How to Be a... | How To's | Screenwriting

How to Be an Animation Screenwriter

1 Dec , 1999  

Written by Raúl daSilva | Posted by:

Peer into the oft-overlooked craft of animation screenwriting and understand what you'll need to learn before you get started.

Good animation screenwriters are as rare as hen’s teeth just now, and far more sought after–with good reason, considering the stunning monopoly that Disney has had on the genre for the past 50 years.

For those of you who want to try your hand at animation, it’s like writing live action, but going a dimension beyond. The hopeful animation screenwriter should have a clear grasp of animation the artform and animation the commercial product, and also the industry. This means a lot of personal research, as there are no schools currently teaching animation screenwriting anywhere in the United States, at least not known to me.

My own experience in animation screenwriting is even rarer than that of the Disney writer, because it is non-Disney. It began while I was looking for a live-action screenwriting job with a large film company in the Midwest, the Jam Handy Organization. Jam Handy was the last company to hire the great Max Fleischer, the unheralded father of Betty Boop and "Popeye" (the cartoon) and the inventor of, among other things, the Rotoscope machine. As a footnote, Max Fleischer patented the live-action tracer to shortcut some of his productions (it does not produce animation), receiving patent #1,242,674 on December 6, 1916. Half a century after the fact, Ralph Bakshi ("Wizards," "American Pop") claimed he invented the tracer.

I was hired by Jam Handy because the only opening–and job offer–was for an animation screenwriter. Immediately I noted that while live action runs one minute per page of screen time, animation runs anywhere from one and a half to two pages per minute. The reason for this is the six-minute cartoon, a form that originated during the silent screen era and finally died out in the 1960s. The six-minute form gave life to Warner Brothers’ Termite Terrace, the umbrella name for all the WB animation greats known to animation buffs. Termite Terrace was actually only one of the studio cabins housing WB six-minute animators, where the likes of Bugs Bunny and company were born.

To Shtick of Not to Shtick

The Yiddish word "Shtick," a treasure left to us as part of the early 20th-century Jewish experience in New York City, means "a bit of business" in a comic scene, or an attention-getting device. As Disney used it in its wonderful Pluto cartoons, Pluto not only walks down the street, but everything in his body is also busy doing something, from his nose all the way to his tail. This is Shtick in its purest form. Shtick is what makes the difference between the live-action film (and screenwriting) and animation.

However, after learning to shtick my screenwriting, I tried to break away from it. My life’s devotion was to take animation out of the limited market it had inadvertently been pigeonholed into in the U.S.; to move it away from the standard form, where in six minutes the audience is rolling–or supposed to be rolling–off its collective seat into the aisle. I failed, but it is now, finally, happening anyway.

The idea of animation as a children’s-market-only artform was the result of the mistaken notion of nearly everyone, including executives at Walt Disney Company, who erroneously assumed Walt had created his features for children. He did not. Anyone who has ever seen any of the WB cartoons, which are deathless and still to be seen on TV and in home video, knows they were not created for children’s audiences.

Feature animation recently went wide as other studios saw the amazing profits going to Disney. Thus, finally, will come a breaking away from the limited children’s feature animation. The United States will finally join the rest of the world in accepting animation for mature audiences as well. This means the animation screenwriter of the future will not have to master Shtick. What, then, will replace it?

The new animation screenwriter, like animation screenwriters of the past, should have a deep understanding of illustration, form of expression, and mastery of the storyboard. The central reason for animation, whether in the form of a major release like DreamWorks’ superb "Prince of Egypt" or in a short film entered for competition to the Canadian Film Board, is to go beyond real-life images into a more expressive, sometimes even symbolic form. This allows more story or idea to be told than can be told by a live-action image. In this manner, the best animation of the future will take the form of great art, where artistry can be seen not just in the motion and angles of the moving images in the forefront, but in the colors, shades, tone, and textures of the backgrounds.