Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Writing for Cartoons 5 - Humor, Structure: Nurse Stimpy Outline

You should be funny if you are going to write cartoons. I have yet to meet a cartoon writer (who isn't also an artist) who cracks up all the other folks at the studio every day with his funny stories and acting.

Once I have an idea for a cartoon, let's say...Ren gets sick and Stimpy decides to nurse him back to health and his caregiving is worse than the illness. There's the premise to the cartoon. I have a purpose and a goal for the cartoon entertainment to achieve.

Then I have a "gag session" with the funniest artists in the studio-my "writers". I tell them the premise and everyone starts tossing out gags. I'll take any gags as long as they fit the purpose of the premise.

Someone will take notes and then we produce a list of the gags from the session in no particular order.

Of course just having a bunch of gags in no particular order doesn't make a story. The gags then need to be organized in a logical building sequence.

No matter how funny you are, you need to have an understanding of structure to most effectively present your ideas. Stucture is not that hard to learn, but it is essential and it gives you control over your ideas and story elements.

Even if you are naturally funny and have ideas and a point of view, you still need to learn some skills.

All art needs structure.

Structure helps you put your ideas in an effective order.

It gives you a hierarchy: Your story needs a main purpose, and all the gags and bits in the story should fit basically into the story. Your details should hang neatly on the major points and help emphasize them.

You don't want to get lost in tangents that confuse the audience.

You don't want to have your best ideas and jokes in the first 2 minutes and then have the rest of the cartoon be an anticlimax. (This happened in my cartoon "Black Hole". It had funny ideas and gags, but the structure was faulty and didn't live up to its setup.)

With the aid of logical structure you can have your cartoon build and move inexorably forward and keep your audience on the edge of their seats.

The stucture in a cartoon is worked out in an "outline."

An outline is a list of the story elements and main events of the story - IN ORDER. It doesn't need to have every detail worked out and it shouldn't. You want to leave room to add gags, acting, personality and visual ideas for the storyboard stage.

The best form for an outline again is a list. Simple sentences that just tell the next guy what happens, so he can start boarding it.
It should be easy to read, like this.

The way cartoon scriptwriters write is torture to read. It is very hard to muddle though the bad prose and thick dialogue and awkward descriptions of action that non-visual people "write". Scripts are intended to impress and dumbfound executives. An outline is a working tool and is much easier to work from.

look how awkward this is to read:
You can see why artists go nuts reading this stuff. You muddle through the page, try to figure out even what the hell is going on and if you do manage to figure it out, it doesn't add up to any humor or entertainment. So what do we need this process for? It's just a huge waste of money that kills the morale of the talent and makes us not care about doing a good job on the cartoons.

compare it to this:
Now when we write this stuff, we have already done a lot of sketches, so we don't need to spell out the details. We know the drawings are going to make every line and description funnier. This outline is the working tool for the artists, not the final entertainment product for the public. The public will get the cartoon.

Wow, look at how many revisions they makes us go through!


Kali Fontecchio said...

That episode in particular is a great example for illustrating your point, the premise is so simple: Ren is sick. Yet it is so hilarious and chock full of memorable images i.e. the eye goo, the window sill full of folks, the giving of the medicine etc. I can't even remember the last time I saw this episode! Probably a million years ago, but the images (and sounds) stay with me for life.

Anonymous said...

All those revisions, I can understand why you would want to make them.

Why did Nick want to revise? To make themselves fell like they are part of the cartoon process?

Did that drive you crazy? It would have driven me crazy.

I see how structure helps in timing and organizing gags. They are not just thrown in haphazardly.

Thanks John.

David said...

Sorry, but the script sample is easier to read than the outline sample. The distinct layout of the script allows the reader to distinguish at a glance between dialogue and action, see scene changes without even reading, etc.

The Ren and Stimpy cartoon is certainly a better cartoon, but I'm unconvinced if this due to the less formal writing format. I think it's due to more talented people working with less executive interference.

JohnK said...

>>Sorry, but the script sample is easier to read than the outline sample. The distinct layout of the script allows the reader to distinguish at a glance between dialogue and action, see scene changes without even reading, etc.<<

Good luck finding an artist who'd agree with that.

What the hell is a writer choosing scene changes for in the first place? He doesn't know anything about that.

Shawn said...

>>Good luck finding an artist who'd agree with that.<<

I, for one, completely disagree! The Nurse Stimpy outline was simple and easy to follow, leaving lots of room to imagine where funny visual gags would fit. The script for the other cartoon was unfunny and boring. I tried to read it, but kept zoning out. I would HATE to draw that scene with all of that damned pointless dialogue. I'd hate to watch it too.

Hey, John, don't try to take credit for that cartoon. ..Everyone knows it was directed by Raymond Spum. LOL.

Per said...

