Sunday, March 18, 2007

writing for cartoons 1

People ask me all the time about how I come up with my ideas and how I write my cartoons, so I thought I'd do a series of posts about it.

I'm not going to tell you how to make cartoons the typical modern way. If you like Scooby Doo and Shrek and you want in on easy money and to have all the artists hate you, buy this book:
"The biggest difference between animation writing and other forms of TV and film writing is that in animation the writer has to practically direct the show. In live action you can say "the Indians take the town" and the director will spend five days shooting dozens of pieces of action. But animation, if you say "the Indians take the town," you'll see two Indians enter shot, pick up the town, and carry it away. It's very literal. So instead you call out every shot and describe everything you want to see on the final show. The reason for this is because there is no director, as in live action, who is working on the show from its start (script) to finsh. So it's up to the writer to do it."

I imagine if you are a Ren and Stimpy fan, you would rather know how to write for a show that uses the drawings and every other creative element as part of the entertainment and storytelling. Maybe you want to know the process behind Space Madness, Stimpy's Inventions, Ren Seeks Help, Man's Best Friend and the like. I can tell you how we wrote those. Not in one post of course, but I can start now.

"Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language." - Walt Disney

How many times have you heard this cliche?: "Well, the animation was great, but everything really all comes down to story." The people you hear it the most from, are invariably the people who don't know anything about story- especially the folks who make animated features. Most features follow the basic structure and trappings of Snow White and have turned it into a blind formula. The original Grimm's fairy tale of Snow White has about 4 pages of story (about 10 minutes worth of screen time). The movie added about 50 minutes of filler: animals cleaning plates with their rear ends, comedy relief, romance between two lifeless people, pathos. They also added some delightful song sequences. I would call those entertainment, not necessary for the story but worth putting in a movie because they are fun.

Clampett made the exact same story as Disney's version of Snow White in 8 or 9 minutes and left out all the filler. Most animated features today are about 90% filler. The songs are no longer fun; they too have become filler.

People toss around the words, "story", "writing", and "plot" as if they are some mysterious concepts that don't need definition, but
somehow are the magical ingredients of entertainment that only "writers" can grasp.

If you like a cartoon, you might say: "I liked that, therefore it was a good story." Sometimes maybe it is, but story is not the main ingredient of entertainment. Sensations are.

I've never heard anyone say, "Boy that was a great dance. I wonder who wrote it." or "Who wrote this ice cream?" These make about as much sense as "That cartoon made me laugh, therefore it was a good story."

Most pleasures are not derived from story. In entertainment, story can certainly be an ingredient of the experience, but it isn't entirely necessary and it's only one of many possible things that are fun to watch, listen to and experience.

I use drawing, acting, animation, sound effects, music, voice acting and every possible type of entertainment tool I have at my disposal to try to amuse the audience. Writing is one part of it, and really for me, the easiest part. Learning to draw takes years and can only be done by people with a gift and a lot of time to learn. Everybody kind of knows how to write.

Today, "writers" (meaning merely: people who can't draw) make the creative decisions in the visual medium of cartoons. That makes them the bosses - which makes about as much sense as putting the sound effects editors in charge of the artists.

First, why don't we get some definitions clear. Writing and story are different things. A story is a sequence of related events. Period. A good story is a story that keeps people's attention. Not many stories are so interesting in their raw ingredients, that a mere reading of them adds up to good entertainment. You need a good storyteller to make a story interesting. You can have a bad story told by a good storyteller and it will still keep people's attention. It's much harder to keep people's attention with a good raw story and a weak storyteller.

Strangely, everyone today seems to have opinions on writing and story. Vague ones for sure, but most folks are firm in their vague beliefs and the beliefs change from year to year. I know, because I changed a lot of the dogmatic faiths.

I think maybe the reason everyone and his dog is an expert on writing is because everyone writes. Not everyone draws.

