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"It's all about the story,"?

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"It's all about the story,"?


I'm not trying to start another argument - and if Mister Mankind posts in this thread, please let's just ignore him. I'm just curious to hear what kinds of opinions are out there on the matter.

If it has always been "all about the story," do you feel that, even at the best of times and in the most successful animated films and programs, the stories have actually been all that great? That is to say, what's your opinion of the best, worst and total sum of what animation has typically offered in stories to date? This is considering "story" as a distinct quality from "story-telling," which is a much broader term encompassing many other aspects of film-making.

Like I said, I'm just curious. My only aim in posting this is to read your thoughts on the question.

Yes, its very true that more than a few of the stories than end up on screen have not been all that great, but our jobs are to do something with the stories we are handed.
Even the lamest plot can be served better somewhat by appropriate staging, cutting, pacing etc.

In an animated cartoon, the story ( or the script) really tends to just translate to a dialogue track. Just a bunch of voices that supposedly carry the weight of the story's message. Voice-tracks are usually considered set in stone ( seeing that they can be a hassle to do re-takes. The tonality given in an actors performance is usually what you have to work with.

Now, even with that, there's some leeeway.
Having done storyboards for a long time, I know and understand that a so-so show can be made into a pretty snappy show at the 'board level ( and/or butchered if it goes to sloppy/lazy layouts and animation) because that is where most of the visual thinking is done for the story.
If it works there, it should, by rights, still work after its animated.

The stories are just a vehicle in most shows--most are neither good nor bad--they tend to be just there. This is because MOST stories are not aimed at US, adult viewers, but instead aimed at children. Dramatic pacing is largely lost on kids because they have little congitive experience with it.
This is why older TV cartoons tend to be a cacophony of noise with a vague semblance of a simple plot.
As lot as the message is simpleand the points that sell that message easy to understand--the story succeeeds.
Not everything is going to be Spirited Away or Iron Giant---simply because it does not need to be.
Like it or not, a great deal of North American cartoons are simply 22 minute advertisements for toys. The thrust of these kids of shows is to create scenarios with the characters that ideally showcase the toys in a dramatic or interesting way.

Yes, they do invoke pathos and drama and thrills on the meantime, but let's not kid ourselves here; the end-result is going to be used to form assocations that create play-patterns for the kids with the toys in their hands ( or to hook the kids who do not yet have the toys into buying them).

That aside, some shows are better at it than others.

There's no "story from Jesus" thing going on here. The overall story theme of the series can be treated as standalone episodes or vaguely or directly linked/serialized episodes, made soley on the whims of the producers and the licensor. This can be an arbitrary choice because some licensors and broadcasters do not care if the final work is serialized or if it can be broken up and broadcast as filler.

Really though, in the trenches, our job is to address the needs of the story in hand.
Years ago, while on the DIC Action Man, I was handed a script from the director who told me sheepishly that "it wasn't very good". It was written in a rush to meet the writing deadline and then handed to me to 'board.
I was given the magic phrase: "see what you can do with it".
Now, that statement effects a kind of carte blanche to fix things--within limits.
As a 'board artist, I cannot re-write the entire story or toss out the entire plot thrust that script offers. What;s in hand gives me my framework to work within.

Looking over that story (episode called "R.A.I.D.) it introduces Action Man's dog, but the initial act gives the whole story away. I realized that if a single paragraph was removed, and a couple of words in a line of dialogue were changed then the story worked better with less of a giveaway.
I showed my changes to the director, and he said "run with it"--and I 'boarded the thing as usual.
A couple months later, I got a phone call from the director (who was also the studio owner) telling me that the producers loved the story, thought is was the best episode done yet.
Aw shucks...but the compliments aside....all that was done was applying an understanding of story and removing a/adjusting a few things.

Story is the key here. There's no such thing as the "story from Jesus"--because what we get handed is what we have to build off of.

