The Difference Between Live-Action and Animation Writing

by Jeffrey Scott

website images (w enlarged Muppet Babies)If you want to write animation—or if you just want to produce or direct it—it’s important to know the difference between live action and animation writing. 

Animation stories are developed pretty much the same as in live action. You come up with a concept, sometimes called a premise, describing the basic beginning, middle and end of the story. The next stage is an outline, laying out each scene, including action and gags. The final step is the script, with full scene description and dialogue. The script form in animation is virtually identical to live action. 

It’s the differences that are important to understand. In a word, animation is a much more uniquely visual medium than live action. Most live-action scripts require no special description for what’s taking place on the screen. A car chase is a car chase. And it’s up to the director to interpret it. But that’s not always the case in animation where the visuals are very often something we’ve never seen before, so they can’t be described in a few words. Let me give you an example. What do you visualize when I write this:

A coyote chases a bird over the cliff and falls into the canyon.

That’s how you might describe a scene in a live-action script. The director takes it from there.

Now what do you see when I write this?

The coyote scrambles after the roadrunner, his legs a blur, running right off the end of a cliff. As the roadrunner sticks his tongue out and beeps at him, the coyote stops over thin air. He looks down at the canyon bottom a mile below, starting to sweat. Then he looks into camera with a loud “gulp!” and drops like a rock, his neck stretching like a rubber band as his head tries to catch up. He diminishes into the distance with a bomb whistle, finally hitting the canyon bottom with a dull thud and distant puff of smoke.


Get the picture? It’s eight times as many words, but it gives you a complete visual image with little need for interpretation.

By its very nature, animation requires more description to effectively communicate the visual. So the key difference between an animated and live-action script is that an animation script usually contains more detailed scene description. 

This increase in description creates another difference between live and animation writing. In live action the general rule is one page per minute. This also holds true in most animated feature writing. But one page of a TV animation script often translates to about 40 seconds of screen time. In live action the director interprets the written word, and thus expands on it. But in animation, the writing is generally more literally interpreted, and although better storyboard artists often punch up gags and add some bits here and there, most boarders just translate the written word to visual images.

What this means is that if an animation writer doesn’t describe it—and describe it precisely—the chances are it won’t appear on the screen, at least not the way he imagined it. This is because unlike in live action, in most TV animation there isn’t one director who follows each episode all the way from script to screen. Yes, there’s an animation director, but he or she is often responsible for many or all of the episodes, and deals more with visual continuity and less with story continuity. And, as noted, there’s the storyboard artist. But a writer can never be certain that a board person will see visuals or interpret the action or comedic timing correctly. So the TV animation writer must describe the action as precisely as necessary to get whatever’s in his head onto the screen. This is especially necessary when scripts are sent overseas to be animated, because if the description is imprecise, the translation to other languages and cultures leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation. Some time ago I finished a pilot script for an animation series that was to be produced in China. Although he was preaching to the choir, the producer made a point of telling me that the description needed to be precise enough that the gags would survive translation.

So to a great extent, the television animation writer functions as a director. 

Case in point: A few years back I was developing an animated action series for Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment in association with Andy Heyward’s A Squared Entertainment. I had just written a short presentation trailer for MIP and Andy cc’d me on an email he sent out to the production staff. Here’s what he said about who is responsible for directing the trailer:

I want us to see camera angles that show expression on the faces. I want to see direction that has all this amazing stuff that you will see in it. Of course we need our story, which has a touch of humor as well, but mixed with amazing cinematic production. I am copying Jeff to see how he can plus the trailer script he has to bring the direction forth, the pathos, the emotion…all that stuff. And please don’t punt and say it’s the storyboard artists…it’s not…it’s the writer’s job to set the tone of what he sees in this vision. [emphasis mine]

In live action it’s the director’s job to set the tone of his vision. But as Andy pointed out, this is not always so in TV animation. It may seem like a burden to the animation writer to have more responsibility and need to write more detailed description, but the plus side is that the TV animation writer eventually learns to thoroughly visualize, “humorize” and “emotionalize” a story, right down to its cutting and character direction. He may even gain enough skill in the process to make the leap from animation writing to live-action directing, as did the Academy Award-winning writer-producer-director of Crash, Paul Haggis. (What? You didn’t now Paul started as a toon writer?)

Moral of the story: If you want to be an Academy Award-winning writer-producer-director it’s easy, just start writing cartoons!

©Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved

Jeffrey ScottEmmy and Humanitas-winning screenwriter, Jeffrey Scott, has written hundreds of classic animated and live-action TV and film scripts including Spider-Man, Dungeons & Dragons, MASK, DuckTales, Muppet Babies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He’s written and produced film and television projects alongside the likes of Jim Henson, Sherry Lansing, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Stan Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stevie Wonder and others, and is author of the acclaimed book, How to Write for Animation. For more insightful blog posts by Jeffrey or information on his writing, producing and consulting services, check out his own website at