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The Animation Script

Jean Ann Wright continues her series of articles on writing for television animation. Writing the animation script is her topic this month.

Jean Ann Wright.

Before You Sit Down to Write

Writing an animation script is like directing a film. But SpongeBob doesn't demand that his trailer come complete with a hot tub and a giant rubber ruddy duck. And Marge Simpson doesn't keep the crew waiting while her makeup staff frantically camouflages the wrinkles she forgot to botox! In a live-action project the director decides what to shoot and later edits. There is no need for this kind of expensive editing process in animation. Animated scripts are usually written shot-by-shot with the writer listing each shot, or at minimum all the important ones: CLOSE SHOT ON GINGER, ANOTHER ANGLE ON ARTHUR. There are exceptions. Animated features and CGI shows are usually written in master scenes: INT. THE CASTLE - DAY, just as you'd write a live-action script without specific camera shots. A few studios use only master scenes in their animated TV scripts as well. No matter how it's done, the job of the storyboard person, who follows, is to improve upon your script in any way possible, so expect changes in your shots. Break up your dialogue with action. A standard animated script has no more than three blocks of dialogue at once. An average of two or three lines of dialogue per block is about normal. But each show is different. Ask for a sample script. Discuss formatting. You may be able to download a script template. In any case you must know technical requirements: whether your script needs to be submitted on disk, if you must use a specific word processing program like Microsoft Word, or a specific typeface. Follow the format of the sample script exactly. For example no story editor has the time to change all your character names from lower case to upper. Normal page format is about 52 lines of a standard 12-point font (like Courier), centered on the page top and bottom (with about three quarters of an inch more margin on the left). Pages are numbered in the upper right corner. Most studios want character names typed in caps when they first appear. Some studios want a character list on a separate page.

The fabulously low-maintenance star of Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants series. © Nickelodeon.

Working with the Story Editor

Follow all story notes exactly. These notes could change your story substantially from the outline. Perhaps broadcast executives required changes, other subsequent stories have made these changes necessary, or your story editor has thought of something better. If you've had a fantastic idea that will improve your story, discuss it with the editor first. He wants the best story you can write, but you already have approvals for THIS story. If you're writing a script for a game, technical aspects have already been worked out. The story editor will have to weigh the improvement with the practicalities of a change. Get a page count for your completed script. Ask for a deadline and be sure you stick to it! You may have only about a week to write your script.

The First Draft

You'll want to write your first draft straight through. Keep length in mind as you write, estimating page count by the ratio of script to outline. It's better to write a little too long and cut to tighten, than not to write enough. Save the editing until the end. The first page has to hook you! Even descriptions should be interesting. The first scene must be strong, funny or high action, never exposition. Every scene should have a grabber opening, a middle, and an end. Each scene should have a purpose that's accomplished as simply and economically as possible, advancing the plot, adding to the pacing, telling your story in a way that's entertaining and unique, adding something that's fresh and unexpected. Write with magic and wonder. Set a mood. Write with passion! Provide an emotional experience, putting the senses into play. Establish attitude, using dialogue, mannerisms, body language and stage business. Give your viewers a few moments that they'll remember...and they better belong to your star! Be sure to explain everything at the first opportunity for the executive readers and the artists that follow, even if it's to be a surprise for the audience. Design your set with style, using an economy of words. Add camera directions, picturing what the camera sees. Choreograph your action and your camera movement, but do it simply without breaking the budget. Know what can be done economically in a traditional 2D show and what can be done in a CGI show. Is there stock animation or stock backgrounds that the producer wants used? Can complicated action happen offstage and still be effective? To stage for the budget:


MOUNTAIN PETE Look out! It's an avalanche!


A few rocks fall into the shot.


One rock hits Clueless Chuck on the head.

In this low-budget version of an avalanche, little animation is needed. But our imaginations supply what we don't see.

Even with regularly soiled smocks and scuffed shoes, the Powerpuff Girls manage to look good and stay under budget on wardrobe. © AOL Time Warner.

Be Practical! Keep Up the Pace!

Set the stage well first. Know the room. Make the most of your props. The action must work for the layout people and the animators that follow. Break up the action and increase the pace with cuts. They keep the story moving. Individual scenes should be very short, especially for TV. Action. Reaction. Try to add only the kind of effects that show uses. Ask! Add sound effects, special wipes, special music, etc. as needed. Most studios want all sound effects written in caps for the sound editor. This is your first big use of dialogue. Every line should work to build the story. Use the essence. Keep sentences short. Use strong verbs. Make it flow, but don't make your sentences so smooth that they lull you to sleep. If there's a sign, be sure that one of the characters reads it out loud. Young kids can't read, and international viewers may not be able to read English. Follow the gag ratio of that series, or ask if you can write more. Exaggerate! Visual, not audio, gags work best in animation, especially in an international marketplace. Or is this a series with lots of smart dialogue? Build your gags, milk them, and top them. Did you set up expectations...then spring a surprise? Repeat a gag only if you can do a twist. Timing is everything! Friz Freleng, one of the Bugs Bunny directors, is reported to have timed his gags to a beat. He'd get a rhythm going and then break it for the surprise. End with a bang and a gag!

Your Final Draft

Are your characters true to who they are? Are they likeable? Is your villain really bad? Are relationships true to the series? Is there plenty of action and suspense? Is everything crystal clear? Smooth transitions. Be sure that nothing is too subtle to animate or see on a small television screen. If something bothers you, then respect your instincts and cut it. Cut the extraneous. Cut the philosophy, then the adjectives. Tighten. If you still have too much, try cutting off the beginning or the end of a scene. Check spelling and grammar. No typos? Nothing that standards and practices will cut? Then you're done!

Jean Ann Wright has been teaching animation writing and development since 1996 and currently teaches for Women In Animation and The Animation Academy. Recently, she started her own consulting business. She's 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.