Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Writing For Animation - 8

Doing the job of the cinematographer.
When you’re shooting a live action film or programme, you tend to shoot a master shot, and then lots of close ups, cutaways, reverse angles, reaction shots, etc.  You often might be shooting with more than one camera.  You probably shoot more than one “take”. The director has probably got a good idea of how it will all fit together, but, even if he has storyboarded sections of the film, a lot of work is still done by the editor.
This does not happen in animation.  Animation feature films may have budgets that allow lots of reshoots and some alternatives for the director and editor to sort out, but the most expensive animation feature will not have anything like the shooting ratio of an equivalent live action film.  In television animation, there may be the possibility of a few reshoots if things are not right, but normally you work out what needs to be animated to the exact frame, and there is little possibility of adding, or changing, a show except in an emergency.

The storyboard forms the basis for the film, and any problems of composition and structure need to be sorted out at this stage.  Normally the storyboard is timed to the frame, and each shot “doped” by the director, or a doping specialist.  This means that dialogue, and gestures, action highlights, etc., are timed to the frame before they are animated.  Animation is expensive; you don’t want to waste a frame, let alone a second.
The trailer for Psi-5 can be found here:
Nowadays, it is customary to make an animatic before you start to animated.  This is a filmed storyboard, with dialogue, and, if necessary, music, with each shot timed to the frame.  The director, and often the broadcaster, sign off on this before animation starts.
Because the storyboard holds such an important position in the composition of a film or programme, there is a tendency for writers to leave description of certain types of action, gestures etc, as well as camera angles and movement, to the storyboard artist.  I have explained earlier that, in my experience, storyboard artists like as much visual description as possible and that if the images leap off the pages of your script it will make the artist’s job a lot easier.
This isn’t the only reason why you should write as much visual detail, including shots, as you can.  We have already explained how important it is that you visualise what is happening in your script.  Everyone accepts that things you write will be changed in the process, and the director and storyboard artist may have better solutions than yours to carry the thrust of the story forward, to make action clear, or even to stay within budget.  But doesn’t every writer worth his salt want what he visualises to be transferred to the screen?  If you don’t feel like this, or you cannot sum up a visual picture of what you are writing, then you should not be writing for animation.

When we first set up our company, the director of our first show, “SuperTed” handed me a sheet of paper, and told me this was how he wanted me to write.  On the paper was a description of a bear, half running, half falling down the side of a steep hill, uprooting shrubs and plants as he gained momentum.  I’m not sure where it came from.  Almost certainly not from a script.  All the same, it was terrific descriptive writing, which conjured up a visual picture that was so real and impressive that I can still remember it thirty years on.  Needless to say, I knew immediately what the director was getting at, and have aspired to write with the same visual power ever since.
Scripts, of course, are organised in a different way from normal prose.  They are not just passages of description, but blueprints providing important information for the director and storyboard artists.  It isn’t simply a question of writing what we are imagining in our mind, but imagining it on screen.  You have to think about where you are in relation to what is happening.  Let us take the example of the bear careering down the hill.  If we are at the bottom of the hill, watching the bear hurtling towards us, our emotional reaction is going to be quite different than if we are following it, or even chasing it, with bits of flying foliage winging past our ear.  In one view, we are a potential victim of the bear’s aggression. Or perhaps he is rushing towards us to sweep us up into his arms. In the other, we could be part of a larger group of bears, or the bear’s pursuer.  In both cases, the effect is different if the camera is static or moving.  If the camera is moving with the bear, we are more involved in the action; we are fellow participants.  If the camera is static, we are merely an observer.  If the camera is pulling back, the implication is we are withdrawing, or even fleeing from what is happening.  If we are at the bottom of the hill rushing towards the bear, then we are probably going to confront him, or embrace him.
This is why we need an indication of what the camera is doing in animation scripts.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing what you need to write, and when.  I’ll talk about the opportunities that animation offers, and how a writer’s imagination can go to places a cameraman may not.  I shall explain how the budget and style of an animated series will dictate how many shots you need to write in an episode.  I shall suggest how, with the angles you choose, and the composition of shots, you influence how your audience looks at what is happening, and how it feels about your characters.  I’ll also talk about you can use the medium of animation to help the transition from shot to shot, and find ways of showing the passing of time, or changes of location, that would be difficult, or impossible in live action.     
Next week:  Points Of View

