Thursday, 22 December 2011

Writing For Animation - 3

What you read into this photograph will depend almost as much on you as on what these actors are doing.  Our response to people, actors included, is always subjective. Clearly some intimacy is being shared here; he is invading her space.  There is something invidious about the way he seems to be caressing her cheek with his hand.  She, on the other hand shows no urge to pull away, and her downcast look seems doomed.  She has given in, or given up. There is little expression in their faces, but these are good actors, and there is a charge of sexual tension in their relationship.
Actors have a range of tools at their disposal.  They can use their voice and facial expression, their eyes and movement.  They have a subtle control of timing.  They can strike the right pose.  They have charisma, sex appeal, “chemistry”.  In animation you have the actor’s voice, of course, but everything else has to be created synthetically.  Everything else is an illusion.  Every semblance of sex appeal, timing, and posing is the creation of a director, animator, layout artist, and the writer.
Good film writing is about showing, not telling, and this is especially true of animation.  Over the next few weeks I’m going to be talking about some of the things a writer can put into the script to show what the characters are feeling.
Perhaps the most important part of any animation is the posing.  You can give virtually anything expression by posing it in the right way.  Here is a model sheet of a flour sack. 

This sack can be brought to life and given expression through the way it is posed, from its place in the composition of the shot, and, of course, the way it moves.  In itself it has no charisma or sex appeal.  You can’t look into its eyes and see the depth of its soul.  You can even give a drawing expression with its line.  There is a great difference between a character drawn with a wispy, fragile line, and one drawn thick and bold!
Of course, you don’t have to write every pose for every character, but I think it is a good exercise for animation writers to imagine their characters are flour sacks, and need to be given clear, visual indication of how they move and what they are doing.
I started my career as an actor, and, like most actors, spent a lot of time observing myself and others to pick up little gestures and movements that give people expression.  Actors like to work with props, and should be able to use a cigarette, a glass, or a pencil in various different ways to project different states of mind.  Having studied at the Laban art of movement centre, I was particularly interested in how people moved.  One of the first things that happens in the design of animated characters in whatever medium is a walk cycle, because this will be the most important element in the definition of character.
In my classes, I get my budding writers to come up with little gestural motifs, with and without props, that express different states of minds: nervousness, aggression, or delight.  Then I make them write them down.
Thomas stands in the corner twiddling his thumbs, however, is probably never going to appear in an animated script.  In an animated script, you are more likely to find Thomas stands in the corner tying a large knot in his tail.  The usual rule with animation is: If it can be done in live action, do it in live action.  Animation is about fantasy, and that’s where the fun bit comes in.
Next:  Things that actors can’t do.

The next part of this blog will appear in the first week in January.  Merry Christmas, everyone!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Writing For Animation - 2

Working without actors

When you write a film script, you usually have an idea about how it should be cast, and often write with a particular actor in mind.  We know what sort of characters most actors like to play.  With Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen you pretty much know what you’re getting.  One look from Clint and you know he means business, and you’d better watch out.  Woody Allen will always be a neurotic New York Jew. You could never imagine him playing the lead role in a bio-pic about some serious politician, or as a comic superhero, unless it was purely for comic effect. 
The best film actors do not do a lot, and yet we are able to read the slightest change of “look” in their faces.  A lot of their acting is done with their eyes.    If we engage with anybody, don’t we look at their eyes?
Of course, we cannot change the way our eyes look, though we do have some control over eyebrows, eyelids, moisture,  etc. Yet we all know people whose eyes seem shifty, and, if we’re lucky, we’ve all looked into someone’s eyes and seen love.  An actor’s face is a canvas upon which we are encouraged to project our own emotions, and sometimes the blanker it is the more feeling it seems to possess.
Isn’t this the fascination of the Mona Lisa?  The fact that there is so little expression in her face makes us project our own ideas about her eyes, and her smile.
Most animators do not possess the technical skills of Leonardo, and, if they did, they would not have the time to practice them in an animated show.  However skilful the character animation may be, it is almost impossible for an animated character to hold our attention with just a look for any length of time.  Some 3D characters are semi-realistic, but many 2D characters are very graphic.  Many animated characters are not even human.
It is possible to read something into this face:
But not much into this:
This is a bit simplistic, I admit, but I'm sure you understand my point. Facial expression in animation may not be as limited as in this smiley, but it is going to be a lot more limited than that of any actor. 
Compare this photograph of the Jackson Five
With an image from the animated series

