Wednesday, February 21, 2007

SCRIPTS OR STORYBOARDS?

It won't come as a suprise to anyone that I'm on the storyboard side of that controversy, especially if we're talking about animated cartoon comedy. I've written in both script and storyboard formats, and the boarded stories always turn out funnier. That's because a board provides constant feedback on how the visuals are going. Some ideas just don't look funny when drawn and it's nice to be able to toss them in favor of something that draws better.

It's also because scripts are a form of book. They're a medium of their own and what feels good in the medium of print often doesn't feel good in animation. As an example, scripts tend to be dialogue-heavy, even when they're written by artists. That's because ddialogue driven scripts are leaner and easier to read. Dialogue comes in trim little columns surrounded by oceans of white space. It looks better on a page. You can read it faster. It's an amazing but true fact that dull, dialogue-heavy, talking head cartoons get made for the trivial reason that their kind of script is easier to read.

Here's an example. This is an excerpt from a first-draught script I wrote for Animaniacs. A witch's candy-covered house attracts the Animaniacs and she tries to eat them. They turn it around and harass the witch to distraction. The script reads OK whenever it depicts dialogue but watch how hard it becomes to read when it describes visual gags:
Which part would you rather read?

It's also true that stories that originate on storyboards tend to emphasize visual gags, the thing that animation is best at. When I'm drawing I naturally pay more attention to the way a character looks in clothes, the way he bends to pick things up, etc. Sometimes these details are so funny that I end up building a whole sequence around them. That feels right to me. Comedy is best when it's about little things. Scripts, on the other hand, favor the overview, the big things and the complex subplots.

Now that scripts dominate there are very few funny cartoons. Since scripts are uncongenial to visual comedy the powers that be have decided to eliminate visual comedy. This is the shocking price we've had to pay for our script addiction.


42 comments:

David Germain said...

It won't come as a suprise to anyone that I'm on the storyboard side of that controversy

It's stupid and sad that there even IS controversy. Storyboards all the way, man. It should not be otherwise. Are you reading this, Eisner? >:P

abwinegar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lester Hunt said...

Thanks Eddie! A very interestng example of how the medium (typing or drawing) is the message. (Okay, I was raised in the woods by McLuhanites.)

Reading your script, I could tell for sure, from the script alone, that the dialoque was funny, but couldn't tell for sure whether the gags would be funny (that is, funny to see). Big difference!

David N said...

Thanks, Uncle Eddie. Good thoughts on "The Controversy™" (that ought not to be a controversy; I thought every decent cartoon-loving person knew that cartoon movies are primarily drawn, not written. Why should this even a disputed point ?)

Thanks for fighting the good fight.

Nice photo of animator/storyboard artist Roy Williams and the 15-year-old future animator/director Richard Williams (no relation to Roy) on one of is visits to the Disney Studio in the 1950's.

Jennifer said...

Uncle Eddie, I'm so glad you posted this. This, I think, is the best argument for cartoonist-driven cartoons.

For a visual medium, like cartoons, illustrated books for children, or even some television shows, you need a storyboard before you write the words (obviously, an outline or summary is the first thing...).

I've seen numerous cartoons, such as European cartoons from the 60s, that depend solely on the cartoon acting and the incidental music to tell the story, and a number of these are FANTASTIC cartoons. (note: their goal was not necessarily to produce a work of art; they wanted to be able to easily penetrate the lucrative US and UK TV markets.)

JohnK said...

I'd like to add something.

The folks who defend writer driven cartoons and scripts automaticaly assume that the people they call _writers" are real writers.

They aren't.

They are soccer Moms, brother-in-laws and boyfriends of executives.

They aren't writing brilliant witty dialogue or deep character development or clever plots.

They recycle stock animation plots and plug in the catch phrases of whatever characters are in the show they are currently working on.

This is a job ANYONE can learn. Ask Jeff Scott who wrote a book about it and made that very claim.


The purpose of a script in animation is to trick an executive, because executives can't read storyboards - which is amazing in itself.