Everyone knows the basic rudiments of writing and practices them every day. This gives great confidence to charlatans and executives. Writing is a medium of communication common to all humans. Art or music is harder to talk about because not everyone practices them. To be an artist you have to have obvious demonstrable ability that most normal people don't have. It's a lot harder to fake being an artist than being a writer. A singer who sings flat will make almost anyone cringe, probably even a cartoon executive. Clumsy writing though passes right under the noses of any executive, so management is easy prey for many used car salesmen types who sell them on their brilliant story ability.

It takes extra gall for people who don't draw to tell you what's good or bad about your drawings. Of course, there are people who do it - as you all have witnessed, but it's harder to get taken seriously if you yourself draw stick figures while boldly giving your opinions to real artists.

Here are some terms as defined in the dictionary.

story /'st{phon_capo}:ri/ noun (pl. -ies)

1 ~ (about / of sth/sb) a description of events and people that the writer or speaker has invented in order to entertain people: adventure / detective / love, etc. stories * a story about time travel * Shall I tell you a story? * He read the children a story. * a bedtime story—see also fairy story, ghost story, short story

2 ~ (about / of sth/sb) an account, often spoken, of what happened to sb or of how sth happened: It was many years before the full story was made public. * The police didn’t believe her story. * We must stick to our story about the accident. * I can’t decide until I’ve heard both sides of the story. * It’s a story of courage. * Many years later I returned to Africa but that’s another story (= I am not going to talk about it now).—see also cock and bull story, hard-luck story, life story, shaggy-dog story, sob story, success story, tall story note at report

3 an account of past events or of how sth has developed: He told us the story of his life. * the story of the Beatles * the story of the building of the bridge

plot /pl{phon_capq}t; NAmE pl{phon_capa}:t/ noun, verb
" height="10"> noun

1 [C, U] the series of events which form the story of a novel, play, film/movie, etc.: a conventional plot about love and marriage * The book is well organized in terms of plot.

plot /plot; NAmE pl{phon_capa}t:/ noun, verb
" height="10"> noun
1 [C, U] the series of events which form the story of a novel, play, film/movie, etc.: a conventional plot about love and marriage * The book is well organized in terms of plot.

writ•ing /'ra{I}t{I}{<span class=phon_capn}" class="ipapic" height="10">/ noun
1 [U] the activity of writing, in contrast to reading, speaking, etc.: Our son’s having problems with his reading and writing (= at school) * a writing case (= containing paper, pens, etc.)
2 [U] the activity of writing books, articles, etc., especially as a job: Only later did she discover a talent for writing. * He is leaving the band to concentrate on his writing. * creative writing * feminist / travel, etc. writing—see also songwriting

writer /'ra{I}t{<span class=shwa}" height="12">(r)/ noun
1 a person whose job is writing books, stories, articles, etc.: writers of poetry * a travel / cookery, etc. writer
2 a person who has written a particular thing: the writer of this letter

com•poser /k{<span class=shwa}" height="12">m'p{<span class=shwa}" height="12">{<span class=phon_capu}" class="ipapic" height="10">z{<span class=shwa}" height="12">(r); NAmE 'po{<span class=phon_capu}" class="ipapic" height="10">z/ noun a person who writes music, especially classical music

chore•og•raphy /'k{<span class=phon_capq}" class="ipapic" height="10">ri'{<span class=phon_capq}" class="ipapic" height="10">{<span class=phon_capg}" class="ipapic" height="10">r{<span class=shwa}" height="12">fi; NAmE 'k{<span class=phon_capo}" class="ipapic" height="10">:ri'{<span class=phon_capa}" class="ipapic" height="10">:{<span class=phon_capg}" class="ipapic" height="10">/ noun [U] the art of designing and arranging the steps and movements in dances, especially in ballet; the steps and movements in a particular ballet or show

* chore•og•raph•er /'k{<span class=phon_capq}" class="ipapic" height="10">ri'{<span class=phon_capq}" class="ipapic" height="10">{<span class=phon_capg}" class="ipapic" height="10">r{<span class=shwa}" height="12">f{<span class=shwa}" height="12">(r); NAmE 'k{<span class=phon_capo}" class="ipapic" height="10">:ri'{<span class=phon_capa}" class="ipapic" height="10">:{<span class=phon_capg}" class="ipapic" height="10">/ noun

I added the definitions for composer and choreographer to make this point: There should be a similar word for an artist who composes the stories for cartoons. A cartoon writer is more like a person who composes and arranges the visual entertainment -framing the characters and story. The term we use for a traditional cartoon writer is "Storyboard ARTIST". These 2 words unfortunately confuse executives. Because the term contains "artist" the modern executive assumes that the person doing the storyboard is not a writer, when in actuality he should be. You can't separate the writing from the drawing in a cartoon. It's like asking someone to describe a tune in words. Try it.

The kind of cartoons I like (and most of you too)-the classics and the modern truly "creator-driven" type can not be created with scripts. They have to be written with outlines and storyboards.

I will post a basic list of the basic skills you need to be a good storyboard-writer-artist on Monday, so keep checking back if you are interested.

Later, I will do more detailed posts about each of the separate skills using examples from both classic cartoons and my own to make the concepts clearer.


diego cumplido said...

thanks again, as always.

erin said...

i love you man

Anonymous said...

thanks for the tips john. as always.

maybe we should go back to calling them storymen? im sure that wouldnt cause any confusion.

David King said...

I can't wait to read more about this tomorrow! Thanks for the great info. And man, that quote you opened with--Is the whole entertainment industry based on the assumption that all your collaborators are imbeciles??

Jason Heath said...

my head asplodes from the coolness of this series of upcoming posts!!!

Mebbo said...

In my opinion, animation directors should be like non-commissioned officers - worked up to the position from the trenches.

I agree. I think for shorts and TV, we should go back to the Termite Terrace method where the director actually drew all the key poses himself.

I look forward to your posts on storyboarding :)

Andreas said...

Great stuff. I was just reading last night what Burne Hogarth had to say about modern art, and the amateur in professional art, and how to differentiate between the professional and the amateur. Your statement brought this to mind

>>You have to have obvious demonstrable ability that most normal people don't have. It's a lot harder to fake being an artist than being a writer.<<

Made me think of how a friend of mine described his experience of visiting the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and how he complained how awful the experience was. One thing he focused on was a canvas painted pure white. It frustrates me to no end that "experts" in the field of art praise people like that and completely shun those that gain popularity though obvious skill, and ability to reach in and touch the viewer.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. Seriously. I'm printing it out.

My brother and I are working on a puppet show, and want to write it like a cartoon (with lots of puppet violence). Your article here is like a well-timed kick to the crotch, but in a good way. We've been talking about puppets and watching Ren and Stimpy Lost Episodes all weekend, and now this! Thanks again dude, you saved me from writing schlock.

Josel said...

It was funny reading your posts, and then reading the reviews for that book on animation. Heres some interesting reviews from readers of the book:

E. D. Smith "Nocomme1" - "I'm in the process of writing a proposal for a new animated series and though familiar with writing in general have no experience in animation."

Arturo Toledo (Redmond, WA) - "The book was very inspiring but specially was technically estimulating to the level that for the first time in my life I think I can give it a shot and write something."

Kassandra (Oak View, CA) - "I'm a boring lawyer who had an idea for a cartoon series swimming around in her head. I found this book, followed it to the letter, developed the idea, pitched it, and now have a major animation production company who has purchased an option for the show."

Laura Owens (Louisville, KY United States) - "I got hired and suddenly became the lead writer for a new, 3D computer graphics TV Series. Having little experience with creative writing, but extensive editing skills ... I knew I needed help!

Not only do I know how to appear as if I'm an old pro, I've got step by step instructions on everything I need to help pitch this series :) Way Kewl!"

Disturbing, to say the least, but definitely supportive of all your comments on the industry.

Pseudonym said...

I hereby vote for "mutholographer". Yes, I made the word up. It's more or less Greek for "storyteller-writer", but I like it because it emphasises the "graphic" part.

The Butcher said...

So is it acceptable for someone who can't draw to tell a raw version of the story and have the artist write it? Maybe someone who's funny but doesn't draw can come up with some verbal humor that the artist didn't? I think you mentioned before about how Billy West and even Frank Zappa came up with some dialouge on Ren and Stimpy.

What you said clears a lot of stuff up for me. You can't write a song without knowing how to make music, so it makes sense that you can't write specific visuals without knowing how to draw. Makes perfect sense.

So here's one thing that isn't entirely clear to me. Why can't someone hand you a script with the basic dialouge and what happens in the story and have the artist write the cartoon according to the script on the storyboard? I mean, is it the script that's completely evil or just the people who told the story butting in and telling you how to draw? If there was a way to keep the script "writers" from sticking their nose in feilds they don't belong in, would it be acceptable for them to give out ideas and have some sort of creative say?

Sorry, that was a mouthful, but I haven't commented in a while.

Roberto González said...

This is so true. Unfortunately-or not- a good story is the thing that normal people will understand, if they are not big experts in animation. Most people love Pixar films because of the stories (I like them too, but there are things I find more exciting).

I know this for a friend of mine. I showed him Three Caballeros, which happens to be one of the most entertaining films in Disney's story IMO, and he was bored by it! I mean, it's among the funniest Disney has ever done, it has quite fast pacing and tons of visual gags, and the three main characters have more charm than any protagonist in any modern flick , I couldn't see why someone could get bored by it. But that's what happens with most people. They are so accustomed to follow a "properly" (you could say "typically" too)structured story in real movies that they have forgotten how to enjoy the visuals. That's what the evil executives will argue, and that's half-true in my own experience.

Anyway, even when they argue that, they won't even tell an interesting story most of the time. For every Pixar movie (which have good stories but they could be a lot more entertaining if they appeal to "sensations" as well more often ) there is a Dreamworks or other studios flick, that are 90% filler and they don't have surprising visuals either.

Now I do think story is important and there is room to include more complex things in animation movies. I'd like to see something like, I don't know, Trainspotting, in an animated movie, but making good use of animation. (Incidentally Trainspotting is a good movie because the story is well narrated by the visuals) I think you said in another post, though, that you can't have both the intelectual appeal and the sensations on the same level (this is not the way you said it, I can't recall the exact therms), but I'd really like someone would figure out how to tell an story like the most satirical episode of The Simpsons you could find, using interesting visuals.

There are some Disney shorts that have interesting and somewhat satirical or interesting stories with great visuals (some of the segments of Make Mine Music or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). Plenty of Chuck Jones' cartoons have. If only someone could extend that to a movie without filler (but without being too "scripted" either) I think we could have the best animated movie ever. Now these is maybe an exaggeration cause this is a modest Disney film (and you probably would find this "Carl Arts" style), but I think The Great Mouse Detective was next to that. In my opinion Who Framed Roger Rabbitt could be considered a good attempt too, though it could appeal to sensations and use crazier visuals more often.

However current animated movies don't seem to go in that direction anymore. With all the animated movies we have every year it is a same that most of them happen to be so similar to each other.

J.E.Daniels said...

Great tips John!
I followed the link to that book and read the reviews...
"..had no experience in animation.."
"..I was a boring lawyer.."
Why would these people ever consider writing for a cartoon if they have no idea about the artform?

Anonymous said...

I love the boring lawyer success story. I just hope it's not true. It just sounds like a steadfast fan of the ninja turtles defending his idol through the fine art of dirty lies.

Anonymous said...

About your comment on it being easier to be a writer than an artist... I know way too many art school graduates who can't draw making money selling atrocious art for cafe walls, yet I don't imagine any of them could make a penny trying to sell words, unless they're stenciled on canvas.

Anonymous said...

How about Cartoonography or Cartoonographer. Those words don't exist, I know, but they sound right. Just saying them will make you laugh, just what you want to tell a cartoon story. And its one word.

