Animation Station: What You Need to Know

November 25, 2020

Animation Station: What You Need to Know

Animation Station: Know Before You Go
By Eva Contis

The most inspiring place in the animation studio I worked was the story room.  This was the birthplace of ideas. If we were in production the walls would be lined with storyboards mapping out sequences, but it was even more exciting when we were not in production because that’s when everyone relaxed and the stories were conceived.  It became an adult playroom and was as visually stimulating as a candy shop, filled with characters and worlds freshly imagined that covered the walls in vivid color. Teams  cultivated their stories here and sketches were just as much a part of the pitching process as the lively conversations around them. It was pure inspiration - newborn ideas bursting with potential.

So where does that leave a writer? Does one need to be an artist to write for animation? The simple answer is no.  And truly, if you are a good storyteller, you are an artist. The more complex question is where does the writer fit in? After all, the writing process is different in animation and while some animation studios strictly create from within, others are hungry for content and are looking for new collaborators.

I don’t need to tell you that animation is getting bigger every day.  It’s not just for kids and there is far more than the summer blockbuster or Saturday morning cartoons to shoot for. Really, the sky’s the limit!

But you need to understand how animation differs from live action before you dive in. Though rules are never steadfast, the career tracks are not quite the same. So if you are considering the “dabble”, it’s not easy (of course, not impossible) to jump back and forth within the worlds - mainly because the communities are made up of different types of creatives given the production pipelines. But how does the path differ? Well, as with every path for a screenwriter, the answer can be as clear as mud, but let’s take a look at a few things.

  • The Markets
  • The Role of the Spec Script
  • The Writing Process
  • Breaking In  

The Markets
Alright, I know I just wrote the sky’s the limit, but when you look at where you find most animation, it’s going to be in the television realm. We know the big players - Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Disney Television. These guys are the ones  pumping out content at a rapid pace. This is a great starting place. Most of the shows on these networks have writers rooms not unlike in the live action world and are often staffed by freelancers. If you want to write, this is where there is demand.

Now in the feature world - and there is crossover with most of these studios - places like Dreamworks, Pixar, or Walt Disney - these guys are geared toward the blockbuster and though they might be mining stories from outside of the studio, it’s usually a “Plan B”. Most kids graduating from places like Ringing College or SCAD all know that one of the perks of working for an animation studio is that if you get far enough up the food chain, you get to pitch your story ideas. That’s what they’re gunning for.  So, stories coming from the “outside” as one might say, have less of a chance of getting noticed. Of course, on the other hand, there might be independent producers looking for a story to pitch themselves, so it boils down to doing your homework and keeping up on the current climate.

Also good to note is that not all animation studios are producing material.  Some are just guns for hire, working under the umbrella of a larger studio.

The Role of the Spec Script
This is probably the biggest difference between the aspiring live action writer and the aspiring animation writer. While the writer of the live action spec script can potentially sell that script and hit a payday, it’s less likely that will happen in the animation world. The animation spec script is much more of a writing sample that can get you a gig. Having a portfolio to show your range is key to getting work.

The Writing Process
On the surface, the writing of an animated script is not so different from the live action script. The formatting is pretty much the same. However, it’s after the first draft that the script takes on a life of its own. We all know there’s the movie you write, the movie you shoot and the movie you edit, but in animation, it’s even more collaborative. The animation script is much more fluid as the film makes its way through development and production. As a writer at Disney once explained, “It’s like painting a moving train.” A script will go through maybe hundreds of drafts and will include the writer, the director, the story leads, artists, animators and so on and so forth! And it goes on for years.

Breaking In
It’s the age-old question.  How do you get your foot in the door? Well, as usual, there is no one way.  Here is where things are the same as live action.  It’s all about how you develop your craft and who you meet along the way. So be ready to dive into the world of animation.  Know the players, know the festivals and see where you can fit in.  The best way to get in and work up any ladder is to gain skills that are in demand.  Sure, you want to write, but working on the technical side can get you a desk at a studio and help you hone your story skills. You can target larger studios and find an entry level position, or you can target smaller studios where you have a bigger chance at being part of the collaborative effort. Trust me, animation studios are popping up all over the world.

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