When people defend the scriptwriting process, they think they are defending Ernest Hemingway's honor or somebody with actual writing talent and something unique to say.

Nope.

These are complete hacks that no one else would take. They all want to be writing for a "real" medium like live-action, but aren't good enough to get in.

The best writers I've met in animation have been cartoonists. Not every cartoonist, but the few who have story ideas and something to say are all cartoonists.

I've yet to meet a "writer" in animation that has any original ideas or who understands plot or character.

Eddie, why don't you post a sample script from a typical animation "writer"? "Welcome to the 90s" crap...

That oughta show people the torture we cartoonists face every day.

JohnK said...

Hey Eddie, that's a funny scene! Did that cartoon get made??

You are living proof that cartoonists should write cartoons.

I've never seen funny lines like that in a non-cartoonist script!

PCUnfunny said...

"It's stupid and sad that there even IS controversy."

It really is. How can someone think it's good to WRITE a VISUAL GAG ?

"Are you reading this, Eisner? >:P"

You mean Micheal Eisner right ? There is a special place in hell for him.

Kali Fontecchio said...

How many scripts like that have you made over the years?

Sean Worsham said...

Great Comedy Eddie,

It's too bad there isn't enough visual gag cartoons nowadays. Today's funny cartoons read more like serious novels rather than comedy skits nowadays.

Anonymous said...

TV cartoons started out by being written on storyboards but the network executives preferred scripts because they had no idea what they were looking at. To this day most suits cannot read a board.

Dino said...

I like cartoons that are just improvised. On Hong Kong Phooey, they would just give Scatman Crothers some mescaline, drop him off at the mall, then rotoscope him.

I don't really care said...

When people defend the scriptwriting process, they think they are defending Ernest Hemingway's honor or somebody with actual writing talent and something unique to say.

I wonder. It seems some are defending the fan base of some crappy show they enjoy which they don't appreciate John K. badmouthing even by implication just because he is a bitter old coot who can't understand the great "subtlety" of it.

....so when they are watching some graphically dead wisecrack festival that has them in stitches, why are you the buzzkill? Jealous of success, maybe?

People invest their egos so heavily in their likes and dislikes that a rational brain could barely comprehend it.

So much so that some will even attack the only really visible advocate of better quality, from which they would directly benefit.

PCUnfunny said...

"....so when they are watching some graphically dead wisecrack festival that has them in stitches, why are you the buzzkill? Jealous of success, maybe?"

My guess is John dose not sugar coat what he thinks and backs up his claims with examples. Some people just can't handle being told what the love sucks and being shown evidence that it dose.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

John, Everybody: Man, John doesn't mince words! I think he slayed the whole writer army with that letter! Thanks for the kind words.

Kali: I wrote 15 or 16 scripts for different projects around town. That's not a lot for an animation writer

LFW said...

Damn Uncle eddie, those are some pretty good points that I totally agree with.

But I was wondering if the same applies in a reverse situation, if you were to write the dialog as you were drawing the gag or board for a whole cartoon episode? Curious minds would like to know.

cheers

your fan

-LFW

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Max Ward said...

Look at this review for the book "How to Write for Animation" by Jeff Scott

"I'm a boring lawyer who had an idea for a cartoon series swimming around in her head. I found this book, followed it to the letter, developed the idea, pitched it, and now have a major animation production company who has purchased an option for the show. Mr. Scott even took the time to respond to an e-mail I sent with a question. This is a great and simple to understand resource for anyone with the ideas and gumption to go for it. Thanks Mr. Scott!"

I wonder if it's a joke, but it doesn't sound too far fetched to me.

Anonymous said...

I would've posted this in John K's blog, but he doesn't allow the common folk to respond (i.e. anonymous)...

TV cartoons are meant as content to deliver you to advertisers. That's it. In the TV world, they need plenty of mindless LCD content to keep you watching, so that the advertisers can fill your heads full of their messages. They don't care about you at all, just buy their crap.

You can see how the "entertainment" industry (and especially John K has pointed this out) has gotten more and more devoid of actual entertainment over the years.

