Who knows, you might just end up working on an animated feature someday. The odds are against it, like everything else in Hollywood, but it could happen. Your live-action spec goes out, gets good response; suddenly you're called in to a pitch meeting, on a project in development. And halfway through the meeting they casually mention, "Oh, this is going to be an animated film."
Knowing nothing about animation, you could probably vamp your way though the rest of the meeting. But if you happen to get called in to talk to the animation directors, or the story crew, it would really help to know a few things about the medium. (For more info on animation writing, check out Letter #25, "Drawing the Line.")
Now, it only really takes about 20 years or so to become truly knowledgeable about animation. Many books have been written on the subject, and there's no way this column can add much to the body of information.
So, for this topic, we've abandoned the usual Wordplay column style. We've picked a different format to present information --
Readers, grab a pencil!
Take this handy test, and find out how much you may already know about writing for animation!
Score 4 points for every correct answer.
1. The page count of a typical animated feature script runs: a. 120 pages -- every shot must be detailed so the 'page a minute' rule does NOT apply to animated features. b. About 105 pages. c. No more than 85 pages, tops. d. Only 65 pages -- you have to leave room for the songs. e. Trick question -- there are no animated feature scripts, the storyboard artists do all the work. f. Over 4,000 pages.
2. The person most responsible for the revitalization of animation and current golden age of animation is: a. Jeffrey Katzenberg b. Howard Ashman c. Don Bluth d. Homer Simpson e. Robert Zemeckis
3. The Disney animated feature ALADDIN contains a hidden, subliminal message. That message is: a. "Good teenagers, take off your clothes." b. "Go forth and pay handsomely for plush toys." c. "Drink Diet Coke." d. "Euro Disney is not always cold and rainy." e. "Believe in yourself enough to make decisions based upon who you truly are, and value those true aspects of yourself enough to be willing to risk showing them to others."
4. Animated films often have two directors because: a. One to draw the lines, the other to color them in. b. Easier to gang up on Katzenberg over story changes. c. Gee, it's really hard to make an animated film. d. Animation Guild rules. e. Insurance in case one director dies (they're also contractually required to take separate flights).
5. Which major studio boasts the most state-of-the-art animation equipment, the highest number of animation employees, and the most experienced and most talented animation crews? a. Warner Bros. b. Disney c. 20th Century Fox d. Hanna Barbera e. DreamWorks
6. Dialog on an animated film is recorded: a. After the animation is drawn. b. At the same time the animation is drawn. c. During Mardi Gras week, if possible. d. In one day. e. Before the animation is drawn, but after storyboards if possible.
7. During production of LITTLE MERMAID, the song Jeffrey Katzenberg argued vehemently and repeatedly to cut was: a. "Under the Sea" b. "Les Poissons" c. "Kiss the Girl" d. "Shark Bait" ("Flounder's Song") e. "Part of Your World"
8. Most of the female characters in animated features are drawn as anatomically-impossible babes. This is because: a. More curves, bigger box office. b. The scientifically documented 'nude-figure-model' effect. c. Hey, many of these guys started drawing in the first place because they couldn't get dates, now you put 'em in a room drawing pretty girls all day, how do you expect the drawings to come out? d. Well financed, well-organized Hollywood conspiracy to promote impossible-to-meet standards and thus create poor body image among women. e. Residual negative influence of artists reading comic books as kids.
9. The Disney animated feature 101 DALMATIANS was the first animated feature ever to make extensive use of this invention: a. Chem flat-bed editing machine b. Xerox copy machine c. Multi-plane camera d. CGI e. Pocket calculator
10. In the Disney animated film ALADDIN, what original song was replaced by the song "One Jump Ahead"? a. "Count on Me" b. "Proud of Your Boy" c. "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim" d. "Why Me?" e. "Silence is Golden"
11. The brand new, state-of-the-art animation facility for Disney studios is designed such that: a. All the animators get offices with windows and natural light. b. Some of the really good animators get offices with windows and natural light. c. Skylights send shafts of natural light down onto executives. d. All windows open onto a hallway, so nobody gets natural light. e. Only Glen Keene gets an office with a window and natural light.
12. On an animated feature film, the screenwriter is responsible for: a. Getting the dialog right. b. Transcribing the storyboards into screenplay form. c. Making coffee. d. Plot, character, dialog, visuals, humor, action sequences, transitions, theme, music, tone -- in short, just the same as in a feature film. e. The entire movie if it's bad, nothing if it's good.
