Dealing With Dialogue: When the Words Don’t Matter

Now this is not to infuriate the writers out there.

The words *do* matter in many ways. How else would we know what the story was about or what the characters were thinking? And for those very dialogue-based shows (when the gag is verbal, not visual), the words do indeed matter.

But sometimes they don’t.

Please keep in mind I am mainly talking about cartoons here, not live-action. But hopefully the live-action folks can still get something out of this.

I mentioned in a previous post about a show I worked on called ‘The Amazing Adrenalini Brothers!’.

They don’t speak English.

They speak Rendoosian.

Yes, it’s a made-up language. We didn’t get translations to what they were saying in the script either. But it was usually pretty obvious when you read the context of what was going on.

The brothers didn’t talk much and it usually involved their cheer, “Yahzaa!”, so it wasn’t too difficult.

But a few weeks into storyboarding on that show, the producer called. He wanted to remind me to really ‘act out’ the dialogue. Some storyboards were coming back with the acting not clear enough for the dialogue of the brothers (everyone else did speak English in the show).

I reassured him not to worry because that’s how I handle all of my dialogue. You see, it didn’t matter to me what language they were speaking. I make all my characters act out what they are saying. I break up dialogue into ‘act-able’ chunks, so the Rendoosian thing was not an issue.

I get compliments on my ability to do this, so I figure maybe not every storyboard artist works this way.

But they should (that sounds all ‘high and mighty’, doesn’t it? Oops 😉 ).

“So why should they, Ms. Smarty-Pants?”

Because cartoons are visual storytelling. For the most part, you watch them, you don’t listen to them.

If you understand the main story and ‘gist’ of what’s going on in a cartoon when the sound is off, that is visual storytelling. If you could interchange the words and nothing would really change while you watched it, if any dialogue would work in that sequence, that cartoon’s got a big problem. (In my humble opinion, anyway…and I do have one.)

The best way to look at it, is like this: A cartoon is a film, not a play.

What happens when you go see a play? Yeah, yeah, I know…you don’t go see plays, right? But I’m sure you’ve heard of them…or seen them in the movies? (Which totally goes against the point I’m trying to make…anyway…work with me people!)

What happens at a play? Lots of people talking and telling the story. There may be a few minor set changes but we sit (and watch) and we mainly listen. You could close your eyes at a play and get the gist of what’s going on, couldn’t you?

Yes, you’d miss some good (or bad) acting, but you wouldn’t be lost, right? Because we listen to a play and we watch films.

Don’t storyboard a cartoon like it’s a play!

That means no talking heads (no, not the band). What’s a talking head? It’s usually a close-up or medium shot of one character with too much dialogue indicated for that one pose. See this example (it’s from the show, is *not* one of the brothers and was done in Flash.):

“Well, that guy had stinky breath. He HAD to go!”

And that’s not even a bad example. It’s kind of on the border line. To some of you this might look just fine and dandy.

If this panel was sent overseas to be animated (I’m talking TV show here), they would probably just move her mouth for this scene. For TV shows, the animators just animate what the storyboard artist poses out. Remember that.

It should be improved because she could be saying anything in that pose. Let’s try this:


“that guy”

“had stinky breath.”

“He HAD to go!”

Bit of a difference, huh?

The hand gestures, the waving at the ‘stink’, the rolling of the eyes. It all gives us an idea of what she’s talking about if the sound was off. It gives the animators more to work with. It makes a better cartoon.

This is a very simple example, but I just wanted you to get the idea. Why didn’t I use the brothers? Well, like I said, they don’t talk much. But I will use them for more acting examples…with or without dialogue…in the near future. I’m just scratching the surface here.

So what to take away from this post is: Break up and act out your dialogue.

But be warned:

You can overdo this! I did a one-word pose, but it was hooking up from a previous pose (that you can’t see) and works. Beware of the one-word poses! If you’re new to this, I’d even go as far to say don’t do them.

