November 20th, 2014


Story: Writing Cartoons Pt 3- Structure

Cartoon Story Structure

Individual gags, created at the initial story meeting
are gathered together. The story man creates an outline
to begin to work these unrelated gags into a continuity.

When we left off in our series of posts on cartoon writing last time, the initial "No No Session" had generated a pile of unrelated thumbnail gags on a basic premise which were starting to lead to the beginnings of a rudimentary plotline. Today, we’ll explore how the cartoon writers brought structure to the story and began to flesh out the continuity in preparation for the storyboard artist to begin work.

In the mid-1930s, Disney story sessions were transcribed by secretaries and widely distributed among the staff. All of the employees, from the directors all the way down to the janitors, were invited to submit gags to the cartoon being developed. The only stipulation was that the gags had to be drawn- not written down. Walt and the story men sifted through the doodles and stick figure drawings to find inspiration for little bits of business that they might not have thought of themselves. If the gag was usable, the employee was given a dollar bonus. If the gag led to a sequence of gags, they were paid five dollars. Here’s a typical "dollar gag" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs…

Cartoon Story Structure

In an interview many years later, Ward Kimball recalled that he would supplement his income by generating "dollar gags" in his spare time… His ideas were almost always used, but he soon discovered that he could get five times as much by simply attaching a "butt joke" to the end as a payoff. Inevitably, the "fanny gag" would appeal to Walt’s unique sense of humor, and he would choose Kimball’s gag as one that might lead to a sequence of gags- Bam! Five bucks!

Kimball wasn’t the only artist who knew Walt’s preferences when it came to gag ideas… Here is a short sequence of story doodles by Les Clark. This "butt joke" was created for a sequence that was eventually cut from Mickey’s Grand Opera (1936)…

Cartoon Story Structure

Clark is beginning to see an individual gag as a series of actions that relate to each other. His thumbnail sketches suggest enough for a storyboard artist to begin to tighten up his poses, focus the action and define the staging.

THE OUTLINE

As soon as the gags started to come into focus as a basic plotline, the story supervisor would begin arranging them into a logical progression, formatting the embryonic scenario as a written document in outline form. The outline was the equivalent of the "first draft script" for an animated film. But it didn’t include dialogue and descriptions of actions the way live action scripts do. Instead, it defined the structure, continuity and intent of the action.

STRUCTURE

In preparing the notes for the storyboard artist to work from, the story supervisor began by establishing a structure to the gags. It was important to clearly define how the story broke down into sequences and how each sequence broke down into individual gags, because the storyboard artist most likely would not be boarding it in chronological order. The artist often drew up the payoffs to the storyline first- it was easier to create a strong setup when he knew where he was going to end up. The outline helped determine the breaks in the story, so the artist could work in an order that made sense for him.

Here we have an outline from Altruists prepared by Ren & Stimpy story man, Richard Pursel. John Kricfalusi’s director’s notes and doodles for the main setups appear in the margins…

Cartoon Story Structure

Notice that the document begins with the statement of the premise, and is broken into sections defining the beginning, middle and end, as well as the sequences which fall within those sections. The structural detail goes all the way down to individual gags.

Cartoon Story Structure

The line breaks make it easy for the storyboard artist to cut up the outline with scissors and pin the individual story beats up on his cork board as a placeholder for action he hadn’t boarded yet.

John K recently shared this outline for Stimpy’s Invention on his blog, All Kinds Of Stuff

Cartoon Story Structure
Cartoon Story StructureCartoon Story Structure
Cartoon Story StructureCartoon Story Structure

Read John K’s detailed explanation of this outline.



CONTINUITY

The second element that the outline defined was the continuity- the basic flow and logical order of the action. The storyboard artist would receive the doodles from the "No No Session" to work from, so there was no need for detailed descriptions of action. As the old saying goes… "A picture is worth a thousand words" and nowhere was that adage any truer than in cartoon writing. Story artists were accustomed to working from thumbnail sketches, and they could extrapolate the essense of a gag better from a quick sketch than a whole script full of fancy prose.

Here we have an outline for The Return Of Duck Dodgers In The 24 1/2 Century by Mike Maltese, one of the greatest cartoon writers who ever lived. Although this document is from very late in Maltese’s career, it clearly shows his creative process. This particular draft is a transitional document. Maltese had already begun boarding when this document was drafted. The first eight sequences and sequences 18, 19 and 20 appear to include dialogue transcribed from the finished storyboard. The middle section, however is in raw outline form, with very basic descriptions only intended to remind him of which thumbnail gag drawing went where in the continuity. As the storyboard developed, these notes would be updated with dialogue, transforming the outline from being a structural document to being a dialogue script, ready for the voice actors to perform.

