Monday, March 19, 2007

Writing for cartoons 2 - Skills You Need: Be a Cartoonist First

This is part 2. Read part 1 first if you haven't:

Skills you need to have to be a good cartoon writer:

Here's the most important one:
Be a cartoonist

This is so self-evident, it seems crazy that it needs to be explained to anybody, but here goes...

You don't have to be the greatest cartoonist, but you should have some experience animating, or at least inbetweening so you know how cartoons work. That way you won't ask animators to do things that don't work in animation.

You shouldn't write for any medium that you don't understand, because the people who have to actually make the medium will think you're an idiot and will waste their abilities trying make your awkward "ideas" seem smooth by patching them together with bandaids. That's the basic system the studios use today.

Johnny Mercer wasn't as good a singer as Frank Sinatra, but he played instruments, read music and sang. He knew enough about singing to know what could be sung well by better singers. He knew the language he was writing for. He could carry a tune.

Would you trust a songwriter to write tunes if he had no way of playing you the tune-or even singing it to you?

"Trust me, the tune in my head is really good. I just don't have any musical ability to show it to you. Let me describe the tune. There are some really fast low notes, then they speed up and go higher. Then there's a short fat note that wiggles for a couple beats. I think I mean beats... uh...what's a beat again?"

I'm sure that's how this was "written":

That's what cartoon writers who don't draw are asking you to believe-that they have good visual ideas but no direct way to express them. That is exactly how their idiotic scripts read to us and we shake our heads in disgust. It's why the scriptwriters are laughed at by artists. I don't know how these "writers" can walk down the same halls as the artists who know they've had their medium stolen from them and know what charlatans they are.

The language of animation is pictures- and simple pictures too, because you have to draw lots and lots of pictures just to make something move. The more complicated the pictures are, the less an animator can do per week and the lousier the motion looks.

Having experience animating teaches you this fast and cures you of wanting to write crowd scenes and complicated costumes and difficult camera angles.

Animation is also potential magic and you need to be able to draw and animate somewhat so that you can take advantage of what kind of magic animation can actually do well. An experienced animation artist's understanding of what cartoon magic is is much different than a non-visual person's is.

Here's what Jeffrey Scott and most animation "writers" think is the magic part of animation, "In live-action you have to write a lot of real-life stuff, like people's problems and crime. But in animation for kids I can make up wild stories, write sci-fi or fantasy, and dream about worlds and see them appear on screen. This would be too expensive in live-action, but in animation it only takes an artist to draw some pictures and there it is!"

In other words, the magic is that you can slough off all the responsibility of having to know what you are doing on an artist. You don't have to do the hard part. You can write a bad live-action style epic with huge elaborate sets and a cast of thousands, and magically some poor artist (or hundreds of them) is stuck with making it happen - at 12 drawings a second.


Obviously, drawing a storyboard gives you a much better idea if a scene or cartoon will work than writing it in words. You can just look at the storyboard in continuity and see it.
Even artists who try to write scripts realize this quickly.

I learned by having to draw scenes I first "wrote" in words that some things I thought would work didn't. Then when I sat down and drew the ideas I invented many scenes, character bits and gags that I would never have thought of just by typing the ideas floating in my head and wasting time trying to verbalize them. Somehow, much magic comes out of your pencil without you consciously dreaming it up.

Someone who can't draw will try to argue that he thinks visually, but unfortunately for him, he can never prove his point. In order for a blind writer to prove that he thinks visually, he has to get an artist to prove it by drawing the pictures for him. He can't get his wonderful pictures out of his head without the aid of someone who can draw. If the writer doesn't like the artist's interpretation he has no way of explaining how to do it right.

On the other hand, artists who also have story ability can prove it by just doing it. As they did for the first 4 decades of animation history. In the 90s Spumco proved it again and for a while because of the huge success of bringing back real cartoons even executives went along with it, until they started meddling again, and so much now that the business has reverted to the 80s system of hiring non-creative "writers" who can neither draw nor write, but are happy to steal the money while taking advantage of the ever gullible execs.


An original P.O.V.

and keep checking back for more things you need to be a good cartoon writer...


Adam H said...

Sweet crackers! I can't thank you enough for these & future posts to come on writing for cartoons.

"when I sat down and drew the ideas I invented many scenes, character bits and gags that I would never have thought of just by typing the ideas floating in my head"

-so true. I was having trouble developing a character in writing, then one night I was doodling him & it was like my pencil was the key to my subconscious as he was flushed out within minutes.

