Dos and Don’ts of Notes

You’ve submitted your draft and you’re feeling good. Then come the notes.

Four headshots in black-and-white with yellow post-its on their faces
Left to right: Raj Brueggemann; G. Melissa Graziano-Humphrey; Lauren Andrews; and Ashley Long.
Photography by Tim Sullens.

Francisco Paredes, a writer on Disney’s Muppet Babies recalls getting back a script he had submitted. The evaluator included a single mark and, no, unfortunately it wasn’t “Love it. Don’t change a thing.”

“The person reading my script had written on the side of it ‘WTF (as in “what the (expletive)’) and gave no other context,” says Paredes. “On another script, later on, it came back with a dash and a line that said, ‘I literally don’t give a (expletive) about this right now.’ That was all the note was, nothing constructive about it. We all had a really good laugh about it in the writing room.”

Notes are part of every collaborative process especially in the creation of a TV series or film. If you are realistic, and figure that nobody gets it perfect on the first pass, someone will have an opinion at every stage along the process, from sketch to storyboard and, possibly, all the way up to screen.

Perhaps the joke isn’t landing, a color is off or a character isn’t sprightly enough. Maybe an effect needs to be punched up or an established rule of a show’s world has been overlooked. A scene might not be cinematic enough or—oh the irony!—the rendering may be too artistic.

Many an artist has an anecdote equivalent of Paredes’ “WTF”—receiving a hostile or nonsensical note. Notes can be delivered via a face-to-face meeting in the writers room, in a series of emails, on a “noted-up” Google doc file, or via reams of post-its affixed to storyboards.

“In getting notes, there’s a lot of feeling, ‘Oh, man, did I not do this? Did I not do this good enough? Does this person not like my work?’”

The artists and supervisors interviewed for this story offered an assortment of advice for giving and receiving notes. To a person, they emphasized that creative notes delivered in the service of creating a quality finished product should never be taken as an evaluation of one’s artistic ability or character. In other words, notes aren’t personal. At the end of the day, as one interviewee said: “We’re all just making cartoons.”

Not that this knowledge makes getting notes any easier.

“Notes are always scary—both giving and receiving—because to give a note means that you’re giving somebody work to do, and to get a note means that you have work to do,” says Jim Mortensen, a supervising director at DreamWorks TV on Trolls: The Beat Goes On. “In getting notes, there’s a lot of feeling, ‘Oh, man, did I not do this? Did I not do this good enough? Does this person not like my work?’”

Artists who cling to their own vision instead of the vision of the show may chafe the most strongly at notes, and they may also be early casualties if they can’t adapt. Industry veterans say that there are ways for artists to either work around notes or come up with a compromise provided that there is available time and the note giver has an open mind. But given the time and budget constraints that come with studio productions, a note-challenger may invariably end up having to make the requested change.

“Sometimes a choice like a prop’s color or initial design doesn’t seem important in the context of your scene, but it might actually have technical or long-term story or design reasons for being the way it is that you as an individual storyboard artist may not know about,” says G. Melissa Graziano-Humphrey, a storyboard artist on Paradise PD. “You could have the coolest idea in the world, but if your supervisor tells you to change it, you change it.”

A good general rule to effective notes is to note with kindness, compassion and putting yourself in the artist’s shoes. This is key, supervisors say, both toward fixing the immediate problem and maintaining good rapport going forward. To this end, a collegial tone (“We need a different beat.”) is more easily digested than something that sounds personal (“You need to fix this.”) Effective supervisors often try to explain the reasons for their notes in as much detail as possible, and not to ask for a solution if they themselves can’t offer one. And, always invoke the endgame: We’re trying to make the best show possible.

Jason Mayer, Head of Effects at DreamWorks Animation, recommends artists do research on the people who will be regularly giving them notes to help learn their style and preferences.

“The better notes you give at the outline stage, the easier storyboarding, designing and editing will get.”

“If you know your director came out of storyboard or 2D and [they] are directing a 3D film, you want to frame you work in such a way that you can be talking about it a little more visually than technically,” says Mayer, who has recorded training videos that deal with critique. “Same thing if you have a very technical supervisor who was a computer science major. If you know what their background is, it also helps you interpret through the lens of what they want to see.”

