Schooled by the Monsters University script

Spoilers ahead.

Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

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Why I chose this script

I made a conscious choice not to talk too much about what makes for a good story on this site and focus more on the technical details of screenwriting. For that reason, I won’t bore you with my thoughts about the Monsters University script’s role in the meta-narrative of children’s stories for the post-millennial generation. I won’t bore you with them, but they are a large part of what made me pick up this script.

It’s a good thing, then, that the Monsters University script had plenty more learnings to offer, or else this would’ve been a very short post. So, without further ado, let’s see what is worth talking about.

Should we be reading and writing animated film scripts?

This was actually the first script for an animated film that I’ve ever read. In my ignorance I must have been expecting it to be slightly different from live-action film scripts because page one came as a bit of a surprise. It looked just like any other film script I’ve ever read. Other than the fact that it opens on a scene starring a two-headed bird, there was nothing to indicate anything unusual was afoot.

This led me to my first questions. How do writers indicate that their stories are intended to be animated? Do people actually write animation on spec? After all, the big animation houses are renowned for their in-house development.

On doing a bit more research, there’s a lot of advice out there that says writing animation on spec is a bad idea. As such I’m guessing the answer to my second questions is: not really.

The advice makes sense, even if it is a bit disheartening if you’ve got a great animated film idea kicking about in your head. If that’s you, then you might be interested in this counter-point by John August.

I have no horse in this race as none of my ideas would lend themselves to animation (or even be remotely interesting to kids), but given the astronomical odds against a spec sale of any kind in Hollywood these days I tend to think John could be right. If you’ve got a great animated film in you, knock it out and see where it takes you.

Directing voice actors on the page

When I started reading the Monsters University script the one of the first things that struck me was the abundance of parentheticals. Some writers use them more than others so at first I attributed their profusion to a stylistic quirk on the part of Scanlon, Gerson and Baird. It actually took me 30 odd pages of reading to figure out what was going on.

The writers didn’t just use parentheticals for the proverbial ships and giggles, they were actually providing direction for the voice actors on the page. It never dawned on me that the detached nature of voice acting would require that added context.

This is when I finally got wise to what was happening:

Mike rides Archie through a dance party.

He collides with a guy playing football and falls off the pig.

FOOTBALL STUDENT

(impact voc)

Hey!

Sulley leaps over Mike as he’s down and continues after Archie.

One of the things that threw me on the early pages was the frequent use of ‘walla’ in parentheticals. Of course I was aware of the concept of background vocals / crowd noise (although I didn’t know ‘walla’ is the technical term for it in American radio, TV and film) but this was my first time seeing it explicitly scripted:

MI TOUR GUIDE (CONT’D)

Welcome to the scare floor.

The students are in awe as they see the scare floor.

KIDS

(walla)

Whoa!

Usually a general reaction like that will be covered in scene description rather than dialogue. An action like Mike’s laugh in the following excerpt would usually be covered in scene description too:

A student on a skateboard whizzes by as a giant monster steps over Mike and moves to catch a frisbee.

MIKE (CONT’D)

(ground shaking vocs)

Ah!

FRISBEE MONSTER

Woo hoo!

MIKE

(excited laugh)

But it seems that Scanlon, Gerson and Baird were keen to lay out a very robust blueprint for the voice acting in the Monsters University script. I’m keen to pick up more animated film scripts in future and seeing if this is commonplace.

Being funny on a page

The Monsters University script was also the first comedic script I had ever read. I’m more of melancholic drama type of writer and I mostly pick up scripts that are in a similar vein.

My single biggest take-away from the Monsters University script on this point is a respect for the foresight it takes to write a funny film. I think I’ve mentioned before on this site how I have respect for somebody who can see right through to the end product while staring at a blank page and blinking cursor. That seems to be especially true with jokes.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

MIKE

(big laugh)

No! And what about you with all your shedding!

SULLEY

I don’t shed.

