Friday, March 30, 2007

Writing For Cartoons 7 - Continuity, Personality


Each idea has to be linked to the next idea. Each line of dialogue has to follow from the previous and into the next smoothly. Each scene should connect to the next.

There can't be gaps, where the audience wonders "how did we get from here to there?"

The outline should have the basic structure. It should link each scene.

The detailed continuity should be up to the person doing the storyboard.

This storyboard was done by Vincent Waller. Those little sketches were done by me, either in the layout poses first and then doodled onto the board to time from, or I doodled them first and then addedd them in the layouts. I don't remember...
Either way, pose artists animators, directors and assitant animators each fill in more continuity.

The storyboard artist/writer links the dialogue, the action and the acting. Between each major expression, there are smaller expressions that connect them.

The outline is where you contruct your story. The storyboard is where you write it and connect the dots.

Understand Personality

This is not essential, because many cartoons are not about personality. Tex Avery never used layered characters in his MGM cartoons, but still made some of the best cartoons in history.

Disney's characters are one-dimensional (if they are lucky!) but that didn't stop him from being pretty successful.

But you should know enough to not have your characters all of a sudden do or say something that is totally out of character-unless the story supplies a believable reason for it.

Your characters' actions and their dialogue should come out of their character.

Ren doesn't do things the way Stimpy does. Bugs talks and acts different than Elmer, etc.

I had a really good board artist doing a scene for "In The Army". Ren and Stimpy were doing KP duty, peeling potatoes, and in the board Stimpy was cross with Ren. He was chewing out Ren for getting them in trouble with the sergeant over and over again. It was beautiufully drawn, but out of character, so I asked the artist to rework the scenes so that Ren is the mean one and Stimpy thinks that KP duty is a reward. Stimpy almost always thinks that Ren's mischief is a good thing. You have to push him pretty far to upset him.

Needing to understand character seems obvious, but I have yet to meet another cartoon writer who can keep their characters consistently in character. I usually have to do that part myself, but I could sure use some help if someone exists out there! There are a lot of great and funny artists, but less that can create inspired characters and certainly none of the writers can. That's the whole history of the business. Warner Bros. seems to have been the big exception.

Character Treatment

I actually frown on writing up character treatments- a description of your characters' personality traits.

They (TV execs) make you do that when you start a project or pitch one. They make you write a "story bible" and as part of it you have to describe who your characters are and worse, what their catch phrases are.

The bad thing about this is that if you force yourself to try to figure out everything there is to know about your characters before you start making your cartoons, you end up restricting yourself to what you thought you knew about them early on. The execs make you stick to it and your characters are forever limited to being cardboard cutouts.

What you find from actually making cartoons is that you think of many more and better ideas along the way and your characters evolve as they find themselves in new adventures.
Ren and Stimpy, George Liquor, The Ripping Friends and old cartoons all evolved along the way. They would maintain some of their core traits, but they would get more shaded as more stories got produced.

Catch Phrases
If catch phrases happened, they happened by accident. They weren't "created" upfront, like they are now. How many times did you cringe as a kid when you heard "Welcome to the 90s!" or such other writer creations? (Hey share some of the most obnoxious catch phrases from your childhood cartoons here in the comments!)

When I had Ren say "You bloated sac of protoplasm!" and similar things, people would yell them at me at appearances. I would see them on t shirts. People make me say "No sir, I don't like it" all the time. None of the lines in R and S were ever meant to be catch phrases, but they would just catch on, and Nickelodeon would lean on me to use them again. I resisted as much as possible, figuring that funny dialogue in the next cartoons would also catch on naturally.

Characters should issue from your loins
If you are truly a good character creator, you understand your characters from inside. You feel what's right for them, but you allow them to breathe and grow naturally as you make cartoons. They aren't a list of arbitrary traits and catch phrases. They exist and you are just relating their adventures to the audience.

Many of the artists who work with me add shadings-although if they add something that I feel doesn't fit, I suggest something else. Voice actors would also bring new shadings to the characters when we rehearsed the stories, and their inflections would give me ideas for new stories and new ways to develop the characters' traits further.