Hey John, call Webster Dictionary and tell them to put that word in. Blow the minds of the executives. And then after the description have it say, (Cartoonographer also see John Kricfalusi pp.478) and then on page 478 have a 8x10 glossy of yourself, signed.

Yeah, Yeah Hubie. Riot! Absolute riot!

Jason said...


I don't know how to e-mail you from this site so I am posting this link here in hopes you'll see it..

this is a wonderful display of Disney's blatant reuse of old animation...thought you'd get a kick out of these side by side comparisons if you havent seen them yet.

Keep up the great work on the blog!!

tanisha said...

thanks a lot john.its an invaluable information for young animators like me in india as animation industry here is in its initial phase

Gabriel said...

josel, thanks for posting the reviews, those are great to illustrate the situation, although quite sad too.

Butcher: i guess what you're referring too has been shown by john in a previous post, the one about the ren & stimpy baboon episode. We could see that it began with a written storyline, which is only a guide. Scripts, on the other hand, are much more constraining, so i don't think even a good artist could make much on top of that, not to mention that he might not being allowed to mess with it without making the writer cry. So it makes sense to just cut script off the whole thing and let the story be conceived visually.

Anibator said...

Part of the problem is that nobody teachest storyboard artists how to write any more. On the rare occasion that they are asked to contribute to the story, they come up with the same old stuff over and over again.
I think aninimation schools should require students to take several classes on writing and story before graduating. That may sound harsh, but animation represents the culmination of a lot of different skills, and if you're not willing to put in the effort to hone those skills then why bother?

JohnK said...

They can't do any worse than the scriptwriters, and with a little time if they have story talent they'll become good. That's what the shorts programs should be for.

Roy said...

"That's what the shorts programs should be for"

Emphasis on the word 'SHOULD'... the current crop of shorts for all of these well-meaning but ill-concieved shorts programs are thin gruel at best and it is NOT for lack of people pitching good ideas.

There are a ton of great ideas floating around out there (I've seen them) but no one with greenlight power in Hollywood would know a great idea if it swam up their poopshoot.

Crumpled Up John! said...

It is my belief that the people who feel that everything breaks down to 'story' are mostly pompous types who don't know the first thing about making entertainment. It all does add up to if something is entertaining or not. When I want to write a comedic story I tend to make the plot as simple as possible because making it too complex would require the audience to focus to heavily on the story and not on the jokes. In reality, there are not original stories, just original ways to tell them.

Andreas said...

Possibly one of the reasons for an emphasis on "story" is that is what critics are looking for, and not the entertainment value. There are always films that you hear "thin plot" or "no plot" from the critics, but are big on entertainment value. I don't know about the rest of the world, but I go to see a movie to drop out of reality for a while and be entertained. To be able to combine a good story with good entertainment value is a true work of genius, something the entertainment industry lacks enough of.

Erik M. said...

"...story is not the main ingredient of entertainment. Sensations are."
This is beautifully stuck in my head.
Thanks John.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

it's wonderful to see these ideas in print! At last someone's putting into words what I've been thinking for years! Way to go, John!

benj said...


Lion_0 said...

Ah man was I shocked when i clicked on the link and saw that the book you liked to was the same one i had bought to help me write my stuff. Hahahahahha I couldn't stop laughing for a while there. Needless to say i will stop with that and try to write it out with your guidance from your blog here.

Vincent said...

John Kricfalusi said: "
I've never heard anyone say, "Boy that was a great dance. I wonder who wrote it." or "Who wrote this ice cream?" These make about as much sense as "That cartoon made me laugh, therefore it was a good story.""

That is because the dance equivalent is something like "what routine is used?" (I'm not an expert in dance, but I am aware that there are routines created) and the ice cream equivalent is "what is the recipe?"

JohnK said...

Exactly. No one writes a dance or writes ice cream.

A dancer choreographs other dancers, and a chef who specializes in sweets creates ice cream flavors.

You have to have direct experience doing the things you later instruct others to do.