No story - no movie. Here’s how to tell if you actually have a story, and if not, how to make one.
I can never forget what John Hubley taught me, years ago at UPA in Hollywood: "Technical whammy is not enough. First and foremost, your movie has to be about something!"
Even an animated film cannot escape the laws of dramatic structure. Hub recommended a book by the Hungarian* author, Lajos Egri, titled "The Art of Dramatic Writing." It was published in 1946 by Simon & Schuster, just as I was starting out in the animation profession. Fortunately, the book is still available on the internet as I write this, and very cheaply, so no excuses for not buying and learning from it. I'll attempt to distill its main point for you:
More clearly than any other book I've read about dramatic writing or screenplay writing, it explains premise - which is the core of "about something." Premise is largely misunderstood and misused. It is the supposition and line of action upon which every successful dramatic story must be based. It can be stated in just a few words, and found in every play by Shakespeare or any other great writer, and even in every Roadrunner cartoon.
When I had the task of adapting children's picture books for Weston Woods - the task of translating a book into an animation film, I first had to find the premise, what I called, "the core of meaning." Once I had this, I knew exactly what could and what could not be in the film adaptation. Whether he or she knew it or not, the author's original story, if truly strong, will have this premise. The premise tells us what the story, at base, is about, and where it's heading. According to Egri it must consist of three parts: character/conflict/conclusion. If you distill your story idea to this essential premise, you will know exactly how it will end, and how you will get to that ending. Note that the premise need not be always true. It may be questionable, but it is what you the author want to dramatically state. A good story must prove its premise.
Here are some sample premises that Egri presents:
"Blind trust /leads to/ destruction." (King Lear)
"Jealousy /destroys/ the object of its love" (Othello)
"Poverty /encourages/ crime." (Dead End)
"Great Love /defies/ even death" (Romeo and Juliet)
"Ruthless ambition /leads to/ it's own destruction." (MacBeth)
OK, that's all heavy stuff, but the same principles apply to our little cartoons:
"Craftiness /digs/ its own grave." (every ROAD RUNNER cartoon)
"Bravado /leads to/ humiliation" (Bluto in every POPEYE cartoon)
TOM & JERRY cartoons had a sort of premise, "A clever mite /outsmarts/ a larger and dumber opponent," but they were mainly just situations, with a series of attack and revenge gags, and thus were rarely true stories. It was just "David," (Jerry Mouse) usually outsmarting "Goliath" (Tom Cat), and ending when the 6 minutes were up.
You will rarely form a premise before you write a story. Story ideas can come to you in a hundred different ways. But as your idea is fleshed out, it may seem to be wandering in several directions at once. Somewhere along the line you have to stop and figure out where you're heading. You must find your premise, so you'll know how your story must end. If you want your story to ring true, you have to believe your premise. It doesn't have to be the only truth there is, but a possible — a likely truth that you can put your heart into. Even a comic film should have something to say. There has to be that core of meaning that a strong premise provides. If you can't boil your story down to these three parts: , then the story is flawed, or you simply don't know what it is really about.
Your premise doesn't have to be a fanfare, or like a camera flash. You should have enough incident, visual effect and action to dazzle your audience, but you will know it's there, and it will be your sure-footed guide to a strong production.
Your usual starting point on a cartoon film story may be a character. If you don't have one of your own in mind, maybe you'll be prompted to find one on a list such as I was given at UPA, and copied below. But for your purposes a barebones type won't be enough. The only character worth working with cannot be an ordinary anything. He, she, or it will have to be some kind of extreme, either physically, psychically, or socially. If fat, really all-out fat. If weird, over-the-top weird. If opinionated, extremely. The best characters are exaggerations!
Animation requires a magnified reality! Quite often, how a character looks will affect his or her every action. If there is a fetish, and attraction, an aversion, then that will affect action. If the character is an outcast, a social climber, or a power-player, then that will drive his or her actions.
Lajos Egri points out that if you want a really strong, and interesting character, you will have to know its physical, psychological, and social make up. When you know your character, you will know what he, she or it will do or will not do, and in your animation its actions, gestures, dialog, and facial expressions will make it clear to us what its "feeling" and "thinking." That is a real character! You will get inside the character when you are writing for it, creating its poses, or animating it. Just as any other type of actor, you will become the character.
Of course, Egri tells a lot more about character growth, development of action, dramatic construction, conflict, and resolution. But that is his book, and you should read it. I won't say that that average animation film will be as complex as a Broadway play, but in essence all the elements will be there, however condensed or stylized. Don't break your head with these technicalities when your mind is singing with a brilliant idea. Write it all down, so you don't lose your inspiration... but THEN put it to the test. Discover your premise and then trim and mold your material to fit.
One way to start is to try the "What if?" approach. "What if such-and-such a character got into such-and-such a situation?" For example, "What if a hungry dog fell through a skylight into a delicatessen?" Another thing Hub told me was about the "Moving Train." When you start your story, the "train" is already moving; events are already in motion. This gets your little movie into action from the outset. So start in action, and fill in your exposition as you go along. Right away you are setting up your conflict, the problem to be solved, the obstacles to be overcome, the complications and switches along the way to your inevitable climax and ending. (If your premise requires disaster, then you must show how the obstacle overcomes the character!)
UPA story people didn't use any automatic plot machines, or story formulas, such as are on computer programs we have today, but they did use some idea prompters to suggest a protagonist for a story. I got this list originally from UPA storyman Phil Eastman in 1948, and I've added a few modern types to fill it out. Just for fun, try it out, and see if you can work up a story with a character from this list, within the principles I've quoted.
* At UPA we were heavily influenced by two Hungarians and a Russian: Graphically by Gyorgy Kepes and his book, "Language of Vision," story construction by Lajos Egri and his book, "The Art of Dramatic Writing," and cinematic scenography by V.I.Pudovkin in his book, "Film Acting." I wish I could say that I achieved all I've written about here in my own films. I think that my failures may have been just about balanced by successes. But through it all the principles of Kepes, Egri, and Pudovkin were the bedrock standards I constantly attempted to work by.
Chapter 6: The Long And The Short Of ItNext Page
Chapter 8: Make Luck Happen!