Thursday, 23 August 2012

Common Mistakes Made By Animation Writers - 6

I am a fan of the Soviet filmmaker, Tarkovsky, and particularly like his 1972 version of Solaris.  This film starts with several minutes of a man (Donatas Banionis) standing, then walking beside a stream.  As in many of Tarkovsky’s films, there are many shots that dwell on plants undulating in the water.  With no music, but only the sounds of nature, Tarkovsky manages to create an atmosphere of sadness and yearning, which is finally broken after several minutes when a car arrives.
 A riveting scene from Solaris

Don’t think you can do this in animation.  You can’t.  In the time it takes Tarkovsky to set the scene you should becoming to the end of the first act of your script.

Common mistakes in structure.

·      Keep the scenes short.  Animation writers and directors do not have the beauty of the natural world, the art of a top cinematographer or the moody charisma of Donatas Banionis to work with.  They have a series of drawings or models, real or computer generated, which only come to life when they move.  Animation is an illusion.  A single image of an animation character is simply an image, a drawing or a photograph.  Only when several of these are put together does the character come to life.  You cannot hold the camera on a single image for any length of time.
You cannot create mood in the way that life action filmmakers like Tarkovsky can.  No animator or computer programme can reproduce the beauty of a real sky or plants gently waving in a flowing stream.  Mood is created with music or with movement.  Don’t try and be lyrical, thinking that somehow the animator can create a landscape that will express what you need it to.  You’re unlikely to have a Turner, Monet or Constable painting your backgrounds, so concentrate on what you can do best in animation: action and fantasy.
So don’t make the scenes too long.  If I see a scene any longer than a page and a half (usually a minute) I start to get nervous.  Is there really enough visual interest in it to keep the viewer hooked?

·      Keep intros and setups to a minimum. Try to get into your scene at the last possible moment and get out at the first opportunity.  In live action you often have scenes where characters sweep down long stairways, exchange looks before crossing crowded dance floors, or enter boardrooms, greeting bigwigs as they go.  There are usually very good reasons for this.  We might have a shot of an actress sweeping down the stairs simply so we can see how elegant and beautiful she looks. 

      We might be establishing a sexual chemistry with a look across a crowded dance floor.  The meet and greet in the boardroom could be about characters sizing each other up, deciding who is the alpha male.  

Female beauty is difficult to achieve in animation, and sexual chemistry is even harder.  It’s going to be hard to show primates sizing each other up without full-blooded actors.  So cut out shots of people travelling, opening doors, glancing meaningfully at each other, or walking into rooms and saying hello.  Cut straight to the part of the scene that moves the plot forward.  And once you made the point you need to make, there’s no need for people to walk off out of the door, say goodbye, etc.  All this costs virtually nothing in live action, but a few seconds of somebody saying good-bye, turning and walking out of the door could take an animator several days.  If it isn’t absolutely necessary, don’t do it.

Some writers take all this on board and deliver scripts that consist of one short scene after another.  They need to

·      Pace the scenes to suit the narrative.  A good script needs to have a combination of longer scenes that develop a situation, suspense, etc., and also fast cutting scenes that are dramatic and full of action.  I have talked elsewhere about how timing in animation seems to be faster than in live action, but that does not mean that every scene needs to be short.  A well balanced script should have scenes of different lengths, none of them more than a page and a half in length.  There are few things more boring than a script in which every scene is the same length.

How to avoid making mistakes:

·      Communicate with your story editor.
·      If possible, watch what happens in other episodes of the series.
·      Revise your work.
·      Keep writing.  It’s like playing a musical instrument.  You have to practice.

The Kindle version of my new book, Ten Questions To Ask Yourself When Developing An Animated Series is now available on Amazon. (uk) (us)  Act quickly and you might get it free!

Friday, 17 August 2012

Common Mistakes Made By Animation Writers - 5

Mistakes describing action.

We have already discussed how dialogue should be kept brief and how writers should try to avoid telling us what is happening but show us instead.  A common mistake made by writers is

·      Not writing enough action.  If you are writing a movie script, you tend to allow a page for every minute on the screen.  For animation scripts you usually need to allow a page and a half for every minute.  This is because you need to write a lot more action and description.  You don’t have a location manager to find the perfect castle, bungalow or hovel.  You don’t have crew members who will rush around finding costumes or props.  You may have an art director but you are primarily writing for a storyboard artist who is going to have to draw everything from scratch.  You have to be able to give this artist a clear picture of what is happening.  You don’t have to describe everything in the scene, but you need to write enough for the reader to get a clear picture in his mind.

·      Don’t describe what people are feeling. Animation drawings and models, computer generated or tangible, have no feelings.  However sophisticated they might be, they do not have the range of expression of a human being.  Animation drawings may have dots for eyes, a single line for a mouth or hoofs instead of hands.  Images don’t have sudden moments of inspiration, bouts of depression or moments of foolish passion, so it’s pointless to write this sort of instruction to a non-existent actor in your script.  We find out what our animated characters are feeling from their actions and this is what you should be describing.

A great character with a very simply drawn face.

·      Don’t write too many adjectives.  This is an extension of the former point. For the reasons stated above there is little point in describing a character as disappointed, friendly or silly. You should try to use adjectives only when they are describing something visual.  You can say someone is green, hairy or muscular but not that he is strong.  There is no point in describing someone as strong unless he is to use his strength, in which case we should see him doing something that exhibits his strength.  The English language has a wealth of very expressive verbs. Verbs are about action but can also be very descriptive. I find that it is easier to give the reader a picture of what is happening by using words like saunter, trudge, stomp, etc rather than simply walk. You need to find your own way of describing actions that express emotion and character but I would advise not to use an adjective if you can use an adverb, and not to use an adverb if you can use a verb.

·      Don’t write anything that cannot be achieved. In animation anything can happen but every show has its own world.  Even in animation it is rare for anything to fall upwards, though this may happen if we have already established that there is no gravity or that we are in a place where natural laws are reversed.  Some writers get excited by the freedom that animation allows and come up with imaginative ideas that simply do not work in the world created for the series.  In our series about football, for example, one writer wanted the Scottish manager’s face to turn tartan when he was angry.  Within the naturalistic world of the series, this was totally inappropriate.
If you have a grasp of the world of the series and a clear visual picture of what you are writing you should never write anything that cannot be achieved within the series.  When we were making SuperTed, the director was forever questioning me about action I had written. I don’t see how the girl can fall off the ledge and disappear into a cave halfway down the cliff.  He was pointing out a lack of clarity in my writing.  Because he worked in the same studio I could draw a crude drawing for him, including a sloping branch down which the girl slid into the cave.  Most writers never meet the director.  You need to make sure everything is written clearly and can be animated convincingly.

·      Don’t write things that are too expensive.  Writers cannot be expected to know about the technical aspects of animation and, for this reason, a good writer’s bible will include some pointers about the limits of the technique and the budget.  Since every character needs to be drawn or manipulated separately writers should keep the numbers of characters on screen down to a minimum and avoid crowd scenes.  If you watch animated series, you will notice devices used by writers and storyboard artists to give the impression of crowd activity – hats thrown into the air, close ups of feet running through shot or clashing swords, etc.
Traditionally you should avoid earthquakes, tidal waves, animals in any number with more than two legs and water.

Next Blog:
Common mistakes with scene structure.
If you have an iPad check out my new iBook The Ten Commandments Of Pitching.

and my colleague Andrew's book about how to come up with visual ideas:!/id549190518?mt=11&affId=2149998&ign-mpt=uo%3D4

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Common Mistakes Made By Animation Writers - 4

I’ve already written at some length about keeping dialogue to a minimum and writing action as descriptively and comprehensibly as possible. These are the areas where most writers come unstuck.

Common Mistakes With Dialogue:

·      Don’t write long speeches.  Keep dialogue short.  You are working with drawings, models or synthetic images, not with actors.  However well the actor has voiced the part, you cannot rely on the performance of an actor to hold the interest of the viewer.  Images have no charisma.  You cannot look into the eyes of a drawing and see its soul.  Animation is a visual medium.  You should be telling the story with images, not with words.  I always tell my writers not to write more than three lines of dialogue without something visual happening.

·      Use the vernacular of your target audience.  If you’re writing for children, for example, you should not use words like vernacular. This doesn’t mean you should dumb down what you are writing.  It’s good to introduce children to new words and concepts, but you need to be clear and comprehensible.  If you’re going to use a word like galleon in a script for young children, for example, it will need to be used in conjunction with images of a large sailing ship. You also need to create characters that your audience can recognise and empathise with.  This means that they have to talk the same language.  If you do not belong in the same demographic as your target audience, you need to do some research.  I always recommend that writers travel on the bus, where they will find a vast range of accents, dialects and different uses of the vernacular.  You will eavesdrop on the lives of many very different characters.

·      Don’t write on the nose. If you are unfamiliar with this jargon, writing on the nose means writing what someone is feeling, or what can be seen in the picture.  For example, you should not have a character say I am sad because I cannot fly. You need to find a way of showing that the character is sad, and why.  Show the character flapping in frustration while his or her friends fly away.  Sad people do not go around saying I’m sad. They might hang their head or go and sob in a quiet corner.  You should avoid telling the audience what is happening.  Show, don’t tell.
I like using subtext whenever possible. This means writing dialogue that is the opposite of what the character is feeling.  Lines like No, I’m not hurt, or I don’t mind at all can work well in this way even in shows for comparatively young children. They need to be delivered appropriately by the voce actor, of course.   It is best to avoid subtext for very young children who are less sophisticated in their use of language, but this does not mean that you need to explain everything that is happening. 

