THOMAS & FRIENDS
HEAD-WRITER SERIES 17 to 23
Andrew Brenner is a seasoned Children's writer who is passionate about his work. You might not realise it, but you have probably watched something that Andrew has written at some point over the last 20 years. Here, we discuss Andrew's career, his creations, and previous involvement with Thomas. We're delighted and grateful that he has set aside some time from his busy schedule to share his vision for Thomas & Friends with us.
~ Interview with Ryan - Oct. 2, 2012
DISCLAIMER: All answers and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of Andrew Brenner, and in no way purport to represent those of HIT Entertainment
Andrew, what inspired you to become a writer?
I enjoyed writing stories from an early age. I also had a great appetite for reading. I used to write silly stories in the back of the class at school if I was bored. I always thought of writing as something fun to do, like performance and film. I never felt very confident that I could act, but if I wrote the scripts my stories would be on the stage or screen for me.
You mentioned being interested in writing and being creative from a very young age, what do you remember as being the first story or characters you wrote or created?
I remember writing an illustrated book when I was pretty young with a character that looked a little something like Beaker from the Muppet Show, but I can’t remember what he was called. I think it was inspired by Dr. Seuss with rhyming verses.
You mention your work with Autistic children to be a big influence upon your professional life; would you credit this as a means of being able to identify with how to write for children?
I had a number of different experiences of working with children when I was young. My mother ran the nursery school at the Anna Freud Centre and as a teenager I helped out there from time to time. As a teenager I also did a work placement in a school for children with special educational needs going once a week for a term. And because of my mother’s work I grew up in a house where children’s needs and development was discussed. So the school for Autistic children was yet another experience with children. And I met my wife there, who is a teacher and who now runs a Montessori Nursery School. All of these experiences helped me learn about writing for children as well as having my own children and remembering being a child myself. I like trying to get in touch with those memories and that way of thinking too.
How did you get your first big break into the industry in writing?
When my first son was born I was trying to make my living designing and selling hand-knitted clothing. I was also working as a performer in cabaret and music groups. Suddenly I needed to find a way of making more money. I had a friend who worked at Marvel and she suggested I would be good at writing stories, so she gave me a try on Muppet Babies. One of my earliest jobs for Marvel was adapting the original TV series of Thomas into comic book form and then writing new stories when those episodes ran out. My first chance to write for television came directly from my comic writing experience.
You began writing for comic books in 1985 when your first son was born and worked with characters such as Count Duckula, Sindy, Trap Door, Ghost Busters and countless other classic brands. Each of these had a different genre to aim for in terms of comedy, drama or action and needed to suit a particular age-range and often, gender. How would you define your experience working on some of these titles? Were you comfortable? Did you find it challenging? Do you feel it moulded you into a better writer?
Writing for comics was great script-writing practice. I could try things out and see how they worked. I had to do a lot of short stories and scripts fairly quickly, so there is a certain discipline in that, but it is not as pressurized as working in television or at least it wasn’t then. I had to learn the styles of different shows and try to recreate them in comic form, learn to understand characters, write dialogue for them, tell adventure stories and write comedy. I really enjoyed that work and I think I did learn a lot just through lots of practice. But those titles are often rushed and it was disheartening when I saw errors get through, such as sometimes characters being given the wrong speech bubbles!
We noticed on your CV that you worked on comic book strips for Clearwater Features / TVS’s short-lived TUGS series. To our previous knowledge, we were not aware that TUGS ever had a comic run; can you shed any light on the work you produced for this publication?
I don’t have much to say about this. I think I only wrote a little, but I do remember watching the series and writing a few stories. Sorry, I don’t really remember more than that.
Until recently we were unaware that you had penned several Thomas related comic stories, which were adapted for the 1991 series. How did you first become involved with writing the Thomas magazine stories, and for how long?
As I said, I think I adapted all the stories from the original two series for the comics when Marvel first launched the Thomas title. I then wrote a large number of new stories. I don’t remember how long it was, but I know I was still writing for the comics when I saw the third series and realised that some of my stories had been adapted for it.
Are there any stories you can lay claim to which made it to television alongside the Awdry material?
I know that 7 episodes of the third series were based directly on my stories, but several of them were using two comic stories, one as an A plot and another as a B plot. One of these episodes was Henry’s Forest, inspired by a hurricane that came to London and brought trees down. But I don’t recall all the others.
Were you actively involved in the adaptations of the comic book stories to television, or was that left solely to the Producers, Britt Allcroft & David Mitton?
No, I wasn’t actively involved in the adaptations, but I was not happy to see them take the credit for the stories, especially when they often used dialogue line for line, not just a general idea. They would have been my first script-writing credits on television.
Growing up in the United States and elsewhere prior to returning to London at age 13, I'm guessing you were not entirely familiar with Thomas's world when growing up. Prior to working on the comic stories, how familiar were you with the stories and characters?
I think maybe I had seen some of the books, possibly through the nursery schools or babysitting, but I didn’t really know the Thomas stories before I watched the Britt Allcroft series and started to adapt it. My youngest son was a huge Thomas fan though, so we watched them all together.
According to your CV, you've written for a number of shows across the pond (Cramp Twins, Brothers Flub, Fix and Foxi). What was your first big break of penning a non-British show? As with the comic strips, were you able to easily adjust your writing style to different forms of entertainment? And how does it feel to know that other countries are still enjoying your content today?
I wrote one script for Fix and Foxi through the German company Ravensburger. Ravensburger were involved in the Brothers Flub, so they suggested me as a writer to Sunbow in New York on that series. I worked with script editors based in California. That was my first experience of working with an American company directly. Cramp Twins was my second and I ended up taking over as script editor, but Brian Wood the creator of that show was British so it was a bit transatlantic.
Personally I love it when my shows are shown in the US because I still have a lot of family there and I like that they can see my work too. I think the first show I worked on that was widely broadcast in the US was Maisy.
When creating a new animated series, what are your biggest influences in terms of a particular target audience? Also, with various animation styles to go round nowadays, do you envision what form your own shows ought to take? Traditional, Stop-Motion, CGI?
I like to write in a way that appeals to a broad age range if I can. So even though Humf is pre-school there are a lot of things in there written with parents in mind and I hope older siblings like watching the show too. The show I am currently developing is aimed at older children 7 – 12, but I am trying to write it in a way that could appeal to the whole family.
I like many different forms and styles of animation, but I do find it hard sometimes to visualise new design. Sometimes I have a strong idea of how I think a show should look, but I really try to listen to what a producer, director or designer has to say and see what they come up with. Sometimes it is very different to what I might have had in mind, but hopefully it can be even better!
With the ever-changing media, what are your personal thoughts on animation today since starting out with the limited-animation of "The Caribou Kitchen"? Have you any favoured forms / styles / studios to speak of?
Animation is so expensive, so it can be very hard to get new shows off the ground, but sometimes you can still tell strong stories with very limited animation. I have been very excited and happy with how the stories I wrote for Punky come across with very simple flash animation. I think it is a question of finding the right style for the project and budget.
If your CV is correct, it also makes mention of some live-action films, again for American audiences (Tooth and presumably Sky High, originally Superhero High). If this is true, could you confirm your memories of writing live-action, and how different was it to penning animation?
I have really not written very much live action at all. (I only worked on Tooth briefly and Superhero High was an animation project, not the live action film.) It is different as the characters in animation tend to be more intense or heightened in their speech. And writing animation you have much more control over the character, but I think sometimes I have written in a style which is closer to live action sitcom.
Have there every been times when during production on another series, it is suddenly cancelled or held back for reasons unknown? I ask this because your CV also lists a number of shows and / or specials that appear to have been announced but never televised (Scaery Faeries, The Giraffe, Pelly and Me ).
I have done a lot of development work over the years. I love development as it is a chance to define a world and a set of characters and it is a very interesting process. But not every show gets made. It is a very competitive business.
When writing for an existing series, do you do extensive research on their histories, bibles and / or locals before you start penning out scripts? Do you find that you come up with more story ideas through research and personal experience than just "winging it"?
