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.


Lex said...

When I was a kid I used to watch Ninja Turtles. I think the writers wrote one episode, and just rearranged the catch phrases in different combinations to make 7 seasons worth of shows. Even the bad guys all used the same catch phrase: some variation of "I'm going to turn you into turtle soup".

Anonymous said...

HAHAHAH!!!! Oh man, that remote control shaver bit is hilarious? Is that in a cartoon? I can imagine a proud look of accomplishment on Stimpy's face and annoyance and pity on Ren's.

Here were the catchphrases that made my blood boil. As a kid, I only liked the old cartoons on late night CN and videos, but I'd force myself to watch regular TV because that's what kids my age were "supposed" to watch. I bet you guys can figure these out:

"No relation"

"Go fig"

"Honk honk!"

"Dear, Journal" (Yes, there was a comma between dear and journal.)

"Honk honk!"

"Hello... Nurse"

"Are you pondering what I'm pondering"

"Why?" x 8,955,948

"A baby's gotta do what a baby's gotta do!"

"Tommy, I don't think this is such a good idea"

"Like the ancient Hawaians say:"

"Brain Blast!"

"Don'cha know!"

As a kid, I noticed that every kid on The Magic School Bus had a catchphrase:

"I knew I should have stayed home today"

"Get it?

"According to my research..."

"Oh, bad! Oh, bad! Oh, bad, bad, BAD!"

"At my old school..."

"Is it just me..."

"What are we going to do? What are we going to do? What are we going to do?"

"Maximals, Maximize!"

"Predacons, terrorize!"

"Team Rocket blast off at the speed of light!"

"It's morphihg time!"

"I choose you...Pikachu!"

Max Ward said...

Those character descriptions are good! They are a really good start to write for the characters, they don't seem confining or like a "story bible." After reading that, it makes me want to start exploring the characters and write for them.

Annoying catchphrases from childhood: Animaniacs - "Helloooo Nurse!"
Tiny Toons - every piece of dialog being a ripoff of someone else's catchphrase.

Kali Fontecchio said...

"(Hey share some of the most obnoxious catch phrases from your childhood cartoons here in the comments!)"

How do you even know so many Jorge??? JESUS CHRIST!

Ones I can remember (but I don't really want to):

"I'll get you next time, Gadget!"

"Don't have a cow, man!"


Haha, poor Eddie......

Anonymous said...

Hey John I've been reading your blog for a while and finally decided to join.

You know I do recall hearing on a commentary for Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law where the creators mentioned that Phil Ken Sebben's catchphrase: "HA HA" was accidental as well as a few other staples from that show like "did you get that thing I sent'cha?"

Gabriel said...

(Hey share some of the most obnoxious catch phrases from your childhood cartoons here in the comments!)

I remember Link (from the Zelda cartoons) would say 'execuuuse me' at least twice in each episode. In fact someone did a compilation of him saying that, it's on youtube.
And that awful Macaulay Culkin with the magical baseball glove had him say 'i don't think so' every two minutes. Both frames are quite lame, but the robotic delivery of the voice actors betrayed the writers intention of making them catch prases.

Kali Fontecchio said...

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


Anonymous said...

This is great, John!

I was just guessing that same thing the other day. I'm glad you cleared it up for me.

I was trying to figure out the difference in today's cartoons and the ones in the past. The cartoon bible can restrict some possibilities in character growth.

The treatment that you posted is enough to give many possibilities for your characters. For them to explore many things that lay in front of them. As well as how they would react to any given situation.

I was also thinking, Character's should be like us. Human like in learning, using trial and error. Ren and Stimpy are good examples in that.

I'd love to see George's treatment.

As you can tell I don't know much about the business. I'm very eager to learn the right way in doing cartoons. That is why I came here to find you.

Thanks, John.

Phillip Skeen said...


You know those characteristics of R and S had remained pretty consistent throughout the shows running. Thank you for sharing the story sheets as well.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I like how you put in the way Ranger Smith stroked his nose. Funny. I've seen people, that when they start thinking, stroke their nose.

Thanks, again.


Max Ward said...

Haha, I was also going to mention "NARF!" But I like Eddie too much.

S.G.A said...