In the photograph, whatever the reality, we get a feeling for the different characters.  We see the tired smiles for the camera, the uneasiness of the pose, and maybe can read a fresh optimism in Michael Jackson’s face.
In the drawing, you can’t tell one Jackson from another.  They are defined by the colour and shape of their clothing, the (slightly strange) positioning of eyebrows and eyes, and the smiles.  If you are not a fan of the Jackson Five, these characters look almost interchangeable.  Which is which?
The implication of this is profound for the writer.  If you are writing a script for Clint Eastwood, you are not going to write what he should be feeling, pieces of business for him to do, etc.  You need to respect his ability and craft.  When you are writing for animation you are writing for a drawing, or a model, or a synthetic image.  Of course, animators will use their own “semaphore” of facial expressions and gestures, positioning mouths and eyebrows to signal to us what characters should be feeling, using teardrops almost symbolically in eyes that are almost always disproportionately large.
The writer’s role is not to write any of this, nor to explain what the character should be feeling.  We’re not taking about a manual of expressions, nor about a novel. 
Animation is about finding imaginative visual means of expression that do not rely on an actor's skill, and the writers’ job is to propose ways of doing this.
More about this next week.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Writing For Animation

Every year I give a day long workshop at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan as part of a series of Masters in scriptwriting.  My host, Professor Armando Fumagalli, is passionate about the subject, and works as an occasional script advisor to Italian film companies.  He invites people from all over the world to talk to his students, who are usually a very talented and informed bunch of people.
My workshop tends to come towards the end of the course, and I don’t waste the students’ time by talking about story structure, character arcs, etc. They should have had plenty of talks about this already. I concentrate instead on what makes animation different from writing for live-action.
Scriptwriting students in Milan

This blog will be divided into quite a few parts, and will cover how the fact you have no real actors or cameraman affects what you should write, as well as the way that the whole process impacts on the writer. Not every writer shares my point of view.  Some, I know, are happy to write mainly dialogue and leave the director and animators with a lot of choices.  My position is strongly influenced by the month I spent at Hanna Barbera some years ago, developing a show for them.  There, as at Dic and Cinar where I have worked as a story editor, writers were encouraged to write every shot, and that is what I, as a producer, encourage my writers to do.

Since this blog is intended for writers in other media and genres, I want to devote today’s part of the blog to encouraging writers to consider animation as worthy of their pen.
Why write for animation?
Writing for animation is not for everyone, but if you have a strong visual sense, and a vivid imagination, then I would encourage you to try your hand at writing an animation script.  I wrote my first professional script when I was still at college.  It was a short play for a company that toured schools, about a Hell’s Angel who sprouted wings.  It wasn’t ideal for the stage, though the company made a good stab at it, but it would have been a good premise for an animated script.  It was only much later, after I had written quite a few scripts for the theatre, radio and television, that I realised that animation provided the best medium for my imagination and sense of humour.
Animation is primarily about fantasy, and most of the opportunities are in children’s television.  So if you are a fantasist who is happy writing for children, then it could be for you.
We have used writers for our shows who have a serious reputation in other fields.  Dennis O’Flaherty, an American writer who had written a Wim Wenders film, the late Brian Finch, who, besides writing hundreds of scripts for Coronation Street, wrote a tremendous adaptation of Good Night, Mr Tom, and Stan Hey, who has written scripts for Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, The Lenny Henry Show, and  Dalziel and Pascoe and who remains one of my favourite writers.   They were happy to write scripts because it gave them the chance to have some innocent fun, to indulge their imagination in an environment that was not dominated by egotistical actors and directors.  Actors voice animation series, of course, but, apart from this, are usually absent from the process, and writers are rarely faced with the demands of an actor who wants to change the script.  Directors who are driven by ego rarely choose animation as their field, because animation directors so rarely see the limelight. 
Many writers, myself included, enjoy writing for children because we have children or grandchildren ourselves.  A young child will be blissfully unaware of the blockbuster thriller you may have written, but if you have written an episode of his or her favourite animated show, you will be able to bask in the warm glow of your offspring’s pride.  Young children are the most honest of audiences.  Their response to a show is immediate, and totally unsullied by prejudice.  This can be refreshing.
Animation is made in long series, and is almost always an international coproduction.  This means that there is always a demand for writers, and English speaking writers in particular.  I write a few scripts for our own shows, but many more for studios in Europe and North America.
On the downside, writing for animation will bring you neither fame nor fortune, though it is possible to make a decent living out of it.  If it’s the social aspect of working that appeals to you, then it won’t make you happy.  The industrial and international nature of the process means that you can write on show after show without ever meeting another member of the creative team.
This can also be an advantage.  I went to the 50th birthday party of a friend of mine in California not that long ago.  The party was full of writers, and most of those who were still writing wrote only for animation.  When I asked why this was, I was told that ageism prevails in Los Angeles, and anyone over the age of 40 is considered over the hill.  If they wrote animation scripts, they never had to meet anyone from the show, and so nobody was aware of their age!
Shortly after this, I invented an alter ego, which I could use as a nom de plume.  By writing in the name of a young woman, I discovered I could avoid any potential ageism and sexism I came up against.   I haven’t had to use her often, but she has been useful.
I hope that talented writers, experienced or not, will be encouraged to follow this blog and learn about what makes animation different from other media.
Next week, I shall start by talking about working without actors, and how that influences what and how you write.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

How To Brief A Composer: Final Part

Talking to composers about emotion.

I believe that the primary function of music in any film, for the movies, television, for adults or children, is to tell your audience what they should be feeling.  We’ve talked about musical genres and styles, but when we are briefing composers we should be talking about emotion.
All music, at least, all music that is any good, carries an emotional charge.  Music can put us in a good or bad mood, make us agitated or relaxed, move us to tears, or put us to sleep.  When we talk to composers about musical styles, we are reflecting what a particular style might evoke for us.  We know what has worked before.  We can point to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho, the moment in John Williams’ score when ET sails past the moon on the bicycle, or the whistling motif in Morricone’s Fistful Of Dollars, and it is clear what we are looking for: music that is scary, that is heart-meltingly tender, or that speaks to us of haunting loneliness.

The build up to the murder is done with uncanny silence.  Hitchcock builds the tension with some quick cutting and unusual angles.  The sound effects emphasise the mundanity of the scene, so that when the music comes in, it is a shocking intrusion, like the knife.

Using existing music as a guide is fine, but is not always useful.  In the world I live in, it is difficult to get a composer of the calibre of Herrmann, Williams or Morricone, the budget won’t allow for an orchestra, the emotional spectrum is more narrow, and scenes are so short there isn’t time to develop a musical theme for more than a few seconds.

Deciding which moments need emotional emphasis is a matter of taste. It’s easy to recognise the moments of high melodrama in your show, and ask the composer to reinforce them with music.  But what about subtler moments of exasperation, confusion, or worry?  Should they be reinforced by music?  And, if so, how?  And is it possible to express these things in a few seconds with a couple of chords?
Of course, you could, and probably should, leave a lot of this to the composer.  Like a good dubbing editor, a good composer will see emotional possibilities in your show that you have missed, and point up moments you had not given much importance to.  There are few things more satisfying than hearing the score for the first time and being surprised by the emotional richness of your show.
Some composers will demand that you are specific about the emotions you want to bring out.  When the child in your show arrives at his new school, do you want the music to express his fear and trepidation, or the insensitive hustle and bustle of the world he or she is entering?  Of course, there is no right answer to this sort of question, but your choice will have an impact on how the viewer will respond to the scene.  You might have a scene with multiple characters, who all have different emotions. You need to decide where the sympathies of the viewer should lie, and brief the composer accordingly.
You also need to decide when not to have music, where the emotional content does not need underscoring, or where a musical underpinning might seem either intrusive or confusing.  Not every emotional moment will need music, but the moments of real fear, sadness, or triumphant joy offer the best opportunities for music.  The less music you have elsewhere in your show, the more impact these moments will have.
Music can also be used for comedy.  Often comedic moments in a film or show will be accompanied by the worst sort of music hall music, with punchlines emphasised with a flourish of a drum or cymbal, or the Wah Wah Wah of a muted trombone or trumpet.  For me this is akin to canned laughter. It may be a sign that the viewer should laugh at this point, but does little to make the scene funnier.
More interesting and effective is when the music itself adds humour. In our series, Hilltop Hospital, our dog doctor was the target of unwanted romantic advances from a cat nurse.  These moments were invariably underlined with a rhapsodic melody, whose exaggeration created moments of real irony.  Music that totally exaggerates, or plays against what is on screen can create real laughs.  In this situation, the more serious the music, the funnier the impact.
I always think the music is one of the most important elements of any film or programme, and I am probably irritatingly fussy about it.  It is important to know what you want to achieve in your show, but also to give the composer enough space to deliver a score with real power.
I love this!
There is something very haunting about the whistling, which evokes a feeling of loneliness, but places us right in the wide open spaces of the Wild West (probably somewhere in Spain!)

