John Semper Jr, is mostly known for his work as both producer and head writer on animated show "Spider-Man – The Animated Series," a hit action-adventure animated series for Fox Television, which aired from 1994 till 1997 and has been re-aired ever since till today.
John's extensive and extremely varied writing and story-editing (head writer) credits include multiple episodes of classic and well-known animated cartoons and shows such as "Scooby-Doo," "Smurfs," "The Jetsons" (Hanna-Barbera Productions); "My Little Pony," (Hasbro) "The Moondreamers," (Marvel Productions); "Duck Tales" (Disney); "Alvin and the Chipmunks" (NBC Productions); and so many others. John also produced, story-edited and wrote the animated "Fraggle Rock" series for Jim Henson Productions and he co-created the original, live-action "Dog City," also for Jim Henson.
Emmy-nominated, Harvard University graduate John Semper Jr. has been developing, writing and producing television and film for over twenty-five years, with a special emphasis on children’s television and animation. Early in his career, John had the pleasure of directing animation icon Walter Lantz in a live-action and animated clip compilation short film that Mr. Semper wrote for Universal Studios/Walter Lantz Productions. The film, entitled "Walter, Woody and the World of Animation," played for one year in a special exhibit devoted to Mr. Lantz on the Universal Studios Tour. It was then released by Universal for sale on videocassette and a copy of the film was donated by Mr. Lantz to the Smithsonian Institution.
Thank you very much John Semper Jr. for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself Where are you from?
My pleasure. I'm originally from Boston Massachusetts, and I also lived in Brookline, Ma., during my high school years, and then Cambridge Ma., where I lived when I went to college.
What do you love to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies? Extra passions you do?
I enjoy making videos and doing computer animation. I also enjoy doing 3D photography. And I'm a devout "Star Trek" fan, having watched it from when it first premiered on NBC. I'm also a movie history buff and a big fan of silent films. But I have many other interests as well.
How do you summaries the growing up part and how does it involves animation?
I knew from the age of about seven that I wanted to work in animation someday. I was very influenced by the Disney movies of my youth. I also was a film collector when I was young, and I had many cartoons (and old movies) in super 8mm and 16mm film.
Growing up, did you use to write? What style did you like the most?
I never wrote much when I was younger. I never really intended to be a writer. I thought back then that I wanted to be a graphic artist or animator.
How cartoons and animated films changed the way you look at writing? Did people encourage you to start writing for the animation business?
When I arrived in LA in 1979, I began to look for ways to get into the animation business. I originally trained to be a storyboard artist. But I soon learned that, at that time, the only people who had any creative control over the making of cartoon were the writers. So, if I was going to be a creative force in animation, the only path was through writing.
Where did you go to learn the art of Writing? Which School / College / University was it?
As I mentioned, I never set out or trained to be a writer, per se. But I had a very good education, so writing was not hard for me to do. I graduated from The Roxbury Latin School, which is the oldest private high school in America, and I subsequently graduated from Harvard College.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a writer, especially for animation industry?
When I discovered that the writers were creatively in charge of animation back in those days, I began to look for ways to get into writing.
But my first real job in the animation industry was as a film editor and sound effects editor, first at Ruby-Spears Productions, and then at Hanna-Barbera.
John's desk at Hanna-Barbera. He was writing on a spiffy, new Atari 1200XL Computer. On the wall, is a cel sheet lineup of a classic Hanna-Barbera characters, autographed by voice artist genius Daws Butler.
Did you have a natural talent for writing? Or did you have to work really hard to progress?
I have a natural talent for storytelling. Working in the editorial department at H&B was a great training for understanding what needed to go into a cartoon script for television at that time. Also, watching cartoons and loving animation for my entire childhood was pretty good training, too.
What was your first work for the animation industry you ever worked on? How did you get it at first and how long did it take you to write it?
My partner, Cynthia Friedlob, who also worked at H&B, was being laid off, and, as part of her severance, she was offered a chance to become a writer. When she told me, she asked if I would do it with her, and I enthusiastically said yes.
As writing partners, we started submitting ideas to ABC for "Scooby Doo" and in our first season we sold three scripts, which was unheard of for beginners back in those days. So H&B offered us a staff writing position, which we accepted, and we never looked back. That was exactly thirty years ago last year.
What is a typical day looks like for you when you write an episode for a cartoon show?
The day I actually write is usually a crazy day, because I've probably procrastinated up until the very last moment, at which point I panic and have to get the script written before somebody gets really angry with me.
So a typical day is one of sheer panic and no sleep until it's done. I do not recommend this as a way to do things.
What part of your job do you like best and why? What makes it so awesome in your eyes?
I enjoy watching talented voice-over actors perform and record my scripts, sometimes with me directing them. I also enjoy seeing the finished cartoon on TV. Those are the two best parts of writing animation.
Also, when I'm a series producer/show-runner, as I have been on series like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Fraggle Rock", "Spider-Man: The Animated Series etc., I enjoy working with other writers in coming up with stories for the series.
What are some of your favorite projects you're proud to have been a part of?
"Fraggle Rock" (the first network series I ever ran), "Spider-Man: The Animated Series" and "Jay Jay: The Jet Plane" are probably my favorite series that I've worked on. Those series have more of "me" in them than anything else I've worked on.
I also like having done the English language scripts for the Miyazaki films "Kiki's Delivery Service" and "Laputa." I feel honored to have my name associated with a true genius like Hayao Miyazaki.
Picture of John with the original Fraggles in 1985 when he was working with Jim on the animated "Fraggle Rock" for NBC.
What's your wiring workflow looks like when beginning a new episode? What are your inspirations?
Stories come fairly easily to me. My writing workflow is to think about a story for days without writing anything – maybe writing only a few notes jotted down on scraps of paper. But when I have it all straight in my head, then I sit and write it all down.
I once did a project with and for George Lucas, and he told me that he likes to sit down over a weekend or so, put on some great music, and write a script from beginning to end without stopping. No corrections, no re-reading, nothing.
Then he goes away from it for a week or two and comes back to start editing and re-writing. I like that approach. It's very similar to what works for me.
In retrospect, do you look for imperfections in your writings?
No, Cynthia does. She's still my best editor. I usually run everything past her and she catches typos and awkward phrasing. But once I'm done writing something, I can't get it out of my hands fast enough.
I don't much like going over it again. What's the famous saying? "I hate writing, but I love having written." That pretty much sums me up.
I don't much enjoy the actual act of sitting down and writing. Even typing up this interview for you is a small torture for me (Ha-ha!).
As for looking for imperfections in my stories, I do the best job that I can at the time and then I leave it all behind. It is what it is, and I'm always proud of what I've done, no matter what.
I give it my best shot and then I want to quickly move on. People who want to endlessly rewrite everything drive me crazy. If you want to be picky, you can always find flaws in anything, so I choose not to be too picky.
What is your favorite 2D or 3D animated film(s) of all time and why?
My favorite 2D films would be Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" because it had a profound effect on me when I was a child, and "Yellow Submarine" because it had a huge effect on me as a young man.
I also love mostly everything by Hayao Miyazaki, especially "Laputa." (Castle in the Sky - 天空の城ラピュタ)
I don't have a favorite computer-animated animated film. I think they're all very technically amazing. And, this wasn't exactly what you were asking, but I do love 3D in the cinema.
Being a fan of 3D photography, 3D in the cinema is something I've waited for for a long time, so I'm in hog heaven now with all of these big-budget 3D films being made.
I can't understand people who hate 3D. I think it's amazing.
What are your thoughts about Japanese Animation? Are you a fan or prefer good old American Animation?
I was a fan of Japanese anime before it became cool and before it was called "anime".
