Monday, July 16, 2007

Telling Tales

Okay, so you've got the basics of animation pretty well sorted out and you know enough about modelling techniques to make most of the things you'll need for a simple movie project - but have you got a story to tell? After all, without a story, no amount of modelling, animating, story-boarding, lip-syncing or lighting and camera angles will get you a successful movie.

For many of us, certainly for me, "the story" is the single most difficult part of the whole process. Modelling is relatively easy to learn because it is tangible. You want to model a hand? Find a tutorial on modelling hands and away you go. Making faces with good edge loops, suitable for animating, is similarly "easy" once you've learned the basics of modelling and you understand why loops are important.

Character animation is somewhat more complicated than modelling but quite a lot can still be learned through tangible examples. Books and the internet abound with the basic principles of character animation and there is also no shortage of explicit examples of technique. Want to make an arm movement snappier? Then you'll find step-by-step tutorials on achieving just that. Want to make an eye blink? No problem, with a quick search you'll not only find various examples of eyelid models and approaches to animating them, but advice on how to time a blink for a variety of situations, moods and character traits.

While there is still room for personal interpretation of these things, the fundamentals can be learned through effort and trial and error and, once learned, the animator can start to impose a personal touch.
...without a story, no amount of modelling, animating, story-boarding, lip-syncing or lighting and camera angles will get you a successful movie.

But story writing isn't so tangible, at least I don't find it so. It's purely subjective. It's based on ideas, not polygons - and it's difficult, if not impossible, to teach ideas. There are some fundamentals out there, including seemingly useless advice like "your story must have a beginning, middle and end". Hardly helpful when you're stuck for where to start - or end! But keep searching and you'll find out that good stories require protagonists, antagonists, challenges, risks, failures and ultimately, successes.

So what's stopping you from writing now you've got the recipe? Well, it's hardly a step-by-step tutorial is it?

If you're feeling my pain and nodding away as your read this then let me share with you some resources I have found which may just help to push you a little further along. None will give you a step-by-step guide but they might be just enough to engage your right-brain and get you thinking creatively.

First cab off the rank is animator Jeremy Cantor. Jeremy has made some chapters from his book "Inspired 3D short film production" available for FREE download. Each chapter is a goldmine of professional advice and is as close to a step-by-step story-writing guide as you'll probably find. The writing style is clear and aimed squarely at people, especially animators, wanting to make a short movie. If you read nothing else, take a look at these chapters.

The world wide web also contains a number of so-called "story generators". The usual approach is to push one or more buttons and have random selections of text offered up as potential subject matter. Here are a few to try. I'm sure they work for some people.

Writing Fix:
If the colour scheme doesn't instantly freeze your brain then you might well find some useful ideas among this large collection of auto-generators. Each page also contains basic advice on how you might use the generated ideas. Try "Serendipitous Cartoon Plots" for example, but note the site is aimed at students and the generated plots mostly involve characters that would land you with a copyright infringement if you used them as-is. But change the named character to a generic one and off you go.

Seventh Sanctum - Story Generator:
Choose how many ideas you want, choose a category, or "free for all" then hit the "generate" button and see what you get. I have to confess some of the ideas leave me more bewildered than I was before I started but your mileage may vary.

The Fill-in-the-Blank Story Generator:
This generator takes a different approach. The user (you) completes a basic storyline by choosing from several options in drop-down menus to fill in the blank spaces. The site claims there are 9,442,156,179,456,000,000 stories to generate from all possible combinations of the options. I can't be bothered doing the arithmetic so I'm willing to believe them. The idea is to submit your story to the website for possible publication - but you might just use it to generate a storyline for your next production.

Simple Plot and a Random Story Generator:
Odd. But you might like it.

On a final note, if none of the above resources help and you're still stuck for a story line, then you might want to seek out stories which are in the public domain. These are stories which are free of copyright restrictions and include fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen.

Take a look at The Literature Page or Public Domain Content for examples of what's out there. Some Google searching for "public domain stories" will likely turn up more.

If you do use such stories, you should be aware that just because the original story may be free of copyright, any subsequent tellings of that story by others will carry their own copyright. So, while you may well be able to make your own version of Beauty and the Beast, if your version borrows characters, sub-themes, script or music from the Disney version of the same story, then you will likely find out what copyright infringement really means.

If you have any inspirational writing tips to share then please do so.


Erik Westlund said...

Nice collection of resources Andy.

I surfed over here to check out your blog. I whole-heartily agree with your comments at Keith Lango's site. In my opinion you summarized the gist of Keith's latest articles about as well as anyone. Rather than clog up Keith's site with more of my mutterings I decided to say it to you:

Here, Here!

Thanks for the collection of links.

Andy said...

Thanks Eric. I hope to make this site a simple re-telling of my on-going journey with animation. I figure if I find something interesting or useful then someone else probably will too.

Actually, I took a look at your page last night too but didn't have time to go exploring. It certainly looks interesting so I've got it bookmarked for a return visit.

I like Keith's site because he's not frightened of sharing an opinion. Even if I don't necessarily agree with his points, I find them refreshing - and unlike the average movie critic, he knows what he's talking about when it comes to animation.

Patrick said...

Hi Andy,

I can give you a big clue about story writing. The man who George Lucas credited with showing him the way to write Star Wars was Joseph Campbell. Campbell studied the worlds religions, from organized religion to indigenous tribal stories. He wrote the book, 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces'. It describes the Hero's Journey. As Campbell puts it, it is the tale worth telling.


Andy said...

Thanks Patrick. That makes sense since Star Wars is essentially a religious tale with the genuine goodness of The Force and all-promising temptations of The Dark Side being parallels of most Earthly religions.

I guess one of the reasons I find writing difficult (well, writing stories anyway) is that I'm not a reader of stories. I'll read informative textbooks almost cover to cover and retain lots of useful information but give me a novel, fact or fiction, and I've lost the plot before the end of chapter one.

Anonymous said...

The book is NOT for free download from the link you have given. Is there and other link ?

The present link takes you to

Inspired 3D Short Film Production (Inspired) (Paperback)
by Jeremy Cantor (Author), Pepe Valencia (Author) "Creating a short animated film can be artistically as well as financially rewarding..." (more)
Key Phrases: phoneme shapes, animatic stage, audio synching, Early Bloomer, Adobe Premiere, Squaring Off (more...)

7 Reviews
5 star: 71% (5)
4 star: 28% (2)
3 star: (0)
2 star: (0)
1 star: (0)

See all 7 customer reviews...
4.7 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews (7 customer reviews)

List Price: $59.99
Price: $37.79 & this item ships for FREE with Super Saver Shipping. Details
You Save: $22.20 (37%)
Upgrade this book for $11.99 more, and you can read, search, and annotate every page online. See details
Availability: In Stock. Ships from and sold by Gift-wrap available.

Only 5 left in stock--order soon (more on the way).

25 used & new available from $22.00