It’s quite possible you are writing, or at least have an idea for, something that would make a fantastic animated film and you don’t even know it.
I’m developing an animation project and in doing so was looking at some other treatments that I did long ago. Once upon a time, when Disney Feature Animation was at its Zenith, the development team would hold ‘gong shows’ — they were basically pitch fests and I don’t recall anyone actually getting gonged – but facing Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg (before his Diet Coke kicked in) at 7 a.m. was enough of a nerve-wracker. Anyway, as a result I have a handful of projects that I did not submit there – because no matter one’s level of contract, when you work there they own your ideas in perpetuity – even if they don’t develop them.
Going through my stories, I couldn’t help but think about the guidelines of how they chose films to pursue and how they don’t hold water today (they only slightly did once upon a time). Aside from the who-you-know and what-you’ve-done factor that goes on inside the big boy’s walls – the biggest factor was ‘if it would be too difficult to create the world in live action, it should be animated’. Obviously, for a long time talking animals were actually more relatable when drawn – instead of morphing lips on real animals – and then the fur and compositing tools got better in computer rendering programs so films like BABE broke new territory and feature animation went through a radical change where many 2D artists found themselves on the wrong side of evolution — more on this in super bonus #2 below.
I can’t even guess how many writers over the years have asked how to break into writing for animation and I always tried to steer them away from it – because it was a closed system.
Today, with other producers looking for animated films, managers looking for clients that have this type of family material (hence my developing project) plus this past week’s impressive box office for THE NUT JOB* and all of the ‘cartoon networks’ out there – there is actually more room for animation writers, but here’s the thing –
Does it matter? Ask yourself this question first and foremost – do you want to write an animated feature that relies on slapstick formula peppered with underwear and fart jokes? (There’s nothing wrong with this btw – it’s a market and if you can fill it, you will make money and laugh, a lot). Or, do you want to tell fantastic stories, set in imaginary worlds that are universally appealing and have longevity like the classics of the Brother’s Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, Frank L. Baum, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, or J.R. Tolkien?
If the second is your passion, then you are not writing for animation and maybe not even children. Surely, if you are a fan of these authors whose works have been adapted for stage and screen countless times, then you know the ‘animated’ versions of their beloved tales are quite different than the originals they wrote. If you were unaware of this, a quick online search will bombard you with the details – here’s a recent one: http://huff.to/1mC9Ssc
What does all this mean? If you answered yes to the first question, good news – a lot of production companies are looking for smaller (budget) stories that can be a success like this past week’s THE NUT JOB. Plus, with Amazon Studios, Netflix, Hulu et al – there are new, brand-name distributors in the mix and Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers and more have writing fellowship contests much like the prestigious Nicholl. In other words, the Internet (and beyond) is your animated oyster.
If you answered yes to the second – here’s the deal… Feature films within the Disney (and majors – Blue Sky, Illumination, Pixar, Dreamworks) environment are ‘decided on’ within that small, who-you-know / what-have-you-done, world. Just as FROZEN – based on the classic tale THE SNOW QUEEN — had been in development for ages, was originally pitched by a revered Disney veteran. Often what happens [there] at this stage of ‘yeah, let’s make it,’ a script will go out for an open writing assignment — where agents and managers will get their clients up for consideration. That writer is then brought into the story department world and pages are written as boards are created – and often – songs written. It is a back and forth team effort and I’ve seen story artists and writers go head to head – if the writer isn’t particularly well known the story department often wins.
Super 1st 10 page bonus: DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST 1st 10 page breakdown!
Before I get into super bonus #1, I encourage you to check out the documentary WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY. It not only gives a rare behind the scenes look at the intricate development process of a Disney animated film, it has some fantastic backstory on getting BEAUTY AND THE BEAST made.
If you enjoyed SAVING MR. BANKS – WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY is a true-life account of creation that is way more engaging. And I liked SAVING MR. BANKS.
Onward: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST breakdown —
PG 1) The prologue as written in this draft, is much longer than what was created for the film. If you compare the two you will see just how much detail there is in the script that the prologue actually works much better without. Its purpose is to set the stage for Beast’s curse – and that is all.
