Tuesday, January 1, 2008

From Brad Bird: Respect.

Bird wants respect for toon scribes
'Ratatouille' writer chafes at misconceptions

Since Brad Bird is writer-director of three of the best animated films of the past decade, "The Iron Giant," "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille," it's no surprise to hear him extol the virtues of both Warner Bros. toon legend Michael Maltese and "Lawrence of Arabia" scribe Robert Bolt.

Bird, whose own name appears on that shortest of shortlists, that of writers who were Oscar-nominated for their screenwriting on animated features (for "Incredibles"), combines the whimsical genius of Maltese and lofty ambition of Bolt in this year's awards contender "Ratatouille." He chafes, however, at any discussion of the greats of animation writing that doesn't make clear his belief that "good writing is good writing."

"The whole question of writing for animation is skewed" says Bird, whose next project will be his live-action debut. "There isn't a giant difference between animation and live action. You need characters, stories, themes. It's called good storytelling."

Bird feels misconceptions about the writing of animated features emanate from both sides of the fence -- from those who can't imagine "serious" work from the makers of "cartoons" and from those inside the animated field who can't imagine that any writer who doesn't begin as an animator can ever fully embrace the medium.

Bird explains that although he did begin his career in animation, "I write scripts first, before the work gets to the storyboarding stage. But I write with the knowledge of what animation can do."
Once Bird has made clear that in his view there are no lines separating genres, he expands on the artists he admires in both the animation and live-action camps.

From the Disney canon, Bird cites "Lady and the Tramp" and "Pinocchio" as examples of storytelling with "strong story beats and well-delineated characters." He also admires Nick Park of "Wallace and Grommit" fame as "an artist with a singular point of view" and "Spirited Away's" Hayao Miyazaki as "a master of great storytelling."

And then there are his fellow artists at Pixar, which he calls "the home team." " 'Toy Story's' power comes from its talking about death under several layers of action," says Bird, who sees the film's "real message (as) 'Do you use your life or do you prolong it and become entombed?' "
And then there's Maltese. Bird calls him "the King of the Warner Bros. shorts" and says that "95% of the finest days in the Chuck Jones career had Maltese attached."

On the live-action writing front, Bird rhapsodizes about Bolt's "Lawrence of Arabia," which he recalls seeing as a youth and, "Though I didn't understand it, it overwhelmed me. It told me the world was a much more complex place than I ever imagined." He also cites Steve Zaillian, Alvin Sargent, Robert Towne and Billy Wilder as "heroes."

It's no surprise, however, given Bird's directorial accomplishments, that he reserves a special place in his pantheon of film talents for one of the directing greats.

"Alfred Hitchcock is the one who taught me that there are people making these movies. I kept seeing these movies that gave me chills, from 'Shadow of a Doubt' on through his more famous films, and I kept seeing his names. I thought, 'Aha, it's the same guy giving me these chills. And his name is Alfred Hitchcock.' "


And, probably because I agree with it (and enjoy the shit out of his work), I will take THAT opinion over the "if you didn't start in animation, you can't be a part of it" clique that is the vocal, evangelical, there's only one way to do it, version of animation zealots.

G'night, everybody.


Anonymous said...

Just because Brad says it doesn't make it true. He's a good animation director - probably one of THE best currently working, but that doesn't make him instantly a prophet or the speaker of all truth.
You'll also not a couple of things (even if you do feel that Brad is the 'speaker of all truth'). He said: "I write scripts first, before the work gets to the storyboarding stage. But I write with the knowledge of what animation can do."
He's talking about himself - not someone else writing - and he makes sure to include the little caveat "with a knowledge of what animation can do". How many writers can say the same thing?
More importantly has he ever hired to a writer to write his scripts? or does he do it himself?
Because he's the director of his own writing this is always a more liquid position to describe, but don't his scripts (even his scripts) undergo a process of improvement in storyboard?
I'm not advocating eliminating scripts. They're important in our process for a variety of reasons - especially in features - but let's not get confused and think that tthe best movies aren't doing a lot - A LOT! - to improve these scripts that we're given.
The maxim has always been let's not start production until the script is right. Great idea. But I've never seen been on a production where quality mattered that we worked straight from a script and often had to start over.
Scripts are genewraslly written so someone who's not visual can get an idea of what a film or tv show will be about. The mninute you try to take one of those and start to visualize it for those same non-visual people that's when the script hits the fan.

