Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Rarity Of Clarity - The Writer and The Screen 1

This book on live-action screen writing has more in common with how I think cartoons should be written, than what actual cartoon writers believe or practice.
By Wolf Rilla.


I love old movies. Old live action movies. I collect 'em on video and watch TCM. I'm no expert on live action. I've had one day's experience in it - maybe I'll tell you about it one day.

But I've noticed how specialized so many jobs in L/A are and in particular - the writing. You sometimes see 4 or 5 credits for writing a movie. One for original novel, if it's based on something already written in another medium. One for "scenario", one for "treatment", one for "screenplay", even one for "dialogue".

I've always wondered about these specialists and who they were so I went to a local second-hand bookstore to see if there was a book on the process of writing classic movies (1920s-1950s).

I couldn't find a book written in that period or even by a writer from the period, so I settled for the one above - written in the 70s - when movies were no longer very cinematic. I didn't hold out much hope for it, until I read the forward while in the store.


The first thing that impressed me was the writer's style. It was crisp and to the point. This alone is an extreme rarity among writers. I love to read, but hardly ever can find a book that flat out gives you what you buy the book for.

I have a modern book about Teddy Roosevelt that is sheer torture to read. It opens every new scene by describing the direction of the wind at that very moment, the atmospheric pressure, the shape of the moon and the feel of the grass between Teddy's toes - and how many bunions he has. It judges all decisions made at the turn of the century by modern ethics. The book is 3 times longer than a book about who Teddy was and what he did needs to be. It's not about him. It's about the writer trying to be fancy, trendy and modern.

There are also too many writers who hide vague thoughts behind florid pose, needless descriptions and all kinds of filler you have to sift through to get to the meat.


To me clarity is probably the number one talent that any creative person needs if he wants to set himself above the mass of other pretenders or even more talented people who just can't make a point.

It's the difference between musicians who can't play a melody without burying it under a muddy or meandering arrangement and say ...the Beatles. The difference between Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand. I'll get back to that in another post. The difference between Bob Jaques' crisp and precisely focused animation timing and Shamus Culhane's evenly spaced actions that make the characters look like they are underwater. The difference between a strong line of action and clear silhouette and a cluttered ambiguous pose. The difference between a Looney Tune and a Terrytoon.

Clarity gives you more control over what you want your audience to understand or feel. Mushiness leaves the message to the viewer or listener's interpretation - if he even bothers to finish paying attention to the mushy message.


Anyway, this book is so clearly written that you know exactly what the writer wants to convey in every sentence and he doesn't waste time trying to impress you with fancy writing flourishes.

I might agree or disagree with something he believes, but his points are so clear that it doesn't even bother me when I do disagree.

What's really surprising to me though, beyond the clarity of his information is how similar live action thinking is to good cartoons when it comes to "writing".


Most modern cartoon writers - the ones that can't draw, believe - or at least pretend to - that they are following live action principles of script writing and this justifies them keeping the artists away from the process until a script is written and every visual element is crassly described by non-visual brains. This book demonstrates that cartoon writers absolutely aren't influenced by the live action process of creation.

Classic screenwriters - according to the book - evolved a common sense approach to writing for visual storytelling that is really similar to the way old cartoons were written - and to the way Spumco cartoons are written.

I will post more of his book paragraph by paragraph and give my comments.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're writing about this John. You're one of my heroes and I was wondering what you thought about writing for film. Your posts on dialogue were very helpful.

Another one of my heroes is David Mamet, the acclaimed playwright and screenwriter. He has some theories that I think you would disagree with this, which makes getting advice from your heroes very difficult. They'll tell you opposite things.

What do you think of his theories, John?

David Mamet says drama is all about structure, but Ralph Bakshi says "the film schools are teach you structure, but who cares about structure? animation is more like jazz than anything!"

Ben Fried said...

I like this so far.

...writing for film and cartoons should be more like notes and ideas to then be created in the medium, right?

Ricky Earl said...

