Some of us have taken some pretty winding paths to our careers in animation, but few so winding (or so interesting) as Nickelodeon’s director of development, Peter Gal. Not only did Gal study anthropology and literature at Oxford and ultimately graduate from Tufts University with a B.A. in anthropology, he also earned a law degree from University of California, Hastings, served as a corporate attorney for Dewey Ballantine, as a Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney and as a Los Angeles Country Deputy Public Defender.
So how does a decidedly left-brained kind of guy end up in the right-brained world of animation? And, more important, does a former lawyer actually have an eye for good cartoons? I had my doubts before talking to Gal, but after reading the following Q&A I think you’ll feel as confident as I do that he has what it takes, and more so. Gal definitely understands that humor is key and that he’s landed himself one of the best jobs in the business. Serving as the key exec on a new development slate of animated shorts called the Nickelodeon Cartoon Inkubator definitely beats hanging out with lawyers all day.
Rita Street: Peter, I guess the first big question is why the jump from law to entertainment and specifically animation?
Peter Gal: I was a lawyer here in Los Angeles and loved some things about the job and didn’t like some others. I wanted to do something creative, took some time off and ended up taking a job as an assistant at Disney. I took a BIG pay cut and a big jump down, but in some ways a big jump up because I was doing something creative. I was Rich Ross’s assistant [then general manager for the Disney Channel, now worldwide president] so there was a really steep learning curve. Then I moved into a low-level creative exec job, handling both live action and animation, but I found myself gravitating toward animation. I liked working with all the artists and writers and layering all the pieces together. It was an exciting challenge. So, I moved to the Disney Television Animation group, into a job with creative affairs and starting doing animation development full-time. Then this great opportunity came up at Nick. The hardest thing was that initial first plunge into an entry-level job.
RS: But why a creative position after so much right-brain work?
PG: Back in college I had a comedy troupe, and I wrote, acted and directed. I really loved creating stuff, especially comedy, but I have to admit that I didn’t see my path going into animation. I just never thought about it. Then, when I happened on it, it was so fun and challenging that I never went back. Animation is so different from live action. There are so many pieces to the puzzle, but it’s a great puzzle to solve.
RS: Were there any key bits of knowledge that you gained working for Ross that you’ve taken to your new position?
PG: Rich was so high up in the food chain that a lot of what he was doing was not day-to-day creative work, more big Disney business. When he was out traveling, though, he gave me free license to get involved with whatever I wanted. So, I really put myself out there with the creative execs and started reading a lot of projects in development and writing up my comments. Everyone was very inclusive there. When I stepped off Rich’s desk into the creative position, the Channel was just starting to get into the business of animation for six-11 year-olds. Before that it was all live action except for preschool. So this was before Proud Family and Kim Possible and, as far as animation went, it was a clean slate. The challenge was trying to figure out what animation was going to work best simply as a series and what animation was going to work best for the Disney Channel. So we were working on the small and large scale. Even though I was at the low end of things, adding my voice a little bit, the evolution was fascinating to watch.
RS: When you moved over to Disney TV what did you work on?
PG: I was very involved with Dave the Barbarian. When I came onboard, that show had just gone into development, and I was the Disney Channel exec on the project. Joanne Roboz was the exec in charge, and we both worked closely with creator Doug Langdale. He’s great. He has such an amazingly strong creative voice. We gave some input but basically just tried to step back and let him create.
RS: It’s not always easy to protect a creative vision. How does that work at Nick?
PG: So far it’s been easy to protect their visions, and I think that’s because of our development point of view. We’re looking for great creators with great voices. The ideal development process for me is that we change or affect the creator’s vision as little as possible throughout the process. Ideally a pure creative experience will make it on the air, but that doesn’t always happen. We do give notes, but that needs to happen in a collaborative process. It’s always important for me to remember that I’m not an animation writer or an artist. To be either, you have to develop your talents over years of hard work. My job is to make sure that artists get to do what they do best.
RS: What’s the focus of your job right now?
PG: I’m running an animation development slate that follows sort of a traditional cycle’develop a bible, a script, some art and an animation test. Then we try to get the money from the higher-ups to make pilots. We basically have the budget for four fully animated, 11-minute pilots a year.
RS: And do you run those pilots on Nick?
PG: All of our pilots are tested with kids, and we get their feedback. We use that info to make the shows better and address what kids feel relates to their lives. But, we don’t make decisions on going to series solely on feedback. That’s one of the things that’s refreshing about Nick.
RS: What other development tracks do you have?
PG: We’ve started up this additional development path called Nickelodeon Cartoon Inkubator that’s basically 10 to 12, three and a half-minute shorts. It’s really a way to test new characters and new ideas for the networks and a way to work with more creators who might have a riskier vision or be more experimental. It’s meant to broaden our whole development slate, and we’re working with everything from really experienced animators to baby writers and creators. We’re also working in all formats so we’ll have shorts in CG, 2D, stop-motion, you name it.
RS: Are you in production on any of the shorts yet?
PG: We’ve just closed our first couple of deals and are starting creative on those. I imagine I’ll be taking pitches on a continual basis or until I’ve maxed out the budget for the year.
RS: So will these air as a series?
PG: I’m not sure. It will be interesting to see what happens in terms of the programming. I have a feeling, though, that if we come up with a really strong cartoon, that it might go to a fullblown pilot, and that’s the intention of the Inkubator. Unlike other shorts programs that are intended to be packaged as a series of their own, we’re using ours solely as an experimental development tool for future series.
RS: Are the artists going to be based at the Nick Studios in Burbank while their working on their shorts?
PG: Some people will work in Burbank; others will work from home. I’m taking pitches from all over the world so they don’t necessarily have to work here.
RS: What makes a good pitch?
PG: I’m looking for creators with a strong point of view who have great characters. Nick is a comedy channel so it’s got to be funny, but not just funny because of the gags. The comedy has to come from the characters, what they want and what drives them.
RS: Any don’ts in pitching you?
PG: I would say the biggest don’t is that I’m not looking for a marketing plan. Don’t bring me a business development launch for your toy. I’m not concerned with building a consumer products line. If something happens down the line, great, but I’m only concerned with characters. The other big don’t is don’t be willing to sell out your idea. Sometimes artists bring in work and maybe I make a few comments and suddenly they’re totally willing to change everything and that frightens me. If you’re willing to change anything about your pitch to make it work for us then you don’t have a strong vision. Of course, you can’t have it carved in stone either, but we want you to believe in what you’re pitching.
RS: How can our readers pitch you?
PG: Most pitches I take are set up through agents or managers, or they’ll be with people I’ve worked with or people referred to me by people I know. One of the challenges is that I’m the primary person taking pitches for animation, and there are just a huge number of people wanting to come in. Sometimes people submit materials and sign a submission release; maybe just submit a few pages to see if I think they might work. If your readers want to pitch me they should first send an introductory e-mail to my assistant Terry Mcconico. That address’ is email@example.com
RS: And a final question. What do you love most about animation?
PG: Laughing! We get to do comedy all day. There’s a lot of laughter involved with my work. I guess you can take animation seriously and you can take the business of animation seriously, but when you think about what we’re doing, it’s hard to take yourself too seriously.