Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Costume Design, Character and Story

One of the differences between 2D and 3D animation that people don't talk about much is how differently you have to approach costume in each medium.


In 2D animation, the characters are all individual drawings, so giving your character a new costume is simply a matter of designing the new costume and then drawing it on the character. 3D is different because it's much more difficult and expensive to design multiple costume changes for the characters.

But even so, costume changes for animated Disney characters is rare, and always have been, even in the 2D films. This is because we want the characters to have one iconic look that represents the way you think of the character. When I say "Snow White", you think of the character with her distinctive blue, red and yellow dress. The dress is a big part of her distinctive appearance. If she changed dresses three times during the movie, her appearance gets diluted and she loses her iconic appearance. If that were the case, you might see a sketch of her and have to look twice to figure out if it's her, based on her face....as it is now, you see the dress, and instantly your brain knows it's Snow White. End of story.






So, other than Disney princesses and princes wearing wedding clothes at the end of the movie, most of them wear the same iconic outfit all through a movie (no matter how many days the film covers....yeech).

The grossness factor is not why I'm bringing it up, though. The reason I sometimes wish we could play around with this rule is that costume design--and how it changes and evolves over a movie--can play a really important role in giving the audience an insight into what the character's mental state is and how it's shifting over the course of a movie. And that can be a powerful tool for giving the audience a glimpse into the thinking and emotions of the characters.

Live action movies, of course, do this all the time. Usually, it's done in a way that isn't obvious to the viewer and works on a subconscious level. The Star Wars films [SPOILERS AHEAD] are a good example. In the first film, Luke wears all white, which represents his simple, naive nature and his lack of experience and uncluttered moral nature. He's pure good and believes in a simple, clear version of what's right and wrong.



In "Empire", Luke wears grey clothes, which represent the moral confusion he's starting to face. He is being confronted with much more complex truths than he had to face in the first film.



In the final film, Luke wears black. A big point of tension in the film is whether Luke will become evil like his Father, or remain true to his better instincts and resist the lure of the Dark Side. So it makes sense to dress him in black, both to illustrate how far he's come since his youthful days, and create tension in the audience's mind that he might follow his Father's footsteps....after all, they already dress alike!


"The Godfather" [SPOILERS ahead] is another film that I remember as having very smart costume design. I haven't seen it in years (so someone correct me if I'm wrong), but when we first see Michael, he's wearing his marine uniform. He's a returning WW2 hero, and in the huge party of people seen in the beginning, he's the only one we see wearing a uniform. He's heroic looking and stands out. He tells Kay (his girlfriend) that his family is connected with the Mafia and that he wants nothing to do with them. He's very different from them, and he doesn't like the moral compromises they've made. He's similar to Luke, in that he sees things in black and white and believes very strongly in right and wrong.

In the middle of the film, I remember him wearing a lot of black as he's forced to accept more responsibility in the business his family has created. Black is a strong, forceful color, and I don;t think it's meant to represent evil here. I think it represents Michael's belief in his own strength and how he sees himself as a force for good. He's only done what he had to do to protect his family from people who are worse than they are, and he fully intends to get his family into legitimate business and get them out of organized crime.


By the end of the film, Michael wears a grey suit and hat to represent how far he's slipped in terms of moral certainty. He's lost sight of what's right and wrong and he's become completely corrupted.





Anyway, you get the idea. I'm no expert in costume design, and I don't know of a great book or website on the topic of using costume to tell story. I wish I did; if someone knows a great resource on this subject, drop me a line. In any case, it's not hard to learn about costume design. Great film makers use it to their advantage constantly, so just look at how it's used in films that are well put together. Ask yourself why certain choices were made, and you'll see that it's not that much of a mystery how costume can help tell a story.


I've been working on my own graphic novel for several years now, and I enjoy working on it because I get to do many things that I never get to do as a storyboard artist. Costume design is one of the things that I never got much chance to do before, and I really like the challenge of coming up with clothes that help illustrate the changing mental state of each character.



Of course, there are two types of film characters: those that undergo a transformation (like Luke and Michael Corleone) and those that remain the same throughout a film and change the world around them. When I think of the latter type (the type that don't undergo a transformation), it's no surprise that those types wear the same costume throughout a film. Their mental state doesn't change, so they don't need evolving costumes to reflect that change. Characters like Mary Poppins and Indiana Jones are the first kind to come to mind when I think of that type of character, and it's probably no coincidence that they both have very iconic costumes.



Actually, if you wanted to nitpick, I guess you could say that Indiana Jones changes a little during the first film, but not in the major way that Luke and Michael Corleone do, so he doesn't require drastic costume changes. Also, Mary Poppins does change outfits in the fantasy sequences...but hopefully you get my drift.


