In the traditional sense, a formula is good for multiple copies of the same thing, with or without slight deviations, such as cars or romantic comedies, or children's movies.
But a system is not the same thing. A system is a procedure that gives order to the creation process while still allowing for invention and innovation. It allows the imagination to run free while still being able to control it for the sake of time and money.
For making cartoons, it all starts with an idea.
Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. You may be eating dinner or talking with some friends. It may be a dream. So it's important to keep a pen and paper with you at all times to write your brilliant ideas down. If you're in desperate need for an idea, I'd recommend a brainstorming session. Simply sit down and throw out all your ideas, no matter how crazy and silly they may seem. Do this for an hour or two straight. Then walk away. Come back after a couple hours and see which ideas you like best and/or which ideas you can combine.
2. Ideas vs Premises
For example, lets say you have an idea for a cartoon about trying to stay cool on a hot day. That's a great idea. But is it not a premise. A premise provides just enough detail to ground the story in a situation and allow for specific direction.
The reason "trying to stay cool on a hot day" is an idea and not a premise is because it does not focus your story in any one direction. It could be about a fat guy stuck in a tiny car, or a little boy on a hot summer day, or a camel in a desert.
To make it a premise, you need to ground it and provide a specific direction so the details, jokes, and other elements of the story have something to stick to. A premise is the purpose, the thesis of the story.
A premise answers the questions who, what, when, where, and why.
Once you have an idea, it's important to come up with a premise. One possible premise is "a little boy tries to avoid the heat on a hot summer day".
Even the phrase "tries to avoid heat" works better than "tries to stay cool" because one implies conflict and purpose, and the other implies maintaining a current state of affairs.
3. The Outline
After the premise, you want to find a way to craft the story as quickly as possible in the least amount of time. To do this, we must map out the story and see what is working and what is missing.
We end up with a string of meaningless scenes if it's structure does not provide a way to get from one scene to the next and no amount of clever dialog or cool action scenes can save a fiction movie if it's structure does not hold up.
In terms of story, it helps to think of each turning point in the story as resulting from the previous turning point. That is, it helps to see events in terms of cause and effect. The first event caused the next, and that causes the next, and so on, all the way until it is done, like a chain of dominoes. And like dominoes, a straight path is usually pretty boring.
Lastly, when outlining a premise, it becomes important to know how long the final product will be. When charting a course on a map, you like to know how much time you have. For example, if you have an hour, you might go to that fancy out of the way grocery store. But if you only have a few minutes, you may opt to go the one at the end of your block.
4. Broad strokes vs Details
When outlining, it is best to focus on the broad strokes so that you can get from beginning to end in the most entertaining way possible. If you get stuck on the details before you get to the end, you'll waste a lot of valuable time coming up with ideas that may not gel together.
For the premise "little boy tries to avoid heat on a hot day" a good general outline for a 30 second - 1 minute cartoon might be:
1. It's a hot day
2. Little boy is hot
3. Little boy tries to avoid heat
4. Little boy fails in a funny way
5. Little boy finds solution
6. Solution also fails in a funny way
7. Little boy reacts in a funny way
It doesn't seem like much, but it provides a chain of cause an effect events that lead from one situation to the next in that short amount of time. And that's exactly what you want. Of course, you may have more details than that. And that's fine. But you don't want to put too many details either. We save that for the next step.
5. The Gag Session (or Actions vs Feelings)
After we have the outline, we move to the gag session. In the gag session, we go through each outline step and brainstorm different ways to illustrate that outline event in order to find the most entertaining way to illustrate that event. Doing so guarantees that we'll end up with an entertaining story.
And I believe that the primary purpose of any story is to entertain. It doesn't matter if that story contains the cure for cancer or the meaning of life. But if the audience is asleep, that story has failed to accomplish anything.
Of course, saying entertainment is the primary purpose is very different from saying entertainment is the sole purpose. And I'm not saying that.
I'll also add that what's entertaining to one person may not be entertaining to another. And that's a good thing. The one person who determines what is most entertaining is the director. And if you are the director, your decisions end up on screen. It is through this decision making process that a cartoon stays personal.
When it comes to cartoons and movies, it becomes important to think visually. It is why cartoonists in the past drew pictures at the gag session instead of using words. It is why during this gag session that I also choose to draw pictures.
But when using words, it is important to think in terms of actions. Actions can be seen. Actions are specific. At this stage, that is what you need. You are figuring out specific visual ways an event can be illustrated.
In respect to the premise of a little boy avoiding the heat, the 3rd and 4th step in the outline requires us to show him trying to avoid the heat and failing in a funny way. One specific way of doing so is showing him lying in the shade, but the sun follows him and obliterates any shadows he may seek cover in.
Or maybe he tries to cover himself in a pile of fallen leaves. Or maybe he digs a hole and sticks his head in the mud, like an ostrich. Or maybe the shadows simply dance around him and elude him. These actions can range from cartoony to realistic.
The way the little boy tries to avoid the heat (and eventually fails) does three things - entertain the audience, describe the boy's character, and reflect the director's preferences. It may serve other purposes as well, such as making a point about society.
The point is, it is through these actions that the director is able to entertain the audience and communicate something at the same time.
However, it is important to not put too many details in this stage either. If you have not noticed, with each new step we add more details. If you have too many details in this step, you leave no room for the details that will be added during the storyboard stage (not to mention the spontaneity and inventiveness required to keep such an intense job fun).
Make no mistake, details will always be added during each following step. And the more details you have early on, the harder it gets fit the details required of each following step into the story. This results in a lack of creativity, which results in boredom, which translates to longer work hours which means a higher cost, which means more people have to pay to see it in order to recover the cost of doing it. And when you sacrifice the creativity of artists early on, that lack of enthusiasm ends up on screen. That means if your audience is bored, you won't sell enough people on your cartoon to recover the cost of making it.
In short, keep details to a bare minimum, only what is needed at each step, while focusing on maximizing it's entertainment value.
When you have figured out all these things, you are ready to begin storyboarding. Knowing these things will help make the storyboarding process go more quickly.