Everyone in the early parts of the process needs to look for the seeds of entertainment in the work. If that means exploiting pushed expressions, or actions, or ad-libbing some material to flesh out something more, then so be it.
Those things are not plot points in and of themselves, but they are bits of business that reinforce the ideas inside the plot.
Ideas are cheap, but the right ideas can be gold and we never really know which ideas work best until they are drawn out and place into the thread of the story.
Only then can we tell if a gag invokes a laugh or falls flat in context with all the stuff around it.

Keep in mind that when one talks about a "good story" they are actually talking about good moments within that story. Few people like a story from the opening phrase to the closing period--they like and associate with key bits of business in the story, parts that give them specific feelings at certain times.

Iron Giant is a lovely story, but one of the scenes its rests on is when the Giant is soaring up into space, uttering the final word " Superman" just as he closes his eyes. If you know the movie, you know why that moment makes people choke and tear up.
That's what we remember and hold dear to our hearts.

That's what story is all about.

"We all grow older, we do not have to grow up"--Archie Goodwin ( 1937-1998)

Yeah, what he Ken said. :D

I agree with most of what Ken said. Mostly. While I agree that moments are key to a story, I think it’s the build up to that moment that makes a good story.

I have to say when I’m talking about story, I’m talking more about features than I am about half hour TV episodes.

I feel that in films there is usually one or two key moments in a movie. This is usually the moment the main character makes a his or her critical self realization, or the main plot of the movie is realized. Marty McFly traveling back to the future, Luke putting all his faith into the force to blow up the Deathstar. Mr Incredible finally admitting his weaknesses to his wife Elastic Girl in the Incredibles. The Giant choosing to make the ultimate sacrifice in The Iron Giant. Two in Beauty and the Beast, when Beast finally learns to love and releases Belle to rescue her father and then when Belle returns to the Beast and realizes she loves him as well.

There are many movies that have the same or similar moments. But what separates a good story from a weak one is that the good ones successfully makes the audience care about the characters. The whole story builds up to that one or two moments, and if the audience doesn’t care about the characters, there isn’t that big of an emotional impact when that moment hits.

Brad Bird does this great in the Incredibles. Despite the fact that that Bob Parr has super powers, the audience is able to easily relate to him. Bob had dreams and aspirations from his youth, and feels like he’s being held back by the everyday mundane things of a boring job and the responsibility of family. That is probably about 98% of the world. So you draw the audience in. They like the fact Bob’s getting back in shape, and regaining some of his glory days and gets to be a super hero again. People think yeah, if I get back in shape, I could play football or soccer or baseball again. In essence regain their youth like Bob. But then in an attempt to regain his youth, Bob almost looses his family, and then realizes that his family is what is really important. If the build up and audience to character bond isn’t successful, you won’t care very much about his realization and confession to his wife and family.

Yes, like Ken said, story isn’t just about writing. It’s a total group effort with staging, designs, acting, score voice acting and everything. Through every step along the way, all artist plus it as it gets to them. But if there isn’t this build up through out the entire film the story will fall flat. It’s the difference between having a good movie and a great one.

At least that’s my take on story.

The Ape

...we must all face a choice, between what is right... and what is easy."

Hey, Ken and Ape,

Thank you very much for putting "story" in perspective for me. You helped me out a little.

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Hey, Ken and Ape,

Thank you very much for putting "story" in perspective for me. You helped me out a little.

To me, story isn't hard. What is hard is the intuitions about what resonates with an audience in a story--what makes the story meaningful and memorable.

This is where a lot of the soul-searching an "writer" makes has to come into play. We have to separate ( or at least clarify) what makes a storypoint mean something personal and broaden that into meaning something universally. I think this is were most stories trip up in their execution--they fail to relate adequately on both levels.

We choke up when the Iron Giant leaves because we've seen the friendship build between him and Hogarth. We know he cares a great deal about his human friend, and we know that Hogarth returns those feelings. When the Giants sacrifice comes, it moves us deeply because we can see and feel it comes from deep noble sentiments of love and heroism. He acts not only for Hogarth, but for everyone in the town, and does so selflessly.

