Sam Spina on developing an animated short for Nickelodeon and how you can do the same

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For a cartoonist, having a show on Nickelodeon seems as far-fetched as becoming an astronaut, says Sam Spina. But for the former Denverite who's currently based in Atlanta, that dream just became a reality through the Nickelodeon Shorts Program. The Xeric award-winning Spina (whose diary comic Spinadoodles was recognized in the Best of Denver 2012 as Best Comic Strip) pitched a concept about three friends who dig a hole in their backyard to Nickelodeon, and it was accepted to be developed into an animated short. We caught up with Spina to talk about the nine-month process of working with Nickelodeon, his upcoming projects and how you, too, can submit to be a part of Nick's shorts program. .

See also: Cartoonist Sam Spina on winning a Xeric grant and his daily comic strip, Spinadoodles

Westword: How did you get involved with Nickelodeon?

Sam Spina: I met one of the ladies who works at Nickelodeon at APE, a comics show in San Francisco, two years ago. At the big indie shows, there's always a Nickelodeon person there scouting people. I didn't know that they do that all the time. They just go around and buy people's comics. I had one of those Square apps where you can take the card on your phone and she just handed me a Nickelodeon card and I was like, oh, whoa! That was just how we started talking about it. They kept in touch after just because she saw I was impressed that she worked at Nickelodeon, and soon after she mentioned the shorts program that they do. It's just an open pitching time; anybody could pitch them anything. It's really crazy how they're so open to it. I talked to her for a really long time and I pitched to her other things, and even the one that I pitched that they accepted, it was a lot of back and forth before they accepted it. They're super-helpful and willing to talk to anybody about that kind of stuff.

What was your pitch?

It's called "Hole." It's loosely based on my childhood. I grew up in Arizona, so it's about three best friends who dig a hole in the main character's back yard, sort of like an underground clubhouse. 

What was the process of working on the animation like?

Oh, man, it's so crazy. It's a two-minute short and it's so crazy how much work went into it. I seriously worked on it for nine months or something. It's constant work. When I pitched to them, I pitched all the characters and a concept of the show and the script for the short, and the first thing that they did once they accepted it was set me up with writers and they totally rewrote the whole script. That was a back-and-forth process, too. They came up with a bunch of ideas and then picked one and then they wrote up the whole thing and then I went back and changed a bunch of stuff and then they went back and changed a bunch of stuff. That was two months of writing it. And then the next step is storyboarding, so that was a whole 'nother back and forth where the storyboard artists kind of rewrite it as they storyboard it out for timing purposes. There was the dialogue portion, where the dialogue was changed. And each step is like, months, and so many people are involved. I can't even imagine what it's like working on an eleven-minute show, because two minutes just seems like it took forever.

Did you go to the Nick headquarters to work on it or was it all remotely done?

Yeah, they flew me out twice. For the first time I went out it was for the voice recording, which was so awesome. I have four characters in my short and three of them are kids, so I got kid voice actors. They were little eight-year-old kids and it was so crazy how professional they are in the recording studio. I had never been in a recording studio and that was such a crazy experience. And the second time they flew me out for the final mix for the whole thing, the final edit. It's kind of tacky to talk about how much money they have for all of that stuff. You don't really get paid all that much for selling them your idea. They own that idea now for three years and I can't do anything to it. So at first you think you hit the jackpot or something, but it's totally not the case. But the experience alone, I would pay them to just see the process. I learned so much from all of it. I'm a better writer now. I never really considered writing when I was making comics. I was actually working on a mini-comic when I found out about this last April, and I finally finished it a month ago and I'm almost embarrassed of it because I feel like I'm such a better writer now. That's probably how everybody feels whenever they finish anything. That comic is being put out by this small publisher, Bird Cage Bottom Books in New York, and it's called Tarn. That should be out in April. Keep reading for more on Sam Spina.

Nickelodeon Animated Shorts Program 2013: Bug Salad from Cartoon Brew on Vimeo.

What kind of animation is it? Was it digitally animated?

Oh, yeah. They sent it to an animation studio. The one that did mine is called Bardel in Canada and they used an animation program called Harmony. It's kind of like Flash or something. It's computer-animated, not hand-drawn. That was an option, though. But Nick is so open to ideas, it could have been 3D computer graphics or it could have been hand-drawn and sent over to Asia. Mine was kind of behind on the writing process that that would have taken too long, but other shorts that were in my batch were hand-animated and some were 3D. One of them was gonna be claymation stop motion, but for some reason it didn't work out. It's really cool seeing how different they all are. 

When will "Hole" air?

It's only two minutes, so it is going to air on TV probably just in-between shows. They won't have a time and date or anything, probably just when they have two minutes to kill in between a commercial break or something. But where they're doing the big push for it is on the Nickelodeon app, which is where it's going to be out in April. And I'm sure it'll be online and stuff.

What are you working on next?

The big takeaway from all of this is it really showed me how awesome comics are. As cool as Nickelodeon and everybody I worked with was, it is really weird, too, especially because my short was a personal story, for them to kind of change the characters so it works better as a TV show. It was weird at first. But just working with people in general on stuff like this was kind of weird 'cause I'm used to not having anybody tell me no and doing whatever I want. It made me appreciate comics a lot more. This next pitch I'm working on for Nickelodeon I kind of don't have high hopes for it because I don't think it's an easy sell like the one that they took was, so if they don't take it I'm just going to make a comic out of it. And I'm always working on my diary comic Spinadoodles

Before this happened, did you ever imagine that you'd have something on television?

There's no way. It seemed so unattainable, it never even crossed my mind, like saying that you want to be an astronaut or something. The whole time I was just so surprised at how nice everybody at Nickelodeon was. They're such a creator-driven studio. They really consider what I want for it, even though they will tell me if it's not working. 

How often does the program happen?

Every cartoon network has some kind of program like this. They don't immediately jump into the series, whether it's like a pilot or short or whatever. Nickelodeon started the shorts program back again last year, the year before the one I'm in, and I think that one was more experimenting, not really getting concepts for new shows. Some of the shorts from last year, they weren't thinking about it as a series, more just making a funny short. But in my year each one was a pilot episode, kind of setting everything up for longer series development. It's open right now, they extended it to March, so anybody can submit to Nickelodeon right now. You never think that you would have this opportunity, but it's so obtainable, it's crazy.  I'm actually working on a new one. I got the bug. I'm never gonna stop until I have a show. 

For more on Sam Spina and to buy his comics, visit his website Spinadoodles. Click here to submit to the 2014 Nickelodeon Animated Shorts Program -- the deadline is March 14.

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