Story Development in Animated Features

This post was inspired by a few questions from Alonso in the comments section:

How much time is typically devoted to the story making/boarding/animatic phase of a movie? How well can you tell if the film will work when it’s in animatic form? . . . do stories come out weakly because they didn’t have enough time to keep tightening them, or because you can’t get a good enough idea of the final product from just the boards?

The story building process typically lasts two or three full years for an animated feature, but there’s a lot of variation, and in some cases it stretches out much, much longer. That’s 2-3 years of dedicated work by a team that usually involves a director or two, a few writers, a team of story artists, and several visual development artists and character designers (at least at the big studios). Often that several-year period of intense development work is preceded by more years of development by one person or a few people who either originated the concept or are trying to make the concept salable or ready for full development.

It’s never just story that is being developed during this time — it’s also the characters as well as the look and style of the film. A couple of examples of how long this process can go before production begins are two current Disney productions: The Princess and the Frog, which had a relatively brief period of full development (the film was announced in 2006, and is practically wrapped now), and Rapunzel, which began development work began just before Walt died (I kid!), and which is finally slated to begin full production late this year.

The entire process is actually a series of overlapping processes, and while the goal may seem to be to satisfactorily complete one phase before moving on, that never happens.  The seemingly logical process would be to create a tight story (via script or otherwise), design the characters and setting, storyboard the film, make a story reel with scratch dialog and then test it a few times, create the animatic and record final dialog, and then make the damn film.  In my experience, it never works that way.  Script writing, character refinement, and storyboarding end up happening simultaneously, which allows those different processes to inform and influence each other.  And that’s a good thing, at least in theory, letting those different processes develop some synergy.  The final animatic, which should be something of a blueprint for the film, often bears only a passing resemblance to the original story and script.

The obvious goal of all the hard development work is to craft a great story, with engaging characters, in a pleasing style and interesting setting, so that all that is left is to execute it. From a production standpoint, development is meant to avoid ‘finding’ the film during or after production, which is common in live action, and very expensive in animation. Why the difference between animation and live action. Simple. It’s about ‘coverage.’

In live action, directors typically shoot the same scene from multiple camera positions and with multiple takes. Once a scene is shot, it doesn’t cost anything extra to reshoot a variation of the same scene, with variations on lines and acting and camera set-ups. All this ‘coverage’ increases the filmmaker’s options in editing, where a live action film is often crafted. In live action, filming ratios of thirty or forty to one (ratio of footage shot to footage used in the final cut) are common. In animation, this approach would literally increase production costs by about 20 fold, if it was even possible to find enough animators to pull it off. Imagine animating 60 hours of film to make a 90 minute cartoon!

So the goal of story development in animation is to both find ideas/stories/characters that have the potential to be hits, and to absolutely minimize wasted production work. Story board artists basically provide the coverage in animation. Does it work? That depends.

Inevitably, more story and character changes ensue during the animation process, when the folks in charge figure out the real heart and soul of the film, so that much of the animatic is revised or thrown out as scenes and sequences are reboarded, redesigned, reanimated.  The story department is usually still hard at work on a film up right up until shortly before animation finishes.

That’s not to say the typical animation story development process doesn’t save production time.  There’s no doubt it does.  But there is always a certain amount of ‘wasted’ work on animated films, and a certain amount of ‘back to the drawing board’ during production.

So how well can you tell if the film will work from the animatic? I’m not sure the animatic is the thing anyone should be judging. The typical animatic, despite how detailed these things have become in just the last ten years, still lacks any acting.  In CG features, they’re far less expressive than the storyboards.  And the animatic production values (lighting, cloth, effects, score, etc., etc.) are crude at best.  So animatics can be deceptive. I think the standard story reel, and a well-honed imagination, is a better test. And even before that, I think you can boil the entire story down to a few well-written pages and have a pretty good idea if you have a workable film or not.

And the final question, do weak stories come from lack of development, or because boards and animatics are hard to read. I guess both, and neither. It depends.  How’s that for a cop out?

I’ve seen films that I was certain were fated for failure from the initial pitch, and in those cases I think the years of amazing development work only conspired to gloss over those fundamental flaws. In those cases, the development art is often the best thing about the film. But that only makes for a great ‘Art of …‘ book, not a great film.

And I’ve seen cases where the team thought they were really close to having a great story and launched into production, only to be trapped by release-date deadlines.  As a result, the finished film had great first and second acts, but an unsatisfying resolution. Another year of development might have solved that, and made for a huge hit.  Sometimes you think you’re so close to having it all solved, but you aren’t.

So it depends, but I can tell you it’s not for lack of trying at the development stage that some feature films don’t work.  No one sets out, at least at the big studios, to crap something out just for the sake of making a film.

14 Responses to “Story Development in Animated Features”

  1. Dhar Says:

    I wonder; do any of the big studios have sociologists and psychologists on hand to help the story sustain the viewer’s interest?