13. When it rains in Burbank, waterflow off the roof of the Team Disney building causes which of the seven dwarves to look like he's peeing onto everyone who enters the building? a. Doc b. Bashful c. Dopey d. Lefty e. Sleepy
14. In the Disney animated film ALADDIN, Robin Williams: a. Improvised all his own dialog. b. Improvised all his own dialog, wrote the songs, scored the film, played all the instruments in the orchestra, drew most of the animation, and ran the projector at your local theater. c. Received a rare and valuable Picasso from the studio as a big 'thank you' for his work. d. Insisted that the studio re-design the Genie more to his own likeness. e. Improvised a lot of dialog because he couldn't remember his lines.
15. Which of the following is not a term used in writing for an animated feature: a. X-sheet b. Layout c. Pencil test d. Off-model e. Residuals f. In-betweening g. Line-up sheet
16. Animated features often portray the family unit as fractured, with no parents or only one parent. This is because: a. Animated films are quite expensive to produce. b. The people who make animated films come from dysfunctional, single-parent families. c. It creates sympathy for the characters if one parent is missing. d. Whoops! We forgot to put in the other parent! e. Part of a conspiracy among all Hollywood film studios to undermine the traditional family values of all Americans.
17. Everyone knows SNOW WHITE was the first feature-length animated film. What was the second? a. PINOCCHIO b. ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP c. GULLIVER'S TRAVELS d. BAMBI e. COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBIN DWARVES
18. As a screenwriter on an animated film, you'd rather: a. Write the first draft, that way you get to see your vision make it up to the screen. b. Come in at the last second and write under the gun during production, with storyboard artists and animators waiting for the pages.
19. Which of the following projects is currently in development or pre-production at a major animation studio? a. SPIRIT b. SHREK c. SINBAD d. FANTASIA 2000 e. TREASURE PLANET f. THE ROAD TO EL DORADO g. A PRINCESS OF MARS h. CHICKEN RUN i. UNDER THE BED j. TUSKER
20. The best way to break into feature animation writing is: a. Write an animated feature script on spec. b. Read WORDPLAY every week. c. Pursue a career writing live-action features. d. Write musicals. e. Memorize all episodes of MAYA THE BEE. f. Learn to throw push-pins so they stick into the storyboards.
21. A 'sweatbox' is: a. A term from the old days, meaning Walt Disney's office. b. The theater booked for the screening of an animated feature to the very first preview audience. c. The film bin where you put the clips cut from the movie. d. The room where the editor works. e. Jeffrey Katzenberg's brain.
22. A 'machette' is: a. A long sharp blade used to cut though the tangled storylines in a story meeting. b. A kind of cute, diminutive 'mach.' c. A sculpture of a character used by the animator to view the figure at all angles, and in different lighting situations. d. The armature that holds the figures in place in the Claymation process. e. A particularly valuable item given by the studio to development executives, but rarely to writers.
23. Which of the following is not an animation process? a. Go-motion b. Rotoscoping c. CGI d. Claymation e. Rear-screen projection f. Motion capture g. Stop-motion h. Puppetry
24. The three basic design choices in animation are: a. Funny, sad, dramatic b. Normal, miniature, animal c. Line, shape, form d. Color, light, shape e. Cartoon, realistic, stylized
25. The 'nine old men' are: a. DreamWorks investors waiting for the company to turn a profit. b. Ron Clements, John Musker, Roger Allers, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Don Bluth, Peter Schnieder, Roy Disney c. Friday night poker group at Eisner's house. d. The original concept for the seven dwarves, before budget concerns. e. Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Eric Larson, Ollie Johnston
BONUS: There's a high chain link fence surrounding the Disney animation building in Burbank, with prison-style barbed wire along the top of the fence. The barbed wire slopes: a. Outward, to keep curiosity seekers from getting onto the lot b. Inward, to keep valued animators from escaping to other studios.
1. c. No more than 85 pages, tops.
On ALADDIN, we begged for five more minutes of screen time to tell the story -- until we were told it would cost the production another $7 or 8 million. (To get more footage they'd need to hire more animators, or pay the existing animators huge overtime.) This shorter page limit forces some story structure changes -- it's all the more important, for example, to get the story going quickly, and for scenes to serve dual, or even triple purposes.
