Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Writing For Animation -23

The Story Editor – Why you need one.

            Animated series, for reasons I have already explained, have large numbers of episodes. This means that the process of managing the scriptwriting needs to be handled carefully.  The production will often involve teams of artists in different countries, who need to be supplied with scripts, layouts, and voice tracks in a predictable and constant stream.  This is never easy, especially since most animation series are coproductions, and require editorial approval from several people, often in different countries, and with different ideas.

            It amuses me when I read how certain well-known American writers have never had to rewrite a script, and how every story idea they propose is always accepted.  When we made SuperTed, we worked in a tight-knit creative team, on a production that had only one source of finance, S4C, a broadcaster with a very light editorial touch.  As I writer, I was able to talk through ideas not only with the director, but also with storyboard artists and even animators.  I had a first hand knowledge of what was possible, and what made a good episode.  As part of the production team (I later became the producer) I was able to try a few ideas that departed from the norm.  I was in a privileged position, where every idea I suggested was the result of previous discussion, and was taken seriously, and where rewrites were usually done more because I thought they were needed than because of some outside intervention.  That was thirty years ago, and the world has changed.

            I suspect that those writers (all Americans) who write series after series without any rejections or alterations have never worked on a coproduction.  I also imagine that somewhere along the production process, their scripts have been subject to alterations as directors, producers or storyboard artists have said The way we’ve designed the duck, it could never wear that Viking helmet, or the pink lava from the volcano, it’s not going to look like foam, more like a strawberry gelato.. etc.  The more these practical issues are sorted out at script stage, the smoother the production will run.

            I wrote all the scripts for the first three series of SuperTed but, if we were making the series now, I would insist on using a several different writers.  Writers like to write as many episodes as possible for both financial and egotistical reasons, but different writers will provide more options, and ultimately enrich any series.  Apart from the fact that a variety of different writers with different approaches will keep the series fresh, often the funding for a series will dictate that the writers come from different countries.  To access state funding in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, you must use creative people from those countries, and often this means writers.

            I know of several live action series where the role of the story, or script editor, is essentially a management role, and does not involve any actual scriptwriting.  Script editors for long-running soaps, for example, are often young, talented, but not very experienced people whose role is to keep the scriptwriters on track.  With a few notable exceptions, this is not the case for animated series.  The production of an animated series should run like a finely honed industrial process.  As I have already mentioned, scripts, storyboards, timings, etc have to be delivered to different places in the world at specific times. Delays in the delivery of scripts can have disastrous consequences for the budget and schedule.

            However much time there is in the schedule for scriptwriting, it never seems enough.  Scripts can be delayed because the writer fails to deliver for some reason but, more likely, can be delayed because a broadcaster is away or ill, and cannot give the necessary approval.  Sometimes, depressed writers will abandon their scripts in the face of contradictory comments and delays in approvals.  This often means that the only way a story editor will hit the deadline is to write, or re-write the script himself.

            I worked as story editor on a very successful series where all the scripts from one of the coproducing countries were so far from the mark, that I had to rewrite them all.  Even if the writers had been prepared to do rewrites (which they weren’t) I took the view that it would take more time and effort, and risk missing the deadline, if I were to engage in the long process of sending comments back and forth, and getting things approved.

            Of course, the real reason you should use a story editor is to make sure that there is a creative consistency throughout the series, that characters stay in character, that the stories do not depart from the ethos of the series, and that the scripts are as exciting as possible.  If the story editor is doing his job, then the series should get richer as it progresses.   Once the first voice recordings have been done, the story editor will have a good idea of what catchphrases, voice patterns, dialect, etc will suit each character.  Characters, idiomatic phrasing, relationship ideas suggested by one writer can be used to enrich another writer’s script. 

            Given enough freedom and responsibility, the job of a story editor can be a joy.  Too often, though, the pressures of conflicting editorial views, budget and schedule pressures, and breakdowns in communication are enough to make any story editor despair.

Next week:  The Story Editor (cont).

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Writing For Animation - 22

The Story Bible – Storylines

Any story bible will include some suggestions for storylines, and, ideally, a couple of existing scripts.  It should also include some indication of suitable subject matter for the scripts.

Every animated series is to some extent formulaic, though some are much more formulaic than others.  Scooby Doo, for instance, seems to re-hash the same plot over and over again.  The Simpsons will take you to places you don’t expect, but rarely, if ever, outside the confines of a family sitcom, though not a very traditional one.   Often a series will have a recurring event that scriptwriters are obliged to include.  In Fireman Sam, for example, every episode had to include a callout scene.  The fire engine had to be seen driving out of the station, bells and sirens blaring.  In the first few series of South Park, Kenny has to die.  I am currently writing scripts for a series about a young Viking who must have a moment of revelation in every episode.  The scene where he rubs his nose and sparks fly is an obligatory element of every script.

Quite often, the type of storyline will be obvious from the premise of the series.  In our series, Hana’s Helpline, each story had to involve a character asking Hana for help.  There were no directions about how this was done, or by whom, but it had to be about a problem the target audience, young children, would understand.  Each episode of our series, Igam Ogam, revolves around a simple phrase, or word, that is repeated in different situations, and with different expression.  Words like Sorry or Again form the basis for a story built around conflicts that arise from the relationships between the characters.

As we have already discussed, conflict is the motor behind all stories.  I intend to explore ways of creating conflict at a later date, but suffice to say that the story bible needs to be clear about where the conflicts lie.  Many series are based on one central conflict, e.g. a single adversary who always needs to be overcome. I once was the story editor for a long running series about football, called The Hurricanes. In every episode, the Hurricanes had to thwart the attempts of their unscrupulous rivals, The Gorgons, to get the better of them on and off the pitch.  Each episode ended with highlights of a game between the teams, which the Hurricanes inevitably won.

