Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Storyboard Now

I see there's yet another controversy about whether cartoons had scripts which is going on at various websites. This is not a favorite topic of mine, since the argument follows the exact same pattern and the division is always the same, into the following three groups:

Group One: "Cartoons shouldn't have scripts."
Group Two: "Cartoons in the Golden Age did so have scripts."
Group Three: "Can't we all just get along and agree that what matters is good storytelling?"
Group One: "But in order to have good storytelling, cartoons shouldn't have scripts."
Group Two: "But Golden Age cartoons had good storytelling and they did so have scripts..."

Repeat cycle.

But though I don't enjoy the argument, I think there is a point to it. Most animation (especially 2-D animation) is done for television and in television, the process is extremely important: when you don't have a lot of time to make episodes, every episode will be made more or less the same way, and the question of how to do them -- at the storyboard, in script form, or whatever -- becomes extremely important.

You'll notice that for animated feature films, the argument over scripting is much less contentious than for television or short cartoons; all but the most hard-core anti-script partisans accept that Brad Bird's movies are visual and "real cartoons" even though they have written scripts. But movies take a long time to make, and the script will be modified and expanded many times, so that the final result won't (or shouldn't) feel like a script translated to the screen. In TV or shorts, there's no time for that. Whatever the "blueprint" is for the story, whether it's the script or the story sketches, will be much closer to the final result than a movie script at that same stage of production.

The reason for the storyboard-vs-script battle is, I think, partly a result of the understanding that in TV, if you're working from a script, the finished product will often be just pictures illustrating the script. Whereas if the storyboarding starts earlier in the process, then the cartoon will develop in a looser and more visual way. That's the theory, anyway, and I think it's often true in practice. Even though I unabashedly love some TV cartoons that were completely scripted by writers who couldn't draw a line, I don't think that's the most efficient process for making a cartoon. And TV cartoons and seven-minute shorts have to be as efficiently-made as possible if they're going to deliver consistent results.

Also, in television, the script is the final blueprint that gets approved by the network or the executives. With a more informal production process, it's easier to sneak things by them. There's a legitimate, proven-to-be-true fear that if you start with a formal script, the higher-ups (producers, executives, whoever) will get mad if something new has been added (tm).

But even on shows that use the storyboard-first process, you really can't compare that process to the Golden Age (just as for the most part the cartoons don't compare). Why? Because in the Golden Age, doing cartoons at the storyboard was not primarily something that was done to exclude formal scripting. It was just the way these things were made, a process that had its roots in non-animated silent comedy. (A lot of silent films, obviously, went forward with more of a scenario than a fully-written script. And silent comedy movies were by far the biggest influence on sound comedy cartoons.) But of course they'd sometimes write stuff out in words, and of course there were some story men who couldn't draw much, like -- according to Barrier -- Bill Cottrell. Nobody would have objected to such things because there was never a formal decision that scripting was against the law and that non-drawing writers had nothing to contribute to animation. Non-scripted cartoons written by story artists were the rule, but that was just the process being used.

What has always bugged me about the post-Ren and Stimpy non-scripted cartoon is that the lack of scripting was not just a process decision but, really, a political decision: it wasn't just about adopting the older, more efficient, more cartoony process but about excluding certain kinds of jokes and ideas as not "cartoony" enough. Which might be how a lot of the R&S clones wound up with such weak dialogue, storytelling and characterization.

And yet maybe this kind of exclusionary way of doing things is the only way to go; it could be. In the Golden Age, Disney cartoons could be done with some non-drawing writing because, again, everyone was secure in the basic process. But today, a cartoon that starts using any scripting at all will soon find itself facing network/studio demands to do the whole thing with a script. (You can see this with the Disney features of the '90s, how the perfectly sensible idea of using some outside screenwriters got out of hand, to the point that the studio was bringing in three or four people to rewrite everything before the animators even came into the process.) But that's why it's not useful to talk about bringing back the Golden Age process. If a cartoon is boarded by people who are consciously excluding scripts, and consciously trying not to do anything "scripted," that's not the way things were done. There were many reasons why cartoons were produced the way they were; rebellion against scriptwriter tyranny was not really one of them.

10 comments:

Thad said...

Jaime, the issue really at hand, and what people like Mike Barrier, David Gerstein, and I are trying to point out, is that scripts similar to live-action existed prior to 1960, and that Steve Worth is an unruffled liar, only bent on revisionism and self-promotion. The issue of whether cartoons should use scripts or not is a tiresome discussion, which isn't what this is about.