I've been mulling this over for some time now...
The best films for me are the ones that TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE FACT THEY ARE A FILM and not written word. The same for animation...use it, don't hide it.
So much of the time this is forgotten at the writing stage...

Jesse Benjamin said...

Whose the author of this book? Is it still in print? I'm sure there's lots of us who'd be interested in getting our own copy

David Germain said...

I've read that the rule of thumb when making movies is "show don't tell". Establish everything the situation needs moreso through visual means rather than lots of dialogue. As Buster Keaton said during the newly emerging era of talkies, "there's nothing wrong with sound that a little silence can't fix". Of course, by that he meant that we should abandon any of the cinematic techniques that were learned throughout the silent era. They will greatly enhance any movie with or without the sound.

I'm sure you'll elaborate more on this in your next blogpost, John. I'll just let you do that.

David Germain said...

we should abandon any of the cinematic techniques that were learned throughout the silent era

Sorry! I meant to say "we SHOULDN'T abandon any of the cinematic techniques that were learned throughout the silent era"

Typos suck. >:(

Rick Roberts said...

Another writing position was called "Continuity". The dissolution of these positions over the years just goes to show Hollywood's ever growing tendency to favor expediency over quality.

Richard Maibaum was possibly last great film writer in Hollywood. He was the genius that penned many of the James Bond scripts and even managed to surpass some the material he worked with, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and GOLDFINGER for example. I think he could have done better but the producers insisted on sticking to formula.

Rick Roberts said...

BTW I am glad you brought up cartoon writers because there is one that is the champion in that shameful field, Paul Dini. His work on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES had a mixture of drama,humor, and most of all, general humanity.

thomas said...

I think John Ford was the most narrative of the classic film makers. He used cinematic form as a syntax, so that each frame propels the story foward. His style is so determinedly logical, its like waching a carpenter build a piece of furniture.

Film started out as a new way to tell stories. Animation didn't.

How important is a story for animation?

Kaiser Fate said...

I've piped up about having an interest in writing before, and I'd like to say that Wolf Rilla (what a cool name!) is on the ball with how I think and how I've been taught.

If there's anything I have learned about writing for animation, it's that it is just like writing good live action.
No one wants to watch a movie with needless exposition or overladen dialogue. It is the general consensus amongst skilled scriptwriters that 'less is more'. "Show, don't tell" may be overused, but it's also very apt, and it's ten times as important in animation.

What's more, no director - be it Live Action or Animation - wants to be told what to do by the writer. The writer's job is to present an idea clearly, not to direct the movie / show / whatever.

Anonymous said...

I agree with almost everything you said. There was a certain sincere quality of honesty to many of the Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s. (Probably, in part, due to the sheer visual beauty of black and white, which hardly anyone seems to know how to use well anymore.) I also steadfastly agree that a script is not a literary activity but simply a blueprint for the film itself. Bergman once said something to the effect of "I write scripts to serve as skeletons awaiting the flesh and sinew of images."

The only thing on which I disagree is the point that films of the seventies had somehow lost their cinematic punch. While I think I understand what you mean, movies from the 1970s make up a fair portion of the best films I've ever seen. I'm not talking about "Smokey and the Bandit" or something totally lame like that, but from the seventies we have "Chinatown," we have "Network," we have "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," "Deliverance," "The Godfather," "Halloween" and so on and so forth.

Anyway, I completely agree with you that there was an almost inexplicable quality to movies like "Sunset Boulevard," or "Double Indemnity," or "The Maltese Falcon." Something that not a one knows how to recreate in modern films.

Isaac said...

Rare is right. You can count the number of well-written television shows in the last decade on one hand, and have a finger or two to spare. If you want good writing, it'd make more sense to create a movie, because it's very rare to get anything but generic slop on TV, animated or not.

I was going to ramble belligerently about comic book fans who think a graphic novel that incorporates a love story is the pinnacle of literature; and about animation fans who think watching the pupils of a young character widen or constrict is the pinnacle of pathos; eventually I decided to ramble about intending to ramble about it.

maxy's toon drawnins said...

