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.