Thursday, January 10, 2008

WERE SCRIPTS EVER USED IN ANIMATION'S GOLDEN AGE?

I'm not an animation historian and I've done no original research on the subject. If I had to make a guess I'd say some scripts must have been written because it's inconceivable that penny-pinching studio owners would have always, in all situations, resisted the common practice of live action, which was to use scripts. Also, just guessing again, I'd say that scripts couldn't have been very common. If they were, then where are they now? Why did books and articles written at the time (like "Art of Animation", above and below) emphasize story boards as the preferred way to write stories? Walt himself is on record in print and film saying that he didn't use scripts.

Bob Jaques says he owns a Fleischer script and Floyd Norman said he saw scripts being written while he worked at Disney's. Mike Barrier interviewed non-artist Bill Cottrell who wrote for Disney, and Mike put up Cottrell's script for "Cock Robin" on his site. Steve Worth was not impressed and says Cottrell's script was probably written after the storyboards were made, as a sort of handy synopsis or recording script. Mike disagrees and wants to throttle Steve, but Steve remains adamant. Here's an example of Cottrell's script, below:
It certainly looks like it was written after the story was already made and shot, at least as a Leica reel, but Mike says it contains things that weren't in the finished film, so it must have originated earlier. Maybe it was made from an early Leica reel. Gee, if a script this detailed and anal-retentive was written early, at the creative stage, it would certainly lead me to pity the poor animators whose creative input would have been zilch.
Steve says no scripts (meaning, I assume, creative scripts by non-artists that were more than just dictation) were written during animation's Golden Age. I winced when I heard that because there are exceptions to every rule, and I could imagine someone pulling out that exception from an attic somewhere. Mike says "Snow White" used scripts in addition to storyboards. Animation critic Charles Solomon says no scripts were used at Disney until "101 Dalmatians." I'm not an historian so I can't comment.
Myself, I think scripts are an absolutely terrible way to write animation, but I imagine that I can occasionally see the influence of non-artist writers in some classic films. "Lady and the Tramp" looked beautiful but the writing was full of cliches that are still used by non-artists today. "Aristocats" made after Walt's death, had an abundance of them. I simply can't imagine artists coming up with ideas as visually impaired as these. But maybe I'm wrong.

32 comments:

Mr. Semaj said...

If scripts or scriptwriters obstruct storyboard artists, who ultimately have to visualize the text, from bringing any input to the actual story, then ideally, they are a bad idea. But like I've been saying, a GOOD story comes from the writer's imagination, whether it's scripted or storyboarded.

We talk all the time about how lame or boring different cartoons from the Golden Age were. Would a storyboarded cartoon with bad jokes and annoying characters be inherently better than a scripted cartoon with funny jokes and interesting characters?

boootooons ltd. said...

i mentioned this on john's blog. they teach us in film school to not be overly descriptive in script writing. they always say, 'you shouldn't have too much going on in your direction', meaning that the stuff between the dialogue on the page be absolutely minimal.

the reason for this is because stuff that's visual gets interpreted by the director of photography, the art designer or the director and also because it's futile to try and visualize a long single-take shot with a lot going on while reading.... allegedly (aparently it's hard for the executives to visualize anything ).

so, it's funny that there are cartoons that use scripts, because the ones they're writing are filled with script no-no's.

- trevor.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Mr.: Interesting comment! As you said, it really doesn't matter wether a good idea comes from an artist or a writer, but really, who's more likely to come up with good visual ideas?

If you've ever written a script you know that long, dense, narrative paragraphs describing physical action look horrible on the page, and are difficult to read. What looks good on the page is dialogue and that's what writers tend to write. The very form of scripts is uncongenial to physical comedy.

In my opinion the best way to make funny cartoons is the competitive unit system that Warners used to use, where the artist/writer works with a strong artist/director. The director knows the type of humor that he and his crew do best and he guides the writer in that direction.

Unfortunately, most modern writers will resist this reform with tooth and nail because it would restrict their freedom and leave them with less time for freelance.

Anonymous said...

