By: Elyse                Categories: AnimationGeneral

The following is an excerpt from Ideas for the Animated Short: Finding and Building Stories. This book is a comprehensive and practical blueprint for creative and unique animated short creation with a focus on the strength of a compelling story. Here, the authors explain the difference between a feature and a short.

Beyond the obvious differences in running time, scope, complexity, and resources, the animated short requires a directness, clarity, simplicity, and economy of plot and assets not found in feature films.

Initial ideas for a short are often too big, too complicated and cover too much territory because most of our references are based on the Hero’s Journey.

In the Hero’s Journey, the characters (many of them) meet with conflict (several events in several locations), until they reach a crisis (of monumental spiritual or physical proportions) where they learn a lesson (the many themes and subtexts converge), make a decision (which calls for more action) and succeed (usually in celebration with the many other characters).

For the individual filmmaker, the short should have one theme, concept or idea that the piece communicates and one conflict that intensifies or gets worse. It should have one or two characters, one or two locations, and only the props necessary to populate the scene appropriately or drive the story.

The inciting moment, the moment when something unexpected happens for the character, usually occurs within the first 10 to 15 seconds. In A Great Big Robot from Outer Space Ate My Homework, we enter the film after the alien has eaten the homework and when the boy is rushing to tell his teacher.

Above: A Great Big Robot from Outer Space Ate My Homework, by Mark Shirra, Vancouver Film School

In the short, the character will arc, which means he will change emotionally from the beginning to the end. But he doesn’t always learn, make big decisions or even succeed. Sometimes it is enough to retrieve an object, understand an environment, solve a problem, reveal a secret, or discover something. Shorts can be as small as a one-liner or a single event as in Caps.

Above: Caps, directed by Moritz Mayerhofer and Jan Locher, Filmakademie Baden- Wuerttemberg, Germany

In Caps, four hooded and colored figures have offerings for an Altar. There is a green one who is clearly behind. He has a different character and tempo. Red, Blue and Yellow all offer their gifts to the Altar, but when Green arrives he has drunk most of his offering. Yet he can pull out a scooter and color the world.

Remember our most basic definition of a story: a character who wants something badly and is having trouble getting it. When you are looking for ideas, this is still the basis of what you are looking for, only smaller.

Let’s work this definition a little bit further: The short story has ONE character that wants something badly and is having trouble getting it. That “trouble” is, at most, ONE other character or environment that causes conflict. The resolution to the conflict communicates ONE specific theme.

This will translate into the following structure:

–           It is an ordinary day

–          Something happens that moves the character to action

–          A character wants something badly

–           He meets with conflict

–          The conflict intensifies until

–           He makes a discovery, learns a lesson, or makes a choice

–           In order to succeed

That sounds a lot like the Hero’s Journey. The difference is in the singularity of the conflict.

The Disney short Chalk is a great example of this.

Above: © Disney. For Training Purposes Only—Property of WDAS 2010 Talent Development

First, viewers are dropped into a girl’s 3D “real” life. Her street is a line of monochromatic row houses. It is hot outside. That is the first major conflict. It is here that she is creating her fantasy world of color, and more importantly, a place where she can get some relief from the heat. She draws a kiddie pool with sidewalk chalk, and slips into a daydream as she visits a place that is cool.

In this 2D fantasy water world, a youngster’s imagination can run wild, and she interacts with colorful fish, far from her other world where there were no other living things.

Then she meets a whale, a potential threat and the second major conflict, which surprises her by singing, “Din-ner!” This shocks her into returning to the real world and the realization that what she heard was her mother.

Stories need rising conflict. In this piece, the drama builds gradually toward the supreme conflict, without the audience really seeing what is happening. First, she has a surprising encounter with a jellyfish, and then she is spun around by a whoosh of a school of fish, and then the slow looming arrival of a very large whale.

More importantly, the encounter with this huge mammal is the intellectual pivot point of the piece. The whale’s size, stealthy movement and teeth combine to give the audience some sinister clues about its relationship to the girl, and when it says, “Din-ner,” the worst is feared. But there are contradictory clues. The whale’s voice is high and feminine, some teeth are missing, its mouth hangs open lazily. Not what you would expect from a killer whale.

In the end she heads back to her real world having taken us along to her fantasy world.

So let’s look at this in terms of our structure:

–          A little girl is playing outside

–           The sun glares on her and she wants to get out of the heat, so she draws a pool and slips inside

–          She swims with fishes until a jellyfish bounces on her stomach

–           She gets knocked around by a school of fish

–           A huge whale arrives that seems to want to eat her for dinner

–           She discovers it is her mother calling her

–           And she runs home leaving a colorful world of chalk friends behind.

When reading the following chapters, keep this kind of simplicity in mind. One good, simple idea is the key to making a solid short. The simpler the better because you don’t have much time to say what you want to say, but more importantly, the viewer does not have much time to grasp what you are trying to say.


Why do we tell stories?

–          To entertain

–           To teach

–          To compare our existence to others

–          To communicate with others

–          To see the world through the eyes of others

–          To learn how to be human.

Many stories seem to be the same as other stories because:

–          There is an archetypal story structure

–          There are a limited number of archetypal characters

–          There are a limited number of conflicts

–          There are a limited number of themes.

Original stories are created through the audience’s engagement with unique characters and the way that they react to and solve the conflicts they encounter.

As filmmakers, we deliver emotion. It is through emotional engagement that we move an audience.

When making the animated short, the story needs to have limited characters, limited locations, one conflict, and one theme.

Excerpt from Ideas for the Animated Short: Finding and Building Stories by  Karen Sullivan, , Kate AlexanderAubry Mintz, and Ellen Besen © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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