COMIC-CON: Feature Toon Scribes Talk Shop

A panel of writers responsible for some of the biggest animated feature films got together at Comic-Con Int’l in San Diego, Calif., over the weekend to share their thoughts and experiences in the trade. The discussion was moderated by Craig Miller, chairman of the WGA Animation Writers Caucus, and the distinguished panel consisted of veteran Disney writer/director Ron Clements (Treasure Planet, Hercules, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Great Mouse Detective), Mouse House video premier scribe Flip Kobler (Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World) Lilo & Stitch co-writer/co-director Dean Deblois and Terry Rossio (Treasure Planet, Shrek, Road to El Dorado, Aladdin).

Rossio, who came to animation from live action with Aladdin, started the discussion by offering a tip on story structure. “This was suggested to me and I urge everyone who’s interested in writing an animated feature to do this,” he said, “Watch Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid with the sound off. You can still follow the whole story.”

The battle cry of the panel was clearly “Keep it simple,” which is not to suggest that writing an animated feature is at all a simple process. Clements said that most films “explode” at some point in the story process, meaning the team loses faith in the direction and everything melts down and has to be retooled. “Aladdin exploded. The Little Mermaid exploded. To my knowledge, all the Pixar films have exploded,” Clements suggested, faulting story structures that start off being too precise or all about details. “Lilo & Stitch has a simple structure, but possesses complex character relationships. It did not explode.”

Deblois said the problem of story meltdown has led Disney to adopt a more live-action approach to animation, which, due to long production periods, has traditionally been a process of constant tweaking and retooling. “They want the script solid before anything else is done,” he noted.

Getting a solid script means writing, re-writing and more re-writing, according to Rossio. He commented, “A feature animation script is about 85 pages. On Road to El Dorado, I think we wrote something like 5,000 pages.”

Kobler said one of the most important and also most elusive elements of story is theme. “You have to find one sentence that summarizes the story,” he declared. The rest of the panel concurred, citing for example that Lilo & Stitch is about family and The Little Mermaid is really about a father learning to let go. As obvious as they may seem, most of these themes were discovered fairly late in the story process, and the panel suggested that nailing down a theme early in the game will give a writer a major advantage.

In an attempt to fit the process of crafting an animated story into a nutshell, Clements offered, “Animation has two elements at heart: world creation and characterization. When people go to see Shrek, they’re not going to see a movie, they’re visiting Shrek Land. If you create a world and distinctive characters people just have to go and see, then you’ve got a hit.”