Storytelling is arguably the most important skill for a new animator to learn, yet it is the last thing taught in animation schools – if it is taught at all. Across the board in my international workshops, storytelling skills are the weak point. Most animators can make a computer screen or sketch pad stand up and boogie, but none of that matters unless you first know how to tell a good story. With that in mind, I offer the following story guidelines:
1) You must, first of all, think of yourself as a storyteller and not strictly an animtor, a tribal leader whose stories have a point and are worth hearing. Animation students too often tell stories in short animations only to fulfill a class assignment. When you tell a story, you are drawing a circle in the dirt and summoning the tribe, in effect saying, and “Listen up! I have something to tell you!”
2) A good story is always about a person (or anthromorphic critter) that deals with an event of some kind, either internal (fear of heights) or external (monsoon). Your audience is comprised of humans that are interested in other humans. They want to know whether the character succeeds or fails, survives or dies. You can tell your story as comedy, drama, sci-fi or any other genre that appeals to you, but it must be about a single character dealing with an event. Even if your story has six characters, like Disney’s Big Hero 6, the story must be primarily about one of them.
3) Think of a short animation as a poem. A feature length movie is a novel. Do not try to cram a novel into a space only large enough for a poem.
4) Once you have an idea for a story, the next step is to identify the people in your audience. Adults or children? The age of your audience makes all the difference in the world because you tell the same story to adults differently than you tell it to children. Pixar’s “Up” is really two movies in one. The first half, which is about courtship, adult love, dreams, childbearing, death and grieving, is for adults, and the second half, featuring talking dogs and chocolate-eating birds, is for children. It is possible to tell a story “for the entire family”, but it is rare and difficult. You will do better if you carefully target your intended audience.
5) Try to write your story with no words or narration at all. Stage plays are about talking; movies are about moving. Anyway, if you intend for your animation to be seen internationally, perhaps entered into competitions, it will travel much better if it is not loaded down with dialogue and sub-titles.
6) Your story should focus on an important transitional moment for the character. This moment does not have to be 9-11 or the day she survived a hurricane – although it can be. It can be about something as simple as the day she learned how to smile in the face of fear. It can be about how a person learned he need not be afraid of spiders. All of these are moments of survival. The important thing is that your story be about one character that deals with an event and is changed in the process.
7) Start the action of your story as late as possible. Do not waste time trying to establish mood. Get on with the story. If it is a good story, the mood will take care of itself. You should be able to freeze-frame your character at any time and ask him, “What are you doing?”, and he should be able to answer in theatrical terms: “This is my objective (which is provable), and this is the action I am playing to achieve that objective, and this is the obstacle-conflict.” Remember, acting is doing! Endowing a character with the illusion of life is where acting begins, not where it ends.
8) Never underestimate the intelligence of the tribe. Do not spoon-feed them nor talk down to them. They like to work for the story a little bit. Always remember that the audience is an eager participant in the storytelling experience, not a lurker. There is no magic without the audience’s active participation.