With the release of Dew Drop Diaries, Rick was interviewed by several publications about the show, its origins and the production itself. He was also interviewed on the Juicebox Podcast (a Type 1 Diabetes podcast) about raising two T1D daughters, and how they became the inspiration for the show. Click on the name of each publication below to be taken to the original posting/interview:
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?Read More
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.
Originally Posted on 60 Seconds Online Magazine
1. To start off, did you have any prior knowledge of Thomas the Tank Engine before joining the reboot?
Absolutely! I was about 12 years old when the original series premiered. At the time I was a fan of stop motion animation as well as Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation, so seeing a show with radio-controlled trains was really cool to me, especially with Ringo Starr narrating, as I was, and still am, a huge Beatles fan. I discovered the CG version of the show when I had my own kids and we watched a lot of those episodes together. And my kids collected the wooden railway toys. We also read the Railway Series books to our kids. So, I definitely had a working knowledge of the franchise before I began.Read More
2. Did you feel any pressure while creating the reboot due to the past lore?
Definitely. It’s a beloved franchise and I wanted to make sure I was respectful of the source material. But my job was also to create something new and exciting for a younger audience. So, I had to work hard to find that balance. And hopefully some of the following answers will shed a little light on that process.
3. All Engines Go is a separate series, set in a different canon from the original show. Were there plans for it to be a continuation, as it was marketed as Series 25 before it had a title?
There has been a lot of confusion in this area. In a nutshell, All Engines Go occupied the slot that would’ve been used for a potential Season 25 of the original series. And to make matters even more confusing, until we had a name for the new series, we just called the show “Season 25.” And because it was sold to Cartoon Network before we had the name, sometimes they mistakenly refer to the show as “Season 25.” But All Engines Go was always meant to be its own thing. As for any plans for the original show to be continued, not that I’m aware of. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, as these really are separate shows.
4. How limited were you and the crew when it came to which characters or locations you could or couldn’t include?
It wasn’t a matter of who we could or couldn’t use, it was more about the budget. Meaning that our budget only allowed for a certain number of characters and locations to be designed/created, which I know can be frustrating for older fans, wanting to see some of their favorite characters and locations. The original “Thomas & Friends” spent 24 seasons building out its world, so if All Engines Go continues, I’m sure more favorites will make their way into the series. But I definitely tried to sneak in other locations. I would try to put in places like Callan Castle and Devil’s Back into the scripts, but once those episodes would go into production, we’d realize it was cheaper to use a location that we had already created, so I would have to tweak those scripts. But there are some fun new locations coming up. And a few old favorites that will pop up from time-to-time. For example, there is an episode coming up that will feature the beaches of Norramby.
5. Were there any characters you wanted to include but weren’t allowed to?
All Engines Go really focuses on our seven main “kid” engines, which is a large ensemble for a kids show, but I really wanted to include fan favorites like James and Emily, so that’s why you see them, and some other favorites in the background with one or two speaking lines. But now that they are created, hopefully as the show progresses, we’ll see them more and more and perhaps we’ll have stories that revolve around them, as well.
6. Bulstrode is one of the characters who wasn’t present in the Thomas series at the time of its ending, and hadn’t been for several years. It came as a shock to most older fans to see such a classic character return, albeit in 2D form. Did you just need a “big boat character” or was there a request for him to come back? Bulstrode has been relevant in the toys over the years, at least.
To be honest, I needed a barge and Mattel told me that Bulstrode was available to be used. I wasn’t too familiar with him, so I had to do some research into his character and his capacities. When I discovered he was a grumpy and disagreeable character, I decided to soften his personality for AEG, as we already had Cranky to fill the role of being a bit on the “cranky” side of things.
7. With the effects of the pandemic forcing people to work from home, as a producer, did you find it easier or difficult to make compared to some of your other works?
We started production before the pandemic, but with Nelvana being in Toronto and Mattel being in Los Angeles, we were already set up to work remotely, so there wasn’t a big change for the show itself. I did miss breaking stories with writers in person, but we quickly adapted to working together via Zoom. But all of our recording sessions and art discussions, etc. were already happening via Zoom, and other video conferencing programs.
8. Is there anything you would like to say to the older fans of Thomas who have been watching for years? I understand a lot of them aren’t happy seeing a brand new show, especially targeted at a much younger audience. I would like to say, I feel a big reason as to why there is so much negativity around the reboot is because the original show was sort of dropped off without a proper ending, and immediately replaced. Perhaps if the shows were running side-by-side, there would be less of an issue.
First off, I totally get why older fans have an issue with All Engines Go – it’s geared towards a younger audience, it’s a different animation style, and the main characters are now kids. But I think you’re right, part of the issue is that the original series seemed to just end and then suddenly there is this brand new show occupying its place. But the good news is, if they didn’t say the original series was cancelled then there’s always the possibility it can continue. Regardless, as a fan of Thomas myself, one of my goals in creating All Engines Go was to bring in new, younger fans to the franchise, so that they can ultimately discover all of Thomas – the model train episodes, the CG episodes and the Railway Series Books.
