Thursday, March 23, 2006

On Film and Dialogue

Many visitors to the Temple have been leaving great comments and asking great questions. Some address the problem of "too much dialogue" in recent animated films. This also seems to be a hot topic on other animation websites these days.

It's true that film is primarily a visual medium. The stage play is usually considered the place where dialogue is allowed to tell the story, but in movies - and particularly in animated movies - the storytelling is supposed to be done through the visuals.

As I said in the comments - and I fervently believe - any good movie can be watched with the sound off and still be understood completely. That's why they say "show, don't tell" - the visuals should tell the story and the visuals alone. People retain what they see so much better than what they're told. And what we see has a much greater impact on us than what we hear.

That said...someone pointed out to me the other day that Pixar movies tend to have a lot of - gasp! - dialogue. I haven't sat down and counted the lines in a Pixar movie but this strikes me as probably true. But they don't FEEL talky. And yet so many other animated films do feel that way, and probably have around the same amount of dialogue. So what gives?

I think it's because Pixar movies use dialogue in the right way. I once read that everything in a movie should either:

A) Reveal Character or
B) Advance the Plot

That's it. That's for visuals or dialogue or events. Anything that happens, is seen or heard in a movie has to fulfill one of those two objectives. In my book anyway.

Here's why other movies feel so talky: they don't ascribe to the above credo, and they add a ton of dialogue to do this:

C) have characters make wisecracks and spit out one-liners so people will think the film is funny.

That's why those movies feel talky: they're filled with annoying wise-cracking characters that get on your nerves. WIsecracks are the bread-and-butter of tedious sitcoms, not good movies. TRUE HUMOR COMES FROM ENTERTAINING CHARACTERS. Not wisecracks. When you think of Woody, Buzz, Marlin or Dory do you think "Oh yeah, remember that time Woody 'zinged' Buzz with that sarcastic insult"?

No. Woody, Buzz, Marlin and Dory are all entertaining character types, who approach life in an entertaining way and get into situations that allow their character to come out. And since they're great three-dimensional character and not a cardboard sitcom character (sorry, Webster) you enjoy watching them get into great situations and watching them suffer and get themselves out of trouble.

Even great sitcoms do this. The sitcoms that live on - think "Seinfeld" - is all based on great characters thrown into entertaining situations. Not wisecracks. Nobody's lining up to buy "Webster" on DVD but the "Seinfeld" ones are selling like hotcakes.

Here's the acid test for bad dialogue in pages - look at the lines on the page. If you covered up the names of all the characters and just looked at the dialogue, could you still tell who was saying what? In other words, every line of dialogue should feel like it could only come from one character - then it fulfills requirement A) above. And if it could have come from anybody...chances are, it's another wisecrack, or pop-culture reference, or "zinger" - all the crutches unimaginative writers fall back on.

Man, I just sat down and blurted this post out, totally unintentionally - I was gonna take a night off! I don't mean to be so virulent but this topic is a passionate one to me. And I had no idea when I started writing that I was gonna slam "Webster" - twice! I hope that guy that played Webster doesn't read this site.


Ali said...

What's Webster? Is it new?

mark kennedy said...

"Webster" was the worst sitcom I could think of off the top of my head. It's a bad early-80s sitcom featuring a cutsy kid actor (shudder) and an ex-football player.

I never actually saw the show. I assume it was bad, but I could be wrong. If it WAS a good show, replace "Webster" with "Blossom". Or what was the name of that show where the girl was a robot? Anyone?

mark kennedy said...

"Small Wonder"! That was it! Man, that show blew.

RoboTaeKwon-Z said...

I would'nt worry Mark, I think you could kick Webster's ass. You could probably take Blossom too.
I'm not sure about the chick from "Small Wonder", though. She is a robot after all.

mark kennedy said...

I thought that too, but I checked it out. She was only PRETENDING to be a robot. Whoa!

Where is her Oscar?????

Skribbl said...

So when I do a scene I board it without dialog first then spend the last hour cranking out the dialog strips. That way the board read visually first. Besides, they're going to change the dialog anyway when the actor gets in there to record the production dialog. Right?? Can I get a witness?

mark kennedy said...

mmm-hmmm amen brother.

DanO said...

and silent characters DON'T WORK.

thats a rule, you can't have a silent character.
i know this because an executive closely affiliated to Nickelodeon with an affinity for pitch contests and ipod broadcasts once brow beated this at me as i sat in his office.
... and there's no opinion on that either. its an empirical statement from a man who knows more about cartoons than you or me:
silent characters don't work.
"they haven't had a successful silent character in popular entertainment for the last 25 years!" he said to me.

(nevermind R2-D2, Grommit, The Triplets Of Beleville, and a number of others)

i was expected to buy that line.
its a telling sign of a the cluelessness of an executive when Kevin Smith has proven them wrong.....

chickennuggets said...

Mark Kennedy's a "small wonder"....

hahaha, ZING on you!

AmaDEUSmozART said...


J said...

Hey Mark,
Great posts, GReAT blog.
I feel the same way about inane physical gags in films that undermine either character believability or the emotional context of the scene theyre in.It happens alot in animation, and it always drives me nuts. I think you're right about why the pixar stuff is all great,they make sure everything is there for a legitimate story/character reason.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I was wondering about that acid test... Could it be open for exceptions? I'm thinking of Magnolia... I know, it's not an animated film, but I guess the principles should be the same.
The thing is, someone I know read the script of Magnolia, and he said that the main thing he noticed was how all the characters seemed exactly the same in the script. Yet on the screen, the actors (of course guided by the director who'd also written it) made the parts so different and extraordinary, and they kept us watching at a 3h+ movie, which doesn't have a very straightforward storyline.

Now, I haven't read the script myself, nor do I even expect that you've read it... for all I know, you might not even have seen it. But do you have any thoughts about that? ^^

mark kennedy said...

There's no such thing as a hard and fast "rule" of course. Just guidelines. There are plenty of live-action movies that do what you're saying, but there's something about a physical actor playing the character on screen that makes the characterization instantly unique. Animation is different, and I think we need to try harder on this account.

Kevin Deters said...

Did you enjoy "Blossom" on a regular basis? I always found the "very special episodes" particularly compelling.

As for Webster, the star was the ever precocious Emmanuel Lewis.

mark kennedy said...

I never saw an episode of "Blossom", "Webster" or "Small Wonder", believe it or not. We weren't allowed to watch that much TV as kids. But we DID watch other crappy shows - "Condo" (anyone remember that?) "Benson" (not a crappy show, really, but we watched every episode) and every gawd-awful Saturday morning thing there was. Anyone else remember "Dr. Shrinker"?

mark walton said...

Do you think all those Sid and Marty Kroft shows fall into the "so-bad-they're-cool" category, or just "really bad"? At least they were bizaare enought to be memorable (when I describe them to my younger siblings, they don't believe me!).
Just wanted to say, you've expressed exactly what I've thought about these subjects for years, only far more clearly than I could! Glad you didn't take the night off, dude!