Friday, 27 April 2012

Writing For Animation - 20

The Story Bible- the World (cont)
Animation is about illusion.  Typically, students learning the first steps of animation will be taught how to distort images using “squash and stretch”, and be set a series of exercises with bouncing balls, flapping flags, etc.   2D animation is all about visual tricks, which is why the German word for animation is Trickfilm.  We have already discussed how animation filmmakers like Tex Avery pushed the boundaries of what is possible in terms of timing and distortion.  This sort of animation is usually referred to nowadays as being cartoony.

I hope I have spent weeks, if not months, of blog encouraging writers to try their hand at animation because it has limitless possibilities for fantasy.  Unfortunately, in story bibles for most animated series you will find guidelines that severely limit these possibilities, as cartoon animation, and 2D in general, becomes less fashionable.  There are lots of reasons for this.  Cartoon animation demands a level of draughtsmanship and a sense of timing that is beyond the grasp of many animators.  Though computer generated animation is continually advancing technologically, it does not lend itself easily to the sort of excessive distortions created by people like Tex Avery.  Stop motion animation is even less responsive to a cartoony approach.  In this medium, the simple bouncing ball exercise practiced by animation beginners would normally be achieved by creating several different models of a ball, distorted in different way, which are replaced between exposures.

The demise of the cinema short has meant that animation is primarily made for children, and some of the extreme slapstick of shows like Tom and Jerry is deemed to be too violent. Many broadcasters, concerned both about political correctness, and about the need to keep their young viewers engaged, like to have characters on screen acting like the real children watchin.
For this reason, the story bible for a series will have a very detailed account of what is possible in the world that has been created, and what is not.  I am currently writing scripts for a series about a young Viking.  The series has an educational subtext, so we are not allowed anachronisms. This is not The Flintstones, or Jetsons, where fun was to be had by playing out a contemporary sitcom in the past or the future.  The Viking show needs to have Viking folk doing Viking things in a Nordic location.   All the same, it is not entirely naturalistic.  The characters are larger than life. Our young hero is able to train seals, and finds ways of extricating the Viking crew from the disasters they create with a series of inventions that might be inspired by Heath Robinson.
This particular bible also has an appendix, explaining in great detail the techniques being used, what they are best at, and what could be difficult.  It also has notes on what can be achieved within the budget.
All good story bibles will have these elements.  The point of the bible is to give the writer the most amount of information possible.  There is nothing more frustrating for him, or more time-consuming for the story editor, than to find that the script he has spent days writing either does not conform to the norms of the world that has been created, or is unachievable for one reason of another.
In our stop motion series, Igam Ogam, we supply the writers with a description of each set, duly photographed.  Though we have a couple of sets that can be constantly redressed to suggest different locations, we have no budget either for the building of new sets, or for the creation of new characters.  The metal skeleton, called an armature, for each new character would cost several thousand pounds without the mould for the silicon, clothing, etc. Stop motion, and often CG shows will have similar limitations for props.
Next week:  The Story Bible (cont)

I am going to Tallinn next week, so may not post again now for a fortnight. 
Also, I am taking down some of the early posts of this blog, enhanced versions of which should be available from the beginning of June as inexpensive i-books on the Apple store.  Look out for The Ten Commandments Of Pitching, and Ten Questions To Ask Yourself When Developing An Animated Series.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Writing For Animation - 19

The Story Bible (Cont) 
When I worked in the theatre it was understood that you should Never work with animals or children. I suspect that the reason why children and animals feature so prominently in animation is that this is a medium where both can be kept under control.  Animation films have no need of a rider saying No animals were hurt in the making of this film.
Creating a world where animated animals are credible is not always easy.  Animal characters are used in animation for all sorts of different reasons.  Sometimes we come up with animal characters because children find them cute and endearing. Sometimes they take human roles; sometimes they retain some of their animal characteristics.  Sometimes there is humour to be had in the juxtaposition of human and animal characteristics.  Some films and series, like Watership Down or the Animals of Farthing Wood, are about real animals.  Sometimes, we use animal characters instead of humans to avoid censorship.  The behaviour of Fritz The Cat  might have been beyond the pale if he was human.  To be honest, his behaviour would be disgusting even for a cat!

