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…
…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.