You will see that it’s written as being an ornate storybook book which transitions to full animation. What was produced was the equivalent of storyboards in stained glass (a fantastic treatment btw)
The major change in the writing of the prologue from script to screen, is something that I believe was coined by Angela Landsbury as ‘the best segue in film – ever’. In the film version, at the end of the prologue – the narrator simply states, ‘for who could ever love a beast,’
CUT TO: Belle’s introduction on page 2.
Here you will see what basically stayed the same – because it was a song. But read the lyrics very carefully and you will understand not only the incredible story acumen of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken but also some fabulous lines of subtext and set-ups that absolutely pay off – and not always in song.
If you decide not to watch WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY, let me explain that Howard and Alan were an anomaly in Disney Feature Animation – they were brilliant storytellers, musicians and lyricists who got some of the blockbusters greenlit. They could be thinking to themselves about doing a [stage] version of a classic like ARABIAN NIGHTS, bang out a tune on the piano and take it to the animation studio in that raw form and get a promise to go – no treatment, no script, no character arcs etc. Other musicians tried to replicate this magic like Phil Collins in Tarzan and ELTON JOHN in THE LION KING. And while they came up with chart-topping soundtracks – they didn’t have the innate story and subtext sensibilities Howard and Alan as a team did.
Do all classics need songs written for the script? The answer is, it just depends. Linda Wolverton had the songs from Howard and Alan, which is a great advantage to writing the screenplay. Other writers did not, THE LION KING was a story that ‘went up on the blocks’ so many times and had almost as many directors and producers before it congealed – the Elton John’s songs came much later. Hakuna Matada was almost the last sequence conceived and created. So before I get off this digression – the point is if you read the lyrics in BEAUTY they nearly read as dialogue, so unless you’re a Broadway lyricist – that’s what you want to strive for in your writing (sans chorus). If you don’t want to write a musical story (which is often done in animation to cover a lot ground quickly) then write quick action and dialogue that will do just that.
Back to the script: Belle’s song goes on through page 9 but it is intercut with actual dialogue very effectively.
Pg 3) by now we already know that Belle is smart, independent, and considered an oddball – but here is where she proclaims she wants ‘more than this provincial life.’
Pg 4) is a perfect example of Alan and Howard at their best – Belle is at the fountain reading her book (the same one she’s read a billion times) and she’s enthralled because it’s the part ‘where she meets prince charming – but she won’t discover it’s him until chapter 3.’ This perfectly mirrors what is about to happen to her, yet it’s slid in as another character in an unknown book – in the bridge of a song – leading to…
Pg 5) a perfect false start/segue – by now the audience is hooked and thinks they have this segue thing all figured out so when Belle’s line about prince charming cuts to Gaston wanting to marry Belle – what twist they get when they see what a pig he is…
Pg 6) we get the pig’s proclamation that he will do whatever it takes to marry Belle – we just don’t know yet that he’s the villain.
Pgs 7 and 8) gives us a summary recap of who Belle is and how any ‘average’ girl would love to marry Gaston.
Pg 9) Belle and Gaston meet up – and Belle couldn’t care less.
Pg 10) we get the first hint that everyone thinks Belle’s dad has a screw loose and that Gaston has no intention of righting that wrong.
Now, for your bonus x2 – the file attached is of the first 14 pages – I accounted for the chorus and the extra long prologue, which didn’t make the final cut as to what actually comprises the first 10 minutes on screen.
Pg 11) we meet Belle’s father and his profession and see Belle’s genuine love and concern for him.
Pg 12) Dad is off to prove he’s not crazy and get his invention to the fair – and he’s lost already.
Pg 13) the creepiness escalates and Maurice’s fragile mental state does come into play. The danger of the grounds surrounding the castle is established.
Pg 14) Maurice cautiously goes toward the castle as enchanted décor are introduced – Note there is very little description written, they are written as characters named after accessories (not vice-versa).**
Pg 15) Maurice enters the castle and the enchanted elements are introduced in full.