I'm a firm follower of the book "Alexander Mackendrick on Film Making" He is an advocate in the use of physical story telling (acting, timing and movement) over dialogue(screen play). He references old school animation (contempory for him at the time)as a good example of using anticipation and reaction to create drama not the dialogue and "activity" in the middle.

JohnK said...

"but from the seventies we have "Chinatown," we have "Network," we have "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," "Deliverance," "The Godfather," "Halloween" and so on and so forth."

Yep. Makes my point exactly.

Anonymous said...

The Godfather is the greatest movie of all time

His_Bevness said...

While these 9 rules were written in regard to novel writing, I think the great Kurt Vonnegut makes some good points you can apply to animation too:

Rogelio T. said...

Don't remember where but a couple weeks ago I read a quote by Dalton Trumbo where he basically says that you can't film a screenplay exactly as it's written because it just can't be done. It won't work out.
I think the old movie people were very aware of that. From what I've read Trumbo didn't care if directors adapted his writings so that they would work, it was expected. He and the other writers would sometimes have to finish those screenplays in as little as two or so weeks and just move on to the next one.

Mr. Trombley said...

Dear Sir,

I thought since you were writing about writing for the screen that I might point people towards a good text for ordinary writing for ordinary purposes.

The classic text in this field is, of course, Strunk & White. However, I'm going to recommend a different text which has the advantage of being in the public domain. This book was written by Edwin Abbott Abbott, most famous as the author of the geometry exposition/political satire/religious allegory "Flatland". Mr Abbott was a leading philologist of his day, his work on Shakespearean Grammar is a classic in the field.

Anonymous said...

John, you seriously can't even appreciate "Chinatown"???

If that's the case then I have no idea what you mean by movies being 'cinematic.' If all you mean is men appearing more round, fastening their pants up way too high and women always wearing wigs, then yes, I guess that did die in the 1950s. But if you don't consider "Chinatown" in the least 'cinematic' then.... Well, I don't know what then. I'm kind of shocked by that honestly. "Chinatown" is the closest thing to those Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett movies of the 1940s and 50s ever to surface since that time. And by close I mean, aside from the fact that it is in color, almost identical.

Hmmmm.... Well, I still agree with you on the other stuff, anyway.

Rick Roberts said...

Whoah, "Smokey and the Bandit" is not a classic but it's a fun damn film. C'mon, you have the great one as Sheriff Buford T. Justice of Texas Law. :)

John, can you explain to me what is so bad about "The Godfather" or "Taxi Driver", especially the later ? The 1970's launched a whole new era of great filmakers and films, save a few overrated spectacle makers. I haven't "Network" or "Chinatown" but I really want to since I do admire Sidney Lumet (possibly the greatest director ever) and Roman Polanski.

ryan said...

always good sir; you're a very clear and thoughtful writer yourself.

Kaspar said...

Are there any text-examples of good and bad visual storytelling?

Whit said...

Compare the original 1962 "The Manchurian Candidate" film with the wretched remake starring Denzel. Modern 'updating' theories and executive committee groupthink utterly trashed the story while dumbing the finer points of the thing down. The original is no classic but it was George Axelrod's best script, by his own admission. The remake is corporate Hollywood excrement.

Mitch K said...

I was going to animation school a few years ago. The story teachers, although knowledgeable, always harped on us to write our stories in script form first -- not just any script form, but a particularly strict 'standard'. It had so many rules that one could never freely write a story without being tied down to fulfilling script criteria (such as including detailed camera moves in the first draft). They said that 'this is the way they do it in live action'. HA! And they made us do all this before we even drew a single storyboard panel!!

So I left animation school, and went to live action school! My new teachers could not understand why I was filling my scripts with so much junk! They were completely confused as to why I was including camera moves and overly-detailed descriptions of settings. 'You'll never see a first draft written like this! And you'll never see a real script with camera moves in it -- that's for the shooting scrip!' (which comes many many drafts later, and is actually separate thing from the real script)

My live-action teachers told me that stories and ideas come from all places, and we shouldn't be restricted by formula and format so early in the creative process. I couldn't believe how open they were to real creativity!, so I stayed in live action school.

