Friday, February 27, 2009

The Back and Forth on Writers of Cartoons

I'm late to the party on this from ASIFA's Animation Archives:

The other day, a discussion on cartoon writing erupted in response to recent posts on the subject in John Kricfalusi's blog. One of John's main points is that the golden age cartoons that we all regard as the greatest cartoons ever created were written by cartoonists as storyboards, not written in words as scripts.

John K. is more or less correct, that classic shorts were mostly created on storyboards, howsoever ...

They were also written. All those words under the drawings? Some artist ... or a writer working with an artist, wrote those.

But of course, the driving force of most cartoon shorts was the visual, because more often than not. the little square drawings of thosee funny little cartoon character were the locomotives that pulled all the trains.

Today, most shorts start with the written word rather than the drawing. (And most shorts are done, obviously, for television.)

The same applies to features. Where once features were pulled along by storyboards, now the initial blueprints are fat, live-action style scripts. Sometimes the scripts are good, other times not so good. But the drawings are not the prime movers the way they used to be. When I walk into a board artist's room these days, the artist is likely to say (as one said to me last week):

"I don't have much to do right now. The script is being reworked by the new writers on the project before our next pass, so I'm just sitting here waiting."

In the days of Walt, it was the story artist who sat in the cab driving the train. Outline boards, then sequence boards dominated, and the guys with the pencils had lots of input.

But board artists are no longer in the driver's seat, because in 2009 ... as in 1999 and 1989 the live-action model predominates: script, then boards, and finally full-blown production. One isn't "wrong" and another isn't "right", they are simply different.

But the debate is a little silly anyway. There are many ways to skin the creative cat, and artists make solid writers far more often than the other way around. Ron Clements and John Musker, who both began their animation careers as animators and board artists, have written fine animation scripts. Mike Maltese wrote classic Warner Bros. shorts and trend-setting television product at Hanna-Barbera.

And story artist Bill Peet (as I've noted before), wrote one of the great post-war Disney features with "101 Dalmations," even if he did closely follow the novel on which it was based. Peet wasn't a "writer" in today's use of the term, but a gifted Renaissance man, who began his professional life as a visual artist. He ended it, of course, as a writer of children's books.

So who has the best chops? Who is the most important? There is no final answer. But I know a lot of board artists who are double threats: they write and they draw. A pretty compelling combination, when studios execs deign to notice.

10 comments:

James said...

Again? Really?

I'm convinced that the world could be singed to a post apocalyptic cinder and Stephen Worth would still be holed away somewhere writing little anti-animation writer screeds.

And besides, everyone knows the best anti-writer screeds were drawn by artists in the 40's.

Anonymous said...

All the artists you mention are/were visual people. They could all draw very well. They wrote images, and were quite capable of creating those images without a keyboard.

Animation artists are actors who draw, or artists who act, whichever you prefer. Both embrace a form of storytelling. From my POV, too many of today's writers are just typists, filling pages of script with characters talking.

Yak, yak, yak, yak, yak.

Their characters don't think. They just talk. They have as much personality as TV newscasters. They read the words but without something to read they sit there like lap dummies. And if something has to be cut from a show, it's never the precious dialog, it's always the non-verbal character and personality stuff.

Zzzzzz.

In all my years as a board artist, I've never been invited to contribute anything to the creation of a plot or story except to "make it work" after the damage has been done and committed to the script page. Up-front collaboration is non-existent.

For most board artists these days, salvaging the aberrations of a 40-page yakathon with post-mortem surgery is the last outpost of creativity.

Anonymous said...

Michael Eisner, I believe, is the chump who started the scripting rather than boarding of animated features. He could only comprehend words, not pictures. (Oh god, once again I offer thanks unto thee that the big bald bloated bean-counter has been driven from Mickey's domain. Hosannah!) The script-driven drivel prevails in TV toons especially. Ever watch Yin Yang Yo? It's full of blahblahblahblahblahblahblah for 11 solid minutes. Nothing but puns, insults and such choice bon mots as "Sucks!" and "Toilet!" and "Fart!" accompanied by loud sound effects. Eeeesh. (Thank thee lord god for the mute button. When it comes to cartoon rabbits, I much prefer Oswald. At least he told his story with pictures and was blessedly SILENT).

Anonymous said...

In animation, artists should be encouraged to write their own material and reach greater potential. And writers of animation should be encouraged to draw. You will have a much harder time finding the latter willing to do so. A big problem as I see it.

-They were also 'written.' All those words under the drawings? Some artist ... or a writer working with an artist, 'wrote' those.-

The key word you emphasize twice is the crux of the conflict, self-evident in the fact that you've written the word in bold type. As far as I can see in my twenty years as a cartoonist, what is 'written' is completely undefinable, except as various guilds in this town chose to define it for compensation, authorship, and membership purposes. In that regard, they all fail miserably, and usually at the expense of creating good material. A script, in most cases, is simply another pass at a story a team is desperately trying to crack. But writing it in bold type doesn't make that particular stage of development any more inherently valuable to the final product.

John K. and Steve are simply giving voice to a history that is near extinction. They have no choice but to scream at this point. I mean, according to the WGA, the Simpson's is a live action sit-com. Okay. Whatever brings the bigger paycheck and better awards I guess.

Stephen Worth said...

I'm actually not screaming or writing screeds... I'm just passing along information to the next generation of animators that was given to me by the previous generation of animators. If we're going to reclaim the golden age of animation, we're going to have to demand better, not just make excuses for business as usual.

Anonymous said...

As a historian and archivist Steve Worth has merit and is worth listening to, but I'm not sure why anyone cares anymore what John K has to say anymore. His current and past contributions amounts to a pimple on the butt of animation (a description I'm sure would make him happy)

Brubaker said...

How many of today's shows are boarded first anyway? I can only think of two: Chowder and Flapjack, both for Cartoon Network.

Tim said...

I was on a particular animated feature very early in development, before a screenwriter was hired. I boarded a near dialog-less action sequence that ended the first act.
Then a pair of writers were hired, and I pitched them my boards. Afterward, during lunch or something, one of the writers said (half jokingly), "That was some great stuff. I can't wait to write it down and take credit for it."
I chuckled with him, but it soon hit me that he would be getting residuals, not me.

Anonymous said...

Residuals for an animated feature? Since when?

Anonymous said...

Residuals or not, the person who said that had no understanding of how close to the truth what he said actually was. It was callous, and a typical attitude in LA toward animation. It makes me sad every time I hear crap like that. I have seen so many people get credit for work they did not create simply because they reside higher on the food chain. Everyone knows that if they can get away with it, they will. After all, people get paid in private and usually way after the fact, (although on many occasion, I've had some open checks right in front of me. VERY CLASSY STUFF, let me tell you....)

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