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From the March/April and May/June 1986 issues of Graffitti

The Animation Writer:
Bill Scott at UCLA

(In November, 1983, Bill Scott spoke to Dan McLaughlin's "Writing for Animation" class at the UCLA Animation Workshop. The following was transcribed and edited by Phil Denslow.)

I started out at Warner Brothers doing Daffy Ducks and Goofy Gophers with a new unit and a new director and plummeted downhill to doing "Speaking of Animals." Does anyone remember "Speaking of Animals?" "Speaking of Animals" was a live action series done with animated mouths where animals told funny jokes to each other. They won an academy award once for making a bunch of cows move back and forth while someone sang the "Cow Cow Boogie." It was not what you would call one of the pinnacles of animation.

I moved from there to writing the "Time For Beanie Show" when it was done with live puppets on KTLA. Then from there to UPA where I was fortunate enough to be with some of the finest talents in the biz. I co-wrote the adaptation of "Gerald McBoing Boing," and John Hubley and I wrote "Rooty Toot Toot." I did the adaptation of "Tell Tale Heart" for Ted Parmelee.

After that I went to John Sutherland Productions where I worked on commercials and industrials for about four years, which were in essence didactic films: films to persuade, films to impress, propaganda films for big business. A fascinating experience. Painful but fascinating. After that I freelanced as a writer of television commercials for about two years until Jay Ward and I hooked up on somebody else's project, and we started writing "Rocky And His Friends," which later went on to be "The Bullwinkle Show." Then we did "George Of The Jungle" and "Fractured Flickers."

Halfway through there we hooked up with the Quaker Oats Company. We've been with them ever since. They've been our strong right bower, keeping the studio doors open when nothing else was happening. I would guess that in the time we have been with them, I have written seven hundred television commercials. Not all of them produced mind you, but that doesn't make any difference about writing them.

Some of the things I'm going to say you probably already know, so bear with me. Maybe I'll say something you don't know. The first thing I have to admit is that until very recently, and even in some quarters today, a writer in animation is considered at best a necessary evil. There were no writers in animation's early days. The first animated films were made by people who sat down and started drawing, and whatever they thought was funny for a character to do they would do. They'd animate straight ahead. There wasn't even such a thing as pose animation then. You just started one drawing and made it after another drawing in the same way you would make a flip book now. You had only so many pages to work with.

These were the earliest animation autuers I suppose. They didn't think of the word at that time, but they were indeed their own writers and their own animators and their own film makers; working in sleazy lofts that otherwise would have been sweat shops in New York and Chicago. But animators soon found out that they ran out of ideas very quickly and, god bless them, they opened up the field and took suggestions from other people in the studio. People who swept up, people who washed the windows, anybody who could scratch out an idea for a gag and give it to the animator. Sometimes they might even get paid.

So it was an additional source of income for somebody with another job to become a "gag man." A terrible term. It stuck on writers for many many years afterward, clear up until the 1940s. The Disney Studio promoted him to the title of story man. But nobody really got to calling him writer, and they're still hedging around it. I believe the union still classifies a fella who writes animated cartoons as a story man, or story person I suppose.

As we see now, a lot of film makers are going back to the autuer system. With the collapse of the major theatrical release factories and the schlock that is being produced in the name of animation for much of television, serious film makers, people who take animation seriously and take the art seriously, are pretty much forced into making their own films. I have seen some splendid work. A lot of the best animation is being done by independent film makers now.

Still, we will always need writing for animated cartoons, no matter who does it. Whether it's an isolated role in an assembly line, or whether it is done by the film maker himself, the writing of animation is still of prime importance. It's very special, and not very many people can do it. It's a dreadful shock to live action writers to try and write animation. They write an animated script and they give it to you and you say... what happens? They write for live action pacing, live action occurrence, live action incident. It's difficult to grasp what animation is.

Well, what is it? It's a medium with certain qualities. (I carefully use words beginning with 'c' so I can remember them). The first of them is COMPRESSION. Animation compresses action so greatly because it is the only film medium in which every square millimeter or every raster is under absolute and total control of the person making the film. As such it is a tremendously powerful, effective and forceful medium. It compresses time, it compresses action. You can get more done in animation in a short time than in any other way. Which is why it has become so popular in the field of commercials. It can say so much in such a short period of time. It is a hot medium, that is, it uses up material very quickly. It is an intense medium, and if enough material, enough incident isn't written into animation, animation drags. If you've seen an animated film with live action pacing, it drags and drags. You can't do that in animation. It's a very hot and compressive medium.

The second is: Animation is a medium of CARICATURE. I know I'll get some arguments about this because some people think of caricature in terms of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck or some of the outrages of Rob Clampett or Tex Avery. Nevertheless, it is a medium of caricature and some of it can be very subtle caricature. Marcie Page, in San Francisco, does great things where she simply does tremendous dissolves: where rocks turn into people, and people turn into landscapes, and landscapes turn into bodies, and men turn into women, and hills turn into hips and... It is just beautiful stuff. But it is still caricature. It is still an extension of, an intensification of life; of what you expect to see or what you think you are seeing. However subtle the metamorphosis may be, it is still caricature.

The reason is that you're really dealing with drawings. Drawings can't act. Actors can act. The difference between a good actor and a bad actor is sort of the difference between live action and animation in that respect. What makes a good actor and a good performance is so subtle and comes so much from inside the actor that it is almost untranslatable or untransmutable into any other form. All we can do in animation is to intensify, interpret, and in effect caricature that kind of feeling. Animated characters cannot act. They can only move. Now this doesn't mean that they're essentially dead, because the emotive response that you get from the use of caricature is just as strong, is just as intense, and is just as violent as you get from live action, if you do it correctly.

For this reason, there is a gentlemen's agreement between all major political parties that they will not use animation in their campaigns. It is too powerful a medium, and the use of it is now considered unfair. It is an unfair thing to do, to make a political commercial in animation, because its impact is so tremendous, because of the caricatures value of intensifying emotion. I can recall only one large scale animated film ever made as part of a political campaign. It was called "Hell Bent For Election." It was made in 1944 for the reelection of Roosevelt. It used what would be now considered very heavy handed cliched kind of crap that you would just flinch at now. But in its time it was revolutionary. Its effect was so stunning that the Republicans all cried foul and there was a great discussion at that time, and no such films have been made since. That is the emotive response you can get even though your characters can't act.

As for my own personal experience, I first saw "Dumbo" in 1943. I cried. I have seen "Dumbo" possibly ten times since. I cry every time. I know exactly what's happening, I know what buttons are being pushed, I know why I'm doing it, but the emotive response is exactly the same. That little baby starts dancing around, the mother reaches out of the cage through the bars and ahh... I'll break up right now as a matter of fact. OK, the emotive response is still tremendous. So the fact that things are caricatured does not mean they cannot get a real response.

The third influence is CHIMERA. Does anybody know what a chimera is? A mythological creature with the head of a lion, body of a goat, tail of a serpent. Chimera. It is a chimerical medium. It is a medium which transcends life. It is a medium of make-believe. You must remember, that as a writer, you're constantly going to be called upon to invent things which do not exist: non-existent entities, characters, worlds, entire worlds.

In doing stuff for Quaker Oats, the first thing that came in over the transom was somebody asking us if we'd be interested in doing a series of commercials about a sea captain and his crew. Could we invent a world for them. I wish I could say that I had invented the world. You know the Captain Crunch commercials? The good ship Guppy, and the crew and the adventures and the pirates and the strange creatures and so forth. Well, I didn't write that. I didn't invent that world. That world was invented by Alan Burns, who was at that time a writer for Jay Ward. Alan Burns later took the same expertise and invented the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "Lou Grant," and he currently has invented a series called "The Duck Factory," which is, full circle, about adventures in an animation studio. It's less caricature, I think, than just factual reporting about Jay Ward Productions, but that's neither here nor there. Remember, that because of the chimerical nature, the fantasy nature, the fact that anything can happen in animation, it is much better at story telling than at reporting. It is much better at inventing than it is at simply giving you facts and figures.

The fourth influence in animation I call CONFLUENCE. It is a film medium in which a lot of what happens on the screen happens after it leaves the writer's hands. It has been my wonderful experience that I have never seen anything that I have written which I didn't think had been plussed as it went down the line. The director's timing of what I had written is a plus. The designer's idea about how it's supposed to look is a plus. The animator's bringing the things to life is a plus. The magnificent balance of color that occurs in some of the things was a plus. So the thing that happens on the screen, what started as the writer's idea, the writer's dream, is subject to the confluence of other skills and other arts down the assembly line.