80's cartoons... I remember fighting with my sister every morning so We wouldn't have to watch, the Punky Brewster cartoon, where she had a magical ground hog- that granted wishes.. he had an annoying catch phrase, I forget it ..
I also hated anything where they took old cartoons I loved like all the old HB shorts and put them in those It's a mad mad mad world scenariosor the olypics or whatever! , Who's Idea was that???? I spent my preschool days at my grammys watching all the old harvey toons and Hanna Barbrbera shorts on Hatchey malatchey... It might have been the LAST show that had a live action host that intro-ed cartoons, Her name was miss Judy and she lived in the magical one set back drop of Hatchey Malatchey, she talked to a finger puppet elf that looked like the uncle from Beany and cecil...It was a Local PA thing. Any way when the 80's started I hated skateboards BECAUSE of cartoons, and so did my freinds,... they gave everybody a frickin' skateboard, WHY , I used to bitch, does every body have skateboards and helmts with knee pads, I wanna watch cartooooooons!
Then I was happy.. I discovered mightymouse and Peewee's playhouse, which If I am not mistaken those 2 shows played back to back for a while.
I also watched Dennis the menace and gumby..I know soo what.

Anonymous said...

I like Tex Avery's characters too. All you know about them is that they are, what they are. The adventure starts there. He must have used simple primises in making the cartoons.

Just guessing.

Julián höek said...

yeah, post george liquor's too!

crsP said...

I agree with you, they are boring. Even the ones you wrote-no offence (I did try to read it but couldn't be bothered with all of it, for sheer lack of substance). It's just that I prefer to find out what characters are like through their stories and adventures. I wouldn't want a list of character traits at the beginning (middle, nor end in fact) of a book. That's boring. My opinion is that people will ask to see the other one, because they are 'JohnK completes'. But I don't need to hear about your farts. Unless they were particularly funny farts. And these lists are administrative work. So yea, don't post the George Liquor one.

The Butcher said...

Catch phrases were always a pet peeve of mine. Buzz phrases too. I stopped watching South Park until they got wise and stopped using the same "You killed Kenny!" joke every damn episode.

One catch phrase I always loved though was "It's clobberin time!"

Mebbo said...

I had to create a property bible for the graphic novel series I'm doing right now. I don't think it was honestly that essential, just something my publishers made all their artists do just cuz.
I chucked together something, but neither the writer nor myself have stuck all that closely to it and our publishers really haven't cared at all ;)

If this was animation and the characters were going to be written by other writers, then I can honestly see how character descriptions are important for staving off out-of-characterness early on in the proceedings.

Mr. Semaj said...

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.

I tried making a character list something like that for my own cartoons, except it was always a list of adjectives that sometimes crossed between two or more characters. It helps to know it's not even necessary.

Hey share some of the most obnoxious catch phrases from your childhood cartoons here in the comments!

"Hang on to your diapies, babies!"



"So not the drama!"

"Hi-ho diggety!"

I can think of many more examples that aren't exactly catch-phrases, but just annoying "hip" expressions frequently uttered by different characters.

Anonymous said...

i too would like to see the one for George Liquor. i think any variation of "jinkies" is WAAAAY up there on my annoying catchprases list. and if i hear you use it in everyday conversation, i will punch you. for sure.



It's harsh reality that everything I ever loved as a child was a shallow marketing ploy constructed by greedy executives.

Tommy said...

Yes, I would like to see what you wrote for George Liquor.

Also, I hated that Shnarf (spelling?) from the Thundercats made a catch phrase of his own name.

Brian said...

I hate the catchphrase where Jorge writes something Kali disagrees with and she just says "no....." with no reason why....just "no....."


Nate said...

In the course of reading the comments section i realized that there were entire episodes of Pinky and he Brain written around the catch phrase, "Narf!" That's the exact opposite of your philosophy. Holy guacamole! Go fig.

And I'm sure there were other cartoons equally guilty of such hyperfocus on catch phrasery.

I actually just now remembered being sick of having to wait thru the mandatory thirty-seconds of each APNSD episode where they had to bribe Scooby with the snack.

I bet someone could write a program that automates the mask-ripping climax of each episode too. Insert monster. Insert villain. Insert false 2nd mask. Processing...

k9_kaos said...

Hey John,
Do you think a parallel could be drawn between making characters act out of character, and drawing them off-model? I quite like it when a cartoon's characters are generally drawn on-model, but occasionally go off-model to emphasise an emotion. Why can't something similar be true with personalities?

Oh, and here are a few bad catchphrases I remember:

"I'll get you Penelope Pitstop!" (the Hooded Claw)

"And I would have gotten away with it too, were it not for you meddling kids!" (from Scooby Doo)

"I've got a bad feeling about this, or my name is [insert silly name here]. And it's not!" (from the early Courage the Cowardly Dog episodes)

"Puppy Power!" (Scrappy Doo)

Vanoni! said...