9. Was there any intention to make James a background character like Edward and Henry despite him being one of the most marketable and well- known main characters of the previous series? The reboot seems to focus on the smaller engines like Thomas, Percy and Diesel so I can see why James was not intended to be featured frequently.
You’re exactly right. The focus of AEG is on the smaller “kid” engines and we were only allowed to use a limited number of characters. The intention wasn’t to make James a background character, the intention was to find a way to somehow get him and other fan favorite engines into the show, and for now that was making them background characters. But as I said above, the great news is that now that some of them are designed, their roles could be expanded in future episodes.
10. From a writer’s perspective, what process went into creating brand new characters such as Kana or Sandy?
When I was offered the job to create AEG one of the exciting things for me, was the ability to create some new characters (along with getting to play with beloved existing ones.) One of the things we wanted to do with the series was to modernize certain aspects of Sodor, which is why we changed Whiff’s Waste Dump to Whiff’s Recycle Plant and why we decided to add an electric engine to our core team. For Kana, I was inspired by the Japanese high-speed rail engines, which helped inform Kana’s personality as someone who loves to go fast and often “leaps before she looks.” As for Sandy (and our new version of Carly), I wanted to create “hands” for our characters. I had previously worked as the Head Writer on another talking vehicle show called “The Stinky & Dirty Show,” where the trucks used their wheels as hands. But trains are restricted by tracks and they don’t have hands, so by making Carly a crane engine, she could use her crane to pick up things for Thomas and the other engines. And by making Sandy a little rail speeder, fix-it engine, she could offer another pair of “hands” for our characters.
I know what your readers are thinking, “But the engines do use their wheels as hands!” To that, I say, you should’ve seen the early animatics where they were all gesturing and pointing with their wheels, and even picking things up. I had to fight really hard to eliminate most of that kind of behavior. We compromised with allowing the engines to use their wheels to switch points. There’s still some small gesturing throughout the series and occasionally you might see the engines use their wheels to hold something when there were no other options, but for the most part, they don’t use their wheels as hands. Now back to Sandy. For her personality, in preschool television we often have little sister or little brother characters who aspire to be like the bigger kids. It’s a way “in” for our youngest viewers to feel like, “Hey, I could hang out with Thomas too!” And by being the father to two daughters, I wanted to show that girls can do anything boys can, and that’s why she’s all about adventure and getting her “hands” dirty, so to speak. But she quickly became a favorite. And just to give you a bit of trivia, Glee Dango, who plays Sandy in the U.S. voice cast, originally auditioned for Kana, but when we heard her voice, we knew she was the perfect Sandy.
11. You recently revealed Kana’s original name to be Akira. By any chance, is this a reference to the manga/movie of the same name
Yes, Akira was definitely a reference to the movie. But while we were developing the show, we considered making the character be Kenji’s younger sister and wanted them both to have names that start with the letter “K.” But ultimately, we felt it might seem strange, to our younger viewers, if her brother lived in another country and we wanted Kana to be from Sodor, like the other engines. So we abandoned the idea that Kana and Kenji were related, but the name Kana stuck.
12. There are plenty of songs already featured in the episodes of All Engines Go that have been seen so far. What is the process of writing a song, especially when it comes to Thomas & Friends?
The original plan was to air episodes in pairs (two eleven-minute episodes to make up a half hour of television) and that the first episodes of the pairs, would always have an original song. But Cartoon Network decided to break them up for whatever reason. So out of the first 52 episodes you’ll see 26 new songs. As for the song writing process, the writers of the episodes would write the lyrics to the songs in their episodes. We would then hire some amazing composers to bring those songs to life. A bit of trivia: When I wrote the pilot episode (“A Thomas Promise”) we hadn’t decided if we were going to have original songs in the series yet, so when we finally made that decision, there wasn’t a single good spot for a song in the script, and that’s why you have a song (“I’m Gonna Chug”) that stops and starts throughout the episode. After that, most of the songs are all sung at once.
13. Lastly, did you or any of the staff use the Thomas Wiki during any writing or production for reference?
I used the Thomas Wiki all the time. It’s an amazing resource. As much as AEG deviated from the original series, I wanted to stay as true to the characters and the world as much as possible. Even though Thomas and Co. are kids in this version, Thomas still wants to be “really useful.” Percy is still Thomas’ best friend who loves to deliver the mail. And while the original Percy liked to play tricks on other engines, that’s not a good thing to model for younger viewers, but I still tried to tap into that trickster spirt and made the AEG Percy love to tell jokes and create puns. So I basically softened that aspect of his personality. But it had been a while since I watched Thomas, so the wiki was a great refresher for me throughout the development process and beyond. And I know many of my writers used it as well. So, thank you, and the entire Thomas fandom for helping maintain such an amazing website.
We would like to thank Rick Suvalle for his time and patience during this interview
Originally Posted on All Engines Go Wiki
In advance of the debut of Syfy Original Movie Roadkill, Dread Central had an opportunity to chat with screenwriter Rick Suvalle about his approach to this project and how he managed to make it slightly different than the average Syfy Original entry.