Steve said...

Hey, I never said he was a prophet.

It's just - there's a certain group (well, a person) that a lot of animators respect that loves to talk about how scripts are unimportant, and in fact, there's a mantra on the 'net (because these things spread) about how they should be eliminated.

Good lord, there's even an animation archive that refuses to recognize scripted work. (tongue partially in cheek)

And regarding the "knowledge of what animation can do," we are also in agreement. You're right. The best movies... AND the best TV shows... know that the script (actually, the premise, then the outline) is the first step in a very long process that creates a cartoon.

So when somebody as talented as Brad Bird - talented on a visual and story level - comes out on the side of all forms of writing... I wanted to shine a spotlight on it.

All the best...

Anonymous said...

as usual you continue to miss the point over and over again as to why the overwhelming majority of artists resent the overwhelming majority writers. its not because they cant draw its because they cant write. if the majority of animation writers approached their work with the same attitude as brad bird ("But I write with the knowledge of what animation can do.") this recurring controversy simply wouldnt exist. artists dont bitch about writers for the fun of it. they do so because they have a legitimate complaint. writers who work in animation with a knowledge of what animation can do are a tiny fraction of the whole and since most of them openly strive to get out of animation and into live action they dont appear to be trying to learn more about writing for animation. that is what breeds the resentment. the laziness.
there are some artists who blindly follow john k and artists who just bitch because their bitter and angry at everybody but those are still a tiny minority. you need to stop focusing on the zealots and start asking yourself why even the good and reasonable artists out there are frustrated with writers. they will probably tell you what i just did.

Anonymous said...

As in any creative profession, the number of truly talented people is tiny. That's why the best animation writers are paid so well -- because they're few and far between. Thinking about what's going on visually during every second of one's script is just part of it (and a big part). To do that and be good at story and be able to churn out well-crafted jokes is a rare commodity. So yeah -- many writers are bad. So are many singers, actors, dancers and puppeteers.

Anonymous said...

Name some of the good writers.

warren said...

I have to admit I sometimes wonder whether or not the story editors might be more at fault for letting scripts full of holes into production.

I could be wrong, but I imagine that each script gets a buttload of notes before getting to a storyboarder. I've read scripts that read more like a pastiche than a story, and I try to tie up dropped threads in the board as I sense them. I think it's just part of my job to try to make a cohesive show.

I've also read scripts (on separate shows) by the same writers which are vastly different in quality. The only difference is the story editor and the show (I'm talking about two comedy scripts for two different comedy shows).

All things being equal (in terms of assuming the writer would rather not 'phone-it-in'), am I wrong in guessing it would be the story editor's job to tie those scripts up as cleanly as possible before going into pre-prod?

I mean, as boarders, we've all had sequences changed at one time or another when we thought they were better the first time - for a myriad of reasons we can't control.
Why would we expect a writer's world to be so different in that sense? Maybe the mechanisms that fracture pre-prod in some cartoon houses are too broken to fix...?

I've noticed that a lot of the shows that are considered good seem to have a writer's room, a storyboard room, or both simultaneously - with writers and artists doing an exchange.

If that room isn't present, isn't it the story editor's job to be the liason between script and storyboards by ensuring a workable script?

Jest askin'....oh, and:

Conan O'Brian
Mike Maltese
Trey Parker

Anonymous said...

You're right -- there are no good writers. Everyone's an idiot except you.

Anonymous said...

Mike Maltese drew storyboards. He didn't write scripts.

Anonymous said...