Look at the detail in those boards! All those character nuances - every little beat worked out for full comedic effect! I love reading along and working it all out.

I remember a lot of stuff being "smurphy" when I was a kid.

- C

Ant said...

"I'd have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids!"

Except that wasn't so much the catchphrase as the plot summary for every single episode.

Also, the Smurfs replacing every verb with the word "smurf".

So many others which I have erased from my memory to prevent further emotional damage.

BTW John, this is the best blog ever. I have nothing to do with cartoons and will never work on them, but it is still a fascinating read because you explain so much about the artistic aspects and the corporate influence which really makes sense. I see creativity constantly being suppressed or ruined by philistine executive stupidity all the time, not just in cartoons but in pretty much every kind of art, and even non-artistic work.

People like me need information, not to educate us what's good and bad art but to help them to understand their reactions to things and why they MIGHT be valid or vacuous. Only then will we start demanding that the media industry gives them creative art while recognizing hollow committee marketing exercises for what they are.

Thanks for helping me to see this a bit more clearly. When I was a child I was happy to swallow the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-style dross, even though I never enjoyed it whereas Loony Tunes had me paralyzed with giggles and Roger Ramjet was lots of fun - why couldn't I recognize this at the time?

Lucas said...

I just recently got the DVD of Ren & Stimpy and watched all 7 hours pretty much non stop. I really appreciate the descriptions of their personalities, they're very fitting. Ren has always been a more interesting character to me. When I was younger, I was completely in love with Stimpy, for his kindness. Now, when I see the episodes again, I have a lot more sympathy for Ren. They're an excellently balanced duo, and very versatile.
The work done on this cartoon is very interesting, but I can also see why it wasnt the best choice for a big audience.
I do hope to see them again one day.

NobleCrayfish said...

John, I am a longtime reader of your blog, but this is the first time I have been compelled to disagree with you.

I think you are a little harsh on character treatments. In fact, I am quite surprised that you dislike them so much, as I believe your opinions in other areas would support their use.

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.

If this is the case, then why should you not describe what is “in character”? Unless the same person writes and draws the entire first season, how will any writers or artists know the character’s traits? You do not propose an alternative, and you appear to have written character descriptions for all of your shows.

I must confess that I have never seen a “story bible,” so I cannot comment on their usefulness or hindrance in any way. BUT, it seems completely sensible and beneficial to write down the traits that go into making a show. Even for your shows, in which artists and writers are free to use their own styles, couldn’t your “story bible” just say that along with a list of the things you definitely do and don’t want in your cartoons?

It looks like you are just unilaterally disregarding a useful tool in story creation simply because it has been abused by current animation practitioners. I freely admit that I have neither your experience nor wisdom, so I would love to hear your alternative to the “story bible.” How does your creative team know what is and isn’t appropriate for one of your shows without someone writing it all down and binding it in one convenient location?

stiff said...

Are the X's on the boards an abbreviation for a frame?

S.G.A said...

As I write this , Pebble and Bam Bam are getting married on Boomerang.. The special had, male strippers, a female stripper who would'nt jump out of Freds cake without , getting paid up front, and yet it was completely humorous.. It might as well have been a live action sitcom....Oh well..

LFW said...

you need help? sure, I'll help you out, just let me know.

Anonymous said...

>>How do you even know so many Jorge??? JESUS CHRIST!

I have a detail oriented mind, but for importantly, I was born in 1989, not the best time for cartoons.

I think 1982 was probably a good time to be born for cartoons.

Anonymous said...

This may be old news. I found out Tex Avery's Droopy - The Complete Theatrical Collection is coming out on May 15th. It has 24 cartoons on it. On two discs. I've pre-ordered it.

More Cartoons to study! Yee-HAW!
Can't wait, to look closer at Tex's work.

Droopy catch phrase:
"You know what? That makes me happy."

I liked it though.

Craig Mackay said...

Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen playing Michelle on Full House: "You got it, dude!" {Imagine thumbs up and canned laughter}

Stephanie on Full House: "How rude!" I just want to note that Jar-Jar Binks used that catch phrase later in Phantom Menace.

Urkel on Family Matters: "Hey Carl, got any cheeeeeeeeeese?"

Gary Coleman on Different Strokes: "Ooh djoo talkin' bout, Willis?"

Xan and Xana the Wonder Twins on Super Friends: "Wonder Twin powers activate! Form of a brontosaurus...form of a water-hand!"