  2. alonso Says:

    Thanks for answering my question. But I’m confused. I thought an animatic and story reel were the same thing. And I thought that they were just the storyboards scanned in and timed with scratch dialogue. And I thought that the storyboards were essentially the key acting pieces of each scene. But I’m basing my ideas off the Incredibles DVD extras (and Bird & Co. seem to be very 2D roots), do most CG films do their animatic as kind of the layout’s & t-poses stitched together?

  3. Kevin Says:

    Dhar, I’ve never seen that. I think story artists, writers, and directors are constantly engaged in real world research on what sustains viewers’ interest, and though I have an academic research background, I’m skeptical that sociologists and psychologists would be better equipped for the task.

    Alonso, I’m using old-school definitions. I think more and more ‘animatic’ is being used for ‘story reel’, but what I’m referring to as story reel is what used to be known as a Leica Reel. It is made up of a filmed version of the story boards, edited for approximate timing, and usually accompanied by a scratch dialog track and possibly scratch music. It’s very simple, and puts a premium on expressiveness and simplicity.

    The animatic as I’m referring to it includes layout information, with camera moves and much more specific staging information. In CG films, the story reel is all drawn, while the animatic is all CG, with stiff place-holder rigs sliding around in low-res. CG environments. The animatic attempts to capture all the camera data and how those cameras work with the sets. It’s all about staging and has nothing to do with performance and acting. While the story reel contains expressive drawings and visual cheats that get the story points across, the animatic is more of a technical exercise, and the rigs work like mannequins with blank faces and no acting.

    There are some directors, like Brad Bird, who have taken the story reel to new levels of detail, with many, many more drawings (and tight, on-model drawings to boot) used to show both story points and also timing, staging, cameras, etc. Scenes are practically animated before they get to the animator. In the above post, I’m using ‘story reel’ in the more traditional sense, where there is usually only a few story-telling drawings (sometimes a single drawing) for each scene, and those drawings aren’t necessarily on model and usually have only very basic layout information.

    The key difference is that a story reel can be assembled, and dramatically changed, relatively quickly, and can be generated by a handful of talented story artists in fairly short order. A full animatic is far more labor intensive, and involves many more technical decisions that extend far beyond basic story considerations.

    I think one of the problems with CG feature animation is that many execs, and not a few animation people, like the enhanced detail of an animatic, and have trouble ‘reading’ a story reel. I think some films jump from story reel to animatic too soon, before the story is worked out, and once you’ve gone to all that trouble of constructing a functional animatic it becomes harder to retool massive sections of the film and redo all that work.

  4. alonso Says:

    Thanks Kevin, that clears things up.

    What makes an idea move forwards into development? Because it seems like things go into development sooner then they need to. From the outside it makes sense for the Captain of the ship to know where you’re headed before you hire a crew, just the basics like the major pieces of the acts and the main characters. But what I’ve heard seems to suggest it’s not done that way. Chicken Little started as a girl into hoax magazines. Bug’s Life’s Flick was a red ant who came to visit the purple ant colony. Sully was a janitor. Kingdom of the Sun had 2 teams working on 2 totally different movies for a while! So does it seriously only take a vague elevator pitch to get the greenlight to start developing something, because it seems like a lot of money could be saved if a slightly more thorough idea was in place before more then 1 person got involved. Cuz let me tell you, if they’re handing out money to folks with half baked ideas I’m your man 😛

  5. angie beshara Says:

    Hi Kevin,
    First off, I love the thorough explanations and’s what true blogs are made of. Keep it up, it is great blogging. I personally enjoyed The Road to El Dorado, but I do know there were a lot of things up in the air about its story etc etc. You mentioned a few times in past blogs that it had a lot of problems and I’ve even heard it through other comments on other sites. What was the issue?? I found the characters all entertaining, very defined personalities, especially Chel (I adored her design and character). Although, I was not too thrilled with the whole finale of the jaguar (I still don’t know why). I would love to hear your thoughts on it. If you worked on it, could you post some of your artwork??

  6. Cassidy Says:

    Great post, Kevin!

    I actually was also confused by your use of “animatic” in contrast to “story reel”. My understanding of “animatic” is that it’s a catch-all term that refers to any kind of easy-to-create assemblage of elements that gives you a rough idea of the whole scene or film. So “animatic” doesn’t necessarily refer to storyboards or 3D layout. It could be storyboards, layout, previs, or anything really. In commercial production I’ve seen animatics that were made entirely of off-the-shelf live action stock footage, to be replaced by custom-filmed live-action shots later. The core idea of an “animatic” is that it’s fast and easy to put together. So, for the stage you’re describing in CG films, I’d use the term “layout reel” or “previs”.

  7. Kevin Says:

    Alonso, I was going to write a partial defense of the system of development, but the fact is, you’re correct that lots of stuff gets the greenlight before it should. From the studio exec side of things, I’m sure it seems like a LOT of work has been done and many (if not most) key issues have been resolved. I think it only seems like things go into production after an elevator pitch. Ultimately, I think the problem is that there is no bullet-proof method for developing a film, animated or live-action. In fact, I think projects can be developed to death. What’s the perfect balance? What’s the best system? I don’t think there is one.