As I say, my experience has been fortunate because I work with some very wonderful artists and wonderful people. But the Same thing may screw you up. You may write the greatest thing in the world and if it is badly timed, badly animated, if the live actors' performances are not good, they can do you in. The writer has very little influence over that.

So these are the four areas where writing for animation is special. People who write in animation need to keep these things in mind all the time, if they're not going to end up writing live action sitcom instead.

What does a writer need to know? First off, an area in which many writers for animation that I know are very far behind is an awareness of the state of the art of the medium: awareness of styles of animation which are conceivable, possible, and usable. Going to my first ASIFA animation festival and seeing the Tournee of Animation as it made its annual pilgrimage through here, was just a revelation to me about what is possible in this magnificent and protean art of animation. Whole areas of concept, movement and so forth that I simply would not have reckoned with. Now that I know that they're there, they are always in my thinking about how you can do something; what things are open to you. So develop an awareness of the state of the art of animation.

Second, it is very useful to know how to draw. It isn't vital, because I know some writers who cannot draw worth a darn, but it is most useful. Even if they're not going to be the final character drawings at all, it is much easier to shortcut by making four drawings, than it is to write a page and a half of easily confusable material. I'm not a great draughtsman by any means. I must have been fifty years old before I finally decided I'm not going to draw like anybody else, dammit, I'll draw like me. So that made it much easier. But I must confess to still being pretty much a member of the wire line school of drawing. Like bending coat hangers.

A writer should develop a sense of animation timing. It's extremely important simply to know how long a scene is going to be. Whether something is going to work. How long you have to stay on something to make it work. How quick is an audience going to react? What is the compression factor? What is the sense of timing? When we were recording the Bullwinkle series, the adventures were three and a half minute segments, and we recorded like a radio script. We'd just start at the beginning and record the whole thing through. If we blew it half way through, we'd start back at the beginning and do it all over again. Jay Ward loved performance. So we got good performances out of the actors involved in it. But sometimes there would be scenes where there was no dialogue covering the action. It was my function as a combination writer and actor to think about how long that scene would take and actually make some kind of sound that would cover it. So if we had a scene of Bullwinkle tripping and falling down the stairs, you know he'd go "whoop" and then I would go "dodedodedodap dat." I knew that that was a good length of time for a quick fall down and a smack at the end. So that sound would go back to the director. They had that timing set in there, and it fit right in the three and one half minutes. They knew exactly what it was going to be. Although I was able to do it on camera, it is the kind of thing that has to be kept in mind by a writer, even if he's whacking it out on his trusty Royal.

A writer needs to know how to tell a story. It really isn't as easy as it sounds. If you can't tell a joke, chances are that you're not going to be able to be a very good animation writer. Do you tell a joke and people look at you blankly because the punch line is wrong, or you haven't set it up right? There are ways to tell a story, and they are all fairly solid, and they all depend on a basic structure. This goes for short films as well as long films. In order to tell a story well, the same rules apply to symphonies, to plays, to novels, and to sex. They all have exactly the same pattern. They all start with an arousal, a hook, a gathering of interest, of concern. They continue through plausible or implausible incident which enlarges that concern. They deal with increasing tension. Tensions increase, increase. There is a climactic moment, and then, if you're not a wham bam type, there is a period of release. The usual pattern goes gradually up and then quickly down. That's the shape of a story. That's the shape of a novel and the shape of a symphony. They all follow the same thing and it all deals with our own internal clocks and our own internal ways of thinking about things.

For long films that structure is not quite enough. A longer film requires some additional knowledge about story structure. You have to consider things such as character development. I don't just mean getting a character that draws well, looks good, and sounds good. Your important characters have to be different when that picture is over than when it started: they have to have gotten what they're after, they've changed their minds about something, they develop. There has to be sufficient motivation for a character. I was called in to look over a feature project, and I read it and I re-read it, and I still couldn't figure out why in the world the villain was a villain. He was just a stock figure out of some other play. He was a Boris Badinoff. He was a villain just because he was a villain, that all. Who needs to know? That works fine for three and a half minutes, but when you're dealing with a feature length film you better have some good strong motivation.

So we've talked about a writer needing an awareness of styles, the ability to draw, a sense of animation timing, and to know how to tell a story, both long and short.

A writer should know something about film techniques: how they work and why they work, when and why you use flashbacks, cross cutting, a close up? When do you use it and how often? Do you write the same picture for a big screen as you do for a small screen? These are basic film techniques that everybody should be aware of.

