‘Spinning a Yarn’

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A Masters in writing for theatre, Greg Acuna has written everything from poems to plays to novels to film scripts. After a fair deal of travelling, he set up his studio Pala Flicks in Goa, producing “socially conscious content” aiming to change the world. In an online interview with Animation Reporter, Acuna underscores the importance of a good script in animation, the areas Indian animation needs to concentrate on, and how his daughter challenges his storytelling skills every single day.

KM Ranjith Chandrasekharan
Animation Reporter October 15, 2007

What is the importance of storytelling in animation? Filmmaking is Active Imagestorytelling. We start with a story and we conclude once the story has been told. The techniques, be it hand drawn art, clay, CG and tools like Max, Maya, Flash etc, are just that — techniques and tools. Great work is nothing but finding the right way to communicate your story.

Understanding the elements of storytelling characters, dramatic conflict, excellent dialogue, rising and falling action of the plot etc is the key to successful screenwriting for animation. The script is the foundation of everything we do. Writing great animation takes considerable effort and time in rewriting and finetuning the story. I cannot emphasise enough the need to budget both time and money to ensure that our scripts are ready for the arduous and expensive process of animation production.

Storytelling is also important because it is our stories that define us, as individuals, families, cultures etc. Animation presents special opportunities to tell stories in new ways and often express chronicles that would be difficult in live-action filmmaking. As artists, it is the story that we passionately want to tell that makes the audience laugh or cry.  

How should one go about creating a story for animation?

Most stories for animation are fairly simple, though there are artistic filmmakers, especially in Europe, who are now telling complicated and engaging narratives for adult audiences. Though I believe there will be much more experimentation with all the various forms of animation, the main market for animated content is children, and so the best way to create new stories is to keep them simple. 

Characters driven by goals, plots that move in linear time, and clearly recognisable metaphors can make this kind of writing easier. For me, there are no rules on how one goes about actually creating the story. Some will start with an idea for a character, or character goal, while others may have a basic plot or theme they want to explore.  

There are stories all around us. Observe your world and you will start coming up with interesting yarns to spin. Of course, there is a wealth of amazing stories in Indian mythology, but look to some of the lesser know tales and do not forget to consider literature, children’s books and traditional arts for inspiration. 

What is your opinion about upcoming Indian IPs?  

This has been an exciting year. The animation community, financiers, distribution networks and the market in general now understands the tremendous opportunities in creating original animated content. Of course, there can be steady streams of revenue from providing outsourced services, but it cannot compare with the satisfaction — both economic and artistic — that comes from producing high quality IP.  

The original content that I’ve seen confirms my belief that India is going to be a major force in the worldwide animation industry. Since the Indian appetite for animation is still developing, it is important to work towards excellence in production and story development so that films made here can earn their rightful place on a global platform.  

One of the discouraging things I have heard from many Indian animators is that the domestic market does not pay enough for them to produce the quality they want to achieve. This will change; but in the meantime, understanding cross-cultural storytelling, international distribution and making the most of limited budgets will be important for developing IP here.

Active ImageTell us about your company’s work on Earthlings and future projects. My company, Pala Flicks, was formed to produce socially conscious content for film, TV, web, games and multimedia. Earthlings aims to change the world. I dream about making the planet a better place so that when my daughter, Duniya, is an adult, she and her contemporaries can live in a more peaceful and livable world. 

Earthlings is a series combining animation and live-action into an educational entertainment experience for children between six to 11 years of age. The show will be very interactive, exploring themes in funny, intelligent and interesting ways. Work is currently on in seven countries and three parts of India. Soon, we will be rolling out a website for both children and adults to follow the development process, submit content, play games, communicate and discuss how we can all come together.  

Our next project is called The Golden Flame which is a superhero story with an Indian protagonist. 

According to you, in which area(s) does Indian animation need to concentrate more? 

Pre-production. Even though Indians are natural storytellers, there has been no tradition or training in writing scripts for animation. Schools are realising the gap and have started workshops in screenwriting, but with 70+ animation features announced in the past year, the industry needs to be careful about finding the right resources to write films and serials. This is definitely not the time to stumble with poorly written scripts.  

Other areas of pre-production also need special attention. Traditional, comic book and perhaps even calendar artists need  to be brought into the industry to work on character creation, stylisation, background art etc. With so many years of outsourcing, the key parts of pre-production have been delivered from abroad. In the transition from providing services to creating IP, companies might want to consider bringing character designers and background artists to India for both assistance and training. 

The other key area is starting to understand international distribution. Remember that US films are now generally making more money from international distribution in their domestic market.  

What made you set up your studio in India all the way from Los Angeles?

I moved to Goa six years ago to write a novel. I had travelled around India several times and there were many reasons why I chose to settle here. When I finished writing the book, I decided to get back into production. Setting up Pala Flicks in Goa meant having a fantastic place to be creative and yet be just an hour away from Mumbai where everything is possible in terms of filmmaking. 

Tell us about your experience as a writer, director and storyteller.

I studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California and then did my Masters in writing theatre. I pursued theatre because with plays, the essentials of great script writing, characters and plot are easier to concentrate on. When I returned to film writing, I was hired to write scripts for LA producers and asked to direct a feature film based on a romantic comedy, the screenplay for which I had written the year before. That film, A Marriage of Inconvenience, was released in about 45 countries  

After that I co-wrote two other produced features, was a script doctor on several films, and a production advisor on a number of projects. I have also directed theatre, music videos, commercials and promotional videos. Besides that, I have had poetry, writing and illustrations for children published as well. 

As a storyteller, one of the greatest joys in my life is to weave tales with unique characters exploring new and interesting paths. My daughter challenges me several times a day, sneaking into my office whenever she can to say: “Daddy, tell me a story!”

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