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

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