Monday, 30 December 2019

From premise to outline to script: Cobra Stops The World

In this article, we will take a look at the process of animation script writing during the 1980's.  Using the early G.I Joe episode Cobra Stops The World, written by Joe story editor Steve Gerber.

The process began either by a script being assigned to a staff member, some of whom had a script quota on their contract, or by the story editor contacting a freelance writer.  During 1986 and 1987, declining budgets led to a heavier use of staff writing.  To the point that most of Inhumanoids and all of Visionaries' scripts were written in-house.

When a freelance writer was contacted to write a script, they would be sent a list of GI Joe and Cobra characters and vehicles to incorporate into a story.  As time went on and the same writers were hired back again and again for multiple shows, this process became less rigid.

The writer was then expected to submit three premises, which could run between a paragraph and a full page.  The premise gave the basic idea to a story, as demonstrated with this example from the Transformers episode Money Is Everything:


"Money Is Everything" is Free Trader DIRK MANUS self-serving motto; he proves it by selling the Technobots into the Quintesson's tentacles, not once, but TWICE ... or DOES he?

If a premise was approved, the writer would receive half of their script fee in advance to write an outline.  This would run between 12 -14 pages roughly and would lay out the story, organised into story beats.  Once an outline was submitted, it would be reviewed and any notes or changes passed back to the writer for them to begin the full script.

Once the full script was submitted, it was sent from either Sunbow's Westwood offices in LA or from Marvel Productions' offices (For Transformers season 1 and 2) via commercial email to Sunbow's main offices in New York.  Where Hasbro's representative in that office would review the script and send it back to the story editor with notes of any changes required by Hasbro in the story edit.

The timeline for this process is laid out in the G.I Joe Writer's Guide as follows:

  • Receipt of character/vehicles list to turning in premises: one week
  • Receipt of premises to story approval: one week
  • Story approval to completion of outline: one week
  • Delivery of outline to approval: one week
  • Approval of outline to delivery of script: two weeks
Cobra Stops The World is, at time of writing, the only example of an outline and a full script available at the archive.  So let us begin our examination of how the story changes from outline to full script.

Full script Act I:
Full script Act II:
Full script Act III:

Don't be specific
One of the key changes was to not state that the action was taking place in real-life locations.  Originally, all of the city scenes take place in Los Angeles.  Duke and Ace's scenes are specifically mentioned as taking place in Venezuela, with the waterfall they eject over being named as Angel Falls, the world's tallest waterfall.  Cobra's secret base is named as being located on Tiera del Fuego, the "land of fire".

Story compression
The first three beats of the story are compressed and simplified in the full script.  Originally, the sequence of events were:
  • General Flagg delivers an intelligence briefing at Joe HQ, while the montage of Cobra forces disrupting oil supplies across the globe plays out
  • The Joes ruminate on the consequences of the oil supply running out when Cobra Commander interrupts all television broadcasts to deliver his demonstration of Cobra's diamond-powered cloaking device, seemingly making the desperately-needed oil tankers disappear from view.
  • The Joes move out from HQ and Duke gives them their orders on the move.
In the full script, the sequence of events plays out as follows:
  • The episode begins with Cobra Commander making his broadcast, the montage of Cobra in action plays as part of the broadcast with his narration over it.
  • The Joes are already on the move as Colonel Sharp (from The Revenge Of Cobra) delivers his briefing from HQ.  Duke then gives the orders to the various teams.
No animals were harmed.....
The original cliffhanger for Act I was cut.  Duke and Ace in a Skystriker are pursued by three Cobra Rattlers.  Through some aerial manoeuvres through a canyon, Ace forces two of the Rattlers to crash.  The third one, however, is able to shoot them down and they are forced to eject over Angel Falls.  The Rattler makes another pass, opening fire and shredding their parachutes.  Once they have fallen into the river at the base of the falls, we go to break with Duke and Ace menaced by caimans, a South American relation to the crocodile.  We return from break with the caimans closing in.  Duke throws a grenade at the riverbank, toppling a tree into the river and causing a distraction that allows him and Ace to make it to the bank.

In the full script, the scenes with the caimans are completely removed.  With the intended cliffhanger gone, the act break is moved to when the third Rattler pilot fires their missiles at the Skystriker.  Once Duke and Ace hit the river, they swim to the bank without incident.

Don't point that thing at me
The original cliffhanger for Act II was changed.  In the episode, Ace tries to fake an injury but Major Bludd and his tribesman' allies are going to execute him anyway.  Originally, the tribesmen aim their Cobra-supplied laser weapons at Ace as we go to break.  Directly aiming and threatening human beings with firearms in a story was a major no-no (at least at this point) due to the fear of children imitating such behaviour.  In the full script, the cliffhanger is changed to Ace being dragged to a pit of snakes, about to be thrown in.  The weapons issue required some editing to the next script Jungle Trap, as well.  

Get out of jail free
Cobra Commander and Destro are captured in the outline.  As having them be captured in every episode wouldn't work for a main series, Cobra Commander escapes by emitting a choking gas from his mask in order to delay Duke.  Perhaps due to the show being in it's early days, the final scene with Duke and Scarlett in a Skystriker over LA has Cobra's escape weighing heavily on Duke's mind.  As the show progressed and Cobra escaping became a recurring trope, Joe characters seemingly ceased to be affected by it.

Even when a script had been completed and passed to production by the story editor, there was usually still material that would need to be deleted.  As the episode's running length had to be 21 minutes.  It was always preferred for scripts to run slightly longer, ideally to around 22 or 23 minutes, so that the production process could whittle the material down to the required running time.  A writer who attempted to turn in exactly 21 minutes of script ran the risk of the episode under-running.  Forcing story editors to write more material to bring the episode up to length and causing delay to the overall production of the show.  A writer who caused an episode to under-run usually found themselves unlikely, if ever, to be commissioned by the same production company again.

Cobra Stops The World is estimated to clock in at around 25 minutes.  Among the key scenes cut for time are:

Diplomacy is not for the patient
Destro is frustrated as the UN debates Cobra's demands.  Cobra Commander suggests another "fireworks display" (blowing up a tanker) to give them more incentive.

Reality ensues
In the broadcast episode, Scarlett is disguised as an old lady as she breaks in to a Cobra safe house.  Before she gets there, she is walking through the deserted streets of LA.  She stops at a food store which has been looted and smashed, with the emotionally shattered store owner sitting on the steps outside.  He explains that with no fuel for the truckers, food shipments into the city have stopped.  She asks him for directions to an address (the safe house) and when he answers, she tells him Cobra won't get away with it.  To which the despairing store owner replies "I wish I could believe that, ma'am..."
While the question of whether to cut scenes and by how much was determined by running time.  One wonders if the producers felt more comfortable choosing this scene for deletion as it depicts a very realistic reaction to the episode's premise of the world's fuel supply being cut off.