Animation Screenplays

One point I emphasize in the “Get Animated!” book is that the traditional screenplay format is not only unnecessary for good animation, it probably hurts the process.  This is not an original view on the subject!  In fact most people who know something about animation tend to agree.  It’s well known that the earliest animated films were made with little or no planning, and that the amount of pre-production work increased gradually until the early Disney era, when storyboards and story sketches were the rule of the day.

So why this emphasis on “animation screenplays?”   Why are they written if they do not help the final product?  Why do studios spend millions of dollars developing a screenplay?  Why are there books being sold telling you how to write one?  And are they bogus?

Who knows the answers to any of those questions?  They just make my head hurt.  If you know the answers tell me.  But here are some possible explanations.

Executives, bosses, and MBAs like screenplays because they think the form is somehow necessary to produce a “good” story.  They’ve been told that good stories are important, and somehow equate with success. “Success” they understand, because that equals money.  They have often attended expensive writing and story seminars by screenplay gurus.  At these seminars they are taught flashy new jargon like “story point,” “three-act structure,” and “inciting incident.”  None of these will, as Mark Newgarden is fond of saying, “make the bunny cuter;” none of them will improve the animation nor will any of them make a good film.

It is in the interests of screenwriting gurus to make it appear so, however.

OK, maybe we’ll back up a bit.  After all, I wrote a book, too, and I like to think it has important information in it.  Let’s not jump to conclusions about screenwriting gurus, I guess.  Many of them are very bright people who have thought quite a bit about how to tell stories.  But what they know, though it may have some application to telling a story through animation, is not suited to the process of animation.

The screenplay format has gone through numerous changes since it began in the teens and 20s.  Initially films were written in all manner of styles, and in formats ranging from a general prose-style summation of the scenario to a version of the format we generally use today.  Our current template survives because it was best suited to industrial motion picture production in the 1930s and 40s.  This includes formatting dialogue so that it reads at a rate of about 1 minute of screen time per page as well as offsetting locations and times-of-day so that schedulers can quickly break down the number of shooting days required for production.

None of that has anything to do with making cartoons.  This is the first problem.

The second problem is that the MBA/boss/executive actually knows very little about storytelling or animation. Ostensibly they know something about business, and running companies.  But they may have little or no experience in the filed they are being an executive in.

In fact, most of them are at a total loss as to what makes a good story.  They might attend an expensive screenwriting master class.  Some will be convinced they now know everything they need to make a brilliant film.  Some will throw out the terms and complain that the “structure” isn’t quite right.  But most still understand, deep down, that they’re going to have to hire writers.

The writers they do hire don’t really understand animation either.  Yes, they may have seen animated films, and they may have even studied the scripts of dozens of cartoons.  But animation requires way more effort and thinking than just writing down what characters say to each other.  In any given animated film, dozens or maybe hundreds of people have worked day and night on character design, timing, expressions, actions, and effects.  ALL of these elements are required to make any “story,” not just the writing part.  A screenplay, at best, is a blueprint.  There’s a whole lot more work to be done before it can be called a film.

The “story” of any given cartoon might be terrible, and the film could still succeed.  The cinemas are full of feature length cartoons boasting uneven—sometimes dreadful—stories, but appealing factors like vivid characters, terrific design, and an end result that leaves moviegoers wanting for more.  A film can even have a hackneyed, corny story, but an original voice TELLING that story can leave us all enraptured.

2 comments on “Animation Screenplays

  1. My pet peeve is the obligatory romantic subplot, which is often wedged into stories using only a crowbar and a blue eyed blond female. If you don’t like formulas you won’t like working with Disney. The first thing Disney execs want to know is how far into the script before the mom dies. In the case of Finding Nemo this was decided to be the three minute mark. A majority agreed to just get it over with before the opening credits started rolling.

  2. Disney’s not the only one with formulas! Look at what Dreamworks has been making. The formula has been with us since we’ve had movies, that’s for sure – but these days there seems to be a big disconnect between what MBAs and executives decide the formula IS, and what people find entertaining and satisfying.

    Or maybe it’s that the execution of the formula is so sloppy that entertainment falls to the wayside? In either case,the point is that no one’s thinking about the experience of watching the final product – they’re too busy worrying about duplicating their last success. SO busy they cannot even realize why it was successful.

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