Story, story, and story?

As I’ve discussed before, there’s a common joke-slash-truism in the animation community: What are the three most important things in a great animated movie?   It’s a variation on the old real-estate saw: What are the three most important things in selling a house? Location, location, location. In the world of animation, the axiomatic answer is usually story, story, story.  Animation, character design, art direction, directorial style, medium, staging, voice work, editing, lighting, effects, and so on are never part of that short list.

A variation on this idea is the commonly stated, “Great animation can’t save a bad story, and bad animation can’t hurt a great story.”  In my years in the industry I’ve heard this refrain every time there is a discussion about why a film succeeded or failed.  “Of course that movie bombed — the animation and production values were fine, but the story wasn’t strong enough.”  So not only does the conventional wisdom hold that story is superordinate to everything in an animated film, but also that character animation (and everything else) is almost irrelevant.

I’ll explore whether great animation can or cannot save a bad story later.  That’s a question that’s important to me.  But here, I want to look at the question of whether or not Story is the end-all and be-all of a great animated film. Put another way, the central question is,  Are major studios  foolish to put so much effort and money into art direction, character design, layout, modeling, rigging, animation, editing, lighting, surfacing, effects, sound design, vocal performances, etc., etc.? Because that’s what the ‘Story, story, story’ axiom implies.

Can’t you take a fantastic script, blast through preproduction, ship all the production work around the globe to the cheapest bidders, and save a big fat bundle while making your hit movie?  If story is all important, and animation is window dressing, a lot of money is being wasted, isn’t it?

I don’t think so.  I think the common “It’s story, story, story” refrain is wrongheaded, and misses the mark.

First, let’s look at what story is.

Story is what happens and to whom, why it happens, and what it means.  There are some interrelated but distinct elements that constitute ‘story.’  One key element is plot, which is the causal sequence of what events.  Many people confuse plot with story. The plot is the series of events, which usually provide conflict.  A plot doesn’t require specific characters or settings or even specific motivations.  As Fitzgerald famously said, “The king died, then the queen died” is a plot, while “the king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a story.

Georges Polti reviewed literature up until 1868 and found only 36 ‘dramatic scenarios’. Ronald Tobias has written an influential book summarizing 20 Master Plots (online discussion here).  There are other lists of possible plots, some even shorter.

This isn’t surprising.  If you look hard, you’ll see that there are many, many movies with almost identical plots, yet the movies aren’t remotely alike. Some are good movies, some not so good.

We get excited when we see a good movie with an intricate plot, and this confuses some into thinking a complex plot, especially with lots of twists and turns, is a key element for a great movie. There are plenty of movies, perfectly enjoyable movies, with unnecessarily confusing plots, overly complicated plots, or ridiculously simple plots.  Since the plot supplies the ‘spine’ of a story, a well-plotted movie has a better chance to be a good movie, but there are countless examples of hopelessly muddled plots in beloved movies.  I’ve watched The Big Sleep four times.  It’s a classic film noir that I love, and yet I can’t begin to tell you what the plot is (it’s famously unclear if either the great director, Howard Hawks, or the screenwriters,  William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, knew what was going on in the story, either).  The plot is incomprehensible, yet it’s a wonderful film.  A great plot is not crucial to a good film.

Theme is another key element of story.  Theme is what the story means.  In trite terms, it’s the message. The tricky thing about theme is that it can’t really be written — it emerge from stories.  Not all movies have much in the way of a theme.  Some try to pack in several themes.  Many have muddled themes or poorly developed themes, or themes that don’t synchronize with the plot.  In general, the subplot often carries the theme, and in a well crafted movie multiple characters will reveal multiple aspects of the theme.

Theme is the area where the classic bloated Hollywood spectacle movie fails.  It’s not the emphasis on explosions and gratuitous VFX, or the emphasis on the latest hot celebrity actors, or the illogical overplotted storyline.  The film either lacks a distinct theme, or the theme is as superficial as a modern childrens’ book (an obvious message is not quite the same as a subtle, resonate theme).  And yet, all too often, movies with muddled or conflicting themes are embraced and successful.  And films with beautiful, important, touching themes are often forgotten.  So theme isn’t a sufficient element to guarantee a great movie, either.

Character (alternatively characterization) is usually recognized as a key element of story.  What’s a story without compelling, well-crafted characters?  Let me ask — how many stories, and how many films, feature Sherlock Holmes and his usual cohorts?  How many filmed versions are there of the blind swordsman Zatoichi?  Are some of them wonderful?  Yes.  Are some of them terrible?  Yep.  I’ve read or watched about a thousand individual Spider-Man stories, in comics, in animation, in films.  Many have exactly the same characters.  Some are entertaining, some not so much.  Whether it’s Shrek and Donkey or James Bond, great characters are also, by themselves, insufficient for a great movie.