Thanks a ton John, you have no idea.

Anonymous said...

Nice Post

Mad Taylor said...

Woo hoo! Such good advice. One person that crossed my mind was Harvey Pekar. Although he applies to the comics do you feel about his writing and having a cartoonist draw it for him?

T' said...

I've been reading your blog for quite some time and while I'm not in animation nor wish to be an animator, I've been adapting a lot of what you've written about here to comics. The webcomic I do has been inspired by those Art Lozzi backgrounds as well as the old WB style stretch and squash. It's a lot harder to do, and to push past the model sheets and such, but even for dramatic and not comedic effect, pusing one's art in that way is really worth it.

This is my comic, Fite! if you want to see some of the effect your writing has had on others.


Paul B said...

thanks john!! this post is gorgeous!

hey, could you explain to us the language that is used in the storyboards that you post as the "Hold" or the "8X", etc ..?

thanks again john!

smackmonkey said...

The most insidious aspect of the requirement by artists to apply "band-aids" to today's horrible animation writing is that it trains all newcomers to the industry to think only in terms of cobbling otherwise unrelated events together rather than building a great series of increasingly funny (or entertaining) gags. Storyboard artists are forced thru all sorts of mind numbing artistic contortions to simply get thru a script that ultimately nets NO pay off. Weird awkward angles, ghastly over-burdened character designs, endless detail, endless minutiae, and giant crowd scenes requiring hours of laborious detail are now the norm and do nothing more than facillitate the bad writing. All the while a newbie's REAL cartoon skills are ignored and never get a chance to flourish. This practice effectively ensures that there are plenty of automatons to push pencils and leaves all the creative decision making in the hands of the studio execs and their writer-lackeys. My advice? Don't work for the big studios and be a REAL cartoonist!

S.G.A said...

Thank you soooooo much, I just got my second story boarding job and I am going to apply these tips.. i hope it's well received!

Jay said...

I recollect a particular episode of Tiny Toons that explained that a cartoon character can walk off a cliff for a spell as long as he didn't look down. This attempt at a meta 'gag' always made me cringe. 1) It looked down the nose at the animation history that spawned the show in the first place 2) It revealed that the writer of the cartoon had no grasp of why cartoons are funny. The joke from the classics is not that the character is able to defy gravity. The joke is the 'take' or caricature of the reaction one might actually make if one looked down upon certain death. The Tiny Toons gag seemed to be the output of someone who neglects that the entertainment in a cartoon is meant to be visual and derived from character.

Gabriel said...

A correct link for that tiny toons mp3.

arty said...

You want to see a cartoon "writer" try to explain his vision to the actual animators? Go here:

and click "See a show being created."

Roberto González said...

"when I sat down and drew the ideas I invented many scenes, character bits and gags that I would never have thought of just by typing the ideas floating in my head"

I also agree with that. I make comic strips, not cartoons, but this happens to me every time. I have lot of difficulties every time I write a long story for a comic (something like 20 pages, for example)and then I try to translate it to paper. I has normally written too many dialogue and I kind of force myself to include the jokes, but it won't work visually.

Aaron said...

Hi John, I've read your blog for a while, and I really love it. First time commenting though.
I actually read that Jeffery Scott book a couple of years ago, and it was full of ridiculous claims and horrible misinformation.
It's actually very funny-- I might read it again sometime, if I can find it, for a laugh. It includes a series bible for the most unbelievably cliche'd cartoon ever, about some dopey surfer kid who spouts catchphrases about being extreme.
One of the stupider parts is the paragraph where he repeatedly claims that 'anime' is japanese for "adult animation".
Jeffery Scott is THE definition of Hack Cartoon Writer. He really does deserve to be singled out, he seems like an idiot. Along with that Gal fellow, lol...

Shawn said...

Thanks for posting these lessons. This is great!

chucky said...

But how is Roger Ramjet a good cartoon by your standards if it was scriptwritten?

JohnK said...

I don't know that it was strictly scriptwritten, but there are exceptions to every rule. I'm one myself.

The writers were performers first and they were not so insecure that they ordered the artists not to add creative and funny ideas of their own.

Everyone was creative on that team.

The scriptwriters we have today are not funny, don't have ideas and can't write.

If I had someone as funny as the Ramjet writers, I would hire them on my team in a second, but I wouldn't put them in charge and let them have the last say on everything.

