Thursday, June 03, 2004

Animation: Writer vs. Storyboard

Any animation newsgroup -- particularly those dominated by fans and/or employees of John Kricfalusi -- will eventually include a lot of arguments about whether a good cartoon can be written by people who can't draw. Kricfalusi and Kricfalusi acolytes like Amid Amidi say no, pointing out that the classic works of animation used storyboards rather than written scripts (Warner Brothers cartoons, Disney features, even the early Hanna-Barbera shows like "Yogi Bear" and the first few seasons of "The Flintstones") and had stories and dialogue created by people who could draw, not scriptwriters. But I keep wondering whether, if there was a serious attempt to revive the role of story artist (a la Mike Maltese, Tedd Pierce, Warren Foster, Rich Hogan -- the "writers" who didn't write but drew the stories), the results would be any better than what we're getting now.

This is probably my prejudice talking, but over the last ten years or so I've tended to prefer "written" cartoons to storyboarded ones. Many of the newer storyboarded cartoons often strike me as being weak in dialogue, gag construction, plot -- all the "writer" stuff. This is actually a problem that, for me, goes all the way back to the Golden Age, because I still feel that the classic Disney features have certain "writing" weaknesses that could have been helped by consultation with an experienced writer of feature films (Ben Hecht?). There's an idea that only cartoonists can make cartoons, and in general I would say that ideally anyone who works on a cartoon should be a cartoonist, but on the other hand there are areas where cartoon storytelling is no different from any other kind of film storytelling, and in those areas I think there's actually something to be said for the input of someone who isn't a cartoonist. (Though it wasn't remotely in the style of LT/MM, one thing I liked about Animaniacs was the combination of writer-driven, dialogue humor with a somewhat "cartoony" visual style -- it was a strange combination, but I thought it was fascinating.) The writers of Who Framed Roger Rabbit make an offhand point about this on the DVD commentary track, that the people at Disney were PO'd that the writers came in and wrote a complete script, leaving nothing for Disney's story artists. But IMO what the writers came up with for Roger Rabbit was better than anything Disney's story department had done for 20+ years.

What I keep thinking, when I see a new "cartoonist-driven" cartoon, is that the art of the story artist went into such a decline after 1960 or so (because of meddling executives, production changes -- take your pick) that the art is almost lost; what passes for cartoonist-driven stories today often strikes me as just plain bad writing that happens to be done in pictures. Sometimes I think that art schools should have courses in the art of creating animation stories in the classic style (maybe they already do this, I don't know). But in this day and age I think I don't mind seeing a professional writer involved in creating dialogue and gags for a cartoon, as long as the writer's contribution is ultimately subservient to what the director wants. Of course, what actually happens is that the writer runs things and the cartoonists are subservient, which is definitely a problem -- but I don't think the problem is with the actual presence of a writer. (I.e. I'm not arguing that there should be complete TV-style scripts for a cartoon. But if the director needs a funny line for a character to say at a given point, I see nothing wrong with having an experienced comedy writer on hand to come up with something.)

I suppose you can sum up what I'm saying as "Hollywood killed the art of the story artist, no one can do it any more, and that means no one should." And that's not what I was trying to say, but I admit it comes off that way. I would like to see the return of great story artists. I just don't think it's as simple as just reviving the storyboarding process.

For one thing -- and this is a bizarre argument to make, but I'll make it -- I think it's now generally harder to find people who can write than it was in the '30s and '40s. In the '30s you could find a staff of people who could draw but also wrote well. Now the position of "writer" is more specialized than it used to be, because writing is not as common a skill as it used to be, and the potential Mike Maltese of today is likely to develop his skill in writing or drawing but not both.

Maybe later I'll write a rebuttal to this post, to save other people some time.

No comments: