Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Frank and Ollie On Natural Cartoon Story Procedures - part 1

Too Funny for Words: Disney's Greatest Sight Gags

Frank and Ollie wrote a book to explain the importance of visual story telling in cartoons, and detailed Disney writing procedures and their philosophy of cartoon storytelling.
I'm not a big fan of Disney stories, but I'm in complete agreement with the methods they used to write them. These methods evolved naturally. If you put a bunch of cartoonists together and tell them to start making cartoons, they will by their very nature, start drawing up gags and pitching them to each other.

I've worked in every imaginable cartoon system. I worked from scripts written by non-cartoonists. I've written scripts and collaborated with other cartoonists on scripts. This worked much better than working from non-artist scripts, but was still clunky. On Mighty Mouse we went from artist-collaborated scripts to drawing tiny storyboards - pre-printed a few panels per page.


When I finally got to do everything my way on Ren and Stimpy, we eventually started drawing storyboards on larger individual panels because we could easily change the order of scenes and insert new ideas and continuity and basically sculpt the stories into shape with the input of other good story artists and the reactions from pitch meetings. This method was the most fruitful and we discovered this directly through experience and trial and error. Just like all the classic cartoon studios did.

We learned by natural progress the most logical and efficient way to make our cartoons.

Certain procedures tend to create themselves for certain fields - naturally, like convergent evolution.

There may be many different styles and creative approaches to classical music, but all composers use the same language to write their very different pieces. They use musical bar sheets and musical notation. It makes sense. It would not make sense to try to write music in prose descriptions. Only a non-musician could find any sense in this. You might like Beethoven better than Tchaikovsky, but you wouldn't argue about the medium they used to write their music.

That's the same way storyboards and ex sheets arose in animation. They evolved through utility. They made sense and gave the artists much more creative control and creative choices for our medium.

Many animators and studios and directors create different types of cartoons and humor and stories, but they are pretty much all in agreement in the working tools that give us the most creative control over our cartoons.

Frank and Ollie are very analytic and clearly explain not only their working methods and principles of entertainment, but also their philosophy of entertainment in cartoons. They did it with their 12 principles of animation in The Illusion of Life, and they did it for story in "Too Funny For Words".



Stories start with a handful of drawings.
Entertainment more important than continuity.
It's better to have many people pitch ideas in story meetings than to have one person write alone. Stories grew and were molded and changed along the way by a group with a leader, rather than to have one person alone make all the creative decisions by himself in a non-visual language and then hand them over to the guys who'd actually have to make it work.
"Animals are better cartoon characters than people, because we aren't good enough to animate people convincingly."

This holds true to this very day. The animated humans in cartoon features are always awkward, cardboard and stiff, mere shadows of their live-action counterparts. The closer you try to mimic reality, the harsher we are critically when we view it. Why aim for an inferior imitation of another medium when we can create something no one else can match?


"Walt was never interested in structure"


It would be hard to find animators today who don't long to go back to the creative system that produced the films that inspired them to draw in the first place.


Lots more insight from Frank and Ollie into the Disney story philosophy and procedures to come...

27 comments:

Raff said...

I love posts like this.

Kali Fontecchio said...

A well-wrought statement, John!

Bitter Animator said...

That Walt Disney wasn't interested in structure is quite amazing because the Disney features going all the way back to Snow White feel really tight and really structured.

I'd be curious to have one of those film theory guys analyse one of those movies. I'd almost bet that if you didn't tell them it wasn't scripted and structured like a live action film, they'd tell you it follows screenwriting 'rules'.

It's great to think that a film can work so well from a natural evolution with artists. Not a screenwriter's rulebook.

Whatever you think of Disney films yourself, it seems to pretty much prove every point you've made on the construction of stories and entertainment.

Larry Levine said...

"It's better to have many people pitch ideas in story meetings than to have one person write alone"

John, Are you saying that ol' Eddie Seltzer was actually right about something?

Art F. said...

i don't understand why studios do not use this method more often. it just seems more natural and condusive to creativity.

JohnK said...

>>That Walt Disney wasn't interested in structure is quite amazing because the Disney features going all the way back to Snow White feel really tight and really structured.<<

Really? Not to anyone I know.

They feel like 10 minutes worth of story lifted from a fairy tale, stuffed with 60 more minutes of songs, pathos, herds of cute animals, cliches and other filler.

pinkboi said...

This should be the approach to learning - finding the common threads between different genres and periods and learn that.. rather than learning a specific style or the latest trend.

The "don't try to do what will just be clunky" idea is one video game producers really need to understand! Modern games destroy suspension of disbelief their their stiff "lifelike" humans.. and critics falsely lambasted "Zelda: Windwaker", which was one of the best looking games ever made?

Bitter Animator said...

