Apr 21, 2006

What do Story Artists Do?

Bill Peet succeeds with his interpretations of "Song of the South"(from billpeet.net)
I've been asked this question several times lately--and it's also come up unbidden from the recesses of my noggin in response to various recent events.

So, what's the job? What is it, ideally? What is it that we all hope to do when we start out in this business?
I'm thinking of feature films, by which I mean a long format narrative; a short, whether for television or something else, is a special and different nut to crack, taking no less skill, but often using different storytelling techniques.

So, what is the job we do?
Obviously it involves drawing--lots and lots of sequential drawing. To draw clearly is paramount to get ideas across. We want and strive to draw well, even beautifully, to be really strong draughtsmen. We sweat and we grind down pencils and felt tips getting the panel exactly as we want it.
There's plenty to say about the pursuit of good drawings to make great sequences, but what being a story person really means is something that's not hostage to drawing alone at all: it means to be a storyteller. That's something that each one of us can do dynamically, even without making any drawings at all.
Too often, looked upon as "artists", we are somehow lost in the filmmaking stew as writers--and make no mistake, the best story people are writers, first and last. We write dialogue as well as draw, but most importantly we write the sequence. That's part of the job, as it's best performed.

It doesn't always work that way, just 99% of the time; when an animated film is pre-scripted, obviously a story crew then interprets the script, rather than having a looser outline to construct from. There are specific examples I've cited before where such approaches have resulted in excellent films.
I should also say here that I have the highest respect for screenwriters--all my seminal influences in film, from the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to Preston Sturges to Billy Wilder(with Brackett and Diamond) to Ben Hecht and Leigh Brackett(she of the great collaborations with Howard Hawks), are paragons of elegant and exciting screenwriting.
It's a ineffably special craft--but the point I'd like to emphasize is that so is the job of the animation story artist; no less important, no less crucial--and distinct from the particular challenges of live action.

I think that generally story people aren't perceived as writers, but the fact is that when they have been in the business for years, they learn how to tell a film story(or sink trying), and the rhythm of what's called the film language gets into their unconscious as insidiously and firmly as in any director's or live action screenwriter's. Story artists see and think in scenes, in the bits and glimpses of a greater narrative, always keeping in mind(as they must)where the story is coming from and where it's going.

It's an interesting peculiarity of our craft that we story artists live our characters probably to an even greater extent than many other types of writers, as we have to draw their emotions and actions on the screen. We manipulate our actors as a live action director could only dream of doing. It's total control, and it's a huge responsibility. That's the excitement as well as the burden of it--and when it pays off, it's fantastic.

All of us in animation have much to learn about our business, filmmaking. More than is probably possible in a lifetime--even if the medium is barely a hundred years old. But as even the most newly-minted story artist is in fact creating the film, shot by shot, we also have much to offer the rest of the filmmaking world from our experience. Is there anyone who'd doubt that, say Ward Kimball could have taught a thing or two about filmmaking to Hawks, or Sturges, or Wilder? Not me. maybe John Ford wouldn't sit still for it, but he gets a pass. I'm sure Orson Welles would have been happy to have sat at the feet of Bob Clampett for an hour as well as at the side of the great producer(and fellow RKO associate) Walt Disney himself. There's a reason Frank Tashlin was able to direct a great feature comedy so easily; he'd already done animation.

It's far from a job where we "just draw". That's not it at all...or it shouldn't be. Bill Peet, Joe Ranft, Brenda Chapman, Gary Trousdale, Dave Smith, Conrad Vernon, Dick Huemer, Ed Gombert, Teddy Newton, Mark Andrews, Mark Kennedy, Ted Sears, Jill Culton, Kelly Asbury, and a host of others did and do have an arsenal of which drawing is but one part. All of them used (and continue to use) their minds as well, and not just in composing pictures. That's the best, most fruitful expression of the job and the person who fills it.

A friend who was on the de riguer CalArts tour of Disney feature animation with me and the rest of the class remembered a moment where we were all crowded into a room with a veteran story artist. He held up a sheaf of paper: "This is the script. We get it, we read it, and then we--"

He tossed it into the round file nearby.

