Eschewing Scriptwriting for Storyboards

Storyboard from “Ricardio the Heart Guy” episode of Pen Ward’s Adventure Time

The classic Warner shorts did it, John K. did it with Ren & Stimpy and SpongeBob Squarepants does it today. So just why might it be a god thing to eliminate the scriptwriting part of a cartoon? Well, today I thought I’d rummage around in the ol’ noggin and try and figure it out.

As we all know, scriptwriting is normally the first thing that is done on any TV show or movie. It forms the basis for the entire project and is normally the ultimate reference when it comes to plot, etc. For animation, a script sets out the dialogue and basic action for the episode or movie. However, with animation unlike live-action, the script may call for things that cannot easily be replicated, for example dropping an anvil on a characters head.

Animation is also timed to the frame, or 1/24th of a second if using 1s as opposed to 1/12th of a second if on 2s (thanks to Dave Levy for explaining that one to me). With that in mind, it is necessary for the director to plan every single scene and frame.

That’s where the storyboard comes in. It allows the director to see a (very) rough idea of what things will look like once the project is completed. Later on, an animatic may be made that is basically the storyboard in animated form with a soundtrack if one is available. Storyboarding is an art in and of itself because the artist must take the notes from the director and turn them into visual images. I highly recommend reading the awesome blog of the awesome Sherm Cohen who selflessly posts many how tos on the subject, often with video!

The storyboard can do other things too. Often a short storyboard can help you pitch your show, in fact, the good folks over at Frederator will only look at your idea if you have a storyboard prepared. In this instance, a board can help whoever you are pitching to to mentally visualize your idea. Seeing as you are developing a visual product, this is perhaps the best thing short of actual animation you can offer.

I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to TV shows, things can go either way. Many of the sitcom style of shows, like the Simpsons and Family Guy are probably better suited to having a script. Cartoons that rely on visual gags on the other hand are much better served by just a storyboard.

Animated sitcoms often rely on wordy jokes and slight visual jokes. For instance, the Simpsons made famous use of the background gag as well as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scenes that often contained humours signs, etc. Family guy is much the same with its cutaways. Neither of these need a storyboard. A writer can easily insert a line in the script that says “put X on a sign in the background”. Boards are still needed for direction and timing. In fact I read recently (sorry, can’t find the link) where the discussion was about how some studios are eliminating the storyboarding phase entirely and skipping straight to animatics. This may make sense for certain projects as the animatic is often the storyboard on video anyway.

The pure cartoons like SpongeBob, a storyboard makes a lot of sense as both the verbal and visual gags are created at the same time by the same person with some guideline input by the director. The many artistic reaction shots in Ren & Stimpy are the result of storyboards and no doubt add to the random element of the show. You may also notice that cartoons tend to have faster pacing, less dialogue and odd shots. These are also the result of storyboarding the plot on the fly and reveal the storyboards relation to the comic strip, where similar scenes occur.

Does it really make a difference to a show’s quality whether you use a script or not? I don’t think so. Both methods have their advantages. The only thing that would differ is when you are operating in a closed shop. In that case, scriptwriters may fall under the Writers Guild of America, and not The Animation Guild. There was a bit of a dust up over just such a thing a few years ago with Sit Down, Shut Up, which was eventually settled but not after the show was delayed.

Let’s just say both methods have their respective advantages and that it’s good to aware of both.

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