The problem isn't "tying up holes". There's way too much exposition and plot in most animation scripts as it is. The problem is what Brad Bird calls "the knowledge of what animation can do". A picture is worth a thousand words... Brad Bird is an artist. He knows how to use pictures to tell a story.

Hitchcock's North By Northwest is a pastiche of incongruities and dropped threads that would never be approved by any story editor, but it works perfectly because it makes visual sense. Hitchcock was an artist too. He drew every setup for his cinematographer to show him how it should look.

Anonymous said...

The major problem in cartoons is the director's role has been diminished in the corporate process. A great director, such as Brad can take a medoicre script and make it a better movie. This is the parallel in live action I see.

Writer/Directors know how to write for their vision. In most live action projects, it is ultimately the director who has to make the vision into a film. In animation there are more cruddy directors than good ones, same as in live action. Same goes for writers.

Writers who think visual tend to write more "cinematic" scripts. It just seems the way TV animation is setup nowadays, there isn't the time for a decent director to really turn the script into something dynamic, but just to churn out the footage ASAP. So a writer that truly understands animation, adds to the end product being better.

Maybe if more directors and board artists would pick up Final Draft and write....hmmm...

Steve said...

Anonymous wrote:

“As usual you continue to miss the point over and over again as to why the overwhelming majority of artists resent the overwhelming majority writers. its not because they cant draw its because they cant write.”

Lets be honest – the amount of “super talented” is infinitely smaller than “talented enough.” I don’t agree that there are writers that I don’t like. I won’t name them. At the same time, there are board artists that I also don’t like. I won’t name them.

The super talented ones – I’ll name Dave Thomas from Fairly Oddparents who I think could create gold in his sleep but never sleep walks through anything – are ALSO few and far between.

There’s proportion here. I’m willing to say it’s the SAME proportion as well – Great, Good, passable and suck.

“Name some of the good writers.”

I know who I’d name. But not until our friend at the Animation Archive names his. Quite frankly, that’s my agenda here currently – to get the Director of the Archive, the man who is the gatekeeper between what is history and what isn’t – to name script writers he thinks worthy of being noted in history.

Warren said:
“I wrong in guessing it would be the story editor's job to tie those scripts up as cleanly as possible before going into pre-prod?”

I would say yes – with a caveat. It’s the writers job to know, the editor’s job to pay attention, the director’s job to catch things and the EP’s job to make decisions… especially in a television production. There’s a chain of command that comes from the assembly line production of a television cartoon.

But when it comes to the script, the story editor needs to know more about the repercussions of the words than the writer does… in my opinion.

Bob Harper said:

“Writers who think visual tend to write more "cinematic" scripts. It just seems the way TV animation is setup nowadays, there isn't the time for a decent director to really turn the script into something dynamic, but just to churn out the footage ASAP. So a writer that truly understands animation, adds to the end product being better.

Maybe if more directors and board artists would pick up Final Draft and write....hmmm...”

Agreed. A TV production is different than a movie production. Everybody gets to linger and love on a movie production, but TV production is the creation of product. Hopefully GOOD product, but it’s on a schedule.

Flip it: If certain networks only care about script, and a director/board artist can show they can producer their idea in a way that network understands… don’t they suddenly become the most sought-after percentage of the animation community?

The writer/animator?

The equivalent of a prime time television show-runner?

A tool belt has a lot of tools. It can never hurt to have more on the belt. Drawing will never be on mine, but I hope to have as many OTHER skills as possible there.


Okay. That’s a lot of responses on a day that I spent most in the air. Clocking out now.

Steve Hulett said...

Mike Maltese drew storyboards. He didn't write scripts.

Those little bits of dialogue under the drawings? That was writing. So Maltese also wrote.

But since we're on the subject of writers...

Bill Peet? He storyboarded, he adapted novels (101 Dalmations, Jungle Book, Sword in the Stone) and he wrote childrens' books. Lots of them. Houghton Mifflin published them.

Joe Grant? Terrific artist, designer, storyboarder. Also wrote a longish treatment about a baby elephant called "Dumbo."

