“We started writing six years go – and we finished writing during the mix,” says Phil Lord, who co-wrote and co-directed Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs with Chris Miller.
“We always joke that you make an animated film backward: You start with editing the film, with the animatic (mock-ups); and then proceed to shoot it. That’s the beauty of the animation process: It takes so long, you have so many chances to improve it.”
Most animated features start life the way any movie does – with an image, premise or character that eventually becomes a screenplay. But while a finished script entering production usually is the end game for a live-action movie, on animated features it’s just a starting point for a highly collaborative process that hones the story until it become bulletproof enough to shoot.
Next, the story is broken down into 30-40 sequences for storyboarding. The boards are then scanned into the computer and edited with temp voices, effects and music into story reels that become, more than the written script, the blueprint for the final product.
“It’s almost an extension of the scripting process,” says Pete Docter, director/co-writer of Up, which spent three years under the microscope before animation began. Docter says that process involved constant feedback for improving the story. “Most of the time it comes down to (the question of): Do I care about (the characters),” he says.
Docter, who previously directed “Monsters, Inc.,” adds that one or two sequences usually come together very easily, while the most difficult ones will be revised dozens of times. On “Up,” the easy scene was Carl’s house taking off into the air; the most difficult was introducing nemesis Charles Muntz and his lair. “There were so many elements being introduced, it was really hard to balance,” Docter says. “We reboarded it no less than 50 times.”
Such constant reworking was nothing new to animation veterans Ron Clements and John Musker, who directed Disney’s return to 2D animation with The Princess and the Frog. The pair started work on the film in 2006. As former animators, they encouraged the storyboard artists and animators to contribute to the film at every opportunity.
“It’s collaboration to a degree that might be unfathomable in another medium,” Musker says. “We just try to keep it cohesive with a singular viewpoint.”
Both Musker and Clements took turns tackling a screenplay, but also constantly pitched the film and, through that process, hit upon elements that connected well with the story. Then other writers were brought in, like Rob Edwards, who came to animation from sitcoms and worked with Clements and Musker on their previous 2D animated feature for Disney, 2002’s Treasure Planet.
“A lot of the time, you’re plopped in the middle of things,” Edwards says. “My first day, I worked on sequences 7, 14 and 38. I had to find out what they were, what was wrong with them and write the movie from the inside out.”
Edwards said the story changed in major ways: Lead characters Tiana and Prince Naveen were almost entirely revamped, and new characters such as Tiana’s father were developed from scratch. As the process continued and sequences were locked in, Edwards says he was writing and rewriting ever-smaller pieces of the film.
“Sometimes you’re rewriting a scene where half of the dialogue is locked,” Edwards says. “All you can play with is the second character’s lines.”
Voice actors also can have an impact on the writing. Rob Letterman, co-director of Monsters vs. Aliens, says it’s common at DreamWorks to give the actors the screenplay and then let them go as far off-script as they want. It gets even more complicated, since most actors don’t record their lines at the same time.
“Seth Rogen would do all this stuff we didn’t expect and we’d play it to Hugh (Laurie) and it goes back and forth to Seth,” he says.
While having so many people contribute to a film over a long period produces a lot of great ideas, someone has to bring a coherent vision to the finished movie. Letterman’s directing partner, Conrad Vernon, says they conferred daily to review all the proposed revisions for the film and would make sure they were on the same page.
“It was tough because there were a lot of great ideas that came in and would send the film in a brand new direction,” Vernon says, “which we weren’t against at certain points, but you have to remember to keep it focused.”
“The irony is that the story outline stays intact, but the script goes through incredible amounts of change,” Letterman adds.
While massive revisions and a collaborative approach are common on larger productions, this wasn’t the process employed on Adam Elliot’s stop-motion film Mary and Max.
Elliot spent a year writing the script about a young girl’s pen-pal relationship with a neurotic middle-age New York man and designing the characters before bringing in a handful of other animators to help. He let the animators embellish with visual gags and characterization as they pleased – as long as they didn’t change anything in the script.
“People call me a control freak, but I wanted to have as much possession of the filmmaking elements as I could,” he says. “I didn’t really want the animators to run away with the show. I gave them freedom to animate, but I really wanted them to work (from) the script.”
The collaborations were subtle on Fantastic Mr. Fox, which marked not only the first animated film for co-writer/director Wes Anderson but also his first adaptation. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach worked on the writing in the home of author Roald Dahl, who died in 1990, and the location inspired them to make the additions required to make the feature fit the aesthetic of the original book.
Anderson says he found animation to be a particularly fluid story medium.
“With live action, my experience is that you finish the script and you’re working on it for a period of time, but when you get to the set you know what you’re shooting,” he says.
“With an animated movie, you record all the voices and you cut them to storyboards, and while you’re shooting you can change it and add new scenes. The writing process really continues.”
The personalities of the animators also brought a lot to the film, he says. “They’re like actors and they’re giving half of the performance of the character. As detailed as the preparation is, for any given shot two different animators will have completely different interpretations.”
In adapting Neil Gaiman’s popular novella Coraline to the big screen, writer-director Henry Selick says his visual concept for the film became very focused during the five years it took to get financing for the stop-motion feature.
But the film still changed as soon as the script was handed off to the storyboard artists. “Usually, that’s where visual humor is added, the things that just don’t come from the writing,” Selick says.
It was particularly welcome on a slightly darker tale like Coraline, especially in defining the supporting characters. “The Bobinsky character – how he moved, how he looked, his physical persona and how he interacted with Coraline – he grew in terms of his humor.”
Performance also altered the characters of Spink and Forcible, the ladies who live downstairs from Coraline and put on shows in a theater full of Scottie dogs. When Selick began recording actresses Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French for the roles, things didn’t seem to gel – until he switched their parts. That emboldened their performances to such an extent that the sequence became a bigger and bolder addition to the movie.
All of which is surprisingly normal for animation.
“Some people read the script and see the movie and they seem like two different things,” Selick says. “You do a plan, but it is always a growing, interactive process and every element informs every other element.”