Some good practice is get out a favorite cartoon on DVD and stop-frame it to find what would be the storyboard poses. Where are the strong poses that “say” the dialogue? I’ll do some examples like that in the future too.

Just for kicks. And material. 🙂

So to sign off let me give belated Canada Day wishes to my fellow Canadians, a happy Fourth of July to my American friends and…uh…have a rockin’ weekend to the rest of you!

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19 thoughts on “Dealing With Dialogue: When the Words Don’t Matter

  1. T. Benjamin Larsen

    Hi Karen, and welcome back. YES! YES! YES! Great post! I think one of Cartoons’ strongest points as an art form is its ability to communicate without words. It is in many senses the ultimate form of Visual Storytelling.

    I think a perfect example of this, and one that goes hand in hand with your post, is the Italian ‘La Linea’ Cartoon. Chance would have it that I just recently bloged about this incredibly effective animation-series…

  2. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hey Ben,

    Your example was perfect! The words certainly didn’t matter in that one, did they? That was great.

    It really reminded of “Duck Amuck” with the hand stuff…one of my all time favorites (note to self: post up ‘Duck Amuck’ at some point).

    It’s also a great example of something I’ll write about in the future: the importance of strong silhouettes!

    Thanks for that Ben. 🙂

  3. JP

    Karen, just discovered you- Love the insights- but above all your writing is great fun to read. I’m hooked! Enjoy your break.

  4. dan szilagyi

    Great post Karen!
    most cartoons ( not all but a few) are guilty of NOT “acting out” much of anything, in fact its more like a bunch of still frames with mouths moving.
    sometimes Anime is like that ( in fact anime is horrible for acting out any talking bits)
    but a good movie that just jumped into my head was “les triplettes de belleville” since that movie had almost no talking period!

  5. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    @ JP – Thanks and welcome! Aardman…woo hoo! Lots of Aardman fans around here, I’m sure. Very cool that you worked for them. Nice blog you’ve got there too. Hope you come back. 🙂

    @ Dan – I’d have to say I’m with you on the Anime thing. I can’t say I’m a huge fan (though I know lots of folks are). I can appreciate it, but it’s really not my thing.

    ‘Triplets’ is a good example. And now I’m looking forward to seeing ‘Wall-E’ because of this very thing too. Seems like the first 45 minutes or so has basically NO dialogue. Love that!

    I’ll give a review when I finally see it. 🙂

  6. T. Benjamin Larsen

    Not to start a huge flamewar or anything, but I think Dan’s post is a tad unfair to Anime. Obviously a lot of the cheaper TV-productions are over-using cut-out mouths but some of Miyazaki’s work is second to none. Take a look at his “Totoro” for instance. The title-character doesn’t utter a word through the whole film, but yet manages to be highly charismatic.

    I think Anime often get a bad rep in the west because the cheap-stuff mass-produced TV-series are what we get to see, rather than the quality stuff…

    OK, rant over.

  7. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Rant away, my friend. 🙂

    You’re right about the TV Anime getting a bad rap. I can’t really watch it myself.

    I know there are many amazing Anime feature films out there though. Like I said, I can definitely appreciate them, they just usually aren’t my thing (just like Disney films aren’t a lot of other people’s ‘thing’).

    I admit to not having seen that many, and there’s a couple on ‘my list to see’ like ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Castle in the Sky’. Heard great things about them.

    Thanks for that commentary Ben (at least Dan *did* say “sometimes Anime”…but he can defend himself…) 🙂

  8. Friar

    This is why I like cartoons. You can express yourself so much easier than writing!

    Like that cartoon diva. You can tell just by looking at her that she’s snooty and stuck-up.

  9. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Yeah, aren’t cartoon divas just the worst??
    (but fun to draw)

    Pictures….thousand words…and all that jazz…is actually true!

    Yay for cartoons. 🙂

  10. Friar

    So, by all rights, a thousand pictures (About 40 seconds worth of animation) should be equal to a MILLION WORDS!

    (Wow..the power of cartoons is awesome, isn’t it?)

    Except for Caillou, though.

    He sucks big-time! 🙂

  11. dan Szilagyi

    Guess my reply is a bit late but yeah i agree with Ben, Miyazaki’s films are really good and just about every feature film is pretty good as well(paprika,tekkon kinkreeet, etc) but yes i should have said that TV series tend to be pretty bad, there is expections with some OVA’S or short series but i find that most animes that are good tend to have good animation rather then good “acting”

  12. Ravyn

    Like the post, fully agree with the message.

    Even plain-writers could get a great deal of good out of remembering to detail out the body language. I once demonstrated this to one of my friends with a seven-paragraph “conversation”–actually one person giving a report to four others and the reactions and debate that followed–in which I switched off the sound and concentrated entirely on visual cues like placement and body language. Despite the fact that he’d told me he doesn’t usually “get” that sort of thing, he understood what was going on almost perfectly.

    It’s pretty nifty to get these things to work.

  13. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    @ Dan – it’s never too late! Now all is well in Anime-land. 🙂

    @ Ravyn – Hi and welcome!
    Yes, it’s not just in cartoons where using visuals can help explain things and make them clearer. It can make complex ideas simple if used the right way.
    Thanks for your perspective!

  14. Debi

    Great informative post!

    Coming from comic book land, we do the same. You have to make the most of that one panel for what’s being said. Just a static, un-acted character would kill the emotion to the story. Gotta give it some movement and life.

  15. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hey Debi,

    Could be even more important for comic books. They don’t pose out as much as storyboards, so you *really* have to choose your posing to make the most out of it .

    I would think…since I’m not from comic book land. (I’m one town over…in storyboardville. 🙂 )

  16. Gorillamydreamz

    Hi Karen,

    Another great post from a terrific, informative blog.

    I was one of the writers on The Amazing Adrenalini Brothers. My writing partner and I came in during the second half of the season and wrote a whack of them. (We were the fresh horses). The experience truly encapsulated how much better stories are when the motivations and story are clear and and simple right down the line.

    All three of the Adrenalini Brothers needed to have a single, clear want and that motivation then drove their every action from that point forward. Every writing choice from that point on was dictated by their want.

    We made an effort to suggest the physicality of the characters (their acting) but so much of that is in the hands of the storyboard artists. You guys are the actor and just cutting and framing the action isn’t enough if the characters don’t come alive within your frame.

    I used to be a storyboard artist myself so I try to keep this stuff in mind when I write. I remember working on Ned’s Newt early in my career. I had a talking scene on an airplane that was funny but then the director reworked a moment by having the Newt rub his finger along his laptop screen and examine the dust as he spoke. Almost instantly the character was a living, breathing thing!

    Keeping that physicality in mind gets lost when writers (and board artists) rely too much on talking. We’ve all seen cartoons where characters tell us exactly what they are doing. We can SEE what they are doing so much of that dialogue is redundant. Talking heads saves us time and painful thinking, but it doesn’t make for good, animated television.

    The show helped us streamline our writing and lose any old habits that may have dragged the action down to a crawl. It was our chance to do the kind of silent, Buster Keatoneque comedy I grew up loving.

    It’s a lesson I’ve tried to keep with me since production on that show finished.

  17. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hi Gorillamydreamz and welcome!

    I wonder if I worked on one (or two) of your episodes…good chance that I did. 🙂

    I could always tell the difference with the writers who ‘got’ the show and those that just didn’t quite. It sounds like you really got it (especially being a former board artist yourself).

    I loved getting a script that showed their relationship and played with that. That’s what I like to dig my hands into. Instead of them just running around doing a bunch of ‘stuff’. It’s just not the same.

    That show was a good lesson for board artists and writers alike it seems. Thanks for the great comment! 🙂

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