In this blog I describe how I am organizing my project of creating an animated cartoon episode. Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.
In this blog I refer to the video as a “play” as it is equally valid for a movie, commercial, YouTube video, and so on.
The screenplay or script for a play lists a series of scenes (locations), the characters in each scene, the dialog they say, and guidance for what the writer envisages should be going on. Different writers put different levels of detail into the script. For example, do you describe what expression actors should have on their face, or leave that up to the actor?
Since I am producing an animation (and hence doing the visual character acting), I decided to go the route of being more detailed rather than less. It helps me organize my thoughts and refer back to them.
Producing animations is a part time project for me, with delays between when I can work on it. So capturing more details helps me not forget the intent behind a scene. Normally screenplays are recommended to not talk about intent, just what should happen – the screenwriter can keep intent in their own notes. In my case I am screenwriter, producer, animator, and possibly voice actor, so I decided to keep everything in a single document.
Looking around the web, I found a number of articles talking about the standard formats for screenplays. I found a sample Word document and used that as a starting point. Interestingly, what hits hit me the most is the use of Courier font, like a good old mechanical typewriter. I suspect this is a bit of historical nostalgia in the movie industry. There are lots of posts you can find just by doing a web search for “screenplay”, “script writing”, or similar. They talk about the indentation to use, and so forth.
I however have a programming background, so I added additional structure and details to help me stay organized. I like top down design when writing programs, so I used that when developing my screenplay. My current document structure is as follows.
- Title page
- Focus verse
- Plot / scene overview
- Asset files
- Character puppet files
- Background image files
- Sound effect files
- Part number and title
- Scene number and title
- Shot number and list of assets (puppets, background image, sound clips)
- Background plot notes
- Shot directions
- Character dialog
The following describes each section in greater detail.
Screenwriters have standards they follow. They use a fixed width courier font, they have standardized indentation for different parts of a document, etc. There are lots of articles on the web describing these standards. I picked up a sample off the web and then expanded it for my purposes. The title page has the title, author, and contact details of the author at the bottom of the page.
In this section I put content anyone should be able to read and understand. It shows the overall structure of the play and introduces the characters and their traits. In one or two quick pages of reading someone should understand the whole purpose and plot of the play.
My episodes are based on biblical themes backed by a verse. You could replace this section with a “purpose” section, a single paragraph getting across the main objective of the play. I personally believe if you cannot describe something in a small number of words, you probably don’t yet fully understand what you are trying to achieve.
Plot / Scene Overview
I like structure, so I designed the script around a small number of parts representing stages of development for the story. This higher level structure I did not see in other blog posts on script writing, but I personally found it easier to help with organization.
This section lists all the characters that are in the story. Each character has a short form name that I use as labels to refer to them with in the script.
As I a needed to create artwork and animated puppets for each character, it was useful for myself to understand the number of characters early in my planning. A recurring theme for myself is to minimize effort, so writing down lists of characters (and later asset files) was a way of imposing self-awareness whenever I introduced a new character.
The second major section in my screenplay is a technical section listing the asset files I would need to produce the screenplay. This helps me with project planning and understanding what I am getting myself into. Anyone can read and understand the previous overview, this section gets into the mechanics.
Character Puppet Files
Adobe Character Animator has the concept of “puppets”. A puppet is a combination of artwork and behaviors that a puppet can perform. For example, how they blink their eyes, how their arms move, different facial expressions, and so on. You can reuse puppets across projects, which is great if you are going to create multiple episodes in a series.
I decided to go with multiple puppets per character. Character Animator allows you to have multiple views of a puppet in the same file (e.g. looking ahead, to the left, to the right, etc), which I also use, but at some stage it gets pretty complicated to manage if you have too many perspectives. I also found I had special needs for some scenes that was simpler having in a separate puppet. For example, I ended up having separate puppet files for a seated character vs a standing puppet – both want to turn their heads from side to side, but I wanted different artwork for the two positions.
Each puppet has a short label so I can refer to the puppet from the script.
Again, writing down the list of puppets forces me to think about scenes as to whether I could avoid creating another puppet by rethinking a scene/shot, or whether a new view of a character was worth the effort. More variety adds depth to the cartoon, so this is a balancing act. I found starting more severe when writing the script was better, then introducing an additional puppet or gesture when I came to shooting the play if it was really needed to make the shot work.
To avoid the pain of keeping multiple files in sync, I tried very hard to get the first view of a puppet completely fleshed out. For example, I created my main character puppet front view first, then copied body parts (head, legs, shoes, etc) over to a new side view puppet, maintaining the original structure as much as possible for consistency. If I needed to change the artwork for a puppet, I have to the make the changes in multiple files. So I defer creating second and third views as long as possible.
In addition, I used the main character puppet initially for all roles in the play. That fleshed out all the gestures and body positions that were useful. I plan to use my main character in other episodes, so this seemed like a worthwhile investment. It also allowed me to move on to producing scenes quicker and gain more understanding of the overall process without having to finish all the puppets first.