I used to collect Japanese anime on imported Japanese laserdiscs, and bootleg VHS tapes. And I supervised and co-produced a dub job years ago (circa 1981) of the pilot for "Space Adventure Cobra" for Tokyo Movie Shinsha and their representative in the U.S. at the time, a guy named Sheldon Renan.
So I was exposed to some of the best Japanese animation many years before it became popular in this country. But I don't prefer one country's animation over another. I like all animation.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation industry?
The politics. It's very cutthroat. The first season I worked on "Spider-Man: The Animated Series", 80% of my time was spent dealing with the politics of the situation and only about 20% of my workday was devoted to actual writing. As Stan Lee would say, "‘Nuff said."
Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to write?
No. And I never get writer's block.
Tell us about the time you were nominated for the Emmy, what was it about and how did you feel when you receive it?
I have never received an Emmy award, but I have been nominated for one. And I was very proud, because it was for one of the best shows I've ever worked on - "Static Shock" for Warner Bros. Animation.
I've also been nominated for an Annie and an NAACP Image Award (both for "Spider-Man: TAS").
How does it feel when stories you've written for memorable animated cartoons are still running to these days?
Fantastic. That's the thing I'm most proud of. The stuff I've done seems to have real longevity, well beyond its projected shelf-life.
Tell us about the time you were chooses to produce and write for Marvel's Spider-Man, How did you received it and when was it and by whom?
Stan Lee called me and asked me personally to come in and save a production which had run into trouble (he and I had worked years earlier at a different company called Marvel Productions, where we had met).
I took the job, saved the show and we ended up with a number one hit. It became the number one kids' show in the USA.
"Spider-Man: The Animated Series" brought to you by, from left to right: John Cawley (Coordinating Producer), Dennis Venizelos (Art Director), John Semper (Producer/Head Writer), Stan Lee ("the Man"), Bob Richardson (Supervising Producer). This was taken at the very start of production circa 1994.
How much time did you work on Spider-Man? And why the show was finally cancelled?
As I recall, I worked on the show for close to three years. We weren't cancelled. The original contract between Marvel and the Fox Network was for 65 half hours and that's what we produced.
By the time we were finished, the company that made the show (Marvel Films Animation) didn't exist anymore due to Marvel's bankruptcy in the mid nineties. So it all came to an end for financial reasons. We were still on top in the ratings when it ended.
From all the Spider-Man cartoons, your work is the most brilliant, do you think that because back then you had more freedom then today?
Thank you for the compliment. I did have a lot of freedom, something the current Marvel show-runners probably don't have any more. Partially that's because when I was doing my show, Marvel itself was in bankruptcy, and the folks in the comic book side of the company were all being laid off, so there was nobody there to "supervise" me.
But I also had to fight for a lot of things on my side of the business, the TV side, so it was still a battle. However, I think I'm pretty good at what I do, and I have a good story sense, so to whatever extent "Spider-Man" seems to work, I'll take the credit (or the blame) for that.
I also assembled a great team of staff writers whom I supervised, and they have all gone on to become major creative forces in the industry, like Jim Krieg, Stan Berkowitz,Mark Hoffemeier and Ernie Altbacker, so I obviously did something right there, too, in bringing them all together. It was a tough job.
The incredible voice cast of "Spider-Man:TAS" From left to right: (Top Row) Patrick Labyorteaux ("Flash"), Jennifer Hale ("Felicia"), Bob Richardson (Producer), John Semper (Producer/Head writer), Chris Barnes ("Spider-Man"), Saratoga Ballantine ("Mary Jane"). (Bottom Row) Gregg Berger ("Mysterio"), Gary Imhoff ("Harry Osborne"). This picture was taken at an autograph signing in 1994 — with Patrick Labyorteaux, Jennifer Hale, Gregg Berger, Gary Imhoff, Christopher Daniel Barnes and Saratoga Ballantine.
Spider-Man had never properly been brought to life on screen prior to my show, so we did a lot of things for the first time. We were flying blind.
