We as fans have been fortunate during the past year to have the opportunity to hear from a variety of the creative forces responsible for bringing us My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. In many cases, it’s been as much of a pleasant surprise to the interviewees to be in such demand as it is for us fans to find them able and willing to speak with us and share their experiences.
While we have heard a lot of valuable information lately on the technical production side of the show’s creation, we haven’t had much insight into the process by which the show is written in the first place—where the characters and the stories that we love so much come from.
Shortly after the resolution of the Derpy Hooves fire drill last month, I was able to get in touch with Amy Keating Rogers, who, as a long-time collaborator of Lauren Faust, helped to flesh out the show in its earliest planning stages and went on to write many of the series’ most memorable and well-loved episodes. She graciously agreed to answer some questions that I know many fans, as well as myself, have been dying to ask.
How does one become an animation writer? Can you tell us a little about your path to the profession?
My path was an interesting one. I actually was a Theater Major at Occidental College where I focused on Acting. In my senior year, I need[ed] another course to finish my major and only had two options: Speech or Playwriting. I signed up for Playwriting. And, actually, I was going to drop it and take Speech, but my professor wouldn’t let me because he had a feeling that I would be good at writing plays. He was correct. I had a natural ear for dialogue.
After graduating, I continued on to get my MFA in Acting at CalArts. And while, once again, my focus was acting, I took classes there and also did a summer playwriting class at UCLA and the Padua Hills Workshop. My passion was acting, but writing plays was another creative outlet. Four of my plays were produced during the CalArts New Plays Festivals those three years.
After graduating from CalArts, I tried to become a working actor. I got an agent and went out on auditions. But I wasn’t getting any paying jobs. I was also a member of a theater company. To pay the bills, I did various jobs and eventually started working at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons as a Production Assistant on Johnny Bravo. From there, I moved to The Powerpuff Girls at Cartoon Network.
During that time, a friend from my theater company produced one of my plays in Hollywood. So everyone on the crew knew that I was also a writer. Powerpuff needed another writer and Craig McCracken gave me a chance. I started writing freelance and eventually became a full-time, in-house staff writer.
Please tell us about how you came to work on the show. How was it pitched to you? Did you have any experience with My Little Pony in the past, whether as a viewer/fan or someone in the industry who knew something about the property? What was the initial process of conceiving and writing the first few episodes with Lauren like?
Lauren, who I met and became friends with on Powerpuff, told me she was developing a new My Little Pony series and that, if it got a green light, she’d like me to work on it.
I, of course, knew about My Little Pony’s existence. However, I did not have any experience with MLP as a viewer or fan when I was a kid. My daughter did have a collection of Ponies when they were re-released in 2002. She even had a My Little Pony birthday party one year!
Lauren wrote an amazing show bible that described all the characters and had initial story ideas, as show bibles do. She called me in on the meetings for the 2-part pilot. We broke down the story, fleshing out Lauren’s original idea.
“Ticket Master” was actually originally an 11-minute that Lauren wrote. When the show became 22 minutes, we met and figured out how to flesh out more of the story. That’s why the writing credits go to both of us on that episode.
How was the initial writing team put together? I know many of you have worked with Lauren and/or Craig McCracken on prior projects, but not everyone; was it a formal selection process?
I actually don’t know much about the process for MLP since I wasn’t involved in it personally. But, in general, names are suggested to the studio/producers. Then the writers have to send in samples to be read.
How long a time does the scriptwriting for a season take? Is it just a few weeks out of the year, after which you move on to other projects?
26 episodes takes about 9 months to a year depending on the schedule. The writers are in rotation. The first draft is given 2–3 weeks (hopefully!). Then you get notes and do fixes on that first draft before it goes out for executive approval. They read it, give more notes, and fixes are done, etc.
I would love to know more about how a cartoon script gets written, particularly for this show. Animation writing traditionally has lots of different guises, from movie-style screenplays to “writing” directly in storyboard form. Where does MLP scriptwriting fall in that spectrum? How, in particular, do you handle things like visual storytelling and sight gags (one of the best things in the show)? How do you convey the intended inflection of a line? In short, how does all the stuff “between the lines” get communicated to the downstream directors and artists, especially if you’re working remotely?
On MLP, I would get a premise and a story meeting would be scheduled. I would meet with Lauren and Rob [Renzetti], the Story Editor, and we would break down the story. This means we would put cards up on a wall for Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. We would go through each act, breaking it down into beats, figure out the details, putting cards up on the wall. If we could think of “funny stuff,” we would put up those specifics as well.