Anyway, I'm a big believer in using every resource available to help tell stories, and I think that costume design is one area that animation has yet to fully exploit for emotional impact.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Composition Tips from "Rendering In Pen and Ink"

Many years ago I bought the classic book "Rendering In Pen and Ink" by Arthur Guptill. Like most of the art books I buy, it seemed important to own when I bought it, and ever since then it has sat on a shelf, neglected and unread.

By chance, I picked it up a while ago and flipped through it. There are a couple of chapters on composition and directing the eye, filled with little thumbnail examples. I thought they were interesting and, although they're simple, I always feel that the key to drawing is learning the simple principles and then applying them in more and more complex ways as you tackle more complex types of drawing. So I think they're worth sharing and discussing.

Anyway, here are the composition examples:


Yes, these are all still life examples, but they are good principles that apply to any drawing. Example 99, which points out that having all of one type of shape (in this case, rounded) in a drawing gets monotonous. Always look for ways to include variety in the type of shape and line in each drawing.



Here, Guptill suggests the three type of possible composition: triangular, square and round. Also, in panel 5 and 6, he suggests that you can create contrast in your composition for interest by grouping objects that contrast in form or contrast in size (basically, look for ways to get variety in each composition). Again, this doesn't just apply to still life studies. It applies to any type of drawing or composition. And he makes another interesting suggestion in panel 7: whatever objects are in your composition, you don't have to fit them all within the confines of the drawing (as is usually our first instinct). You can include just part of an object (or figure, or whatever), provided we can tell what the object is without seeing the part that's been left outside the border.



Some interesting advice about composition on this one, and more suggestions that the artist find a variety of forms (such as straights and curves) to include in any composition to create variety and interest.



This one just has some simple thoughts on composition.


These next examples are all about a few different ways to draw the eye to where you want it to go (something I talked about a couple of posts ago). In all of these, Guptill is using either contrast or detail to attract the viewer's eye. The eye will always be drawn to the area of the most contrast in a drawing or, if the contrast is pretty evenly placed, to the area with the most detail. So Guptill has a few examples of the same drawing with different treatments so you can see how he places the focus in a different place each time. Sorry about the bad scans….it's a thick book and it was hard to mash it onto my scanner.






These are all helpful for pen and ink drawing, and the same concepts can be helpful to the board artist that faces the challenge of how to get the viewer to look where he's or she's supposed to. As I cautioned before, be mindful (if you're a board artist) of giving the layout department and the animators something that they can replicate and not something that only works in a pen and ink drawing. However, contrast and detail are also tools that the layout artist can use, so usually they can utilize those tools to get the same effect that the board artist achieved.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Vance Gerry's "Notes On Story Sketching"

Another page out of Vance's internal Disney Story Manual. This time, it's a list of 6 principles about storyboarding, simplicity and clarity.


All great straightforward advice that sounds absolutely simple but is hard to master in execution.

For point number 4, where Vance says "Originality often leads to obscurity", I want to add a bit for clarification because I think that might be confusing to some. What I interpret that to mean is "don't re-invent the wheel just to be different" when it comes to drawing story sketches. For example, if you have a character picking up a heavy box, you might draw it and say, "that looks like the cliched pose of a guy picking up a heavy box. Let me come up with a new pose for that action that nobody has ever seen before."

Although I always encourage people not to rely on clichéd poses and to come up with poses that fit the personality of the character and aren't stock re-hashes of what we've seen before, there are times when you just need to go for readability and re-inventing the wheel just leads to confusion.

To give another example, you might have a scene that takes place in a library. You don't want to draw a background of bookshelves because that's the boring, obvious cliché of a library. So you research libraries and find an amazing one in Sweden where the shelves are all glass and the books are all kept sideways. Great! That's so much more interesting than the typical dull library background! So you draw all your layouts that way.

Then, when people are watching the scene, they can't focus on the conversation of the main characters because the background is so interesting that it overwhelms the scene. Or they can't tell what they're looking at because it's so foreign looking and doesn't relate to any type of building they've ever seen before. So they're so busy trying to figure out where the characters are that they miss the important and emotional scene that's happening between the characters.

Anyway, hope that clarifies. Let me know if you found any of the rest of it confusing.

Also, as a bonus, here's the handout Vance is talking about at the end, if you haven't seen it. I've posted it from time to time, but a refresher is always good.

This was drawn by Carson Van Osten when he worked on Disney Comics, and it's a great primer on avoiding common staging and compositional problems.








Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Directing the Viewer's Eye

In one of my recent posts about Vance Gerry handouts, I mentioned the challenge that every board artist faces about how to direct the eye of the viewer. Often, a story sketch will be on screen for a second of screen time (or less) and it is vitally important that the viewer grasps the meaning of what you are trying to say in an instant. So a big part of doing this is knowing how to get the viewer's eye go where you want them to look and not focus on the unimportant parts of the sketch.

(In this post, I will be referring to the "layout department". For anyone unfamiliar with what that means, they're the department that takes to storyboards and turns them into actual film frames by designing the "sets"'  figuring out what the backgrounds of each shot will be and how the characters will move through each scene.)


In the earlier days of storyboarding, often the story artists would just draw the important part of the action and didn't always put much thought into how to direct the viewer's eye. There wan't a lot of extra information to distract from the primary idea, so directing the eye wasn't much of a consideration.










Much as I love those drawings and all the personality in them, times have changed. These days, story artists are expected to utilize every tool at their disposal to help tell the story in the best possible way. This usually means more layout, more camera moves and more character poses. With all of that extra pencil mileage and those extra elements to juggle, it becomes more important to know how to control the viewer's eye.

Obviously, these ideas I'm about to discuss are suited to painting, illustrating and designing as well. They have been used for centuries by all kinds of artists. So hopefully everyone will get something out of this discussion.

Here are some examples to show you a few things I've found helpful over the years to help direct the viewer's eye where I want it to go. They're all incredibly simple.

For our first example, I did a quick, crummy drawing of a guy taking a picture of a bird in a forest. I did this sketch with two objects of interest (the guy and the bird), which, by the way, is a big "no no" when you're doing story sketch. One of the cardinal rules of story sketch is that you should only have one idea presented at a time. Each new idea needs a new sketch. Otherwise, the audience is confused and doesn't know where to look.

Also, if I was going to sell the idea that this guy is taking a picture, it would require a closer shot of him and his camera phone, or just the phone, or something. This is too wide and far away to see such a subtle action clearly.

But the point is, I did a drawing with two focal points (and a lot of pencil mileage) to show you how to control the viewer's eye. So here we go...

Here's the original. Yikes! That's a lot of pencil mileage. How can I get the viewer to look where I want them to look?

Here, I added detail to the bird (in the first drawing) and the guy (in the second drawing). Adding detail to an area of a drawing can help draw the viewer's eye to that area of the picture.



The same thing with adding a texture. Your eye is drawn to the texture first because it's a contrast to the rest of the frame, which is all lines of the same weight and empty areas of white. SO simply adding texture can help create an area of interest.



Always remember that the eye will always be drawn to the area of greatest contrast first. The maximum amount of contrast possible in any drawing or painting is absolute black against absolute white. If there's an area with black against white in a picture, the eye will always go there first. If there isn't an area of black against white, the eye will go to the greatest area of contrast, whatever that may be.

Here, in each example, I put black against white in one area and then added grey to the rest of the frame to reduce the amount of contrast in the rest of the drawing. You can see how your eye goes to the area of the most contrast. The big grey areas are minimized and you take them in secondarily.



Remember that it doesn't have to be black against white to get the maximum contrast. Anything in the frame that contrasts everything else in the frame will do. Get creative and look for different ways to use this effect to your advantage. 


Anything that's different from everything else in the frame will attract the viewer's eye.


If there's a spot of color in a black and white drawing, the color becomes the place of the most contrast and does the job of grabbing the eye quickly.


This is a good point to pause and remember, though, that storyboarding isn't just about being clear and getting the audience to look where we want them to look. You're also trying to tell a story in an effective way, and also provide a blueprint that can be turned into a film. So just because you create a shot like the one above, and it works as a story sketch, it doesn't mean that it works as a film frame. Once the film is finished, the whole frame will be in full color and the trick I used above will be useless. If it's important that the audience focus on the man in brown, I'll have to insert a close up of him first…or start close on him and pull back to this wide shot…or something else that does the job of telling the audience to focus on him. No layout person or lighting person can take the wide shot above and put that much focus on the man in the crowd without creating some sort of weird, stilted effect. So keep that in mind as you balance the problems of where to place contest and the audience's attention with actual film language that makes sense and tells the story in the best way.


Speaking of storyboarding with an eye towards creating a useful film blueprint, let's diverge for a moment to talk about tone and how useful it is in minimizing contrast to get the viewer's eye. As I touched on before, in the older days of storyboarding, artists would often just add tone and contrast in a way to center the eye on what was important. Very little thought was given to how the actual scene was eventually going to be laid out and lit. The storyboards were just a tool for figuring out the story and characters.

So if you had a scene like this, you might just throw in some grey tone to make it easier to see what's going on. The layout team would take your boards and figure out how to lay out the scene and light it after it was approved to move into layout.


