Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Common Mistakes Made By Writers - 2

Of course, there are writers who will ignore the bible entirely.  Their storylines will be unsuitable, their dialogue off character and their emphasis off message. These writers do not get re-commissioned.  All the same, perverse as it may seem, my second common mistake is:

2.  Following the bible too rigidly.

Because we call our briefing documents bibles it is easy to imagine that they are incontrovertible, immutable and carved in stone.  This is clearly not the case.  There is nothing holy about a series bible, and a fundamentalist approach is not advisable.

We have already discussed how, in an animated series, relationships between characters cannot develop.  Other things can and do develop.  New characters are introduced, new back stories are created and new catchphrases are invented.

Series bibles capture a moment in time and are usually written at the beginning of a series, when only a couple of scripts are complete.  Once the series has started and scripts start to be delivered the story editor will usually find that different writers are bringing new ideas to the series.  A good story editor will embrace those ideas that enrich the series and encourage other writers to use them.  

In Fireman Sam we wanted the children to have a pet and consequently invented a dog that was named after my childhood pet, Dusty.  Though Dusty did figure in a few scripts, a sheep called Woolly, who became a regular character in the series, quickly upstaged him.  Woolly didn’t feature in the series bible, but was created for a storyline where sheep wandered onto a dangerous ledge on the cliffside, along with the series’ most colourful character, Norman.  Woolly then featured in many storylines, often getting our young protagonists into trouble.  We all thought that if we were children it would be a lot more fun to have a sheep as a pet than have a dog.  Sheep make pets that are more unusual, more challenging and more… Welsh.
The same thing happened when making Igam Ogam.  This is a series for very young children and is full of visual gags.  The animators thought it would be good laugh to have a furry caterpillar that squeaked its way across screen and blinked at camera.  They made a fluffy orange creature out of a piece of wire, and Wriggle Wiggle was born.  Wriggle Wiggle did not feature in the bible but now appears in every episode.  Sometimes he simply squeaks across the screen at an inappropriate moment. At other times he is used as a fake moustache, a hat or a towel.  He can be trodden on, waved in the air or used as a paintbrush.  It’s amazing what can be done with a piece of orange fluff on a wire.

Other writers will come up with catchphrases that are more pithy and expressive than those in the bible, or will imagine a colourful past or a hobby for a character or, if the series allows it, invent a new location that suggests new storylines. These additions to the colour of the series should ideally be recorded in a new version of the bible but few story editors have time for this.  A good story editor will pass on new developments as he speaks to writers and include new catchphrases and colourful dialogue as he edits the scripts.

In the same way that additions are made to the bible as the series develops, other elements are dropped.  I find it very frustrating as a writer when I latch onto a detail in the bible that I think could form the basis of a storyline only to be told that it is no longer relevant to the series.

When you write a bible you try to put in as much detail as possible.  You put in catchphrases, little details about the characters’ past or anything that makes your characters seem more rounded.  One character may be superstitious, and have a lucky mascot. Another might be accident prone.  Another might suffer from fleas and be continually scratching.  A good story editor will put all these things into the bible to make the characters seem more vivid.

As the scripts progress, it will become obvious that some of this detail is irrelevant.  You will find that some characters rarely feature in the stories, but others, who you thought were only bit players, take on major roles.  There is probably only one storyline that you can get out of a character who is superstitious.  A character who is accident prone is more useful because he can put himself and others in danger and also provide slapstick humour.  It is difficult to come up with multiple storylines about a character with fleas.

Characters whose description in the bible is less detailed offer more potential for stories.  If a character is simply described as nervous and shy, you are then free to invent stories about how he is also superstitious, accident prone and has fleas.

It is important that writers of animated series contribute to this constant process of enrichment by inventing their own colourful take on the series.  If they are content to merely repeat what is stated in the bible, then their scripts will soon become boring.

Next:  Common Mistakes Made By Writers (Cont)

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Common Mistakes Made By Animation Writers - 1

As I have already explained, I do not intend to talk about the fundamentals of scriptwriting in this blog.  I am not going to expound on three act structure, character arcs, scene beats, etc., though these things are as relevant to animation as they are to any script.  Other people have written at length about this subject, and with more clarity and authority than I could muster.

I simply want to share my observations as a story editor and producer of animated series.  Inexperienced writers of animation series tend to make the same mistakes, and I want flag them up here for the benefit of animation writers who are still finding their feet.  Please forgive me if you think that many of them are obvious, or if I am repeating things I have mentioned before.  I hope you might still find them useful.

General Mistakes.

Not reading the Bible.

Animated series may bear some resemblance to soaps.  They usually have a small group of characters with whom it is easy to become emotionally involved.  They have a large number of episodes.  They can be addictive.

That’s about as far as the similarities go.  Animated series are almost invariably made as stand alone episodes, that can be transmitted in any order.  This is partly to do with the vagaries of programming.  It is always a frustration for me when broadcast of an episode of one of our series is dropped to accommodate a live sporting or ceremonial event.  This happens less often in the digital age.  Some broadcasters broadcast an episode a week, and for this reason animated series are usually made in multiples of 13, one for every week of a quarter.  Others strip the series, i.e. show an episode a day, and may have an episode or two that doesn’t fit, and which might need to be delayed or repeated.  Other broadcaster will drop an episode for cultural reasons.  Al Jazeera, which buys most of our series, will not broadcast Christmas episodes, for obvious reasons.  All this means that you cannot be sure in which order the episodes will be shown, or rely on their being shown continuously.

This means that, unlike in soaps, relationships cannot develop. Characters cannot easily be written out, or miraculously revived from the dead.  In South Park, Kenny has to die and be revived in every episode.  There is no actual development.

I habitually watch a soap.  I won’t tell you which one, only that it is one of the worst. It holds a morbid fascination for me.  Relationships do develop, fall apart, etc.  What is most clear is that the players in the drama fall in and out of character to suit the plot.  A character with a wooden leg will limp in one episode, but be very sprightly in another.  Another will get pregnant with a surrogate baby well into her fifties, having suddenly recovered from a seemingly terminal illness.  Malicious, selfish characters suddenly become tender and loving.

We go along with this because we are carried along by the stories, however ridiculous they might be.  We understand the conventions of the genre.

In animated series relationships cannot develop.  Characters cannot change their personality simply because the story demands it.  Character arcs can only occur within an episode, and, unlike in most drama, must restore the status quo.  In our series, Hilltop Hospital, we had a love triangle.  Kitty, the cat nurse, was in love with Dr Matthews, the dog doctor. He, in turn, was in love with the hippo surgeon, Sally.  This relationship was doomed to get nowhere.  Over 52 episodes, their love was never requited.  The challenge for the writers was to see how much fun they could get out of it.

It is very tempting for writers who have a brilliant idea for a storyline to create new personality traits for the characters to advance the narrative, or to give it emotional power.  This is a common mistake.  The players in an animated series need to stay in character throughout the series, or the audience will get confused when shows are played out of order.

Animated characters tend to be almost one dimensional.  They tend to be dominated by one characteristic. One might be a bully.  Another dreamy and sentimental.  Another full of nervous energy.  You might write a story in which the bully reveals a soft interior, but, at the end of the episode, it must be clear that he is still a bully.  The sentimental dreamer might have to come to terms with gritty reality in one episode, but the experience must not be allowed to change his basic nature.

This means that writers need to pay attention to the bible, and, in particular, the description of characters. 

Next: More common mistakes