Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Writing for Cartoons - Stimpy's Invention - Outline Hierarchy

How the heck would you plan a story like this?



In this outline you can see the whole structure of the story. The way the outline is formatted is designed to help you easily follow the story and the main events in the structure.

Not only the structure of the overall story, but the sub structures within.

The setup has a structure

the body has a structure

The climax has a structure

and the end has a structure

Each of those major sequences has its own hierarchy of scenes happening that define the larger purpose of the sequence.

Each scene that describes the sequence in turn has gags and events that define the purpose of the scene.


The headings that are numbered with a number and dot "- 1." are the main sequences.

Each main sequence has a number and a title heading that describes quickly what the scene is about.

eg. 3. Stimpy Works Hard

You can read all the numbered headings without the text underneath and follow the structure of the story.

Having headings for everything is really handy. It lets you see at a glance where every main point in your story is headed and how it fits into the larger picture.

A script doesn't do that. You can't see the structure of a script at a glance (if it even has one!) It is unwieldy and hard to follow and can easily meander off course by getting lost in random details.

Scripts are a chore to read and really hard to work from.

Some of the sequence headings in an outline have more than one scene each helping define and adding details to the sequence. Each scene has its own heading.

Seq. 6. REN DOES NICE THINGS
1) Irons BVDs
2) Cleans Litterbox
3) Cleans Stimpy

All 3 of those scenes help describe the idea of Ren doing nice things.

Under each scene heading is a simple description of what happens in the scene.
After Stimpy's Invention I discovered that it's easier to read an outline in list form rather than in paragraphs.

One point at a time.

In this cartoon, I raced through the end, rather than to have a slow wind-down like most filmed stories do. I figured that I wanted to pack as much pure entertainment into the cartoon and not waste time with formula structure that usually includes formula filler. Why do movies and TV have filler? Because everyone in Hollywood is so used to seeing it in other movies and TV shows that they automatically assume it is needed. They even write books about it.

We absorb bad Hollywood habits into our system, unless we constantly question every rule to see if it has any real basis in pleasure.

Over time, without radical sceptics to shake things up and ask why there are formula ways of thinking, the bad habits build up and get larger and more prevalent until they become the sole elements of a story. Filler movies.

I figured Stimpy's Invention was over after the song; there was a big climax with Ren exploding so let's just STOP and leave everyone with their mouths hangin' open. I didn't want the audience to settle down to calmness. I wanted them to crave more.

I eliminated the filler. Jackie Gleason did that too in the Honeymooners. He tagged his pathos onto the end of his shows but got it over with quick. He just put it there so the women in the audience wouldn't hate Ralph for being such a bully. Happy endings should be fast.




Here's another version of the outline. We always have to do a million nitpicky changes in every TV or movie story to make the execs feel like they have a reason to exist.

Actually, the one exec that was really great was Vanessa Coffey. The rest of her team wanted to kill this cartoon, but I begged her to trust me and she did. The rest of the band of no-goods were so mad! Until the cartoon aired and was a hit. Then they all took credit for it and asked me to make more just like it and to stop coming up with new ideas.







Note that every story detail and gag of the cartoon isn't in the outline. That's left to the director and the storyboard artist.


http://www.animationarchive.org/2006/03/media-john-ks-storyboard-for-stimpys.html



The storyboard artist will use this idea of hierarchical gag structure as well. All his details, and dialogue must help define the scenes, characters and sequences in the structure of the story.

He can't just veer off on tangents that have nothing to do with the structure.

In my cartoons, every detail helps define some larger point which in turn defines an even larger one.

It's like a studio system.

Leon Schlesinger is the boss.

He has 3 teams that work under him.

Each team has a boss or director.

Each director has 6 animators who answer to the director.

Each animator has an assistant.

The assisted animation has to be inked and painted.

This is a hierarchy.
The painter follows the assistant animation that follows the animator who answers to the director who answers to Leon who answers to the audience.

The people underneath have to follow what the person next up on the ladder commands. Everyone can't just go off and be creative on their own and draw whatever they want. That would be anarchy.

Stories are like that too.

Every detail answers to a larger point or gag which describes the point of a scene which describes the sequence which fits in an order in the overall story.

Hierarchy is better than anarchy.

Everything wraps around something larger.

The word "composition" applies to both art and story....and to music. It's the control of the rest of the creative elements.


All this should apply to shorts, half hour shows and feature films. There is no need for filler if you are an artist with lots of interesting and fun ideas and understand what makes characters fun to watch.

Now when you go to an animated feature, there are a hundred characters, none of which have a shred of real personality who act and move like every other animated feature character. This crowd of fake characters travels in a pack from place to place and learns to share and cooperate. There's a fake death scene to milk the pathos, heterosexual love interest between blank characters with no personality, a contrived complication that keeps the lovers in an obvious misunderstanding, non-melodic songs about hetero love by gay bands,... and on and on into endless formula and filler while you writhe in your seat waiting for something fresh and interesting to happen.


This wasn't in the Stimpy's Invention outline, we made it up later:
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2573824466354193807&q=%22stimpy%27s&hl=en

25 comments:

katzenjammer studios said...

John. You make a great point and made it clear. Cartoonists/film makers should aware of the primary goal of the picture; to entertain.

I think bad filler comes:
1) not understanding the format.
2) people often using “long format” hack formulaic story structure and pacing for short films. Which is boring and inefficient. By design they have to do things differently.

For shorts the payoffs are quick and often; good gags. the audience won't loose they're attention in 2-11 minutes. quick set up, then get to the point.

long format stuff needs more meat, defined character arcs, story theme, and face time to get in deep with the characters so the audience sticks around for over an hour.

All that stuff doesn't need to be crammed into a short, which inherently doesn't allow enough time to get deep into the characters. It’s good to bring in good story telling elements, character arcs etc., but the formulas just won’t fit the short format pacing.

Also, the captive audience has changed. People watching stuff on the web will fall asleep to hack formulas adapted for shorts. This has to make us think critically again and redefine the set-ups and pacing even quicker. Why does the audience care, what’s the information they need, how can I make it entertaining and clear.

Anyway, formulas aren’t all that bad, just as long as they’re right for the job and the creator doesn’t live by them. I heard somewhere that a few of the old master illustrators would reuse compositions just to crank out some of their work; and I think to good results.

John, what do you think about formulas? Mostly a bad thing, or not bad if in the right hands?
Have you found certain “general rules” that you think us young punks should be aware of for web based stuff; as it’s a different kind of audience.

I’m not sure I agree that happy endings should be fast. But ending on a high note is really important. Going limp at the end of a picture is the worst.
Anyway, great post on the story spine/hierarchy. Very cool to see examples of the story outlines too!

R said...

Why don't you write a book? Your blog is chock-full of great material. You even have a fantastic outline for an animation school program. Convert that outline into book format.

I'd buy it.

R

Pedro Vargas said...

Holy crap! This helps me out so much! Thanks, John! I love it more like this than making a script out of it.
Even though I've seen Stimpy's Invention, I could make out the story in my head by reading the outline. It's like I'm creating a new version of that episode. Amazing! Thanks again!

Tibby said...

Wow - Animators had Assistants? So that's what that guy was talking about.

I would give my spleen to be a part of that structure. Even a lowly assistant. But - those are days seem long gone now. I have to make all my cartoons by myself. It would be nice to have an assistant or a BG painter once in a while.

Maybe a lot of the problem is that after the director and the main Keyframe animators - the process is chopped from the artists and people working on the story. Because then it all goes overseas. And you don't see your cartoon till it comes back from the slave ...er, Korean "Production House".

All very nice points. But still, formal script writing is respected more thruout the field. And everyone who wants to be in cartoons should learn how to write a formal script. Even if you don't need to for "your" process. Think about it - studios these days - with the exception of Mr. K's experience want to see a formal script and an outline. You can write it in Mr. K's fassion for planning purposes. But still, if it was my studio - I would want to see a formal script at some point. Eh - just call me "Teh Hard-ass".

peldma3 said...

This is helpful... but, are there any cartoons on tv NOW that use outlines like this?

JohnK said...

Hi Katzenjammer

this all should apply to features too.

>>long format stuff needs more meat, defined character arcs, story theme, and face time to get in deep with the characters so the audience sticks around for over an hour.<<

The audience sticks around if you bore them?

What depth is there in any animated feature characters?

I like my movies without filler, thank you.

Gabriel said...

John, I'm reading this book called Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics, by Maureen Furniss. It's an academic book so I bet you'd never pick it up, it probably talks about many 'serious' artsy fartsy animation which you despise (i can't be sure, i've just begun). Anyway, I jumped back to the index and looked for your name. It talks about your troubles with censorship and it mentions that Vanessa Coffey sticked by your ideas. It also talks about how you couldn't deliver the cartoons in time because they asked you to change them over and over again. That's common knowledge around your fan base, but it's interesting to see it said in a book that strives for some objectiveness and whose author has not anything to do with you, as your supposed failing to meet the deadlines is a constant thing brought up by your defamers.

Jorge Garrido said...

This is a really good cartoon, but the ending shocked me. There was alot of changes from that first draft. I'm glad to see its structure laid out bare like this. Thanks, John!

Mr. Cunningham said...

I apologize if I'm wasting anyone's time here (though I imagine this blog is well managed), so I'll keep it short. I have to say it's been at least ten years since I've LAST viewed your work Mr. K, but I do have to say, in comparison to so much other media, that it stands the test of time. I've recently enjoyed the first season again and respond the way I did the first time I saw it. Laughter and joy. Thank you for creating something purposeful and exemplary.

a fan,
trevor cunningham

Ted said...