If you watch the Ren and Stimpy shows, you can see the characters evolve not only in design, but in their personalities too. I would purposely write whole stories just exploring their personality traits-like Stimpy's Invention or Ren Seeks Help.

OK, enough get to the point, I did write up a character treatment for Ren and Stimpy-not for myself, but for the Nickelodeon executives and for the artists and story crew on the show. Here it is, if you are interested.

I have one for the George Liquor characters too if you ever want me to post it. Let me know.

Scene Planning For TV - Setups for storyboard and layout 3

Once a layout/pose artist has drawn all his setups with all his character poses complete, and he has done a rough indication of a background, he gives to the BG designer to draw a more finished BG.

Hanna Barbera used the simplest possible staging in their first cartoons because of the severe budget restrictions. This drives Eddie crazy.

I used their staging in this manual just to give people the basic idea of how to reuse shots in other scenes.
Here is a sequence of storyboard from Ripping Friends which had a wider variety of shots.

If you look through these boards you can see shots that have been reused from earlier scenes. There are reuses and "works out of" poses and expressions too.

I still planned the show to reuse shots, but the layout artists were redrawing the same angles from scratch every time, because of the strange production system being used at the service studios in Canada. (This happens at overseas studios too-they hand out the same setups to different artists who don't know that someone else already drew a setup and BG that they themselves could use to save time, so they redraw everything 20 times) This cost extra time and money, and way too many backgrounds to paint when we couldn't even afford real background painters. The production managers tried to tell us they could paint in photoshop and we would never be able to tell the difference between fuzzy photoshop paintings and real paint. Now the Ripping Friends live in the Land Of Fuzz.

So I made this manual to help the production managers save time and money and make it easier on the artists. Unfortunately, the manuals sat on a shelf hidden away from the artists who could have used them to save some sweat.

Maybe they will help someone out there in the ether.
These gutsy manly storyboard drawings were done by Jim Smith.
The extra doodles and notes under Jim's drawings are my additional breakdowns of expressions for acting. All this stuff was way toned down in the layouts, and so I then had to make another manual explaining how to not tone down expressions and poses. Those production managers had impressive looking shelves, piled high with Spumco manuals that
were never opened!

BTW, this section is all exposition. In the story, it's meant to make fun of shows like Superfriends where there are too many characters in a scene and they all just talk and explain what's going on to each other. Those scenes are always hard to board, because you have to come up with interesting angles for static mouth flapping characters. Jim solved it by putting them in funny heavy poses and making funny compositions.

We were always trying to figure out how to make fun of seriousness. Serious superheroes to me are automatically funny, but not so to the audience, so we tried to emphasize how silly serious superheroes are.

more to come....

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bill Tytla - Terrytoons - cartoony animation

Here's a Terrytoon inspired by Chuck Jones' "Dover Boys". This fun animation is by the great and versatile Bill Tytla.

I actually like this even better than some of his more famous Disney animation. It's less overworked and not meant to be competing with live action. The poses are very cartoony.


More on Tytla:

Roger Ramjet - "Woodsman" - clip 3 -grunting bear

I loved this bear when I was a kid. He's real funny looking. His voice killed me and my friends. We used to go around school talking in grunts like the Ramjet bear. You shoulda heard us moan and groan when the teacher would hand out the homework assignments!

We learned to actually communicate with grunts and expressions and knew what each other wanted. We would go to the corner store and order potato chips, cigarettes and comic books just by gesturing and grunting. One time Nick the Leb chased us out of his groceteria screaming his own foreigner obscenities at us and waving his broom. We didn't understand the words, but we knew exactly what he meant!

I still do it. Where is this all leading?? To the next writing lesson: How to write grunt language - with conviction and heart.


Here's another clip:

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How To Do A Shorts Program Using Logic and Experience

Fred Seibert and his team of crack executives peer in on the latest short being focus tested

Looney Tunes The Most Successful Shorts in History
When Fred Seibert hired me to consult for him as he took control at Hanna Barbera 12 years ago or so, he asked me why old cartoons were so great and new ones sucked. He wanted to make new ones that didn't suck. So I gave him a history lesson.

