Monday, April 02, 2007

Writing For Cartoons 8 - Writing Gruntspeak

How would you write a scene like this? Not with a script obviously.

That was my problem. I acted this scene out for everyone during the pitches, but then had to figure out how to translate it to film.

I knew every exact emotion Boo Boo was feeling as he rooted through the picnic basket. I had a grunt for seeing a sandwich, one for pulling the sandwich up, one for waving the sandwich, etc...
There was a different grunt for a chicken leg of course because chicken legs cause different emotional responses than sandwiches.

I didn't have to worry about the exec not understanding the scene. I had already pitched it to Mike Lazzo, who laughed and shook his head and said "Go do it." So there was no need for a script for executive reading purposes. If I had just sent this whole cartoon story as a script to anyone, they would have not been able to make any sense of it.

But I'd still need something to follow along in the recording session. Usually we use a dialogue script that is written from the storyboard. But an actor can't read "mwaaaaa" or "Grrrrrrroan" on a script page and know what myriad of inflections to act aloud.

Then there was the problem of what to call each feral grunt after we recorded it so we could put it on the exposure sheet.

Add to that, that the animator would need to know how to animate to the grunts. He'd have to know what they meant and where the wave patterns were in the sounds, so he could move Boo Boo at the appropriate moments. This was a real bugger of a problem to solve.

Words are a primitive medium.

I started by writing Boo Boo's emotions and continuity on a storyboard with drawings. This way I could see exactly what he was feeling at every moment.
I scribbled out, not only each key emotion, but the transitions between them. The transitions make the character seem real and alive. You can't just jump from one emotion to another contrasting one...unless you're Bela Lugosi, but he's allowed because he's a genius.
The written grunts on the board don't begin to describe all the inflections in the actual track that was recorded. I wrote those on after the recording just to give me some idea of which was which.
Luckily I was the one who was doing Boo Boo's voice. I don't know how I would have communicated my grunt language to another actor without just giving him line readings. But then he wouldn't have felt all the deep underlying meanings as I did. I knew the story intimately because I wrote it and performed it many times to live people and had been grunting to frightened audiences since I was a tot. (This was the language we used to speak in at the school cafeteria when we were kids. It was inspired by the great grunter in Roger Ramjet.)

I took the storyboard into the recording and spent a few minutes grunting and groaning. Then the engineer had a hell of a time keeping track of the grunts.

We wrote up notes like this:
This was just the beginning of my problems.

I still had to figure out how to get the right pictures to match the right sounds.

I had an animatic that we made in Premiere and I had been cutting all the action to the music from the APM stock library. This was the first time I had ever tried this, and it was kinda clunky to edit back then.

I input all the grunts and then cut the appropriate ones to the right drawings. As I listened to the grunts I heard more inflections that carried meaning that hadn't been drawn yet, so I added more poses in the layouts.

Then I had to give this mess in some form to the animators. I made a quicktime movie so that the animators could see and more importantly, feel what Boo Boo was going through. If I has sent this to Korea, or even Canada, it probably would never come out the way I wanted it to. They would never have looked at the animatic. They would have simply taken the poses I drew and inbetweened them.

I was working with an animator in town- a Korean who thought I was crazy, because I didn't do anything the formula way, but he worked with me, and I acted it all out and everything fell into place.

The moral of the story:

Animation is a performance medium. A script is not the artform. The cartoon is.

Any words we write up are basically just transcriptions of scenes we either drew or performed live to each other in gag sessions.

The words on paper only carry the most basic germs of what the performance is going to be. It's just a guide to remind us of what happens when.

A writer who doesn't draw, act, play a guitar, sing, dance or ride a unicycle cannot take advantage of all the creative tools that are at the disposal of a cartoon director. It's a blind man choosing colors for Rembrandt.

The cartoon director is an animator that has many other creative skills, and he is the real writer of the cartoon. He decides all the fun that is going to take place and he works with specialists and coordinates all their efforts, so that everyone involved can be proud of the resulting work of entertainment.

You can't sit in a room somewhere all by yourself and write a cartoon. You need to be with the performers and get their input. In animation, the main performers are the artists and director. They are the ones who can tell you whether any of your words are gonna work. That's why you need to be one so you can converse in our language.


Franky said...

I love your Yogi Bear cartoons, John. Are they available to purchase anywhere?

Kali Fontecchio said...

"There was a different grunt for a chicken leg of course because chicken legs cause different emotional responses than sandwiches."

So true. Men have as many expressions as they do grunts, haha.

"You can't just jump from one emotion to another contrasting one...unless you're Bela Lugosi, but he's allowed because he's a genius."

So true!!!

Max Ward said...

This is a great post! In one post you gave us:

*A production story

*Technical Advice and examples


*A moral to walk away with

Keep these up! This is a really specific example of a production problem too.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Boy, a long chain of grunts would be tough to trasnsfer to an exposure sheet. It's also tough when you have a long litany of the same word. You look at the exposure sheet and you can't tell where you are in the film. But....things like this are so funny that they just have to be done sometimes. It looked great in the Boo Boo film.

TP said...

It's awesome how loose and expressive those boards are. I guess that's all the information the animator needs!
What are your comments on really detailed boards John? Is it a waste of time to clean up the storyboards? Were these boards the ones that the animators used?
I think I would want to work on something like this with great storytelling poses versus a more detailed board.


Vanoni! said...

What a great story!
The track notes are f'n hilarious!