"Over time, without radical sceptics to shake things up and ask why there are formula ways of thinking, the bad habits build up and get larger and more prevalent until they become the sole elements of a story. Filler movies."

Have you considered that various people will find various things to act as filler for their formulas? For example, when the formula is to solely use what looks good in an individual drawing, or what is funny in an individual gag, that they could be put together to form a giant mess of a tv half hour?

JohnK said...

that would be at least a step in the right direction.

but it's not what this post is about. It's about story structure.

Roberto González said...

>>Now when you go to an animated feature, there are a hundred characters, none of which have a shred of real personality who act and move like every other animated feature character. This crowd of fake characters travels in a pack from place to place and learns to share and cooperate. There's a fake death scene to milk the pathos, heterosexual love interest between blank characters with no personality, a contrived complication that keeps the lovers in an obvious misunderstanding, non-melodic songs about hetero love by gay bands,... and on and on into endless formula and filler while you writhe in your seat waiting for something fresh and interesting to happen.>>

This is quite true, especially in all those CGI "wacky animals" movies we have had recently. However Pixar movies have usually good characters and the "filler" they use is not so different to the filler Disney used in the old days. In fact I think there are very few, if any, animated movies without filler. There is nothing like a Looney Tunes cartoon in a long feature movie. There is not a Bob Clampett movie (I wish there would be) I guess movies like The Three Caballeros or Make Mine Music have very little filler, and they are among my fave animated movies ever.

I think some people had asked about it and you have not answered this before, but how do you feel about Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends? I have been watched a lot of episodes recently and I think it's a very good show. I guess you're going to have some sort of problems with the visual aspect of it cause it stays too on model for the most part, but it's a very character driven show, dialogues are mostly natural and the best episodes consist only on funny sequences one after another.

JohnH said...

Holy crap, Stinky Wizzleteats was originally going to be Burl Ives, Mr. Voice Of The Narrator from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?

Perhaps it is good that it was changed, as I'd have died of delight if I had heard that.

Clinton said...

Awesome lecture, John! This will help me write my portfolio short, many thanks for sharing!

Tommy said...

This is awesome, John.

Thanks for posting this. It makes me want to start writing cartoons again.

Kali Fontecchio said...

The stuff that didn't get to be in this cartoon kills me! I remember lifting up and reading under those post-it notes at ASIFA. YAY for Steve!

"Happy endings should be fast."

Very true. My favorite way is how Buster did it. Do everything he wanted to do in the film, and then get married in the last 10 seconds. I think in Go West though, he went for the cow in the last 10 seconds, hahahahahhahahaha.......

Shawn said...

Interesting. Yet some of my favorite movies are by the Marx Brothers, which has tons of "filler". Some of the filler is good, and some of it is completely horrible. There's always a boring love story where someone like Tony Curtis sings his pompous love songs, and makes me want to blow my brains out...yet there's also scenes with Chico playing piano and Harpo playing harp, which I love. In fact, I'd be disapointed if they DIDN'T do those scenes. Do you hate ALL filler?

Fco. de Borja said...

I’m very happy to see through the story process of Stimpy’s invention, was one of my favourite shows. Hope some day you’ll use the Canadian kilted jacks man to explain more animation lessons.

he said said...

The Marx brothers movies weren't stuffed w/ filler. The plot was the filler. They were originally just vehicles to show off their stage act. That was what people wanted to see.
Monty Python wasn't full of filler either just cause they used lots of bits that stand alone. It was the point.

Thomas said...

Yeah, don't ya just hate those Marx Bros. movies co-starring Tony Curtis?

Brenton said...

Thanks John. Very helpful.

I'll be sure to work this into my storyboarding service, and to call you when it's ready. =)

Enclothe said...

Awsome awsome awsome!!! Thanks for this post. This is good stuff right here.

PooButt said...

Dude, from the first time I saw Ren & Stimpy I have been a fan. Stimpy's Invention is, in my mind, the most perfect cartoon ever created. Ren enduring the pain from smashing his head to break the happy helmet was simply brilliant on so many levels.

Nickelodeon can eat a pile of Stimpy's hairballs.

IrritatedIndex said...

JOHN K!

Your blog rocks; it's awesome reading someone who has so much insight about the industry. To be honest, I'm not much of an animator myself, past stick figures (I'm lucky enough to know how to shade a circle), but you have inspired me to learn and do more. Sounds like Hollywood is a total bitch, hope things go well for you along the path.

Cameron Robertson said...

The storyboard artist always needs a proper place to store all his ideas, stories, paper and colors pens. A working board can be converted into a storage compartment once he has finished working on his animations and stories. The compartment can then be shifted away to the side of the room, ensuring it's not messy after he finishes his work.