Thursday, October 27, 2011

Story Analysis: Example (Part 2)

I'd like to thank the brave student who volunteered their initial thesis animation story treatment for critical review.

If you watched "Owl" you'll understand that even short film writing (20 minutes) gives you enough time to craft a three act story. In "Owl" the three acts are presented unconventionally:

First Act

Our eventual protagonist is led to the gallows, and will be hanged for acts hinted at in the opening close-up on the proclamation (nailed to the tree).

Second Act

When the rope breaks, the viewer's position shifts from one of passive voyeurism to one of active participation. The protagonist's escape and mission to elude his captors is basically a chase scene, revealing his will to survive and return to his family, to his life before the war.

Third Act

Comes abruptly at the very end of the film, when he is hanged, and the entire lens of the film returns to the first act, revealing the red herring, the flashback, and instantly confronts the viewer with the shocking divorce from our hope that this man would escape the unfair justice thrust upon him at the beginning of the story.

This three-act presentation is unconventional in the length of each act. In a typical 90 minute feature, you might divide the acts somewhat equally throughout the film. Here, the second act basically comprises the entire film, with first and third acts serving as book ends.

Shorter Form Writing

How can you accomplish a powerful story like "Owl" in two to three minutes?

"Breathe" presents nearly the same story outcome, but where "Owl" is not predictable, "Breathe" telegraphs its arc from the outset. The viewer is never placed in a position of emotional choice, that is, from the onset of "Breathe" the viewer knows that the condemned man is dreaming. When he escapes his jailors, he leaves his cell and steps into a grassy field. The author keeps us in a dreamscape with a series of distinct, surreal scenes. We know that he is dreaming. When he is executed at the end of the arc, it comes as no real surprise because we suspected this outcome all along.

Super short form story development, whether dramatic or comedic, requires a tightly crafted load up and payoff in order to keep the audience, and ultimately leave them with a memorable project arc!


While "Breathe" could be re-written to follow the "Owl" device more closely, I would caution those of you who would write dark dramas (stories involving death) as a 2D/3D thesis vehicle. Frankly, you must consider the market that you wish to work in out of school. While this might be considered selling out to a commercial standard, I think that the two to three years you are in a training program is barely enough to learn ALL of the complex collaborative concepts that are expected of you when you apply for your first job.

This is the reality of trade education. You are suspending your life to find a new career. You do not have the time to create impressive exercise work AND a thematic project of a quality that will impress your future employer. You need to make some choices.

Crafting a portfolio marketing piece, an entire project designed start to finish, presented as an MFA thesis project supported by exercise work is the best way to derive value from your hard-earned investment dollar.


Right now, the hottest employment markets for animation are the big films coming out of Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and Sony Animation. These films tend to be aimed at younger audiences and their parents. I can't think of a single 3D animated 90 minute dark drama developed for the US market in recent history. Japanese Anime films (Akira, Princess Mononoke, etc.) have been distributed in the US with cult success, but these are not the films that you will be working on out of school.

In order for your time to be used most efficiently in school, it's imperative that you learn the comic trade, comedic performance, comedic timing and other skills that support this market. Selecting dark dramatic themes force the portfolio reviewer to change gears and regard your material in a category that they are not hiring for. Though your material may be thought-provoking, ultimately the reviewer is looking for a company fit. Will you be able to work on Shrek 10? Though you may not want to, you may have little choice.

Animation as Art

I love experimental art. I love to see young artists pushing the commercial envelope and presenting story forms that defy pop cultural norms. However, an MFA program, especially a trade MFA program is not the place to do this. You are most likely accruing a mountain of debt (in both lost revenue from non-full-time employment and student loans.)

As difficult as this is for me to say, I think that you need to focus on getting the skills you need while in your program in order to find a job after graduation. You'll need to make your iconoclastic animation masterpiece later, when you have more financial options. Sooner than later, short form production will be commonplace, where distribution channels offer per play or per download monetized reward for your efforts. It's coming but it's not here yet.

Meanwhile, as an animation writer, you'll have to tow the popular story line, developing material that will appeal to the widest possible employer pool.

Story Aside

Even if "Breathe" was a well-constructed relevant 3D animation short project, the treatment indicates a project that is way off-scale in terms of academic production complexity. Considering the montage sequence and the number of shots, number of unique characters, and the complexity involved in animating realistic performances, this project will run over the two semesters you'll have after midpoint. Unless you can generate a team consisting of a dedicated modeler, rigger, environment modeler, painter and several lighters, this project will hobble any solo animator. It's just too big. (This sort of project calls for some motion capture assist, which is a bit beside the point for a feature animator.)

Keep it Simple

The best short form animation projects are those that pit one character against another, or pit a character against an obstacle. They usually can occur in a single setting. As long as you are able to derive a believable performance from your simple story, you have succeeded as a student animator, and are ready to prove yourself in the professional arena. Take another look at the Student Academy Award winning animation project "Bert" (2004) .

Simple concept == Solo-able project.

Student of Writing

Try to take a writing course that showcases not only the three act ninety minute feature form, but also covers four act (hour long television show) writing. Learn how to write comedy gags. Critically study the Warner Brothers short animation films of the 60s and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Hanna Barbera model of the 70s. Watch Ren and Stimpy, the John K. wellspring of the current thirty minute story model copied by every short animation anthologist since the 90s. Watch SpongeBob. Watch everything, taking note of timing, scope and physical comedic (gag) action.

You're a student of the form! Know your market and scope. Know the history of the form. Do these things and you will succeed in getting your first job in the field, paving the way for your avant garde masterpiece down the road.

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