Show, Don’t Tell

Ed Hooks explains why too much dialogue and voice over narration can weaken your animation.

My wife loves old movies, especially those made in Hollywood during the 1940’s. I love my wife, but most of the time, I think those films have far too much dialogue, too much talking.  There is an object lesson here for animators, and it is worth discussing.

Early live action movies were, of course, silent.  The acting in them was pretty awful and overwrought because the performers were trying to mime everything.  There were too many anguished swoons and wild eyes. The fear was that, without benefit of dialogue, the audience would by mystified by on-screen action, and so the performers did everything short of sending lighthouse signals to clarify what was happening.

Talkies came along, and live action movies immediately became filmed stage plays.  That is why they had too much dialogue.  Directors had the option of recording dialogue, and so they went nuts with it, not stopping to consider that film as a medium might have its own unique aesthetic.  It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that directors such as John Ford and Elia Kazan found the power in film silence.  That was about the time that screenwriters began applying a maxim that is still used today:  “Show them; don’t tell them.”

Recently, I returned from a teaching trip to India, and I noticed the same thing there that I have seen in other eastern countries:  too much dialogue in movies, animated and live action.  I can only guess the reason for this, but it probably has to do with each country’s theatrical and cultural roots.  Whatever the reason, there is no doubt in my mind that, over time, a lot of the dialogue will go away.  It must if film industries in those countries want to be competitive with Japan and Hollywood.  All that talk simply does not travel well.

In the United States, the over-use and ineffective use of dialogue and voice-over narration in feature animation cannot be so easily forgiven.  It is an indication of weak craft, the kind of thing for which first year screenwriting students get low grades.  The screenwriter can’t figure a way to tell his story in a linear fashion, and so he starts with flash backs and historical narration.  Remember “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Treasure Planet”?  Neither of those films should have been given a green light until their scripts were improved.

New animators, when creating their first short animations, seem particularly drawn to voice-over narration. At least that is my personal impression after sitting on a number of judging panels internationally.  In an earlier post to this blog, I talked about the difference between performance – acting - and “moving illustrations”.  The use of moving illustrations inevitably is accompanied by too much narration.

Walt Disney made “Snow White” during the time when live action movies had too much dialogue.  Fortunately, he was also mightily influenced by the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, so even “Snow White” struck an acceptable dialogue balance.  Today, Pixar seems to have a better handle on the dialogue challenge than the other Hollywood studios.  “WALL-E” and “Up” both featured wonderful and lengthy silent segments.  “WALL-E” had no dialogue at all for the first half hour!

The single most referenced guide to Hollywood screenwriting is undoubtedly “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee (Harper Collins, 1997, US$35).  On page 389, Mr. McKee has this to say:

“We watch a movie; we hear a play.  The aesthetics of film are 80 percent visual, 20 percent auditory.  We want to see, not hear as our energies go to our eyes, only half-listening to the soundtrack.  Theatre is 80 percent auditory, 20 percent visual.  Our concentration is directed through our ears, only half-looking at the stage.”

And this, page 393:

“The best advice for writing film dialogue is don’t.  Never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual expression.  The first attack on every scene should be: How could I write this in a purely visual way and not have to resort to a single line of dialogue?  Obey the Law of Diminishing Returns: The more dialogue you write, the less effect dialogue has.”

When it comes to screenplays, less is more, simple is best.  Be a minimalist.  Expose character through performance; be merciless when eliminating dialogue. If you find it necessary for one character to describe for another plot developments that the audience has already seen, that is a red flag. If there is any possibility that a scene will make sense without the dialogue, then cut the dialogue.  If you practice this, you will be using film as the unique medium that it is.  Remember, stage plays are for talking; movies are for moving.  Take it to the bank.

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