Cartoon Story Structure
Cartoon Story Structure
Cartoon Story Structure
Cartoon Story Structure

If one looked at notes like these out of context, without the knowledge of the visual devolopment that preceded it and the purpose this document serves to the steps that follow, one might mistakenly assume that the story is being written in words. But nothing could be further from the truth. The words merely serve to organize the drawings. The storytelling is all being devised visually.

INTENT

The third, and perhaps most important thing that a storyboard artist required from the notes prepared by the story supervisor was the intent of the action. The cartoon had a purpose, which was stated in the premise. The beginning, middle and end of the story all had purposes as well. If an event in the beginning set up a payoff later in the story, the storyboard artist would need to be made aware of that.

The stories for cartoon short subjects generally broke down into a beginning, (which first established the characters and then the situation they found themselves in) variations on the theme of the premise in the middle of the cartoon, (referred to at Warner Bros as "blackouts") and the "topper gag" and resolution to the situation which formed the end. Every individual gag had to serve the purposes of the sequence it was a part of- all of the parts worked together to tell the story.

In our next installment on cartoon writing, the stage has been set for the storyboard artist to begin blocking out the action and establishing the cinematics…

Cartoon Story Structure

You won’t want to miss the amazing examples of thumbnail boards that I’ve unearthed!

A SIDE NOTE: I’ve recommended it before, but if you haven’t seen the DVD of The Unknown Chaplin, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy. The process of writing for animated cartoons grew out of the way slapstick comedy shorts were written. In fact, several animators and cartoonists served as gag writers for famous comedians in their younger days. This DVD breaks down Chaplin’s creative process and shows you exactly how his films were written. The program that deals with Chaplin’s masterpiece, City Lights should be required viewing for storyboard students at every animation school.

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

This posting is part of an online series of articles dealing with Instruction.

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November 19th, 2014


Instruction: Writing Cartoons Pt 2- A Continuity Emerges

Valiant Tailor

When I was beginning to draft this series of articles, I remembered a folder of thumbnails that Grim Natwick’s family gave me. The folder was labelled "Valiant Tailor Gags". I thumbed through the drawings several times over the years, but I only looked at the drawings individually- I didn’t look at them as a group. I pulled the folder out this week and upon closer examination, I discovered that the drawings formed a clear record of a gag session from 1934. This set of sketches is particularly important because it shows how the gags were created, how they evolved and grew as the artists discussed them at the story meeting, and how they found their way into the continuity of a finished cartoon.

Iwerks Staff 1935

The basic premise of this sequence is… The King is being chased by bees. He dives into a lake to escape them. The Giant arrives and harasses the King. The Tailor defeats the Giant and saves the King. Grim Natwick directed this cartoon, and his notes appear on the drawings in red. A check mark indicates that the gag is approved for the film. A question mark indicates that he isn’t sure where to use it yet.

Here are some of the gags that the staff of the Iwerks Studio came up with for this premise. At the end is a Quicktime movie of the complete cartoon, so you can see how these plans were realized in the finished film.

Writing Cartoons

William Hamner suggests a gag where the King is swallowed by a whale and is shot out his blow hole. (Since the character design hadn’t been established yet, Hamner draws the character as Otto Soglow’s Little King!)

Writing Cartoons

An artist named Hudson elaborates on Hamner’s basic idea, adding a tail flip to the end.

Writing Cartoons

This gag suggests that the King be underwater, hiding from the Giant. The Giant tries to catch him like a fish with a gold watch as bait.

Writing Cartoons

Underwater, the King uses a looking glass as a teeter totter.

Writing Cartoons

The Giant blows on the water and a passing octopus offers him Listerine.

Writing Cartoons

Ed Friedman suggests a gag where the Giant breaks a limb off a tree and uses it as a boomerang.

Writing Cartoons

Another variant on the broken tree branch- The Giant uses it as a straw to drink the lake dry.

Writing Cartoons

Several unrelated gags: The King runs out of the lake with streams of water from his crown. / The King is poked in the butt by a sword fish. / The Giant gets honey poured on his head. / The King is stung by bees on the patch on his butt.

Writing Cartoons

The Giant runs from a swarm of bees and stumbles over some wagons.