    Angie, for me there were two major problems with The Road to El Dorado. First, it was a period piece set in South America — I thought at the time that that combination would be box office poison. There are certain settings and time periods that I don’t think modern audiences are interested in, even if the film is fantastic.

    Second, the film didn’t know what it wanted to be. Buddy movie? Action adventure? Romantic comedy? Musical? Historical tragedy? Romance? For adults? For kids? I think the project was like the proverbial elephant being examined by the blind scientists. Different directors, writers, and producers all tried to make different movies, and it ended up a mish-mash.

    Cassidy, I agree that there’s a lack of clarity about the word animatic. But whatever you call it, I usually see that phase of production getting the focus too soon. I’ve worked on productions where the animators never even saw the story reel, or a story reel was never even produced. Everything just jumped right to an animatic (or layout reel or previs if you prefer), which allowed story problems to be glossed over or unresolved until production was well along.

    In the 2D days, there was a humble story reel and, when that was approved, there was a workbook. The workbook was where the staging and layout issues were defined and resolved. It took a lot of skill and experience to interpret those things, so I understand why there was a move to animatics and previs. But I think the typical animatic or previs reel are mostly useful for getting a handle on technical filmmaking issues, and are close to useless in judging the potential quality of a film.

  8. Lynda Says:

    Depends on the studio, but storyboards and “animatics” are used differently at different studios. I happen to believe that storyboards are best used to convey Character and Story, NOT “final” settings or composition. If they convey all, all the better, but it’s not necessary–and generally takes more time. If you’re concerned with the “look” of the film and specific shots during the storyboard phase, you’re emphasis is in the wrong place. It’s making the audience CARE and making the story clear at this point that’s most important. The rest will come. “Animatics” are done once sets and character scale are agreed upon–and also to work some of these issues out. This is where you can start thinking of shots to better tell your story. Storyboarding using animatics, by providing a myriad of shots to editorial is lazy, and is a crutch for film makers who aren’t very confident.

  9. Kevin Says:

    Lynda, that’s a nice summary of some of the points I was trying to make. Thanks.

  10. mascogo Says:

    Here is a timeline of the making Toy Story.

    At day 120 they had a full length story reel of the movie, that allows them “to see what works and what doesn’t”

  11. Kevin Says:

    mascogo, I assume your comment indicates that Toy Story 3 was a case where the convoluted and on-going process of story development was instead efficient and quick. The mistake I think you’re making is assuming that when, at day 123, they had that first screening of the first story reel, that that was the end of story development. And maybe, just maybe, for the first time in the history of animated features, it was! But I doubt it.

    At virtually every studio, on virtually every film, a story reel is created and screened as soon as possible, and well before animation begins. That’s utterly typical. What you shouldn’t assume is that that is the END of the story development process. To sound somewhat Churchillian, it is only the end of the beginning of the development process.

    That first screening inevitably reveals a host of problems. Sequences get rewritten, reboarded, and the story reel remade. Characters get redesigned, or added, or cut, and the story reel gets remade again. Themes evolved, as does the story reel. Different endings are tried, and more story reels are made. Minor sequences get expanded, other sequences get cut, then added back, then cut again. Then sequences get into animation, and new issues are revealed, and more story and storytelling changes ensue. This continues virtually until the end of production. If you knew how often actors were recording new lines while the animation crew was deep into crunch time, you’d be surprised.

    It would be very instructive to be able to watch that original story reel for TS3, to compare it to the final film. My bet is that some things stayed the same (more or less), and that other things would be completely different. And I’d also bet that the Pixar writers and story artists were heavily involved well past day 123 of production.

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  13. Jane Says:

    Thanks for your brilliant post Kevin! This is really helpful and enlightening.
    My question is: How would you compare the story develoment process of an animated feature to that of an animated television series? Is it completely the same steps but just less time? What’s the key to the success of an animated tv story?
    Thank you so much!

  14. Kevin Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jane. Sorry that I’ve been away from the blog so long. I think animated TV is a different beast, and it’s one I’m much less familiar with. In particular, I’ve come to realize that most animated TV series are in two flavors: those aimed at a different (much younger) demographic, and which generally don’t appeal to me especially, and those aimed at adults and often fall into that category that John K. dismissively refers to as ‘illustrated radio.’

    I wish there was a wider range of TV animated series, but I think it’s actually a more restrictive field than animated features or games. And then there are the brutal time constraints that you mention. There’s also a ‘flavor-of-the-month’ thing that goes on in features, but is much more pronounced in TV (Development exec a year ago: “The other network has a great show set in a school! We only want series set in schools!” Development exec today: “Schools settings are stale! Cancel those shows. Get me action adventure!” Rinse and repeat.)

    However, I do think most of the same ideas go into TV development as go into features, though perhaps with a greater awareness of their target demographic.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch