If you want to learn how to write screenplays in any genre, you’ve got to be reading movie scripts from animated movies.
The development of an animation script is similar in some respects to the process of iteration used in software development. It requires especially close collaboration between writers, directors, and animators at every part of the process – a process that can take 3-5 years – and often calls for integrating advanced technology into the writing process.
After a lengthy phase of pitching ideas internally, movie scripts get written and rewritten through several processes, which can include: storyboarding, the creation of a story reel, pre-visualization, rough layout, final layout, and preview screenings.
This is in contrast to TV pilot scripts, which are typically written by an individual (or writing team) in a much shorter period of time.
This isn’t a list of the “Best Animated Scripts Ever,” though there are some wonderful scripts included, but rather a group of scripts that showcase different aspects of writing that I think are valuable. That said, here are eight animation movie scripts that you should read.
Up screenwriter/director Pete Docter said, “I think the first pitch to John Lasseter when we made him cry (with no visuals!) did we think we had the emotional underpinnings of the story. Storywise we had finally cracked Carl’s motivation for escaping life – that he had lived an amazing relationship with his life that ended in something not quite completed. It’s a good feeling when you find that nugget of truth in your story. Humor and characters will come in and out of a story, but that nugget will remain.”
Learn more about how the Up script was developed with co-writers and co-directors Bob Peterson and Pete Docter. In these video interviews, Pete Docter shares details about how he developed the script and the craft of screenwriting.
Peterson and Docter bring passion to their work. Here’s an inspirational letter that Pete Docter sent to middle school students and an interview Bob Peterson did with Glenn Close talking about his love of dogs.
As he accepted his Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, Pete Docter said, “Never did I dream that making a flip book out of my third-grade math book would lead to this.”
When The Lego Movie screenwriter/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were pitching their take on what the movie script should be, they said to imagine, “If Michael Bay kidnapped Henry Selick and forced him to make a movie for him.” Chris Miller said, “It could easily have been a giant commerical for toys, but we all wanted to make something using Lego as a medium to tell a fun, funny, cool story. We tried to be as true to the medium as possible. We thought, “If Michael Bay went back in time and gave himself the money he has now, what would he do?”
Phil Lord in his TEDx talk about Rewriting said, “I can’t believe how much rewriting stresses writers out. The Writers Guild of America consumes more mental health visits than any other health care collective in America. The reason is rewriting. Rewriting is really, really hard.” He talks about collaboration, getting fired off a studio movie, the value of pitching, and relentless ititeration during the filmmaking process.
While Phil Lord and Chris Miller were brought onto to the movie, Dan and Kevin Hageman were the original script writers on The Lego Movie. “We wrote the initial treatments, setting up the central structure, including the different worlds and many characters Emmet meets along the way.” They received “story by” credit and even though they were replaced by Lord and Miller, Lego hired them to write a Lego TV special, which was so successful it was made into a series, now on it’s fifth season, and is the number one intellectual property for boys.
Frozen may have had one of the longest development processes in film history. In 1939, there was interest in doing an animated film based on The Snow Queen and many versions of the project have been developed over the years.
Frozen director Chris Buck said, “I was intrigued by the story, and I pitched it about five years ago to John Lasseter and Ed Catmull. We all loved the idea of doing a Disney movie in snow and ice, which had never been done before and which is always magical in itself.”
Frequently at Disney, writers and directors working on movie scripts will give notes on each other’s projects. Jennifer Lee, one of the screenwriters of Wreck-It Ralph, gave notes on Frozen and really connected with the material. She was brought in as the film’s screenwriter and later, was also promoted to being the co-director. Prior to Lee’s involvement, several core concepts were already in place, such as the film’s “frozen heart” hook: “That was a concept and the phrase … an act of true love will thaw a frozen heart.” But the movie was more of an action/adventure film and “We wanted to go more musical, with more comedy.” Much of the original plot was changed as well. For example, in the first act, Elsa, the villainous Snow Queen, deliberately struck Anna in the heart with her freezing powers; then “the whole second act was about Anna trying to get to Hans and to kiss him and then Elsa trying to stop her”.
Jennifer Lee is the first female director of a Disney animated film and the first writer at any major animation studio to become a director. When asked, “What was your biggest professional setback?” Lee answered, “Switching careers. Going from book publishing to film was definitely the hardest thing. Book publishing is a world where you work your way up. The film industry is so complex, and it is constantly surprising. It can really knock your ego out and your sense of your abilities, and you have to take that out of the equation, because it doesn’t matter if it’s the best script you’ve ever written. What it takes to get a film made is so complicated. Every time you get the “no,” you have to be able to not let it affect you. That’s the hardest part.”
Frozen is the highest-grossing animated film of all time and the sixth highest-grossing film of all time, having so far grossed nearly $1.2 billion in worldwide box office revenue. Frozen won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
At a casual dinner party with Steven Spielberg, Jerry Seinfeld off-handedly said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they made a movie about bees and called it ‘Bee Movie’?” Spielberg thought it was actually a good idea, called Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks, and quickly made a deal.
“I was actually very scared to even take on the idea of writing a movie,” said Seinfeld. When asked if he trusted his co-writers, Seinfeld said, “I did. These guys actually happen to be my friends and I’m at the point where I like being with my friends, and there’s nobody else I really wanted to write with. I just kind of liked the vibe, you know? It’s more of an atmosphere. Sometimes writing comedy is just hanging around with funny people. Someone could not put one funny line into the script, but them being in the room makes you feel funny and then you think of funny things. I can’t explain it, but this is how it works. Like there are certain people who are not funny at all – as you know (laughing) – and when we would write, if there was a person that would come in the room and it would be like someone just filled the room with water. You know, nobody felt funny any more. We couldn’t think of anything funny so we’d go, ‘You’ve got to get out of here.’”
Coraline is a stop-motion 3D film based on Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Coraline screenwriter/director Henry Selick said, “I got the manuscript, it wasn’t yet published. I read it immediately. It’s not a big novel, but I couldn’t put it down and I thought the most amazing thing was I could see the movie the first time I read it. I was hooked with the general idea of everyone wishes for a different life at some point in your life. As a kid, you wish for different parents. So everyone imagines a better life is a universal theme and then the delicious details that Neil comes up with and describes so beautifully also triggered my imagination. It wasn’t a difficult prospect to imagine turning into a film. It just took a long time before we finally got to make it.”
“The first draft I did, it was awful. It was too faithful to the book, and it basically was as if you’d put the book in a machine that just put it in a screenplay form and it didn’t work. It didn’t feel like a movie. It didn’t have the right pacing, so I had to tell Neil, “I’m going to go away. Let’s see what happens.” And during that period is when I was — I found my voice.”
Selick initially agreed to make Coraline as a live-action film just to get his foot in the door. “I took it to our producer, who remains one of our producers, Bill Mechanic—he had been the head of Fox, but he started this independent company. He got the material the same way that I did, via Neil Gaiman’s book, which was great. He happened to have a distribution deal with Disney, and he was not allowed to produce animation, because that would be competing with Disney. So, it was like, “Okay, he can only do live-action, so we’ll pretend it’s live-action, and we’ll see what happens.” I feel like right from the start, I was into animation, and animators are, as you’ve noticed, very patient people. So I went along with the current reality of limitation. Eventually his deal changed, and I was able to steer it back to what I’d hoped to do in the first place.”
When asked why did he do this movie as stop-motion in the age of CG, Selick answered,“Stop-motion is what I keep coming back to, because it has a primal nature. It can never be perfect. There’s always something like—[Points to the Coraline puppet on the table.] Coraline’s sweater, you can notice here that it’s sort of boiling. And that’s because people are touching it and moving it for every frame. There’s an undeniable reality that I don’t think any of the other mediums give you.”
Joe Ranft, co-head of Story at Pixar, said about Selick, “He gets an outrageous premise—something that comes from a real dream place—then approaches the aesthetics of it like a mechanical engineer: What can we build on this foundation, how do we buttress it? If we have a mechanical shark, how does it kill? Will it shoot things from its snout?” Ranft said Selick has an uncanny gift: “He can articulate things through animation that people couldn’t say otherwise.”
Chris Melandandri, CEO of Illumination, pitched Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio the idea, “What do you think of the idea of a villain who adopts three little girls?” They were interested and started working on a draft.
“We’ll write a draft in two or three months, but then we’re rewriting it for the next 2-3 years.”
Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul initially designed the first movie to stand alone. Daurio said, “When we wrote the first movie, we certainly weren’t thinking about a sequel. But when we started really throwing around the idea of what was next… there’s this family now that is made up of an ex-super villain and three little girls and it’s not going to be easy for them to get along. We said, ‘What’s the next step?’”
In this video for Huff Post Live, Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio discuss how Despicable Me 2 was developed, how Paul and Daurio met (a church play), became writing partners, how they’ve made their writing partnership last, and their writing process. “We’ll get together and we outline 30 pages. Then, we’ll figure out what the scenes are then we’ll say, ‘That’s a Cinco scene, that’s a Ken scene and we separate.’ Then we get back together, put them all together and read it together on the computer. Mostly it’s a competition to see if we can make each other laugh.”
In this video interview, Paul and Daurio share lots of helpful pitching advice and stories of their pitching triumphs and challenges. When they were first starting out, they used to sing their pitches. One unimpressed producer commented when they finished their pitch, “Well, that was loud.”
Despicable Me 2 was nominated for Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, was the third-highest-grossing film of 2013, and broke a record as the most profitable film in the 100-year history of Universal Studios.
Initially, Wreck-It Ralph director Rich Moore pitched an idea for a story about a world of videogames where an old school character (then unnamed) had lost his passion for his work, and wonders about his station in life. “It began pretty much that simply. From there it just begins to grow exponentially. You add more and more people to the mix. Last September there were up to 450 people – artists, technicians, managers — working on something that started as a pitch between John Lasseter and I four years ago.”
Screenwriter Phil Johnston said, “For me, the idea of creating characters who are real human beings with real problems that people have was much more important than video games. I’m not a hard-core gamer, so for me it was about finding a way in, a relatability with the characters. Then building it out from there.” During the development process, Jennifer Lee was brought on as co-screenwriter. Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee attended Columbia film school together and worked closely on this project.
In an in-depth podcast interview with Jeff Goldsmith, Lee and Johnston share details of the collaborative process of making movie scripts into animated films. Johnston observed, “The written world is entirely disposable in animation, until it’s not. You have to kill babies every day. Lots of them.” Some of the writing advice he shared included, “You want the external goals of your characters to be something tangible and easy to relate to. Something that is a universal human truth, because if it’s just in jokes and references, who is really going to care if you don’t have something on the internal side?”
Lee shared in an interview with Vulture, “On animated films, there’s a lot of rewriting, but I can say that the most important scene we had to write was the scene where Ralph breaks Vanellope’s car. That scene is one I’m very proud of, but it was intense. It was a scary thing to put into a comedy.”
Wreck-It Ralph won the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
Frankenweenie screenwriter John August got a call from director Tim Burton. August said, “Tim’s instinct was to do all the stuff we had done in Frankenweenie, the boy and his dog story, but he had a list of these other monsters that he wanted to see. His thought was that the other boys in the class might see the inspiration of Victor and Sparky and they might create their own monsters and if that happened, they would unleash. That was a great idea. My job was to find a reason why this was all happening and a framework for it. So, I pitched this new science teacher, the science fair, I pitched New Holland which was a reason why there was a giant windmill in this suburban town. I put together all these pieces so we actually had a larger story that would sustain for the two hours.”
“I treated it as the story of a boy and his dog. I treated Sparky like a real live dog, and I had my dog, Jake, at my feet while I was writing this. And so I really wrote the dog like a dog and I didn’t try to make him so anthropomorphic or wise beyond his abilities, and let them be a great dog, so we really got to know him as a great dog who could really bond with Victor as he’s going through the grieving and why he would bring him back. And so I knew that once I knew we had that core relationship all of the eccentricities and the curly-cues can go in and they wouldn’t be too much because we had that central relationship. You can always go back to Victor and Sparky.”
John August shares two Frankweenie scripts and describes the differences between the drafts on his exceptional website johnaugust.com. He also did a video Q & A about the movie and answered lots of specific questions in the comments. Here’s more of his pitching advice for screenwriters.
What’s your favorite animated movie script?
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