If you want to write animation—or if you just want to produce or direct it—it’s important to know the difference between live action and animation writing.
Animation stories are developed pretty much the same as in live action. You come up with a concept, sometimes called a premise, describing the basic beginning, middle and end of the story. The next stage is an outline, laying out each scene, including action and gags. The final step is the script, with full scene description and dialogue. The script form in animation is virtually identical to live action.
It’s the differences that are important to understand. In a word, animation is a much more uniquely visual medium than live action. Most live-action scripts require no special description for what’s taking place on the screen. A car chase is a car chase. And it’s up to the director to interpret it. But that’s not always the case in animation where the visuals are very often something we’ve never seen before, so they can’t be described in a few words. Let me give you an example. What do you visualize when I write this:
A coyote chases a bird over the cliff and falls into the canyon.
That’s how you might describe a scene in a live-action script. The director takes it from there. Now what do you see when I write this?
The coyote scrambles after the roadrunner, his legs a blur, running right off the end of a cliff. As the roadrunner sticks his tongue out and beeps at him, the coyote stops over thin air. He looks down at the canyon bottom a mile below, starting to sweat. Then he looks into camera with a loud “gulp!” and drops like a rock, his neck stretching like a rubber band as his head tries to catch up. He diminishes into the distance with a bomb whistle, finally hitting the canyon bottom with a dull thud and distant puff of smoke.
Get the picture? It’s eight times as many words, but it gives you a complete visual image with little need for interpretation.
By its very nature, animation requires more description to effectively communicate the visual. So the key difference between an animated and live-action script is that an animation script usually contains more detailed scene description.
This increase in description creates another difference between live and animation writing. In live action the general rule is one page per minute. This also holds true in most animated feature writing. But one page of a TV animation script generally translates to about 40 seconds of screen time. In live action the director interprets the written word, and thus expands on it. But in animation, the writing is generally more literally interpreted, and although better storyboard artists often add a bit or a gag here and there, most boarders just translate the written word to visual images.
What this means is that if an animation writer doesn’t describe it—and describe it precisely—the chances are it won’t appear on the screen, at least not the way he imagined it. This is because unlike in live action, in most TV animation there isn’t one director who follows each episode all the way from script to screen. Yes, there’s an animation director, but he or she is usually responsible for all of the episodes, and deals more with visual continuity and less with story continuity. And as noted, there’s the storyboard artist, but a writer can never be certain that a board person will see visuals or interpret the action or comedic timing correctly. So the TV animation writer must describe the action as precisely as necessary to get whatever’s in his head onto the screen. This is especially necessary when scripts are sent overseas to be animated, because if the description is imprecise, the translation to other languages and cultures leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation. I recently finished a pilot script for an animation series that’s going to be produced in China. Although he was preaching to the choir, the producer made a point of telling me that the description needed to be precise enough that the gags would survive translation.
So to a great extent, the television animation writer functions as a director.