These days, with compressed production schedules, we tend to expect our story artists to put more thought into exactly how the scene might be lit. That's because the people that have to turn the storyboards into an actual film (the layout artists, animators, lighters, etc.) have, in many cases, very little time to do their jobs. As amazing as these people are at solving problems, if you give them a storyboard that makes no sense from a layout or lighting perspective (or acting wise, for that matter), they're going to have to do a lot of extra work to rework your boards and figure out how to get what the directors wants while retaining what works about the boards. So we try not to create big headaches for the people that will be using the boards as a blueprint for the film, and we try to do things that make sense wherever possible. 

So to create light in this room where our character sits reading a book,  I would figure out what the best solution is within the bounds of the story. Is a fire in the fireplace right?



Is a reading lamp?



Could I use bright moonlight from outside? I doubt this one would ever fly (who would sit inside a room and read by the moonlight coming in the window?), but it all depends on the situation.



So consider the lighting when you're boarding a scene, and what will be possible and impossible. Are you solving problems for other people while you board, or just creating headaches? Lighting is such a big part of how you create a mood for a scene that it must be considered at the storyboard stage. For example, if two people are walking along a deserted road at night, you have to think about how to set the appropriate mood. Is it a scary scene? If so, then maybe it's a moonless night and they have only a small flashlight between them…and the flashlight's batteries are running low.

But if you wanted the same scene to be a romantic scene, you'd want to create different lighting altogether. Maybe there's a full moon that casts light everywhere. Maybe there are fireflies. Maybe the two of them are carrying a lantern, or a torch…whatever creates the best lighting to sell the mood you're trying to create and is appropriate for the time period and the characters. And by putting some thought into it at the storyboard stage, we can help everyone else down the line as they build the film.

Depending on the mood you're trying to achieve, a harsh contrasty light might be best (for example, in a scary or dynamic action scene) or a soft, gauzy light might be better (for a romantic or lighter type of moment). All these things should be considered by the storyboard artist as they think about a scene. Our job is to tell the story in the best way and lighting and mood are a valuable tool at our disposal. Even if you make a choice that ends up being rejected as the wrong choice for the scene, you've helped everyone have a better understanding of exactly what the right choice is in that particular case.


So, why are some other simple, easy ways to direct the viewer's eye?

Perspective is always an easy way. If you have strong lines created by the vanishing point of your drawing, use that to point to what we're supposed to be focusing on.



I'm not a stickler for straight lines in my perspective (as you can tell). I just draw whatever looks right (of course, I don't do anything that's so much of a cheat that it'll be useless to the layout department). I don't draw super straight lines and make sure everything converges exactly…a lot of times when people are precise with their perspective it looks distracting and stiff anyway (at least to me). So know how one, two and three-point perspective works but don't be a literal slave to it. A good composition is always more important than exact precise perspective (layout people might disagree with me though).

Also, you can draw everything in a composition to point where you want it to point in order to get the viewer to look at what's important. Things like plants, trees, roads, signs, etc. are all endlessly malleable to tweak so that they point at the center of interest.



Line weight can make a big difference in creating a hierarchy of what's important to look at and what's merely background. Look at this drawing of a man in a gallery:


All the equally weighted lines are creating confusion. Everything is equally important. But if I redraw the background, unimportant paintings to a smaller line weight...


It eliminates all the graphic confusion and you can focus on what's important.

This is another useful storyboard trick that has to be considered when you're asking yourself what will be helpful to layout. In a case like this, I would find out what the lighting situation in the gallery would be. I would definitely add lighting to this story sketch to accentuate to two important parts of the sketch (the man and that one painting). But I provide it here as an example of how to use line weight to minimize confusion and enhance readability.

(Personally, I doubt we'd ever design a gallery like that anyway. That's a pretty jumbled mess of paintings!)

Speaking of paintings….the last way I can think of that I use to direct the eye is the old frame-within-a-frame trick. If you create a frame within your composition, you can put the most important element (or elements) in the frame and the eye will be attracted to that spot as a center of interest within the composition.


Again, get creative with this one. Yes, you can use doors or windows, but the possibilities are endless. Any type of "smaller stage" within the bigger frame will work.


I hope that helps and it all makes sense. Sorry for the janky drawings, I did them in a hurry. All of these techniques fall into the category of being so simple that they seem a bit useless, but if you look at the work of great illustrators and painters they've been using these tricks effectively for a long time. And, as I always say, the simple things are the things that people take for granted and forget about first. But if you remember the simple things, they can have a huge impact in effective communication and make the difference between something that works and something that falls apart!