We didn't have multi-million dollar feature length films to reference, nor could we even rely on the Spider-Man animated shows before us, most of which weren't very true to the comic book. So I just dug into my memory of what excited me about the Spider-Man comic book when I was a teenager, and I tried to recreate that on the screen.
It seems to have worked. This year we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of my series, and it's still on the air usually somewhere, so I guess we did all right.
Some people have even told me that they think "Spider-Man: The Animated Series" inspired the whole "Ultimate Spider-Man" comic book line, so I take pride in that. And the director of the new Spider-Man films, Marc Webb, once publicly cited my series as an inspiration for him, so that's pretty cool.
A few months ago, I had a long conversation with Academy Award winning actor Chris Cooper, a friend of mine from way, way back, who is going to be playing Norman Osborne in the newest Spider-Man film.
I recommended some episodes of my series for him to watch to get familiar with the character. So that was a real treat.
How did you end up writing the English scripts for Hayao Miyazaki's (Ghibli) animated films? Who gave you that job?
In the late nineties, I was hired by Disney who had just acquired the rights to distribute his films. They hired me based on my track record and my familiarity with his work.
I actually showed up for the job interview with my collection of imported Miyazaki Japanese laserdiscs tucked under my arm.
That really impressed them - that I even knew who he was. Hardly anybody in this country (except hard-core fans) did at that time.
Did Hayao Miyazaki personally praise you for your work on the English Scripts?
No, not to my knowledge. I don't think he's very invested in whether or not Americans like his films. I mean, it's a nice thing, but from what I've read about him, he really only makes his films for Japanese audiences.
Have you ever thought about writing for a full-featured film for companies like Walt Disney, DreamWorks…etc. instead of TV?
I did write one live-action comedy for Warner Bros. back in the mid nineties, "A Class Act" which has gone on to become something of a cult comedy film. But as for writing for Disney or DreamWorks, all they'd have to do is call me. I'm available.
Who influenced you the most in your writings? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor growing into this business of writing?
The only formal writing training I ever received was from Danny Simon, Neil Simon's brother. He taught Neil how to write, and also people like Woody Allen and many others.
I took his writing course a few times in the mid nineties, but even by then I had already been working as a writer for several years. No, for me cinematic storytelling just comes naturally.
I will say, however, that my inspiration was always Stan Lee and his Marvel comics of the sixties and seventies, which I read religiously.
I am very much a "true believer." So I would have to say that, indirectly, Stan taught me a lot about writing.
John Semper with Stan "The Man" Lee, at a Spider-Man Signing booth.
Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2013-2014?
I had always wanted to write a horror-comedy, along the lines of "The Addams Family" or" The Munsters" or Roman Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers" which I loved when I was younger.
So I've just finished working on a personal project of mine called "CREEPORIA", which I call "the world's first horror-comedy-soap opera!" It's a five episode mini-series, and I co-produced it and wrote and directed each episode.
Each episode runs about an hour, and you (and your readers) can find it at www.creeporia.com. I think it's pretty funny stuff.
It's nothing at all like "Spider-Man," but it's closer to my early comedy writing.
I'm also developing a few new things, which are very exciting, but it's too early to talk about them right now.
If you could choose to work with any writer (past, present) from the animation business, who would it be and why?
I don't know. I've already worked with so many of my personal heroes, like George Lucas, Stan Lee, Friz Freleng, and many others.
I suppose I would have liked to have written (or directed) a Ray Harryhausen movie. I did meet Harryhausen years ago, and that was quite a thrill.
I'd like to write a "Star Trek" movie and fix the franchise, getting it back to being "real" Star Trek as opposed to the (albeit entertaining) cotton candy fluff that it has become.
If you could back in time, what would you do different in regarding to the world of animation? What would you change differently?
In my life, I wouldn't change a thing. I'm very content with what I've accomplished. I don't believe in looking back.
Which episode for any past/current animated shows you had most fun writing for?