Then there's Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio. They're probably no good, since all they do is write screenplays.

"Aladdin." "Pirates of the Caribbean." Crap like that.

This is a kind of foolish subject, people. Writers write. Artists write. And when artists write, they magically turn into "writers."

Steve said...

Steve H.

We're not that far off on the definition. But what I am looking for is for our Director of the Asifa Archive to point out five script writers in animation between 1960 and now, that he feels worthy of mentioning.

Five in 47 years.

Until he either gives names or says "no, there are none," I'm leaving it open.


Anonymous said...

For those writers who want to learn more about approaching animation storytelling from a visual perspective should read
Prepare to Board by Nancy Beiman. You don't even have to draw.

If you honestly want to debate Mr. Worth and the archive agenda - go to an ASIFA meeting and bring up the topic about the absence of animation writing in the Archive. You have that right as an ASIFA member. Be sure to report back the results though ;)

Anonymous said...

Realistically there's all types of things missing from the archives and clearly what is there reflects Worth's tastes basically. But the problem is he's the one willing to devote the time and energy to it so in a way it's his sandbox. If you want it to reflect more of your taste and opinion get involved and do it. I'm personally to busy -- unlike Worth I'm actually busy making animation (that he's sure to ignore).

Alex Weitzman said...

Even though Bird is describing a scenario that he personally doesn't have to technically deal with (writing something then handing it to a director, or directing a script just handed to him; he writes it and then directs it), the self-made artist like Bird still has to go through the practical process of being writer and director at varying intervals. That he is fortunate enough at either stage to be able to consider the other's role, due to sharing the same body with him, is still the result of considerable effort and talent. It's always far easier to lose your way than to remain consistent with yourself.

Be it single artist or collaborative effort, it seems like the best writers and animators have the ability to do their work with the allowances for the others' work to enter and triumph. The writer who types up a script for an averagely-budgeted TV toon that says, "Five hundred thousand individually-designed and different-looking characters all do different dances and then fight with each other on top of the Eiffel Tower," is just asking for trouble. So is the director/storyboarder who shoves a camera angle up a character's nose or draws a weird and discordant facial expression simply because they don't know what to do with an important dialogue scene.

I'm reminded of Kevin Altieri's episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Among his various great reps as a director, he was also known as not being too shy to cut and alter the scripts he'd been given to direct. A writer might have a field day with complaints regarding such practices from anybody else. However, if you look at Altieri's episodes, they never felt like they LACKED a script, or were deliberately overhashed so to just get uninvolved action in there. We the audience don't know what changes Altieri made to what episodes, and the point is that we'd never be able to tell. So even when Altieri was at his most brutal in alteration, he was still plussing and guiding his stories, as opposed to fighting against them or refusing to attach himself and his work to them. And his episodes of B:TAS were easily amongst the best the show had to offer.

Steve Hulett said...

...what I am looking for is for our Director of the Asifa Archive to point out five script writers in animation between 1960 and now, that he feels worthy of mentioning.

You're probably also looking for the sun to rise in the west.

My question is: Why waste your time?

Anonymous said...

Bird writes scripts, yes. But not before lots and lots of drawing and visual exploration. With animation , more often so (sadly) than live action, this is true. The collaborative nature of the story process is much more fluid in animation than live action. At a company like Pixar, it works because the producers are not allowed to intrude upon the creative process. That's not a bad thing, but neither is it adversarial. Although someone else got "official" credit for "writing" "The Iron Giant," everyone knows Brad wrote the script.

Alex Weitzman said...

"Bird writes scripts, yes. But not before lots and lots of drawing and visual exploration. With animation , more often so (sadly) than live action, this is true."

Yeah, but let's not pretend that there isn't visual exploration in live-action fare. Character design? Casting and costume design. Background studies? Location scouting and set design. Pencil tests? Rehearsals. There's just about an equivalent to everything, so there's little to point to in terms of animation being less "written" than anything else. It's not that animation isn't crucially visual. It's that CINEMA is crucially visual, of which animation is a part.

