Name: Lauren “squirrel” Beukes
Current Occupation: Head Writer on URBO
So what exactly is it that you do? I work with two other crazy writers in Team Scripticon. We come up with the story for the series, planning out meticulously where it’s going, write the scripts, edit the scripts, and develop ideas for new series. We each write one script a week and then edit each other’s work to make the jokes funnier, tighten up the story and generally make it more awesome than it is already.
Why in the world would you choose a career in animation? We get to create worlds. It’s an unbelievable privilege. (FirstStep note: That's awesome!)
Did you study, how did you go about learning your trade? I have my MA in Creative Writing from UCT, but I spent 10 years as a freelance journalist, which is what really taught me to write and gave me the inside scoop on all kinds of things I normally wouldn’t have experienced, from learning how to make mqombothi to skydiving and shark diving. I’ve interviewed homeless sex workers, teenage vampires, AIDS activitists, base jumpers, electricity thieves and nuclear physicists. It’s been an amazing grounding, but really writing comes down to the ability to tell a story, it doesn’t matter what medium you’re writing in, whether it’s journalism or fiction or scriptwriting.
Give us a brief run down of your average working day?Arrive around 8am, make fruit salad and coffee, check out my favourite websites for um “inspiration”, including BoingBoing, Salon, Neatorama, Wired and New Scientist (no, seriously, we draw inspiration from current events, trends, social issues and we’ve had episodes dealing with everything from Facebook to dodgy cell phone videos and violent toys), chit-chat with the other writers, discuss ideas and then disappear into headphone-land to write, write, write. Twice a week, we’ll do a script read-through with the heads of the other departments, where we get to act out the scripts we’ve written mainly for their entertainment, but also to determine which jokes work, what new locations or characters need to be designed for that particular episode and what’s physically possible to animate. Because we’re on such a tight production schedule, we can’t go completely crazy and any new character really has to be essential to the story, because it will take one animator a full day to design it.
The aspect of the job I most enjoy is the collaboration. Seeing how other people interpret our words is amazing, whether it’s the storyboard artists or the actors or the animators. They add subtle nuances to make it their own. We all feed off each other’s ideas. It’s very stimulating.
What type of challenges do you face on an ongoing basis?
Reigning ourselves in. We tend to get a little crazy with our ideas (five million face spiders attack the city! A giant dassie chews through Table Mountain) and have to be brought back to reality. It’s been valuable for us, because if we introduce a new character, like our dodgy fake sangoma, for example or subversive children’s TV personality, Frothy the Bear, it means we have to re-use them and that adds depth and richness to our universe, to have a cast of recurring characters.
Do you recommend studying to get into your field?
University or writing courses are good for learning practical techniques and perhaps to get confidence in your abilities, but the only way to learn to write is by writing. Write and write and write until your eyeballs dry up and your fingers bleed and your keyboard gives out or your pen snaps in half. And then find another pen/keyboard and write some more.
Funniest moment of your career:
We have a young team of intensely creative and really quite lunatic people, so anything can happen and frequently does, from jousting wars on office chairs to sing-a-thons and other general mayhem. We have a lot of fun and yet somehow manage to work our butts off too. It’s a great combination. My favourite moment was probably the time I came in to find Jacques, one of our senior 3D animators and the very macho leadsinger of a heavy metal band, getting his hair straightened by Carmen, one of our animators, while head of storyboard, Gareth, pumped a surf rock ballad from his computer as an accompanying soundtrack.
Script read-throughs are always hilarious, often unintentionally, when the writers get too carried away in acting out the story. I think I fell off the table once.
Watching the actors perform our scripts is also brilliant. We have some incredible comedic talent in people like Nick Pauling, Cokey Falkow, Rob van Vuuren and Nicola Jackman and they’re very, very, very funny. It is humbling when they ad-lib lines that are funnier than the original script, but hey, we’re willing to share the glory. Sometimes.
Highlight of your career so far:
I’ve published articles in international magazines, written two books and jumped out of planes, but there’s no doubt that the highlight has been creating URBO. It’s an unbelievable privilege getting to work on this show with this bunch of wonderful talented people.
If you weren’t a ….you would be a…..?
If I weren’t a writer, I’d be a detective. Or a Russian cosmonaut. Or a ninja voodoo zombie pirate girl.
Biggest inspiration: The world. Daily. It surprises and delights me every day. Yeah, I freak out about global warming and female circumcision and torture and human rights violations and consumerism and pollution and toxoplasmosis, but I’m constantly amazed by people’s achievements and whimsies, from designing cancer-blasting nanobots to creating knitted graffiti (knitted covers for ordinary objects like street poles).
Your influences: In fiction, sharply inventive writers like David Mitchell, Jeff Noon, Philip K Dick and Margaret Atwood. In TV, smart or dark or witty shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Invader Zim, American Dad, Black Books, The IT Crowd, League of Gentlemen, Rome. In movies, I’d cite Hayao Miyazaki, Tim Burton, Jim Henson, Brad Bird, Christopher Nolan and the Coen Brothers as my heroes.
Favourite cartoon show: Invader Zim
Anything fresh and inventive in weird and intersting combinations. Like kiwi-tuna maki rolls. (FirstStep says: we still a bit concerned about the fruit salad and coffee mix!)
South Africa for the opportunities, for the energy and optimism and for coming through all that we did without becoming victims. It’s an intensely creative and positive place in spite of everything.
Favourite City: Cape Town where I live now, Johannesburg where I grew up for its incredible vitality and New York where I lived for two years before 9/11.
Your message to young South Africans: Talent alone isn’t going to cut it. You need to put in serious graft to get to the point where you’re living your ambitions. Don’t give up, don’t get sidetracked, work hard, make connections, look out for opportunities.