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Writing For Animation - 7

Working without Actors -  creating a world which expresses character and emotion.
About ten years ago, I worked as a story editor on a series of animated adaptations of the novels of Jules Verne for a French company.  We adapted six different stories over 13 half hours, and worked with some very talented writers: Brian Finch, Martin Jameson, and Fabrice Ziolkowski.  My writing partner, Andrew Offiler, and I adapted one of Jules Verne’s lesser known books, La Jangada (800 Leagues Down The Amazon).
One of the main characters spent some time locked in a cell in a fortress in the jungle, and I was faced with the problem of how to show both what sort of person he was, and what he was feeling.  The style of the series was very naturalistic, so my options were limited.  A solitary character in a locked room is not ideal for animation, for all the reasons I have given in previous blogs.  I wasn’t going to make him talk to himself, or talk to camera, or create a voice over to explain what was happening to him.  I draw the line at that sort of on the nose writing.  The idea that animation is a visual medium and that I should be showing, not telling, is too deeply ingrained.
I could, I suppose, have created a pet for him to talk to, as in the Bird Man Of Alcatraz, but there would have been the danger of creating a monologue in disguise.  In the film, of course, the birds become a symbol of hope and generation for Burt Lancaster.  Through the birds, we get a feeling for what the Birdman is feeling.  In La Jangada,  I decided to use some of the insects inhabiting his cell to act out the conflict going through his mind, and dispensed with dialogue altogether.
Filmmakers have always used images metaphorically.  At its crudest, we have all seen sex scenes illustrated with cutaways to trains going through tunnels, nuclear explosions, fireworks, etc.  much is made of dream sequences, particularly in Hitchcock films.    
Sometimes we get a feeling for what the characters are going through from the weather conditions, the sets, the colours, environment, etc.  Blade Runner is a great example of how the world depicted, with its overcrowding, constant rain, and muted colours tell you of the oppressive existence of its characters.  In Film Noir, shots through railings to create shadows that look like the bars of a cell are almost clichéd.
There are budget restrictions in animation as there are in live action, of course, but animation gives you many possibilities that are simply not available in live action.  You can make a spider wind a fly in its web and put it aside to eat later.  To my knowledge, spider wranglers do not exist.  Blood that drips down a wall can take the shape of a face, a gun, etc..   The sky can turn from blue to grey, or even red, at will.  Of course, live action movies do this too, but almost always with an animated effect.  Most visual effects artists are, in fact, animating. 
Using images as metaphors for what people are feeling is an important element of animation, and offers an exciting alternative to the skills of an actor.

Next week: Doing the work of the cameraman and editor.  How the process of animation influences what you write.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Writing For Animation - 6

Working Without Actors – More conclusions

Facial Expressions

When I was an actor, I learned the technique of how to hold a pose and keep it “alive”, and how to look at camera, or at another actor, and keep the look animated.  This was essentially about keeping tension in the body, and an intensity of the gaze.  Synthetic characters do not have these possibilities.  Animation is about an illusion of movement.  Long holds are difficult to sustain.  For reasons we have already discussed, expression of feeling or character is best achieved with action, or a dramatic pose.

There are times, though, when you want to show that a character is happy, sad, angry, etc without making them leap for joy, break down and beat the floor with grief, or punch someone in the eye.  We have already discussed why long looks to camera are not a good idea.  More usual is a REACTION SHOT, a quick cutaway to somebody’s face to show an expression.

Animators show how a character might be feeling by manipulating the angle of the head, eyebrows, and the shape of eyes and mouths.  In some cases this can be quite sophisticated. Much depends on the character design, and the budget.  The more realistic the design, the more possibilities there are for expression, and the more skill that is required. 

At its crudest, though, facial expression in animation is more like a mask…  or an emoticon…   an iconic symbol that indicates a feeling or state of mind. 

You should think of your reaction shots as if you were cutting away to a mask.  It would be quite usual to see HAPPY REACTION or SAD REACTION in a script, or, if it is blatantly obvious what the character is feeling, simply a REACTION from a certain character.

There are, of course, other ways of using the face, or entire head, for expression.  For a start, in animation, it is possible to animate facial elements that would be impossible in real life.  You can animate eyes, mouths, ears, moustaches, hair, etc., or distort the shape of the head.  We made a whole series about a family of reindeer who used their antlers as if they were hands. 

You will have seen examples of this in early cartoons.  The eyes that become heart-shaped and pulse with love, and steam that shoots from ears, have become crude clichés. In his Red Riding Hood films, Tex Avery animates eyes and tongues to great comic effect.

Bill Plympton animates the face with a different type of absurdity.