I can tell you from personal experience writing a Syfy Original Film is not easy. You know going in budgets are thin (transparent even), the special effects aren’t going to be very good, and casting is always a game of Russian roulette with four bullets in the cylinder. So, as a writer, you have to try and compensate for all of those hazards up front: use modest locations, limit special effects screen time, and include no complex dialogue or characters which require too much acting muscle. Yet, you still have to deliver the goods and tell a compelling, visually interesting story even though you don’t have the luxuries afforded even the most modestly budgeted theatrical release. As we know all too well, many fail in this endeavor.Read More
But Suvalle manages to pull off all of the above with Roadkill. He finds creative solutions to the problems faced when penning one of these movies, and while his script definitely benefits from solid casting in the final product, as screenwriter William M. Akers says in his awesome book on screenwriting, Your Screenplay Sucks, if you haven’t written a quality script, you won’t attract quality talent.
DREAD CENTRAL: Roadkill (review here) revisits the well-used premise of a group of young people heading out for a weekend of fun and partying, only for it to go horribly wrong when they run afoul of backwoods locals. Knowing this, how did you approach it differently?
RICK SUVALLE: Roadkill has a certain action movie element to it. To me it’s kind of like a horror version of Speed where you’ve got this group of kids, trapped in a speeding RV, and they can’t stop or slow down or the Roc will get them. I felt like this was enough of a departure from your typical horror movie that I wasn’t afraid to use tried-and-true horror conventions like a group of kids heading out for a weekend of fun only for it to go horribly awry. In fact I purposely tried to sprinkle in various classic horror moments throughout.
The backwoods locals – in this case Irish gypsies – were a different story. I initially only had them in one scene that led to the kids getting cursed. But Syfy really loved the gypsies and wanted to see more of them, and I think they were absolutely right. The gypsies added a whole new level of terror to the story. And it didn’t hurt that they cast Irish native Ned Dennehy as the lead gypsy. He is one creepy villain in this movie.
DC: Was the Roc always part of the premise? Or did that come later?
RS: The Roc actually came much later. The story was originally conceived with a demon-type creature on the roof of the RV that remains there for the entire movie, trapping the kids inside. You would only see glimpses of the creature until the very end. I saw this as a way to make the film on a micro budget. But when Syfy got involved, they wanted Roadkill to fit into their Saturday Original Movie line-up, and that meant having a really cool creature that you could actually see. We went through dozens of potential creatures. We even whipped open the Monster Manual from Dungeons & Dragons for inspiration and eventually realized that the perfect foil for kids in a speeding RV would be something that could actually keep up with them, like a mythical bird of prey. Once we locked in the Roc, I tweaked the mythology to make it work for the story.
DC: Most regular genre viewers will relate what happens to the protagonists to other movies like Pumpkinhead and Drag Me to Hell. How is your take different?
RS: In both of those films, as well as in Roadkill, the protagonists get cursed, resulting in a creature or supernatural force coming after them. But in Roadkill not only do you have the curse and the creature, but you’ve also got the gypsies coming after them, too, and the gypsies are almost more scary and menacing than the creature itself. What also differentiates Roadkill is our core concept, that it has an action movie element to it. Our heroes are always on the run, whereas in Drag Me to Hell Alison Lohman’s character is gradually stalked while she goes about her day-to-day life.
DC: In most of these films the order in which characters are killed off is usually predictable. What’s interesting in Roadkill is the way some characters come to the forefront, then kind of step back for other characters to emerge, which kind of shuffles the expected kill order. Was that hard to structure without losing focus on whose story this really was?
RS: This was actually my first venture into horror so after watching a bunch of these films as research, I did notice the predictability of the pecking order and thought it would not only be fun to change it up a little, but I thought it would also help keep the audience engaged and on their toes. Wondering for a change, “Who’s going to die next?” And surprisingly it wasn’t that difficult to achieve. I knew from the start exactly who I wanted to make it to the end, someone we wouldn’t expect. After that a new pecking order kind of emerged naturally.
As for keeping focused on whose story this really was, I purposely made several characters potential heroes so that whoever stepped up or whoever died next, we would root for them or be bummed out when they got a talon to the face.
DC: Most Syfy Films tend to use a lot of humor. Roadkill is different in that it plays like a straightforward horror film. There’s not much levity. In fact, it gets downright dark in the third act. Was there a sense from the beginning that this film was going to be different in that regard? Or is that something that just sort of happened on its own during the writing process?
RS: In the early drafts of the film there was actually a LOT more humor, partially because I come from an action-comedy background, but I ultimately found that some of those jokes were undercutting the really scary moments in the film so I scaled it way back. But I have to give credit to the director, Johannes Roberts, for taking the darkness to the next level.
DC: This is your first foray into horror; any other genre projects on the horizon?
RS: Yes! I’ve been hired to write a new horror film that I’m really excited about. I can’t say more, but I’m trying to once again flip some of the genre’s conventions on their head.
Originally Posted on Dread Central.