Once the story is completed, I would go home and write an outline of the story putting all the details from the cards into a complete story. This would be sent out for approval from the executives. I would then get notes on things to keep in mind and changes to make on the story as I went into writing the first draft.
As far as visual storytelling and sight gags, this is part of the “funny stuff” we would try and come up with. But after the script is written, it is passed on to a storyboard artist—and they always come up with even more visual funny stuff, because they are the visual part of the show! It’s a very collaborative effort.
As for line readings, there is a Voice Director in the recording session getting correct performances from the Voice Over Actors directing them (as the title states). I think the V.O. Actors are gifted, bringing life and personality to every line.
Speaking of visual storytelling, one of the show’s great strengths is its ability to “show, not tell”—it doesn’t dwell on putting names and labels on things, like Twilight’s teleportation magic (which used to be referred to as “winking out” in the original 1980s MLP series); it just does them, without calling attention to what they’re called. The same goes for the skillfully abbreviated callback to the “Pinkie Pie Promise” in “The Last Roundup”. Also, I’ve noticed that as the show has progressed, universe elements like the scary nature of the Everfree Forest haven’t needed to be announced in dialogue; they’re just sort of taken for granted in the texture of the visual storytelling. It feels as though while the show is indeed being written for kids, it’s giving them a lot more credit for being able to retain information and figure things out from context than I’ve seen in shows like this in the past. It’s like it’s deliberately being unusually respectful of kids’ intelligence, even challenging. Would you say that’s true?
Yes, I think we’ve just always trusted that the children watching are smart! We never wrote down to them. Kids understand stuff!
On a more shallow level with respect to the same subject, do the writers have any terminology for things like “teleporting” and “levitating” that is used internally and never made explicit?
Not that I know of. We pretty much stick to plain old language!
How much revision does a script go through on its way to completion? Can you tell us about any memorable items that ended up on the cutting room floor?
It depends on the script; and I can only speak for myself, since I only see the other scripts when they are finished. I didn’t have to do huge revisions on any scripts. Portions might be cut due to time. The chase scene at the end of “The Last Roundup” was written longer. But that was a very good cut because it kept the story moving. In “Best Night Ever”, another silly “Pinkie Ditty” was cut because that script was really long! And the “Smile Song” originally had some “patter” in it that was cut (also a great decision because the song flows so nicely).
When writing a song, do you come up with the lyrics without any idea of what the music or poetic meter will be like, and let Daniel Ingram work his magic on it? Or do you collaborate with him from the outset?
I don’t know how the other writers do it, but I must have an idea of what the tune will be or I can’t write the lyrics. I actually agonize over this. But keep in mind, I’m not a musician, so I need all the help I can get. For “At the Gala” my inspiration was “Ever After” from Into the Woods. I actually recorded a scratch track, singing all the parts, layering voices in for the chorus. It was a little extreme! But since it took up a big part of Act 1, I really wanted to give it all the time and attention it was due—even though I knew it was going to change and be made way better!
For the “Smile Song” I had two inspirational songs: “Sunshine Day” from the Brady Bunch and “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves. My demo tune was quite different from Daniel’s. And when I listen to it now, I realize that it was pretty bad! But the upbeat, sunny feeling is the same, and that’s what I wanted to convey. Again, it’s a big number and I needed to go through it with Pinkie to get to the emotional place she is when she meets Cranky.
In both instances with these songs, Daniel took my little scratch tracks and made the songs amazingly awesome! I hear both those songs and am truly impressed by his talent.
Many shows have a tendency to introduce a lot of interesting universe elements right up front in the pilot episode, like the saucer separation in Star Trek: The Next Generation, that for one reason or another seldom (if ever) show up again. Going back to “The Ticket Master”, I notice that there are a few things along those lines—Twilight eating the flowers off the table at the restaurant, her uncontrollable teleportation—that similarly seem to fade out as the series goes on. Are those concepts that you and the other writers consciously look back on and try to pull back into the show from time to time? It seems like it would be a shame to let such charming details fall by the wayside.
As far as Twilight’s teleportation, I think she simply got better at it. When she first came to Ponyville, she was working on her magic (as well as her friendships). My thought is that we saw her do it without control, but that she got better as time went on.
As for the flowers, I agree that’s a lovely detail. It was thrown in nicely with Pinkie eating a flower at the beginning of “A Friend in Deed.”