"Day of the Chameleon" in "Spider-Man: TAS." That script was so much fun to write that it practically wrote itself, and I was nominated for an Annie award for that episode in particular.
And "I'm being Followed by the Moon" episode of Jay Jay the Jet Plane is another favorite of mine. I love that episode.
Which animated cartoon you'd write for in a heartbeat if you ever had the chance?
I'd like to do an animated "Star Trek." There also a few pulp adventure characters that I'd like to properly bring to life, like "The Shadow" and "Doc Savage." Characters like that.
What character you had most fun writing for? And did you put some of your own personalities in it?
Bonaparte the Skull in my new "Creeporia" series. He is my inner self. I also perform his voice.
Do you find yourself checking out other writers' works? Comparing them to your own?
No. What's the point?
Do you think writers are lazier today then they used to before? Do you think the quality of work is higher or lower nowadays?
I don't know that they're lazier. I do find myself disappointed when I watch some of the current super-hero animation.
There seem to be lots of explosions and silliness, but not a lot of depth of storytelling. But that might not be the writers' fault.
Perhaps they're being held back from doing really great stories by their corporate overlords. It's not for me to judge.
What makes a good animation writer good? What traits should he bring with him?
I don't see a difference between a good animation writer and a good writer, period.
Understand your characters, structure your stories intelligently and don't try to flim-flam your audience with clever tricks and nothing more.
If you stick to those basic writing rules, your end-product will be worth watching.
How much different is it when writing for a cartoon vs. writing for an interactive software?
Substantial difference. That's a whole other topic. The two media are very different from one another.
We read that you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, how did it start and when? And did it have any effect of your cartoon writings?
I've been a Sherlock Holmes fan since the mid-seventies when I wanted to read Nicholas Meyer's "Seven Percent Solution" which was a bestseller back in those days.
I started to read it and then realized that I'd appreciate it more if I was familiar with the Conan Doyle original stories. So I stopped and began reading the Doyle stories. I fell in love with them.
My girlfriend at the time, Cecelia Young, gave me the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes in one volume, and I polished off a story every night until I was finished. I've been a big fan ever since.
I don't know that Sherlock Holmes has had much effect on my cartoon writing per se, but I have tried to insert the Holmes character into cartoon stories at various times in my career.
Can we see some ‘hidden gems' referring to Sherlock Holmes in one of the cartoons you've written for in the past?
Yes, I wrote him into a Scooby Doo cartoon once, "Sherlock Doo." I also worked Holmes into a "Bionic Six" script I wrote years ago called "Baker Street Bionics." Stuff like that. I had toyed with the idea of having Spider-Man meet Sherlock Holmes once.
Had we continued the series, I might have been tempted to follow through with that idea. By the way, look how popular Sherlock Holmes is now. I like to think I was ahead of the curve on this.
Would you write for ‘Sherlock Hound' by Hayao Miyazaki if you had a chance? What do you think about his interpretation for Sherlock?
I loved "Sherlock Hound." which was directed by Hayao Miyazaki. I was actually involved in the English-language dub of that series.
I helped the producer find voice-over actors for it. Yes, I'd write on anything that Miyazaki was attached to. "Sherlock Hound" was a brilliant series.
Lastly, what tips could you give to any (new or experienced) writer who begins to write their next script? What should they or shouldn't they include in their works? How should they look at a character/scene? What to bring to the script from their own experience?
There are lots of great writing teachers out there with perfectly wonderful lessons on how to write, and I myself could write a book on the subject.
The short version is this: try to be truthful, try to understand and genuinely like your characters, and live enough of a full life to infuse some reality into your stories.
Other than that, don't let anybody tell you what you can or cannot do, and persevere, regardless of the odds.
I have had many people, some of them quite powerful, deliberately stand squarely in my way to deny me an opportunity to do things, and I managed to find a way to do those things anyway. So my advice to any writer is…don't give up!