Ok – so we’ve been talking about creating Indigenous animated characters and IP (intellectual property) for India specific content in the animation industry. Now that Disney has firmed up its plans and others like Nick, Hungama, Pogo and CN already in the fray, it’s an overwhelming opportunity for Indian studios, IF they are sensitive to market conditions and develops products that generate high TRPs and revenues for the channels.
The biggest challenge in recent times for Indian animation (not outsourcing model but indigenous animation creation) has not been as much as getting requisite skill sets but a powerful concept, storytelling, great character designs and pre-prod in place. Frankly speaking, in my opinion this is the area where we lack most. While most of our animators are groomed for skills there are not many who are being upgraded as animation film-makers or storytellers.
This is one of the major stumbling blocks. I have had to write most of the concepts I’m developing in animation on my own with little help from good Bollywood script writers.
Luckily for me, I got a solid grounding in storytelling at Sheridan College under Zack Schwartz, an 85 year old teacher who had worked with Walt Disney himself and the founder of UPA studio! I owe a lot to him – every 2 hour session on storytelling we had with him at Sheridan was an awesome enlightening experience.
Live-action vs. Animation
Although it might seem like a give in that because we have such a vast talent pool in Bollywood, surely some of them could transit to animation storytelling. This is much more difficult that it actually seems. This is because animation storytelling is vastly different from live-action films’ storytelling. The basic rule of thumb being if your so called “animation concept” can be depicted with live action characters its probably a bad animation concept.
Animation offers absolutely a new realm of possibilities – imaginative exaggeration and fantasy being a corner-stone of it. The fundamentals are the same – Premise, plot, climax, resolution, characterization and integrity etc. Where it differs vastly is the treatment. If an animated film comes close to mimicking live action, be it the 1940s feature – Gulliver’s Travels, (where Gulliver was “rotoscoped” or traced on drawings from a live-action reference) or the more recent 3D feature Final Fantasy, its usually not accepted well by the audiences.
So even though the basic tenets of storytelling are the same, the approach to writing animation is radically different.
How to be an animated storyteller
There are many facets to being a good animation storyteller, story structure being the main. The various components of story structure by itself – Premise, Plot, Expositions, Foreshadowing, Recurring motifs, etc. are a vast subject by themselves that requires voluminous description and interpretation. It would be a good idea to hang on to one of the storytelling books (there aren’t many for animation specific content). “Illusion of Life” by former Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas is the one I recommend as a must have. Others include “Writing for Fiction” by David Mamet and “And then what happened” by Zachary Schwartz. “From Script to Screen” – Shamus Culhane is also awesome.
For characterization there is no better study than Disney classics. Creating endearing animated characters that are evergreen requires a lot of knowledge to build. The film that is considered the bible for study of characterization in animated films is “Jungle Book”. The first rule for creating an animated character is Everybody wants something (motivation). This film is so clear in its communication, yet so animated in its storytelling – just a perfect case for study. Watch more films, study them, see them frame by frame. The best books on characterization are by Stanislavksky – An Actor Prepares and The Stanislavsky System. Get your hands on those if possible.
Study from life.
Most importantly, script/ concept writers suffer from what is called the El Nino effect. No, no I am not referring to the climatic phenomenon that afflicts South America here. Nino here refers to Nothing In, Nothing Out! Research is the key. Study characters from life, because that’s where they’re inspired from to make them believable. Then you can use your knowledge and discretion to exaggerate them.
Using Bottoms up approach.
For many years, I have been doodling many concepts and stories that I felt would make great animation concepts. Its only recently that I discovered that most of them didn’t have a market and were redundant as far as commercial viability of the project is concerned.
And then about 3 years ago I got the bottoms-up approach to developing ideas and concepts. It starts with identifying what the market needs, what the channel requires, what the sponsor will pay for and what the audience would like to see. It sounds uncreative, but its actually more creatively challenging to work around certain parameters and constraints and develop a product with discipline.
Another thing here to remember is that if your project is not researched well with focus-group findings and you assume it is alright for the market, there is a strong probability it will fail. If the focus group findings have an adverse impact on your concept you have to kill your baby or abandon your project (which by itself is an exercise one must practice consistently). Going ahead with the project after the adverse feedback is not advised.
A lot of the bottoms up approach for storytelling is derived out of experience, industry news and findings and above all your hunch.
Adaptation is an art by itself. Disney mastered the art of adapting a folk tale into animated movies with successes right from 1936 masterpiece- Snow white and 7 Dwarfs right down to recent movies like The Little Mermaid and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Adaptation is the art of telling an old story and making it contemporary. No one has done this better than Disney – retaining the essence, the fabric of the story and yet telling it a lot more powerfully and convincingly.
This is an area where we will need to focus. It’s known that a lot of studios are working on Indian folk tales. There are a lot more that are waiting to be dug out, ideas that lend themselves beautifully to animation. But all of them in my opinion will need to be adapted to suit the modern viewer. Telling the story as is will have a limited impact with the aware audience, which is now exposed to the best in the world.
Although the time is coming soon for Indian animation storytelling to rise up to the occasion, paradoxically time is running out for it too. If the initial attempts at telling Indian stories fail, then our young audiences which are already being given an overdose of foreign content will never get to see Indian animated stories or get exposure to our culture and heritage. Yet we have to move with the times and adapt ourselves to the rapidly changing environment. And the storyteller will hold the key.
Once Disney said that it takes 16 years to be an animator. I think the same is true for a good storyteller – there is lots to learn and understand, the road is long and we haven’t even begun