Digital Storytelling

In its most basic form, character animation is about storytelling. As you will see, characters drive a story, and, in turn, the story further defines the character. A good story gives characters motivation, conflict, and a path of action. Without these things, your characters will not truly spring to life.

Story structure has a few important concepts. First, you need a character who is motivated by a need. To achieve that need, the character must overcome obstacles. As the character deals with the obstacles, the audience learns more about who the character is. It is simple to explain, but telling a good story is an art form in itself. Now that you understand some of the basics of storytelling, you can start to develop stories of your own.

What type of story do you create? There are quite a few. There’s the simple story with a full plot that has a beginning, middle, and end. There are also stories that are really just a collection of gags strung together, as in a Road Runner cartoon. Even those simple cartoons have the essential basics of a story: The Coyote’s motivation is to catch the Road Runner. He just seems to encounter plenty of obstacles along the way.

Keep It Simple
Although it is wonderful to imagine the most incredible and complex stories, there will always be limits. Even the biggest studio blockbuster has a fixed budget. For a personal film, the limit is the amount of time that you alone can give to the project. Most projects fall somewhere in the middle.

With any project, there is always the tendency to bite off more than you can chew. Creating a story is easy. Actually producing it is another matter altogether. It is always best to keep the time and budget constraints in mind. Knowing how much time and effort are required to produce a particular film is knowledge gained mostly from experience. The more films you make, the more aware you will be of the time and expense involved.

For students who are creating their first film, the best advice is to keep it small. This means sticking to a handful of characters and a situation that is manageable. Usually two to three minutes is plenty, and four to five minutes is ambitious. Films over five minutes might require some outside help. Remember, the classic Warner Brothers cartoons were all only six minutes long.

In any project, simplicity is typically the best way to go. Most of the best short films have very simple plots and stories. The Pixar shorts are a great example, in that they all have only a handful of characters and one simple conflict. Another case for keeping the story simple and the number of characters small is that you can spend more screen time developing each character. Isn’t “character” what character animation is all about?

Brainstorming a Premise
You can develop stories in many ways. Some people prefer to write out their thoughts. Some people like to work it out visually. One way is to simply brainstorm ideas. Brainstorming is an exercise in pure creativity. Get a sheet of paper and start writing down ideas. If you like to draw, you can also make simple sketches to work out a story visually.

Take a sheet of paper and fill it with one-line premises for films. The more premises, the better; if your ideas spill over to a second, third, or fourth sheet, that’s great. You may even take several days to come up with the ideas, keeping a pad in your pocket to write down ideas as they hit you. At this point, you simply need to generate ideas for characters, stories, or both. These can be complete or incomplete ideas; the goal at this point is simply to free your mind, be creative, and come up with as many ideas as you can.

A sample page might look like this:

Adult can’t open childproof bottle
Prank phone calls gone bad
Angry Milkman who delivers nothing but sour milk
How to Climb a Tree, as told by a fish
The cockroach who became president
Dust bunnies brought to life by static electricity
The woman who stole the Eiffel Tower
A hamster who can’t sleep because the dog is snoring
A drill sergeant running a flower shop.
Plane with broken engine—two people, one parachute
Ham and two slices of bread try to convince cheese to make a sandwich
Hot potato, the world’s sexiest potato
Spinach on tooth that won’t go away before big speech
Stan, the guy who was canned as ham in Spokane
Magician who has a stuck bunny
Big, mean wrestlers playing shuffleboard

As you can see, these are just ideas, not complete stories—don’t worry about whether they will work. Put these ideas away for a day or two, and then go back and review them objectively. For each premise, try to picture exactly how the story will take shape. Remember, a complete story needs three things: character, motivation, and obstacles. Ultimately, one of these many ideas will strike you as the idea for your film. Once you’ve chosen your premise, you’ll need to develop your story.

Developing Your Premise into a Story
As you can see, the possibilities for premises are limited only by your imagination. Once you have a premise in hand, you need to ask yourself some very serious and objective questions about how the film will be made.

The first question that you need to ask yourself is whether the film can be made at all. If it’s a story about fish, for instance, you may need to animate water. Ask yourself if your software is capable of handling the types of shots and characters that the premise demands.

You also need to think about length. Some stories cannot be told in a few minutes, although you’d be surprised as to how much you can cram into that a span of time. Simple is usually better, however. Typically, this means focusing on one set of characters, one motivation, and one set of conflicts.

Fleshing Out Your Premise
You’ll need a stack of note cards or Post-It notes for this exercise. Select your favorite premise from the previous exercise. Using the premise as your guide, think up story points, writing down or drawing each point on a separate card.

These points can be as simple as “She walks down the street,” and “Notices something in the window.” If you have an idea for a visual gag, draw it on the card. You should simply generate a large number of ideas at this point. If the ideas don’t flow readily, you might want to select a different premise.

Once you have as many ideas as you can think of, go though the stack of cards and organize the story points into a rough outline of the story. You can do this by pinning the cards on a bulletin board or laying them out on a table. Once you’ve arranged these cards into an outline, you have a good idea of what your story will look like.

Developing a Script
Once you have a ton of ideas, you’ll have a stack of index cards and will need to organize your story so that you know, beat for beat, the exact sequence of events, including the ending. Let’s take the idea of the adult who can’t open the childproof bottle. Getting to the contents of the bottle is the adult’s motivation; the complex cap is the obstacle. Pretty simple story.

Fleshing it out, the adult could use all sorts of wild schemes to get the cap off: a can opener, a blowtorch, dynamite. If other characters, such as a kid, a dog, and a hamster manage to open it with no help, it can just serve to humiliate the adult and strengthen his motivation.

All of these conflicts need to build to an ending as well. The ending could be simple, with the adult driving himself crazy with frustration. It could be ironic—he finally opens the bottle, only to find it empty.

As you finalize the structure of your story, you will also need to be writing a script. This could be as simple as a point-by-point outline of the action, to a full script with dialogue and screen direction.

Visualizing Your Story
At this point, in addition to writing, you’ll need to be visualizing. Animation is a very visual medium, so you will absolutely need to see how your film looks on every shot. Even if you draw in stick figures, sketching out your ideas in storyboard form will help you understand exactly how gags and situations in your film will be staged.

While sketching storyboard panels can be very quick for some people, others have problems with drawing. Drawing 3D characters might be less accurate because the drawings might not be true to the actual characters. If your characters are already built, you can visualize the story another way, without drawing. Simply pose the characters in your 3D application, and render stills to use as the storyboard. No scanning is required; the images are true to the actual characters, and the 3D scene files can be saved and used later as layouts for animation.

Finalizing Your Story
Once you have your story worked out, you’re only at the first step. The film still needs to be produced. As a story is produced, minor things may change, but the core of the story should remain the same. You should have a good story, which is the foundation for creating a good film.

George Maestri is the author of several animation books from New Riders Publishing, including [Digital] Character Animation 2, Volume I and [Digital] Character Animation 2, Volume II. He is also the series editor for New Riders’ [Digital] series of books, including [Digital] Lighting and Rendering and [Digital] Texturing and Painting.

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