Sunday, September 11, 2011


In 1927, while preparing shorts Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie, one of the first animated films 
with synchronised sound, the Walt Disney studio invented the storyboard, a form of writing in pictures, similar to comic book panels.

The storyboard quickly caught on and now most live action films are boarded as well as written.  Looking at the example, you can see why a storyboard has many advantages over a written script. With a few expert lines the highly specialised storyboard artist not only indicates mood, expression, intent, dialogue and movement but also body language, camera angle, camera moves and type of shot. A drawing is worth a thousand words that a screenwriter could, very often, not even imagine. Storyboard artists are really writers and masters of animation language: the exaggerated flexibility of characters, the eyes popping out on stalks, the jaw dropping to the floor, the double take, the swirls, lines and little puffs of smoke that indicate speed, the sad-eyed, shoulder-slumped dejected expression, the leap of exaltation. 

A writer could use words to explain all these things but words are open to interpretation, whereas a drawing tells you exactly what’s going to happen on the screen. Visual thinking is one reason why there were 29 "writers" on LION KING and it worked; most of them were artists and animators who knew their stuff.

When screenwriters were hired to work on animated features, there was a great deal of friction between directors, storyboarders and the writers. The writers felt they were working on inferior material, animation being held in a certain amount of contempt by the literary establishment, especially Hollywood screenwriters and they were indignant when their stuff was thrown out and radically revised by storyboarders and directors who knew exactly what they wanted and had quite a bit of contempt of their own for hoity-toity literature and writers who wanted to intellectualise animation.

 Here's Chris Sanders' famous, thinly veiled, beautifully illustrated story: The Big Bear Aircraft Company, on the subject of writers and animation.  Chris has moved on to direct the wonderful Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon which both have his inimitable connection to the audience, unwriteable and undrawable, a personal magic.
    Animation has grown a lot technically since then, but not much intellectually; it’s still considered a jokey medium exclusively for children. A few adventurous feature films have proved that it’s not. Animation is a medium and a medium can be used to express anything.   
    Maybe prejudice on both sides could move aside so animation could evolve and expand and Disney, who does animation better than anyone's, could consider developing what they’re good at instead of doing mediocre CGI*, recycling old stuff in 3D and considering a sequel to Roger Rabbit in CGI and mocap, shudder.

PS April 2016 - *Disney has, of course, since moved on to make breathtakingly excellent CGI films like FROZEN and ZOOTOPIA, even more reason to consider doing an animated feature for adults.


John L said...

There are certainly good writers and bad writers, though I think it's often the executives who really make a mess of things. They'll bring in new writers if they think a film is going in the wrong direction. And the big studios are under so much pressure to deliver a blockbuster, they don't want to take chances.

If smaller studios could get the funding to do feature films, I think we would have a whole new animation landscape, where writers and artists could roam free (creatively speaking!)

Nora Lumiere said...

The obsession with profits has dumbed-down movies, both live-action and animated, to the point of obliterating any creativity. I'm tired of hearing how scared producers are of losing money; The Weinstein Co. is a good example of how judicious choices can pay off too. You just have to know what you're doing.
We need more producers with guts to get innovation and creativity back into film (and I don't mean 3D!). Free-range artists and writers can get very self-indulgent, they need a good director for a good result. A producers' job is to hire good directors, good writers, good artists and stay out of their way.