Setting is usually considered a key element of story.  Quick, take your favorite story, and try to imagine it in a completely different time and place.  Did that destroy the story?  Probably not.  Did Kurasawa destroy Macbeth when he transposed it to feudal Japan in Throne of Blood?  Did George Lucas destroy The Hidden Fortress, which is set in feudal Japan, when he transposed it to a fantasy future in Star Wars? The list of stories and films that have been redone in entirely different settings is far too long to list, and there are better examples than I’ve given.  Is a particular setting, no matter how exotic or how familiar, key to a film’s success?  Clearly not.

What about other possible elements in a story? This list includes authorial point of view, story structure (3-act structure, 5-act structure, hero’s journey, etc.), MacGuffins, conflict, reversals, flashbacks, dialog, and on and on.  Many of those elements are part of plot, but deserve separate mention.  So, how many of those elements appear only in good movies? How many of these elements, if present and well done, put a movie over the top?  Again, I think none are sufficient or even crucial.

At this point, I can guess what some of you are muttering.  That I’m breaking apart things that have to hang together.  A good story is the sum of all those pieces —  ALL of the elements I’ve listed above, mixed together in a ‘just so’ arrangement, are what counts.  I don’t disagree.  But then let me ask, how many films have been entirely remade, with exactly the same story and story elements, yet with very different results?

Some are slavish, shot-for-shot remakes, matching character and dialog and setting, others slightly tweaked, others simply remade in a new language, with domestic actors.  There are hundreds of such films, with the same plot/theme/characters/key elements. But they all have different actors, different directors, different cinematographers, different art directors and production designers, different editors, different production values.  The story is the same, the execution is different, and the resulting films are fundamentally different.

I remember years ago, a know-it-all friend dismissed the success of The Lion King with, “Well of course it’s a huge hit.  They just redid Hamlet, with lions. How can you miss with a great classic story like Hamlet?”  I asked him if this was the first film that borrowed heavily from Hamlet?  He thought for a moment, and said “No, of course not.”  I didn’t need to ask the next question, because he got it — all those other Hamlet-influenced films weren’t necessarily good or successful.  Borrowing story from a great play like Hamlet is no guarantee of making a great film.

Ultimately, the key to a fantastic, enjoyable, successful animated feature can be summarized in a few words: entertainment and engagement.  Did it engage you, entertain you, suck you in completely?  Did it make you glad you spent your $10?  Story, in and of itself, cannot do that.  Otherwise, a remake of Kung Fu Panda, but with earthworms, animated in Waziristan, and rendered on TRS-80s, would be a blockbuster.  Kung Fu Wormy might have exactly the same story, but it likely won’t be as good a movie.

So ponder this for now, and soon I’ll post what I think really is the answer to the question, “What are the three most important things for a great animated movie?”  And by the way, when I wrote about this topic a year ago, I was referring to what I considered the most important element in getting an audience to come see your film. I still think appeal is the absolute key to generating viewer interest and having a big opening weekend.  Here, I’m talking about something different: among the animated films we bother to see, what makes some of them great, and others not-so-great?  What hooks you about a film so much you want to see it again and again?

18 Responses to “Story, story, and story?”

  1. David A Says:

    Awesome post. Certainly something that me and my coworkers have debated often. It was around when Cloudy came out and how we felt Cloudy had a stronger entertainment value than Up. Both are good stories and are very unique. But the entertainment and originality (appeal?) of Cloudy was stronger hence why some of us enjoyed it more.

  2. The Old Story Axiom | James C. Ditmer Says:

    […] another friend of mine had shared. It was an article written by Kevin Koch and posted on his site SynchroLux.  It is a great read about the old saying that Story is King in […]

  3. Melt Says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject and I look forward to the follow-up.

  4. Mark Mayerson Says:

    I would point out that Howard Hawks, not Billy Wilder, directed The Big Sleep.

  5. BreadandButter Says:

    “Did it engage you, entertain you, suck you in completely? Did it make you glad you spent your $10?”

    I can easily apply that description to my favorite animated film of 2009 – Astro Boy. It’s a shame so many people made assumptions about it and chose to ignore it, because it had the above qualifications in spades. Which is not something I can say about Cloudy, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I found mildly amusing and interesting in their way, but not ultimately very memorable or engrossing – plus they utterly failed when it came to producing a strong central character I cared about. I didn’t really care very much for the goofy professor, the sly fox, the emo kid. Whereas I cared about Astro to the point of tears. Plus the film tackled some tough subject matter, such as death, grief, rejection, identity…not the sort of struggles you’re likely to find in the productions of studios such as Dreamworks. Truly, anyone who hasn’t seen Astro Boy because of the aforementioned assumptions, needs to at least rent the DVD…the movie’s as touching and resonant as The Iron Giant, and sticks with you longer than your usual animated fluff.

  6. Kevin Says:

    Silly me, of course Hawks directed it. I was even reading Howard Hawks, Storyteller when I was writing the first draft of this, months ago. Hawks and Wilder are my favorite directors, so I crossed them up. Thanks for the correction, which I’ve changed in the post.