Why the hell isn't ASIFA doing something about the Spumco infiltration in their organization? I mean, an award honoring a job Worth is paid full-time for one year, and an award for John K. the next? How much more friggin' brazen can you get?!

Kevin W. Martinez said...

Hasn't Spumco infiltrated every sector of the animation idnustry and community by this point? they're almost one and the same now.

And I'm sure one of us could list a couple of storyboard-driven cartoons that are as talky and word-driven as scripted cartoosn are pegged as being.

J Lee said...

One of the problems today with cartoon characters, scripted or storyboarded, is there's really no audience feedback to any specific story that gives the directors, writers and animators an idea of where their strong and weak points are, and how the character should develop.

Whether it's Ren & Stimpy or any of Hanna-Barbera's most stilted creations of the 1970s and 80s, the way a character debuts in Episode 1 of the show is pretty much how that character is going to be forever (and making R&S gay in an Adult Cartoon Party episode is not character development, but just a John K wacky, madcap plot device). Outside of the changes to Homer in "The Simpsons" from how he was portrayed/voiced in the Tracy Ullman segments to how he ended up on the show, I can't think of any personality/design changes of any consequence on TV in the past 40 years, since H-B changed Yogi from a slightly grouchy characters to a happy-go-lucky one more suited to selling Kellogg's cerials to the kiddies.

Compare today's TV cartoons to the original designs and/or personalities for characters like Donald, Goofy, Porky, Daffy, Bugs, Woody, etc., and how their creators were able to mold the characters based on audience reaction to each individual cartoon, which allowed them to evolve from their original look and personnas to the ones we're familiar with today. The creators today don't have that luxury, no matter what media they write in, and have to get their characters correct right off the bat or risk early cancellation. That may also be a contributing factor to the current problem, since if your original concept is good enough to make it past Week 13 in the Nielsens, you and the network suits are probably reluctant to to anything that would rock the boat in the wrong direction.

MLO said...

Isn't story boarding an alternative scriptwriting technique used not only in animation but also in some comic book writing?

Or am I just being silly?

David Gerstein said...

Thad (and Jaime),

To clarify: I'm personally trying to point out that extensive prose documents, sometimes but not always including scripts, played a significant role in story development at 1930s Disney in particular; and as such, could well precede storyboards in the developmental process.
I am not trying to minimize the equal significance that I think storyboard-level development also had on the stories.
I am also (and this is supremely important) not trying to define the 1930s from a pro-written word standpoint *in order* to justify today's executive-pleasing, script-based system, which I probably object to as much as most Spumco employees.
I do, however, want to get history right on the record.

Some Guy said...

If we're trying to make cartoons LIKE old cartoons, as in Tiny Toons, Ren & Stimpy, Spongebob, etc, we should use the process they used in the past.

Thad said...

I have to correct myself, Jaime (and David), but you were right. This isn't about animation history, it's all politics. Worth is only trying to convince someone (ANYONE) to give John a job, because the way HE makes his cartoons is the way ALL Golden Age cartoons were made.

Mr. Semaj said...

J Lee,

The thing behind the audience feedback, or what little of it still exists, is that the system that shapes a program's future is either being abused, or has moved to a different outlet without being fully acknowledged.

The reason television ratings for The Simpsons and Family Guy have been so small in recent years is because most of the audience has migrated to the Internet, where they can voice their feedback in respective communities. Also because the newest episodes are available online only days after their premiere, so why tune in right away on television when it can be easily caught a little later online?

Now audiences are ingrained into online communities, where they have a better chance of communicating with the writers of their favorite programs. But some writers don't seem ready to face their fans yet about "the many years they've told them what they disliked about their show", which is why some Simpsons writers have teased about "Jerkass Homer" for the past several years, and why Family Guy continues using their poor stories and ruined characters despite rising complaints since the show's revival. The FG, the very same ratings that were used by FOX to cancel the show in 2002 are being used by the show's writers six years later to nag fans with their own "don't like it, don't watch it" approach to complaints against the show's creative direction.

It is because of those few factors that the Neilsen box is no longer a veritable measurement for a show's success.

PCUnfunny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PCUnfunny said...

In all this mud slinging, I am not going to take any sides. I am going to continure to go on John K.'s blog, the ASIFA archive website, and Micheal Barrier's site. Each side of the fence is delivering vauluable information but I just filter out all the biases, it's too be excepted anyway. No one devotes themselves to a cause and dosen't completely remove his or her personal views.