Jon Silver softens up to Jim Hawkins ( Treasure Planet), but the relationship still reads as tenuous. Silver is still a "bad guy", still driven by personal ambitions, so when he helps Jim in the climax there's still this element of uncertainty about his motives--I did not feel completely sold and so his turnabout didn't read strongly to me.
When Silver sails off at the end, my feelings are: " Well, he helped the kid, but it's probably not going to be a good thing to meet up with Silver again".
Not to demand a fully happy ending and that all characters be totally good in the end, I felt unsatisfied because Silver didn't seem congruous to me.

Stitch starts out as mischieviously spoiled and persecuted. A bit bewildered by Human culture he's unsure of anything around him until he reads the story of the ugly duckling. Then it become clear that his agrressive nature is really a shield against being found out to be sensitive--a weakness that his enemies would exploit against him. Once WE ( the audience) realize he's really emotionally tender inside his character shifts to one that is more compassionate, so much so that he's more than willing to help Lilo any way he can. He can maintain that duality from then on, because WE know the truth, and thus that dual nature sells because its consistent from then on.

Those three examples are all bits that took a lot of specific effort to build up.
If you look at those particular sequences in their respective films and acknowledge that my interpretations work for you, then go back earlier into those films and see just what the creators did to address those key points.

In all case, the route to those sumations wasn't linear ( I think), but instead were a kind of "wavy" path.
We see the characters veer one way and then another in terms of motivations and aims, so we are never fully clear until the final piece of the puzzle comes into place.
This is part of entertaining in story. It cannot be tooe asy to figure out, or too hard to follow. The choices of the characters and circumstances must seem natural.

When I watch Titan AE, throughout the story I keep expecting to see The young heroes dad at the climax---but he never shows. Based on how the story evolves, it FEELS like a natural expectation, and a natural pay-off--but we do not get it and I feel let-down because of it. The story ends up ringing a bit hollow because its less satisfying then it could have been.
Yet, I wonder if that kind of resolution would have been too pat?
Titan is full of those kinds of incongruous moments--one being a sequence of space dolphins. The heroes have to get to another location in a hurry--there's a time-critical event at play--and yet the story pauses for these characters and their ship to play with the space-dolphins as they travel.
Again, that struck me as incongruous.

Now, if that was a "mistake" then its up to it being a common feeling amongst other viewers--something that we storytellers need to be conscious of.
That's the kind of intuitive thing we need to look out for.

"We all grow older, we do not have to grow up"--Archie Goodwin ( 1937-1998)

When I look at animations I want to see the extremes; lifted into another world. There are more mundane animations, but it’s not what you would call great or ever become a classic. Animation to me shows what can not be possible in a plausible way.

Take Beauty and the Beast. It’s been done countless of times in all sorts of media. The story is set in stone, but the Disney version could only be done in animation. I mean where else would you find talking/dancing cups and candelabra etc? This is where animation is at its best – telling stories that you could never have believed unless it unfolded in front of your eyes.

Arty animations are all very well and good, but will you go back time and time again to watch it? It’s the story, even if well trodden and tired, that makes an animation, but only if they bring something new to it that you can love.

It's not all about the story.

Many of my favorite cartoons are driven more by character, visuals, or gags (slapstick jokes), and less by story.

Looney Tunes are driven almost entirely by gags and explosive personalities. There's hardly a story to speak of in that series (moron chases wise-guy; the end), but it's probably the best stuff that's been produced.

Other cartoons that depend little on story but heavily on the other traits (character, visuals, gags) include The Simpsons, Family Guy, most Miyazaki movies, Beavis & Butt-Head, just about everything on Adult Swim, nearly every Golden Age cartoon.

Of course, it all depends on how you define "story". If you define it as storyline, yes, then you're right, not every production is driven by storyline. If you define story as entertainment, then you're totally wrong, because no one wants to watch a boring movie. There has to be some spark of audience participation in each of the scenes in your movie.