I'll find out more about Ramjet and relate it to everyone.

Anonymous said...

Great post, John.

I hope to be a great Cartoonographer like yourself.

I've learned so much and still learning. I'm trying to apply this to my work.

I'll post some soon.

Thanks again.

S.G.A said...

i post here a alot a say nice things.
I really don't want to come off as an ass kisser, I'm not.. But this stuff is great to read, especially the direction you are headed now, I was so tore up about the way things ran I sort gave up on my animation dreams, not only that I really didn't have a good Idea how things worked, plus my first animation work was for a guy who didn't speak English that well.. It was so disheartening, And the fedback I got from any execs was contractitory at best, one day the loved an idea tommorrow it they didn't,... sometimes the remarks were just so cutting and devastating.. especially when I didn't know what I was doing... I just wanted to make cartoons.
Your site has been so inspiring, Now I realize alot of people in animation don't know what they are doing it really is a releif... As well.. I got lucky and am working on something now which makes me so HAPPY... Because the producer of the project is taking cues from the advice on THIS blog!!!!
So Thnak you so much.
I am actually happier.

S.G.A said...

I see what happened in animation, as far as the writers being crap and such, the comics journal has some great Jim woodring stories about working for Ruby Spears. anyway, I still think that good Funny writers can work WITH cartoonists, for example I watch a Simpsons radio play and laugh, and their is some great delivery,great timing for dialogue but I imagine how much funnier it would be if it could be cartoonier.. It just so damn stiff.
Simpsons inovated a bit , i mean if you just listen to it is funny..
Mission hill had some funny stuff too..
In all honesty I used to like stuff like some of the adult swim stuff but now i can't look at , it just seems like yelling , and random stuff, and not much writing . all the worst stuff.. except cartoons like home movies and mission hill, ...They are funny still... and If I had a chance to put a cartoon on tv and I didn't have much money skill or resources I would do it.. It's a hell of a step up where I am now..
So i can see why this stuff goes on
But by reading your blog it seems an great way to save money and use all this technology is to apply it to the old HB way of limitted animation..
I think thats the way to get attention of the execs... point out how costs can be cut.. no over seas stuff, and less headaches if you can eliminate all the back and forths... and a few high paying uneeded job descriptions.
Not only that but I bet people would would watch.. and they would sell more plastic crap.
any way thanks for this great blog ... I hope you are setting up great stuff !

PCUnfunny said...

"That's why we have so much insincere non-entertainment crap like "Character-arcs", bad puns, ripoffs of famous movies in the guise of "parody", contrived pathos, characters who try to find themselves, bland protagonists, one-shaded villains, broadway style tuneless songs that "move the plot forward", in every damn feature"

Yep that sums up all the bull shit being made in every animated film today. Each studio is even using the same fuckin' story as well.Open Season, Over the Edge,and The Ant Bully all used the same exact story. Some guy is planning on killing a bunch of animals and they team up to defend themselves.And people STILL go to the theatres to watch these movies !

smackmonkey said...

"it seems an great way to save money and use all this technology is to apply it to the old HB way of limitted animation..
I think thats the way to get attention of the execs... point out how costs can be cut..."

In my limited experience the opposite has been true. Lower production costs are the Holy Grail of every corporate type. Lower cost = bigger profit = fat executive paycheck. There are exceptions...

Stephen Worth said...

The main writer on Roger Ramjet was a puppeteer and radio comedian. Those are fields that are much more related to animation than scriptwriting. He was used to creating unique personality. The reason his stuff translated so well was because of Fred Crippen's great timing, cutting and funny designs. Great voice work and ad libs only added icing to the cake.

The Alvin Show was very similar. David Seville (Ross Bagdasarian Sr.) had a great sense of music and dialogue. He let great cartoonists, like Leo Salkin and Bob Kurtz incorporate that into their storyboards without chaining them to just using his words.

The writing process of Roger Ramjet and the Alvin Show are totally different than the writing process of The SImpsons, Family Guy and South Park.

See ya

Roberto González said...

Parodies of movies can work, even the Looney Tunes had incidental appearances or lines taken directly from movies (Bogart's character from Sierra Madre in Eightball Bunny). I think The Simpsons have some very nice parodies (and some obvious ones too) and some of them don't spoil anything in the movie (like the Clorkworth Orange shot with Bart and the cupcakes), but stuff like Dreamworks pictures are more similar to something like Scary Movie, the parodies are more important than the story.