Hannibal of the A-Team: "I love it when a plan comes together."

Bart Simpson: "Cowabunga, Dude"

Homer Simpson: "Doh!"

He-Man: "I have the power!"

G.I. Joe special message after the show ended with: "...and knowing is half the battle."

M.C. Hammer: "Can't touch this."

Bob Ross: "...happy trees..."

Old lady in the Wendy's commercial: "Where's the beef?"

applepwnz said...

Go Go Gadget _______!!!

David Germain said...

I think Captain N the Game Master had some of the worst catch phrases of all time. Not only were they blatantly forced, they didn't even catch on. Anyone remember Megaman's speech impediment of adding "mega" to the beginning of some words? "Mega-hi, everybody." And who here didn't delight in the little speech impediment that Kid Icarus had inwhich he added an "-icus" to the end of some words? "He's a mean guy-icus." Oh, I guess all of you didn't. Never mind.

Anyway, about continuity and staying in character, I agree with you %100. I can't stand it when someone in a show does something uncharacteristic just so some writer could squeeze in a gag. That's just bad writing. Of course, there's adifference between violating a personality for a release gag (just like the ending of Tex Avery's Wild and Wolfy) and just shoving elements together willy-nilly that don't fit and therefore don't work.

I personally think I'm rather good at continuity. I do make sure any story (or sequence of events) I create in anything I've done flows nicely and that all the elements are presented without any explanation necessary as to how they came to be. Hopefully, I will further back up this statement of mine when I post my latest Censor Monkeys adventure on my blog some time in the near future.

pumml said...

I'm so glad someone mentioned that horrible sCrappy Doo one, "pu-pu-puppy power!" Good lord I hate that character.

Another nomination for "Snarf, snarf."

"Eat my shorts"

"Radical, dude!"

"Way cool!"

anything followed by, "NOT!"

"Yo Joe!" (though I still have fond memories of G.I. Joe cartoons)

I still love, "Autobots, roll out!"

Anonymous said...

>>>I have a detail oriented mind, but for importantly, I was born in 1989, not the best time for cartoons<<<

At least on Saturdays we had Looney Tunes unlike today.

Jhhl said...

Many of the WB catch phrases were already catchphrases on Radio comedy shows (and probably vaudeville before that).
Bugs was probably proving he listened to the radio as much as the audience did.

Comedy that comes from personality has a great advantage if you go into a series, because certain traits can be quickly established and you won't have to waste precious screen time on exposition.

Rogelio T. said...

Craig Mackay said
Bob Ross: "...happy trees..."

Bob Ross is pardoned because of This.

Rod said...

Worst catch phrase from my childhood has to be


I hated that guy.

Tedtoons said...

"I don't get it" --my wife

(I hate it when she says that!)

Wow! It's hard to imagine characters being approved today based on those treatments (you literally called Ren an Asshole, no less.) Last year I went back and forth with Frederator over a pitch I was making. One of my characters was just a bit asshole-ish, but in a funny way. I kept having to smooth him out. I got asked, "why would a viewer like this guy if he acts like that?" Wasn't Bugs Bunny "a little stinker"?

p.maestro said...

so, did pinky and the brain steal their character traits from ren and stimpy? i never really liked that show. animaniacs was annoying and tiny toons was terrible. all the jokes were about how funny they were, without ever actually being funny. kids learning how to repeat the same jokes featured in older looney toons cartoons. jokes get so old...

your comments about "producer-types" are always "on the money!" it's similar to when a comedic movie is successful (somehow) and a sequel is planned. they use all the same jokes, (the ones kids and there parents repeatedly use in everyday conversation) because to them it only makes sense that if the joke is what made the movie a hit, you tell it again! what they're missing is often the jokes and scenarios that gave the first movie it's charm are a result of the fresh ideas, and any sequel should come that way. otherwise it's like watching a standup comic deliver the same routine night after night, and you realize they're not naturally hilarious, they had to work hard at it.


Raff said...

Catch phrases can be fun provided that we the audience make them catch phrases and the character doesn't repeat them often and predictably.

Example: Signor in The Peanut Butter Solution (obscure Canadian movie): "I 'am great artist! I study in Rome! Paris! Milano! Verroncia!"

And yes, I've been known to top off ambitious spoken to-do lists with "...and soon Castle Greyskull will be MINE!!! HEHEHEHA! NEYEHAHAHAHA!!" so I'm guilty as charged for abusing cheezy catch phrases.

Mattieshoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I would love to see the George Liquor stuff!