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Story Skills For Animation 2

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Previous Tutorial: Story Skills for Animation 1

A short history of telling tales in commercial cartoons continued

The story so far – people made things move and mostly made up stories as they went along, with directors imposing some structure through a sense of rhythm. Now Walt Disney has come along and proved people will watch silly drawings running around for more than seven minutes if they tell a compelling tale too. Some other people try this. It’s not as easy as it looks.(1)

Whilst Walt was ‘Hi-Ho-ing’ his way into diamond mines of riches and respectability, there were other animators labouring at the coalfaces of commercial animation who were about to strike their own kind of fool’s gold.

Over at Warner Brothers and MGM Tom and Jerry and Bugs and Daffy were continuing the short comedy of the silent comedians, long after their extinction, amping it through the flexible reality of animated cartoons to hilarious new heights.

Here’s director Tex Avery at the height of his story structuring powers…

How could you possibly write a film like that on a typewriter? You can’t. The drawings have to be drawn. The lines have to set their own momentum. The cartoons must cartoon and then you scribble down what they do.

In a visual medium there’s no better way of writing for the screen, especially for comedy, then with a wall of drawings and someone acting things out in front of an audience. If something doesn’t work in the story they will feel it (and possibly see yawning.) Then they can go off to revise and reshape and re-pitch and revise.

Secrets of screen writing one. Verbal storytelling is the greatest writing and revising tool of all and it’s free.

But here comes television.

Television was different. It needed stuff. A lot of stuff. And it needed it now! The schedules of early TV are full of ancient cartoons, silent comedies and cowboy serials, filling it’s low budget schedules. But soon the idea of making new animated content came along – if it could be done for a bargain basement price.

It could, but the cost was lower production values too. Forget all that lush animated movement and 360 turnarounds. TV budgets demanded drawings, funny drawings, and if you were lucky their mouths could move a bit.

In television there was no time or money for artists to draft and redraft sequences till they got them right. There wasn’t even time for producers to go down to the studios. Execs needed something to read in their office or in the car – and so did the sponsors and corporate lawyers who had to ensure nothing snuck into their shows they didn’t approve of. What they screened had what they’d previously agreed to. So..

“Can you show me a script?”

Some turned this to their advantage, In the US the likes of Jay Ward Productions hired the hippest writers they could find and inspired cartoonists dashed off their stories in a deliberately stilted, tongue in cheek style.

You might enjoy this, I know I do…

But mostly it was the age of Hannah-Barbara, abandoning the lush renderings of Tom and Jerry for the limited animation of The Flintstones. Animation became sit-com and conventional script processes took over mainstream animation.

As a result a terrible disconnect happened between the animator and the writer. Where once they would have worked together, or even been the same person, now they never even met. Scripts arrived in the mail. Animation became less and less animated. Quantity was more important than quality. Though there are TV gems, the latter half of the twentieth century is mostly littered with awful kids series it’s only fun to remember because they were so naff.

There were high spots however. In the UK (2) the BBC funded some children’s programmes in such a hands-off way that they were either really into auteur theory or just didn’t give a toss. In the 1960’s and 70’s, largely left to their own devices, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin made many of the classic series of British children’s TV from some cardboard and wool in a shed. Their shows feel like carefully crafted children’s books. They were labours of love and we loved them.

In Manchester Cosgrove-Hall Films also carved out a niche as a quirky British comedy voice (that mostly sounded like David Jason.) Dangermouse was the greatest and fantastic.(3) Like Jay Ward’s productions the animation wasn’t flashy (4) but it’s distinctive humour made DM a national treasure – and he went over well in the States too.

In the US, in the 1980’s, the growth of Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon also put some power back into the hands of people who could draw with what they called ‘creator led shows’. Cartoonists wrote their own series once more, often on story boards, and banished bad memories of ‘The Happy Days Gang In Space’ and ‘The Partridge Family In Space’ with anarchic, truly animated shows like Ren and Stimpy (who were sometimes in space) winning back a cooler teenage audience long felt lost.

But the biggest hit of them all, and with audiences all around the world, was a strictly scripted show, written and rewritten and re-rewritten by a room full of stand-up comedians and gag men, although created by a cartoonist. The Simpsons became the longest running TV comedy of all time. Then Pixar came along and did pretty much exactly what Walt Disney had done back in the nineteen thirties but in CGI.

Today, though creator/board driven shows like The Amazing Adventures of Gumball and Adventure Time make me smile the most, the typed script and it’s numerous drafts still dominates as a way of developing and selling stories. Animated TV shows can no longer be runs of thirteen. They have to stretch to fifty two episodes – and hopefully fifty two more after that. They need to be bought by broadcasters around the world, which means no more nipping down the garden shed to knock out The Clangers. Instead there may be several year of pitching, adapting a show to a wide range of tastes and opinions, writing pilot after pilot and repitching until you get a green light.

Though you may get to make an animatic, mostly you’ll be asked to produce written scripts. OK. It may still not the best way to write for much animation, but sitting down with papers and pens and a PC can still be a massively useful tool for having more ideas, shaping your notions and creating stronger films – rather than just making it as he went along, like Windsor did with Gertie.

So how do you shape successful stories?

Next Tutorial; How to shape successful stories.


1. See ‘Gullivers Travels’ by the Fleischer Brothers. It’s on YouTube, like everything else in the world plus a kitten on a skateboard jumping a pit of ferrets.

2. Sorry for the US bias, but to be honest, until the 60’s commercial animation in the UK was mostly pretty shit.

3. Wherever there was danger he was there.

4. DM’s mouth was usually behind his steering wheel of his car to save on lip synch.

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