Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Writing For Animation -16

The Story Bible
Elsewhere I have written how it is often useful to be able to describe your idea in a catchy phrase or two.  These high concept descriptions are useful in a pitch bible, where you are trying to hook the interest of a prospective buyer or investor, but not much use to someone who is trying to write a script.  The story bible needs to have as much detail as possible, and must leave little room for misinterpretation.
There are similarities between a pitch bible, used to raise the production finance for a series, and the bible that is used to brief the writers.  They both cover the same ground, and will usually have sections entitled Concept, Characters, The World, Style, and Storylines. Both are subject to change, usually for the same reason.   Those same broadcasters or investors who asked you to alter the show in the development stage, will continue to do so once they have committed to it.  There the similarities end.

The pitch bible is pithy, witty, easy to read, attractively laid out, and full of colourful visuals.  Most story bibles have no visuals, run to several pages of densely covered text, and are written in the style of a car manual.  Some even cover the sort of things you need to avoid because of the limitations of budget and technical expertise.  You would never find this in a pitch bible!  The story bible is essentially a practical resource for the writer, and needs to contain everything he might need to come up with a storyline and script that might navigate the difficult process of the approvals process.  They are the animation equivalent of a cookery book.  Get the ingredients, the amounts, the timing, or the method wrong, and the result will not be what is required.  It might be to your taste, but that doesn’t cut it.
It is important that the story bible is written by the story editor.  A big responsibility rests on the shoulders of the story editor, and for this reason, it is important that he or she feels ownership of the scriptwriting process.  The story editor needs to know the thinking behind what is written in the bible, because he or she will later have to defend it, explain it, and probably change it.
I’ll talk more about the role of the story editor later.
The Concept.
A story bible will traditionally start with a page or two about the concept.  This will include something about the basic idea… It’s about a Fireman stationed in a small Welsh town…. It’s about an ingenious Viking boy who solves problems calmly by using his brain… It’s about a wilful cavegirl who wreaks havoc as she pushes the boundaries of a toddler’s world… and so on.  It will also talk about genre.  Is this action, comedy, or both? It might reference other shows.  The series for which I am writing at the moment refers to Baron Munchausen , MacGyver, and Mission Impossible.  It will try and pinpoint where the appeal of the series lies, and may talk about the relationships of the characters, or their relationship to the world around them.   If it is a preschool show, it may talk about an underlying moral thread or message.  Maybe it’s about teaching children about safety, about how problems are best solved without resorting to violence, or about the building blocks of language.

Our bible for Fireman Sam will have said, early on, that it was an action comedy with elements of soap, that it was aimed primarily at boys, but girls should enjoy it too, that every episode should involve a call out of the fire engine, because that was where the main excitement was, but that the engine should not be called out unless there was a bona fide reason for it.  It would have spoken about the need for research into how fires start, what equipment might be used, and how the fire should be put out.  It will have said that the fires shouldn’t be so frightening that they give children nightmares, and point out other reasons why a fire engine might be called into action, to rescue a dog trapped in a locked car, perhaps, or a boy stuck on a cliff ledge.  It would have talked about the safety messages that should be inherent in the rescue – Don’t panic. Get quickly out of a burning building. Don’t pour water on an electrical fire etc.  It will also have talked about another underlying message, about the heroism of the fire service, an ordinary, everyday sort of heroism where people got on with saving lives in a calm and understated way, quoting Sam as a role model for all children, and possibly trying to claim that Penny was more than just a token, but a feminine equivalent of Sam.
This first page or two will be different for every series, but will always try and answer the question What will I be writing about, and how?
Next week:  More about the story bible.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Writing for animation - 15

The Industrial Process

For scheduling and commercial reasons, animated series for children have a serious number of episodes.  When we started making SuperTed, thirty years ago, it was still possible  to persuade a broadcaster to pay 100% of the production costs. Today a broadcaster will only pay a fraction of this, and the rest of the money has to be raised, usually from a combination of international pre-sales, coproduction, perhaps some “soft” funding from government, and an investment against rights in the series. These rights are only valuable if the series can be sold widely, and can generate further income through licensing toys, books, clothing, etc. 

Animated shows will only generate income from licensing if people know they exist. Thirty years ago, a good episode of SuperTed would gather an audience of 2 million. An episode of a similar show today, shown on terrestrial television in the UK, will be lucky to attract 200,000 viewers.  If shows are  to make an impact on the public consciousness, they need to have lots of episodes, and be repeated often.  For scheduling reasons, animated series are made in multiples of thirteen (one episode a week for a quarter), and usually have a minimum of 26 episodes. In practice, they are often “stripped”, i.e. a different episode is shown every day.  I once worked as a story editor for the American company Dic on a series of sixty five half hour episodes.  Big hits will be made in even greater numbers, though may change the story editor.

