Thursday, April 8, 2010...9:20 pm

Behind the scenes: Doctor Knowgood part 4

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Part 1;  Part 2;  Part 3;  Part 4Part 5;

I’ve been following the progress of Dutch animator Arnold Zwanenburg, who has been shooting Doctor Knowgood, a stop motion puppet animation about a know-all monkey in a lab coat, in scenic Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

The film is now finished, and had its premiere a couple of weeks ago in Indonesia. Unsurprisingly, Arnold spent the last few weeks of the shoot not sleeping, let alone answering questions for Stop.Frame. But now he’s back on his sofa in Rotterdam, he’s starting to put together the final reports on the production for this series.

4) The script

Stop.Frame
You have talked about the character concept. First, did having such a clear idea of the character and the set-up help you with your script? How did you approach the writing? Was it “written” as such – or did you just storyboard?

Tell us about the storyboarding and anything else you think is interesting about the writing process. Also, maybe you could share any insights about creating a story for a short film – what are the important things to think about? (eg keeping the story simple; reducing the number of characters; having a strong central idea and no sub plots etc). I think it’s a real challenge to write something that’s suitable for a small-scale, short film, but still make it interesting and fun to watch, and have some depth of character and situation. How do you solve this conundrum?

Arnold Zwanenburg
It’s absolutely worthwhile investigating your characters. Where does he come from (or she)? What does he want? How does he act? If you bring your story to a producer, they will probably ask this.

With one of my previous story ideas – about a girl being lost in an animated world – I couldn’t answer that question very concretely. The story was abstract and impressionistic. In my case funding would be difficult, the producer said. A track record of previous stop motion animation would help in that case. But it was just a first short for me… so how to make a start? ‘Why don’t you look more at Tom and Jerry,’ the producer said. The roles are clear, the problem is there, just rock ‘n’ roll!

Tom and Jerry
I always enjoyed animating real action, but how do you write a story like for Tom and Jerry?! In short it’s just: cat wants mouse, but mouse is smarter and wins. The jokes are in the visual; in the timing; in the unexpected way the character solves a problem.

Clearly I need a problem. I started writing more stories, and came up with the monkey doctor, treating other animals. Patients would bring in their problems all the time. So we are in business. It’s not exactly Tom and Jerry – but at least the roles are clear from the beginning, and there will be problem-solving.

Learning from fables
We already know much about animal characters. Just like in the old fables, the fox is cunning, the owl is wise – the characters already exist. There’s less time needed for introductions. I can always choose to adapt those characters, or play with the expectations we have from them.

I investigated the story ideas, and selected the ones that are under three minutes, have only two characters, and are still funny. At least a bit! In the end I am very happy to have finished one complete animation – even though it’s only 2,5 minutes long!

Storyboarding
I find storyboarding very difficult, and waited too long with it, mainly because I wasn’t sure about the set design – the background. But the background plays a small role in the story, so I ended up with a storyboard with barely any background at all, drawn in thumbnail size. It’s better than nothing, because even a rough storyboard tells you if the story communicates.

Next time I will make a more detailed storyboard though – it helps to foresee problems – you already have to think about camera angles, composition and how to frame action. A clear storyboard would also help to communicate to others – especially if you want to use much action. It’s much more attractive to see a drawing of an action shot than to read a description of it.

Tips for writing
All the process of finding a good story for animation has been a long struggle. I have got a big pile of ideas as a result of that. There is much to say about making a good scenario for animation. Here are some tips that might help you on the way…

  1. Collect short stories, read them, analyse them… what is so good about it? Would it work on the screen? Most short stories are still too long to start with, so think of anecdotes, columns and poems too.
  2. Find a course in writing for animation / for short film / or even for short stories. I found it a bit scary at first – I’m more a designer than a writer – but I got more confident when I learned that a scenario is just a description of what you would see on the screen (and hear of course). Just write down what you’d see is something I could do. Leave interpretation for the reader / the public.
  3. Write a lot. Don’t stop writing stories until you have the feeling: this is the one! If you’re stuck on something – work on something else for a while and come back to it later.
  4. Let others read your story – ask them to tell you in their words what happens. This way you quickly find out if your story is clear, what they see in it, and what they think of it.
  5. Cut down on your characters. If you want some depth of character, you have to reduce their number. Also remember that making puppets for all your characters is going to be very time-consuming.
  6. Keep your story simple. And small. When you get enthusiastic your story might grow endlessly. It’s a beautiful process, but before you know it you’re carving out Battlestar Galactica. Ambition is one thing, but if you want to go to outer space, you might want to fold a paper plane first and see how far it gets. Isn’t that what all those animators do at the Annecy film festival?

When Arnold’s recovered a bit, I’ll get him to revisit some of those gruelling, 16-hour days on the film set…

Part 1;  Part 2;  Part 3;  Part 4Part 5;

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