Sunday, October 18, 2009

Write Ways, Wrong Ways

John K has a very interesting post on writers and writing in cartoons that is worth reading and he has more to come. At the end there is an astonishing clip where someone gives animation writing tips that are so vapid they challenge parody (see Monty Python's classic "How to Do It" skit HERE).

As for me, I am of two minds, for two separate situations:

Where shorts are concerned, I agree with John. I have no doubt that the best short cartoons I love were all evolved from storyboards generated from the hearts, minds, hands, guts and mouths of cartoonists. These people just happened to also be natural born writers, even if they never got within shouting distance of a typewriter. As for experience, I've storyboarded my share of 9 minute TV episodes and it is always the most productive when the script is loose (prefreably an outline) and open to liberal interpretation. Generally the tightest, most over-written and demanding short scripts have tended to be the worst, from inception to outcome.

Most of my career has been in features though, and I have a minority stance here: I am actually in favor of full polished scripts, written in advance of the storyboard process. A lot has been made of the fact that the most of the classic Disney feature stories were worked out piecemeal on boards, developing from a key sequence somewhere in the middle and working out in both directions from there. All evidence indicates SNOW WHITE and PINOCCHIO were done this way, and even later pictures like CINDERELLA and JUNGLE BOOK. But conversely, there is also the account given that Bill Peet wrote a full, standard screenplay of 101 DALMATIONS before he embarked on storyboarding. It seemed to work out pretty well there. And there were hybrid attempts in between.

However, I believe it is all but obvious that Walt Disney's uncanny story sense and his innate and intrinsic intuition of general audience taste played no small part in all of these cases. And it should also be noted that even he was not infallible, even by his own assessment.

So in the absence of such a person, I believe in full, detailed feature screenplays. That they be good ones should go without saying, but that turns out to be a surprisingly subjective topic, although I don't know why. It should seem that a good script reads well to the majority of people and a bad one doesn't but for some reason it isn't always the case. The best positive example I can give from my own experience (and I don't mean to keep harping on this picture) was THE LITTLE MERMAID, which was scripted by Ron Clemments and John Musker. I remember reading a second draft that was so solid that it was unbelievable. You could just see the whole thing in your head as you read it: it was funny, heartfelt, gripping... Although the songs hadn't been written yet, Howard Ashman had made his input to the script as well and the song sequences were described in enough detail that they clearly promised what was delivered.

Metaphor time: A short film is like getting in the car and saying: "Let's go get some ice cream." Unless you are in the middle of nowhere, and even if you are a stranger in a strange city, you can probably drive around a bit and find a place to get ice cream, maybe even spectacular ice cream. If dad gets too anal about which streets to take, what toppings are and aren't allowed, etc, it's going to take all the fun out of even the best laid plans, however. Conversely, making a feature is more complex: you're getting in the car and saying: "I want to take everybody on a mind-blowing, two week vacation." With no map and no real idea, you might succeed, but you might just as well drive around aimlessly for weeks and get nowhere particularly exciting. It seems to me to make far more sense to commit to a destination and plan an explicitly favorable and scenic route, maximizing your budget regarding expenses like gas and lodging, etc. You can certainly be open to scenic sidetracks and shortcuts, but in the end, you will at least arrive where you intended. Your intent may turn out to be disappointing, but even if you failed, you failed on your own terms. It seems that taking the random route you are hoping to succeed by sheer luck. Seems like that is what they invented casinos for.

It should also go without saying that even an excellent script need not be a straight jacket for the story crew and as such, on MERMAID, the storyboards contributed considerably to the evolution of the film. A lot was improved, deleted, expanded etc. over the course of storyboarding and editing, but the script was the best foundation I have ever seen and it still holds up today. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was fully pre-scripted as well, but my recollection was that it underwent a great deal more enhancement at every step beyond that point, from story to recording. I can certainly attest that David Ogden Stiers ad libbed some very funny material that made it into the film and story talents like Roger Allers, Brenda Chapman, Kevin Harkey and the directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousedale contributed extensively too.

During ALADDIN, after a first pass was done and discarded, animation production got underway with only a partial story and as a result, the old "triage" method began to work its way to the fore again. The finished film is still solid, but I do recall a lot of energy expended on scenes, songs and ideas very late in the game that never quite panned out. Had these issues been worked out ahead of production, it may have been more ideal for everybody. On several subsequent features, my impression is that the scripts began to get less specific, sketchier on crucial details, more schematic, and as a result the story was often in shambles right up to the eleventh hour of production and then somehow came together at the last minute. I think the industry got addicted to this rush and tends to follow that practice in pursuit of it ever after. Even though as a road to success it has turned out increasingly to be the exception and not the rule.

I've had a hand in the stories to one extent or another on many of the nearly 20 features I have worked on, and I have even gotten writing credits occasionally. For the most part, my most extensive writing contributions were done in cases where it was piecemeal, either by the studio's choice or production necessity. I won't go into detail, since these were all collaborations and I don't mean to speak for everyone involved, and the amount of overlap is considerable. As a method, however I don't agree with the piecemeal approach to a long form story. I've often compared it to building a house from the inside out with no blueprint: you can't see it until it's done and that can turn out to be too late. There are some live action filmmakers who can improvise their way to success (Robert Altman springs to mind) and maybe it isn't impossible in animation either. But unless the movie is supposed to have an anarchic, improvisational feel, it is just too much to ask of an animation crew to spin their wheels any more than necessary.

Or as one astute collaborator put it (in regards to the piecemeal feature approach): "I thought it was supposed to be 'Ready, Aim, Fire!' not "Ready! Fire! Aim!' "


Mike Caracappa said...