Next:  What makes writing for animation different from writing for live action.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

How To Brief A Composer - Part 2 of 3

What is the music for?

If you listen to the music composed by Carl Stalling for Warner Bros, you could be forgiven for thinking that music is for comedy, punctuation and sound effects.  Stalling’s scores were full of comic references to popular tunes, or classical music.  Their stock-in-trade was strange comic sounds, and sudden, almost shocking, changes of melody, mood and tempo.  Stalling is often criticised for an overuse of musical puns.  If Sylvester swallows a bar of soap, you will hear the tune, “I’m forever blowing bubbles”.  If he dresses as an angel, we hear “An Angel in Disguise”.

Warner Bros, of course, owned its own music catalogue, and Stalling was required to use as many Warner Bros tunes as possible.  Most of these punning references are lost on the modern audience, but that doesn’t stop us enjoying the music for what it is, and rarely do we feel that it is out of place.
Then, as now, especially with slapstick, the music doubles as sound effect.  Pizzicato strings will accompany a character on tip-toes.  A harp, or bell-tree will point up a moment of magic.  An arpeggio on a bass clarinet might follow a bubble rising in an underwater sequence. 
These have become almost clichés, and a clever composer can have a lot of fun turning them on their head to shock or tickle our sense of humour.  If you put loud, brass chords over somebody on tiptoes, you are exploiting our knowledge of musical conventions, to subvert our expectations.  This can be great fun, but is probably not advisable when writing for young children, who are only just beginning to familiarise themselves with musical vocabulary.
Whereas there is a place for music as punctuation, or to add comedy, I don’t believe that this is its primary function in any film or television show, animated or not.
Nor should it be merely background. Many composers of music for animated series write continuous music throughout every episode.  They are aware that animation series are sold all over the world and that the potential earnings from performing rights can be enormous.  Since these are calculated by the second, their default position is wall to wall music. This creates scores that are not only monotonous, but irritating. Any jazz musician will tell you that the silences in a solo improvisation are as important as what you play. Breaks in the music are vital if it is to have any impact.
Nor should the music be too intrusive. Of course, music will ultimately form part of a broader soundscape, and, at times, may disappear behind dialogue, atmospherics, or sound effects.  This is not only natural, but desirable (though it tends to upset composers, when their music disappears behind a gust of wind).  When music is working properly, the viewer should scarcely be aware of it.  Its effect should be subconscious, a pull on the emotions.
Music is there to tell us what we should be feeling.

Next: Talking to composers about emotion.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

How To Brief A Composer: Part One

My blog is entitled Writing and Developing Animation, and this subject has little to do with either writing or development.  Apart from a few comments, mainly in the second part of this blog, little of what is here relates specifically to animation either. Most of it applies to all forms of film and television.
Since the SuperTed days, I have been responsible for looking after the music in our shows, not because I am an expert in any sense, but because I have always been passionate about music. I have always played or sung in bands, and know how to surround myself with people who are a lot more skilful than I am.  I currently play the saxophone in a jazz-funk band, Miles Behind. Two of the other members of the band are composers of music for television.  One of them, exasperated by a director whose instructions consisted of Write me something and I’ll tell you if I like it, urged me to write this blog.  I hope it might be of use to directors and producers, and anyone with an interest in music

