Wednesday 4 November 2020

Writing Animation - by Ciaran Murtagh

Over the past few weeks I've been asked to give some hints and tips on writing animation so I thought I'd put a few thoughts down here for anyone who might be interested.

As ever with these things, they're not hard and fast rules, nor a guarantee of success, but they're certainly things I wish I'd known before falling headlong into the industry. 

1) Watch lots of animation. Lots. 

Everyone knows that the way to be a good writer is to read, the same goes for animation - watch. Watch as much animation as you can, particularly for the age group you would like to write for. 

There are HUGE differences in tone, subject matter and style in animation and it's good to get a feel for what's out there before you start trying to do it yourself. 

Trawl through the BBC player, have a look at the furthest reaches of Netflix and Disney Plus, and see what's on CITV. They all broadcast cartoons, but they're all very different. Something like The Rubbish World of Dave Spud on CITV is very different from Dennis and Gnasher Unleashed on CBBC,  yet both are about British kids for predominantly British audiences. 


Channels have a house style and a house tone. They are keen to be distinct from each other and that is reflected in what they commission and how they are written. Have a look where you might fit best and work towards your natural home. Of course, over time you'll be able to bounce about, but in the first instance specialise. 

2) Age Range

Animation for kids, much like books, falls into age ranges. There are predominantly two - Preschool and Junior. So CBeebies, Disney Junior, Nick Junior, Milkshake are predominantly preschool, up to the age of about 6 give or take. Other channels such as CBBC, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network aim older. 

Within all that there are also lots of different styles from something like Hey Duggee to Sarah and Duck to Messy Goes to Okido to Paw Patrol all falling under preschool. Tone is all important. Once you've narrowed down where you think you might fit channel wise, have a look at the age group you prefer to write for and analyse the content the channel shows. 

Are you more didactic, something like Numberblocks for example, or are you more left field - something like Hey Duggee. 

3) Know the Rules

All animation is different but most have consistent rules. Episodes are usually 11 minutes long, sometimes they might be 22 minutes long but that's not so common. For younger audiences there is more flexibility in length with some being 5 or 8 minutes long. Do your research and make sure that when you come to write you are writing a story that is exactly the length of the animation - it can't be a few seconds longer or shorter, it has to be what it is. 

Make sure your stories are stand alone, most series still broadcast self contained episodes and they want them to be broadcast in any sequence. You don't need to have seen episode 12 to understand episode 13 or vice versa. Sometimes you might get the opportunity to pitch a double episode, but they'll tell you that before you pitch. 

With the onset of streaming services this is changing somewhat, particularly with animation for older children, and series arcs are becoming more common - but again, they'll tell you if that's the case and it is still the exception rather than the rule. 

2D animation is usually cheaper to produce and there can be greater flexibility in creating new characters or locations. However, in the first instance try and reuse what you know already exists -  it will make you very popular. 

3D animation is expensive and it is often harder to make new characters and locations. Bare that in mind when pitching stories. There will never be a cast of thousands and asking for a new character to be created is a big ask unless the story really needs it. 

Know how many episodes are in a season - usually 52, but sometimes 26 or 13. Animation is usually commissioned in batches of that number. 

Know what has gone before, you will need to avoid overlapping with ideas or stories that have been  used in previous seasons. One of the keys to being a successful animation writer is looking for the gaps in a series that haven't been plugged yet. What stories haven't they told with the characters and locations in play and can you come up with something imaginative and new that they haven't yet used. 

4) Tips for Success

Listen to your head writers / producers and ask them questions if you're unsure. Even if you manage to come up with a great story that no one else has told and utilises things you know exist in the story world, there may be a reason why it hasn't been told before that you don't know about.  

Different channels have different rules and regulations and wish lists for what they can and can't do. Your producers and head writers will know that and will try and guide you towards what's possible. They want you to have strong story ideas, but they also want you to listen to guidance, you can have the best story idea in the world but if they know the BBC will never show it they have to guide you towards a version of the story that they will. 

Be prolific. When pitching ideas have six or seven topline stories that you might tell. Pitch them all and you may get one or two away. Pitch lots of shorter ideas rather than spending a long time on one or two. Producers are looking for 52 episodes, if they receive a document with six ideas, they'll usually have to dismiss a couple for not being feasible, a couple for being ideas other writers are working on and what's left over is the sweet spot! You stand more chance this way. 

The first animation I was commissioned on, I pitched over 50 stories until I got one away - be tenacious, and be persistent and learn from your mistakes. 

Keep to deadlines. 

Be nice. 

That's your lot - if there's any questions pop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer. Good luck. 

1 comment:

Andrew Preston said...

The very best animation I ever watched was way back when I was a student.
I'd skip lectures to spend afternoons at a semi-arthouse cinema.
One week they screened the film of Robert Crumb's 'Fritz the Cat' cartoon series.
I was totally gobsmacked, never seem anything like it in my life.

Must go now..., I'm keeping abreast of current events, and hoping very much
to witness Agent Orange catch the last helicopter off the roof of the White House.