I got one: Stimpy cooks up Ren some of his great grandma's secret voodoo concoction to make him feel better.
The secret ingredient: lots of mollasses.
"Do you like it, Ren?"
Ren smiles and his teeth are all black.
"Oh NO! Ren, you have caveties!"
Stimpy pulls all Ren's teeth out.
Ren, writhing in pain.
"mui dooont ha wavities!"
Ren mumbles some more and stimpy suspiciosly licks one of the teeth he pulled out...
"Why it's aunt shelly's voodoo mixture! Sorry Ren."
Stimpy shoves all the teeth back into Ren's gums.
I think you already did the whole teeth joke pain funny thing though.. with the nerve

MattyMatt said...

I wonder what this approach would look like if applied to a feature.

The Butcher said...

Damn, it takes over a month for you to just get the simple outline complete because of all the revisions. I bet you had already started working out the storyboard too when they decided to keep making changes.

I had no idea what was going on in that script. He looks for the camera, then the other one pulls out a meat tenderizer and the tape falls out? Of what? I though he was still looking for the camera! How did the tape fall out if he didn't even find the camera yet? That was retarded. I'd hate to have to draw that shit.

The Butcher said...

wait, my bad. He struggles to open the camera, not find it. Still. Retarded.

The Mighty Robolizard said...

I think writers should write in whatever form suits them, wether newspaper scribblings or chicken scratch in the sand. I do agree, writing a screenplay for a cartoon written originally with pictures feels bizzare. Even more bizzare is when one gets nominated for an Oscar. Toy Story is a great read, but Nemo is not so much. Without the actual fish there it feels stilted and creepy...

I remember Black Hole being on of the few R+S cartoons I watched as a child, and the ending still remains with me. Fun.

The Mighty Robolizard said...

Oh, and these are indeed a great set on entries.

[Maybe Storyboards should be published as a whole... it would put them more into a public's minds, make them easier to manage, and thus make them the tool of choice for animated cartoons... Plympton releases his, but he seems to be one of the few ones...]

Anonymous said...

i see your point John. if the sketches for the scene are already done, there's no need to waste time with " so and so opens camera, and looks inside", the drawing conveys that action and much more, such as intangibles like emotion, pathos, mood, etc. there's a reason we say " a picture is worth a thousand words".

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

I feel like celebrating! It's wonderful to see these ideas in print! You won't find them in big-circulation animation magazines or in cartoon coffee table books. That's because writers write those things, not cartoonists. John's blog is the first outlet I know of for the authentic cartoonist's view of things. Finally we have a voice!

Lex said...

John, your outline brought up some concerns with the focus groups - there's no defined protagonist, character arc, or moral to the tale. Sure, it's absolutely one of the funniest cartoons I've ever seen, but the characters don't have a message to pound into the heads of school children like the tooth fairy/camera thing. Children aren't allowed to just watch a funny cartoon - they need to constantly be learning about sharing and bullying and not telling lies.

Anonymous said...

You,John K.,are way better than that hack Matt Groening

Ryan G. said...

I love the idea of an outline instead of a script. It seems like ideas are always coming at you and having a script etched in stone will not allow you to make creative adjustments. I just recently wrote a script for an audio project. I wrote the script to fullfill the requirement of the class. When it came time to act out the scenes, We went by the structure of it and improved everything else. It turned out so much better than if we would have gone word for word..

Roberto González said...

While I also think the script sample is easier to read, I find that the description of the actions are boring and weird. It's easier cause everything is explained and the structure of the page is more clear. I think you could make the outline more clear too, by putting the dialogue more distinctly or something. But I see your point, we find the outline more difficult cause we didn't discuss the gags, but if you have been working in them during some weeks you have them memorized and you don't need somebody to explain them in words. It's actually difficult to explain the slapstick gags in words.

(I would say I watched and remember many parts of Nurse Stimpy...still I think it would be easier to read that if I had just been discussing the gags yesterday with other people)

And yeah, it would be funnier to draw, cause in the other one you have to do just what the script tells you, there is no room for changes. It's interesting to make descriptions of character emotions without including exactly how they show them too.

Incidentally, what a terrible cartoon The Wacky World of Tex Avery was! It seemed as if that "homage" was done by Avery's worst enemy. And I am someone who used to enjoy the Tiny Toons to a certain degree.

Jordan said...

This is REALLY interesting John. I've been hoping you'd reveal some of the specific processes that made these Ren and Stimpy cartoons that are tattooed in my brain since childhood!

Question - what went wrong along the process that made you take your name off the cartoon? From what I'm seeing it seems very faithful to your original outline.


mike f. said...

I've only storyboarded on two projects - but both productions had one thing in common: the storyboard artists were given the freedom by the producer to toss away the script and devise something funny and original instead whenever necessary.

I wouldn't accept a storyboard gig under any other conditions.
The best funny visual ideas, the best gags, the best "business" - always seems to come from doodling.

