For a time in my childhood I was obsessed with superheroes, especially Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Batman. There was one important reason why these three captured my heart. Because they had cartoons. Reading an issue of Batman, made me hyped for the next episode of Batman: The Animated Series and vice versa. The comics were edgier, the cartoons delivered a complete story in 30 minutes, and both mediums were very good, at least to my six year old brain. Even today I relish watching the DC Animated movies. There is some undeniable connection between comics and cartoons, but what about the differences? Animation and comic book writer Tom Pinchuk is going to highlight them for us in this week’s Darby Pops Off.
Until next time,
To say that comic books and animation are similar is to state that which is blatantly, patently obvious. Still, a cartoon was what got me hooked on comics in the first place. Ever since the 90s X-Men ‘toon lured me to a “quarter bin,” I’ve thought much about both art forms’ particular symbiosis. Now that I get to write comics, cartoons, and even comics-based-on-cartoons, I think about it a whole lot more.
Based on my experience as a writer so far, I’d say the key differences in scripting for one versus the other revolves around these four concepts:
For better or worse, comic scripts don’t have a standardized format. There’s a general style you ought to follow if you want to clearly communicate with the artist, but nobody’s going to bust you about the indentation of your scene description, or the parenthetical you use to label off-panel dialog. They will bust you in a teleplay, though. Formatting details for TV and features require such precision that multiple (pricey) word-processing programs have been created just to take care of them.
Animation scripts have additional guidelines on top of the standard. To be taken seriously, you’ll need to learn when to type props in all-caps and when to put sound effects in brackets, and you’ll also have to add wacky words like “walla” and “foley” to your vocab.
I’m not talking about who’s buying your comic or tuning into your ‘toon. See, the extra formatting rules in animation are there to ensure that actors, animators, board artists, voice directors, et al. are all on the same page – literally. At the end of the day, any script is a preparatory document; a memo the writer directs to the crew.
For a comic, that crew is much smaller. There’s a penciler, inker, letterer, colorist, and some editors. So, try to have a good, direct relationship with whomever you’re working with. Write to your artists’ strengths and interests. Do your best to make the project fun for them, especially if you’re operating within the indie arena.
Television does have limitations. A complete half-hour show can’t run beyond 30 minutes, obviously. Still, there’s some wiggle room insofar as how long the scripted portion of an episode can be (while still accommodating commercials breaks). A page of script corresponds to a minute of screen time (approximately), but there’s actually some flexibility; your script might clock in at 22 pages, or 21 ¾ pages, or 23 ½ pages.
In comics, though, page counts are rigid. If it’s a monthly book, it’s 22 pages or 20 pages. Whether you truncate your plot or stretch it some to make it fit, you really must work within exact parameters. You can’t just end a comic halfway through a page (unless that’s a pointed storytelling choice). It gets even trickier, too, when you have to pace your story out in uniform chapters for a multi-issue arc or ongoing series.
The best comics, to my mind, are the ones where the writers have thought a lot about design before handing scripts off to the artist. I’m talking “design” as in graphic design. You must constantly figure out how much plot you can cover on each page, how it can be feasibly divvied into panels, how much text can fit into those panels without smothering the art, et cetera. There’s even a whole art to conveying invisible and implicit plot developments in the blank gutters between panels. It doesn’t translate as much to animation, since viewers aren’t actively turning pages and can’t linger on any single cell.
In comics, you’ll also have to break out a calculator sometimes, too. Why? Well, if you want a spectacular double-splash toward the end of a book, but rewrite an earlier scene so a whole page has been cut, you’ll have to suss out pagination so your splash isn’t split up awkwardly. Sound complicated? It is. But you, as a writer, should figure it out before dropping any storytelling questions on an artist’s lap and expecting him/her to work around them. The economy of props and locations in animation may be comparable to this, but it isn’t totally analogous.
That last point relates to what I think is the most important concept, uniting comics and animation writing – you must respect your team. Few things make me smile wider than getting pages back and seeing a story I wrote realized with a host of added dimension I never pictured. Or sitting in on a recording session and hearing lines I wrote being spoken aloud during a lively performance. Sometimes, my script will be riffed on, or used as a starting point for something new and different. And you know what? Most often, I’ll think: “Gee, I wish I’d thought of that.” You’re not the visionary on a project – it’s a collective vision. Check your ego, be open to your collaborators’ contributions, and – trust me – the end product will be even more interesting than what you scripted initially.
About the Author
Tom Pinchuk emerged mysteriously from the misty jungles of Southeast Asia long ago and has been confounding America ever since. He’s written on dynamic animated series with Man of Action Studios, plotted the adventures of Mattel’s turbo-powered teen Max Steel, and even crafted his own clever comics creations like the Hybrid Bastards. Drop by tompinchuk.com and follow him on Twitter or Tumblr to see what happens next.