In all these contexts, though, we are, to some extent, interpreting animal behaviour in one way or another, or using animals in a metaphorical way.  If we were not, we would be making a natural history documentary, and there would be no need for animation.  This means that animated animals will not be behaving exactly like the real thing, and, in order to make them credible, we need to carefully define what they can or cannot do.
If you are creating a world inhabited by animals, here are a few questions that might need to be addressed in the story bible:
Do they wear clothes?
Do they speak?
If they speak, who can understand them?
Where do they live?
Do they interact with human characters?
Do they move like animals, like humans, or a bit of both?
What do they eat?
Can they pick up things, and, if so, with what?
Are they driven by human emotions, or animal instinct?
Each series needs a consistent set of parameters, which should be stated clearly in the bible, so individual writers know what is possible and what is not.
If your characters are representing real animals, then they will probably not wear clothes, and will move more or less naturalistically.  As soon as you make them speak, though, you are introducing human characteristics, and inevitable inconsistencies.  A series like The Animals Of Farthing Wood is, on the surface, about a group of animals escaping from a disaster, and making a dangerous journey to a new home.  It really about how people need to work together to achieve their aim. It is about community, and self-sacrifice.   In this world, the carnivores do not eat their edible companions because of a human bond of solidarity.  In a series like this, the difficulties arise in the animals’ relationship with humans.  If the animals are speaking the same language as humans, can they understand each other?

In some series, animals are merely substitutes for human beings.  In Rupert, for example, the characters wear clothes, live in houses, walk on their hind legs, and can talk to animals and humans alike.  Rupert is not really a bear at all, but a very well educated little boy.  His world, though, is a world of magic, and the characters would not have the same charm if they were human.  In this sort of series attention needs to be paid to the mechanical aspects of the design.  I was the story editor for a series called Little Hippo, in which all the characters were animals, but behaved very much like humans.  Once I had to fly to Paris for a long discussion about whether hippos had hands.
You can have a lot of fun with characters who behave like humans, but retain some animal characteristics.  We made a series called Romuald, an animated sit-com about Santa’s reindeer.  Our reindeer wore clothes, talked to each other, to Santa and various elves, and lived in suburban houses.  At the same time they walked on four legs, used their antlers as hands, and could fly.  We could make this credible because of existing conventions about Santa and his reindeer.  Everyone accepted that Santa’s reindeer could fly, and could talk.  They laughed at Romuald’s mother knitting with her antlers.  Otherwise, the relationships were clear, and Romuald was clearly recognisable as a well-meaning, but slightly nerdy boy beset by challenges that our young audience could recognise.
The important thing is to be clear, and be consistent.  If your characters are able to do something in the 15th episode that they could not do in the first, then you will lose the confidence of your viewers.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Writing For Animation - 18

The Story Bible – The World
We once developed a series of specials based on a well-know Welsh story called Sion Blewyn Coch.  This was a charming tale about a family of foxes, and their attempts to outwit the local farmer.  The original book was illustrated. In one illustration we see Sion standing in his jacket and trousers in front of a pot on the stove.  He has a fox’s head, and a bushy tail but, apart from that, looks very human, staring into the flames with his hands behind his back.  In another illustration we see him slinking on all fours into the chicken coop.  This time he wears no clothes, and is very recognisable as a fox.

In a book, sometimes you can get away with this kind of inconsistency, but in an animated series you need to sustain a believable fantasy over a number of storylines.  Your viewers have to buy into the world you are creating.

If you are writing for live action you do not have to worry about creating the world.  It exists.  You know more or less the parameters of what can happen and what cannot.  The world has a set of rules.  Objects fall down, not up.  Living things age, wither and die.  The sun rises in the morning, and sets at night.  If you want to subvert these rules, you need to give a plausible reason why.  Failing that, you need to keep the conditions of your exceptional reality consistent.  We may not be given a plausible reason why Benjamin Button lives his life from back to front, but we can go along with the premise of the story because it is followed with a tragic consistency.  The powers of Superheroes are always very clearly defined, and strictly limited by a set of rules.  If kryptonite suddenly fails to make Superman powerless, then there has to be a very good reason why or we will feel cheated.
Animation is all about fantasy, and, unlike writers of live action shows, the creator of an animated series starts with a completely blank page.  This can be dangerous.  It is all very well having a world where anything can happen, but if that world has no internal logic, then it will seem incredible and even ridiculous.
If your world is going to be credible, it must contain some elements that your audience will understand and recognise.  Your characters may take roles that are familiar, or be bound by relationships that are instantly recognisable.  Our series, Hilltop Hospital, was set in a hospital where all the characters, doctors, nurses and patients, were animals.  With two exceptions.  The hospital porters were twin teddy bears. Nobody ever questioned this.  Their role in the hospital, and in the series, was clear.  They shared design elements, and a work schedule, with the other characters.    In our recent series, Igam Ogam, the characters all belong to a prehistoric age.  Nobody questions the fact that our toddler heroine mixes with an ape and a Tyrannosaurus Rex, or that her duvet is a sabre-tooth tiger.  Whatever the species or age of the characters, the relationship between them is obvious to any toddler watching. The Tyrannosaurus is the parent, the ape is her playmate, the sabre tooth tiger is her comfort blanket.  The volcanoes play tunes and spout paint because this world is like one big toddler’s playroom.

