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.