"Animation is so liberating. I can write whatever I imagine!"
We've all heard this sentiment phrased one way or another. It's true that practically anything that can be dreamed up can be animated, but someone actually has to animate it. So, the question is, "Just because you can imagine it, should you write it?"
As both a writer and an animation director, I've seen some scripts that make animators as crazy as Daffy Duck. I have actually been guilty of writing such scripts.
Animated features are usually developed and written by directors with writers. Established shows have set budgets and standards in place, so my advice is for those trying to sell a show, especially to a smaller company with a smaller budget, or for those who want to produce their own content. Here are some points to consider when writing a script that might help keep animators from jumping out a window.
Animation scripts are formatted the same as live action. However, most animation scripts have more descriptive text, thus resulting in higher page counts.
I have seen eleven minute scripts as high as twenty pages, and as low as eight. Neither work without some major overhaul. Usually, 11 to 16 pages work well.
I have seen writers try to cheat the page count "rule" by having mostly dialog pages with very little descriptive text. As a director, I find that 8 pages of just dialog are about right for an 11-minute script. The trick is to balance dialog and description to tell the story in the best way possible.
When writing descriptive text, be descriptive! Sounds simple, right? How much descriptive text is needed to convey an idea? There is no need for a dissertation that would fill a Star Wars crawl. On the other hand, there needs to be more than just a casual mention of detail on something that is important to the story.
Here are some examples:
Example 1 gives too much information, which doesn't necessarily help describe what the scene needs. It is also too specific in direction.
Give room for the director choose where the action is happening unless it is a major story point. Also let the director decide how Grace tears off Kevin's clothes, as this will impact animation.
Example 2 gives enough information for the director. He just needs to know that Grace is mad and rips off Kevin's clothes in the store, leaving him naked. The dialog will convey that she is insulting him.
More dialog means more lip-synching, which is one of the most tedious and time-consuming tasks in animation. Granted, animated sitcoms are paced similarly to their live-action counterparts so the characters are constantly yammering. Shows like Rick and Morty, however, have action that breaks up the dialog. The writers often have characters are involved in a task, so they aren't just talking heads.
Ask whether the visual can tell the story and if dialog is needed. Remember the adage, especially in this medium, "Show! Don't tell!"
Every time you add a new location, character or prop it has to go through a process of concept art, design, approval, color, and sometimes setup. Too many new items can bottleneck production and raise the budget.
Think about where your story takes place. Find a home base for the characters such as The Simpsons literal home. Try limiting the number of locations to what is really necessary to tell the story and reuse the locations if possible as to help reduce the amount of new designs.
Also, think about how many characters are in an episode. Besides the main characters, what incidentals are really necessary to tell the story. The Simpsons often have tons of characters in a single episode, but they've had 30 years to build those reusable assets. The early episodes were very economical with other onscreen characters, considering they had five main characters to deal with.
Keep in mind, well-developed main characters and their relationships to each other and their world is what is key to the longevity of a series. All the extra characters, and locales are just icing on the cake.
Here are some pet peeves that many animators have seen in some scripts.
*Crowd Scenes – Sometimes they are necessary, but using them just to fulfill a gag is taxing. Also when writing action that takes place with a crowd present, try and contain the action within one part of the crowd so the characters an backgrounds can be reused.
*Elaborate Non-Sequitur – We've all seen Family Guy go into elaborate non-sequiturs, having characters travel to scenes with new characters and a bunch of extra dialog. Seth MacFarlane can get away with it by now, but look at how the Simpsons usually handle it, like a quick shot of a background or an image manifesting in Homer's head. If it is not for purposes of telling the story, then try and keep them simple or wait until you are in your third season.
*Scenes in Moving Cars – Panning backgrounds in perspective is an arduous task. Also having cars travel through backgrounds can become problematic. Ask if the scenes are necessary and if the dialog has to happen in the car, because of the limitations of space, the characters can become talking heads.
*Characters With a Bunch of Spots or Stripes – This seems obvious, but also remember about adding any physical detail about a character. Is there a purpose for a character having a pegleg or is it just something different. Small problems popup for animation anytime a character is designed to be asymmetrical when viewing them from the front, or if there is a bunch of details, like badges, spots etc. Justify why a character needs to have special details in its design.
To sum up, it is great to open up your imagination and create unique animated worlds, but remember to serve the story. Please spare an animator's sanity by not creating a difficult production for the sake of just a single gag, unless it is a fart gag, then spare no expense!
Bob Harper has had almost two decades of experience working in the animation industry.
He has designed, storyboarded, animated, written, directed and produced content
for studios such as Cartoon Network, Disney TV and DreamWorks TV. He is currently
directing a series for China and developing live-action and animated content for film
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