  7. Kevin Says:

    I haven’t seen Astro Boy yet. I saw a couple of sequences of the film while it was in production, and while I thought it looked good, what I saw didn’t engage me. I remember thinking, “it looks soft,” like it had been aimed at a younger crowd, with any sharp edges rounded off. I might see the film and love it, but it failed the test regarding ‘appeal’ (at least for me) that I wrote about a year ago, and linked to at the top of this post.

    I saw a similar amount of How to Train your Dragon, and was completely sucked in. I’ll be surprised if that film isn’t a substantial hit, but we’ll see.

  8. Sean McLaughlin Says:

    Do you own the rights to “Kung Fu Wormy” Kevin? Sounds like a great project… Something we should develop I dont have my TRS-80 anymore, but how about an old SGI and Amiga? 😉

  9. Joe Says:

    I would say an even greater portion of box office punch is how good is the trailer? I’ve seen great movies with sucky trailers get overlooked.

  10. BreadandButter Says:

    Kevin, Astro Boy has some darker themes that you might be very surprised would be included in a film supposedly aimed at a “younger crowd”. It really gets pretty intense at times. Since the original manga (Japanese comic) it was derived from included such themes, the film-makers included them too, and handled them well in my opinion.

    It is DEFINITELY not a film aimed solely at young children. Any more than Iron Giant, Bambi or the Lion King were.

  11. Stephen Worth Says:

    The things that get people to go to the theater, and the things that they remember are set pieces… The exciting situation or visual candy that is instantly grabby- the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp, the dragon in Sleeping Beauty, Pink Elephants in Dumbo, King Kong battling dinosaurs and climbing buildings in New York. Some movies, like Pinocchio, are just a string of great set pieces stitched together with just enough story to make the motivation of the characters clear. Disney would put his concept artists to work looking for these key sequences and then build the rudimentary story around them. If you can come up with really good candy, the meat and potatoes are easy to develop.

  12. Kevin Says:

    Sean my brutha!!! Great to hear from you, old pal. Yes, I have the rights to “Kung Fu Wormy,” as well as the prequel, “How to Train your Wormy.” They’re gonna rock.

    Joe, trailers are important, but that relates more to my prior post about ‘Appeal.’ A trailer is about making your film look appealing. It really doesn’t have anything to do with how we remember the film, which is what storytelling is all about.

    BandB, I’ll track down a copy of Astro Boy and give it a proper watching.

    Stephen, that’s an interesting idea, and I agree that effective set pieces and memorable and appealing. I know there are some great directors who needed to be able to visualize a couple of key scenes that really worked, and then the rest of the film was easy for them. On the other hand, I think there are some filmmakers who are so focused on those amazing set pieces that you get too many of them, but without the meaning that gives them resonance and context. I think set pieces are story telling tools that, in and of themselves, aren’t necessarily sufficient for the audience to love a film, but they certainly help.

  13. Ok, lots of news. Lots of issues, lets get started. « Cartoon Electro Says:

    […] answer would be “not hardly.” As Kevin Koch points out, plots are made and remade. As there was Dances with Wolves, so is there nowAvatar. Douglas […]

  14. alonso Says:

    great post Kevin, nothing to add 🙂 looking forwards to your follow up

  15. andy holden Says:

    Hi Kevin, great post and I agree with you completely about how well a film is executed leads to how succesful it can be judged.

    I think the major thing for me is empathy; Kiki’s Delivery Service is my favourite animated film for example, even though I generally agree that miyazaki has made better films technically since. The difference for me is down to how closely I relate to that character and how much I see parallels between how that character reacted to certain situations and to how I did when faced with similar situations in my own life.

    Of course a story can’t account for this in a sense that it’s all relative to subjectivity, so I guess the best we can we aim for is to be sincere and try to deliver something that is truthful to our experiences in the hope that people connect to it the way we did.

  16. Maciek Gliwa Says:

    Hey Kevin,
    very very interesting post. I have to say that it made me think why I went to the cinema 5 times to see Avatar. Too be honest, the story wasn’t that cool at all, I felt like it was totally predictable. Yet, I was in the cinema 5 times to see that movie…I don’t remember when that happen the last time, probably it was matrix. So what was the reason that I decided to watch it so many times? I think it was just the world, that I believed was real, the world that I would like to experience myself. Sequence when characters are flying dragons is so awesome, that I was frustrated that I will never have a chance to fly a dragon myself….I know it sounds stupid, but Pandora to me wasn’t just cg generated world, I truly believed in it. So I guess to me the key thing was the world that I know I could only experience in the cinema, story was totally secondary to me, which is really interesting because I didn’t find the movie boring at all even when I was watching it for the fifth time, but if someone would ask me what I think about the story itself….probably I would say that, yes, it is kind of very predictable and…actually it is boring…
    but that’s just my feelings and opinion, I know very many people don’t share my point of view, yet I guess many people do, since Avatar earned so much money, and I don’t think it can be achieved just with a good marketing…
    just my few cents to the discussion.

    All the best,


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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch