LB: How Visual Does An Animated Teleplay Have to Be?


Glad You Asked Dept. 5/19/14

Today’s question is about animation writing, and since things are constantly changing, let’s get to it before everything I have to say becomes obsolete.

First, the question, from Dave P:

Hey, LB, when developing an animated series, how much of visual does the writer need to know for the script, and how much is figured out with collaboration between the writers and the art department?

I understand that as the writer, the better I can visualize and describe the better my script will be, of course. But I’m also not an artist, and there are some limits to what I can visualize, and I assume there must be a lot of collaboration outside of the script as to what locations and characters should look like, and in creating the world.

Using SPIDERMAN UNLIMITED as an example (because it requires the development of whole new worlds and creatures), there must have been character and setting elements that you found hard to visualize – and if you can’t visualize them, how do you effectively write them into the script? A picture is worth a thousand words–so when do you just defer to the art team?

And now my reply:

Dear Dave P,

Back in the ’90s when I started writing animation because I was bored as hell with primetime TV but my attempt to retire hadn’t exactly taken, I quickly learned that animation scripts had to be very detailed. Writers had to indicate every shot, angle, and action, breaking down everything because we were giving the artists, especially the story boarders, the most complete directions we could so no mistakes showed up later. And if a writer was trying to sell a pilot the writer needed an artist on board from the beginning to provide character models and set designs before any executive in a position to buy would even look at the material.

Because in those days, in animation, it wasn’t the writers who ruled but – gasp! – the artists. (There are all kinds of political/historical reasons for this, and I keep thinking that someday I’ll write a book about the evolution of animation – because that’s what would take to explain this aspect of the biz properly – a whole book.)

Fortunately for writers, things are a little looser these days. If you’re writing an animated teleplay you can now stick to standard filmed script format. But you do need to be very complete in your character, set, and action descriptions. Imagination is, after all, at least half of what you’re demonstrating when you write a spec, whether it be a pilot or an episode. And speaking of pilots (since that’s what “development” is all about), let’s face it, if you’re creating a new world and you want to pull a reader into it, you damned well better describe it with enough detail to keep him/her entranced.

But not too much description because…boring, you know?

At that time, I had an edge that you probably don’t. SPIDEY UNLIMITED, SILVER SURFER, SPAWN, and the other animated series I did were all given to me by the networks/studios, which means that the key artists (directors and animators) were already on the job. In a sense, we all worked together from before the beginning to make sure we knew exactly what everything looked like. It wasn’t a matter of me, as the writer, deferring to the art people, nor of them deferring to me. (Dude, this is showbiz. No one defers to anyone. We argue it out to the psychological death.) Eventually, we would all get on the same page, at which point we showed what we had to the execs so they could sign off on it and ramp up the production.

My friends who are still happily playing in TV animation land tell me that it’s still best to bring in an artist and have as many visual aids as you can if you’re pitching. If you don’t have one available to you, or you’re writing for a script contest, that may not be possible or necessary, but you still have to make sure you write with enough detail so that at no point will even the most distracted reader go, “Hey, WTF is going on here? I don’t get it.” In other words, you must be able to visualize every single element of your creation. That means you’re going to have to stretch your imagination and make yourself come up with some astounding images…and then describe them so everyone who reads goes, “Wow, that’s amazing!”

Because that, plain and simple, is how your producer/agent/executive (or contest judge) reader knows that you’re just what the animation world needs to bring in acclaim, audiences, and one other not-so-teeny little thing: $$$.

To put it another way, you need to show that you’re the most special kind of writing machine anyone who reads your work has ever encountered. Because that’s how you prove you deserve to have a career.

Best wishes,


That’s it, gang. I love addressing these issues, but I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!