Fans have noticed that there are subtle but visible differences between writers and their styles. For example, you seem to have an affinity for rhymes (Zecora seems to be your specialty!) and dialogue with a poetic symmetry and rhythm to it, as well as some of the most intricate and complex scripts in the whole series (“The Best Night Ever” is definitely a contender for the show’s best written episode); whereas M.A. Larson seems to get a lot of the “epic” stories, and also situations that allow for oblique pop culture references. Is that a conscious part of the story assignment process—are episodes sorted out to various writers based on their individual strengths and affinities that the team is conscious of? Do you have any insights into what each of the various writers likes to tackle in a story?
Writing Zecora’s rhymes was a lot of fun. It was a great way to make her different and more complicated for the ponies to understand.
As much as it was possible within the schedule, Lauren gave us stories where she knew we’d shine in writing. However, sometimes I was sent two or three premises and allowed to pick. When this happened, I went for the story I thought I’d have the most fun with and that I thought had a lot of “meat” to it.
And I actually don’t have any insight on the other writers’ preferences. Because we’re all freelance and weren’t in a studio together, we didn’t get to interact on a day-to-day basis.
I’d love to know what you think about the “bronies”. Obviously you and the rest of the team didn’t intend for the show to attract this kind of audience, but here we all are. From your unique vantage point, what do you think it is that the adult male fan community has latched on to with this show, that makes them overcome the stigma of watching a “girls’ cartoon” and engage with it with this kind of enthusiasm? What do the bronies get out of it?
I’m actually not too surprised by the adult fans because we had them on Powerpuff. So I’ve been here before. Now, the Internet wasn’t as strong back then. We didn’t have YouTube. So the fandom on PPG wasn’t to the extreme that I see on MLP.
Lauren’s whole goal with this show was to make a really strong, character-driven animated show. I think that is what fans respond to. The characters are engaging. The stories are compelling. It looks great. The music is fantastic. Just everything came together wonderfully. And somehow it found an audience outside the demographic it was made for. I think that’s because it’s a good show.
I think the Bronies are responding to all of the above. I’m very grateful that you all have responded so positively to the show.
How much emphasis is there on giving each main-cast character equal screentime and a balanced number of “focus” episodes? What about the Cutie Mark Crusaders—are they being consciously given more of a presence as main-cast members as the series goes on?
Lauren and Rob tried to make sure all the Ponies had their own story. We weren’t too worried about making sure every pony had equal screen time in every episode, because with 6 “mane” characters, it can get really complicated. The question would be, what other ponies help move this story forward naturally without feeling forced in?
But I really don’t know the answer about the CMC.
Season 1 had the Grand Galloping Gala story arc (which began and culminated in two episodes you wrote, bookending the season). Season 2 doesn’t appear to have the same kind of structure. Was that an intentional change? Can you tell us about the background for that and any “retooling” that was done for Season 2, like the shifting of focus from Twilight being the only one writing friendship reports to all the ponies taking part?
It was not an intentional change. The Grand Galloping Gala story line just came about naturally. Lauren had the original idea for “Ticket Master”. And then we had a big writers’ meeting, talking about possible story ideas for that season. In that meeting, one idea that was tossed around was turning the Grand Galloping Gala into a trilogy. It seemed a shame to talk about the Gala and not actually go to the Gala! So, the Rarity episode about her making the dresses was brought up and then the actual “event” episode to follow.
As for the other friends getting to write to Celestia, that was done to give the stories more freedom so it didn’t seem like Twilight was being shoehorned in at the end of certain episodes. For instance, in “A Friend in Deed,” it works well to have Pinkie sum things up since she’s the one that learned the lesson.
Do the writers take any inspiration from previous MLP series (or other shows entirely) when coming up with story ideas? I discovered that a My Little Pony Tales episode called “And the Winner Is…” bears a striking similarity plot-wise to “The Ticket Master”, and I was wondering if that was intentional or a coincidence.
I know I never referenced the previous MLP series. I went off of Lauren’s show bible since she created this “new world” of MLP. As for the similarities between those stories, I don’t actually know the answer.
Now that so much of the show has been completed and aired, and you’ve seen your stories brought visually to life and the characters speaking in full voice, are there ever any story ideas and writing concepts that you take from the art design and visual gags that the animators put in? Or do you write with a certain visual concept in your mind and then just let go of it afterwards?
I haven’t really written from visuals. The stories are all character driven, so that’s where we start.