I used Looney Tunes as my main example because they did everything right and succeeded because of it.

Looney Tunes created more popular characters than any other studio in history. Their cartoons have lasted 60 years.

Their key Directors are all famous and looked up to decades later.

How did they do all this? They had a logical studio production system that developed and encouraged talent:

Short Cartoons
First, like every other studio, they made short cartoons and constantly created new characters to see what characters clicked with the audience.
They didn't put all their eggs in one basket, like when a Saturday Morning Studio green lights a whole series at once and then when it fails, a lot of money is lost in one shot.

Director System
The producer-Leon Schlesinger was a very smart business man. He was risking his own money-unlike today's executives who don't care how much they spend.

Leon knew that his success depended on the talent. He was always on the lookout for the stars within the studio.

He would promote his experienced animators to director then let him sink or swim. If the director made cartoons that made the audience laugh, they got to keep their jobs.

Directors and Units Got To Practice Their Craft
If the director made yawners, then they didn't keep their jobs for long. But Leon wouldn't fire you if your first cartoon was a flop. He gave you enough time to learn how to direct and get used to your crew. Chuck Jones actually made 4 years of yawners with Leon threatening to fire him the whole time unless he started to make funny cartoons. The other directors kept telling Leon that Chuck was a real talent and Leon believed them. Eventually Chuck became the most famous director at WB. Leon trusted his talent. He didn't have sub executives telling him what cartoons worked or who was good.

Directors had their own units
The director had his own team of animators, story people, BG painters. These people would get used to each other's styles and working methods and with each cartoon, they would naturally get better-especially under a strong director.

Sometimes certain artists would migrate to other directors whose sensibilities were more in tune with their own.

I explained that there were no scripts in old cartoons, that the artists drew the stories on storyboards. Fred said "Of course! That explains why we can't find any Flintstones scripts at the studio!"

You Had To Work Your Way Up Through The System
You didn't start at the top like many of the young guys the Execs dig out of a cornfield in Idaho today. You had to learn from the ground floor up and as you started to prove yourself you could be up for promotions.

They Got Experience First
Bob Clampett started at Schlesinger's when he was 16-as an inbetweener - not as a director. He then became an animator after a couple years, and the whole time he was learning his craft, he was always pitching story ideas to the directors and to Leon. He begged Leon for years to direct and finally got his chance when he was 23 - 7 years after he started. He turned out to be the star director really fast and created many characters and classic funny films and influenced everyone else in the industry.

Partly because of his awesome talent, but also because he knew how animation worked in every sense, from working with experienced folks for years and working in various departments himself. He paid his dues first.

A good director has to understand how all the parts fit together in a cartoon, because he has to manage them and coordinate them for the most entertaining effect. He also needs the respect of the artists working for him, and an inexperienced director is not going to be respected by experienced artists.

No one today gets the opportunity to learn what it takes to be a director, because the execs split up all the director's duties and don't start people at the bottom anymore.


Everything evolved -characters, styles, artists
Nothing was ever set in stone. People believed in progress then. The characters changed design in a steady flow, the studio style, the personalities constantly grew and progressed. There were no story bibles, no predetermined catch phrases. Everyone expected next year's cartoons to be better than this year's. You can tell an early 30s cartoon from a late 30s cartoon because of the steady progress in skill.
Look back at the last 15 years of cartoons at any studio today. Anyone see any progress? It all seems to be slipping backwards to me.

The Audience Decided What Was Successful
This is so logical and obvious, it baffles me why execs can't grasp this today.

The directors knew when they had a hit cartoon and they would get inspired and run off and say "Let's do more of that!" If no one laughed, they would be ashamed, and go back and try to figure out what they did wrong and not repeat it. They didn't go into the audience and ask people what to change, as we do now with "focus testing". Imagine an architect asking a house owner why the house caved in and how to fix it.