Of course, you can only write this sort of animated effect if the style of the show allows it, and the fashion currently is for styles that are more realistic.
Proverbially, the eyes are a window to the soul, but, in animation writing, you should think of the eyes, and the whole face, as a canvas.  If the eyes are a window, then you might be able to see a reflection in them.  In animation writing, it is possible to animate reflections in eyes, if the budget allows.  You could do this in a realistic way.  For example, you could track in to wide open eyes, in which we see the reflection of a wild beast approaching.  Or, if you want to be more fantastic, you could show the reflection of a lonely castaway on a raft at sea, a figure running through a firestorm, an ivy winding its grip around a tree, etc.  In these latter examples, you would not need a reflection; you could animate the scene directly onto the surface of the eye, or even push through the eye into the brain.

I am getting ahead of myself.  I shall talk later about the use of camera in animation writing, and the impact of not having a traditional cameraman

Next week, though, I shall complete the section of this blog about working without actors, and talk about other ways of showing character and emotion.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Writing for Animation - 5

Working without Actors – Some conclusions
1.       Dialogue.  Keep it short
Thanks to some excellent scripts by Alan Bennett, and some great acting, the television monologue has become almost fashionable.  I can’t help feeling, though, that this is the result of cynical cost cutting.  A single actor is a cheap option.  I prefer to listen to Alan Bennett’s monologues  on audio tape.  Monologues, or soliloquies, are for the radio and for the theatre, not for visual media, and long speeches should be reserved for a voice off, and then only if the writing is good.

If you have Christopher Plummer reading Jean Giono (The Man Who Planted Trees) or Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood (our animated version) then you can lean on a long narration, but always off-screen.  The challenge then is coming up with imagery that matches the beauty of the words.
We have talked already about how synthetic faces cannot hold our interest in the way that real people can.  They have no presence, no charisma, and only come alive in motion. So don’t make them talk in shot unless you have to, and keep it brief.
In my brief stint at Hanna Barbera we were told never to have more than three lines of dialogue for any character without something visual happening.
                                                Of course, there were always some
                                                writers, and I include myself in
                                                this, who would cheat by putting…
                                                                   ROBIN (CONT)
                                                …in the middle of a speech when
they knew it was too long.
I always try and stick to this rule, and feel very uncomfortable when any speech is longer than three lines.  Interestingly, I am currently writing scripts for a Franco-German coproduction, Vic The Viking, and in my last script, I included one speech that was four lines long.  This was sheer indulgence on my part, since I had an idea for a character joke.  Although we had never spoken about any rules for length of dialogue, the note came straight back from the excellent French story editor to make the speech shorter.
It obviously isn’t enough just to insert ANOTHER SHOT in the middle of a speech or exchange of dialogue.  Animation is about images.  We want to see things happening.
There are people who give talks on animation writing who maintain that dialogue is for exposition of the plot.  Don’t listen to them.  True, we’ve all resorted to including plot points in dialogue, but I always feel that this is an admission of defeat.  Dialogue is for humour, and for character, and, as in live action, is best used obliquely.  Characters should not be telling us what is happening, what is about to happen, or what they are feeling.  We should be able to understand this from what we are seeing.
If a tree falls on a character, knocking him to the ground, and he staggers shakily to his feet, isn’t it so much better for him to say Don’t worry about me, I’m fine before he collapses, rather than Ow! That hurt!.
Some people think that the ideal animated film has no speaking in it, and I have some sympathy with this view.  A lot depends on the genre, of course.  An animated sitcom is almost always reliant on snappy dialogue, and there is no doubt that certain audiences, children in particular, empathise with characters who speak for them or to them.
There are broadcasters who believe that, for young children, you have to spell things out, and write dialogue that explains what is happening.  I think they are wrong, and will only do this under duress.  Young children may have trouble understanding irony and some forms of humour, but they certainly understand how pictures tell stories.
There are a few times where you would write dialogue where there would be none in a script for live action.  Voices for animation are recorded at the beginning of the production process, so, as a writer, you have to anticipate those moments when an actor might respond instinctively to what is happening around him.  In the recording studio, actors will probably not have the benefit of the storyboard, and, in any case, might have difficulty reading one.  They are not necessarily going to know what is happening around them.  A good recording director will, of course, explain when to project and when to whisper, when to cry and when to laugh, and when to sigh or grunt.
Arabella Weir and a Baroness in the studio
All the same, it is safer to write as much of this in the script as you can, and, unlike in live action scripts, you will see sighs, grunts, cries of pain, etc written into the script, as well as instructions how to read certain lines, i.e. with a tremor, with mouth full, spitting out the words, etc.  In animation series, voice recording in post is not always possible, so everything needs to be recorded upfront.  In animated films, it is the animator who does the acting.  His drawing or manipulation of a model will give the character timing and expression.  He will be working to a voice track, and the more vocal material he has, the better, including how a character breathes, laughs, etc.
Next week:  More conclusions about how working without actors impacts on animation writing.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Writing For Animation - 4

