Storytelling, storytelling, storytelling?

So last week we watched that new CG feature, Kung Fu Wormy, and were disappointed.  Why didn’t we love it as much as Kung Fu Panda?  They had virtually identical stories, and that fat, funny lead worm, Pi, was expertly voiced by the very best Jack Black imitator in all of Iceland.  How could it miss?  It missed because it didn’t have the same storytelling.   Storytelling, not story, makes all the difference.

‘Storytelling, storytelling, storytelling.’

That’s a better answer to the question, What are the three most important things for a successful animated film?  We’ve all heard a good story or joke told by a skilled storyteller.  It crackles, it entertains, it engages.  We could happily listen to such a storyteller for hours. But sometimes we imagine that it’s the story that made the storyteller good.  So we retell the same story or joke ourselves.  And no one laughs.  People are bored.  They drift away.  And we think to ourselves, gee, I guess I could have told that better. This is an everyday occurrence, and yet we imagine it’s different for movies.  We think there’s a ‘bullet-proof’ story or script.  There isn’t.  The telling makes the tale.

Storytelling is distinct from story, and goes far beyond that which is written into even the most detailed treatment and script.  It encompasses the look of the film, the design of the world in which the story takes place, the design and performance of the characters, the staging and cinematography, the editing, color, sound design, voices, music, and on and on.  All those elements are crucial, and all need to work together.  The story is just one part of the equation.

Every now and then I hear someone defend the ‘Story, story, story’ answer with the analogy that a script is like a film’s blueprint. Just as any competent builder will make a great building from a great set of blueprints, any competent director and cast and crew should make a fine film from a fine script.  Because it’s the story that really matters, and the story is in the script.  But that analogy doesn’t hold water.

Do a thought experiment with this idea.  Imagine taking a well-written script, one which all the experts agrees tells a great story, with sharp dialog and well realized characters, doing interesting things in a tightly plotted sequence.  Let’s say the script even comes with a detailed treatment, with back-stories for all the characters, and a thoughtful discussion of the nuances of the script.

Now imagine giving 10 copies of that script and treatment to 10 different live-action producers, who hire 10 different sets of director, casting director, cinematographer, art director, production designer, cast, crew, editor, etc., etc.  The mandate for each director and crew is to stick to the story in the script, but to ultimately make the best film possible.

We know what will happen — we’ll get 10 different films, a few of which we’ll have to struggle to see as being in any way similar to the others.  Now let’s make 10 different animated films from the same script, and allow for animation’s infinite variability in tone and style and method. We’ll use 10 different character designers, 10 difference animation supervisors, 10 different budgets, 10 different styles and techniques.  The differences in the final films will be even greater, as will the audience reaction to those films.  Some of the films might be big hits, and others might tank.  But all will have the same story.

Ice Age

Here are some real world examples of what I’m talking about.   When I saw the original Ice Age, I instantly recognized the story as one I’d seen three times before (John Ford’s 3 Godfathers, the French film Trois hommes et un couffin [Three Men and a Cradle], and the American movie the French film directly inspired, Three Men and a Baby). Tokyo Godfathers, a Japanese anime film, came out a year later, and made it five times for the same basic story.

Ford’s 3 Godfathers

The French oneThree Men and a Baby

Tokyo Godfathers

Same basic story, five very different films.

Here are some other stories that have been remade at least three times: Sweeney Todd (five times since the 1936), Anna and the King, Great Expectations, The Front Page, The Hunchbank of Notre Dame, and The Most Dangerous Game. The plots of Macbeth, Hamlet, and Cinderella have been reused countless times.

Many, many films have been carefully remade, with the same story, from foreign films.  Lots of recent Japanese horror films, starting probably with Ringu/The Ring, have had this treatment, and the list of French films remade in Hollywood is long.  Yet all these films are clearly distinct from the originals; sometimes they’re more successful, sometimes less, but always fundamentally different, despite nearly identical stories.

Here’s a link to some scripts that were remade by the same director.  The same scripts and the same directors, but distinctly different films.

Let’s leave the world of film, and move to the stage.  In theater, what a playwright writes is what gets performed.  Stage direction may be minimal in many plays, but the playwright’s story and dialog are sacrosanct.  If story is everything, then every performance of a given play should yield the same entertainment value.  We all know that isn’t the case.