OK, so I explained all this to Mr. Seibert and he got real excited and decided on the spot that he was going to institute a shorts program at Hanna Barbera, and I wholeheartedly supported him.

He only remembered part of what I said though. He remembered that shorts are there to discover new talent and new star characters, but the rest he kinda discarded.

I helped him find some potential new director talent and he found some of his own, but in my opinion he jumped the gun.

He started too many units at once. Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.

Then on top of that, he hired a pile of sub-executives out of nowhere, people who didn't know the first thing about cartoons and didn't like cartoons and didn't like cartoonists.

The artists would overhear these lieutenants in the hallways talking about how stupid this whole shorts idea was. It was ridiculous to write cartoons on storyboards and give cartoonists any say in the making of cartoons. "We should go back to using scripts, like we did at Ruby Spears." Yeah, that was successful! How many people can even name a Ruby Spears character today?

Of course when they were in meetings with Fred, they were all gung-ho about what a great experiment this was.

Many of these bottom feeders have now migrated to other studios and hired more of their kind and the creative process has become more complicated and illogical than it ever was.

Fred is the most logical and sincere of the modern execs for sure, but he combined some purely logical elements of cartoon making with modern crazy witch doctor management theories that undermined the cartoonists-even though he didn't mean to. It's just his hippie executive management background.

Even so, just doing something right was enough to revolutionize Hanna Barbera and put the Cartoon Network on the map. They made some pretty successful series based on the shorts created by Dave Feiss, Genndy Tartakovsky and Craig McCracken.

Since then, every studio has started up their own shorts program. Why? Because they want to discover real talent and new characters the logical efficient way?

No. They all have them because it's the thing to do. No self respecting network can have a studio now without having a shorts program. It just isn't done.

Executives don't do things for logical reasons. They do them because everyone else is doing them. Slaves to trends.

The whole reasoning behind shorts programs has now been undermined and they are managed crazily.

It would be so easy to do it right and then beat the crap out of all the other studios, just by setting up a program with pure common sense and lessons from experience and history. The first studio to follow my advice would be the top dog within a couple years. If you know what your goal is, you oughtta take the shortest most direct route to achieving it. So, let's review the goals of a shorts program.

...In the next post of free advice for execs

Writing for Cartoons 6 - Spelling, Grammar, Clarity : The Boy Who Cried Rat Outline

Spelling and Grammar
You are going to have to use some words when you write a cartoon-in outlines and premises -which the audience never sees, and in dialogue - which the audience hears. If you spell badly and can't construct a sentence, then it's pretty certain that you'll have trouble constructing a paragraph, let alone a story. You also won't be able to write effective dialogue if you have trouble with language.

Spelling and grammar use the same kind of thinking that writing stories and doing storyboards does, so if you can't spell or construct clear sentences, you might want to give up on the idea of being a writer. You can still be a good artist. It's a lot harder to be an artist than a writer anyway.


You should be able to control your ideas in a way that the audience sees, feels and understands what YOU want them to see, feel and understand. You have to be able to present your ideas simply and clearly. Vagueness is a sign of poor writing.

Don't try to be fancy or show-offy. That tends to muddy up your ideas and baffles the readers, artists and audience. Use the fewest possible words to say what is happening.

Clarity is also important to the artists who have to follow up on what your ideas are. If they have to muddle through vague writing, storyboarding and overly complicated details, they will have trouble understanding what the point is that they have to convey to the audience.

If you are writing an outline, write with short simple sentences that tell clearly what is happening. Do not try to impress the artists with fancy-ass flowery prose and inverted sentence structures. They won't be impressed. They will be frustrated and confused and will not do their jobs well.

NOTE! This is an 11 minute cartoon. The outline is just 4 pages long.

Clarity applies to every aspect of art and entertainment-to the telling of the story, to the posing, the sfx, the music, the acting. The best directors are the ones who state their ideas in the clearest non-ambiguous manner.

Here are some notes a secretary wrote up from a meeting at Spumco. We were studying Tex Avery cartoons. Tex was a master of clarity.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Direction 2: Walt Disney Presents - "A Story of Dogs" - the director

By the 1970s and 80s, the Saturday morning cartoon studios had devolved an extremely creatively inefficient production system.

They produced cartoons on an assembly line basis. Each function of an animated cartoon now had its own department: The "story" department, the storyboard department, the layout department, etc. No one in any department talked to anyone in other departments. They were all kept separate.

Each department had a department head. The head of the story department was a "story editor" or some such nonsense. This head would oversee all the stories in the studio-superhero cartoons, funny animal cartoons, girlie cartoons, whatever generic product was rolling down the conveyor belt. He was an expert in every single style. ...Hmmm. What's wrong with this picture?

Well I'll tell you: This system has no communication from artist to artist, and no one can do every style. A storyboard artist has no director to guide him in his presentation of the story. The script writer sure won't talk to him. He expects the artists to literally follow every word of the script, even though most of it doesn't even work, let alone being entertaining or inventive.

The layout artist doesn't consult with the storyboard artist. Instead he follows his manual of how to stay on model, and how to stage everything in the stock studio way. The animators then ignore the layouts after complaining about them and in turn xerox more model sheets and write timing charts on the presupplied poses worked out by the model department - who also has no communication with the animators. In other words, each step in the production is a waste of money, because the next department is just going to do everything the same way they always do it.

All the individual job functions in a cartoon studio had their functions changed in the 70s. Storyboards were no longer for writing the story. Layout was no longer where you creatively staged the scenes. Animation had become tracing.

In this impractical system, no one has any any creative stake in any cartoon. If anyone happened to sneak an act of creativity into his layout, or animation, or storyboard, the system would have automatically erased it. When you saw the final cartoon that you worked on, nothing you put in it made it to the screen. By the 1980s, animation cartoonists were a mighty depressed lot.

This Dark Age system eventually migrated into Feature production, although it was cloaked with superficial elements of how Disney used to make cartoons and no one would admit they weren't still doing full-animation the classical way. But 80s and 90s Disney movies sure as heck look and sound like the stuff we did for Ruby Spears and Filmation in the 80s, although with trickier camera angles and lots more inbetweens. - and airbrushed dirt all over the characters. Filmation characters covered in dust.

Anyway, the old system that produced classic cartoons was a sensible system that evolved though trial and error as animators and cartoonists learned by actually making cartoons all in one place - together. It had directors in charge. The directors were animators who had worked their way up in the system and knew exactly what went into making an animated cartoon. These directors would in turn work directly with each of the key creative people on their cartoons. Everyone knew how everything was going to fit into the overall creative scheme. Creative people could have a stake in the success of each individual cartoon they created, so they had an incentive to do things well.

That's why old cartoons have feeling, style and are directed. They have creative points of view, while modern cartoons are committee-made, executive garbled mush.

Look how sensible this old fashioned production system is.
No scripts in sight. The director (Gerry Geronimi) works with drawings.

The layout artist (Tom Codrick) who staged the scenes visually is in on the meeting with the animator and director.

Woolie Reitherman is the animator.
Geronimi explains the scene generally to the animator.

Then the animator (the performer) sketches up specific suggestions for how the action might work.
Everyone can look at the pictures and see exactly what the suggestions are. There is no need to describe the actions in words when you have artists making the story.

* an interesting side note: Tramp is a typical cute but generic Disney design, but the other dogs are starting to look like 70s "realistic" Saturday Morning character design - an ill omen of what will eventually happen to animation in the coming dark ages.

On my own various productions, especially at Spumco, I had to restore a version of this old fashioned production system -adapted for TV schedules, just so I could actually direct my own cartoons and make sure all the ideas made it to te screen. For a while Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network "borrowed" this creator-driven system. But years later as more and more executives have been added into the process, the system is gradually reverting back to the weighty non-communicative production system of the 70s and 80s. And maybe even worse, because there are more execs now than ever and decision making is so slow, feeble, arduous and expensive. Indecision is always more expensive than decision. The elaborate process of eliminating creativity and fun from cartoons burns money.