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Review of Gardner's Guide to Feature Animation Writing: The Writer's Road Map
Review by Shannon Muir

Book: Gardner's Guide to Feature Animation Writing
Author: Marilyn Webber
Year: 2002
dFX Review Rating: 5 out of 10
More Info from Amazon.com

Chapters:
1. Animation - An Overview
2. Animated Feature Genres - Your Tunnel Vision
3. The Premise
4. The Central Idea
5. Universal Appeal
6. Dead End Ahead - The Central Question
7. Introduction to Plot
8. Characters
9. Act One
10. Act Two
11. Act Three
12. Checkpoint Charlie
13. Themes
14. Make 'Em Laugh
15. Prose - Your Information Highway
16. Dialogue
17. The Scene
18. Sing a Song
19. The Rewrite
20. Hollywood or Bust


The design of Gardner's Guide to Feature Animation Writing is to take you from premise to completion, including a rewrite, of a feature-length animation script as intended for theatre or direct-to-video. The last chapter does provide some general assistance with attempting to sell your completed script, but that really is not a focus of the book. One thing I want to point out is the tagline on the cover of this book: "The formula for writing a full-length animation." The process this book contains is indeed a formula.

Terminology in this book speaks of script structure if you intend to hop in a car and take a trip. After considering saleable concepts (classic characters, marquee value, or original concepts), you are encouraged to decide on one of six "animation tunnels" -- a genre -- for your script. After laying down "Central Question Avenue" (the question that launches your story and that the climax resolves), you move the plot forward along the various cross-streets until you reach the "20th Street On-Ramp," basically the situation at the end of Act One that propels us into Act Two, and so on until we reach "No Outlet" at the end of Act Two (where you can't turn back) to the "end of the freeway" as the resolution of the climax. You are also encouraged to create character "dipstick" and "compass traits" to help define their personalities. Advice that would normally be notated as helpful hints are labeled "road rules." There's even a map in the back behind the glossary designed to be blown up so you can graph your script out using this structure.

If these kind of labels make your first attempt at a script more of an adventure, or helps the learning process be more accessible, more power to you. Just bear in mind, no one in Hollywood speaks of "20th Street On-Ramps," "Falling Rocks," or "U-Turns" in scripts. These are only tools for applying a learning process and bear no relevance to the professional world. You will still have to learn the proper terms for these items if you wish to have a serious career.

Marilyn Webber, the book's author, mentions having worked as a professional writer for the past ten years and that she began in her career "writing Saturday morning cartoons and animation teleplays." No animation credits are ever listed; most of the information in her bio revolves around scriptwriting teaching experience or live-action credits.

Ms. Webber does provide examples from animated films for the concepts she discusses, often from multiple movies. However, I soon came to tire of phrases like "forgive me while I depart to a live-action film" when making the strongest examples of her point (instances from the book include using Raiders of the Lost Ark to illustrate writing the unexpected into a scene, and Jaws to describe the One-Two Payoff). While these examples may indeed be effective in explaining her points, the fact that more than once a live-action film was deemed stronger than any animated counterpart seemed to undercut faith in the strength of animated films. However, Ms. Webber does include a full-length sample script, though whether it is an unproduced or produced script is unclear.

Gardner's Guide to Feature Animation Writing: The Writer's Road Map does provide exercises to help you consider how to strengthen your own script by watching produced animated features. While the intent is good, and could be effective, Ms. Webber rarely dictates exactly what should be watched. Only a few exercises actually specify watching movies such as Mulan and Chicken Run, and then provide feedback as to what the reader should have gleaned. Most of the book's exercises are along the lines of writing down the central questions of six different animated films, of which the films are the reader's choice. No way is provided for the reader to verify that they have accurately understood and answered the question, since specific films are generally not suggested.

This book does a large disservice in its final chapter. It gives the impression that once your feature animation script is completed that you have written by following this book, it will be salable to production companies. Very few, if any, speculative (not originally written for hire at a company) feature animation features have ever been sold to date. What these type of scripts are best for is to show that you are capable of writing a feature animation script, so that companies can consider hiring writers to flesh out ideas developed in-house. Ms. Webber does not help readers confront this reality, either upfront before launching into the script process nor at the tail end.

Pros
- Provides a structure system with road map imagery that may make initial learning more accessible for some, since it's something that can be easily related to
- Easy to tackle at your own pace
- Complete sample script written by Ms. Webber included

Cons
- Gets bogged down in the "cutesy" road map terminology as some of the terms stretch to fit the formula
- Most exercises that require watching animated films and analysis do not have provided answers to check work, so it is difficult to know if you are on the right track
- The most-recommended illustrations from films frequently come from live-action films
- Fails to acknowledge the reality that spec feature animation rarely if ever sells

Also, it is worth noting that I compared this book at a glance to Gardner's Guide to Animation Scriptwriting: The Writer's Road Map, also written by Ms. Webber and geared to television animation. Many of the chapters have near-identical text, with only a couple chapters that are unique to each. Also, in the Introduction to that book, Ms. Webber states, "those of you wanting to write a feature animation script, use the rules of this book combined with the structure of the feature script Screenwriting: The Writer's Road Map" (which is the book in this series devoted to live-action screenwriting). Clearly something caused a change of heart as this separate volume devoted to feature writing was released two years later. Other than the inclusion of the sample feature script written by Ms. Webber that would have radically changed the page count, I could find no reason why a Revised Edition of the Animation Scriptwriting book -- covering both television and feature animation -- could not have been issued in place of this book with the few new chapters and additional information.

My advice to the buyer -- if you think this Road Map structure would be helpful to you, make sure you buy the proper book for your needs and goals.



You can order Garnder's Guide to Feature Animation Writing by clicking here.


Shannon Muir is known in the animation industry for her work as a production coordinator for Nickelodeon's Invader Zim. She also served as a Production Coordinator for Extreme Ghostbusters and a Production Assistant for Jumanji: The Animated Series. Muir is an accomplished writer and often participates on panels or as a guest speaker at conventions like Comic Con International.

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