There's only one more, and that's called general knowledge. I know this really sounds strange when you're really busting your hump trying to make things move, and get something on the screen that looks reasonable, and tells the story that you want to tell, but if any of you want to move into the field of writing for animation your experiences and your field of knowledge have to very eclectic and very broad. In my career, along with writing funny stuff, the Bullwinkles and George Of The Jungles and so forth, I've had to write pictures about the oil industry, about economics, about molecular physics, about cancer research, and about the mental problems of children. You're dealing with compression and caricature, and you're dealing with the greatest story telling medium, the medium most able to translate impersonal things and abstractions into realities. So as a writer you're going to be called upon to do that.

"We have four methods that we are using to fight cancer by chemotherapy, Mr. Scott. Will you find a way of showing how all four of these are linked together and what their effect is on a cancer cell versus a normal cell?" Now if you're a writer in animation that's a problem just dumped in front of you. If you come up with the answer, you've not only made your client very happy, but you have explained in three or four minutes something which might take a doctor an hour. That's the kind of thing you can do. So keeping the horizons broad is important. We have such an all-embracing medium.

How to do it? Well, does anybody know what the creative process is? How do you create something? Want to write it down? It's very simple. creative process is the manipulation of memory. Nothing is ever created. Everything is simply remembered and put into new form. It is the manipulation of memory. So, if the creative process is the manipulation of memory, there are two things that have to happen. First of all, you have to have memory to manipulate. You have to have some things to call upon. You have to have some experience and some knowledge, some stuff up there in the attic. You go up and rummage through it when you need to create.

Some suggestions. Never stop learning. Read. If you don't already, for god's sake read a newspaper. Every day. Subscribe. You don't have to read everything. Read. Get some idea of what's going on out there, what all those crazy people are worried about out there. What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? What makes news? They're very good for a writer to know. Subscribe to a couple of magazines, in your own field if you want to, in a general field if you don't want to. See films. Watch television. If somebody comes in and says, "What are you doing?" Don't say, "Nothing." Say, "I'm increasing my spectrum of knowledge." "With reruns?" "Yes." But when you're watching, particularly if you're seeing something for the second time, which very often happens in my house, try to figure out: Why is it working? What makes this good? Better yet- What makes this bad? Why isn't this working? Start looking at it that way.

Take course that you wouldn't normally take. Take a course in mime. My own personal thing is for god's sake join a drama group. Be in a play. Get up on stage. Get in front of an audience. Say something. Do something. Feel what they give you back. Watch them watch you, as I'm watching you watch me. Know at what point you're reaching and at what point you're not reaching people. It's invaluable. (It's also very good practice for doing things like this.) Much of what you're going to be required to do in animation is to go through storyboards. I count every moment I spent in drama classes and in production classes and in public speaking classes as a boon. I learned a number of skills, I learned a number of techniques, tricks, as it were, confidence, all those other things that made it possible for me to go through a storyboard. You get through a storyboard on a feature and you're exhausted, That's a day's work. That's a powerful piece of work.

People you're going to be talking to, by and large, are not going to be able to translate those drawings, those sketches, into what you think that they should be. You will have to do that. You will have to tell them what they will see, you'll have to tell them what they are seeing, and you'll have to tell them what they have already seen. Take a course in play construction, in play writing, just to get an idea of the nuts and bolts of how something is going to work, is going to hang together as a unit. OK, there are some things you can do to broaden that memory you're going to manipulate.

How to learn how to manipulate? I really don't know what works for everybody. I'll tell you what works for me. I love puzzles. I love puzzles of all kinds. I love crossword puzzles, anagrams, double crossticks, puns, wordplay of all kinds. I get a big kick out of it. It is most useful to do because the creative process is largely, since you're manipulating, looking at things in different ways. How would it be if it was upside down? How would it be if it was inside out? Supposing we went this way, instead of that way? What would happen? Supposing he's white and she's black? Supposing somebody kills God? How do you resurrect Him? What happens? It's that kind of manipulation. What if? What if? What if? What if? That makes for the creative process. So I do it that way. Maybe you'll find other ways to do it.

I'd like to leave you with a challenge. There has not been, there is not now in this country, any person with the background and the training and the skills and the drive to write, by himself or herself, a good animated feature. We have been at this business now for half a century, and we still haven't developed one feature writer. It's a little late in the day for me, but maybe one of you can. Thank you.

Graffiti: published by ASIFA Hollywood. For more about ASIFA activities call (818) 842-8330.