Walt Disney always said that Webb Smith invented the storyboard. Before that, ideas scrawled on food scraps and apple peelings were hard to keep track of.

JohnK said...

I've been doing this stuff for 30 years and have yet to meet a non-artist who could write practical or entertaining cartoons (let alone "visual").

It's theoretically possible that one could happen in a thousand years of random breeding, but it hasn't happened yet.

I.D.R.C. said...

...Would a storyboarded cartoon with bad jokes and annoying characters be inherently better than a scripted cartoon with funny jokes and interesting characters?

Is there actually such an example? A scripted cartoon with funny jokes and interesting characters?

Here is the problem as I see it. Cartoons are unique as movies because the subjects have no life of their own. The ONLY people who can imbue them with life are artists. Writers can only give them traits and outline actions. IF you bring in the artists AFTER you establish these things then the artists have been robbed of the opportunity to fully create life. It would be like an architect prohibited from making buildings until the client gets a full set of instructions from people who can't build anything and have never even studied how.

We might still get buildings that way, too, but all the buildings would have you standing in a giant monotonous lobby where you look for your parents or try to follow your dreams...

PCUnfunny said...

From Bob Jaques at Thad K.'s blog:


Steve -

I also thought at one time that animation scripts didn’t exist and was surprised when they started showing up. That's the reason why I’m not going to blindly dismiss their existence until someone proves otherwise. I don’t think it’s wise to make blanket statements regarding animation writing as we really don’t know all the details and inner workings of the writers/artists of each studio. With regard to that, I think it’s a shame that the ASIFA site is used as a point of indoctrination rather than the archive it purports to be.

It’s no shame to admit that cartoon scripts exist. You're not being asked to eat shit – just to have an open mind.

EOCostello said...

There's another example of a Fleischer script in "The Fleischer Story" by Leslie Cabarga. He reproduces the script for a Color Classic cartoon, "The Fresh Vegetable Mystery." It's fairly bare-bones, broken up into scenes, with an indication of which animator was to do the scene and the foot-length associated with it. Granted, this was a cartoon that had little in the way of dialogue. But it is an example you might cite of script-like documents being used.

EOCostello said...

A few older examples, seen in Merritt and Kaufman's book on 1920's Disney animation, looking rather like the example I cite above: a shot-by-shot script for "Ozzie of the Mounted" (an Oswald cartoon) on page 94 of the hardcover edition; page 95 shows something that looks very like storyboard sketches (the book refers to them as "story continuity sketches"), the numbers of which correspond to the scene numbers in the script. Page 102 has a page from another Oswald script for "Africa After Dark," along with more sketches. (Page 100 has one of the few authentic surviving bits of production art showing a scene described in the script.) Page 31 has extracts from the script and accompanying sketches from "Steamboat Willie," showing the studio used the same format there, a little after Oswald.

PARKER.- said...

EDDIE RULES!!!

Weirdo said...

I can't really comment either, but I think they probably used both. My theory is that scripts were a general outline and then the storyboards helped solidify the look and story of the film.

cartoonjoe said...

Leonard
Maltin claims in "Of Mice and Magic" (1980) that Robert mcKimson used scripts in his cartoons for Warner Bros., much to his detriment: "A fine animator, McKimson turned out to be an uninspired director. Working alongside Jones and Freleng, with the same characters and access to the same talent pool, he missed the mark with alarming frequency. It may have been his practice of starting with a written script and then preparing his production sketches that gave his films such an earthbound feeling." (pg. 255)

Charlie J. said...

This is a ridiculous thing to be arguing about in the first place. Barrier himself knows 99% of classic cartoons were written with storyboards. He's just finding something to nitpick about because he's jealous John and Steve are actually contributing to the medium (and winning awards for it.) Maybe there were a few real scripts for every 500 boards, but who really cares?

"It’s no shame to admit that cartoon scripts exist. You're not being asked to eat shit – just to have an open mind."

uhhh... i think he did admit they existed here and there. Try actually reading his comments, which unlike Barrier's, are POLITE and CONSTRUCTIVE.

David Germain said...

I know of one example of a cartoon that was not written OR boarded, well a portion of it anyway. Rabbit Fire has a section in it where Mel Blanc completely improvised Daffy's dialogue.

Mr. Semaj said...

Eddie:

The only modern cartoons I've seen utilize the unit system were Rocko's Modern Life and SpongeBob SquarePants, which has worked extremely well for both shows.


IDRC: Is there actually such an example? A scripted cartoon with funny jokes and interesting characters?

Plenty. They include, and aren't limited to, the earlier Simpsons (namely those where Brad Bird was a supervising director), Futurama, Duckman, and the earliest King of the Hill episodes.

John K.: I've been doing this stuff for 30 years and have yet to meet a non-artist who could write practical or entertaining cartoons (let alone "visual").

It all depends on your definition of "entertaining".

I'm not implying that it's okay for storyboarders to be blocked out of the storytelling process. But at the same time, it's not smart to conclude that there never was a practical scripted cartoon. The same as any storyboarded cartoon, they're NOT all the same.

The cartoon writers of today are not the same as those that wrote cartoons during the 1970's.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

>>"There's another example of a Fleischer script in "The Fleischer Story" by Leslie Cabarga. He reproduces the script for a Color Classic cartoon, "The Fresh Vegetable Mystery." It's fairly bare-bones, broken up into scenes, with an indication of which animator was to do the scene and the foot-length associated with it."<<

EOCostello,

That doesn't sound like a script, but more like an animation draft. I may be wrong, but I don't think a script wouldn't contain the animators' names on it, or the length of footage. (How would the writer know which team was going to work on his story?) Probably that document was written after the story was developed, as a way for management to know which animator was responsible for which scenes.

I.D.R.C. said...

...Plenty. They include, and aren't limited to, the earlier Simpsons (namely those where Brad Bird was a supervising director), Futurama, Duckman, and the earliest King of the Hill episodes.

None of those qualify as showcases for what's great about cartoons. They are great examples of what boring visual stiffness cartoons become when too much is left up to writers. Nothing to be proud of, overall.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Boo: Amazing! A film school that teaches students to write dialogue-heavy scripts! It sounds like their intention was good, ie.,to give the visual people more freedom to interpret the action, but the real world outcome will be talky scripts.

Anon: Webb Smith invented storyboards? I'll remember that name and drink a toast to him at Thanksgiving!

IDRC: Well said!

PC: Bob's right. We shouldn't resist objective history if it can be proved. On the other hand, some of the evidence that's been published to prove non-artists wrote creative scripts isn't very convincing. I believe Mike's interview with Cottrell (spelled right?) has to be taken seriously but the Cottrell script Mike put up wasn't persuasive.

I disagree about Steve being a propagandist, presumably for John K. or Clampett. That's silly. The range of interests displayed on the ASIFA site is amazing. Recent subjects covered include Tenggren, Virgil Partch, UPA, Natwick,The Famous Artists course, even Islamic tile design! Steve's an asset to that organization and they're very lucky to have him.

Bitter Animator said...

Whether you like it or not, regardless of the quality of the animation itself, something like The Simpsons is animated. And it can entertain, be clever and has had, at times, some great visual humour.

Because it is not an old Warner cartoon, many people seem to be able to disregard it. But it entertains.

I'm in total agreement that cartoonists can come up with better visual humour and use their art to add to comedy better than a writer who is dealing only with words. But that only covers a certain section of cartoons or animation and to disregard anything else does a disservice to many creative people and is a cheaty way of proving a point.

There are great creative people and people who are dead inside, whether storyboard artists, animators, writers, tea ladies, whatever.

So I totally agree with Mr.Semaj.

Personally, while I think the cartoonist-visual humour connection is completely true, I actually think one of the main problems is something I think Eddie touched on before (or maybe it was John K) - many (maybe even most) cartoon writers don't actually seem to want to write cartoons. They're just going through the motions. That would be just as damaging if most storyboard artists wished they were board the Matrix or something.

Cha Cha said...

I personally think that there are few advantages that writing has compared to drawing in the early stages of animation film development.

