Denise Downer is an Emmy nominated children’s television animation writer, based in the Los Angeles area. Her television writing experience spans all age groups. Denise has written for the Emmy and Peabody award-winning Apple TV series Stillwater, created by Rob Hoegee. She is currently the Story Editor for the upcoming animated series Tom & Jerry Time.
Denise has also written for shows such as Hello Kitty and Friends Super Cute Adventures, Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go!, Puppy Dog Pals, Avengers Black Panther’s Quest, Marvel’s Spider-Man, Chuggington, Power Rangers, DC Superhero Girls, Care Bears, Fancy Nancy, Barbie Dreamtopia, and Motown Magic. In addition, Denise is the author of Tombstone Twins, a darkly-comedic, children’s graphic novel published by Stone Arch Books.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: I know that you started out in live-action and then you transitioned over to animation, what was that process like?
Denise Downer: That's a very good question. In the beginning, I went back and forth between live-action and animation, working as a writer's assistant in both areas. When I worked in live-action, it was thrilling to be part of the process in the writers room taking notes, seeing how the entire process worked on the stage during run-throughs, and being there for the script rewrites. The late nights weren’t something I was used to. And when the season ends, you're looking for your next project. I started working as a temp in the animation industry. I ended up going from temp to full-time employee simply because there was a position available there as a writer's assistant. I really loved the atmosphere and the high energy of the work environment. There was always this comedic banter between the writers and they worked normal hours.
Sadie: [laughs] Important.
Denise: [laughs] Yeah, that was definitely a plus, one I appreciated. When that production season ended, I went back and worked in live-action again. But I actually missed working in animation. In live-action, you don’t have the added elements of storyboards, voice records, animatics, and of course the animation. That’s where the stories come to life in such a colorful, playful way. These are the things that attracted me to animation in the first place. It’s different from live-action. It was then that I realized I wanted a career in animation.
Sadie: There's such a great responsibility in writing for children's animation and for children in general, what is it about the children's animation world that has drawn you to it and kept you in that space?
Denise: I've always had an interest in writing for young audiences, but I didn't know what that would look like in the beginning. I thought I might be a children's author. But when I saw the world of children's animation, I felt like I belonged there. I think it was just the playfulness of the stories. I'm drawn to comedic stories, especially for the very young. I try to keep them laughing and entertained. Hopefully, by the end of the episode, they also feel moved. I was drawn to animation because it was a delight to be around. It’s light and fun - there’s this irresistible energy to the stories.
Sadie: There seems to be a wave of animation available. And with all of these streaming platforms, it seems as the structure has changed as well. Has that been the case for the rooms you've been in as of recent?
Denise: It really depends on the show and the creators of the show and how they want to tell the story. Sometimes they do try to limit it, especially with streamers they can try to limit it to 10 minutes, or they could say we have more time than that because we're a streamer. They may not be as beholden to advertisers. I work a lot on 11-minute shows that are considered ‘shorts’. For an 11-minute script, if the show is fast-paced, you usually write about 14 to 16 pages. That's because there's a lot of fun action going on. As a writer, I strive to adhere to the parameters of a particular show. I want to deliver the stories in keeping with the creator’s vision.
Sadie: I know that you've worn many hats in the animation world as a writer, and most recently as a story editor within the last few years - what does a Story Editor do exactly in the world of TV animation?
Denise: Yeah, that's a very good question, because in live-action the title Story Editor is kind of low on the totem pole. It goes from staff writer to Story Editor and so on. But in animation, the Story Editor, sometimes referred to as the head writer, is in charge of the scripts and the writer's room. Once I came across a show where there were two top script positions, a Story Editor and a Head Writer. I don't see that very often. Also, there could be a showrunner who's got their hands in every department of the production. But usually, a story editor is the one in charge of the scripts. Some shows in animation are staffed, but a lot of shows are written by freelance writers. Those shows depend on freelancers to deliver a specific number of scripts. If you become a regular freelance writer on a particular show, it may feel like you're on staff, but you're working as a freelancer.
Sadie: With the pandemic, I assume you've gone virtual for a lot of your rooms, and that changed the way rooms work and function. Do you see a future in hybrid rooms?
Denise: Oh yes, it did change. I was recently staffed as an Associate Story Editor on a particular show. We went from being in the writer's room a few days a week to working from home exclusively.
Once we had to work from home, we had to find a way to write virtually, as a group. In the beginning, we used a software program that accomplished our goal. The Story Editor used to lay out the story on the whiteboard in the writer’s room. But we didn't have access to that. Eventually, I started working with the writers one-on-one. I used a different document format that ended up working just as well. It’s important to be flexible.
I do think the future will be in hybrid rooms. Everyone is finding their new normal and it was certainly no different for us. A lot of writers thrive in the environment of a writer’s room. It's a great and productive way to brainstorm around a table with other writers. I know how difficult the solace of working from home can be. So, there might be a combination of the two. But it’s hard to tell what the future will be.
Sadie: Yeah, and if it's working now, that's good but it's also such a big creative shift as well to get used to.
Denise: Well, the one thing is you miss the person-to-person interaction. There's just something that happens when you're together that could spark more ideas and that you know you joke with each other and you might tell a little story that might end up in the show. That's the part that's been lost because you don't really have that, but we're still making it work.
Sadie: The human connection is definitely important in writers' rooms, absolutely. What kind of stories are you excited to tell and be part of?
Denise: I want to tell stories that allow children to look at the reality of their world, not necessarily in a serious way but in a light-hearted way or to find the humor in it. They could find some solutions to a problem they're experiencing or a way to approach these problems. I hope they will be inspired by the characters they love. I'm drawn to writing female characters and so I would love to create a strong female character, who inspires children to be their best selves, to be kind to each other, to be empathetic, and want to help one another. Those are the stories I'd like to tell.
Sadie: We definitely need those stories. Being a woman in this business and especially a woman of color, I feel like we don't see a lot of that, especially in the world of animation. Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel of more opportunities for female writers and the BIPOC community?
Denise: I do, because I’ve started to see an even greater interest in diversity. Studios are focusing more on female characters, characters of color, and characters who face different challenges. They are eager to tell those stories. I really want to tell those stories. I think it's good that in animation they're really putting forth a strong effort to reflect what the world actually looks like.
Sadie: Where do you hope to see the animation landscape in the next five to 10 years?
Denise: I hope to see children, who are watching these shows, feel a sense of hope and joy. As they say, laughter is the best medicine. I want them to watch animated shows and find them very entertaining. I'd also like to see more inclusion in the characters and the stories that are told and see this inclusion cover a multitude of cultural elements. You don't really see a lot about their culture right now. And that I'd like to see change. I worked on a show once where the main character was of Asian descent and the studio made a concerted effort to bring in elements of the character's culture, which I really loved. So, I'd like to see more of that to help children see that the world is made up of all kinds of people. And they might be curious too. Maybe a Latino child might want to celebrate Kwanzaa. [laughs] Who knows. They might think it looks fun. I'd like to see us becoming more of an inclusive society that looks at everything and appreciates it.