The best way of getting to know an existing series is just to watch episodes, the more the better. The bibles and other materials can sometimes be misleading as they may describe an idea of what a character is like before the stories were written. The stories, voice acting and animation all change and develop the characters and even the best bible in the world cannot convey every subtlety of the experience of the final film. It is in those subtle details or in small moments that I often find new ideas for stories. Sometimes I just love the way a character reacted to something and think where would that take you if you built a story around another moment like that.
Depending on which type of show you're writing, do you agree there should be a firm balance on showing and telling a particular scene or story, since you mentioned in an interview that "it is worth trying to use television to tell better stories"?
Showing and telling both have their place. Traditionally stories were told and traditional storytellers can tell things very directly sometimes, which can work very well. Sometimes it is good for a narrator to be oblique and sometimes it is great for them to be direct. But you can also lose all the drama of a film by telling rather than showing what happens and it can be much more engaging for an audience to have to interpret what they see or hear the characters say and try to figure it out for themselves.
The comment I made about ‘telling better stories’ refers more to the meaning of stories. I think some stories have a lot more depth to them and those stories can stay with you for a long time making you think about a question, such as what is really important in your life, or how you might better relate to others. I think that is probably the most valuable thing stories can do, not give you answers, but help bring you back to the important questions that you wish to understand for yourself. Those stories are not always easy to find.
You have written for a great many number of famous animation studios over the years (Honeycomb Animation, Cosgrove Hall Films, King Rollo Films, Telemagination). What was it like working alongside so many faces and places? Do you recall any particular stories from colleagues or friends from each of them? Did you gain further experience in writing for children with other famous writers?
It is great when you get a chance to work with people with experience and skills. Working with a studio like King Rollo Films was amazing as I felt like they had such an amazing track record of sensitive and beautiful pre-school animation. I love the King Rollo series itself. I also think I learned a lot from working with Lucy Cousins on Maisy. To me her picture books were always full of ideas and details that could inspire new stories.
When adapting books for television (Spot, Maisy, Pongwiffy, Little Wolf's Book of Badness), is it the decision of the Executives or yourself on how they should be brought to the small screen - faithful adaptation or new content entirely? If the former is it easy creating entirely new scripts alongside the original stories in printed form? Does it have the same effect as when writing the same shows but the other way (Magazines based on TV Shows)?
The work of adaptation is getting into the spirit of the original. Even with a direct adaptation of one story there will almost always need to be new material to make it work in a different form. And with a series you hope to find new stories that capture the spirit of the original. I think even as a child I experimented with writing stories that were imitations of the styles of authors I liked and that can be a useful skill when trying to keep to the spirit and tone of the original.
Between creating original, new characters of your own and working with existing ones, which do you feel have more story appeal to your audience? Children and Adults would obviously recognise existing characters more, so how do you go about creating new "friends" for them? With scenarios / personalities that they can relate to, etc?
The audience always only likes characters they know about and want to go back to. They can’t like someone new in advance and may even be sceptical about a new character for a while. In the early days of a series I think it is very important not to introduce new characters too quickly. You need to stay with the main characters and really get to know them well. But later it is fun to introduce new characters, who can bring a new attitude or energy into a show. These characters can bring out aspects of the old characters you’ve never seen before.
You've written for other several other HIT Entertainment shows, and helped bring Fireman Sam to the position of 2nd most popular HIT brand. What interested you to come full-circle and back to "Thomas" as head-writer? Was it a natural fit for you?
I always loved Thomas as a show. The live action appealed to me as it felt like the best train set ever and I had and loved my model railway as a child. I also like the storytelling style, the tone of the show and the comedy moments. So I’d say Thomas was a natural fit for me.
Your writing and illustrative talents make for an interesting combination. Do the latter come in handy for you as head writer to help others on the writing team visualize what you're thinking of? I.e. drawing a rough sketch of what you imagine a scene in the script should depict?
I am not an illustrator or a designer, although I used to draw a lot as a child and teenager and studied Art to A level. But I do think I have some visualisation skills and I think that is very helpful when writing animation. It is important to see how a scene will play out and describe the action to help a board artist know what you are imagining, even if they decide to change it. And I have done sketches from time to time just to help explain how I see something, but they are not very pretty.
We've heard nothing but good things from colleagues, friends and associates of yours about your work and what you could bring to the table for Thomas & Friends. Do you have a personal vision for the series as the new Head Writer?