>>They feel like 10 minutes worth of story lifted from a fairy tale, stuffed with 60 more minutes of songs, pathos, herds of cute animals, cliches and other filler.<<

I won't argue with that but the 10 minutes of story, the songs, the pathos, herds of cute animals, cliches and other filler all seem to come together in the right places to provide lasting entertainment for generations.

Readers, who work for people with money and are the first person who can throw your project in the bin, will argue that, for that to happen, films have to be tightly stuctured on paper and in a script with everything happening at the exact right place.

So, even if you don't like the 10 minutes of story, the songs, the pathos, herds of cute animals, cliches and other filler, it's still proving that those readers are, quite possibly, talking out their ass.

Oh and, Pinkboi, the problem with Windwaker was not how it looked, but just how insanely dull it was. And that brings up a related issue where maybe people are using systems that they think, while might not bring exceptional work, minimise risk. By that I mean, in my opinion, great animation will not make something shitty good. It can make something good even better.

But if something is pretty entertaining in a script or a voice record or whatever, it could be drawn by a monkey on toilet roll and will still be entertaining. Of course it would be much better if animated well and if coming from a creative process that allowed it to evolve with the strengths of the medium but I think we seem to have arrived to a place where getting something out that's average but not awful is preferable to shooting for something fantastic but risking a disaster.

Though many of those 'shooting for average' ones turn out a disaster anyway...

deadmanswill said...

only thing that I like about Disney is the animation movement which is smooth. Of course there are too many frustrating moments when everything moves damn slow and too graceful that I dislike the entire movie itself. But nevertheless their animation movement was not like today's limited animation type where the speaker gives dialogues without moving his head and fights with only the backgrounds moving.

But I do agree that Disney put a lot of crap in between the story. Especially those songs and pathos. I hate sentiment in animation, especially something as unconvincing as what Disney does. And what with those characters all having bland and uniform facial features I think they really make pull my hair out.

But, on the topic, the book's a great recommendation John. Will see if I can get it somewhere.

Stephen Worth said...

I won't argue with that but the 10 minutes of story, the songs, the pathos, herds of cute animals, cliches and other filler all seem to come together in the right places to provide lasting entertainment for generations.

That's not a result of the story structure... it's because of the pacing, and the contrasts in moods. Pinocchio, which is often cited as Disney's best film, doesn't have a very logical story progression at all. Sequences seem totally separate from the sequences that lead in and out of them. But the progression from musical numbers to pretty background shots to scary action all play out with great attention to just exactly when the audience is ready for something different.

See ya
Steve

Bob Harper said...

I just got this book two days ago and like you I'm not much of a Disney fan, but agree their approach is the way I want to go with my stuff.

It's amazing, considering how these guys were looked at as Gods have had their lessons thrown out the window by the folks who worshipped them.

You really need to make a feature.

Larry Levine said...

I don't dislike Snow White but it's not my favorite film--but at least the Disney version doesn't have Curly Joe in it!

On the other hand, I think Pinocchio is 99.9% perfection. Great animation, wonderful characters, it's both funny & dark--and NO bland rotoscoped romantic leads (I know The Blue Fairy is traced, but she's only in it for a few minutes).

My favorite all-time animated feature is A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which I know seems an usual choice but I love it!

Rodrigo said...

Good post John.

Even better timing. A small team of my peers and I are planning on making a very short (and hopefully stylized) CG piece and this is something that we needed to hear.

Mr. Semaj said...

I once read pieces of "Too Funny..." at the local library, except they have it in their non-circulatory stacks for some reason.

Some of Disney's features, more than others, are true indications of their minimal concern for continuity.

Pinocchio's "disjointed" sequences comes from the result of the film itself being Disney's first crack at tackling a major novel (Snow White was based from a basic fairy tale), as well as the artists working on many scenes that either made it in the film or didn't.
Pinocchio and Jiminy jumping in the water twice was the result of two main scenes left out. The first involved Gepetto on his journey to find Pinocchio, which could've allowed the two parties to meet up sooner. The second was an extended exploration of Pinocchio and Jiminy's trek back home, which involved their final encounter with the Fox and Cat (and further confirmed the Fox's concern about the Law learning of his dirty business with the Coachman).

There was also Alice in Wonderland, where logic ironically DID become the main concern. Also The Jungle Book, where after rejecting direct reference from the book, resulted in seperate sequences where some of the animals' roles (mostly the elephants) were never fully resolved.

PCUnfunny said...

"John, Are you saying that ol' Eddie Seltzer was actually right about something?"

Eddie Seltzer was also right about objecting to the pairing of Tweety and Sylvester. Maybe if Friz listened, he wouldn't have ruined Tweety's character.


As for the topic at hand, I never even knew this book existed. And I agree with you John about story structure in Disney films. You know, since Disney was so poor in character you would think they would do better in story structure. Instead, all the Disney movies, though technical marvels, all of them had one dimensonal characters and filler.

mike f. said...