This volume of work and the fact that most series have a variety of financial partners have an impact on the way the writing is organised.  International coproductions usually involve several broadcasters, all of which may want to have an input on the content of the stories.  Government subsidy, and the involvement of public broadcasters, will bring obligations.  Certain roles, including writers and story editors may have to be filled by talent from a particular country, or even region.  A typical production contract for an animated series will involve a whole series of approvals that need to be made in writing by the various partners.
This means that the organisation of the scriptwriting of an animated series for children is often a formal affair.  It is usually not possible for a director, or a story editor, to invite all the writers to a meeting and brief them verbally.  For a start, he or she would need to make sure that the brief he was giving them was in tune with what the different broadcasters were thinking. 
It is crucial that everybody works to a brief that has been agreed by all the partners.  This brief is enshrined in a bible. This writer’s bible is a different animal from those bibles used to pitch and market a show.  It is a document that explains, as comprehensibly as possible, the characters, the style, the parameters of what is possible and not, the world, the script formatting, etc..  Once this bible is written and approved, the job of engaging the writers (and ideally choosing them), briefing them, negotiating approvals with the broadcasters, delivering approved scripts on time, etc., is entrusted to a story editor.  Ideally, this story editor will have written the bible, and, ideally, there will be only one story editor for the series.
Over the next few weeks I shall talk about what needs to go into a series bible of this type, what the role of the story editor should be, and what can go wrong with the process if everything is not organised in the right way.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Writing For Animation - 14

Structure and Short films.
There are many stories to be told, and many different ways of telling them.  All the same, I am a great believer in the three act structure.  Stories without a beginning, middle and end rarely work.  I have stated earlier that I am not going to talk about the three act structure, and I am not.  There are others who can do this far better than I.  There are times, however, when a three act structure is not appropriate, or not possible.
The world of animation is dominated by short film.  This is because the process is labour intensive and expensive.  Animation film-makers tend to work alone, or in small groups, and may take a year or more to make even a ten minute film.  There is often an element of fine art in this type of filmmaking , and some films are abstract in their content.
I would argue that short films, however abstract, still need structure, though this may not involve a three act narrative.  You can’t really squeeze a three act story structure into a film that is less than ten minutes long, and many short animated films, like T.O.M.

Or The Sandman

are essentially a series of setups leading to a pay-off.
When you learn about scene structure, you usually talk in terms of beats.  In a romantic comedy, the beats of a scene might go..1. He knocks on the door with the flowers… 2. She yells from inside:Go away!... 3, He leans down and looks through the letter box… 4.. Her hand reaches through the letter box, grabs his tie, and pulls his head against the door… 5. Dazed , he slumps against the door.. 6. The door opens, and he falls into her arms… 6..They kiss and so on.  These beats are very clear in these films.  In The Sandman, at one point you might have 1.The windows fly open.. 2.. A cloud floats in front of the moon… 3…the cloud turns into a scary face… 4 the sheets on the bed flap… 5.. He looks under the bed to find a mouse… and so on.  These beats do not continue at the same pace.  There are continual changes in rhythm and dynamics as tension is built up and released.  The words I am using beats, rhythm, dynamics, are all musical terms.  All films, and short films in particular, need a structure that allows for changes in pace, agitation and tranquillity, powerful emotions and relief.  These are the attributes of good musical composition.  I think writers of short film can learn a lot from musical form.
In this analogy I will exclude dance music, which, of its very nature, requires a constant and regular beat.  Popular songs usually last two or three minutes.  They have a simple structure, that normally involves verse and chorus, but little development of ideas.  Jazz solos, if done well, include a mixture of simple and virtuosic phrases, notes that are comfortably in the chord, and those that create a dissonant tension, changes in phrasing and volume.  They develop the music in order to create emotion and excitement.  Classical composers rely on sonata form, rondos, theme and variations, etc to achieve the same effect.
Here is another Michael Dudock De Wit film, which follows the form of a musical Theme and Variations:
A structure that allows for development is especially important in abstract films. Here is a film by Len Lye:

It is difficult to see any development in this film, and little variation.  The structure is provided by the music track, which is fairly constant.  I find it difficult to watch this film beyond the two minute mark.  I know that this will offend Len Lye fans, but it is a bit like watching a graphic equaliser.  Compare the monotonous effect of Len Lye to this film by Clive Walley:

Here there is real movement and contrasts, particularly of sound and texture.   Clive Walley tends to give his films a musical title or subtitle, and with good reason.  In this film there is real development, cause and effect, the building up of tension, and repetition of action before everything returns to its starting point.  It has character and a strange humour.
Writers, of course, will have little opportunity to get involved in films like this.  They have more to offer to more conventional, longer stories.  Where would Wallace and Gromit be without Bob Baker?
Next week: The Industrial process.


Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Writing For Animation - 13

The Passing Of Time, Wipes, Match Cuts. Where what is difficult in live action is easier in animation.
Animators have a control over their world that those working in live action do not.  They do not have to insure against rain, or the illness of starring actors, or equipment lost in transit.  Animation filmmakers do not have to sit on hilltops in the early hours of the morning, hoping for a clear shot of the sun rising.  If they want to show someone ageing, they do not need their characters to undergo hours in make-up, or the application of complicated prosthetics.  They can make the sun rise or set at will, age characters with a few strokes of a brush or pen, use a simple cycle of drawings, or a software plug-in, to make it snow.
As an example of what is possible in animation, I want to talk about ways of showing the passing of time.  In live action films, you will often find this is done with a simple caption, two years later, or Puuloa, December 7, 1941. Earlier films use devices such as the hands of clocks spinning, or the pages of a calendar shooting into the air.  As an example of what is possible in animation, I enclose a link to a film by MichaĆ«l Dudok De Wit, Father And Daughter.  This is my favourite animated film, and, possibly, my favourite film of all time.  All of his films are terrific, but this one never fails to move me to tears, perhaps because I have a daughter. 

I am a firm believer that the aim of an animation writer, and of movie writers in general, is to use pictures to tell the story.  Dialogue is for colour, or for character, or sometimes for gags, or to emphasise what is happening visually by playing against it with subtext.  The perfect animated film (at least, short film) has no dialogue.
I shall talk briefly at some later point about alternative structures to the standard three act narrative.  Father And Daughter has a musical structure, has no dialogue, and yet the story is clear and compelling. The film packs a hefty emotional punch.
Almost every image in this film is about the passing of time. The ageing of the girl is shown in several ways.  There is the visual ageing of the way she looks and moves, of course, emphasised by the amount of effort needed to ride the bicycle up the hill.  The relationships, first alone, then with girls her own age, then with a young man, then with a family of her own, and once again, alone.   The characters she passes on her bicycle age in inverse proportion to her, thus emphasising her own ageing.  The first cyclist she passes is a very old woman, the last a small child.  Then we have the passing of the seasons, the drying up of the lake, and the gradual deterioration of the bicycle, which refuses to stay on its stand in the last sequence.  Then there are more subtle, metaphoric images: the lengthening shadows, the dry leaves that blow across the ground, and the spinning of the wheel of the bicycle.
I Imagine that little of this will have been scripted, and that the filmmaker will have sketched the film out initially as a storyboard.  All the same, writers can learn from films like this, and come up with their own visual vocabulary.
This film is very linear, and to mark the change from one sequence to the next, the filmmaker uses a series of cutaways, to waves, to rain, to a flight of ducks, etc.  Incidentally, the ducks are part of the changing of the seasons motif, but also reflect the other visual strand of the film – images of parting.
Cutaways like these are a great way to show that one sequence has ended, time has passed and another is beginning. Traditionally, you would cut from one scene to another if the action is linear and straightforward, and use a dissolve (mix) or wipe to show the passing of time, or a dramatic change of location.  It currently seems fashionable to use a fade to black as a substitute for a dissolve, but I find this confusing.  A fade to black is very final, unless it is a POV shot of someone who has lost consciousness.
Wipes and match cuts or dissolves are more common in animation than in live action.  Because of the graphic style of a lot of animation, designers will often design a series of wipes that reflect the style of the show.  For our series, Hana’s Helpline, for example, the art director designed a series of colourful wipes in the shape of animals that punctuated the show.  Writers should be aware of the possibilities of wipes if they are appropriate. 
We have already discussed the importance of finishing a scene at the earliest possible moment, and starting at the latest possible moment.  Both wipes and match cuts can help the transition from scene to scene, so they do not feel abrupt. In animation, almost anything that moves can be used as a wipe to ease the transition from one scene to another.  It could be a vehicle moving across the screen, or towards camera, a cloud of dust, and explosion, a door opening, etc.  Ultimately the director will choose what he or she wants, but, as explained before, there is no harm in suggesting visual ways to change scene, if they move the plot forward.
Match cuts and dissolves are also easier to achieve than in live action, and I use them frequently in my scripts.  This is where you track in on someone’s face, for example, and then pull back to find you are in a different location.  As well as helping to get into the next scene in an elegant and timely fashion, this device can be used as a reveal.  You track in on a character saying I never want to see another giraffe in my life! and track out to reveal him in the centre of a herd of giraffes, saying Did you know there’s mud on your knee!
 Next week:  Short film and narrative structure