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Story Skills for Animation 1

Tutorials


The best way to learn to write for the screen is to watch things, think about them and then watch them again. Here are lots of things to watch.

A short history of telling tales in commercial cartoons

gertie

This is Gertie. She’s a Dinosaur – and she’s first animated character to really BE a character. Why not nip off to Youtube and watch her now?

Created by pioneering animator Windsor McKay in 1914 Gertie is quite clearly a child. She is petulant, has tantrums and sulks. She has a personality and Windsor took her on tours of America, performing in music halls, interacting with her image on the screen.

Before Gertie (20 years B.G.) animation pretty much just moved. Scissors danced. Toys jerked around a playground. The hands of cartoonists drew faces and then they blinked and smoked cigarettes. Really it was just a magic trick; dead things were animated to life; and that was enough for a while. Audiences were happy to watch this little miracle. But then they got a bit fidgety. The novelty was wearing off.

They started to tire of diving out of the way of films of trains arriving at stations and wanted cowboys to rob them also. They desired more in their animation too.

Gertie’s time in the spotlight didn’t last long. Although McCay was hailed as a genius(1) he despaired of the way cartoons were becoming a vehicle for slapstick, not sophisticated drawing. He went back to newspapers and ‘Little Nemo In Slumberland.’ Animation was left to less graphically gifted entertainers.

Felix walked into the spotlight next. Mixing an irrepressible spirit (‘Felix kept on walking. Keeps on walking still’ was his theme song) with a casual surrealism only possible in animation, Felix channelled aspects of Chaplin to become the first globally famous cartoon character. In a time of depression it was good to have a hero who got knocked down and then got up again.

Although the adventures of Felix were pretty basic, scenarios were created to tie the gags together and they looked like this..

felix

Now that’s not a script in any accepted sense. That’s a framework to stick gags on, and the sticking was done by often competing artists who’d pitch bits of business to the boss. If there was an author here it was the director of the film, who chose what to use and where to place it to better pace a film.

Then along came sound and made all this a little easier. Animation began to syncopate and a relationship with music was established that remains potent to this day. Because in cartoons anything can move and throb and dance to music, anything suddenly did. The animations of the jazz age are full of bopping lamp posts and motor vehicles, as whole townscapes began to dig Louie Armstrong and his band.

No cartoons were Jazzier than those of the Fleischer Brothers, two Jewish guys hanging out with the hipsters in New York, who often took a popular song and shaped an entire cartoon around it. Wild invention and the kind of surrealism that would have freaked even Felix out were their trade mark and their star was Betty Boop.

I now advise you to haunt yourself forever by nipping of to YouTube once more and watching this…

Who wrote that? The method was much the same – a scenario, artists pitching suggestions, people given different sections to animate and a director to pull it all together. But now notions of song structure have begun to creep in. Bimbo’s Initiation has verses and choruses and a satisfying ending, even though it makes very little literal sense.

Enter Walt. Well actually Disney’s already entered and made the first sound cartoon.(2) making Micky Mouse (a more clean living Felix) a star. The content of his early animations aren’t much better than anyone elses, but he has a questing spirit that will soon make his name synonymous with a better class of toon.

Never a great artist, Walt is attributed with two major skills – a desire to do better work and a knack for spotting talented people and putting them in the right jobs. This he did building a studio that soon becomes known for higher production values and innovation. He sought respectability too, so the cocaine fuelled fantasies of the Fleischer brothers were out. Walt did wholesome, and for the first time the idea that animation was primarily a children’s medium became established.

‘Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs’ was a game changer. Known as ‘Walts Folly’ until it’s release, no one else believed an animated film could hold anyone’s attention for more than seven minutes, but it’s seventy Technicolour minutes wowed the family audiences of the world.

Walt’s third great skill was as a story man and in myriad, often traumatic, meetings he broke the story down, testing the ideas of others to breaking point, forging a full length film from a simple fairy tale. Semi-completed song sequences were binned. Snow White was pulled back from release to have new bits inserted at great cost. Although only a few writers/cartoonists are credited, it was the work of a great team of contributors, with the boss of the company pulling it all together through his sense of shape.(3)

From now on animated movies could be any length they liked, but the major tool for their writing would still be the storyboard. Yes, there would be scenarios and scripts, but talented story artists pitching scenes with a stick, some silly voices and a wall full of drawings to a critical audience became the norm.(4) But television was just a world war away and so was the triumph of the script.

Want to be boggled? There’s only seven years between Mickey Mouse uttering his first ‘Oh Boy!’ and the release of ‘Fantasia.’

Next Tutoriall: Sod the fairy tales. I want gags!” From Warner Brothers to Cartoon Network


1. He made the first animated documentary too. ‘The Sinking Of The Lusitania’ – which although not that factually correct has some of the best Art Neuvo smoke effects ever.
2. Except he didn’t really.
3. And not the director. Every heard of David Hand? He didn’t do much else.
4. And in movies still is. Look at the extras of most Pixar DVDs. Monster Inc is a great one. There’s a whole not so good version of the film being pitched on there.

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  • Stephen Ashton

    A great read. But Gertie the Dinosaur’s 1914, not 1923. At least that’s what the National Film Registry says.
    http://www.loc.gov/film/registry_titles.php?sort=released

  • Melanie Hani

    Engaged from the beginning by the witty, and informative style. Easy to read and useful that the films referenced are easily accessible at the time when they are being discussed without breaking the flow of the piece. Enjoyable read!

  • Annie Polome

    I have to point this out. Walt Disney did not actually create the first animation with sound, that would be the Fleischer studios about four years BEFORE Disney with Song-Car-Tunes. They were basically sing along songs with the bouncing ball, however Disney had a larger grasp on marketing, and marketed Steam Boat Willie as the first animation with sound, but if you do a little digging you will find Fleischer Studios responsible for animation with sound
    other than that fantastic and helpful article

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