When an episode says “Written by Amy Keating Rogers”, does that literally mean you are the only one to have worked on it, or do other members of the writing staff collaborate on scripts or bounce ideas off each other? I’m curious to know how the different writers keep their creative inventions consistent between scripts and avoid stepping on each other’s toes.
On MLP, when it says “Written by Amy Keating Rogers” about 90–95% of the writing is mine, depending on the script. There is always a percentage in there that can get altered for one reason or another, i.e. story clarity, or a note from Standards and Practices.
Rob Renzetti was the show’s Story Editor. The Story Editor guides all the scripts, making sure the story is clear, making sure the characters are on voice, and making sure all of the notes are addressed. Sometimes Rob would give me the notes so I could fix a script. But often as Editor, it’s easier to just fix it on your own due to time. You know what they want, and in the time it takes to communicate a note to a writer, you can just fix it and get it approved. And there are no hurt feelings in this. The writers know that it’s part of the process.
Then, it can also change at the recording session, because a line that looks great on paper may not read well. And then there can be changes due to adjustments in the storyboard! So a lot goes into an episode, beyond just the original writing.
As you’re no doubt aware, MLP:FiM has inspired a hugely active fan-fiction community. One of the things that many, many would-be authors struggle with is writing the characters convincingly and conveying dialogue in their natural voices. It seems as though this show’s characters are unusually hard for fan writers to capture; this may be because they’re so richly textured and written with a lot of hidden complexity that only gradually gets revealed over time. Do you think this is the case—are they that much more complicated than typical cartoon characters? Do you find the characters easier to write as the show goes on, or does it present unique challenges to you as we discover more about the characters and they grow and evolve?
Because of all the detail that Lauren put into these characters, I actually found them a delight to write for. Yes, they have layers and that made them interesting and fun.
It’s absolutely easier to write for characters as the show continues. I would keep up with the other writers’ scripts to make sure I knew how characters had changed and developed in stories that I wasn’t a part of.
Do you have any particular favorite characters to write? Any episodes that stand out as your favorites (or any that fought you)?
I struggled with Rarity in “Dog and Pony Show” because it was my first time writing for her and I wanted her to come off sympathetic and funny—not a complete pain in the butt. Twilight can be a challenge because she’s the level-headed one of the group, and you don’t want her to come off as a boring stick-in-the-mud. I love writing AJ’s Southern stuff. And Pinkie Pie is a blast because I can go to my goofy, silly side. The Pinkie stuff in “The Last Roundup” and “A Friend in Deed” was really fun to write.
Has there been a definitive outline of the history of Equestria put together by the writers—how the princesses, Discord, Star Swirl the Bearded, the events of Hearth’s Warming Eve, and the banishment of Luna (as well as other historical events we haven’t seen yet) all fit together?
I don’t believe so.
Throwing the topic wide open, do you have any messages you’d like to give the fan community?
Thanks for being so supportive!
The following questions are likely to touch on sensitive subjects that may not be appropriate to talk about in public, I fully realize; I just want to give you the opportunity to allay fans’ curiosity about a few things. It’s entirely at your discretion if you’d like to pass on any of these.
Are you yourself still on the show? If not, why not?
Not currently. Between Season 2 and 3, I got a job Story Editing the new Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot.
Who else has left the show, and why?
I can really only speak to my experience.
What was the team’s reaction to Lauren’s decision to leave the show?
I can only answer for myself and I was sad.
We know Season 3 has been confirmed for at least 13 episodes; can you say whether that’s as far as it goes or if it will be extended to a full season (or more)?
That is a network decision that I don’t know the answer to.
Are you prouder of the show’s early episodes or the later ones? Did anything turn out particularly awry from what you had hoped (aside, of course, from poor Derpy)?
I’m proud of them all! I’m proud that the early shows were so strong that they found this amazing fan base. I’m proud of the current episodes because I know the characters so much better I was able to play with them more.
How will you look back on your time on the show, as a part of your career and what the show’s place is in animation history?
Very fondly. Lauren created an amazing show that proved that “girl shows” don’t have to be dumbed down. That girls like action. That girls like complex stories and rich characters. I loved getting to write for these characters and hold them close to my heart. I loved getting to write lyrics and see those songs come to life. I watch every episode and really love this show.
Oh yes, and of course I can’t neglect the most important question of all:
Chimicherry or cherrychanga?
Hmmmmm, I think the combination: chimicherrychanga! ■