You said Story, right? You hear this rhetorical question all the time — what are the three most important things in an animated film? Story, story, story, goes the standard answer.
But I don’t think that’s true. Story doesn’t matter if you don’t have something else, something the audience doesn’t have to actually watch the entire film to appreciate (which they DO if they’re going to appreciate the story). It’s Appeal.
No appeal, no audience. Without appeal, no one ever finds out if your story is good, because they don’t go to see the film. It’s game over. If you don’t hook them with the first images they see, with the first bits of the trailer, then you can have the greatest story in the world and you probably won’t get them into the theater. Pixar knows this. That’s why they’re so careful with the first images you see of their films. Remember this great bit of character acting from Mr. Incredible in this teaser:
There’s virtually no story, but tons of pure appeal. Same with the Wall-E Super Bowl ad:
Who knows what the story’s going to be about? Who cares? It was appealing as all hell, and I’m ready to put down $10 for a ticket right now.
To a large extent, the same principle applies in your own animation. You can be a master of all the other principles of animation, but if your stuff isn’t appealing, no one’s going to care too much. And even if it is appealing, if it looks like what everyone else is doing, you’re going to lose points. So save your imitations of the Brothers Quay, and do something original that just puts a smile on people’s faces.
That doesn’t mean it should necessarily be funny ha-ha (as Joe Peschi might say) — which goes to the question of what, exactly, is appeal? That’s a much bigger question than I’m going to try to answer here. I’ll just say that there’s generally a pretty good consensus of when something has appeal, and this is usually apparent at the idea stage, before you’ve invested dozens of hours in the animation. So kick your ideas around with people you trust if you have any doubts.
I’m going to be doing some posts about spacing and physics and so on, but before I do that I just wanted to emphasize the big picture. I don’t want anyone to lose the forest for the trees. Make your work appealing, then make sure your spacing is working.
Addendum: Just to be clear, I’m being a touch cheeky here. Arguing about what is “most important” in animation is a bit like medieval theologians arguing about how many angels can dance on the point of a needle. This is especially true when many of the terms we’re using, like appeal and story, have indistinct and debatable definitions. And in this post I’m also not really talking about what makes a great animated film, but one that gets watched. Anyway, I love discussing and debating this stuff, so comment away, and some of this will be grist for future posts.