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A Fluffy Bunny Hops Towards a Scary Castle: What Cartoons Can Teach Us About Visual Storytelling

Cartoons are enjoying a newfound respect and admiration. But they have a lot to teach writers about live action films as well. Michael Lee explains.

Michael Lee is a writer, script consultant, script reader and judge. He's worked as a creative executive for a few production companies and as reader and judge for some of the most prestigious screenwriting contests in the country including PAGE and Final Draft Big Break. He's recently optioned his latest project: a science-fiction comedy entitled How to Conquer the Earth. Follow Michael on Facebook and Twitter: @GoldenAgeofGeek.

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In my previous post I talked about how writers can use ALL CAPS to enhance their visual storytelling. But one of the problems I find as a script judge is that not everyone has a firm grasp on the basics visual storytelling. A lot of new writers think they know what it means but unless they’ve actually gone to film school they’re often wrong or have incomplete knowledge of the subject. Creative writing classes can help but visual storytelling in prose is very different from screenwriting. A lot of the screenwriting books don’t deal with the subject. But most of us have been exposed to very good examples of visual storytelling since childhood; cartoons.

Thanks to companies like Pixar and networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, animated shows and features have gained a lot of respect in the past several years. But the art form has plenty to teach new screenwriters, even those who have no intention of writing for animation.

A Fluffy Bunny Hops Towards a Scary Castle: What Cartoons Can Teach Us About Visual Storytelling by Michael Lee | Script Magazine #scriptchat #amwriting #screenwritingg

Every Frame a Painting is one of the best Youtube channels available. It’s a must see for anyone interested in any part of the filmmaking process. One of my favorite videos of that channel studies the work of Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones, the man who helped make Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck the iconic characters they are.

It is a great episode and covers a lot of very sophisticated visual storytelling techniques. But for new writers it might be a little too advanced. The point of this video isn’t that Chuck Jones’ work was easy or simple. It was very complex. This is something new writers should aspire to; to build up their visual storytelling skills to the point where they can do what Chuck Jones accomplished in his career.

But then where should a new writer start? At its most basic visual storytelling simply means using images to tell a story. In many ways it is its own separate language, with its own unique grammar and structure. And if you’ve watched a lot of cartoons you’ve seen this visual storytelling grammar practiced over and over again. Cartoons use images in a specific way to tell their stories. And whether it’s Looney Tunes or the latest episode of Spongebob Squarepants a lot of these techniques have relevance to live action movies. Here are a few of the basic techniques that you see frequently in cartoons:

Images that convey information:

Daffy Duck pulls out a bottle with a SKULL AND CROSSBONES on it.

This is maybe the most basic form of visual storytelling. Certain images have specific, universal or near universal meaning. You see them you know what the creators are trying to say. Even though this is maybe the most basic of all visual storytelling ideas it’s one that some new writers struggle with. Whenever a character delivers an unnecessary expo dump or when two characters talk about something they should already know, the writer should go back and see if there are images to relay the same information to the audience.

Images that convey inner thoughts:

A LIGHTBULB lights up above Bugs Bunny’s head.

This is one step from just conveying information. These images convey thoughts or emotions. They are a vital piece of filmmaking and can as obvious as a cartoon or used more subtly. Clueless has a moment where its main character suddenly gets a clue. The image they chose could have come right out of a Chuck Jones directed short. But this technique has also been used by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and other masters of filmmaking. So there is a wide range of usage for this technique.

Cause and Effect:

A CANDLE burns through a STRING which releases a HAMMER which strikes a BOWLING BALL which sends it rolling down a TRACK.

Cause and effect is a major part of storytelling in general. We all know about structuring our screenplay but the individual scenes also need a structure. That’s where cause and effect come in. Things shouldn't just be happening randomly in a scene. Actions should provoke reactions. And sometimes the best way to picture this is to remember those old Roadrunner cartoons. In every great stage play no line or action is unmotivated. Every move and gesture is a reaction to what immediately preceded it. The bowling ball won’t roll down that track until after the boot kicks it.

Also this is a great way to give your scripts a feeling of movement. I see a lot of new writers waste time in their scripts describing tracking shots. Every Frame a Painting has another great video on tracking shots.

To sum up, a tracking is just there to compress an entire sequence into a single take. A lot of new writers are so dazzled by the technique they fail to see its purpose in the story. So they end up wasting paragraphs describing the movement of a camera. With most tracking shots the movement isn’t what’s important. It’s the visual information contained within the shot that’s important. And that visual information is in a tracking shot because it flows from one image to another. Almost as if it were a Rube Goldberg device.


A FLUFFY BUNNY hops down a road towards a DARK, SCARY CASTLE

Once we get to contrast we start delving into the more sophisticated techniques of visual storytelling. Visually contrasting elements can do so many things at once. First off it creates tension, and tension is the stuff of drama (or comedy.) If you introduce two contrasting images the reader and the audience will naturally feel something is off without a word being uttered on screen. That tension can give the audience information. It can be an externalization of what the characters are thinking and feeling. And it can give a sense a movement. The above example doesn’t specify any camera movement but it’s the kind of shot DPs and directors can have fun with.

These are just some of the visual storytelling basics that we’ve all been exposed to throughout our childhoods, thanks to cartoons. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to call on these memories when we practice our visual storytelling. You want to learn from the best? There are few better in film history than Chuck Jones.

Get more tips on writing live action with William Martell's webinar
Visual Storytelling: Actions Speak Louder than Words