I think Brad Bird springs to mind as someone who has really nailed the concept of being a screenwriter for animation as well as having a story crew come in and expand on ideas. The Incredibles and Iron Giant are both great examples of this, and probably have the tightest scripts of most recent animated films. What I think it really comes down to is having someone (I assume the director) who knows exactly what they want out of their project. And more specifically, if it's their idea/project to begin with, that they know how to use the story crew to their benefit to keep their project on track.

This lack of a singular vision is what I think really throws a lot of most recent animated features off track. It's especially popular when a comic voice actor comes in to ad-lib and is practically writing parts of the film. Or in several films there will be continuous montage gag sessions. Sometimes I think it can be used to help establish characters personalities (I know Pixar does this quite a bit), but there are times where it goes a bit too far, where you can see the board artists going to town making something look funny or "cool", but it winds up taking the story off track.

Personally, sometimes I think the writing in animated features is still kind of trapped in the 50's, despite modernizing it for audiences. By that, I mean the filmmakers are still relying heavily on one-dimensional archtypes in their stories. By continuing to do that, it's keeping a lot of filmmakers from developing more sophisticated characters. In most standared animated features, most secondary characters are essentially created as plot mechanisims as opposed to being more fully fleshed out to help enrich the story.

For example (it's a little old, but I think it applies), is a character from Toy Story. This is in no way bashing the film, because I love Toy Story. But my friend and I talked after recently seeing the 3D version and had a discussion about Sid, the kid next door. Buzz is more of Woody's nemesis, where Sid is the villain of the story. But Sid is more of a plot device than anything. He's not terribly fleshed out, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense he's as crazy as he is when most of his family seems fairly normal, like his sister. And a part of me feels kinda sorry for him after the toys come to life and freak him out. He'll probably be traumatized for life and needing therapy for the rest of his life. There's no arc for his character, or scenes that show he might be fighting with his parents. Maybe something about the toys coming to life and scaring him could have changed him in some way and might have even made him a better person. I know the arguement to all of this is "well, it's not Sids story, it's about Woody and Buzz", but I don't think that excuse is good enough anymore. We're passed that.

Mike Caracappa said...

Miyazaki certainly doesn't create characters simply as plot devices, and if he can he finds a way to use them to enrichen the world of the film. This is a big problem IMO because it's treating characters as mechanisims for the plot instead of acknowledging them as real human beings (or whatever they may be).
Animators and artists keep wondering why animation isn't taken more seriously, and I think the reason is that animated films aren't nearly as sophisticated as they could be. With all the live action films that are making leaps and bounds in storytelling, there are too many animated films right now that are lacking in focus and direction. Especially from a singular vision. I always hear about films that start production when the story hasn't found itself yet. And then one of 20 different endings is selected as a resolution. The blame almost always goes back to executives, but when I look at most animated films today, there is nothing I really see in them that says it's striving for a higher sophistication. Films that are supposed to be made for children seem to be more interested in trying to keep the adult crowd happy than really playing to the level of a child. Or that "adult" layer that's added is often mistaken for being the "sophisticated" element. What animation today needs, I think, is less cooks and more emphasis on a singular driving vision. An artist who knows exactly what they want to say, and knows how to bring a collaborative group of people together to make it work.

Weirdo said...

I agree with you Will, and Mike here. Shorts are best done with storyboards alone, while features need scripts. They're totally different animals. Animation needs both types of storymen. However, I do believe that writers need a good understanding of animation and its properties.

Mike, that is very insightful. I think that's why people don't take American animation quite as seriously as Japanese anime. Unfortunately, the big animation companies don't believe in a singular artistic vision. They want a way to make marketable plushies.

Thad said...

Your comments are right on the money. I think you've nailed why I find a lot of animated features to wander aimlessly.

Floyd Norman said...

To its credit, Pixar is the only mainstream studio that's not afraid to "leap off the cliff." Of course, they're allowed to continue because of their track record.

Most studios just want hit films. The story be damned. They just want to make money. It's survival, after all.

Most studios today are run by big corporations. No way they're going to allow an artist with a vision. They simply want guaranteed box office.

Mike Caracappa said...

"Unfortunately, the big animation companies don't believe in a singular artistic vision."

For a good 15 years they didn't believe in Brad Bird's vision either. Now the guy can do what he wants. If you're an artist and you have a vision you're willing to stand by, it's not going to make a difference how many times some corporate dummy is going to say "no". You're going to find a way to make it happen. If they say "no" and you decide that's that, then maybe that vision you had wasn't really worth fighting for to begin with. I just think it's silly that so many artists are afraid of the dragon executive, when one of our own actually made it through...which tells us that it IS possible to fight for what you believe in and make it happen. Brad's opened the door. He's made it possible. Don't just bow out because some Harvard executive is going to say "no". If you accept the idea that "a big animation company doesn't believe in a singular artistic vision", you're just stifling your own creative power. Find a way to make it happen regardless. Brad didn't stop, and it sure as hell paid off.

That's the Write way. ;)

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

Feelin' the love, Will. Great perspective on the process.

Jeff Harter said...

Interesting insight. I am in the infant stages of working on a project that I wanted to start from a very loose outline and then spring primarily from the boards, but am finding resistance because "it just can't be done that way anymore." And when I say "that way," I am referring to the Tex Avery way of getting a bunch of people in a room and making each other laugh. I would agree that it would be a good working model to start from a decent script if you allow yourself to take trips down that side road, but unfortunately in TV, as I am sure you know, the timeline is so tightly mapped out that there is no room in the schedule to explore different avenues. If it's not in the boards (which follows a script to a T) then it can't be done without jeopardizing the schedule. It's very frustrating.