goals.
Anything else you want to share with the world?
Watch We Bare Bears! It’s a great show, it’s wonderful!
Words by Nadia Says