Telling Stories

Some years ago I began to be aware of a new term film makers were using to describe the executives assigned to their projects. "Phone Monkey" was the rather unflattering term the film makers bestowed upon the legion of "suits" who made a habit of looking over their shoulders while they were trying to make a film. More often than not, these studio minions would arrive in a conference room or on a sound stage with a cell phone "glued" to the sides of their heads. Their job was to monitor progress on a project and report to the bosses upstairs. Granted, a feature film today is a hefty investment and one should not be faulted for making sure their investment is secure. Having said that, it appears far too many projects today are not only watched by executives - they're driven by them. I remember a film I worked on some years ago. Another movie driven by a legion of executives. I won't mention the project's name, however. I confess I started off enjoying myself because the cute subject matter was something I particularly enjoy. Yet, I had to leave the project because no one seemed to know what the movie was about. I've become a bit of a pain in the butt in my old age so I thought it best to leave the show lest I cause bad feelings with my constant grousing about the lackluster story. With all due respect to my colleagues laboring on the film, I respect their talents and wish them well. Still, I couldn't help but be reminded how things have changed since I began my career as a story artist at the Walt Disney Studio many years ago. 

Those of you familiar with the Disney story development process in Walt's day know that the "Story Men," (as we were called in those ancient times) were the animated film's screenwriters. This was a process that served Disney well for decades yet it completely befuddled the live-action types that took over the company in the early eighties. The Hollywood hot shots seemed unable to comprehend a story board and insisted on having a script before green-lighting a movie. Keep in mind I'm not only talking about Disney, but every mainstream studio around now follows this directive. Funny thing is - if the idea of using a screenplay is so effective, why has the story telling been so unimpressive? Today, it's not unusual for an animated film to have a dozen screen writers hammering away at the script. The story board crew that translates these script pages into visuals has also grown in number. I can't help but be reminded of my first job as a story artist in the laid back sixties. There were probably only six of us on the team. Along with old time radio gag writer, Larry Clemmons we managed to craft the story with almost remarkable ease compared to today's convoluted story development process. We worked a normal five day week as was customary at Walt's studio. There was no overtime, long hours, or frantic weekends. Finally, instead of pitching to a legion of executives, we pitched to only one person and his name was Walt Disney. Unlike today's overpaid managers, Walt actually understood what he was looking at and whether or not it worked. I confess that working for one of the greatest and toughest story editors in the business truly spoiled me.

There are several animated films in either development or production today. I'm willing to bet each and everyone of them has already been through several drafts with no end in sight. Yet, no matter how many screen writers take a swing at an animated film the results are rarely spectacular. As a matter of fact, with the exception of a few remarkable films, I've yet to be impressed with any of animation's recent story telling efforts. Maybe it's time to let the story artists be story tellers again. Perhaps screen writers need to learn that animated films work best when the story is crafted visually and not the other way around. Finally, haven't we had enough interference by studio executives who think they know story structure simply because they took a few scriptwriting classes? Yeah, I know I’m getting old because I long for the day when story artists can once again tell animated stories. When creative storytellers do more than just translate poorly written script pages into visuals. When executives realize that in order to work effectively in the medium, you must first understand the medium. Okay, that’s enough complaining for a Monday morning.

At times executives have a habit of getting in the way. Somehow I doubt this is gonna change anytime soon.

At times executives have a habit of getting in the way. Somehow I doubt this is gonna change anytime soon.