Other cartoons that depend little on story but heavily on the other traits (character, visuals, gags) include The Simpsons, Family Guy, most Miyazaki movies, Beavis & Butt-Head, just about everything on Adult Swim, nearly every Golden Age cartoon.

Most of these are all situation comedies, but they still have a start, middle and conclusion – traits of a story. There is also continuity between episodes, except when you have the singing and dancing shows with the odd seasonal episode.

Road Runner has the same story every show, just a different way to get from A to B. Stories can be simple or complex, but it has to be there.

I'm not saying that cartoons don't have stories, just that they're usually less important than other elements: character, gags, visuals.

A cartoon with a brilliant story, but dull characters and bland visuals, is boring and forgettable.

A cartoon with the same simple non-story (e.g., cat chases mouse), but brilliant characters and visuals, is exciting and wonderful.

A cartoon with a brilliant story, but dull characters and bland visuals, is boring and forgettable.

A cartoon with the same simple non-story (e.g., cat chases mouse), but brilliant characters and visuals, is exciting and wonderful.


To me, while the story is a VERY important aspect, I think that the characters need to be strong enough to carry that story as well.

A film can have a good story but if the characters are underdeveloped and boring they will not hold that story up.

However, if a film has a thin story but the characters are interesting and the audience can relate to them, they can carry the story on it's own.

Take a movie like... Napoleon Dynamite. The story is pretty basic and goes all over the place but the characters, especially Napoleon himself, are interesting and you can relate to then. And the way the story is carried out is funny and well done.

So yes, story is important but I think characters are just as, if not more, important.

This is what I think is great about studios like Pixar... the story is great and the characters are great. They keep a balance between a great story and great characters.

Nethery-Ramsey Productions
Animation and more!

"We make the movies we want to watch, because nobody else is making them," -Randy S. Nelson, Dean of Pixar University

-Member formerly known as Spoooze!-

I've read the Robert McKee book STORY, then later bought the audiobook CD (it started out as a seminar, and I actually like the audio version better) and while I disagree with some of what he says, he does stress the basics of storytelling. This part comes from the basics that go back to Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, etc.

Anyway, there is a need to combine character and story if you're going to hold an audience's interest for a long period of time. In the seven or eight minute theatrical shorts, it wasn't so important. Short form is structured more like a series of jokes-- set-ups and punchlines lines going off like a string of firecrackers. Avery, Tashlin, Clampett and Jones were all very good at generating suspense. But it was the suspense of a set-up. This is the form most animators understand.

In a sit-com, you add a lot of mannerisms, but characters change gradually over years if at all. Especially in animation. I think Maggie Simpson has been an infant for about eighteen years, now. Sit coms are more collections of gags that become funnier because we know the characters.

In a feature, there's a constant process of the characters making decisions, their actions having unexpected consequences, and driving them to make bigger decisions/actions. This changes them internally, creating a character arc. Empathy is more important than sympathy. It's not that important to like a character, but it's important to identify with what they're going through, and with their reactions to it. Pace has to be created by scene structure, which tend to vary between positive and negative climaxes while building to the end.

To me, The Incredibles is the most successful animated feature to date for reasons that have more to do with story than animation technique-- though that was very impressive. Most classic-era Disney features are very technically impressive, but tend to be too saccharine. The cuteness in them is so gratuitous that it becomes a form of pornography. I also don't understand the mandate that modern animated features have to be musicals with songs by semi-retired pop stars.

Most animators don't read scripts, and couldn't tell you what a story beat is, so wouldn't really get them if they did. They're too busy trying to "make connections" and pad out their demo reel. They grandstand like the worst kind of over-actor on any minor scene. But it's basically their job to help sell a product that deep down everybody knows isn't very good.

Most animated features and shows are rewritten by committee, and aimed at eight year olds, so they tend toward mediocre crap. So I guess reading the scripts would just be kind of depressing, anyway.

It's just funny to hear people who wallow in this crap all day come home and talk about how important story is.

It's just funny to hear people who wallow in this crap all day come home and talk about how important story is.

