Sunday, June 15, 2008

Writing for Puppets and Animation

I've recently discovered a podcast about screenwriting called On The Page. The topics are mostly geared toward writing for major media distribution (TV, Hollywood movies), outlets that are quite removed from my own modest goals, but I did cull a bit of useful info from an episode called Writing for Animated Characters and Puppets. More importantly, though, it reminded me of a trend in puppetry and animation that I've wanted to write about for a while now.

Listen to it here:

The podcast features guests David Skelly (Writer/Director, Pixar story artist) and Kirk Thatcher (Writer/Director, The Jim Henson Company). Both offer a few interesting anecdotes about different projects they've been involved with. While I wished for more substance in this piece, it was nice to hear them both reaffirm an underlying principle about writing for puppets (and animation) that many creators (especially those driving their content out primarily for internet consumption) seem to often forget, or never consider at all: If it doesn't work with the sound off, perhaps performing a piece using puppets or animation is not the best choice to convey that particular idea.

The principle refers to the "talking head" phenomenon that many online puppet work (lots of my work included), and far too many of the current animated offerings on TV and the internet these days suffers from. Family Guy is a perfect example of an animated cartoon where the dialog is dominant and the animated action adds little to nothing but a few keyframe visual posters to support the punch line. In other words, the visuals are hardly needed to make the script funny. There really are very few exaggerated "cartoony" styles in the drawing and most of the visuals that support the script could be recreated in live action fairly easily. This is a cartoon being a cartoon for the sake of it, and the show is not written to really require animation in order to convey the ideas in the script or to make the dialog funny (unless you have to be reminded what a *insert random pop culture icon* looks like every time one gets mentioned during each episode). John K's excellent animation blog often blames this type of situation on talentless studio executives. While they are ultimately the ones who greenlight and push this stuff out to the masses, it's the creators who are really to blame for this pervasive trend. This is one reason why classic Warner Brothers Loony Tunes, Pixar and Jim Henson's work, among others, always stand out among the mountains of stuff that's been created over the years. Simply put, the visuals orchestrated by these creators always added something to the stories being told. The action and design of the characters meant something. And, often times, the situations created could not have worked using actors in a live action set. That's why the choice to tell those tales using animation and/or puppetry was often times the only choice that would have worked.

In an attempt to help audiences recognize the great difference in entertainment that this type of creative choice brings, I think it is a worthwhile goal for both beginning and established creators to strive for a better balance in puppetry and/or animation content they offer for public consumption. I'm not suggesting that "non-cartoony" shows like Family Guy should get cancelled, or that people creating countless "puppet talking at webcam" shows today should quit. But I am interested in seeing a return of animated "cartoony" cartoons, where situations are created that have to be seen to be enjoyed. It would also be a refreshing trend in puppetry to see clever ideas and characters in situations where the performance was just as or even more important than the words being said. Why are Frank Oz and other top Muppet performers so revered by other puppeteers and audiences alike? Because the well-defined characters they performed were amazing actors, and that acting not only spoke the words in the script, it made the characters alive inside the story. What makes puppetry and animation special artforms is its ability to bring interesting characters to life that humans alone could never become, and put them in situations that are entertaining because of what they are, not in spite of it. The performance of the character inside any story will ultimately make the piece entertaining or not, but the initial decision to portray an idea using the art of puppetry and/or animation is just as important.

It's something that I will be continually striving towards in my own work. It would be wonderful to see other smalltime web-based creators embrace this, too. Trends have to begin someplace, afterall.


K-Dog said...

But Family Guy's funny.

chet said...

But Family Guy's humor is in the scripted dialog. It has very little to do with the animation.

Close your eyes while listening to an episode and most of the scripted gags will be the same level of funny without the visuals.

That was my point.