On the Yogi Bear board Steve Worth posted recently, I noticed in one panel (pg 14), the Ranger fumbles with a response and the dialogue is written: "ER - A - DA - DE - DO - HOLY MACKERAL - WHOO - I DID!"
It cracked me up!
If it was written by a non-cartoonist, I suspect it would go something like, "Er. . .um. . .I did it!"

You can't sit in a room somewhere all by yourself and write a cartoon. You need to be with the performers and get their input.

A good point!
I'm often guilty of trying to work in a vaccuum.
But when you surround yourself with funny people and play off of each other - well, that's just a great time and leads to great creativity.

- Corbett

Anonymous said...

That looked like it was hard to figure out.

What was their reactions when the Execs saw the cartoon finished?

I hope they laughed, and out loud. I thought it was funny.

Writing for cartoons is definitely a tool and not the performance.

Thanks, John.

Anonymous said...

the genius of the grunt. that Boo Boo scene is so great, all emotion and feeling. very visceral. awesome as always.

The Mighty Robolizard said...

I remember Adult Swim saying that they forgot they produced this, until an intern or an editor found it and did an imitation of Boo Boo running wild. Clearly gruntspeak is integral. Fun by all.

stiff said...

Boo Boo Runs Wild is one of my favorite cartoons, and this is possibly my favorite scene therein. It's awesome to see all the effort and logistical crap that went into it.

My unicycle has a flat tire, and my guitar's a bass...does that mean I can't direct?

Shawn said...

Hahaha! All Spumco fans love Boo Boo Runs Wild!

John, I've noticed that whenever you, the cartoonist, pitches a weird idea and someone just shakes his head and says, "Go do it", without interfering, then that cartoon usually becomes a CLASSIC. Kinda makes you think...

Shawn said...

P.S. I know how to ride a unicycle and play ukulele at the same time! :) I hope that makes ME cool.

Gavin Freitas said...

I remember when you played this in the theatre in SF the Boo Boo grunt scene got alot of laughs. It must have been hard to put the grunts on the X sheet with timing. Fun Stuff....

Phillip Skeen said...

I like the way BooBoo keeps his eyes on the chicken leg for a good while.

lastangelman said...

Good Gosh - this post alone is an amazing revelation - it's like the animation equivalent of stumbling onto Unknown Chaplin.
Not even Warner Brothers guys seem to have circumvented this problem without cheating, I suppose.For example, Taz has only one emotion he conveys while sputtering about inanely, there's no subtlety or nuances in animation acting at all - I know, I know, we're not supposed to expect subtlety or acting from Taz, but that would have made him a much funnier character, in my opinion - he did have some moments in Art Leonardi's Tazmania series but those were few and far between, and Art squandered the opportunity of doing something fun and interesting by making the dang show too talky - radio with pictures. Freleng or Jones might as well have directed or produced the series.
(BTW, did Bob Clampett ever do voices in his cartoons like Tex Avery and Ted Pierce - I 'm aware of his one sound effect he voiced that Treg Brown used at the end of scores of WB cartoons (of all people, Frank Zappa explained that to me when I was a young guy - I got to me meet him after a show, he loved all the sound effects used in cartoons and was using a new machine at the time called an EMU-emulator to record them and play them back like musical instruments; I remember thinking at time, Frank likes to talk and Frank likes to explain things and make sure you understand!))

S.G.A said...

I see sometime s the ripping freinds on austrailian ,..I think?.. dvd... Any plans for a USA release...loaded with commmentary and bonus interview?
I hope so!

Adam G said...

Flash would have been excellent for animating those grunts. No need for exposure sheets when the sound plays along as you "flip" your drawings.

ZSL said...

Hey John.

How many BooBoo Runs Wild cartoons exactly were there?

A few months ago, a friend of mine was going through archives on adult swim's website and found a few of flash cartoons about Yogi and BooBoo.

They were funny, and I could have sworn I saw Nick Cross in the credits. But it seems like noone ever mentions these shorts.
They were clearly made by spumco peeps.

"I dont understand why BooBoo always hangs around with that.....MAN."

ardy said...

"Words are a primitive medium"

I've never known a truer statement that so few believe.

Chloe Cumming said...

I used to see your cartoons as sort of pure magic in my airy fairy way; but now I've been properly awoken to just how much organization, logic and hard graft it takes to squeeze out that thar deranged 'magic'.

My father is an especially grunty man.

Words are primitive for certain purposes... I think the point is that they don't easily cover so many aspects of sensual, visual and visceral life... they tend to miss the point... there are so many other dimensions of experience that are better served by other, more rarefied kinds of eloquence.

Anonymous said...

Whoah! I gotta rewatch that scene! I can't belive how much thought and effort goes into one of your cartoons!

Tom said...

I love this cartoon! I am not saying it to be a suck up but I remember on nights when I was crammin' animation projects for school and having them play in the background. It used to be played a lot on adult swim and that clip is seriously the best piece of pencil acting I had seen in a while.

On another note will SPUMCO be releasing the collection of those HannaBarbera shorts on DVD anytime soon?

Also another quick question do you ever have time to read all the posted comments?

BadIdeaSociety said...

I thought I would mention that a I showed a couple of my friends the "Boo Boo and The Man" and "Boo Boo Runs Wild." While I loved them, they became rather grim after the screening and said, "John K must hate Yogi Bear if he makes such cartoons" and "John K is probably jealous of the HB legacy."

Jason Miskimins said...

Great expressions. I can see a lot of Chuck Jones' influence in those expressions.