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:
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.