I would say that I came onto the series with a wish to be true to the origins of the show. I fell in love with the early live action adaptations of the Reverend Awdry stories and I really want to try to keep the spirit of that work alive in the new stories. I remember phrases that I loved from the narrator, such as the passengers not liking to be ‘bounced around like peas in a pod’, and the humour of things like Bill and Ben teasing Boco by pulling up on either side of him. I also liked details of the way the railway worked, such as the way the tank engines brought coaches for the bigger engines like Gordon. There are always new things being added to Thomas’ world, but the show has such a strong heritage that we need to follow.
Your first stories for Thomas were adapted for the live action model set - now, you're working with glorious CGI and a world of new opportunity and expansion. What do you think of Thomas's new look?
The amazing thing about CGI is how real it looks. It is very exciting to see the people moving about or vehicles passing in the background. There was something very special about the live action and I do still love it. The models were so beautiful and it looked like the best set of toys you could ever have, but there are some very exciting possibilities that are opened up by CGI. You can fly over the sets and see the layouts of the tracks and locations so much better than you ever could on the model sets, which would have had to have been absolutely huge to achieve a similar effect.
From your time writing comic strips for Thomas, do you have any particular favourite characters or pairings among the engines?
My favourite characters from the early days were probably Bill and Ben. They really made me laugh. Toby was another character I loved. Even though he was an older engine, he always felt young and innocent in his character. And I loved James when he would scrunch up his face and be grumpy.
Do the older age demographics of the Thomas fandom surprise you in terms of their dedication to the brand (RWS books and TV Series)?
I think actually appreciating how many older fans there were did take me by surprise at first. But then I remember taking my boys to see model railway exhibitions, where there are almost exclusively adult hobbyists, and I thought maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised after all. I’m very glad there are so many Thomas fans, because there is a huge body of work to cross reference and catalogue, and without those fans who would have created the Thomas wiki site, a resource I really do rely on?
2014 marks the 30th Anniversary of the Series. Without revealing too much, can we expect something special in the series to celebrate this milestone?
As I understand it, historically the focus has always been on celebrating the landmark anniversaries of the publication of the first book rather than the TV anniversaries, so HIT are not intending to mark this date, but looking forward to the 70th anniversary of the books.
I'm sure that every writer is asked these sort of questions; but what advice would you give for someone who is keen to be in the same line of work as you? How would they get about becoming a writer for television? And what further advice would you give for, say, pitching a show idea?
For me, the route into writing animation was through comics. I don’t know how common a route that is, but there are a lot of children’s magazines around still and if you can write a good story or script for a comic that could be a great first step. It was a great place for me to practice my craft and build up a CV. In America, writers often write up spec scripts for shows that are popular, to show what they can do. These can be shown as sample scripts, even though they were never made. I am sure it is good practice to try to do this and people need to see something you’ve written to get a feel for your work, but I never did this myself.
The most important thing if you want to be a writer is to write. Write for yourself and show people what you have done and try to understand the feedback they are giving even though it may be critical. You can learn a lot by reflecting on people’s criticism of your work. You don’t have to agree, but negative comments are usually worth thinking about. Positive comments are always nice too of course!
We'd like to express our thanks to Andrew for sharing his insight with the fans, and offer he and his team all our support and our best in their efforts to return Thomas back to his TV Series' roots. With that said, we're all looking forward with optimism to Series 17 and beyond!
Clips and full episodes featuring examples of Andrew's work on other shows such as the new project, Punky, the Cramp Twins, Caribou Kitchen, Maisy, The Amazing Adrenalini Brothers and his own creation, Humf!
We have also threw in some classic Thomas episodes featuring Bill & Ben, and one of Andrew's stories, which was adapted for TV - Henry's Forest.
Click the link above to find out more about Andrew's work and past life. He has written a number of children's television shows and comic strips, and been creator of several others.
When the news broke about Andrew's involvement with Thomas, the Signore Blog began looking at his previous body of work and did a feature on him! Click the link above to check it out!
A pre-school series which Andrew wrote for RTE Jnr in Ireland, about the everyday adventures of Punky, a little Irish girl with Downs Syndrome.