This month, Jean Ann Wright outlines the elements that make a successful animation scene. Get in, get out, and make it snappy!
What Is a Scene?
Remember that sweeping scene of African splendor in the opening of The Lion King where all the animals arrive from near and far to pay homage to the new royal cub? A scene is a single event or conversation between characters, occurring during one period of time and in one single place, that moves the story forward toward a climax and resolution. One event, one period of time, one place!
Planning Your Individual Scenes
Okay, you may have already roughed out your scenes in an outline. But now you need something right on the mark with focus and polish. Consider these:
What will this scene accomplish? Scenes may have a main point and a couple of minor points. Each really important bit of plot information in your script probably requires a separate scene.
Whos in this scene?
Where does it take place and when?
Whos driving the scene? (Usually its one person or animal, but it can be an inanimate object or even an act of nature.)
What do they want? Whats their attitude?
Whos putting up obstacles? Why? What does this person want?
Is there subtext, people talking around a problem or hiding it?
Are people being direct in what they want or indirect?
Where is the tension or conflict? Tension can also be created by conflict already established earlier or what we anticipate might happen next.
What happens in this scene? How does it move the story forward and add to the audiences understanding? Each scene should change the status quo. The hero should be closer or farther away from his goal than he was at the beginning of the scene.
How does this scene reveal character and motivation through each characters behavior?
Does the scene have a catalyst or inciting incident at the beginning? (Usually, scenes do.)
Does new information come out in the middle, spinning it off in another direction? (Often, scenes do.)
Does the scene build to a climax?
How are you going to make it funnier or more dramatic?
Stay away from the clichés and easy solutions. Do the unexpected. Add a twist. Scenes normally depend upon action, rather than dialogue. Use complications, obstacles and sudden reversals. Use character relationships, subtext. Whats happening under the mask? (But remember that subtext may go over the heads of the preschool gang.)
Where To Start and End Your Scene
Although scenes usually have a beginning, a middle and an end, you can choose to cut off any one or two of these to make your scene more effective. The beginning or ending of a scene is often unnecessary, and the scene is better without it. You want to come in late and leave early, cutting off any exposition or filler that isnt absolutely needed. You only need the essence. And in comedy you need the gags! Individual scenes can be as long or as short as is necessary to tell the story and fit into the pacing of the whole. But young children have a short attention span. Short scenes with lots of action, gags and characters that are kid relatable help to keep your script on track. Once youve made your main point, the scene is over. Nothing should be extraneous!
The Opening Scene
Often this is a gag scene in a comedy, a scary action scene in a mystery, a character-developing scene in a feature. Usually, beginnings and endings of scripts have some relationship to each other. For cartoons its best if this opening scene can advance the plotwith the staron the first page. In a shorter cartoon we want to know what the star wants, who opposes him, and what terrible thing will happen if the star doesnt obtain his goaland we want to know it right away. What does the star have to face and how is he handling it? In a feature you have more time to develop character and set mood in the opening scene. We must like your characters well enough to take this journey with them and root for them to win. Grab the audience in the opening scene or they wont stay around for the rest of the story. A teaser or action opening keeps the audience glued to their seats. Series like Rocket Power and Jackie Chan Adventures often have action during or even before the opening credits. And get into the story right away. You can fill in any missing pieces later.
Each scene should be visually interesting and never talky (unless this is specifically a talky animation series). Plot points should be made visually. Show, dont tell! Cut anything that wont keep the kids rolling on the floor with laughter, sobbing into their Kleenex, or sitting on the edge of their seats with their mouths gaping like a farm boy at his first sighting of alien crop circles. Cartoons should be funny all the way through; even the adventure stories usually have funny scenes and a general sense of humor. Put in all your motivations. Whats the motivation of the story in general? Whats the motivation of the star and the villains? Why? Add complications to these motivations for both. Why does the witch need her brew right now? How does the ghost appear? Inquiring minds want to know! Give your hero difficult choices. Add powerful imagery and symbols where you can. Where a scene takes place can affect mood. Keep descriptions to a line or two. Each scene should be easily understood by the viewers and by others who work with the script (executives, production crew, etc.). Avoid complicated visual ideas, subtleties, unknown objects or actions where a lot of explanation is necessary. Adding complications to the plot doesnt mean adding complications to confound the viewer. Be clear. Remember to let one of your characters read any signs you might have, as your international viewers may not be able to read English, and the younger kids may not be able to read at all.
Fitting the Scenes Together
Normally, one scene should lead us into the next. An action in one scene can lead to a reaction in the next. At the end of the scene you want your audience eager to find out what will happen next. An image or sound at the beginning of a scene can remind us of an image or sound from the one we just saw. Each scene fits into the rhythm of the whole. For overall pacing action scenes may need to be broken up with a quiet character building scene or a comedy scene, especially early in the script. Vary your scenes and your sequences of scenes. Vary locations. Vary shots. Go back and forth between action and character insight, comedy and action, the negative and the positive. Vary scene lengths. Vary pace. Look at your scenes. Would they be more effective rearranged in another order, or would it be better to combine some of them? Use your best storytelling instincts to make your story compelling, moving, action filled and funny! Build to a big climax. Then tie up the loose ends, quickly. And leave them giggling with a gag!
Jean Ann Wright has been teaching animation writing and development since 1996 and currently teaches for and The Animation Academy. Recently, she started her own consulting business. Shes sold her writing to DIC, Filmation and Hanna-Barbera. She enjoys serving on the Los Angeles board of Women In Animation and judging for the Emmys and the Annies.