January 10, 2008

Story is King, written or not

There's a lot of talk about story and animation on the web right now. It's an important topic, but it seems to be focusing on whether or not animation should use a script or should go straight to boarding. With respect to Steve Worth I just can't believe that "THERE WERE NO CARTOON SCRIPTWRITERS prior to 1960." It's a nice idea, and I see what your getting at but no, not true. Brad Bird gives a strong argument for using a script and I've been reading articles by John Kricfalusi about not using a script and going straight to the boards like any good cartoonist for years (John Kricfalusi has a lot of great articles in Animation Magazene about this). With the direction that technology is going I can see a time where people will draw straight into the story reel, and we will be having arguments whether or not we need a story board before going to the reel. But in the long run who cares? Any of these techniques are just tools, and it's not the tool that creates a good story it's the person behind it. And anyone worth their weight should learn to use all these tools so they can know when to apply each one so they can then focus on the story.

So let's talk about story in animation and how it's been used in the past. (I know I'm glossing over a lot of things here, this isn't a history or story.) In my opinion there's four important turning points in regards to story telling and animation. Animated films are not known for their great stories. I'm sorry but it's true. With a few exceptions, most animated films have weak stories if they have a story at all, and that's part of the problem. If this industry is to survive or fall back into the a slump again like it did in the 1980s it will be story that will make or break it. Not the animation, script or no script.

The first faze of story telling in animation is the Loony Tunes/Silly Symphonies era, this is before feature films. These films are great, I have a big collection of them at home and I watch and step through them in an effort to improve my own work. But they have no story, they're gag films that are loosely strung on a theme. If I was to make a gag film today I'd do it the same way they made these films: no script, straight to boarding. Thinking up gags and being a "Gag Man" is a lost art, and it's something I think I'd find fun and immensely satisfying. Walt Disney made a lot of these gag films but he was smart enough to realize that you can't make a feature film this way, you need stronger characters and strong story to hold people's attention. That's the second faze, films made during Walt Disney's life, everyone knows this era, it starts with Snow White and it ends at Jungle Book when he died (smoking kills kids). With Snow White he applied basic story telling technique to animation to prove you can have more depth in Animation. That leads us to the third faze, after he died.

After Walt died people at Disney didn't know what to do. He was the one who made had all the final say in how things were done, now it was left up to a lot of different people. The animators got enough control over the animated features that they started making the films their own way way. They started making them about the animation not the story. You see this happen in live action films all the time. If the actors start taking over the film making process the film usually suffers because all the actor wants is lots of key shots that shows off their acting. The same was true for the animators at Disney. They started making lots of key shots that showed off their clever animation. If you compare the films that were being made during Walt's life (example: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp), to those after he died (ex: Robbin hood, Sward in the Stone, Rescuers,Aristocats ) you'll see what I mean. The ones after he died have some of the best animation ever done at the studio. It's the nine old men at the top of their game. I love these films for the craft that they show, I study them for the same reason I study other films. For the craft. But I do have to concede that as a film, they're not that good. The characters are shallow, the story is week and predictable. If the story was as good as the animation they'd be great but there isn't enough balance between the two. A great acting shot with lots of little bits of clever business doesn't make a film unless it's supported by as strong story.

(Sorry I'm skipping over the comeback of animation Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast etc. this post is already a bit long and I'm trying to get to my point, my apologies, I could spend a whole post on that:)

The forth faze comes with Computer Animated films. At the time the press start throwing out stuff like the evolution of animation, hand drawn animation is dead and other bullshit like that. The fact of the matter is it was the the political environment of using a computer to animate that freed the filmmakers from making a typical animated story line. Basically they updated story, not one that was constrained to the story telling techniques of the 1940s but one that audience were used to seeing in non animated films. That was the real technological improvement of the time and it had nothing to do with the fact that they used a computer to make it. Toy Story proved that Animated Films are not a genre but a technique. But now we stand a chance of loosing that again. Does each technique of animating a film fall under it's own genera? Are all computer animated films: "buddy pictures," stop motion: "dark comedies" and traditional films: "teenage musical love stories?"

On every film I've worked on I've had shots put on hold, thrown away, delays that makes my footage tank, I've had to re-animate shots, and make changes I don't agree with. I've had to do these all for the sake of the story. Some of it has frustrated me but I've never complained (well, not that much) because I come from he school of thought that you have to be flexible, and if it doesn't move the story along, it doesn't belong in the film. I believe story is kingbecouse everyone remembers Sleeping Beauty, and no one remembers Aristocats . Story keeps people coming back, story keeps us in work, story will save us from the pit of the 1980s again. The idea that animation is the most important part of an animated film is not true, it's what got us into the pit of the '80s in the first place, who wants to go back? Board the film, write the film do what ever you have to do but just make the story good. That's up to the individual.


Cassidy said...

Great post, Ethan!

I'm still yearning for that next golden age, where every story is fresh and original and surprising and satisfying, and every show is led by people who believe that the artists on the crew will make the movie even better than its boards (or its script), and give them the trust and the freedom to do their thing.

I definitely catch glimpses of that world here and there. Gives me hope that we can get the whole package together eventually.

jerrie said...

Nice Ethan. Well written and great points made!!!

Luke said...

I totally agree with you. On board driven shows in television animation they usually have better stories but it's not because it's board driven. It's because the storyboard artists actually put their heart into the cartoon. They care. Unfortunately almost every animation script writer I've worked for in the past saw their job in animation as either a way to break into live action or a way to fund their stand-up comedy addiction. In other words they didn't care about the cartoon they were writing.