Artists will invariably encounter a situation in which they receive contradictory notes or “direction” from a supervisor who doesn’t seem to know what he wants. Artists say they have taken notes of their own during a project’s discussion phase to make sure they are covered. Then what do you do if a comment seems to pull you in two different directions?

“It can be confusing and frustrating,” Graziano-Humphrey says. “It may be the result of one of two things: either you’re getting notes from multiple people who aren’t communicating with each other or someone somewhere down the line changed their mind. Either way, I’d suggest asking your direct superior about the issue before making any changes.”

The longer an artist works on a given series or with a particular supervisor, the more they will learn a supervisor’s tastes. At the beginning of her tenure on Regular Show, Color Designer Jessica Yost learned that she would be working with a relatively bland palate. Just make everything look like it came from Walmart was a general instruction. The more detailed notes came as her relationship with the show’s creator J.G. Quintel developed over the course of several seasons.

“He was picturing everything from his childhood,” recalls Yost. “So if I colored a truck red, he would say, ‘No, it’s supposed to be like my dad’s truck. It’s supposed to be white.’ I’d get lots of notes about things that I could not possibly know, and it became like a joke. He would say, ‘That’s the wrong color,’ I would say, ‘what’s the one at home?’”

By the time Regular Show was several seasons in, Yost knew Quintel’s tendencies well enough that she would start making changes almost before the words were out of his mouth. “We were lucky to have a show that ran that long and we were able to have that shorthand. Sometimes, I would already have a back-up color palette done knowing I’m going to try to get him to go for this, but we’ll have a backup ready to go just in case.”

Having a backup plan or taking extra time to try your own ideas can be a way for artists to flex their creative muscles while still following the directions of the note-giver. Mayer encourages creativity and autonomy among his staff, while also emphasizing the need to get the assigned work done first.

“If you have this really great idea, I don’t want to discourage you from doing it, but I want to make sure you do the work you were asked to do,” Mayer says. “Then go above and beyond what you think can be done, and we’ll show both. I know character animators do this all the time.”

Invariably, a person will receive a note or a set of notes they disagree with. Depending on one’s place in the production pecking order, a person can challenge a note, ignore it or—braver still—refuse to address it. The diplomatic artist chooses their battles, and rather than digging in one’s heels and getting defiant, a couple of supervisors recommend using the “Yes, and” tactic—agreeing to the unwanted change and adding an element to the artist’s preference or using the “and” to show an alternative (and perhaps better) solution.

“Saying no could be interpreted as I am not skilled enough to accomplish that task, and I am!” says Michael Losure, a lead effects artist whose credits include Kung Fu Panda 2. “I’ll chew on the requested change and say, ‘Yes, I can do that, and it will take this long.’ This [strategy] shows compliance without hiding the cost and lets them decide how badly they want/need the change.”

Not all notes take the form of calls for change. Early in his tenure with Big City Greens, storyboard artist Raj Brueggemann was told to make the staging of jokes as flat as possible. Simple backgrounds and nothing super-cinematic made for the best backdrop for comedy.

“That was a great sort of universal note I could then apply to all of my jokes, all of my shots and all of my staging techniques for the rest of every episode,” says Brueggemann.

However, on a different show, Brueggemann was once told to redo an entire character design. A character who was the show’s primary villain didn’t look intimidating enough, but the note was given late rather than being addressed in the story outline.

“I had to redo every scene to make that villain look more insect-like and creepier,” says Brueggemann. “Just a single line in the outline stating what the design should look like could have saved maybe 200 drawings and a day of work. The better notes you give at the outline stage, the easier storyboarding, designing and editing will get.”

And, every now and then, you’ll get an unforgettable note. In a fantasy sequence for the series All Hail King Julien, the titular lemur king needed to fire a laser out of his backside. “essentially a butt laser,” recalls Mortensen.

“When I originally drew it, I had the laser coming from between the butt cheeks,” Mortensen said, “and the note was, ‘The laser cannot come from between the butt cheeks because that implies that King Julien has an anus,’ which made me very happy that an executive had to sit there and type that out in an email.”

Lemur kings are anus-free. Duly noted.