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How to Craft a Successful Script for Animation

Developing a script for animation can often feel like working on any other spot. After all, the age old Writing 101 adage of “show, don’t tell” applies equally to live action, banners and print ads too. These are all forms of visual storytelling, after all. Even radio aims to paint a picture in the viewers’ mind.

While other formats have built-in guidelines due to physical limitations, bandwidth, or ink and dye combinations, animation is a blank canvas extending all the way to the edges of whatever your imagination might conjure up, with the only limitations being set by your budget, your message and your style guide. Think of it as the Wild West of the visual world, where anything can happen. 

So it can be a bit daunting to be the first person to make a mark on that canvas. And often enough these days, that opening salvo responsibility falls upon the humble shoulders of the writer.

We understand that crafting the perfect script in any medium can feel frustrating for even the most seasoned writers. Here are some of the most frequent challenges our clients have sharead when it comes to writing for animation, specifically:

  • Animation scripts need to be locked before any visuals are completed.
  • Abstract visuals or complex transitions don’t translate well in word-form.
  • Detailed messages want to be longer, but the budget requires a shorter script.

Fret not though. With a little perspective, we’re certain you’ll come to view these obstacles as strengths that set animation apart from other mediums.

The Best Scripts Are Like Wireframes for Animating

Animation is design that moves at 24 frames per second. Similar to how digital design uses wireframes to map out user journeys before applying layers of visual pastiche, everything we do as animators is also driven by strategic goals for influencing our audiences. Just like the best briefs are concise and leave room for creatives to dream up solutions, the best animation scripts are more like plays than screenplays.

The most important thing is to prioritize your dialogue and voiceover, as these are the only words that will directly reach your audience. Next, set the scene by telling us where we are, who’s there, and any important details, such as brand logos or products that must be shown—or conversely, anything that must not be shown. Finally, establish how you want your audience to feel and react.

Giving your animation partners enough liberty to bring their expertise to the project will allow them to visualize your story in ways that are strategically designed to engage your audience and encourage your desired results once your animation is set in motion. 

The most effective animation scripts use audio to set the tone and highlight the major messaging points, while answering strategic questions through how they describe visual direction. For example:

  • What matters to your audience? 
  • What type of reaction are you looking to elicit? 
  • Where will people be watching your video?
  • What do you want your audience to remember after watching your spot?

This might seem like an extra step, but far from it. This actually means that you don’t have to worry about scripting visuals for every single frame—or any frame, if you prefer—of your animation. 

In fact, animators prefer a little wiggle room, as it allows us to use the motion of the animation—the body language of characters, the way objects move, or the positioning of objects within a frame—to reinforce your strategy, and the final product benefits from it as a result. 

Animation is a team sport, and you’ve got skilled players ready to take your vision to the goal.

Let your words lead the visuals, rather than defining them, and consider how the spoken voice portions of your script might react to the types of visuals you’d like to have, and you’ll have your audience strung around your finger in no time.

When it comes down to it, a great animation script is a bit like an architectural blueprint that your animation partner can build upon. Dialogue and voiceover are like structural columns. Once you lock them in place, these things won’t change, but they guide all the decisions that will follow in visual development, and they’ll have a resounding impact when spoken.

Animation is an Iterative Art Form

Animating is a matter of sculpting and refining. Many of the wackiest and wildest transitions you’ll see are actually the result of animators, directors and storyboarders chiseling away at other approaches that may not have connected well or don’t serve the story. The development and production process for animation is designed to encourage collaboration and the evolution of ideas to achieve the best possible product. And each stage of development and production allows multiple opportunities to revise and finesse the visuals, even after the script is locked. 

Moreso, everything you see in an animation stems directly from the script: the storyboards, the characters, the environments, the colors, the editing even. Everything. What’s more, animations are intricately timed to fit the exact words of a script. Wordcount directly affects runtime, and runtime determines the amount of storyboards needed, and storyboards guide the motion, etc. You get the idea. Changing even just a few words after starting to animate could create a ripple effect requiring you to go back and restart various stages across your project from the storyboard or illustration phases.

While every project is unique, the typical process goes a bit like this:

  • Script
  • Storyboards
  • Style Frames & Character Design
  • Illustration / Designed Frames
  • Animation
  • Compositing / Conform
  • Sound Design
  • Delivery

The first time you’ll see visuals matched to your voiceover is in the storyboard stage. And before you even see the storyboards, the animation team will have already done a few rounds of development to make sure the visuals line up with your goals and are primed to work well once in motion.

If you happen to find that something isn’t working as well as it may have read in the script, you should expect to have two standard rounds of revision to adjust and fine-tune. For instance, if the storyboard sketches your animators propose don’t align close enough to your initial vision, then you can ask them to try again. Nothing moves forward in animation until you give the magic word: approved. And even once that happens, you’ll still get to see the visuals evolve through style frames and character designs before everything needs to be locked in for animating.

Keep Your Audience Engaged by Avoiding Redundancies

Just as the production process is iterative, animated storytelling also works best when it builds upon itself. For instance, consider a ball moving through an environment and affecting the shapes around it. Once you’ve seen this scene once, you’re likely to expect something different to follow. However, many of the scripts we come across frequently double-back and repeat their voiceover in very similar fashion in an attempt to reinforce topics.

This might work in live action, because you can easily cut back and forth to previously used footage, but in animation, this can blunt the momentum or confuse the audience.

If you do need to revisit the same idea, try putting a different twist on the words the second time around to allow for a new visual interpretation of the concept.

Reducing these types of redundancies can also be a great way to cut down on your word count—which can lower your overall budget—or insert breathing room that could give the visuals space to reinforce your message and allow time for the audience to consider what they’ve learned, while you’ve still got their attention.

Write Responsively

Think of the audio and visual in animation as a symbiotic relationship. One can affect how we interpret the other, and vice versa. More than just using the visuals to reinforce the message, strategically timing the placement of audio cues in your script can tee up certain visuals to have a greater impact or to create opportunities for transitions. Further, flexing both voice and visuals to convey your message can help you more effectively reach a wider range of audiences by engaging both the audio and visual processing centers of the audiences’ minds and allowing those who learn differently to interact equally with your content.

And, this alley-oop style orchestration can also be old-fashioned fun to watch.

Just take a look at these examples from the openings of two of our Iluli videos. In Targeted Ads, you can see how a voice prompt encourages a character in the video to undertake an action and change its behavior. While the voiceover in the opening to Edge Computing tells us we’re looking at the wrong visual, which prompts the visuals to change. 

The results are a mix of humor and education, which makes for messaging that sticks to viewers’ memories.

When the left hand doesn’t just know what the right hand is doing, but reacts to and references what the right hand is up to, it triggers the viewer’s imagination and makes a scene more engaging.

Script For Success, Not Excess

Not everyone is a visual conductor, and that’s why animation studios exist. MOWE is more than your technical partner, we’re motion strategists ready to help you solve the challenges of creating animated stories.

A lean, strategically written script can set the tone for everything that comes later in the process, from visuals to motion, yet when you trust your animation partner to add the flourish, to fine tune the details, to add to the foundation you’ve designed, the results will exceed your expectations.

Ultimately, the strategic insights that form your script are the main differentiator between a 30 second animated spot playing at 24 frames per second and 720 prints strung out along the walls of a contemporary art gallery. 

There’s no concept too crazy, too silly, or even too simple for animation. It’s a flexible medium that should adjust to your needs, not the other way around.

David G. Stone
David G. Stone
Creative Director at MOWE