MIKE

Really?

Mike punches the bottom of Sulley’s mattress, and blue hair comes cascading down off the mattress.

Now let’s see the on-screen version:

It’s a solid joke which, if I remember correctly, got a good chuckle from the audience. But when you read it on the page it’s pretty flat. The page doesn’t give you the timing, which is such a huge part of what makes the joke. If it’s tough for us to imagine that as a reader, it must be even tougher to have to come up with it from scratch.

That said, I find I have a sense for the dramatic which I can’t quite explain rationally, so maybe it’s the same with a sense of humor. Maybe when the joke is right, comedy writers just know. I think this is the stuff that cuts writers from one type of cloth or another.

I know, from my time in theater, that I have the ability to deliver a comedic performance. I also think I could do a decent job of writing a comedy. But I think I have a much better chance of being a great drama writer than being a great comedy writer. That thought comes from the inexplicable connection that I have with the material when I’m writing drama.

So ask yourself this, do you have a sense for when your writing is hitting the spot? If not, have you tried mixing up the genre and seeing if you get a different result?

Scripting versus ad-libbing in background dialogue

One last point to finish up, and one which is related to the take-away on voice acting that I mentioned above. I mentioned how it is unusual to see crowd reactions and background conversation scripted so thoroughly where a bit of scene description would normally suffice.

I attributed it, in this case, to the atypical requirements of voice acting, but when you think about it it’s unusual that it doesn’t happen more often. Anybody who’s ever tried to get a clear dialogue recording knows that it doesn’t happen without a lot of effort by very experienced technicians. That being the case, why aren’t we expected to be very explicit whenever a human voice is intended to be a part of the final scene?

My guess is it’s because much of this audio is added in post either from stock audio or by recording a “walla group” separately and layering them over the audio recorded during principal. As long as the character is in the scene, they’re likely to be micced up and so any ad-libbing can be coordinated between the actor and director on the day.

I just find it odd that, on the surface, voice acting and live-action audio recording might appear to be sufficiently different that you would have to write to accommodate one or the other, but really the differences are only skin deep. Yet you would never see a live-action screenwriter consider a fragment like this in their script:

MIKE

(whispered)

Slow and steady.

ART

(whispered)

Slow and steady.

DON

(whispered)

Slow and steady.

TERRI/TERRY

(whispered)

Slow and steady.

SQUISHY

(whispered)

Slow and steady.

The misfits relay the exact message down the line to Sulley the exact way Mike did. They continue to move really slowly as Sulley is increasingly frustrated.

Sulley can’t take it. He bolts forward, leaving his teammates behind.

Mike’s eye goes wide.

MIKE

(gasp, whispered)

Sullivan!

ART

(repeated)

Sullivan!

DON

(repeated)

Sullivan!

TERRI/TERRY

(repeated)

Sullivan!

SQUISHY

(repeated)

Sullivan!

Mike shushes the misfits.

MIKE

(whispered)

SHHH!

But they shush him back exactly as he did.

ART

(repeated)

SHHH!

DON

(repeated)

SHHH!

TERRI/TERRY

(repeated)

SHHH!

SQUISHY

(repeated)

SHHH!

MIKE

(sigh)

ART

(repeated)

(sigh)

DON

(repeated)

(sigh)

TERRI/TERRY

(repeated)

(sigh)

SQUISHY

(repeated)

(sigh)

In summation

Hollywood basically doesn’t buy any spec animation scripts, but if you write a blindingly good one it might have other benefits, like attention. Writing for voice-actors seems to require much more direction in parentheticals than you would normally provide for actors performing with a scene around them. That feeling of confidence when you know your writing is hitting the mark is a good sign that you’re writing in the right genre for you. Isn’t it a little odd that we’re not as specific about vocals in live-action scripts as animations scripts seem to be? After all, the process of recording them isn’t that different.

Tell me your thoughts about this post. Be kind & Play nice.

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