Working without actors (continued)
One of my favourite moments in the first Shrek film is where, in a moment of romantic exuberance, he pulls a snake from a tree and blows it up like a balloon.  This is good film writing, because it expresses emotion in pictures.  It is good animation writing because it is a fantasy.  A lot of the fun of animation is writing action and business that real actors could never do, either because it would be physically impossible, or unacceptable for some reason.
It is quite possible that this particular piece of business in Shrek was not written by a writer, but invented by a storyboard artist.  In the heyday of theatrical cartoons, the story department was made up of people who could draw, rather than professional writers.  The plots of a Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry cartoon are fairly formulaic; the fun comes in the extravagance and ingenuity of the visual gags.  These are often more easily expressed in a drawing than as a written description, and for this reason the storyboard has become the final draft of any animated script. 

Occasionally in our studio we have dispensed with writers in the traditional sense, and started the story process directly with a board.  This does not mean to say that writers should leave visual gags and business to a storyboard artist.  This is a cop out.   
Story structure and character development may be easier to work out with text on a page, but it is essential that anyone reading an animated script should be able to visualise what is happening immediately. 
In my studio, most of the storyboard work in done in house, and it is possible to talk directly to storyboard artists about how much you should write.  Invariably they ask for as much visual detail and expression in the writing as possible.  If the pictures leap off the page it is much easier for them to draw.  They may decide to change, cut or add to what you have described, but by then the process is working and the creative juices are flowing.  What they do not like is lots of dialogue with no description.  That may be fine for a stage play, but it is unlikely to inspire a visual artist.
If writing dialogue is your thing, you should probably be writing for the theatre.  Dialogue has its place, but the joy of animation is in writing things that would be impossible in live action.
Actors cannot do this:

Or this

Or this

But, in theory, if it can be drawn, you can write it.  In last week’s blog I explained how I set my students an exercise, asking them to find visual ways a character might express a state of mind, whether it be nervousness, aggression or delight.  As a follow up to this, I ask them to do the same thing, but with a character that is not human, and with a human character, but with an element of fantasy.
So, instead of he stands in the corner twiddling his fingers you have he stands under a daffodil twitching his tail.  Instead of he pounds his fist on the table, you have he brings his fist down, driving the table through the floor onto a group of men gambling in the basement. Instead of she pirouettes and falls backwards into his arms, you have he sticks out his tongue, which grasps her on the shoulder, and spins her towards him across the lilypad and into a squelchy embrace. For me, this is what animation writing is about.  This is where you can have fun.
There is a place for subtlety in animation, but it is often quite difficult to achieve.  Animation relies on bold, emphatic poses, and your writing should reflect this.  Think larger than life, and write without ambiguity.

Animation draws inspiration from silent movies, where characters balance on girders high above the ground, swing on the hands of town clocks, or walk jauntily as buildings collapse around them. These performances are influence by mime, and the faces of both Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are almost like masks. Almost everything is expressed in movement, or by striking a dramatic pose.  There needs to be an element of this in your writing.   If your characters are human, then you should be continually asking yourself how you can put this idea across in bold, emphatic images.
Unfortunately, the cartoon style of animation of the forties and fifties is no longer fashionable. Here is a link to one of Tex Avery’s films.
Nobody animates like this anymore.  Probably because nobody is capable of doing this nowadays.  Tex Avery was a genius, and when some years ago Dic attempted to revive his style in The Wacky World Of Tex Avery it was a travesty. (Sorry, guys!)
The reality of writing for animated shows is that your ability to fantasise will be restricted by many different factors: design, budget, the integrity of the world that has been created, as well as the style of animation.  When writing for stop-motion animation it is not uncommon to find your characters have such short arms that they cannot scratch their heads!  I am currently writing for a CG series where, unlike with drawn animation, nothing can be squeezed or stretched.  You might also find the budget will not allow for any water, or fire etc.   Traditionally you will always avoid having more than two or three characters on screen at any one time, scenes with characters with more than two legs, and heavy effect-ridden scenes with tidal waves, etc.  With a feature film budget, of course, you can be more extravagant.
Working within these limitations can be a frustration, but sometimes this can be a spur to the imagination. 
Next week:  Some rules and conclusions to working without an actor.