Probably because the "crap" is the same its been since we were all children watching cartoons in the 80's, 70's, 60's.
Those same impressions survive into adulthood and the same memories fuel the ideas held to today.
Stories drove that product then, and they drive the product now--and they demand the same considerations (then and now) whether its "crap" of not.
If anything, the stories today are a lot more sophisticated than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

The aim remains, as always, to make the work a bit better than before. Sometimes that succeeds, sometimes it does not.

"We all grow older, we do not have to grow up"--Archie Goodwin ( 1937-1998)

I think it's a matter of relating material to the life experience.

Characters can be brillantly designed and wonderfully animated, but if what they are doing doesn't appeal or have meaning to the audience it's all fluff.

I can't even remember the name of the Sci Fi 3d animation where a bunch of overarmed militants fought aliens. The first few minutes were beautiful you could see every pore and whisker on the characters. The eyeballs even had detailed irises, but I can't remember anything more than that.

But I remember Dumbo and Bambi.

Pat Hacker, Visit Scooter's World.

You're probably thinking of Roughnecks, phacker. It was a series based on Starship Troopers. And you're right, it was great to look at, but the stories and characters weren't very memorable.
I pretty much agree with what's already been said: Story's less important for television than it is for feature. You need a good story to keep people interested during a 2 hour feature, but you need memorable characters to keep people tuning in every time for television, and that's animated or live action. I can't think of a single (good) television show that's story first and character second.

Phacker, I think you are selectively blocking out the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Sorry to bring that trauma back to your life. ;)

the Ape

...we must all face a choice, between what is right... and what is easy."

Phacker, I think you are selectively blocking out the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Sorry to bring that trauma back to your life. ;)

the Ape

That's the film, thanks Ape! It was tech-wise brilliant, but no story. And for those of you that extract characters from story, you can't have a story without characters, that's the failing of most modern drama and literature. character development, by animators or film, for that matter. They can dump a great story by misinterpreting and miscasting.

South Park et al lives because we learn to identify with certain characters, each character isn't more advanced or developed than the others. No character is more animated than another.

Character is part of story, but the artistic development/identy, personality of a character cannot carry a story alone, it can overpower and kill a story, and it has.

How many times have you seen a movie, the plot was ok but you just didn't care? Lately that's been most of them for me.

Pat Hacker, Visit Scooter's World.

So simply put, I'd have to say the writers paint the picture, we only interpret. Let's give them their due...why not? They have a role. They develop the characters, the conflict, the timing actually.

Pat Hacker, Visit Scooter's World.

I can't think of a single (good) television show that's story first and character second.

Action shows/movies like anime and superheroes (Iron Giant, Incredibles) rely more on story than comedies do.

South Park is one of the few comedies I can think of that relies more on story and dialog, and less on personality, visuals, and gags.

Broadly we can say that story relates more to Feature Films/ Movies, and episodes more to TV serials. Am I right?

The movie needs the suspense of a story to sustain interest. And TV series is more about small stuff since the audience keeps moving and can miss a plot if it is complicated and then may lose interest.

A TV series needs to live for a long time so it is more about repetition. So you need innovative staging for same stories everytime. I still have not told my story! - Vineet Raj Kapoor

When I talk about story, I'm not just referring to plots.
To me, character, music, lighting--the whole gamut of what hits your senses in a film is about story.
The ultimate aim of story is to give you an experience, to entertain you.
If the plot needs to be simple, so that character can be strongly emphasized, then THAT is serving the story.
If the situations need more clarification and require interesting twists and turns in favour of establishing more motivations, then that is serving the story.
Even the ads for a movie play into this, because they create expectations for the audience.

A plot can be simple, but it can be contrasted by fairly complex characters and interactions. In a comedy, a complex plot only confuses the gags so stories need to be simple to put the gags over. In a action set, the plot tends to take more precedence because the characters motivations drive the circumstances and thus the situations.
Everything needs to serve what the end result is supposed to be: what the audience experiences and how they react to that experience.

"We all grow older, we do not have to grow up"--Archie Goodwin ( 1937-1998)