Screenwriting 101: Animation vs. Live Action


By the way I’m a screenwriter as well—writing a live action and animated project. Both projects are high concept. Any suggestions on writing animation, Mr. Alcott?

Two things come to mind:

1. Structurally, there is no difference between a screenplay for an animated movie and a live-action movie. The exact same rules of drama apply to both.

2. That said, there are reasons why some stories are better animated and some stories are better live-action.

Today’s technology is so sophisticated, there’s nothing that cannot be put on screen. If you want to write a live-action movie about a young deer learning about the joys and sorrows of life, you can do that. Similarly, if you want to write an animated movie about a woman of indomitable spirit who makes her way through the horrors of Reconstruction, you can write that too. However, animation tends to favor the needs of stories about fantastical creatures (talking animals, robots, space aliens) and unstageable spectacle, and live action tends to favor the needs of stories that depend on seeing the faces of real people.

The other thing about animation, of course, is that it needs to be planned out way in advance and once you begin production, there are very few opportunities for improvisation. So if your script is lacking, there is a strong chance your movie is going to suck even if the animation is wonderful. The inverse is, if your script is solid, the animation can have all sorts of things wrong with it and it will still be a good movie.

Because animation is so difficult and time-consuming, it’s important to streamline your screenplay as much as possible before production. When I was working on Antz, Jeffrey Katzenberg often referred to the string of masterpieces he made at Disney (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Alladin, etc) as models of structure. Jeffrey is a man of strong opinions, but he also knows when to listen to experience, and he told me that when he was at Disney, he saw some pictures of Walt Disney in story meetings. The “board,” he saw, for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, had a total of 24 “story beats” in it — 10 in Act I, 10 in Act II and only 4 in Act III. Jeffrey, being a smart man, said “Well, if Walt Disney figured structure like this, I would do well to emulate him.” As a result, Jeffrey’s Disney movies tend to have comparatively long first acts (40-50 minutes), compact second acts (30-35 minutes) and tumultuous, nuclear-powered third acts (15-20 minutes). As he liked to say, “The third act is a race to the finish line.” By the end of Act II in a Katzenberg movie, all the conflicts have been brought into sharp focus, there are no more reveals or reversals to be had, and the plot is reduced to a set of vectors pitting the protagonist against whatever forces have been arrayed against him, usually with a ticking clock hovering nearby to add tension.

(A screenplay for an animated feature, by the way, should not be longer than 90 pages, and anything over 80 is pushing it. My draft of Antz was 83. I can’t tell you why this is a rule, but it is. There are exceptions, of course — The Incredibles is two hours long and I don’t remember anyone complaining about the length.)



6 Responses to “Screenwriting 101: Animation vs. Live Action”
  1. 55seddel says:

    I am so putting this in my faves, I was fixin to write an animated western/film noir/horror film.

    Could you do a short blog about how to fuse genres? I am in a quagmire about what to keep and what to discard in my screenplay.

    edit: I forgot to add Thank You!

  2. spooky_chan says:

    I could be wrong on this, but I always figured that animated movies were shorter in length/page count due to money restraints [traditional animation is/was expensive in terms of production; 2-3 years to make], getting kids in and out of theater to make room for adult movies to take the place of the animated film in the evening [more showings in less time], and the possible idea that children’s attention span can’t go past 90 minutes.

    Now that might just be just a traditional animation view, and a little antiqued, but it was probably what set the standard for animation movies to this day. Though with 3-d movies taking out cell animation [hand drawn frame by frame animation], and using the technology that can fill in the blanks from key frames by digitally moving the model to animate it instead of drawing it. Thus eliminating 30-60 frames of hand drawn labor and probably reducing that time by half. [Among other things like set and special effects.]

    It’s probably safe to assume that 3-d animation would probably fit into a normal movie structure [120 pages]. But is there a bias to create short content to get the audience in and out, solely because animation is still considered the media of children? Or even, still animation being considered NOT a serious genre.

  3. juozasg says:


    I love reading your blog, Mr. Todd Alcott, and learning about storytelling for the sake of increasing my enjoyment of movies. But I get pretty lost when you start talking about beats. Beats are probably a very obvious concept for writers, like but could you please explain for media consumers like myself what beats are and how to identify them in a story.

    Somewhat related to that, I’d love to see you dissect The Bicycle Thief.

  4. Thank you much for your words. Very helpful.

    And I must say Antz was very enjoyable—remember seeing at the movies in the Bronx. Woody Allen dialoque was,well…Woody Allen. Some Funny stuff!!!

    I’m looking at the 3-D and CGI technology right now. Indeed that’s where the future of animation is going.

    James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009 promises to be some groundbreaking 3-D work from Terminator’s pops. I look forward to it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Oh dear

    Don’t let John K see this. I’m just sayin’.