Anyone who has observed that advertisements are more entertaining than the actual shows please raise your hand. This is not a coincidence!

stiff said...

Writing also makes it almost impossible to convincingly describe simultaneous actions, as you demonstrated here, Eddie. Clearly an impediment in this case and many others!

Anonymous said...

The following story is true. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Back in the earllier days of the internet, when there was not so much web to speak of, but chat rooms and bulletin boards, I was excited to learn that a certain property, by a certain studio, was going to be brought to fruition. This studio, although known for animation, even built upon these properties that employees of theirs created, had not really been mining that particular vein of intellectual property in decades. The pitch for the show even brought in peripheral properties developed where the characters had thrived better than they had on the screen (comic books) and would have been ideal for a TV animated series.

Once on this interweb thingie, I ran into a couple that were damn excited about getting their first writing job, ever! I asked what they were writing, and what do you know, it was the very same show mentioned in the last paragraph, which I thought had a lot of potential even if it merely brought over the characters and stories from the comics. It was ripe for the picking so to speak, ideal for mainstream cable that was opening up to, and in need of such product, and this product had a built in fanbase, and a legacy that it easily have a couple of seasons of story ideas ready to work into cartoons. So I chatted with them awhile.

They knew nada about the characters. They knew nada about the history, or wealth of pre-existing story material and character development that had gone on. Although they were articulate enough that I had no reason to doubt they had the job, I grew deeply saddened that not only that they had no knowledge of the property, the good will already built in, but their wit, their ideas, their plans, were absolutely horrid, wretched, idiotic, misguided, lame lame lame.

The sad part about this story is that this scenario is so common that you probably could not guess the studio, or the properties involved, although I think there are enough clues involved to identify both, merely because this is consistatly THE WAY IT HAS BEEN DONE, the way similar situations have been handled over and over again, the same mind set that John constantly rails against.

abwinegar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Ab: Good question! I wish I knew the answer!

John Pannozzi said...

"They are soccer Moms, brother-in-laws and boyfriends of executives."

*sarcastic gasp*

Sherri Stoner was a friend of an executive? I thought she was a member of the comedy troupe the Groundlings and an actress in somewhat exploitative films.

Anyway, Eddie, could you please do some posts about your work on Tiny Toons and Animaniacs? PLEASE!

pedro said...

I love this discussion. It reminds me of how politics have been since Bush was elected - polarized, generalized, and beligerent.

A bunch of random related thoughts:

The beauty of animation is Art That Moves. And when it's done well, it's totally captivating. Many great Warner cartoons have no story, they are gag driven, but they are gags that are Extremely Well Animated. Who is doing that in tv animation? And we are talking about tv animation because that is the field where all the complaining occurs. Pretty much nobody is doing that. Nobody can afford to do that in the assenbly line of production. And if you got rid of all the writers in animation and let every show be board driven, you think the shows would get better? Maybe a few.

Each year, the main studios in town - Cartoon Net, Nick, Disney, and Warners produce more minutes of animation than the Warners studio made over the course of 40 years! In one year. It's not writers fault that most stuff is lame. You would need an unbelieavble talent pool to make great stuff in that situation.

sidenote: Network execs are not making animation, they are making TV SHOWS. Children's tv shows.

John K., someone with vast knowledge of design, color, and animation, was given complete free reign to make cartoons for Spike and what happened? Nobody liked it. Crew members all over town emerged from their cubicles shaking their heads in sad dissappointment that the man who had breathed hope into tv with 6 episodes of R&S with unique funny drawings, incredible timing (especially the pauses) and - someting no one mentions - AWESOME sound design, had produced something so...unlikeable. Point is: just boarding a cartoon don't make it great. A lot of things need to work together.

re writers: truly many would rather be writing live action, if for no other reason than the money is 4x's better - But NOT ALL OF THEM. And they are not all the same. AND NEITHER ARE BOARD ARTISTS. I have worked with many many board artists and their skills and talents are as varied as in any other skill.