Give yourself 3 points if you picked 'e', no script -- before LITTLE MERMAID, there was no such thing as an animation screenplay. And give yourself 3 points if you picked 'f', over 4,000 pages. On a Katzenberg animated feature, each scene is written 40-plus times. That's 4,000 pages of screenplay for an 80-minute movie.
2. b. Howard Ashman
Make no mistake about it, the man was a genius, with story structure and characters as well as music. His talents and abilities are sorely missed, and may never be replaced. The songs he contributed, with Alan Menken, to LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN revitalized the entire animation industry. Give yourself 2 points if you picked 'a,' Jeffrey Katzenberg -- we put him on the list to keep the question tough.
3. e. "Believe in yourself enough to make decisions based upon who you truly are, and value those true aspects of yourself enough to be willing to risk showing them to others."
Just your basic, ordinary everyday theme. You want subliminal messages, check out the many gay references in TOP GUN.
4. c. Gee, it's really hard to make an animated film.
There's too much work, too many meetings, too many areas of expertise needed on an animated film for just one director to be responsible for it all.
5. b. Disney
Who are we kidding? Disney's still the team to beat. They've got the most experienced people, the biggest talent pool all around. DreamWorks is coming on, a strong second.
6. a. Before the animation is drawn, but after storyboards if possible.
The animators match their drawings to the delivery of the voice actors. Sometimes they may even reference a videotape of the actor's expressions shot during the recording session. It's nice, though, if the storyboards are finished and at the recording session, so the actor can 'see' the context of the performance.
7. This was a trick question: give yourself full credit for 'a,' 'b,' 'c,' and 'e.' At different points Katzenberg argued for cutting all these songs down, or even completely out of the movie. Give yourself 1 bonus point for 'b'; Katzenberg was pretty steadfast on getting rid of that one.
8. c. Hey, many of these guys started drawing in the first place because they couldn't get dates, now you put 'em in a room drawing pretty girls all day, how do you expect the drawings to come out?
The curvaceous girl phenomenon, I truly believe, is due to the fact that most animators are male. The more months they sit alone in a small room drawing women, the more beautiful and curvy the women get. I suspect there's a lot of wishful thinking going on somewhere.
9. b. Xerox copy machine
All those dogs. All those spots.
10. Give yourself points for 'a,' 'b,' and 'c.' Each of those songs served as an 'intro ALADDIN' song, in different permutations of the movie.
11. d. All windows open onto a hallway, so nobody gets natural light.
Yes, somehow, the Disney animation building managed to get designed in such a way that the ping-pong players in the hallway get the best light. What were they thinking?
12. d. Plot, character, dialog, visuals, humor, action sequences, transitions, theme, music, tone -- in short, just the same as in a feature film.
Writing an animated screenplay is just like writing a feature film. And there's often the added complexity of integrating the music, and more than the usual need to come up with visual solutions. It's certainly more than just writing dialog. Give yourself a consolation point for 'e,' which is true for all pictures produced in Hollywood.
13. c. Dopey
Honest mistake or architect's revenge? Only Michael Graves knows for sure.
14. c. Received a rare and valuable Picasso from the studio as a big 'thank you' for his work.
There are some very significant lines and jokes in ALADDIN that Robin Williams improvised, and contributed enormously to the film. But nobody can ever spot them with accuracy. Most of the lines that are particularly Robin-esque were created by the directors, storyboard artists, or writers. Many jokes were a collaboration in the best sense. The story structure implies a situation, the situation implies an action, the action implies a line, and Robin Williams delivers the line with a particular accent or spin that makes it even funnier. There was never a point where Williams wasn't working from a script or storyboards.
Oddly, a truly significant contribution that Williams made to the movie is usually missed: his line readings in the dramatic sections. They were always perfect, heartfelt, warm and on-target, and essential to establishing the heart of the movie.
15. e. Residuals
Animation writing is not covered by the Writer's Guild. (If there were residuals, we probably wouldn't be doing this column.) Just to run through the other terms quickly:
- An 'X-sheet' is a kind of 'order form' that the animator uses, telling him how many seconds (frames) he has to complete the scene, how much air time between dialog, length of each word of dialog, etc.
- 'Layout' is the process where the storyboards are moved into the reality-world of the film, and attention is given to locking down camera angles, camera moves, etc.