So are we done?  Is story important, but storytelling paramount for how we react to a film?  Not necessarily.  I think that there is a more complete answer when it comes to big-budget animated features. These are films that have often proven themselves capable of attracting and satisfying audiences of all ages, of remaining timeless, of connecting to audiences everywhere.  For these films, storytelling is key, but there’s more.  Which I’ll get to soon.

10 Responses to “Storytelling, storytelling, storytelling?”

  1. tyson murphy Says:

    I had some thoughts like this not long ago, and your argument definitely confirms it for me.

    that must be why i love some animated films that have really weak stories on paper (some gobelins short films come to mind), and why i hate some films that have great stories on paper.

  2. Ross Says:

    In my humble opinion, story and story telling are huge factors, but great movies also have to appeal, and have appeal for audiences.

  3. Kevin Says:

    Ah, Ross, I only said ‘Storytelling, storytelling, storytelling’ was a better answer, not my final answer. Wait for the next post . . .

  4. andy holden Says:

    Hi kevin. How’s it going?

    Great follow up to the previos post, but I think you’ve nailed it here. It really is true that there’s no such thing as a bad idea, only bad exexution of an idea.

    To give my two cents on ross’ thoughts I think appeal and empathy are the successful pay-offs of good executionwhen everything that goes into making a ilm isall singing from the same sheet.and pesenting the same idea as strong as it possibly can.

  5. andy holden Says:

    …I think the mistakes in grammar above makes the point lol

  6. alonso Says:

    It’s interesting that you haven’t focused much on the characters/acting part yet. You mentioned it last time, but dismissed it fairly quickly. But we have all seen films where the film falls flat, but because a major character/actor is so entertaining we have a great experience, or the reverse where the story is good but one actor plays a character so poorly that every time they are on we lose our suspension of disbelief.

    We’re talking about what makes a great movie. And I think we are defining a great movie as one that sticks with you and becomes part of you. But thinking back on that kind of film, what floats up to me is resonant scenes, which are usually resonant because of what the characters feel about them. The overall story was the vehicle for me to connect with the characters, the acting brought out the characters so I emotionally connected with them. Reflecting back on a movie is kind of like remembering a fun summer at camp, it’s like a big amourphous blob of fun feelings and if you look carefully memories of specific events (scenes) where you were having fun with your friends surface.

    I assume you watched that annoyingly voiced star wars review? He made the great point about the light saber fights were cool largely because what they meant to the characters. ( Or Brian McDonald’s short film ( that is strong because there’s a sense of authentic emotion in it. (2nd post on the page he talks about this film

    Film is kind of a way to joining a group of people who are more attractive, and live a more interesting life then you. You are the invisible mute friend running along beside them throughout all their adventures. But it’s entertaining and meaningful to us because it’s the illusion of connecting with other people (knowing all their feelings and secrets, an intimate connection). Otherwise those theme park rides (where you sit inside a jiggly box and watch a screen tricking you into thinking your on a spaceship saving the world) would be the main source of entertainment.

    Looking forwards to your counter thoughts 🙂

    Speaking of storytelling, which you were defining as getting all the pieces working together. Any thoughts on how to learn and improve this skill?

    This is a great series your blogging. I’m going to be really sad if the final post is: “To make a great film, give my new independent studio I’m running a ton of money, I have the secret” (well actually that would be AWESOME, but I would be disapointed not to learn what you think the number one thing is) 🙂

  7. steve Says:

    Another John Wayne movie remade in animation: “Red River” became “Dinosaur.”

  8. Kevin Says:

    Thanks Alonso — yet another commenter anticipating my next post! As I said, “Storytelling” is a better answer than “Story,” but it’s not the complete answer, and you’re right on track.

  9. Paul Says:

    Hey Kevin,

    Great read. Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to your next post.

    Also wanted to say great job on Acme last Tuesday night. The students at my school loved you, and are looking forward to your return engagement next week.

  10. Kevin Says:

    Hi Paul,

    I really enjoyed doing the Acme program. I love teaching and critiquing, and it’s great to hear that the students found it useful. For those who don’t know, the Acme Animation is an online program founded by Dave Master when he was at Warner Bros., to get professional animation teaching to high school and community college students. I sat in on some of the recording sessions when I broke into the industry on ‘Quest for Camelot,’ and it’s great to now be doing some guest teaching in the program.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch