Monday, March 19, 2007

Writing For Cartoons 3 : P.O.V., Ideas, Sincerity

More skills you need to have to be a good cartoon writer:

An original P.O.V.
Even if you can draw and have all the writing skills below, that is not enough to make you a good writer. A real creative writer in any medium, should have a personal point of view. He has to see the world and his medium in a unique way. A way that is worth the audience's time and worth the effort of all the artists who have to make the ideas look good.

This can't be taught. You either are an extremely interesting person, or you're not. You also should be sincere. You shouldn't have to read a book on how to write stories for film so you can use a tired old plot structure, just because that's what they tell you in film school. If you really have something to say, you can learn to say it in a structure that suits your voice, not Jeffrey's.

The animated features today and most TV cartoons are written by comittees of people who try to figure out what entertains an audience.
They should instead be written by entertaining people who already know because they entertain people everywhere they go in real life.

That's why we have so much insincere non-entertainment crap like "Character-arcs", bad puns, ripoffs of famous movies in the guise of "parody", contrived pathos, characters who try to find themselves, bland protagonists, one-shaded villains, broadway style tuneless songs that "move the plot forward", in every damn feature. Another amazing lie you see in many animated features is when they make fun of corporations or try to teach the audience ethics-even though the movie is being made by evil corporate executives who have no morals at all - people who stop the actual entertainers from entertaining you so they can pretend to be creative themselves.

Anyone in the world can learn how to "write" this kind of stuff. It's not "story" or writing. It's just stuff. You just have to be related to the right person. A real writer has a sincere and unique outlook (his voice) on the world and has a naturally entertaining way to communicate it so that regular folks can enjoy it.

This insincere style of film making can be traced at least as far back as Irving Thalberg and the earliest film executives at big motion picture companies. These people exercised their creativity, not by getting on stage and dancing or telling a funny story, but by "giving notes" to real live entertainers.

How many folks complain about the Marx Bros. movies that have all that bullshit romance filler in the movies? Romance and story filler about characters THAT NOBODY IN THE AUDIENCE CARES ABOUT. This is pure executive thinking.

Who goes to a Marx Bros. movie to watch Zeppo and his ilk? Every second of the "story" makes you twitch around in your seat.

Today we have huge budget animated features with nothing but Zeppos in them, and no Grouchos. It's all filler and zero pure entertainment or a sincere creator's voice.

Most animation writers don't really have any ideas, but they should.

Instead they recycle the same 7 (or is it 12?) tired old "plots" and just change the catch phrases to match whatever characters they are plugging into the same script they have "written" 50 times already.

I actually used to hang out with some animation writers and they all had these formulas they firmly believed in. They were all convinced that every plot had already been written. Then I pitched them a bunch of stories that didn't fit any of those plots, they shook their heads knowingly in disdain until Mighty Mouse and Ren and Stimpy came out. Now these same writers and hordes of new opportunistic charlatans have added those plots to their scripts and recycled them for the last 15 years.

They copy the Simpsons plots now too and proudly admit it to each other!

Well you can certainly get away with calling yourself a writer by recycling ideas that have already been done and memorizing a character's catch phrases, and you can even make a lot of money doing it, but you won't ever be remembered in the same way that novelists, entertainers and cartoon directors are. Everyone knows Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jerry Lewis, Matt Groening, Moe Howard, Mike Judge, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Who the hell knows who Jeffrey Scott is?

I can't tell you how to have ideas. I will tell you how I got certain specific ones, but you should find your own. If you have them, your other artist friends probably know it. Don't trust your own opinion.

Much more to come...


Anonymous said...

John, I would say u should write a book with all this knowledge u have but then again maybe u shouldnt. It could fall into the "wrong" hands.

Your words are like butter in my brain man. Its like I wrote this shit myself when I read it. Rock on!!

arty said...
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Mike said...

I really was entertained by the spectacular, flamboyant broadway numbers that disney had in the some of the early 90s movies, but by the late 90s they were inserting songs into every film that weren't very good, probably just because they had songs in the early 90s features and those movies were really popular.

Tim said...

Wow, I'm gonna have to take everything you've said about writing to heart, you're obviously very passionate about it. As someone else pointed out, that's 3 posts in 24 hours!

Peggy said...

Lordy, I'm sick of "parody". How many great movies did I have ruined for me by seeing them first as endless "parodies" that gave away all the twists?

Fuck you, everyone who thinks it's funny to rip off Citizen Kane and give away just what "Rosebud" was in the process. Thanks for being too stupid to take some of Wells' actual themes and pay homage to him by doing your own take on them instead of doing a scene-for-scene "parody". Thanks for putting your sad "parodies" of the stuff you were given to study in film school in front of my eyes as I grew up and pulling half the punch the real versions could have for me later on.

Pseudonym said...

Mike: The reason why you were entertained by those flashy numbers is that they were written by songwriting teams with a proven track record of writing good musical numbers and who understood Broadway shows. (Ashman and Menken, remember, did "God Bless You, Mr Rosewater", "Smile" and "Little Shop of Horrors". Tim Rice did all of those shows with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Elton John was already known as a great hit songwriter and composer.)

I think it's no coincidence that those early 90s Disney films have finally found their way onto the Broadway stage, and as pretty good shows, from what I hear.

As an aside, the fact that you have a good songwriting team doesn't guarantee a good show. "The Road to El Dorado" is a case in point. I feel sorry for the exceedingly talented composer/lyricist and actors, since they had to work with such a trite story and horribly one-dimensional characters.

Anonymous said...
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mbrooksay said...

I gotta agree with the anonymous guy. As soon as I started reading this article I knew exactly where it was heading. Completely agree with everything you wrote.

Stephen Worth said...

The reason why you were entertained by those flashy numbers is that they were written by songwriting teams with a proven track record of writing good musical numbers and who understood Broadway shows.

The problem was that they didn't understand jack-diddley about how to make a good animated cartoon. All they knew how to do was make songs with all the aesthetic refinement and class of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Songwriters have no place writing cartoons any more than script writers or milkmen or dentists.

The Rockettes could at least dance.

See ya

RoboTaeKwon-Z said...

Everytime I see that Jefferey Scott book in the stores, I get angry. There are actually quite a few books that claim to teach you how to "write" for cartoons and not one of them attributes anything to cartoonists beyond "pretty pictures" or "graphic enhancement".
Keep going John! I'm really enjoying these posts on writing!

jeaux janovsky said...

Great advice... but who is Jeffrey?
stay true K.

ZSL said...

I'm still laughing my ass off at that "who wrote this Ice Cream" line you used two posts ago.

DavidMcG said...

Nothing can convince me that bad puns are not hilarious.

Ecto said...

Damn. Does this blog get better with each post??

Great example of exec-evil with the filler in Marx Bros films. I was so damn happy to read someone else having that opinion. Man, I just can't watch that Zeppo-type, stock 'boy-meets-girl' plot they put in there. That shit makes press forward every. damn. time. It almost ruins some of those films because it outweighs the good stuff actually in there.

Duck Soup didn't have that did it? And it's their best movie.

The idea of getting these posts in book form is cool. But does anyone read books anymore? And will exec-evil absorb this information into their ever-stretching devolutionary sludge? Y'know. That undying shallow sludge that keeps getting made into more and more shows, getting kept on television.

Yeah, these posts are great. Great to read GOOD ideas, smart thinking. But it's so fucken DEPRESSING because no one seems to be putting it into practice.

And it gets worse! This devolution is not only in cartoons, but also movies, music. Society.

oh Christ.... what's going on?

Matt said...

Regardless of your opinion of the show, it should be noted that Metalocalypse is a poor example of something created and written by a committee. . . it's largely, if not entirely, the brainchild of a single creator, Brendon Small. It's his show just the way Ren and Stimpy was yours.

Ted said...

Peggy, where would you draw the line for parody? The Betty Boop Snow White and Coal Black are close story parodies of a preexisting story, as are a multitide of Red Riding Hood, Three Bears and other fairy tale cartoons. Do you consider those to be acceptable, and if so, what is the difference between them and the kind of parody you find unacceptable?

Peggy said...


Part of it's the cruelty of deliberately spoiling all the surprises for your young audience when you cram a shot-for-shot parody of "Citizen Kane" into an episode of "Tiny Toons".

It's also the creative bankruptcy of it: you bring nothing original to the table when all you have is parody. Coal Black has a lot of specific references to the Disney Snow, but it also bursts with frenetic Clampett goodness. And the Betty Snow has only a tangential relationship with the traditional story; the story's just a structure to hang tons of Fleischer craziness on. Or look at the Avery Reds.

There's a blurry range between "parody" and "rip-off".


Okay, usually I am right with you but Metalocalypse is a fairly sincere tribute to metal. Brendon Small pitched some ideas and Adult Swim told him to make a show about music, story goes they pretty much stay outta his way.

All the episodes and songs were written (shudder) and played by Brendon Small, a metal fan whose only ding on his metal street cred is liking Metallica. Even then he would probably agree that The Black Album sucked.

However, non-fans of metal might not get it, I admit a great deal of Metalocalypse is sorta 'in humor" and thus alienating. Furthermore that the animation department isn't stellar (the backgrounds are pretty) and that there are many criticism you can charge against Metalocalypse, being insincere about metal however isn't one of them.