Firstly, writing is faster. If you want your idea down on paper, no matter how exciting the idea would be visually, usually it takes only couple key words to write it down compared to the job of drawing storyboards.

But the question naturally rises, does the idea/joke/feeling come through with the writing? Absolutely not. Does it come through with the storyboard I may draw later? Probably a little better (depending on what is happening), but it still will not have the same effect it has on screen, and since I'm the writer and director of my own films, only the end result matters to me and not what I did between the idea and the finished film.

Second advantage, you are not restricted by any design. And this is important to me because usually for me, the story comes first anyway, and the characters & design come second. What I'm supposed to be drawing if my idea contains a character jumping out of a window? Am I supposed to be drawing a generig stick figure man? That would be restricting me because the character could be changed to a dog later, which would change the visuals and action all together.

So what I usually end up doing is both at the same time, text and drawings. Both have a place in animation writing to me, and that is how I would think things were carried out in the golden age of animation. Scripts and storyboards were used simultaneously both serving their own purpose in the process.

Mr. Semaj said...

None of those qualify as showcases for what's great about cartoons. They are great examples of what boring visual stiffness cartoons become when too much is left up to writers. Nothing to be proud of, overall.

I'm sure Rich Moore and David Silverman, among others, would disagree.

It would help if you've actually SEEN the pre-stated shows, in which case, you'd have to in order to know what's going on.

I.D.R.C. said...

... It sounds like their intention was good, ie.,to give the visual people more freedom to interpret the action, but the real world outcome will be talky scripts.

At least in live action they recognize that most writers are not filmmakers.

The industry doesn't want live action scripts with stuff like shots or blocking, even for action movies. They want clear brevity that suggests just enough but leaves room for the creative specialists who will come later and who will be given the opportunity to do their jobs creating the mood, and filling in necessary details and constructing the sequences as suggested. The results may not always be great but the process at least acknowleges everyone's purpose.

An actor will read his part and make choices about his character's inner life, etc., and then deliver a performance.

In a cartoon there is no actor to come along and just do great stuff. ALL the great stuff has to be meticulously calculated and crafted. If you truncate that part of the creative process you end up truncating all the great performance stuff that only cartoonists can do. You end up with a writer's cartoon.

Imagine if DUCKMAN were James Cagney. Now imagine telling Cagney that he can use his voice, but he has to just stand there waving his arms and bouncing up and down, and that he can only use the prescribed poses and expressions given to him on paper because his performance wasn't budgeted for and is deemed extraneous and unneccessary by the studio executives!

I don't suppose cartoon writers care. As soon as they hear a character speak a line they thought was funny, they think, "My work is done, and I am a genius"! I don't think they really watch them.

I watch cartoons in the hope of seeing great stuff made by talelnted artists --not to hear witty dialogue from glorified stick puppets. It's an insult to me as an avid cartoon fan. It's still possible for a performance to suck in a boarded cartoon, but not as bad as they suck in the scripted ones.

It seems like the only appropriate use for a written script in cartoons would be as a starting treatment. Then the storyboard guys who actually know cartoons can go from there just like they would from a fairy tale or any other preexisting source, and turn it into something visual and entertaining.

I.D.R.C. said...

I'm sure Rich Moore and David Silverman, among others, would disagree.

I know of no reason to be more impressed with their judgement than I am with my own. Why should I be?

I've seen all the shows you named. Take the best of any of them and they are not very stimulating as cartoons go.

PCUnfunny said...

Eddie: I definetly don't agree Stephen is a propagandist.
Like I said on Jaime Wienman's site, one is to except a certain bias from someone that devotes their life to a subject that they love. That is why I listen to the cartoonists as well as the historians, and the people who support either side.

Stephen Worth said...

Recently, I've been subjected to considerable abuse. It's gone way beyond just the issue of how cartoons should be written. I'd like to answer it here, if it's all right with Eddie.

There are hundreds of articles in the index of topics at the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive blog... and there's precisely ONE article that deals with this topic. To say that constitutes "indoctrination" is totally unfair.