It's true that the storytelling process is more inherently collaborative and fluid in animation, due to storyboards being a means by which to define character interaction and events, as opposed to just camera angles and cinematography (the way most live-action projects use storyboards). The very idea that a whole department is devoted to "Story" is a magnificent one, and goes a long way to explain why very little in animation, TV or film, comes across as muddled or unmotivated in the way weaker-told live-action stories can. Still, writers a key element of that process, and deserve appropriate credit for it.

Anonymous said...

So start your own archive or volunteer to help at Worth's. It's his sandbox. Deal with it. Like I said before it's not just the writers that get short shrif at ASIFA's archives. It reflects SW's taste and not much else.

Alex Weitzman said...

Re: "Do it yourself or shut up"

Haven't we reached the point where this can just be considered the Godwin's Law of artistic debate?

(For those unfamiliar with Godwin's Law: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_Law)

schmuley said...

You can see my comment anyway you like, but it wasn't intended as "Do it yourself or shut up". My point is that Steve Worth's pretty much in control so the ASIFA archives will reflect his tastes whether right or wrong...and anyone who's ever talked with Steve knows that, in his head, he's never wrong.
So asking Steve to include writers or to admit that writers exist and are important is a complete waste of time until John K tells Steve othewrwise.
If you want to debate if writers are important outside of Steve's Asifa archive fine but you're pissing in the wind inside of that context.
SO getting back to my comment, IF it's really that important to you that writers are somehow included then volunteer to help Steve and you might see some movement - or if that fails then start your own archive.
And until I compare ASIFA to the Nazi's (which I haven't) I'm not sure what your point is. I would never suggest this trivial debate about writers being good or bad should ever be compared to anything important like the Holocaust.

Alex Weitzman said...

Firstly, I didn't reference Godwin's Law because you were implying anything about Hitler. I referenced it because there always seems to be a spot in any debate about artistic works/things where someone, perhaps in frustration or just in arrogance, insists that his/her opponent has nothing to say because he hasn't actually gone out and done the things he's criticizing/debating about. Like Hitler, but specified for artistic topics, it's a conversation-killer. "You wouldn't understand because you're not an actor/writer/animator/director/etc."

But, of course, that's not what you meant. I was merely clarifying. So, we move on.

Your expanded point, while not as straw-manny as the one I'd assumed it was, is still based on the unpleasant idea that you think the debate should essentially cease. Why? I understand that Worth is apparently unwilling to consider alternate perspectives. I say "apparently" because I haven't ever met him, so I don't personally know. But under the assumption that all previous descriptions are true, I don't recall seeing a "put your money where your mouth is" clause on the non-existant Internet Discussion contract. For my own part, I am neither equipped nor able to achieve either of your suggestions, be it starting my own archive or assisting at Worth's. So, again, there is an implied "shut up" element to your argument. And frankly, I don't see why I'd have to. I'm writing on a blog board, not calling a man out to a duel. Opinions are what they are; take them for what they're worth and respond as you will.

schmuley said...

Feel free to go as long as you want...I wasn't trying to shut you down - I was just trying to be kind and suggest you not waste your breath just as Steve Huelett had. Go for it...if you think you can alter something that is in Steve Worth's head than you go right ahead.
Now if you could send him a note and sign it John K and imitate his God-like omniescience you might actually stand a chance.
I persoanlly have given up trying to convince him that other opinions exhist. You probably have a better chance of convincing W he is the worst president in the modern era than changing Worth's opinions or tastes.
And since I also don't have the time or inclination to involve myself in his masturbatory JohnK lovefest I figure it's safer and less messy to accept it for what it is.
No straw men or Godwin's law here...

Alex Weitzman said...

Fair enough, but let the record state that my comments were at no point directed at Worth himself. I was more interested in talking to the bystanders that populate this blog than the man himself. Most Internet debate isn't about changing your opponent's mind, anyway. Usually, it's about proving yourself to the onlookers.

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