Anonymous said...


Eddie Fitzgerald said...

All Zeppos and no Grouchos! I love it! Morre! More!

Kevy Metal said...

"Regardless of your opinion of the show, it should be noted that Metalocalypse is a poor example of something created and written by a committee. . . it's largely, if not entirely, the brainchild of a single creator, Brendon Small. It's his show just the way Ren and Stimpy was yours."

I agree with Matt- That particular show might not be to everyone's tastes, but it does have a creator who is doing what he wants. Metal is hardly a hip genre to base a show around unless Rolling Stone suddenly tells everyone it is, so having Mr. Small pay attention to actually playing real Metal music
(which highly appeals to me)shows that he might just care about what he's doing. Sure, the animation isn't great, but the show does grow on you. If I wanted to see great animation, there's plenty out there to choose from.

Ted said...

So would you excuse a cartoon with as many creative additions as Coal Black had if it gave away the ending to something like Kane?

zoe said...

Ted, Coal Black had only the mouth-movement of "rosebud," which is like the first thing in the whole damn movie. Didn't give away nuthin'.

Roberto González said...

Incidentally, I think you could make a sincere story about a character trying to find himself and probably having "character arcs" is not a bad or insincere thing per se either.

Making fun of corporations is probably the most insincere part of it. I also find very insincere how some animated movies pretend to make fun of "Disney style" while they are exactly the same stuff with a different disguise. When Looney Tunes made fun of Disney it was sincere and really irreverent.

Roberto González said...

What I meant before is that those books about how to write a script can be a little helpful sometimes. I normally do whatever I feet it's right, but some of these tips have helped me in the past. I didn't know anything about "dramatic points" (a part in which a dramatic change takes place in the story) and it kind of helped me to make some scripts more interesting, but I'm talking about live-actions scripts I made for exercise in high school. When I draw a comic book I usually don't think about this stuff.

I think they help in real movies, most of the movies, even the really good ones, follow those rules. I don't know if animation should use that or not. There are animated movies that are entertaining enough without following any kind of trick.

PsychoWiLL said...

Last week our film school had a day listening to various people in the 'industry'. (Most had some relation to the school)
I used to want to go into 3D animation, but after hearing the writing I thought it may be an easier way to expel my ideas.
Any advise?

Anonymous said...

While I agree with your general points...

Books are very useful, and I do think that writing for cartoons IS a skill that can be learned. Imagine if you have all the talent and just don't know how to execute it?

Also, I do think sincerety pops up in some movies made by even the largest corporations. That's why people respond so positively towards a really good movie--it sticks out from the rest for a reason.

Rafi said...


"If you really have something to say, you can learn to say it in a structure that suits your voice, not Jeffrey's."

and the Marx Bros. analogy (zeppos and grouchos),

sums it all up beautifully.

U sir, rock. keep the goldrush flowin'...

apple juice is a verb said...

The Marx Bros is indeed a great example...but doesn't it simultaneously shoot down the idea that there has been a "devolution," since it shows that executives were crippling creativity from the beginning?

I am by no means defending the influence of the producer or executive, I just don't think there was ever an era in film where things were much better...all of the great creative achievements ---sad as it may be--- were dependent on fortunate circumstances. Brief moments of unfettered creativity where talent could temporarily thrive.

It is rare for genuinely talented people to get full recognition in their own lifetime. The fact that genuinely talented people are remembered and the marginally talented forgotten makes it seem like things were better back then than they may have actually been. The public consciousness only retains the Keatons, Chaplins, etc., which can contribute to a sense of nostalgia.

Still, if this nostalgia can give someone inspiration I think it can be good. On the other hand, if you didn't keep it in check it could make you overly bitter, or even prevent you from recognizing the beauty that exists in your own era, which is unlikely to resemble that of the past (art must grow and change to remain vital).

Ted said...

Zoe, I wasn't meaning the actual Kane reference in Coal Black; the existence of that reference is unfortunately confusing for this conversation. The spoiling I was wondering if Peggy would excuse in a cartoon as inventive as Coal Black was a hypothetical big spoiler along the lines of giving away the meaning of Rosebud (I'd say giving away the ending of Snow White could be seen as bigger than that, since it's the summation of the plot in broad terms and in many ways the meaning of Rosebud is a McGuffin; personally I found Kane to be quite boring and would rather have not seen it; perhaps Tiny Toons was trying to save people the trouble...).

Michael McClain said...

'your artist friends will know it, don't trust your own judgment.'
This terrifies me more than anything else living in a creatively isolated place. More and more it is obvious that in spite of the fact that most art is a solitary endeavor, artists MUST find a community of honest individuals.