This involved all sorts of other conflicts.  Against the elements, when the Gorgons contrived to strand their opponents’ coach in the middle of the jungle, or to challenge them to a game played aboard a ship.  Moral conflicts, as players had to choose between loyalty to their team and personal relationships and obligations.  Physical conflicts, as the Gorgons used strong arm tactics to get their way.  There were sometimes conflicts that involved a player, as he suffered a lack of form, a lack of confidence, a blackmail threat, etc., and at other times conflicts that involved the group, as their kit was destroyed, they came down with a mystery illness, or ended up playing for their lives in the Ball Game of the Toltecs.

Writers will have their own preferences about the sort of story they like to write, and, if the series is to remain fresh and interesting, it is essential that a range of different writers are used, and that they are given the opportunity to bring their own personality to the series.  Some writers relished the possibilities for action in a story about a physical contact with the elements, or the other team.  Others were more at home dealing with the personal conflicts of an individual.   For this reason, there need to be as many opportunities for conflict as possible, without undermining the integrity of the series.  The conflicts, like everything else, are subject to the parameters that have already been established in the section describing the world of the series.  The Hurricanes never travelled in time, or in space.  If their exploits were sometimes incredible, it was because no team could ever win that number of games.

It is quite usual for a story bible to list the different types of story conflict.  The Bible of the series I am currently writing for has a list of potential starting points for adventures, as well as ideas for how the problems might be resolved.  It insists that one of the main characters is emotionally involved in the problem.  This has to be an essential part of all storytelling.  There has to be something at stake, and we have to care about our characters.  This Bible also insists on a three act structure, something that other bibles might take for granted.

Some bibles list suggestions for which characters drive which type of story, as well a visual gags that are permissible, or the type of misunderstanding that drives the humour of the series.  It is good to have lots of information and suggestions, but, sometimes, too many examples can be constrictive.  Every writer will want to come up with his own ideas, rather than use those of the bible.

In practice, writers soon build up an understanding of what works for any series, and specific notes from story editors or executive producers will be an important factor in the way that scripts evolve.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told I know that was in the Bible, but we’ve changed it.

Next week:  The role of the story editor.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Writing For Animation - 21

(Apologies for a slight hiatus.  I've been in Estonia talking to some great students from Cardiff, Estonia, Norway, and the Czech Republic)

The Story Bible: Setting the parameters.

No story bible would be complete with a description of both the style of animation, and the technique used.  In my experience, this is a list of things that are inadvisable or impossible for a writer to propose.  I have yet to see a story bible that sets no parameters.

Our story bible for Igam Ogam, for example, will list the possible locations to be used, and the characters.  Since new sets and stop-motion models are extremely expensive, the writers need to construct stories using these characters and locations.  New characters do emerge, but they tend to be simply made, using leftover materials.  In Igam Ogam, a furry caterpillar called Wriggle Wiggle made an appearance in a story, and became a fixture.  In Fireman Sam, it was a pet sheep called Wooly.  Both of these were made with a simple piece of wire and some fluffy material.

Similarly, we had one set that could be constantly re-dressed, so as long as a new location didn’t involve buildings or large landmarks, there was some flexibility with locations.

In a bible for a stop-motion series, you are likely to find restrictions on moving the camera, which may need a costly motion control rig, or on characters or objects leaving the ground, which also require a rig and some touching up in post.  There are often other restrictions limiting what a character can do.  For some reason, stop motion characters never have arms long enough to reach the top of their heads, and often have very short legs.

You will find similar restrictions in other media. I am currently writing scripts for an international coproduction made in computer generated animation.  The bible is very detailed, and comes with a large section about what is possible technically, and what should be avoided.  It explains the limitations of the software they are using, and of the budget.  Another type of limitation could be, of course, that of the skills of the animators.

2D shows usually are more flexible technically, but often will include restrictions on the amount of distortion that is possible, usually for artistic, rather than technical reasons.  We have discussed this in a previous chapter.  Cartoony animation is not always appropriate, and there may be instructions not to bend bodies out of shape, detach hair, eyes, etc for expressive effect.  More usual would be a limitation in the number of people in a scene, or on water effects, explosions, etc.

Animation production for television is an industrial process, and it is important that the scriptwriters understand what is needed to make that process work. At the same time, a good story bible will not heap so many restrictions on the writer that he or she has no room for manoeuvre.

More interestingly, in this section you would include some creative parameters.  These often have to do with genre.  In an action adventure series, are you allowed to crack jokes?  Are you allowed to engage with serious issues in a sitcom like the Simpsons?  Can you have a romantic storyline in a science fiction series?  Writers like to push the envelope of the genre they are working in, and it is important that the bible is clear about how far they can go.

A producer colleague once showed me a bible for a boy’s action show that had very clear rules about how much aggression there could be without transgressing compliancing restrictions.  Cynically, he had come up with a set of suggestions which injected violence into the show, but in an oblique way, i.e. nobody ever hit anyone else.  The show was a big hit.

Any cultural parameters would also be explained here.  Some shows avoid Christmas episodes because they are concerned about sales to the Middle East.  Other shows, championing multi-culturalism, might encourage episodes that relate to festive occasions.

In this section there might also be a discussion about taste.  I’m sure that the bible for South Park will have insisted on a level of tastelessness that needs to be sustained throughout the series.

 Next -  The Story Bible: Storylines