"It's just a starting point. Then the real work starts".


J said...

Excellent post Jenny. I know its been said before, but what you're doing here is invaluable.
Keep posting.
P.s. Do you mind if email you about something?
Take care,

Jenny Lerew said...

Heh, yep, James, I hammer away!
I was reading over this post and thinking "well, this is a bit redundant, given earlier posts I've made"--but what the heck, it has to be said. Again! ; )

Sure, email away. Thanks for coming by--I've really enjoyed your postings too, btw. Great stuff.

Benedict E Bowen said...

Hey there! Thanks for your comment on my blog. Nice to see another story artist out there in the world! Great blog post, btw. I'm not in feature animation... I'd love to be... I'm in the superbly restrictive (thank you, outsourcing!) and underfunded world of the UK board artist.

Anything you've got to say about feature work I'd be more than willing to ingest... Consider yourself well and truly bookmarked!

Anonymous said...


Another super inspiring post Jenny! Thanks for sharing this with all us.


the doodlers said...

Another great post.

As a story artist, I love a good script. It seems an obvious thing to say. It's not. The script that is visualized well and strong in character frees me to inhabit the story and the characters more fully. I'll be motivated and the work will feel light.

However, the script that doesn't feel right can be a terrible burden for the story artist. Shame that this happens when so much talent and skill is devoted to the production of animation.

Maybe that story guy that chucked the script on the file cabinet was tired of one too many half-baked scripts?

I'm curious to know if when working with a team on recent feature films, you're spending time in creative jam sessions with other story artists? Or are you more solitary ie: divided up and assigned your own sequences?

Cheers! Love the blog.

Dave Pimentel said...

You hold a two egded sword with your blog! Charge on! Great post and all so true!

Benedict E Bowen said...

@doodlers - what's worse is being lumbered to a script that's been approved by a broadcaster. Some production companies seem to believe that the script should be stuck to 100% when storyboarding and make SUCH a noise over even the slightest changes - even regarding scene geography. Being tied down to something like that is horrendous - on one production I'd argued that a character can't moon a crowd from a desk 6 feet from a shuttered window 20 feet above the ground. The answer I got back was "well, deal with it". So I did, cheated it as best as possible, made it work... but it was still nonsensical. Naturally it ended up being changed later on, but dealing with it when it was a problem would've been the best way around it - and would've given me a few less headaches... Still, even as problems go, its pretty funny! ^_^

I'd also like to know that question too, Jen. Take care, all!

Jenny Lerew said...

Haha--thanks Dave. You know what they say about double edged swords, don't you? ; )

(Oh, well--I'll write about adapting fantastic scripts, too, one day-=-there's all those great Welles and Hitchock boards, as well as ones done for DeMille, etc.etc.etc.....hmmm....)

Jenny Lerew said...

Hey Doodler(s)! Nice to see your charming face here again. : )

I should clarify about that Disney anecdote(circa 1988 or so); they were working on "The Little Mermaid" at the time--hardly an overwritten or not-so-hot film! And the "script"--I'm guessing here, someone who actually worked there would know better--was likely the one written by none other than Musker and Clements--the animator/directors of the film! What the story guy(my friend thought it was Joe Ranft; I think it may have been Ed Gombert)was doing with his humorous and dramatic toss of the script into the trash can wasn't saying "this is a piece of junk!"--but making the point that they couldn't possibly just go straight through and board it, following it slavishly. That they(under the head of story, and with the directors)then had to, as he said, really get to work--to make the whole film come together.