- A 'pencil test' is when the rough animation is viewed real time, either on film, video or computer.
- 'Off model' is when a drawing of a character deviates from how that character is supposed to look. Keeping a character consistent-looking through a variety of poses, situations, and expresses is one of the key challenges of animation.
- 'In-betweening' is when the assistant animators draw each frame of action in between the major motion poses designed by the lead animator. Tedious work, but great training.
- The 'Line-up sheet' is a character design comparison chart, showing the relative sizes, shapes and colors of each character.
16. a. Animated films are quite expensive to produce.
Characters cost money. They have to be designed, modeled, clothed, color-schemed, etc. Many animators have to become expert in drawing that particular character with different expressions and in different situations. So if you can lose a character, you will -- which is why so many animation characters have just one parent.
One of the challenges in writing for animation is that you can't just create a character to solve a problem -- it's too expensive. You have to come up with solutions using the characters you have.
17. c. GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (by Max Fleicher at Paramount)
Give yourself 2 points for PINOCCHIO, which was Disney's second animated feature, and 2 points for ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP, which was planned by Walter Lantz at Universal but never produced.
18. b. Come in at the last second and write under the gun during production, with storyboard artists and animators waiting for the pages.
Yes, do the revisions. For some reason, the first draft of an animated film almost always gets tossed. Ted and I call it the deep fly sacrificial draft. If you want to see your work up on the screen, you need to be in the building, working directly with the director, the storyboard artists and the animators, as the picture is being drawn.
19. Trick question, they're all in some stage of development, production, or pre-production. You get a score for any answer.
20. Okay, give yourself 5 points for 'b,' "Read WORDPLAY every week." But the real answer is 'c,' "Pursue a career writing live-action features." Pursue your career with an eye toward moving over to animation if the opportunity comes up.
I include this question to dissuade writers from attempting 'a,' "Write an animated feature script on spec" (check out Column #22, "Ink and Paint," for more animation-writing caveats). I've yet to hear of any animated film project that began as a spec script. Animation films are so few and far between, so time intensive and so important, they're almost always developed in-house.
21. d. The room where the editor works.
In the old Disney days, the editing machine was tucked under a stairway. Animators had to crowd in tight to see their pencil tests. Not only did it get hot and sweaty, but that was where Walt criticized the work. Nowadays the rooms are bigger, but the tension is still there, and 'going into the sweatbox' to work over footage is a phrase still in use.
22. c. A sculpture of a character used by the animator to view the figure at all angles, and in different lighting situations.
Machettes are usually made out of clay. Expensive and beautiful, only a limited number are made, to be used by the animators as a drawing aid. Give yourself one point for 'e'; the machettes are highly coveted by all, and yet rarely given to writers and animators.
23. e. Rear-screen projection
It's possible that it could be used in animation, just pretty rare. But all the other techniques are part of the growing animation field. The flat, 2-D animation style is called, 'traditional animation.' Then came NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and TOY STORY, and now more and more projects make use of the computer, and a blend of techniques.
24. c. Line, shape, form
I'm just a writer, so I'm not sure if I have this exactly right. But the idea is, stylistically, each animated film emphasizes one or two of these three elements. You can choose to have a clear 'line' to your characters (like in HERCULES). Or you can emphasize 'shape' -- each of the characters in ALADDIN, for example, had a distinct and clear shape (imagine a silhouette of the Genie, or the Sultan, Jafar or Jasmine). Or you can chose to push the 'form' of the characters; use light and shadow to emphasize a three-dimensional look (as done so effectively in SNOW WHITE).
25. e. Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Eric Larson, Ollie Johnston
The 'nine old men' are the founding fathers of animation; men who worked in the early days of Disney; pioneers who discovered, defined and refined the basic techniques of the genre.
BONUS: b. Inward, to keep valued animators from escaping to other studios.
Yes, amazingly, the barbed-wire fence slopes inward. Drive by the building on the 134 Ventura freeway and check it out. I guess Disney is pretty serious about making sure their talent stays put!
0-40: Poor........Back to the drawing board.
41-60: Fair........What, you actually read books as a kid?
61-80: Good........Clever of you to buy that Disney stock.
80-100: Excellent...You are indeed a product of the times.
106: Perfect.....Okay, you write the damn column!