I also believe it's not such a bad way to go when you take the plot from a movie and you make a parody out of it but when you do this you should have characters with a good personality that would make the thing seem different and the parody should be funny even if you have not seen the movie. I don't know if The Scarlett Pumpernickel was very similar to The Scarlet Pimpernel, but even if it had been an scene by scene ripoff I think it would still be great because of the great Looney Tunes personality. I think it's better to make a rip off of the entire plot, just to play some jokes on it but using your own original and funny characters, than constantly introducing forced parodies of every movie you can think of as fillers for your poor story.

Jeff Read said...

Those Ren and Stimpy storyboards were golden. Seriously, I made a friend of mine giggle simply by reading aloud the direction notes, doing the voices of the characters to set the scene, and inserting commentary like "He knew exactly how long Old Man Hunger had to pause with his teeth on Ren's belly to make it funny!"

Okay, I'm sold on the Kricfalusi Way. When I can read a storyboard like that and actually see the cartoon playing back in my brain, it's time for universal adoption of that technique by the industry.

DavidMcG said...

That is so true about comics.
Nothing in comics is more frustrating than working with a script that asks for the impossible.

The crazy thing is, even someone who doesn't know how to draw can learn how to understand visual communication if they took the time! Make some storyboards or thumbnails using STICK FIGURES.

sean said...

Wow. These are really amazing tips. I can’t say that I agree 100% with everything you've said in all 4 posts but I can see a lot of echoed sentiments. Why is it that writers love having all those chaos moments where dams break, cars blow up and cities get destroyed? All the while hoards of innocent (and needless) bystanders get into the mess. Oh, the artist will just whip it up!

I'm wondering how you feel about writing beats to describe the action. I can get a lot of action down in beats quicker than I can draw quick storyboard thumbs. It may be close to what you were saying about filler, but I usually try to start with a very simple premise then fill it out in beat form. I also don't really like giving the story an ending until I'm fairly sure where it's going. I'm not saying that I work chronologically but it's nice not to be tied down by a really tight outline.

Anyways, thanks again.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

True, so true! Sometimes I think of writers as predatory organisms that that prey on animation executives. They adopt the coloring and trappings of a family member then, when they're admitted to the executive's nest, they eat his young.

Mr. Semaj said...

I also don't really like giving the story an ending until I'm fairly sure where it's going. I'm not saying that I work chronologically but it's nice not to be tied down by a really tight outline.

Shamus Culhane wrote his own analysis on storytelling. His take is that your story has to have some kind of conclusion before the bulk of it is started.

At least the way I see it, if a story is never produced, at least people will know what was intended when they look at it.

Mebbo said...

I SO hear you, John.
I'm currently in comics, having come from animation and I have to keep beating my writer about the ears to STOP putting unecessary cutaways, one-off characters and CROWD scenes in the stories, as they add to the pencil mileage. He also has a tendency to visualise things in three dimensions, which turn out to be impossible to stage in a single pov.

If I go back to animation someday and get to develop a series like you have, I am SO creatively controlling the process and production design.

Nelson C. Woodstock said...

Would you trust a songwriter to write tunes if he had no way of playing you the tune-or even singing it to you?

Actually, a lot of singers in pop music today have their songs written by others. Said writers can't sing, and some can play the tune, so the singers sing it. Yet most of the time the SINGERS can't even sing, so they process the heck out of their voices. Many pop stars don't have to have much talent as long as they look good, because the record companies have the technology and resources to build music stars these days.

Pokey said...

Two names.

Phineas and Ferb.


You all can stop throwing up now.

Cartoons just got badder abd much badder designed with those Ren adn Stimpy wannabes in the 90s artisticlaly, so for me even a cartoonist would have to ber a good one, and the extreme "tude" [Warner, Klasky/Csupo,etc.] goes a short way [y'all know about a little going a LONG way? Overstatement here.]]

Great blog as always as [Phil Hendrie's R.C.Collins] might say [speaking of which, regaridng meta-humor, Hendrie with RC in one of the shows with the Charlie McCarthy-esque "Tough voice to do, huh?" giveaway does that in moderation, vs the "let's break the fourth wall! Let's break the fourth wall! Let's get a battering ram and break the four wall! Let's break down that fourth wall! Let's"..well, you get it-approach of an Animanaic, Tiny Toon, Roger Rabbit, etc.,etc.,etc.[as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Yul Brynner would put it decades ago.]