Most writers don't understand what a board artist has to deal with - just the simple task of breaking a script into board panels let alone doing funny drawings, and they are burdened with overlong, overly talky scripts that make executives comfortable. But I have to say that many times when I've seen board artists given space to "stretch out": create gags, etc., generally it is just like complaints about writers: tired recycled gags that they stole (unconciously) from some other cartoon, tired, and not funny. But not all the time; some board artists really soar with some free space, and some take whatever you give them and make it so much better - but it sure doesn't happen enough to sustain an industry.

If you want to make cartoons unfetterd by stupid execs or ignorant writers, do it! And then submit it to the hundreds of great animation festivals around the world. Your work will be appreciated. Oh, but wait: you need money. So really, the discussion is not about if you are allowed to board freely, it's about money. Which is what tv is about. So...we're fucked.

okay, tv animation writers are not going away, so how about we educate them a little, how about we create a scripting process that makes the best of both worlds? Writers job - a simple through story and some funny talk, board artist job - taking that material and making it better, making it breath, making it look good. Just what you expect from a voice actor, or a BG designer. Director's job: keeping the best of both. (exec's job: keeping job)

How about helping me do that? What simple things can you tell writers that would help make your job better, and more importantly, a show better? (besdies the very very funny "Die!" and stuff like that?) Seriously, is there a way to improve it a little?

Anonymous said...

Why don't they make live-action sitcoms? Costs, I guess.

Voice actors continously get dumped on, threatened by scab labor, and are barely acknowledged, compared to live-action actors who go slumming in cartoon roles. That grind leads to cheaper costs, less of a fan following, and eventually less clout to make a stink, should a property become popular and there's talk of contracts being negotiated.

Also, sitcom actors have some say about how their characters work. Cartoon actors step in, record, go on to the next gig, leaving most of the control over character direction to the executives. Way convenient for toy sales, ne?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Pedro: Thanks for the comment! You brought up so many interesting points that I'll need a whole post to answer them. Let me think about it!

Given the present system, what would immediately improve the scripts on funny shows? 1) Shorter scripts (no more than a page a minute), 2) fewer characters, 3) characters that can support comedy, and 4) build the stories around a nucleus of sketch comedy.

Steve said...

Eddie;

Hey, how ya doing?

I'm posting here because I find this to be a much more reasonable place. I've recently (and quite frankly) accidentally inserted myself into this whole "writer" vs "artist" debate...

And by the way, I'm more than happy to have anybody pop on over to the 'site and give their opinion...

...but my attitude is more about what was one of the last posts... animation writers AREN'T going away . But more of us might be open to your way of thinking if we weren't treated like puppy killers.

And by the way, regarding this point:

"I think he slayed the whole writer army with that letter!"

Nah, he didn't. But he hardened a few more hearts. Kudos for that, I suppose.

All the best...

- Steve

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Steve: Thanks for writing, and thanks for the invitation to visit your site! I only discovered your note a couple of days ago (it's March 24th now) so that's why you haven't heard from me.

I'll write a new post to answer to the points you and Pedro made and I'll definitely drop by the site. Maybe something good will come out of all this!

Bruce said...

Hey Eddie. With the photo you posted on this post, the kid looks like a very young Richard Williams. Why? I had seen a photo of Richard as a kid in his book "The Animators Survival Kit" and it shows him visiting the studio when he was only at the age of 10.

Mattieshoe said...

Hey, Eddie.


What exactly is your opinion on the "Writers" who wrote for Tiny Toons and Animaniacs?

Tiny Toons seemed to be infested with bad Saturday Morning Cartoon writers, but by the time Animaniacs came along, most of the REALLY terrible "Animation writers" had been fired.

I mean, thank god Dale Hale didn't write for Animaniacs.
(http://cartoonsforkids.com/)

I've talked to Jon McClenahan about this and he seems to love some of the writers. He called Sherri Stoner "definitely one of the most talented people I ever met in Hollywood" and said that "the scripts [in Tiny Toons] allowed for animators to have a lotta fun"


Of course, I don't totally agree with him, but it's good to hear that not EVERY artist working on Tiny Toons or Animaniacs hated their job.

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