·      Don’t use dialogue to advance the plot. We’ve all done this, of course, and if you’re writing an animated sitcom it’s probably unavoidable. All the same, you should try and avoid using dialogue to explain what is happening or to move the story forward.  You are not writing a play or a novel.  Animation, like movies, is a way of storytelling with images and we should be able to see what is happening without having it explained to us.  Use dialogue for character, and for humour.

·      Don’t write unnecessary or meaningless dialogue.  We’ve all seen shows where little children or creatures spend their time saying lines like Good morning, Mr Mole! Isn’t it a nice day? Etc.  Don’t be fooled into thinking this is charming.  It isn’t.  It is dull and unimaginative.  Some writers panic when faced with the prospect of a scene without any dialogue.  They shouldn’t.  Concentrate on telling the story in pictures.  If the director, or storyboard artist, thinks that dialogue is required to point up something, or to add naturalism to a scene, then they can ask you to add it.  In this case, though, try and come up with something that expresses character, and not corny platitudes.  You should only use a line like Good morning, Mr Mole! If the reply is something like Go away!

·      Don’t forget to write the grunts, etc.   If you were writing for live action television or features you would never suggest in your script how an actor should deliver a line or whether he should grunt, moan, etc.  If an actor is falling off a cliff he is likely to scream without any instruction from the writer.  If he’s been swinging through the jungle he is likely to be breathless without you telling him this is how he should deliver the line.   If you’re writing for animation you are writing for actors in a recording studio who are probably reading dialogue from a script that has minimal description of what is happening to their character.  Their voice recoding will be used by the animator to bring the character to life.  It is therefore important that the voice actor knows when to project a line, when it should be whispered, when to moan, laugh, etc.  If these things are missed at the recording stage, then the animation is likely to be less expressive.

Next Week:
Common mistakes writing action and description.

If you have an iPad check out my new iBook The Ten Commandments Of Pitching.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Common Mistakes Made By Animation Writers - 3

(My "Ten Commandments of Pitching is now available as an i-book for i-pad with video, and for Kindle without video.  It's published by Skillsmentors, who'll be releasing more animation titles in the next few months.)

When I receive a series bible for the first time, there is always at least one character that stands out.  Perhaps it is because this character reminds me of someone I know, or I feel some sort of relationship with him or her or, most likely, I can see potential in that character for plot, humour or both.

When I receive scripts from other writers it is clear to me that everyone responds like this.  Some writers will write tremendous dialogue and action for one character and perfunctory dialogue and action for others.  This is why the best series have more than one writer.  All the same, it is important not to make the common mistake:

3. Don’t fall in love with the wrong character.

When we made Fireman Sam, we created a character, Mike, who was a handyman.  He was married to the district nurse.  Jack of all trades, master of none, Mike was likeable, happy-go-lucky but totally hopeless at his work.  When we created him, we thought that the accidents he provoked with plumbing, building and carpentry disasters would create storylines that resulted in calling out the fire engine.

This, unfortunately, was not to be.  The executive producers, who were all women, did not like this character.  They could not understand how the obviously intelligent district nurse could have married such a klutz. (Are they living in a different planet? Don’t we all know intelligent women married to less intelligent men?)  More appropriately, they were worried that accidents caused by D-I-Y disasters in the home might give children watching a sense of insecurity in the home.

A couple of the writers loved this character.  They came up with stories featuring Mike, with hilarious dialogue that would be recognised by anyone who has ever employed a cowboy plumber.  However much we told them that this character was only a bit player, they could not resist featuring him in their storylines, most of which were bound to be rejected.

Children’s television, especially for pre-school, demands role models.  These tend to people who can do no wrong.  When Fireman Sam was first created, the intention was that he should be a loveable eccentric, whose hobby was coming up with crackpot inventions.  This gave him a little personality, and made him more believable as a human being.  He was always supposes to be “The Hero Next Door”

After 9/11 it became impossible to portray him as anything other than a perfect hero.  This meant that that he became a token, a symbol, who could never make a mistake, show a moment of weakness or indulge in inappropriate behaviour.  That made it very difficult to write stories about him.  Isn’t it our faults and eccentricities that make us interesting?   This gave the writers a lot of problems, since Sam had to be the hero of every episode.  In reality, Sam’s role in the stories was always rather passive until it came to driving the fire engine (the real hero of the series) and squirting water from a hose.

Many series for children suffer from having dull characters who are so busy being good role models that they exhibit no personality at all.  This is why writers prefer to feature the supporting characters, who are usually allowed to exhibit human foibles.

We like to create leading characters for our series who are far from perfect. Igam Ogam, for example is a very wilful toddler.  This series rates well because the viewers, toddlers and their parents, immediately recognise her behaviour and are able to laugh at it.  She always gets her comeuppance.  The voice of reason is represented by a large dinosaur, a parent figure who always makes sure that order is restored.

Most series for children are not like this.  The received wisdom is that series without a leading character who is a role model will not succeed in North America.  This is probably why American series for pre-school children feature characters who are relentlessly nice to each other, and so often seem sentimental and dull to our European eyes.

Next:  Common mistakes. Conclusion.