Say... do you think THIS could be the reason why Golden Age cartoons still work beautifully, and are still vibrant and funny?

And why modern cartoons that are written by studio-imposed, non-artist hacks on word processors are basically unwatchable?

Does Michael Barrier-To-Knowledge know about this?

Kevin Langley said...

Say... do you think THIS could be the reason why Golden Age cartoons still work beautifully, and are still vibrant and funny?

And why modern cartoons that are written by studio-imposed, non-artist hacks on word processors are basically unwatchable?

Does Michael Barrier-To-Knowledge know about this?


That was never his point. The point was whether scripts were ever used at all. He, and others, are only arguing the fact they were used not whether they make for better cartoons.

Racattack Force said...

I have come to see how all the early Disney flims are so good now that I discovered this. The closest we have now are the storyboarders adding gags to the basic plot on shows like "Rocko's", "Billy and Mandy", and "Chowder".

Bob Harper said...

Hey John,
Do you think that the reason human animation is stiff is due to the fact that it is so planned out, versus a live actor who can be spontaneous and unpredictable? That's why I think stylized, “cartoony” and animal actors work, because the cartoonist can be more spontaneous and unpredictable, since it doesn't have to be centered in a contrived "reality".

JohnK said...

They mean "realistic" humans.

Elmer Fudd is cartoony and easy to draw. You don't expect to compare him to real live persons.

Realistic characters are really hard to draw and animate, and our eyes are more critical when we see imitations of reality.

It's more obvious how fake they are.

It's not worth the effort to spend so much time, effort and money to do pale imitations of reality when we can do such fun animated characters more easily and with far more pleasing results.

baldin said...

Hey John, I'm from Brazil and I really dig your work. Years ago when I was a kid your cartoons appeared in Nickelodeon Brazil, in portuguese, and they changed my life. Too bad it doesn't run anymore, so I just got to watch them on Youtube, and the english voices aren't so funny as the brazilian! Have you ever heard the brazilian voices for Ren and Stimpy? They were awesome... You're the best there is, since animated cartoons started to become just shit made by computers and controled by censorship, they lost all the fun! Thank you for all your work... maybe you could take a look at my blog to see the shit I drawn? It's in portuguese, but maybe you could just look at the figures... or not... but, oh, well, thanks for everything. I'll add you on my favorites to keep up the readings

Hugs from Brazil

Eshniner Forest said...

Dang!!!

mike f. said...

[That was never his point. The point was whether scripts were ever used at all. He, and others, are only arguing the fact they were used not whether they make for better cartoons.]

Golden Age cartoon "scriptwriters" were rarer than hen's teeth- and just about as useful.
However, every creative endeavor demands that all options are at least experimented with at one time or another, and animation was no exception.

For Barrier to publish what are obviously dialog scripts - complete with the director's notations for footage count, something that would never appear on an actual screenplay - and then pretend that they are "scripts" in the conventional sense is a willful lie.

Barrier knows it, but chooses the words of his "argument" carefully - in order to avoid saying so, and to fool people like you.

His only "point" seems to be to send increasingly demented hate mail to people he dislikes - namely, John K, Steve Worth and Neal Gabler.

Ask yourself how helpful it would have been to "write" a workable Roadrunner cartoon on a typewriter.

JohnK said...

Hey Mike

Kevin is a good guy and has a great blog that's very helpful to guys like us, fans of classic cartoons.

It's full of model sheets, layouts, storyboards and behind the scenes stuff from our favorite cartoons.

I hope these posts don't degenerate into name calling and silly squabbles about artist made cartoons, that we all agree are the best kind.

We have worse enemies than each other, namely the people who won't let us bring back the old methods of cartoon-making.

mike f. said...

Okay - sorry, Kevin!
Just strike the "people like you" line from the post above, and my point still stands.

BTW - Dialog scripts, for the uninitiated, are created for recording sessions.
Voice actors usually don't take whole storyboards into the recording booth. They do their line readings from a dialog script instead.

The dialog script is generated AFTER the storyboard is completed.
They are, therefore, neither scripts nor screenplays, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.

JohnK said...

That was much sweeter, Mike.

Thanks!

Hey, it's curmudgeon party at my place tomorrow night. Join us.

Gavin Freitas said...

"Animals are better cartoon characters than people, because we aren't good enough to animate people convincingly."

This holds true to this very day. The animated humans in cartoon features are always awkward, cardboard and stiff, mere shadows of their live-action counterparts. The closer you try to mimic reality, the harsher we are critically when we view it. Why aim for an inferior imitation of another medium when we can create something no one else can match?


Hi John. I don't really right on here anymore do to you never really responding to anything I have to say but today I really don't care. You have nailed this right on the head. This is my quote for life!! Thanks for making my day....