Monday, June 19, 2006

Writing for Animation

How about something on the process of writing for animation as opposed to live action? Have you always worked with an animator when writing the script, therefore having a strong idea of how it would look as you go along? Anything about writing animated scripts that is particularly challenging, or easier/more enjoyable than live action? - Optimistic Reader

All the stuff I've read says that when writing animation you should be inclusive - that if it isn't on the page it won't get included. Just for the heck of it, I tried writing a Power Puff Girls spec script (I know I can't do much with it, but I used it to try for the Nickelodeon internship thing, though it now turns out that they won't look at anyone from outside the USA.) Anyway, the thing is that it came out long. I mean, very long. As in enormously long. So either I've taken things to excess or I've misunderstood. I'd be grateful for any suggestions you might have as to how to do it right! - Liz Holliday

In 1999, I gave up my full-time job at Channel 4 to pursue my dream of being a scriptwriter. I took on some freelance work to help me pay the bills while I focused on writing my scripts. Part of this freelance work (script reading etc) was assessing the proposals that were sent to Channel 4’s Animation department. From this, I got more involved in animation but from the proposal/script stage - the actual animation process still eludes me!

However, as my experience grew, I quickly became aware that while animators were great with coming up with interesting visual ideas, their storytelling skills were somewhat under par or not quite up to scratch. I saw it as an ignored field for screenwriting so I decided to see if I could get involved in writing animation scripts as a way to help develop my career and assist animators to express their vision in a more satisfying and dramatic fashion.

I’ve worked closely with some animators on the Mesh, A.I.R (Animator-in-Residence) and animate! schemes to help develop their scripts so that their stories engage the audience just as much as the accompanying images.

Quite often, the animator would have a strong vision of what the story should be and how he/she wanted to visualise it on screen. To this end, they would have done some work on the storyboard and animatic but would be open to suggestion and possible changes to the story. I’m all for beautiful and striking imagery but ultimately what I’m interested in, as a writer, is whether something is a good story and to ensure that the images correlate or compliment the ongoing narrative rather than distance itself from it.

It’s a fine balance however. Some animation films, especially for the C4 animation schemes, can achieve a great sense of mood and imagery, and the quality of the animator’s vision will make up for any story shortcomings it may have had.

When I worked on Sam Morrison's pilot for Channel 4 - Donkey Town (it won Best International Short at the Melbourne Film Festival) - it was very much about story rather than any fancy or distinctive imagery. This is why Sam’s work appeals to me so much. He’s got all the necessary craft and skill of an animator but with the wit and warmth to tell an engaging story.

I don’t consider myself an animation writer specifically. I like to think that I’m an all-round screenwriter who has an interest and talent in writing for animation. However, I am surprised that more screenwriters are not drawn to animation and its potential for exciting visual stories, whether it’s discerning cutting edge animation or the unashamed fun of a kids’ cartoon/feature film.

What’s particularly exciting about animation is that you can literally let your imagination run riot. You’re never restricted in terms of budget or location, and the laws of reality as we know it most certainly don’t apply. This is incredibly appealing as a writer, especially a screenwriter, because of the rich imagery and wild fantasies that can be conjured up on a page of animation.

This visual utopia doesn’t mean that a good animation story has to be unrestrained or wild in its depiction but the unrestricted possibilities between your imagination and what you want to express emotionally as a story is an exciting creative challenge that is hard to resist.

You can go anywhere. Do anything. Play with monsters, myths, aliens and even creatures of your own making! Outer space, inner space, body, mind and beyond. They can all be visually explored through the art of animation. No other visual medium affords you this opportunity.

In terms of how you write the actual scripts, in my experience it’s been the same method as live-action scripts. Less is more. But be very specific about what it is you’re trying to visualise. Everything you write is taken more literally in an animation script so there should be no ambiguity for the animator when he reads: “John flies in to the room”. Does this mean John literally flies into the room or does John enter the room quickly?

Children’s animation is a real treat, and a real challenge, to write. Invariably, it’s all about characters and story, characters and story, characters and story. Stick to specific action, direction and dialogue, and you won’t go far wrong. I wrote a three minute script a few years ago that Chris Shepherd was going to direct and Channel 4 were going to produce but the animation department disbanded and our opportunity was lost. Still, if you’d like to read the script, I’ve put it up on my website. It’s called Busted, you’ll find it on the menu.


Optimistic_Reader said...

Thanks so much for this Danny, very helpful!

Lucy said...

You know what Danny? I hate you! You know everything, damn your hide, everything!

****Ah, that's better. Just having a bitter and twisted moment there. I was restoring the balance of the universe - for every GOOD script reader (see the OR, above - she's always so sweet and lovely!), there has to be an EVIL one. BTW, what type are you, Danny?****

Lucy said...

Just to clarify - really I love you Danny, MWAH. Tho I have started a ruck over at Lee Thomson's blog and am unrepentant.

I have too much time on my hands these days. Someone send me a script to read, quick!!!

Danny Stack said...

You go girl.

And remember, there are no evil readers, only inexperienced ones who don't know what they're doing or wouldn't know a good script if it crept in late at night and nicked all their DVDs.

Lucy said...

I second that. I'm a good girl (and reader) really.

More's the pity...

Optimistic_Reader said...

It's sweet of you to say I'm always sweet and lovely, Lucy ;-) If only it were true!

Liz said...

Thanks for this, Danny! Sorry it's taken me so long to get back here.

I think it's fair to say that I was putting in too much detail in the PPG script. I'm wondering, though - if a script in film format runs a minute a page, is that the same for animation? I'd just really like something to aim at, I guess.

Danny Stack said...

The page per minute rule is usually about right, not entirely accurate, but a good guide-line. A page of dialogue-only script is unlikely to be a minute long so you'll soon get an idea from your action and dialogue just how long everything's taking. If not, read it out and time it, that helps.