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Animation and the Art of Action-Based Storytelling

By Ellen Besen

You're considering a move into writing for animation. After all, you've always liked animation; you have a feel for fantasy - talking animals, stuff that flies - and maybe you already have a background in live-action writing which should give you a head start, right?

Well, yes and no. The fact is, animation is more than just talking animals, and much of what makes it work is not obvious on the surface. There are a number of key components which lie at the heart of animation and one of the most important is its special relationship with action.

This relationship involves every kind of animation, regardless of technique or story content. So whether you are writing a fantasy-based script for a CG family feature or a reality-based TV show about a group of preteens who like to hang at the mall, action should play a starring role.

Remember here that we are talking about animated action. I mention this because live action is such an automatic default mode that we often slip into it unawares when planning animated projects. In fact, let's make the bigger point here, the one you really should never forget if you want to write for this medium: animation is not live action. Even when animation is imitating live action, which it often does, it is still not live action. So don't let it fool you. Of course, you can turn out a functional animated script built on the live-action model. But you'll never turn out a great animated script with that approach.

This is because animation has so much more room for exaggeration, for fantasy and for control than live action that treating it as de facto live action is like nailing a bird to a board -don't worry, it's a cartoon bird- and then expecting it to fly. In other words, this approach tends to create a structure which inadvertently restricts animated content rather than supporting it.

Of course, being aware of these attributes won't count for much unless your awareness actually influences how you write your script. So let's see how some of these qualities play out, in this case watching for how they affect the role of action. Take exaggeration, for example, a quality which grows out of animation's graphic nature and impacts every aspect of production from first concept through design, sound, editing and movement. Not surprisingly then, exaggeration also shapes the performance abilities of animated characters. Among other things, this means that animated performance needs to be amplified and simplified in order to read clearly.

What difference does that make? Quite a big one, as we shall see. Now, while I don't entirely agree with the popular live-action style which relies heavily on tight close-ups for emotional performance, a well-trained actor really can pack an amazing amount of information into a moment of stillness. Anger, mounting doubt or rising love can be shown through a subtle shift in eye focus or barely concealed hard swallow.

But for animated characters, it's a different story. Even the most sophisticated, realistic, CG characters have a limited ability for subtle facial expression; average characters have even less. So a series of head shots covering a long piece of dialogue- especially explanatory dialogue- can quickly become deadly dull. In this context, the visuals become almost entirely irrelevant.

So rather than using storytelling techniques which highlight animation's weaknesses, why not take advantage of its strengths? And where performance based on tiny facial movements may be lost or impossible to achieve in animation, body movement combined with broader facial expressions work very well indeed.

But how do we arrive at this movement-based performance? One way is by starting with action rather than with dialogue. It may seem like second nature but when you write dialogue first, action shifts automatically into a secondary role, forced to conform to dialogue's overriding need to be understood. So there can't be too much action and it can't be too fast or too demanding. And in any case, the camera angles will probably end up being the usual set of close-ups leaving very little room on the screen for action.

All this reverses when you write for action first. Pace becomes more dynamic and varied. Because there is more action, there is more demand for varied use of the camera. Both settings and the action can be more inventive and challenging. And perhaps best of all, action shifts from being little more than screen filler to an essential part of the storytelling.

So if you were writing about a disagreement between two roommates- one messy and one tidy- rather than having them just argue, you could make your scenario more specific, an important step which immediately opens up your script for action.

Perhaps, The Messy One likes to cook and the scene takes place in the kitchen. Add exaggeration and now TMO, engrossed in his cooking, doesn't even notice when The Tidy One enters and begins his rant. Adding insult to injury, TMO then begins to peel a huge pile of potatoes, rapid-fire, spewing out a continuous spray of peels which soon completely engulfs TTO.

Notice how many layers of information have been packed into this action sequence, each one compounding the next. Now we see not only TTO's anger but also its source. Then fuel is added to the fire as TTO is first ignored and then actually made invisible by the growing mess: here TMO's actions speak louder than words and the less this character speaks, the stronger he gets. Meanwhile, TTO as the sole speaker barely gets started on his rant before the pile of peels renders his voice inaudible. So much is accomplished here and all with less than half the words of the argument approach.

As we see here, once an active approach has been established, the words can be added not to dominate but rather to supplement the action. Many of our greatest animation filmmakers and writers actually challenge themselves to see how few words they need to present their stories. Once you get the hang of letting action lead the way, you'd be surprised how few words you really need.

Animated emotions themselves can also be conveyed far more dramatically by action than by words. Sent viscerally, they are then received viscerally by the audience. So rather than simply knowing what a character is feeling, the audience actually feels along with them- a truly effective way to generate audience identification for your characters.

Disney's animated version of 101 Dalmatians offers a great model for the power of action-based emotional performance, especially when compared with the later live-action version. Take the sequence where the puppies are born. In both films, this sequence begins with Pongo the dog and his trusty human, Roger, as they anxiously await the birth of the puppies, taking place in the nursery next door.

In the live-action version, much of this sequence is handled with dialogue. "Oh Pongo," says Roger, looking anxious as he sits on the couch with Pongo near by, "How come you're so calm when I'm so nervous?" We cut to a close-up of Pongo -looking, well, like a dog- then back to a close-up of Roger for more complaining and so on till the puppies start arriving and joy erupts.

By comparison, the animated version begins with Pongo listening at the closed door of the nursery while Roger sits across the room in absolutely rigid catatonia, except for the staccato puffs of smoke emerging from the pipe clenched between his teeth. Both are very alone in their anxiety.

Finally, Pongo, needing support, crosses the room to Roger and licks his hand. This sends the tightly-wound Roger flying out of his chair but also snaps him out of his locked, isolated state. Once Roger regains his composure, he pats Pongo and only now offers him a few reassuring words. At last, the pair are physically and emotionally connected and able to draw comfort from each other, in stark contrast to where this sequence began.

So why is the action-based version more effective? First, it's more entertaining. Roger's performance, which includes his stylized smoking and the moment where he almost becomes airborne, is the visual heart of the sequence. It is a lovely illustration of just how effective combining realistic performance with exaggeration can be.

But more important is the emotional impact generated here. In this, the dialogue-driven, live-action approach simply can't compete, especially when we remember that actions, generally speaking, don't lie.

When live-action Roger says he is nervous, we only have his word for it. In fact, we don't really know if he is nervous or not and nothing else about the performance seems to back up his statement. But when animated Roger jumps out of his chair, like a tightly drawn bow which has suddenly been released, we know with certainty exactly how tense he is, no further explanation needed.

It's worth noting that the action in this example is not particularly exotic or wild. Exciting action sequences have an important place in animation, of course. Think here of our kitchen scene or more exciting still, Buzz Lightyear caroming around Andy's room, trying to prove that he can fly. Many of animation's most memorable moments are solidly based in big action and animated scripts have to make room for such sequences for this kind of magic to happen.

But action based performance is also about smaller emotional moments- like Dumbo being cradled in the crook of his imprisoned mother's trunk- and these are often best accomplished with simple actions. A movement across a room or a holding of tension followed by its release, customized to suit the character and context, can indeed speak volumes.

So when you write your animated script, keep the potential for action very much in mind. TMO already engaged in making a mess before TTO even enters the scene; Pongo and Roger shut out from the birth but also physically separated from each other: these are the kind of beginning points which set the stage for the creation of excellent animated performance and therefore overall more successful production.

Exercise

Take the roommate scenario and rework it in various ways, each time using a different physical strategy to set the stage for action. Think about exactly who these characters are, where they are and what is the nature of their problem. Leave room for action not only in your concept but also in your physical set up. For example, does your scenario work better in a smaller room or a bigger one?

And remember that this is animation so your scenarios can range from subtle exaggeration to full blown fantasy and your characters don't have to be human. The roommates could be your basic tidy guy and messy guy OR tidy guy and messy superhero always breezing in to change into his costume leaving dirty work clothes all over the place OR tidy sparrow and packrat magpie OR tidy vacuum cleaner and messy chainsaw, etc.

Meet the Author: Ellen Besen

A former faculty member of Sheridan College’s School of Animation (1987-2002) and infamous workaholic, Ellen Besen studied animation at Sheridan and has been working in the field for over 35 years. 

Highlights of her career include directing award-winning films for the National Film Board of Canada, broadcast work on the topic of animation for CBC Radio, and film curating for such organizations as the Art Gallery of Ontario. Her films have been shown in multiple international festivals and at such institutions as MOMA, and her film analysis workshops are featured regularly at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. 

She has ...