We filmmakers often look to other cinematic works to get inspiration: the acting of Lily James, the directing of James Cameron and the writing of Cameron Crowe. We look at successful projects like Black Mirror and Black-ish and Orange is the New Black. And we study the masterpieces like Argo, Fargo and Key Largo.
But sometimes the best sources of inspiration come from the places you’d least expect.
Animated kids shows tend to get pigeonholed as low-quality television. While this is often the case, there are a lot that cartoons have to offer in terms of storytelling. Here are five filmmaking techniques you can learn from some beloved 90’s cartoon shows!
1. Play With Audience Perception – RUGRATS
The typical Rugrats episode begins with a tight shot of an unfamiliar and exotic object or texture.
“What could this be?” the viewer wonders.
The next shot pulls back to reveal that the swirling tidal pool is actually milk in a baby bottle, the thick, ominous foliage is a head of broccoli, or the brown bubbles are actually just dad’s coffee.
These intros draw the audience in by creating mystery and reinforce the show’s theme of imagination. Rugrats sees the world how babies see it – big, strange, and fascinating. Always look for ways to use the camera, including extreme close-ups and unusual camera angles, to keep your audience engaged by introducing mysteries and challenging their perception. If you can also use this to reinforce your themes, you’ll add depth to your storytelling.
2. Create a Defined Set of Rules – FAIRLY ODDPARENTS
The Fairly OddParents chronicles the adventures of Timmy and his two magical fairy godparents. In every episode Timmy makes a wish that leads to consequences that quickly get out of control. But with unlimited magical power, Timmy could easily get himself out of any jam just by wishing it. There would be no conflict and no drama.
Fortunately, the godparents have a rule book (called “Da Rules”), which explain the limits of their magic. These limits increase the stakes of each situation and create tension between Timmy and the Fairy Council (the enforcers of Da Rules). Rules might restrict the characters, but they actual encourage creativity in the writers, as Timmy must constantly find ways to circumnavigate rules against stealing or cheating.
Now, your project may or may not contain fairy godparents, but in any world you create, especially if it has elements of the supernatural, it is vital that you establish a set of rules. A world without clearly defined rules will be chaotic and confusing for the viewer. But a thoughtful and consistent rules can create conflict, drama, and surprise!
3. Generating Conflict From Character – SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
A show revolving around a sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea is one of the most beloved and longest-running cartoon series of all time. But what makes the show work so well? The answer lies in its characters.
There are four main characters – a simple optimist, a lovable idiot, a secluded grump, and a stingy miser. SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward and Mr. Krabs each have completely different worldviews, which makes for great comedy (and drama) whenever they interact. Seeing how these characters resolve their interpersonal conflicts is what keeps us interested.
SpongeBob SquarePants is a prime example of why character always comes first in a story. With their solid set of established sea creatures, Nickelodeon can continue to generate episodes of this show forever (and probably will). Make sure your project assembles a cast of characters with clearly defined, and somewhat oppositional, motives or points of view. Even in a single location, like Bikini Bottom, the natural conflicts between these characters will carry the story.
4. Create A World With Color – BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
1992’s Batman: The Animated Series is still considered one of the best animated series ever made. It excels at building the world of Gotham: a bleak, shadowy, noir city where the sun never shines. Where cartoons are traditionally bright and colorful, Batman is filled with blacks, browns, and greys. In fact, it was the first animated series to use backgrounds painted on black paper as opposed to the traditional white. Any color in this world is dark and muted, immediately establishing the serious tone of the show and separating it from the more colorful comic book adaptations that had come before.
You should always be thinking about your story visually, but specifically focusing on your color scheme and how it can compliment and accentuate your characters and themes can really advance your world-building. Bright, vibrant colors can evoke humor and fun, but also manic energy and chaos. Greys and desaturated, muted tones suggest stagnation or monotony, but they also create a more staid and serious environment. Darkness and black conjure feelings of fear, danger, and the unknown, while bright visuals convey optimism and comfort. Think carefully about your color palette and construct it as intentionally as you would your script.
5. Writing for a broad audience – ANIMANIACS
Like many of the best children’s shows and films, Animaniacs storytelling works on two levels. While the simple concept, silly characters, and slapstick humor appeal to children, it has a wealth of pop culture, political, and historical references for adults as well. For example, one episode features the Brain running into a veritable who’s who of country musicians – including Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, and Billy Ray Cyrus. Other episodes feature references to silent film star Rudolph Valentino, the movie Home Alone, American painter Grandma Moses, and the bacterial skin infection impetigo. (This amazing website lists every single reference in the show!) The dialogue also boasts tons of witty humor and wordplay for any adults watching.
Remember: if you’re creating a movie or show for children, it’s wise to have a draw for the parents who will likely be watching it as well. Not only will your story be enjoyed by all who are watching, but, as the children grow older, they will be able to rewatch and appreciate the same show on a whole new level.