Master Of ‘The Masters Of The Universe’

An interview with animation producer Dean Stefan

Mish’al Samman: So what have you been working on the last couple of years?

Dean Stefan: I guess the most recent thing I did was Jackie Chan Adventures. I was the Story Editor and Producer on that last year, which was for Sony. Before that, I was the head writer on CatDog at Nickelodeon.

I’m probably a little unusual from animation writers because I can move so easily from Comedy to Action Adventure. A lot of writers tend to get pigeonholed, so I story-edited Dragon Tales, which was a very young show, and Rainbow Fish, which was on HBO. Dragon Tales was on PBS.

On Rainbow Fish I was able to actually co-write the theme song and we actually wrote about 4 or 5 songs for the show and ended up doing a CD for Sony, filling it out with another 5%, which brings me to my original love, and what I was doing before writing, which was music. I was a songwriter and had a band and that kind of stuff.

MS: Oh, Wow

DS: You know, that was my main thing.

MS: Any songs for He-Man coming up soon?

DS: (laughs) I haven’t approached that topic yet.

MS: Not much you can say with a He-Man song…

DS: Right, things would have to be pretty graphic, and you know they have a pretty good composer, I think he did Xena and some of those shows… very impressive. Obviously, no songs for either show… (laughs) But in CatDog I was able to get a couple of songs into it. Music and songwriting is my first love.

Any way I can learn from then I would do it. It was actually through my songwriter friend who became friends with a producer on Divorce Court back in the, gosh, late 80s, which was a scripted show. She liked my songwriting and thought I could do TV writing, and I was sort of looking around for something that could actually pay the bills, and I got into my first writing gig on Divorce Court, and then to animation.

I took classes at UCLA, and met a guy who was a story editor at Hanna-Barbera, who was also looking to get into screenwriting. After I didn’t go back to Divorce Court, I asked if I could take a shot at animation, not expecting I would do it for about 6 months. I guess I was good at it or I liked it so much…cut to about 12 or 13 years later and here I am.

MS: Do you remember your first animation?

DS: I freelanced two shows, Fantastic Max and Superted. Ironically, they were English shows that were brought over to the States to do an American version by this guy Mike Young, an English guy who now runs Mike Young Studios. He is handling He-Man.

MS: Talk about coincidence and that whole circle of life…

DS: Yeah, and I never met Mike back then. This was years ago, and we finally met so it’s kind of cool. He was very pleased to see I had Fantastic Max on my resume.

MS: Must have said, wait a minute that looks familiar…

DS: Exactly. So I did a couple of those, and a Smurfs. It was the last season of the show — a few Smurfs I guess…

MS: There is an international phenomenon right there.

DS: Yeah, really, unbelievable. And I was thrilled, because Smurfs you know, they are like an icon, I mean obviously it was a silly show but it was iconic silly.

MS: People may beg to differ… (laughs)

DS: I think Smurfs would be huge if they brought it back, or did a new version. Great design, and kids love it.

After that I did half dozen scripts, then got a staff job at Disney and stayed there for about five years working on all the Disney afternoon shows: Darkwing Duck, Rescue Rangers, Goof Troop, Bonkers, a whole bunch of them.

They really owned the afternoon slots, and every year they would rotate a new 65 shows, with the 3 O’clock moving up to 3:30 and the oldest show at 4:30 or so getting bumped out of the box. They had a very good factory going and good rotation over the years until you know, this was before Nickelodeon was starting, and all those other ones.

After that in ’94 I left Disney and since then became a freelance story editor/writer except about a year or so at Nickelodeon where I did CatDog, but otherwise I work out of my home office so I don’t go anywhere.

MS: Your home office…

DS: …is in my garage (laughs) in the L.A. area. It’s quite near Mike Young Studios, and it’s actually the first time I’ve lived near a studio, because not many of them are out this way. Most studios are separated over great distances, and I like being in the loop on some things, but the writing is mainly done very separately from the story boarding and design and stuff.

MS: How did you get involved in the He-Man project?

DS: They actually brought me in to write the pilot, which was the end of last year. From what I understood it was just going to be a pilot, and they were going to show it somewhere, and if it did well, they would make it a series. But in the interim while the pilot was getting done, and they wanted to do a third episode. I found out it was going to be on Cartoon Network and it was a “Go,” which I didn’t know going into it. I wrote a 2 part episode that turned into a 3 parter and it got longer and longer.

MS: Unfortunately I haven’t seen the whole pilot.

DS: Well, it was really amazing how the artists did a good job in filling a lot of the time, because like I said I wrote it to be a two part 1 hour Pilot, and they wanted it to be a 3 parter, so trying not to add too much into the story they did a great job playing out the action.

Whereas Jackie Chan, maybe because it’s the nature of the show, it relies on his kind of action. I can tell how long it is written in the page how long the action will be. Very flat and sticky and choreographed. If Jackie is pulling a gag, like he pulls out this ladder and starts spinning it around, you could time it in your mind. But in He-Man it is a very stylized type of action and it’s been a real learning curve for me to figure it out with the relative page count to how much things will time out.

MS: What I noticed was a lot of Kung Fu style action, like Anime style fighting, etc. Who decided that method you or the art people?

DS: It was a collaboration. Once the decision was made to use that style I certainly do what I can on the page to support that. You can never anticipate how its going to be drawn as a writer; you just know who is going to fight who. He-Man leaps on a boulder and gives Merman a spinning kick, hits him in the chest and falls back…

The story point is the same, and the artist does his thing to make it look good. What people don’t realize in animation writing is how much you do on a page as a writer, how much you actually spell out. It’s the very things you’re not supposed to do in screenwriting, because you’re basically directing on the page.

I give them things to draw on the page, and they can make it better. If I have to give it to someone who doesn’t have an idea, then it should spell it out well enough that they have something to draw.

MS: Are you pulling anything out of the old stories that I feel I should know from the past? I mean how are you going about the new Masters of the Universe?

DS: I think we have a cast of characters, an embarrassment of riches from the old series. We are not making up or inventing any new heroes or villains. They are drawn from the old series; they have been toys, so they look familiar.

Having said that, I guess we are re-imagining the characters in that we don’t necessarily give them the same personalities that they had in the original series or the same origins. The old series created this great mythology and great cast of characters. Like any series, they went along and had to backtrack, because the groundwork hadn’t been laid for certain things.

We now have the luxury of looking back and having this great hero and villain then trying to imagine it so it builds and it’s organic; we do reference a lot of things from the old series but we don’t use them in the same way.

Like when they (Skeletor and his minions in Episode 1) broke down the Mystic Wall using the Clorodite Crystal, which was in the old series but not in that way. A lot of it is a link to the old fans, and we incorporate some of these old words or references if you pay attention to it, to serve the purpose of the new series. Trying to recycle things that are interesting and useful, and not be hindered by committing to old stuff in any specific way.

MS: If it isn’t broken don’t fix it…

DS: I don’t think we are going to necessarily radically change the mythology. I think really the reason the series is being done today is largely because there were so many fans that have kept it alive for 20 years, like Transformers… I think they have done so many versions (of Transformers) over the years…

MS: Talk about yet another big ’80s comeback…

DS: Oh yeah. I guess a He-Man series tried to make a comeback in the ’90s, but the new adventures weren’t very well received. And the feature in the late ’80s wasn’t well received. I think we are just going back to the origin.

MS: How about a She-Ra comeback?

DS: Oh yeah, Prince Adam’s twin sister or He-Man’s, that in the original series was born and then kidnapped, and certain memories of her were erased because it was too painful to remember, and for the parents to know they had a daughter. I can’t really comment on that because nothing is being ruled out at this point.

MS: All options are open?

DS: At this point, I would say there is very little chance she will make an appearance in the first 26 episodes, but a lot of old characters will make an appearance, or be referenced to be bigger players later on.

MS: Understandable keeping all this hush-hush, but is Cringer ever going to talk?

DS: Hee hee…Cringer…I’d love to …hee hee, but no. I don’t foresee him talking. We want to keep him alive by keeping him an ally to Adam, and able to communicate through his actions instead of talking. Another thing that won’t happen is Queen Marlena, in the original series she is from Earth. That is not going to happen.

MS: So it’s just Eternia.

DS: Well, Eternia and everything. That means other dimensions, and things like that. Truthfully, and this is just me, his mother being from Earth kind of took me out of the fantasy.

MS: Gives it too much of a reality?

DS: In the universe we are talking about, I don’t think Earth is on the radar. Kind of like Star Wars, and someone comes in from Earth.

We are setting up this fantasy, and bringing Earth to it takes you out of that fantasy world. It’s not very helpful.

He-Man to me is very mythic, not as old as maybe Star Wars, or King Arthur, but it deals with the typical archetypes of the reluctant hero. And these are great stories for kids that we can do in a fantasy setting without bringing reality into it. Like maybe doing a story on addiction, we could do it in this fantasy world metaphorically instead of showing a kid in a third grade class dealing with it.

MS: So you think this is your dream job, or do you have something else in mind?

DS: Dream Job? I wouldn’t mind playing rhythm guitar for The Rolling Stones (laughs)

No, I have to say I worked on a lot of stuff, and this is as close as it gets to a dream job as I can imagine. The scope of the storytelling, and we’re doing it in a big story arc, and how we are doing this in episode 20, and let’s bring it back in episode 40.

Like the Corodite Crystal is a good example. Most people would do that and move onto the next story, but we try to do something like “Hey, we got this corodite crystal, and let’s suppose it still exists. Why don’t we use it?” So we try not to leave anything hanging.

Even if every story is set alone there are some things that are referenced in previous or forthcoming episodes. Take Skeletor. He starts out wanting the power of the elders, and he doesn’t yet know that it exists in Greyskull, one of the many things he will learn throughout the story as we go along.

MS: I didn’t quite get that in the pilot.

DS: It doesn’t happen in the pilot. He just gets out from behind the mystic wall after 20 years, and looks for the elders, and finds out something is in Greyskull but doesn’t know what it is.

MS: Doesn’t he just want the other half of the sword?

DS: Yup, he gets very focused. He-Man and Skeletor are very focused on the two sides of good and evil, and how things change as things get told.

I’m like a kid in a candy store, definitely a dream job. I try to do the best I can to tell a good story. Because the canvas is so large, you have so much to choose from to tell, and the huge fans that may find the references to the old stuff that would make this series fun, and hope not to let them down.

MS: So you’ve seen all the old episodes?

DS: No. I admit that, but the ones I didn’t see I read the synopsis. It’s like music. You learn a couple of things and then you try to create something from the basic idea. You don’t really want to get tied to it at the same time. There is a good amount of freedom in doing this project, and I love it.

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