Interview with Rick Suvalle

Image Provided by Rick Suvalle

Rick Suvalle is the Executive Producer and Creator of the new Dreamworks animated series Dew Drop Diaries, which will be debuting on Netflix in the Summer of 2023. He is originally from Wayland, Massachusetts, which is a suburb outside of Boston. Suvalle studied at Hofstra University in New York and earned a Creative Writing and Film degree. He originally moved to Los Angeles to write and direct film but later discovered his passion for working in television. The immediate fast-paced nature of television captured Suvalle’s heart, and he has been writing for television shows ever since. 

Q. Why do you choose to focus on creating for a younger audience compared to a more mature one?

I’ve always been a fan of animation, and I had done some animation writing early in my career for MTV’s Spider-Man and Cartoon Network’s Astro Boy, but it wasn’t until I started writing for Amazon’s preschool series, The Stinky and Dirty Show that I really understood how preschool shows work. Unlike shows geared for a 6 to 11-year-old audience, like SpongeBob Squarepants and Steven Universe, younger kids see and comprehend things differently. They don’t understand stakes or ticking clocks, typical things you find in storytelling. But little kids do understand that the ice cream will melt before it gets to the park. So you have to find different ways of creating stakes. And I really enjoy finding these new ways into stories. But I also enjoy writing for older audiences as well. 

Q. What would you do to make your current projects appeal to preschoolers?

Coming up with great and relatable stories is the most important thing. But beyond that, you have to stay in the moment. Younger kids live in the moment, so you can’t really comment on off-screen events like you would in a sitcom where a character comes in and says, “I had a terrible day at work. Let me tell you all about it!” With younger kids, you want to talk about something that is happening right now. And because of short attention spans, you have to restate the goal of the episode multiple times in the script so the viewer doesn’t forget. For example, if you are trying to bring that ice cream to the park on time, every now and then, you want a character to say something like, “We have to get to the park before the ice cream melts!”

Q. What are some of the most important qualities for an executive producer of animation to have?

You need to realize that television is a team sport. Being a showrunner is like being a team captain. You may not know how to be an offensive tackle, but you need to know how that player functions in the game. I don’t know how to model an animated character, and I don’t know how to use the software that does it, but I know enough about how modeling works so that I can give good notes and suggestions to the modeler. Another important quality is appreciating the value of everyone on the show, whether it’s a new production assistant or another producer or one of your executives. You need to realize that everyone on the team is trying to make the best show possible.

Q. What are the toughest aspects of making an animated series?

One of the tougher aspects of making an animated series is finding the balance between budget and creativity. Often people think, “Hey, if I can write it, they can make it.” That’s only true if you have unlimited time and money. The reality is animation has limitations, just like live-action.  A writer can’t just say, “I need an army of ten thousand soldiers.” It would be too costly. So instead, we have to get creative and frame a shot in a way that it will look like a lot of soldiers while only using a few. Another challenge showrunners face is that sometimes a network or studio has different wants and needs than you have, so you have to figure out how to make everyone happy, including yourself. Also, in kid’s television, there are often 52 episodes in a season, so coming up with 52 story ideas can be tough! So I always have new writers pitch me ideas. Even if they aren’t great, I can usually see a diamond in the rough and work with them to create something great together.  

Q. As you recently have heard, the Writers Guild members have been on strike and have reached the news nationwide. As a creator, producer, and writer for major animation companies, what are your thoughts on this?

I am a member of both the Writers Guild and the Animation Guild, and while the Animation Guild is not on strike, I’m out there on the picket line as a live-action writer. But it’s been so heartening to see so many of my fellow animation writers joining us on the picket line, helping us fight for some necessary changes to how the business works, especially when it comes to A.I. and how writers are staffed on short-order streaming shows. 

Q. How well do you handle stress and pressure?

I think I handle stress and pressure pretty well. It helps to be organized and have a schedule. During the writing phase, I might have five different writers turning in various stages of scripts in the same week, but instead of having them come in all at once and overwhelm me, I’ll have a writer turn in a first draft on a Monday, and have a second writer turn in an outline on a Tuesday and a third writer turn in their final draft on a Wednesday, etc. At the same time, I’m also giving music notes, animation notes, and lighting notes, so I’ve always got a lot on my plate, and creating a schedule helps tremendously. It also helps that I’m a bit Type A. 

Q. How do you handle animators who turn in their assignments late? 

Once you work for a big company, it’s rare that people are chronically late. You’re going to have difficult shots here and there and difficult scenes that may require a little more time. Fortunately, there is a little buffer built into the schedule. But if things are a little too late or take a little too much time, you have to steal time from one stage of production for another. So, if they’re late on animation and the next phase is lighting, we may have fewer days for lighting. If being late was chronic, you would have to talk to that person or that department and see what’s going on and figure out what we can do to accommodate them and possibly bring in some additional help. 

Q. What are your favorite animation shows? 

I love adult and prime-time animation: The Venture Brothers, Rick & Morty, Bob’s Burgers, and Family Guy. I really like those–it’s very different from what I personally write. But at the end of the day, writing is writing. I also love South Park. It’s got a very simple style, but the creators made that part of the charm and the humor. 

Q. What are some funny moments that happened in the studio?

In terms of funny moments, occasionally, I’ll get in an animatic (rough animation) and I will catch an artist trying to sneak in something funny. In my current show, one of my characters, who is a fairy, was bending down and picking up something heavy, and the storyboard artist wrote on the character’s shirt, “I love sumo.” It was only in one frame, but I caught it and shared it around the office, and we all had a good laugh.