Writing Cartoons

Grim suggests a gag where the Giant takes a header into the dirt, plowing the ground in a furrow.

Writing Cartoons

He attempts a topper gag with a farmer using the Giant to plow his field.

Now comes the really interesting part! Here are Grim Natwick’s thumbnails showing how he takes the random gags and works them into a rough continuity. The drawings are very rough. You might want to print them out so you can compare them to the finished film.

Writing Cartoons

  • (32) The King enters scene and does a trout dive into the lake to escape the bees. We pan with the soldiers as the pursue the Tailor and chase him up a tree.
  • (33) The King bobs up and down in the water as the bees circle in a repeating cycle above him.
  • (34) A thunderous laugh is heard in the distance. The Giant steps over the crest of the hill and takes a few steps over them.
  • (35) The Giant scares the soldiers away. He looks at the King and laughs. The King ducks.
  • (36) The Giant blows on the water and throws a stone at the King.
  • (37) The King reaches up into the tree and grabs a branch. The Tailor jumps to another branch.

Writing Cartoons

  • (39) The Giant uses the branch like a gaffing hook, reaching to catch the King with it.
  • (40) The hook at the end of the branch catches in the patch on the King’s butt.
  • (41) The Tailor sees what is happening and ducks into a hole in the tree. The camera pans down the outside of the tree to its base, where the Tailor crawls out of another hole.
  • (42) The Tailor sneaks past the Giant and runs off screen
  • (43) Dissolve to: Interior tailor shop. The Tailor grabs a jar of honey.

Writing Cartoons

(44) Exterior Tailor Shop: The Tailor runs down the street with the jar.

  • (45) Dissolve to: The Tailor diving back into the hole in the tree trunk.
  • (46) The Tailor, standing on a high limb of the tree, drops the honey jar.
  • (47) The pot of honey dumps all over the Giant’s head.
  • (48) The King comes to the surface of the water as the bees go after the Giant.
  • (49) The Giant runs from the bees. He shoves his head in the dirt to escape them. He runs through a barn and a church over the hill and into the distance.
  • The sequence went from here to the storyboard stage, where the action was defined better and the gags were plussed. Watch the film and see how it came out…

    Writing Cartoons

    The Valiant Tailor (Iwerks/1934)<
    (Quicktime 7 / 7 minutes / 18.5 megs)

    The next article in this series will show how the structure of cartoons became more sophisticated in the mid-1930s, and the development of organizational tools that made that possible.

    Stephen Worth
    Director
    Animation Resources

    INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

    This posting is part of an online series of articles dealing with Instruction.

    Posted by admin @ 11:53 am

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    November 17th, 2014


    Instruction: Writing Cartoons Pt 1- The Gag Session

    Writing Cartoons

    Disney Studios

    If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably daydreamed about going back in time to be a "fly on the wall" at a golden age cartoon studio. Imagine getting the chance to witness how your favorite cartoons were written and see the twists and turns they took from initial idea to finished story. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely to happen. But we can find out an awful lot about the process used to write classic cartoons by looking at the scraps of paper left behind by the great artists who wrote them. I’m going to do just that in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

    The specifics of the process of writing cartoons in the classic era varied a bit from studio to studio and from time period to time period. Like every other part of the production line, there was an evolution as experimentation led to the development of more effective techniques. But the general outline of the progress of a story from raw idea to boards ready to put into production didn’t vary all that much. I’m going to show you some specific examples that illustrate these general concepts in the hopes that you might come away with a better understanding of how cartoons were created.

    Writing Cartoons

    Warner Bros.



    THE GAG SESSION

    The idea for a cartoon would start with a simple premise- a few sentences that described the general theme of the cartoon. For example… "Porky is a bullfighter." or "Mickey, Donald and Goofy are ghost exterminators." In the premise there would be no real attempt at describing details of the plot, just a simple statement of a situation or series of situations that might offer entertaining possibilities.

    Writing Cartoons

    Premise for a 1930s Barney Google/Snuffy Smith cartoon.

    Once the premise was chosen, a group of artists would be called together for an initial gag session to come up with ideas. At Warner Bros, this meeting was referred to as a "No No Session", which meant that no one was allowed to say "no" to any idea- all suggestions were fair game. At this stage, the gags were generally isolated variations on the basic theme of the premise, with no attempt to put them into any sort of continuity or plot. The goal was to come up with funny situations that could be expanded upon and reworked into something more specific further down the line.

    Writing Cartoons

    Terry-Toons

    The artists would sit with pads and pencils or lap boards, jotting down notes and doodling up thumbnail sketches of what the ideas might look like. The sketches might be pinned up on a cork board so the other artists could work gags off if it. One person would be responsible for taking notes for the group, so after the meeting was over, the story man could go back and refresh his memory of a specific gag. As the doodles and notes piled up, certain themes would form, gags would lead to follow up gags and build to "topper gags". A continuity would begin to take shape.

    EXAMPLES

    The notes taken at early story meetings were usually for the artists’ own reference, so the sketches were loose and the notes were scribbled down quickly. This makes them quite difficult for the layman to read. A certain amount of deciphering is required. At the bottom of each example, I summarize the contents of the notes. You might want to print them out. It’s easier to study them in a hard copy than on the computer screen.

    Here are story notes from an unmade Fleischer Screen Song cartoon from the late 1920s. Based on the song, "Mysterious Mose", this premise was shelved and revived a couple of years later as a Betty Boop cartoon.

    Writing Cartoons

    It appears that a little bit of development had occurred by the time this document was created, but not much. The lyrics are typed out with lots of space for drawing out the action between each line. The character of the piano player is to be in live action, while the moon and the cat are animated. The first page refers to the location of the beginning of the song on the bar sheet and indicates that a scene of the moon on the second page should be moved forward to this page, to allow the cat to be the focus of the shot the second time up.

    Writing Cartoons

    The notes say that the second shot on this page should be focused on the cat, and he should jump from this scene cut to the next scene for the bouncing ball sequence.

    Writing Cartoons

    Here we have all the lyrics of the song, and a quick outline of the sorts of gags the artists should come up with for the bouncing ball section of the film. By the end of the meeting, the director would have a stack of gag drawings to choose from. In the early days of animation, the story process was very informal, and the individual animator was often expected to flesh out the specifics of the action in his scenes on his own, co-ordinating with the animator of the preceding and following sequence on the hookup between sequences. Dave Fleischer was known to add gags all the way up to the animation stage.

    There aren’t a lot of doodles on this next document, which dates back to the Charles Mintz Studio around 1934. Some gags are indicated by just a few terse words. This probably means that these notes were accompanied a pile of drawings, which the story man was trying to order into a basic continuity. The action has been divided into seven segments, each one representing approximately a minute of screen time.

    Writing Cartoons

    The First Segment shows a circus parade arriving in town. A drum major disappears into his oversized hat; a french horn player pops out of a tuba to take a solo; a team of horses pans through pulling a street sweeper behind, a lion cage is propelled by the lion’s own legs- no wheels; and a polar bear drowns in an ice wagon full of melted ice.

    Writing Cartoons

    In the Second Section the parade continues. A clown in a horse costume sticks his head out the tail and gives the crowd a razzberry; a clown jumps through a paper hoop- but it’s actually a Chinese gong; a parade of elephants- each one smaller than the one before- ends with an elephant so tiny, a clown has to use a magnifying glass to see it.

    The Third Section includes a giraffe whose neck extends to eat the fake fruit off the hat of a lady in the crowd; a fat lady riding a hippopotamus wagon, and a gorilla who plays the harp on his cage bars, then escapes and kidnaps a girl. He snatches her up to the house tops.

    Writing Cartoons

    Part Four: The circus performers attempt to rescue the girl. A tightrope walker walks on telegraph lines to reach the ape; a man is shot out of a cannon and the ape socks him in the nose; the ape perches on the top of a building and bees buzz around him like the airplanes buzzing King Kong.

    In Part Five, an elephant shoots peanuts at the ape like a machine gun as an organ grinder’s monkey dances on the rooftops.

    Writing Cartoons

    Part Six: The ape scares a flagpole sitter away from his perch and replaces him on the top of the pole. The organ grinder monkey cuts down the pole, gives the ape a big kick in the ass and marches him away.

    Part Seven: The ape sees his reflection in a mirror and makes faces. The reflection swats him. The ape, who we expect to act like a he-man, acts like a pansy instead. The parade marches off into the distance as the ape rubs his sore ass from where the monkey kicked him.

    Writing Cartoons

    In the next installment of this series on Cartoon Writing, I will show you a batch of sketches that document a story session at the Iwerks Studio in 1934.

    Stephen Worth
    Director
    Animation Resources

    INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

    This posting is part of an online series of articles dealing with Instruction.

    Posted by admin @ 3:48 pm

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