Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

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.

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Story: The Greatest Cartoon Writer Of All Time

Warren Foster

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. In support of his argument, he presented video clips of Walt Disney and Walter Lantz discussing the qualifications of the people who wrote their cartoons. (See also, Page 5 of the 1938 Disney Training Manual).

typewritertypewriterThe scriptwriters in the comments dismissed John K’s points as old fashioned and irrelevant to the current scene, while expressing respect of a general sort for the classic cartoons of the past. They claimed that it was just a matter of John’s personal tastes, not a reflection on the effectiveness of the process itself. They never seemed to address the fact that prior to 1960 stories for cartoons weren’t created and developed with words in script form- they were drawn. In listening to these arguments by current cartoon scriptwriters, I began to wonder how much they really knew about the process used to make the classic cartoons they expressed respect for. I posed a simple question…

Who was your favorite golden age cartoon writer?

It’s a fair question- one that I’ve heard animators discuss and argue about on many occasions. Surely current cartoon writers would have golden age writer heros, just like animators study golden age animators like Milt Kahl or Grim Natwick

Disney Story Dept

Disney story man, Joe Rinaldi

But none of the scriptwriters participating in the discussion could name a single golden age cartoon writer. The only names they could mention were other current scriptwriters, or novelists, journalists and live action screenwriters who worked in totally different media. They had no idea who pioneered their profession and the process these people used to create cartoons for nearly half a century. To be fair, this sort of ignorance of the history of our craft isn’t just limited to writers. I’ve heard the same sort of admissions of ignorance from producers and directors, as well as artists and animators.

Here is an example of a story by my favorite golden age story man… Warren Foster.

Warren FosterWarren Foster Warren Foster is responsible for writing many of the greatest cartoons ever made… He started as a gag man on Fleischer’s Popeye series in New York, and moved West in 1938 to join Bob Clampett at Warner Bros. He wrote a string of classic cartoons… "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs", "Birdy And The Beast", "Falling Hare", "Baby Bottleneck", "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery", and perhaps Bugs Bunny’s most shaded performance, "Tortoise Wins By A Hare".

After Clampett’s departure from the studio, he wrote for McKimson ("Gorilla My Dreams", "Easter Yeggs", "The Foghorn Legorn") and Freleng ("Ballot Box Bunny", "Bugs And Thugs", "Birds Anonymous"). Freleng said that Foster was the best story man he ever worked with. In the TV era, Foster wrote episodes of Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, The Jetsons and The Flintstones.

Here is a storyboard by Foster from his days at Hanna-Barbera. This is a model of clarity and simplicity, designed to meet the stringent economics imposed on TV animation at the time. This is a board from the pilot episode of The Yogi Bear Show.

Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster
Warren Foster

WHAT ABOUT ADVENTURE SHOWS
AND COMIC STRIPS?

In his article, "Detour Guide For An Armchair Marco Polo", master comic strip storyteller, Milton Caniff writes…

There has been a tendency recently for artists to automatically assume they cannot write their own stories because they see so many double by-lines. I contend that any man who can invent pictures can invent situations and dialogue. In fact, it should be easier for the artist to pilot his own action because he is not likely to write himself into one of those undrawable dilemmas in manuscripts about which illustrators have complained for years. –Milton Caniff

Sound familiar?

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

Animated CartoonsAnimated Cartoons

This posting is part of the online Encyclopedia of Cartooning under the subject heading, Animation.

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

Online Screening: STORYTELLING

Storytelling Screening

STORYTELLING
Event held February 21st, 2015 at 7:30pm
Sponsored by The Animation Creative League
Animation Resources Screening Room in Pacoima, CA

One of the most concentrated form of writing is the short story. In just a few pages, the writer needs to get across character, atmosphere, action and tie it all up at the end with a satisfying conclusion. Sound familiar? Animated shorts have the exact same goals in mind.

For those who missed our program, here are YouTube links to the films we screened. We are looking for donations to purchase lights and video cameras for our screening room. The goal is to be able to live stream our events. If you would like to contribute to this project, either monetarily or through technological assistance, let me know at sworth@animationresources.org.

"Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You" by M.R. James (1968)

M.R. James was an academic at Cambridge and Eaton. He was a renowned scholar with expertise in Medieval manuscripts. To entertain his students he wrote a ghost story for them every Christmas. These ghost stories are among the most famous short stories in English literature. James was a living contradiction. He lived through the industrial age and World War I, but at heart, he was a Victorian with a fondness for Britain’s distant past. This adaptation of James’ “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” clearly reflects that dichotomy. The lead character is a rigid minded man of science who comes face to face with an ancient horror.

There are several interesting techniques in this teleplay… the use of non-verbal under the breath muttering similar to Popeye cartoons, and “micro-gags” which pepper the whole introductary section of the film. Micro-gags were used a lot in Disney features, they are amusing secondary actions which are not the focus of the scene, but serve to reveal the personality of the character in an amusing way. Here, they are skillfully used to bring the viewer into the lead character’s world and point of view. But while we are distracted by the micro-gags, the real point of the story is going on in the shadows, just out of sight. It’s a brilliant touch by the director Jonathan Miller, and it acts like a magician’s misdirection to keep us occupied while something big sneaks up on us. This is one of the greatest British television programs ever aired. Enjoy!


Click here to view “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You” (1968) in full DVD quality.

"The Signal Man" by Charles Dickens (1976)

Today, when we think of Charles Dickens, we don’t normally think of him as a writer of ghost stories, but think about “A Christmas Carol” for a moment. He wrote many eerie short stories, and is widely considered to be the father of supernatural fiction. Before Dickens, ghosts in literature were primarily vague shadows of Kings and Queens that existed in ancient times, but Dickens was the first to place his ghosts in his contemporary Victorian times. It’s a tribute to how effective he was at this that we still set many ghost stories in the 19th century.

Take a look at his story, “The Signal Man”. Dickens not only uses real everyday people as the lead characters, but he bases the whole story on the most modern technology of the day… railroads. This would be like setting a ghost story today on the space shuttle or on a jet airliner. Yet Dickens uses our fear of technological catastrophe to heighten our fear of the unknown. This story may not seem so much like it today, but for its time, it was a great example of “thinking outside the box”.


Click here to view “The Signal Man” (1976) in full DVD quality.

"The Hitch Hiker" by Roald Dahl (1980)

Roald Dahl was quoted as saying that he labored more over a short short story and it took longer to write than a novel. Distilling atmosphere, character, conflict and resolution into a few short pages took months of writing and rewriting. Because of this, he rarely wrote more than one short story a year. But the ones he wrote were absolute gems. In 1979 he adapted all of the short stories he had written into a British television series titled “Tales of the Unexpected”. This is one of the best episodes from that series.

When George Clayton Johnson, writer on Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” spoke to us at a Creative League meeting last year, he said that the way he approached writing was to come up with two characters, each with their own diametrically opposed argument and point of view, to create a conflict. But he didn’t want the audience to be able to pick a side. Each argument needed to be perfectly balanced in opposition with the other, so the audience’s sympathy alternates back and forth between the characters. Here is a drop dead brilliant example of that. In addition, the direction the story is going is revealed in perfect little glimpses, until the truth is finally revealed. Dahl was a superb storyteller with a great sense of timing.


Click here to view “The Hitch Hiker” (1980) in full DVD quality.

I hope you will view these films with your co-workers and fellow artists and discuss the techniques that you are able to glean from them about story construction and pacing. Feel free to discuss it in the comments section of our events page on Facebook…

Storytelling Event Page
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