When writing the story bible, you need to be as clear as possible about what holds your world together, and very specific about what is possible, and what is not.
Next week:  more about The World. Anthropomorphism, Cartoon vs Naturalism, The implications of the budget, and the medium.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Writing For Animation - 17

The story bible.  Characters
When people talk about animated series for television, they usually refer to the characters. It’s all about the characters, you hear people say.  Certainly, when you think about the best known series, you think of their animated stars - Paddington Bear, Fireman Sam, Shaun the Sheep,  etc.  This is partly because most animated series are named after their lead characters, but also because this is the way we producers would have you think of our shows.  Characters drive the merchandising.

Some of these characters are strong and clearly defined.  Paddington Bear’s personality is central to the stories of the series.  He is the most accident prone bear in existence. Put him in any situation, and he will instantly create a slapstick crisis.  His naïve charm and other-worldliness mean that we can never feel badly towards him.  Fireman Sam’s character is defined by his role.  In the first two series, there was an attempt to make him eccentric, a do-it-yourself inventor.  Current trends in political correctness mean that he has become almost faceless, a role rather than a personality. He is a representative of all firemen, rather than a real person. 

Perfect characters are not very interesting.  The best animation characters are those that have flaws.  To mangle Tolstoy, All perfect characters are alike; each imperfect character is flawed in its own way. Daffy Duck is interesting because his is insane; we like Donald Duck because he is irascible and belligerent; Mr Magoo is as stubborn as he is shortsighted.  I am deliberately quoting series from the past, because the protective nature of today’s broadcasting for children makes it difficult to create characters who deviate too much from the norm.  The perceived need for role models often means that the most interesting characters do not get top billing.  We are too often left with characters whose function is to play a role.  Role playing is an important component of the toy industry, which sells playsets to children so they can re-enact the adventures of the show.  So that you can’t mistake the roles being played, these often feature in the title – Fireman Sam, Postman Pat, Bob The Builder, etc.
Animation is not a medium that naturally lends itself to sophisticated expressions of emotion, and characterisation needs to be clear and simple.  When I was an actor, we would do exercises in improvisation, where one person would be somewhat deaf, another near-sighted, and so on.   Perhaps this would be politically unacceptable nowadays,  but it threw up a wealth of misunderstandings that led to humour and drama.  If you were writing a farce,  this sort of exercise would be a perfect inspiration.   I have always believed that animated characters work best if they have one defining characteristic.  This might be shyness, stupidity, clumsiness, lack of tact, etc.  If you are writing for children, this is especially the case.  The danger is that you can fall too easily into a clichéd stereotype by doing this, and I would urge writers to find different and imaginative ways of expressing very simple characterisation.  For example, in my experience, stupid people do not talk in a slow, deep, brain-dead voice.  If anything they talk far too much, often in light and vapid tones.  Evil people rarely have a loud, hollow laugh.  They tend to be quiet and sinister.   
As a writer, I do not think that it’s all about the characters. It’s all about the stories, and, of course, strong characters often make for good storylines. 
I always think that it is dangerous to think only in terms of characters when you are beginning to develop a series.  You need to think how they are going to drive the stories.   This is what any prospective writer needs to know, and this is what you need to put in the story bible. This means you need to think about their relationships, with each other, with the viewer, and with the world they inhabit. 
In creating the characters, you need to make sure that there is potential for conflict, which is the motor for all stories.  This conflict may be with external forces, visiting antagonists, an unfriendly environment, etc, but stories will always work best if there is potential for conflict within the characters themselves.  Television cop shows are a perfect example of this.  Though the stories may be about fighting crime, it is the relationship between the cops, Sherlock and Watson, Morse and Lewis, etc, that usually provides the emotional grist of the show. You pair an analytical person with an intuitive one, a heavy drinker with a teetotaller, etc.  You need to have the same sort of mix in animated shows.  Make sure the shy character comes up against the one who lacks tact.

The descriptions of characters in a story bible need to be more than simple depictions of character, they need to point up where the potential conflicts might arise, and how they fit into the stories. 
As well as personality, it is important to define cultural, habitual, or physical elements that might inspire storylines – He’s Italian and likes food, or She always wears a long coat that gets trapped in doors… etc.
Most story bibles will also include a list of the characters’ catchphrases.  This is useful, of course, but it is difficult for any writer to imitate speech patterns they have never heard.  However observant we are, and I always encourage writers to travel as much as possible by bus, because it is there that we hear speech patterns that are not our own, we all have our own vocabulary of idioms and speech rhythms.  It is one of the main jobs of a story editor to adjust dialogue in scripts to make sure everyone is in character.  I shall talk about the role of the story editor later.
Next week: The story bible: The world.