Getting to the bottom of ‘story’ on an animated film

Doesn’t story just mean…the script? Nope.

You might have seen job titles like ‘story artist’ or ‘head of story’ in the credits roll for the latest animated feature you saw. And maybe you’ve wondered, what did these people do on the movie? Did they come up with the idea? Did they write the script? Isn’t that, ‘the story’?

What happens, of course, on an animated feature is that the story process involves taking the script into visual form, working out timing, and constructing visual gags. To get a handle on just how that actually happens, befores & afters sat down with The LEGO Batman Movie head of story and The LEGO Movie 2 co-director/animation director Trisha Gum while at FMX in Stuttgart recently, to go through the story process.


Trisha Gum spoke recently at FMX in Stuttgart.

b&a: You were head of story on LEGO Batman. What does a head of story do?

Trisha Gum: I think it’s different per film, depending on how the director wants to work. Traditionally, it’s a person who comes from storyboarding. I didn’t come from storyboarding. I came from wanting to write and direct, and [LEGO Batman director] Chris McKay had known that I was really interested in story and good at story. So, I went and led the story team in helping him craft the story.

So, I was in charge of all the board artists and really figuring out the story with them, and with Chris. Really, it’s just trying to make the story more emotional, more funny. On that film in particular, we didn’t really have a locked script to start from, so we did a lot of story development through the whole process, but our story team and our editors really helped craft that story together.

A scene from ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’. The LEGO films are made by Animal Logic.

b&a: People who aren’t in animation might think getting to the ‘story’ would just mean refining the script, but there’s such a visual component to finding the story in animation, isn’t there?

Trisha Gum: Yes. Again, I think every film is different. There are some people who would just go right back to script and start working and re-working. But you’re right, in animation, this story process, even if you have a completely locked script and you know what you want to do, once you start actually putting physical humour or emotion to a scene, and you have it boarded, these characters are interacting with each other in the film, and you start to really understand what’s working about your story and what’s not working about your story, what people laugh at, what they’re not laughing at.

It really becomes like a blueprint for further down in production. So, when you board something and you see that it’s really working in storyboards, you hope that, ‘Okay, now it feels like it could go into animation. We really understand what the scene needs to be about.’

A shot from ‘The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part’.

b&a: Is any of that related, also, to the fact that animation costs a lot to do and you can work out a lot of the things on paper, first?

Trisha Gum: Absolutely. It is way cheaper to work out. To re-work a scene multiple times in the storyboarding process is way cheaper than having your animators redo a shot 10 times because you didn’t really understand exactly what was going to make the scene work.

b&a: What’s the first thing that you do in the story process?

Trisha Gum: We would get the script, or we’d be working on the script, and what I would normally do is I’d ‘launch’ my board artists. I’d say, ‘This is the part in the story…etc etc.’ Sometimes I would do it with the director, or sometimes I’d be doing it on my own, because I’d been talking with the director and working alongside them. So, I talk about what the scene was about, what the intention is about. Sometimes I thumbnail something, where it’s like, ‘Oh, we definitely want this to happen. Or maybe the facial expression can be like this.’ But normally I just kind of give the storyboard artists a launch. I talk them through the scene and then they would go from there.

b&a: So the board artists get stuck into the story – what tools do they tend to use to do that?

Trisha Gum: On LEGO Batman, we were very open with what makes you comfortable as a story artist. Most of my artists use Photoshop, and then a program we used on LEGO Batman was Flix from Foundry, which helped organize the scenes. It really helps with the process of publishing things editorially. People use it many different ways. But if it’s used how it’s intended, you can publish back from editorial to the storyboarding hub. It shows the evolution of the scene.

Character art from ‘The LEGO Batman Movie.’

b&a: Something that seems to go hand-in-hand with the story process is pitching ideas, boarding up scenes, and re-working them. I think some people would think you must be devastated when you come up with what you think are cool ideas and you have a meeting and then the thing gets thrown out. What is that like, do you get used to it?

Trisha Gum: I mean, it can be. There are definitely story artists where I had to really talk them through why something was cut. My approach always is to be honest about it. I have the same thing happen to me, of course. I would go home and I would write ideas, and I’d write pages, just for them to immediately be cut the next morning. So, I would always approach it with my story artists just from a place of giving them as much context as possible.

A lot of story artists have thick skins and they’re like, ‘Oh, this happens all the time. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it just happens.’ But I think as long as you can tell a story artist why something has changed, why something might not be working, necessarily, in the current state of the script and how the movie is being put up, then that is the right approach.

And a lot of story artists, when you start to collaborate with them, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, okay, I understand. Maybe we can morph what I did and change it into this.’ Or, ‘Now that this scene is about something else that has more of a sad undertone, why don’t I kind of shape it in this way?’ So I think once you get collaborative and you let your story artists into the process, it is a lot easier to be flexible rather than just be crushed and heart broken that your idea didn’t fly.

b&a: When you’re in the head of story role, does that role continue even after a scene might be approved, locked, and moved into final animation? Are you still being called on to comment on and make sure it’s animated as intended?

You can find out more about how LEGO Batman was made in ‘The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie’.

Trisha Gum: Yes. On LEGO Batman, for sure, Chris McKay wanted me on through the entire process. He knew I wanted to direct, and so he was kind of training me to be a co-director. And we were still digging into story. We had a condensed schedule. So we were still kind of doing story and the layout process in animation. So, I was helping the layout team really continuing to craft the story, and I would give them launches similar, sometimes, to story artists, where it’s like you’re kind of just shaping the scene with them. They understand where the camera needs to be, and why the camera language needs to be a certain way.

A majority of story artists don’t go all the way down. A majority of heads of story don’t go through that part of the process. Usually once it’s in layout and animation, the head of story kind of peters out. But I was on until the end, helping with story.

b&a: What about for LEGO Movie 2, where your role was expanded to co-director – how did that change for you? How did it change in terms of what you did day to day in terms of story?

Trisha Gum: Well, I loved it because, again, I wanted to direct, so I really embraced it, and I was excited. I was in a lot of voice records and things like that, where I wasn’t necessarily looking after story, but I really was over the whole process with the director Mike Mitchell – him and I were partners in making a movie together. But I would say a lot more was on my shoulders, to make sure things happened through lighting and effects and layout and sound.

b&a: Was there one sequence or shot in LEGO Movie 2 that proved to be a difficult one to crack story-wise, but that you ended up being particularly proud of?

Trisha Gum: LEGO Movie 2 was a really complicated story to tell. It was ambitious because we wanted it to be. We wanted it to be a film that exceeded what we had done for the previous movies, and it was a really challenging, emotional story to tell. I think one thing I’m particularly proud of, I would say is, as a woman, I really wanted the female characters to feel authentic, and I wanted them to feel dynamic and different from each other, and not stereotypical female characters you see in a lot of animated movies. I do feel like we got there. I feel like Lucy finally had a arc and some deep deepness to her character. Sweet Mayhem and the Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, I feel like they were fun characters to watch on screen and interesting characters to watch on screen.

Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (center).

So, that’s something in particular I was proud of, because when I first got there I knew it was going to be a challenge, and I fought every day for these three female characters to be really different and really special. I think there’s a tendency, also, when female character storylines are stepping on each other, the instinct always is for people to go, ‘Get rid of one of them.’ I was always like, ‘We’re not going to do that here. We’re going to keep all three of these ladies, and they’re all going to be interesting in their own way.’

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