Bill said...

Smokey and the Bandit would probably be an example of showing over telling, we were shown and told that transporting some beer was bootlegging, but we weren't told that Buford was fat or that Trans Am was fast, it was all just outright shown.

Bill said...

And what you said about writing also seems to account for modern drawing styles, I myself draw in a basic but functional self-learned cartoon style thats supposed to be drawn fast and convey emotion. Newer styles like Manga try to make things detailed and even have a sub-style like Chibi, why?!! Oh, they're detailed but I can't tell if a characters happy or sad with those big pupils and why does EVERYONE have external raindrops by their linear eyes? Cartoonists draw comics but REAL cartnoosists try to give life to their characters rather than be stylistic with no care for emotion.

Chris Rank said...

In the interest of "Clarity" can you elaborate further o why you think this:
' JohnK said...
"but from the seventies... "Taxi Driver," "Deliverance," "The Godfather," "Halloween" and so on and so forth."

Yep. Makes my point exactly. 5:31 AM'

You said those movies listed make your point exactly. How so and why?

JohnK said...

ask Mike Fontanelli...

Chris Rank said...

" JohnK said...
ask Mike Fontanelli...

1:19 PM"

Let me lean my head out the window and ask... sec here, let me open the window...

oh wait. I can't.

How would i do that?!

Rick Roberts said...


I say wrecthed is going a bit overboard but it yes, it pales in comparison to the original masterpiece.

John: C'mon you have to say something if you are going to knock The Godfather. No I don't believe it's the greatest movie ever but it's damn good and personally I feel Part II is superior.

thomas said...

John K - Seems like you're strictly studio system in the films that you like.
So do you basically equate 70's film with filmation cartoons?

sharprm said...

I don't care if godfather is good or not. I'm more interested in what the book says.

Zoran Taylor said...

I think John just means that films started incorporating ideas from other mediums to a greater degree than strictly from film history. Personally I see that as a positive thing since it keeps the medium from going around in circles and treading water. Then again, John hates his own generation's contribution to the world stage in a way that makes no sense to most of us, so he could be shoveling shit on Chinatowm, but frankly I don't care. It's all about cartoons here anyway.

Or, as John suggests, we could all go talk to someone with a private email who doesn't have a blog or even an online profile what he thinks. Hey, it's worth a try.

C. A. M. Thompson said...

Wolf Rilla directed a fantastic movie called Village of the Damned.

I know the Teddy Roosevelt book you're talking about. I've experienced the same thing with some other biographies too.

sharprm said...

@ Zoran: who is 'most of us'? What John says makes perfect sense to me. Maybe you are in the minority.

mortarpestleproductions said...

I'm reading your sense of clarity with these two different possibilities of a writer:

(1) A writer synthesizes a room full of perspectives and possibilities then selects intuitivily, or delibrately, what point of concise perspective he wishes to spotlight or express.

(2) A writer collects a room full of perspectives and possibilities to validate the point of clarity he has decided to use in his narrative.


(1) Is it the author's job to search through his own vagueness in order to reach that clarity?

(2) Or, should the author be searching for that point of clarity outside of himself?

Fred said...

Thanks for this post, John!

I'm a ID designer, artist, drawer, and huge fan of your work. It is sometimes extremely difficult to portray in words what I'm communicating with the thousand implications of a logo or picture. Describing the process is infinitely more simple than describing the expression that symbol and it's shapes relates to the human eye and psyche. Same goes with the human form, and it's motion/expression. It's a right brain vs. left brain debate. The time it takes to convert the one language to the other makes the whole process intolerable.

W.Robinson Mason III said...

John, are you trying to pump up sales for Surely the Lord of the Rings waits for you there! I kid.

But seriously, I love old pulp fiction precisely because it involves all of the senses and gets inside the head of the character.

But no talk of bunions, please!