Background Image Files
I decided early I wanted different camera angles in my cartoon, not just a side view. I was going for a bit more like Japanese anime. This means one scene needs multiple backgrounds for different camera angles. I give each background image a label that incorporates the location and camera angle (if needed).
A part of the reason for the list was to keep the background count down, to reduce effort in creating such assets. However, I found creating the background artwork too hard for my satisfaction. (I am not much of an artist!) I tried drawing a few, but the lack of detail “felt wrong” for the Japanese anime style. So I ended up using Unity3D (a 3D game engine) to create the background environments in 3D. I could take as many camera angles as I needed just by moving the camera around in Unity and taking a screen shot. This allows more variation in the cartoon. I did still need locations (e.g. at school, at home), but using Unity3D meant I had a smaller number of more complicated locations to construct (a full school and school grounds, a house and garden, etc). Luckily Unity has an asset store, so I just purchased some assets from there and got on with life.
But for a moment, I thought just doing backgrounds could kill the play – again, reinforcing the need to think through the whole project during planning to understand where the effort is going to be.
Music and Sound Effect Files
I also collected list of sound clips the play needed, such as school bells ringing or street noise for external scenes. This is all the sounds other than the voice track, so includes any background music. Again, building up the list helped me be very aware every time I added another sound effect, to help keep myself disciplined and understand the effort.
I did not want to record sound effects myself, so I went off searching on the internet to find useful clips I could use. Some places have free clips as long as you acknowledge them – so if you do grab a sound clip, make sure you write down where you got them from so you can acknowledge their generosity later.
Next comes the main script. Other articles I found online describing how to write a screenplay start at this section – the previous sections I added for my own purposes. However I find putting everything in one file easier to manage. It also lets the script refer back to the labels of the various assets.
Because of my programming background, I like understanding structure. So I added additional levels of structure not normally present in a screenplay (from what I have seen). In particular, I have
- Parts – each having a part number and title
- Scenes – each having a scene number and title
- Shots – each having a shot number and list of asset files (puppets, background image, sound clips)
When shooting a real life movie, scenes are important as they are at a location. You need to organize time for everyone to get to that location, record takes, etc. You normally take multiple shots at a location from different angles as you say flip between the faces of two characters talking. This is pretty easy, you just move the camera and lighting around. It’s also harder to plan in advance as the exact camera shot or angle to take may be hard to determine before you are on set. That is why you have directors etc on set, to make these decisions as the movie is filmed.
In my case with an animation, and where I am doing all the work myself, I decided to include more information directly into the script so I could refer back to it later. For example, I wanted to know what background angles I would require, what puppet variations I would require etc. Each new asset adds effort to the workload of completing an episode.
I also used the part, scene, and shot numbers to create directory structures to organize all the files during production.
Parts and scenes have titles, but shots instead list the asset file labels needed for that shot. This is where the “BG” and “SND” prefixes come in handy, so its clear at a glance that every shot has a background file, the puppet files needed are clear and don’t have some unexpected angle requirements, and so on.
Within a shot, I use standard movie screenplay formatting. That is, dialog is indented with the character name just above it, further indented. When reading the play to record the dialog, the voice actors just read this text, so the indentation makes it easy to skim through the document finding the parts to read. Voice instructions are in parenthesis in the dialog.
The other notes are useful to understand the context when reading the play before recording, but the formatting makes life easier for the voice actors to make sure they don’t miss anything they are supposed to say.
There are other conventions, like putting camera shots or special effects in upper case so they are easier to spot when scanning the script, or starting paragraphs specific to a character with that character name. There are also a few instructions such as transition effects coming into or leaving a scene or shot. I find myself just using notes at the start of a shot is sufficient due to the level of detail I want. I keep quite detailed notes up front to avoid effort during the slightly brain numbing and tedious technical stages of assembling and rendering all the content. Crunching through generating all the video sequences is more mechanical than creative, so I liked doing all the creative thought process up front (and hence write it down).
So that’s my screenplay structure. So far it is working well for me. I am combining traditional screenwriting style and formatting with extensions of my own. It felt strange using courier fonts again, but after a short while I did not mind it. The indentation also felt weird, but having used it for a while it make sense – as you would expect given the age of the film industry.
One thing very early on I felt as I put my first cut of a script together was a feeling of being overwhelmed by the amount of work involved – the number of character views required, the number of background images needed, the length of dialog, and so on. In some ways this was good, as it set my expectations appropriately on how long it was going to take to get a first pilot episode completed. I am still on that journey, but I have a much better idea of how far I am through it.
A part of my personal journey is to also learn all the tools (I have never used the Adobe products before in any great depth). I do expect second and subsequent episodes to be much quicker to do having built up a collection of assets that I can reuse.
But if you have ever wondered about creating your own animated cartoon, there are some great tools around (I describe my tool chain in another post), and I have found it an interesting journey learning about the different styles of cartoons, trying to put together an interesting an engaging story (jury is out on that one still!), and all the technical tools to put it all together. It’s fun, but a lot of work depending on your level of ambition.