Animation is an illusion. It’s a series of drawn, photographed or computer generated images put in a certain order and played back at 24 or 25 frames per second. You can change the order of these images, cut some frames out, or stay on the same image. This is not how live action film works. True, live action film is a succession of photographic images played back in the same way, but the expectation is different. In live action filmmaking, the expectation is that people, animals, and the natural world moves in a realistic way. Even in dream sequences, you expect people to move naturalistically. Start taking a frame out here and there and everything looks jerky. Take several frames out, and you have animation. This is called pixillation. In live action filmmaking, when you want something to behave in a way that it does not in nature, you invariably use an animated effect.
Of course, there are films that use rotoscoping, a technique where live action film is traced and painted, manually or digitally, to give the impression that drawings, or coloured images move in a realistic way. Motion capture techniques will necessarily give a naturalistic flow to movement, and animation is often used to flesh out crowd scenes, or replace missing actors in long shot. Animation can be made to look realistic, but this is not its strength. In animation the general rule is: if you can do it in live action, then do not animate it.
Most animation is designed so as not to look realistic, and it does not follow any natural laws. This allows great opportunities for timing, of gags, of movement, of scenes. Tex Avery, the master of the fast paced gag, actually researched what the eye was capable of assimilating. He worked out that the eye could detect a movement in a minimum of five frames, i.e. about a fifth of a second. He used this knowledge to set up gags at a frenetic pace, often cutting out frames after the film had been shot to speed things up.
One thing is certain. Animation is rarely used to slow things down. This is because doing things slowly requires more drawings, and therefore more labour and cost. Also, the “inbetween” images in rapid action are often distorted. The slower the action, the more realism is needed in the drawing.
Writers need to be aware that timing in animation is quicker than in live action. This impacts on the way characters move, the way scenes are constructed, and, sometimes, on the way the film is cut. People don’t amble in animation. If there is a scene of a couple ambling along a riverbank, you know this is merely a setup to lull you into a feeling of false security before Godzilla rises from the water, a spaceship drops onto their heads, or they get struck by lightning. In any sort of screenwriting, it is best to avoid scenes and action that do not move the story forward. This is even more true of animation. Long panning shots of rolling countryside, scenes of beautiful sunsets, scenes where characters travel from one place to another, riding across the range on horseback, or driving along the motorway are rarely seen in animation. The same with scenes where people swap platitudes, or go fishing, play chess, etc.. There are lots of reasons for this. Paintings and computer generated images do not have the depth and beauty of a magnificently shot landscape. Animation is also expensive. Why spend money on travelling, which you could spend on gags or action, on something that moves the story forward? The basic rule is: Get into scenes at the last possible moment. Get out of scenes at the first possible moment.
We have all seen animated shows for young children where cute animal characters sail along the river, while others call from the bank, saying Hello, How Are you? and Happy Birthday! I hate this sort of writing, with no conflict, no character and serious expense. I want to start the scene with the confrontation inside the Water Rat’s house where he says There’s no way I’m coming to your birthday party! If I was writing a scene where cute animals sail happily along a river, there would be Niagara Falls just around the corner!
We’ve already talked about keeping dialogue to a minimum. When constructing a scene, we don’t need to see people entering or leaving a room, saying hello or introducing themselves. This is an unnecessary expense and will slow up the storytelling. If you need to build the scene, then do it with bold, but sharp pieces of action, and if necessary, dialogue. Try to avoid scenes where everyone has to have his say. Concentrate on one or two characters to carry dialogue and action.
On the page, an animation script is longer than its live action equivalent. You usually count a page and a half (and sometimes more) for every minute shot because, for reasons that I have already explained, you need more description. A scene that lasts a minute, i.e. a page and a half, would feel extremely long, and I would advise trying to keep most scenes a lot shorter than this.
It is quite usual, especially in 2D shows, for the producer or director to stipulate how many shots he wants you to write in an episode. This is usually for budgetary reasons. In a 2D show, every shot needs its own painted background, and the director will know exactly how many he can afford. Sometimes this is for creative reasons. Action adventure shows often require fast cutting, and the director will want to encourage you to keep up the pace of the action. A preschool show might require an average of about twelve shots a minute, action adventure shows will demand a lot more than this. Obviously, these need to be a mix of short and longer shots, geared to the pacing of your story. There is nothing more monotonous than a show that changes shot regularly every 5 seconds.
Next week. Manipulating the viewer’s reactions.