The Archive database contains over 3,000 digitized animated cartoons and over 25,000 high resolution scans. We provide this remarkable resource for free to the general public at our facility in Burbank, and share as much of it as possible online for the benefit of animators on the net. We're working on a way to create satellite archive databases at universities, museums and libraries all over the world.

Anyone who would like to express an opinion on which direction the A-HAA should take can pitch in and volunteer to help build it. The people who have already stepped up to contribute their expertise and collections to the effort include June Foray, Jerry Beck, John Canemaker, Kent Butterworth, Leonard Maltin, John K, Andreas Deja, Mike Fontanelli and Will Finn, along with the families of Mike Lah, Herb Klynn, Les Clark, Grim Natwick and Carlo Vinci. The archive as it exists today reflects their contributions. If it's not good enough for you yet, you can roll up your sleeves and contribute yourself.

I appreciate all the help these great people have given us, and I welcome more folks to get involved. But that said, anyone who has followed this project from the beginning knows that the archive wouldn't exist at all if it wasn't for my efforts for the past three years (and eighteen years prior to that working for ASIFA and serving on the Board of Directors of ASIFA-Hollywood).

Anyone would like to personally insult me and my efforts, had better be confident that their own contributions to the artform measure up. I'm not just picking up a paycheck from working in the business, peddling my latest book, or mouthing off in a discussion board trying to act like a "cartoon know-it-all". I'm busting my hump to build a resource that will be educating and inspiring animators and artists long after I'm dead and gone.

Respectfully disagree with my analysis. Produce your evidence that proves me wrong, and contribute it to the archive database where everyone can benefit from it and refer to it. I have no problem with that. But don't expect us to just take your word for it. I've posted thousands of high resolution scans on the archive site to back up my comments. They're there for the world to see, and they're all in the archive database where they will be available forever.

See ya
Steve

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Steve: Well said, Steve! You've done a great job at ASIFA and lots of us are grateful!

IDRC, PC: Good arguments!!!

Joe: Maltin said McKimson used scripts sometimes!!!? I had no idea!

Everybody: I talked to Milt Gray about this and he was of the opinion (I hope I'm not misquoting)that Mike B's Cottrell script might actually have been a "creative" script, and not just a description of an artist's animatic.

According to Milt, Cottrell was a cameraman for five years and that may be why his scripts read like something an accountant would have written. I wonder (me wondering, not Milt)if scripts as unappealing as this are one of the reasons this practice wasn't more widespread.

deadman said...

Would the movies/shorts have been done without a single word put on paper? I doubt it. Of course, to call every scribbled scrap of paper a 'script' would be foolish, but I highly doubt animation features being made without scripts even during the Golden Age.

I believe a strong 'script' is needed for great storytelling even in animation. But like many of you guys say, it is really important that the writer be an artist. Otherwise we usually end up with just witty one-liners or lots of 'uncartoony' stuff. Ratatouille is be best example I can think of.

But to say a non-artist cannot write a script would be an extreme POV perhaps. For, I believe, the very term artist covers a broader range than just those who put a pencil or brush to the medium. But a really animation-passionate writer would definitely try to put his pencil on the paper so he could bring his own ideas to life instead of depending on others. The same, of course, applies to a passionate animator who wants her/his ideas brought to fruition.

After all when we really look at the essence of this very argument putting terms and words aside, we are talking about people who want really good cartoons made vs people who are into the trade just to make a few bucks.

Joe said...

Umm, Steve, a quick search on the ASIFA archive blog seems to me to be pretty indoctrinating. But I'm probably wrong.

Anonymous said...

I cant beleive noone has mentioned this yet--- Cottrell was Walts brother in law.

Elliot Cowan said...

"I simply can't imagine artists coming up with ideas as visually impaired as these"

I don't know about that, mate.
Most animation artists seem to be slaving to the same old thing over and over again to me.

boootooons ltd. said...

the trouble is, i think, some people consider 'note-taking' or anything involving words as opposed to pictures being taken to capture the idea as 'scripts'. they're not.

lots of cartoons had notes before they went into boarding.

- trevor.

Josh Latta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.