We just turned in a draft of our first animated feature. We were trying to figure out if we're doing the Right Things, or if there's some magic that an animation film is supposed to do that we didn't do.
Of course in an animation script you describe the action much more carefully. In particularly you load in a stack of sight gags.
In animation, of course, you can defy the laws of physics. Wile E. Coyote doesn't fall until he realizes he's run off the cliff. Eyes bug out three feet.
You also have to be a little more careful in your metaphors. When you write "Spongebob is crushed," you might want to specify whether he is crushed emotionally or by a large conch falling on his head.
We had to cut down on our dialog. As live action writers we were writing minute-long scenes that were all dialog. We were asked to reduce the talking and increase the action.
You can't depend on visual acting as much. The human face can form hundreds of expressions. Animators mostly stick to a few basic, exaggerated expressions. A human actor doing a deadpan face can be funny; an animated face doing nothing is rarely funny.
Most subtly, we noticed that the best animation features create their own worlds. FINDING NEMO creates a world of talking fish. THE INCREDIBLES creates a world where superheroes not only exist but are oppressed. MONSTERS, INC. creates the world of the monsters in your closet. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST enters a world of talking teapots and candlesticks.
What else do you find is different between live action writing and great animation writing?
Jokes that children AND adults will find funny.
For example, children usually don't get celebrity jokes, so maybe the children will be laughing at animated character's goofy Arnold impression while the adults will laugh at the connections made to movies such as Terminator and Kindergarten Cop.
Other adult humor, such as politics, may find their way into animated films, and they'll make the children and adults laugh for different reasons too.
Having two kiddos at home, I am up to my ear-balls in animated shows and movies. I'm going to assume that you're looking for what we see in animated films written for children.
One thing that animated films for kids, as a genre, do better than movies written for adults is that they are super-tight on structure. And they have to be. To stray for only a moment with an audience whose attention span is considerably less than adults is death. Every single one of these films -- at least the ones my kids love -- has every beat in the right place. And there are no slow parts.
The other thing that I've noticed about animated films is that they tend to have an over-arching moral that they want to get across. They all, in some ways, try to teach kids good from bad. Examples:
Cars -- winning isn't everything
Chicken Little -- little chicken with big problems, but even the little guys can finish on top
Curious George -- tenacity pays off
Barbie Mermaidia (yes... I see them all!)-- you will be rewarded for sacrifices you make
Being a mom, the one thing I dislike about many animated films is that the mom is DEAD! What up? Think about it: Cinderella, Snow White, Chicken Little, Nemo. When the mother figure is nowhere to be found, it must solve a lot of story hang-ups. The mom just can't swoop in and save her babe.
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