**This is important to note because this is where the story artists get involved in script battles – they are most often the ones that come up with the personalities through visual staging and gags and at the same time, visual development artists are hard at work determining what they will actually look like – mantra here: detail beware.
How does the original Beauty and the Beast differ from the animated version?
Disney stuck to the core premise of course, but the catalyst of Belle’s father changed considerably as did her main antagonist by adding Gaston. The original (linked above) is fairly short and spends a considerable amount of time with Belle’s family – she has brothers and sisters that she doesn’t fit in with as opposed to the town’s people. Her being made a single child makes her sacrifice to her father needing no explanation. So, as done with the prologue from script to screen; so was done with the original from page to script, the backstory was cut out and or simplified drastically.
Another big change from script to screen was the choice to cut the Human Again song sequence. It was decided (after it was animated) because of feedback from a test screening. Reading the script it’s clear to see that the story momentum wanes here, so it’s surprising that it got as far as it did. (If you want the full script shoot an email and I’ll send it off.)
Let us not forget that Disney’s animated tale was the first animated feature to get an academy award best picture nomination – this was before animated features got their own category. I’m on the fence with that decision – the whole point of ‘best picture’ is the best story on screen – no matter what tools or style was used to create it. After all, most live action features have much more visual effects than most people realize – visual effect created by the same level of talent that creates a fully animated feature. It’s only a matter of time before the academy buckles to the VFX protests and creates a category of best picture with use of visual effects (which would by the way, leave nothing but smaller independent fare vying for the live action best picture nod.) Just maybe that would be a good thing.
* As I complete this, a sequel to THE NUT JOB has just been announced. Why? Well market awareness and box office results aside, the thing with these 3D animated films (and I don’t mean 3D projection) is, that once the character models are created much of the production work is done so it makes sense to just put the rendered creations in another story instead of reinventing the production pipeline. Which happens to set up a nice segue to super bonus #2!
HERE is a link to a pitch treatment the wildly creative Chris Sanders did for Disney’s LILO AND STITCH. A little backstory – at one time Chris was one of those internal darlings at Disney who could easily get the heads of development to listen and usually buy into any story idea. Lilo was his baby – he loves anything Hawaiian and really wanted to tell a story set there. As a pitch document this doesn’t veer too far from what was produced – both in style and tone – but again this is a rare occurrence in the animation studio world. The Lilo and Stitch story could have been a live action family film with the alien aspects done as VFX – it could have been a 3D animated film or a hybrid of live action and any type of animation – because the premise is universal enough… Two sisters struggling to stay together after the death of their parents until the youngest adopts what she thinks is a dog – and the alien pet ends up redefining what family means to them all.
However, Chris wanted this hand-drawn with quirky lines and a soft water color style. This ultimately makes the story even more intimate and the island life less distracting than if it were live action or CG animated – a stylistic choice that supports the story. Sadly, the production bean counters having to answer to stockholders have all but killed 2D animation as a choice of styles for feature films.
The things that changed in LILO AND STITCH can be seen in the DVD but the beginning middle and end stayed. I used to tease Chris when working on MULAN, that he was so engrossed in the process because he didn’t know the ending and yes, the screenwriter was in the office next to him – but as head of story and a Disney vet – he and his crew were relied on more to make it work than the writer. MULAN is another story based on an old fable that was greenlit without a script – so it was in production before it was completely written.
So, is it possible you are writing an animated blockbuster and don’t even know it?
At the end of the day it comes down to story and it is up to the studios and creators to tell their stories using the tools and style that is best suited to that particular story, at that particular point in time. More to the point – if it is impassioned and well written on the page, it can be adapted to any style – and if it’s done many times over, it becomes a classic.
UPDATE: Shortly after I wrote this Jennifer Lee, the writer of WRECK IT RALPH and FROZEN was a guest on Scriptnotes with John August. Well worth a behind the scenes and candid look at writing a feature animated film: http://johnaugust.com/2014/frozen-with-jennifer-lee
UPDATE #2: To the point exactly — particularly the person who left a comment about genre.: http://www.deadline.com/2014/02/oscars-animated-film-best-picture-frozen-despicable-me-2/