How To Brief A Composer

Part One: Style

We all think we know a bit about music.  After all, we listen to it, don’t we?  When producers or directors first think about what sort of music they want, they almost invariably think in terms of genre, style, or possibly orchestration.  We understand this from our listening habits.  We know the difference between classical music, jazz or rock. Some of us even know the difference between hard bop and bebop, between drum and bass and garage, between Schütz and Schein.
Choosing a musical style is a way of defining the show, of branding it, of giving a clear idea to the viewer of what to expect.  We recently developed a science fiction comedy in animated photo-montage, which had a design style that had elements of gothic and steam punk.  We wanted a style that was retro, that made it clear from the start that this was science fiction, but also that had a comic edge.  Having grown up with tv shows like “The Outer Limits” and low budget science fiction movies, it seemed obvious that we should go for the theramin inspired sound that features in films such as “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. Our brief to the composer was to come up with a style that combined the eerie sound of the theramin with the cheesy sounds of a film like “Barbarella”.
Our composer fulfilled the brief brilliantly, and gave the show a real sense of identity, but this kind of brief is not always helpful.  It is true that by specifying a style, or playing music you think is in the same vein, you might be giving the composer a direction, but you might also be severely limiting his or her ability to be expressive.  Musical styles come with their own set of conventions.  In reggae you always hit the third beat in the bar; African music tends to use a pentatonic scale; classical minimalism tends to repeat the same arpeggio with slight rhythmic variations. These musical conventions also bring with them expressive limitations.  Can you make reggae sound nail-bitingly suspenseful?  Is a minimalist soundtrack the best background to something sexy and earthy?
A musical style can give your show a sense of identity, and, also, some sort of cohesion.  A recognisable style and the repetition of different themes in a long-running series is one way of making sure the last episode feels as if it belongs to the first.
Music styles can also give you a sense of place.  When we made SuperTed, we used music to reflect where he was at any one time.  If he was in the Wild West, we parodied Copland.  A Russian snowscape was accompanied by a pastiche of Lieutenant Kije, music composed by Prokofiev for a film of the same name.  A unity of style was created by the orchestration.  We had a terrific 30 piece band, and the orchestrator’s brief was to make everything sound as if it came from a Boy's Own adventure series.
In animated series for children, it is also common to use musical themes for certain characters.  We made a series once, where every character had its own song.  I am still not sure of the point of this.  Maybe it was because children like songs, and the resulting songs could be later marketed as an album.  I have always thought, though, that this Peter and The Wolf approach lacked imagination.  Surely the viewers can tell one character from another?
When choosing a musical style, it is important to think about your target audience.  Music is a very personal thing. We tend to associate particular pieces of music with emotional moments (usually romantic or embarrassing) in our early lives. I know I cannot hear certain Bob Dylan songs without feeling a sad, nostalgic rush.  We need to realise that other people will not respond in the same way.
This is particularly true of shows for young children, who obviously have no concept of nostalgia.  They also have no prejudices about style. Those who say that children do not like jazz, or classical music, are missing the point.  Children respond to the expressive qualities of melody, harmony and rhythm in a very direct way. 
Some years ago, we made an animated sit-com about one of Santa’s reindeer, Romuald. The show was written by Roger Planer, whose brother Nigel voiced the main character. Roger also wrote the music.  We did not want to go for any style that was currently fashionable.  Animation has a long shelf life, and by adding a contemporary style to the soundtrack, it can soon seem dated.  We wanted something “classic”, i.e. that would not sound dated in ten years time, but that was funny.  We settled on doo-wop, with Nigel voicing some silly, but funny nonsense.  At the time, Michael Carrington, the executive at the BBC responsible for the show, was not keen.  Children won’t get the nostalgic appeal, he argued.  I agreed, but argued that children would still find it funny.  When he heard the music, he was won over, and the series went on to achieve a minor cult status.
The fact that most producers think about musical style, genre, etc, is because these are things that we can control.  Within most producers there lies a control freak.  We cannot control what melodies the composer will write, but we can at least tie him down to something we recognise.  Of course, it is asking a lot to ask our composers to write like Rachmaninov, Bob Marley, or Philip Glass, and not only are we shackling their creativity, but we’re missing the point. We’re skirting around the edges of what the music is really for.
Look out for Part 2: What is the music for?
and check out Miles Behind