Does the story crew get together for jam sessions? Absolutely! Personally I feel that's often the ideal, as you just get so much more feedback, energy and ideas from everryone else, and they from you. I've had "precious" ideas of mine shot down, and yeesh, it hurts!--but then someone else has another idea for that scene that's better, and thus the film was better--and THAT is what really rings our bell. : )
It all depends on a lot of factors: how the directors/head of story like to work, what stage the film is in, early or late, etc.etc.--and most of my time is spent alone drawing--but all group sessions are good for the movie, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post. I recently read Bill's book and was really impressed. I have a thesis book called Walt in Wonderland that has some early pictures of Disney where, even as a young man, his brutal decisiveness is apparent.
The extras disc from The Incredibles has a great story meeting scene where Brad Bird, a man who learned his trade from The Simpsons intimidating story team, is holding a meeting. I have tremendous respect for Brad because he is one of the best screenwriters in the business and yet will very quickly lose an idea that isn't absolutely vital (even if it's great). He also will totally embrace somebody else's great idea, an ability that may be wholly singular in the trade.

Lee-Roy said...

I don't call it redundant, I call it affirming. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

Lee-Roy said...


You said, "...all my seminal influences in film, from the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to Preston Sturges to Billy Wilder(with Brackett and Diamond) to Ben Hecht and Leigh Brackett(she of the great collaborations with Howard Hawks), are paragons of elegant and exciting screenwriting."

Could you recommend some of your favorite or most seminal works by these writers/filmmakers?

John S. said...

Jenny! You have perfectly defined what we do!!! This should be printed out and pasted to the desk of every exeutive that works in animation! It should be a part of the press packet and handed out to entertainment writers whenever an animated film is released!
You rule!!!
-John S.

Jenny Lerew said...

John, you are way too kind--I love it! ; )

It makes it worthwhile...I repeat myself(again), but it's true, and many thanks for the feedback.

Lee-roy: I'd recommend checking out literally ANY film by the people I mentioned. You just can't go wrong with anything by Preston Sturges(before 1950, anyway). But if I was forced to pick one for each(just for the fun of it), here's a sampling:
"The Lady Eve"(Sturges)
"Some Like It Hot"(Wilder)
"Nothing Sacred"(written by Ben Hecht)
"I Know Where I'm Going!" or "A Matter of Life and Death"(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
"Red River" and "Ball Of Fire"(Howard Hawks)
And just to put a cherry on top, try "Saboteur" a lesser-seen Hitchcock with GREAT sequences and a wonderfully done on the run plot.

If there are any titles I named you haven't seen--I envy you your first viewing! Have fun! They're all an education.

warren said...

'Saboteur' is fun. So is this post - even though I've heard it plenty, and had the notion ('what is my job, anyway?')tested a few times too...In the end the title is irrelevant. Just get to the point - as you've done.

I'm gonna have to get a few of those films. 'Some Like It Hot' I could never tire of. Or any Billy Wilder film for that matter...thanks for the list :)

the doodlers said...

Jenny, Thanks! It's late and I just wanted to acknowledge your kind reply. Onward with the work and with the discoveries... That 'influences' list of films looks tasty indee. We will take a copy for our next screening night. Cheers! Arna and John

Anonymous said...

My favorite Sturges is The Great McGinty. The Coen brothers seem to have swiped most of Miller's Crossing from that film. Sturges' stuff is almost hard to watch because he keepps ratcheting up the tension until it's unbearable, the resolves it in the last few minutes. He was, I guess, quite the dynamo... the first writer/director of major pictures, a teriffic drunk as well as an extremely hard worker. His last two films are pretty bad, but especially the Betty Grable Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend. You can almost see Sturges fall apart before your eyes. Painful indeed, but what do you expect after seven of the best comedies ever made, one after another? And in seven years, too, I think.

Lee-Roy said...

Okay, well it took me a little while, but I added all of your recommendations that were available on netflix. A Matter of Life and Death was not available, and I checked under the alternate title, "Stairway to Heaven," as well.

Ball of Fire and The Great McGinty are not available, but I was able to "save" them if and when they are.

I saw Some Like It Hot as a kid, but not since, save for random clips here and there. High time for another viewing. I saw some scenes from Red River fairly recently, but haven't seen it all the way through. As for the rest, I don't think I've seen them, so... envy away.

Thanks for the recommendations!

Jenny Lerew said...

Hey there, Lee-roy--I hope you dig them! : )