An animation is a dance. It is an art of motion, captured through a filmmaking lens. The greatest animations combine this wordless storytelling of dance with the cinematic language of film. Understanding this is the first step in becoming a great animator.
Writing for animation is, at its essence, similar to writing for live action. Plot, characters, tone, pacing, perspective, and all the other concepts taught in scriptwriting are still crucial. Yet animation is not a genre, it is a medium. So we must take a step back and think about how we tell our story.
When you move between mediums (books to comics, comic to film, film to animation), you must ask yourself what are the advantages of each medium for the story. For example, in novels the reader gets to visualize the world however he or she wishes. For animation, that advantage is that anything you can imagine, you can create.
As the writer, ask yourself why a story should be animated. The obvious, and easiest, answer is everywhere: talking animals and inanimate objects with personalities. There is nothing wrong with these answers, in fact some of the best films use this answer. But looking deeper, there is a more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding and powerful, answer.
Animation allows the writer to abstract complex ideas and themes into simple imagery. Emotion can be given character. Very real stories can exist in an experimental place.
The recent film Inside Out is a great example of this theory: breaking down the human mind into original imagery and characters, then using the visual language established by the film to explore depression and mental illness.
Training ourselves to think and write like this is not easy. However I have outlined exercises which will help us get started. These are not rules, they are merely suggestions.
1. Write a story without dialogue.
New writers tend to use dialogue as a crutch. In animated shorts, it is almost never necessary. If you really feel a character needs to speak to get across the story, leave the dialogue in and when you’re finished writing, go back and cut it out. Think of new ways to communicate visually what the character is saying. There is always an answer.
This leads us to my second point…
2. Do not over-exaggerate everything.
Without dialogue, it can be easy to fall into the trap of making all the emotions of the characters the max level every time. The problem with this approach is that while it can be comedic, it leaves no room for character growth. Worse, your audience will not believe the character is real in anyway, which is the goal of animation: to give life.
3. Always dig deeper.
Create a web of themes and visuals that relate to your story, and keep brainstorming until you find originality. Remember, no matter how talented the writer, they first thing he or she will think of is the cliché, then the opposite of that cliché, which is still a cliché. What we want to do is find that third option, something completely unexpected.
4. Keep trying.
Writing for animation can be frustrating since it is a visual medium where the only limit is your imagination, but just keep writing. Also, watch any and all animated films you can get your hands on. Spend a little time browsing on the internet and you will find films unlike anything you’ve seen before. Go to an animated film festival. Take a drawing class. Be vigilant. And never stop writing.