It would be pointless to explain to someone who isn't a cartoonist why this is so. As Walt Disney was fond of saying, cartoons are drawn, not written.
If you're reading this and you've never storyboarded a cartoon from scratch, you'll never understand why - and you'll just look like an ass arguing with someone who has.

It would be torture to have to storyboard a writer's script verbatim. That would be like working in straightjacket. No thanks.

One more thing - it's simply a matter of fact that the best comedy writers wouldn't choose to write for cartoons if they could write live-action comedy at triple the salary instead.
The non-cartoonist writers that are working in animation today are there because they aren't good enough to be writing sitcoms.

They aren't talented enough to write for WILL AND GRACE or FRIENDS. Think about that for a minute...

smackmonkey said...

"Easier to read???!!!" - I think this is explained in the Uncle Eddie link. What's funny is what is unwritten. Not simply that Ren's head conforms to the spoon but that the spoon turns to pour the medicine down his throat.

In our house many meals begin with the phrase "I'm ready for my mush now". It's been a decade since I saw "Nurse Stimpy" so I could have that confused with another episode.

Either way (and by comparison) I can't remember a single line of dialogue from the last storyboard I did from a script.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Roberto: I was a producer on the Tex Avery show and I'm dying to comment on what you said about it...dying to, but I won't. The studio was nice to me and I owe them a degree of loyalty in return. If you're in the industry then you'll understand.

Roberto González said...

To Eddie: I'm not in the industry (I have tried to, though and I worked in a couple of series) but I understand.

I didn't have any idea you worked on it. That's even more sad...if they have let you do something similar to Tales of Worm Paranoia in every episode that would have been a much better homage to Avery.

RoboTaeKwon-Z said...

I love the way the outline flows. It's very organic, and the descriptions force you to visualize.
The script is clunky and counter-intuitive. I've always hated screenplay formatting.

david gemmill said...

these are good examples. the script wastes time trying to describe shit that could be easily drawn, which means more words, and more bullshit.

Mitch K said...

Wicked awesome post. Thanks! Great stuff!

About Black Hole: I never understood why you didn't make one of the layers of the peeling ship a banana!

Mad Taylor said...

In a recent interview nancy Cartwright conducted with Simpsons producer Mike Scully:

NC: How did you get your "lucky break?" And what got you interested in writing for animation?

MS: I really didn't know anything about writing for animation until I was hired by The Simpsons. I learned quickly just how much fun it is, however. It's so much fun to be able to write anything you can imagine (and then the poor animators have to draw it!).

--It's almost like he reads these blogs and said it just to see someone throw it up here!

Mad Taylor said...

Read the interview here:

Mebbo said...

I agree, there is no way a cartoon will EVER be as funny as it CAN be if the storyboarders have no input or freedom to enhance a script or outline. No writer is THAT skilled or talented that the storyboarders don't need to do a thing.
There's always room for more funny - a little visual joke, a tighter cut, whatever...

I'm lucky in that I have a writer who lets me do just that - alter settings or acting or page layout to get the joke or action across. He's fine with me tossing in extra gags or suggesting changes. He's a bit antsy about me altering spoken script, though, but I can't complain too much ;)
I almost got a chance to draw a syndicated comic, but I had to withdraw when the writer turned out to be a total control freak. There was no way I could tell this guy 'You're a shit writer and your jokes aren't funny, just let me do it' - he was the CEO of the company. Uuuuh.. yeah... backing away now...

Lyris said...

At the risk of sounding like a kiss-ass, it's scary how much sense everything you're saying makes. Just why was the whole scripting thing allowed to happen?

Anonymous said...

mad tayor -pointed out an article about, "The Simpson's" writer, Mike Scully in a recent interview.

I found this interesting as well.

NC: What are the actors' responsibilities when cast in a show? How much input do you expect and/or want from the voice-actor when casting a show?

MS: The actors' main responsibility is to be incredibly funny so the writers can go home early. Most writers enjoy getting input from the actor, especially when you're working on a new character. Once the actor finds the right kind of voice for the character, it becomes much easier to write because you hear it in your head. Sometimes the actor will come up with a really cool voice that's completely different (and much better) than you imagined when you were writing it. Writers love when the actors make them look good.

Captain Napalm said...

I like that point that Scully makes, but he really was not a very good showrunner, if those episodes are any indication. Mad Taylor might be right, because his hiring seemed to coincide with the worst dip in quality that studio ever saw.

John, I'm surprised you would use an episode you didn't like as an example of a story outline, unless you felt that the outline wasn't the problem.

And personally, my point of view on writing is the following: as long as the script is funny, I'll enjoy it, but since they usually AREN'T funny, I would do everything I could to vouch for outlines. But I would still be far more concerned with whether the "writers" are funny and talented at whatever it is they do then how they get the job done. Other concers should be adressed but not hammered on like it's some kind of obsession.