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.