Friday, June 23, 2006

Another Take on Writers and Board Artists Working Together

A couple of times recently Steve has mentioned the rift between animation writers and board artists (here and here). The comments generated by the first of those posts, mostly from artists, tended to confirm my impression that these two groups misunderstand and mistrust each other. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard a writer minimize the contribution of board artists, or a story artist denigrate the contribution of writers, I could treat myself at Starbucks for at least a week. So it was interesting for me to find a debate from within the world of live-action writers that I think parallels this debate in animation . . . The debate I'm referring to was between "first writers" and "rewriters." Or, since many writers do both, it was about the relative importance and difficulty of writing first vs. rewriting. It's on a very interesting screenwriting blog, The Artful Writer, by Craig Mazin, with frequent input by Ted Elliot (who's done his share of animation writing). The debate lead off with this: "The 'first writer' does not necessarily do anything special or more difficult than subsequent writers on a project. Going first isn't harder. Going first isn't special. Going first doesn't earn you a halo or a special place in writer heaven for your sacrifice. Going first is just going first. The martyrous argument sounds a bit like this. 'Nothing is harder than the initial act of creation. The first writer faces a blank page, and the first writer creates a world out of nothing. Any writer brought in to revise the first writer is working from a head start. They're standing on the shoulders of the first writer. Rewriting isn't real's something lesser and derivative.' Bullshit." As I read through the ensuing debate, it struck me that if you substituted "animation writer" for "first writer," and "story artist" for "rewriter," much of the thoughtful discussion worked just as well. Right off the bat, I want to emphasize that I don't see animation writers always as "first writers" and board artists as "rewriters." Sometimes that's true that a writer will face the blank page and create a script from nothing, and story artists will then come in and visualize, modify, and flat our rewrite (though often in picture form). But I know that often a project or story starts with artist's drawings and story boards. Sometimes the first screenwriter on a project is handed a detailed premise, a package of visual development drawings, and detailed character designs. It might be just as often that it's an artist, or an artist/writer, facing that blank page as it is a writer. So, if you prefer, substitute "artist" for "first writer," and "screenwriter" as "rewriter." The point is that both groups are usually essential to the final work, and both groups tend to have chips on their shoulders. Now, one crucial difference between the live action writer/rewriter debate and the writer/story artist debate is that in our world those two groups are doing much of their work at the same time. In other words, they could collaborate. achieveould acheive synergism. They could spend some of their working time in the same room, or at least in the hallways of their adjoining rooms, bouncing ideas off each other, immediately modifying and enhancing each other's work. Wow, what a concept! Better stories at no extra cost! A few of the commenters in previous posts have already pointed out that current production schedules, being so short, don't allow this kind of interaction. Maybe there are a few shows where that would be the case. But most shows have time scheduled for rewriting, and reboarding, currently built in. Most producers already know that the current system of keeping writers separated is inefficient, and they accommodate that. And it's not like the current system evolved to be the most efficient or effective -- most producers just do things the way they see other producers doing things. If a small part of the time allotted to writers and board artists were designated to be spent together, I think each group might actually find their work a little easier, and better stories might get done in the same time frame. The idea that the most successful animated shows have often been those that were created by cartoonists is actually a special case of this concept: the greater the integration of scriptwork and visual storytelling, the better the cartoon is likely to be. When you have a writer/artist doing their own thing, the whole process in integrated in one person. The great Warner Bros. shorts didn't have scripts per se, but they were often written in a sense, and the integration between those coming up with the stories and those doing the visuals was very tight. I say there's no reason not to try going back to that model. Comments?


Anonymous said...

As a guy lucky enough to visit Warner Bros animation in the fifties, you're right about the wonderful collaboration between writers and artists. Like you, I wish we could return to that wonderful model, but with the current emphasis on commerce, I doubt this will ever happen.

Kevin Koch said...

But wouldn't it serve commerce to have better stories and richer characters in more interesting situations? The current model seems to emphasize doing things on autopilot, with results that are often less than scintillating.

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