Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What's different?

Every board artist knows this one by heart but it's worth repeating. At Disney -and most other places - we board the movie in chunks called "sequences". A sequence usually has anywhere from 18-32 sequences and is typically takes place in one place or expresses one overall idea. The easiest way to explain it to someone is that the "chapter stops" on a DVD usually correspond to the sequenes of the movie.

Anyway, when a board artist is issued a sequence to board, the most important question to ask yourself is always: what's different in the movie by the end of this sequence? What conditions are there in the story that are changed by the course of the sequence? That's how you figure out why the sequence is in the movie. How does it advance the story?

Another way to look at it is to ask how the movie would be affected if you removed the sequence from the movie. Would you miss it? If not, why is it in the movie? It should be essential to story you are telling. Audiences have a built-in sense of when the story is advancing and when the story is meandering. Whenever you're in a theater watching a movie that's riveting people to their seats you can tell. When a movie hits a point that goes off-track or starts to halt the story in order to explore an unessential area you can see people shift in their seats, go the bathroom or leave to get some popcorn.

If you don't know why a sequence is in the movie then you don't know what it's about. I don't know how you can board a sequence if you don't understand the purpose it's trying to serve. It's like being an actor and not understanding what your character is doing or why. How could you deliver a performance?

There's no worse job for a storyboard artist than having to tackle a sequence you don't understand. You have no frame of reference to make decisions about how to do it, and so you can't help but struggle to try and figure out how to put the sequence across. But put WHAT across? It's like being an athlete on a team where you don't understand the rules of the sport. How would you know what you're trying to do?

This applies to every other aspect of filmmaking, of course. How can you write a scene, light a scene, edit a scene or direct the actors if you don't know what the point of the sequence is?

And when you end up pitching the sequence to a room full of people, all of those people will throw out ideas to make it better. They will have ideas about how to make the characters sharper, make the staging better and make the scene funnier. They'll be throwing out ideas a mile a minute - which is great, because that's the whole point of pitching it to a group. But your head can swim trying to figure out which ideas are right and which don't fit. So go back to your "compass" - the reason why the sequence is in the movie. Which ideas help you do this better? And which ideas push it off track?

Now don't think I'm saying movies have to be plot machines with every sequence pushing the story forward at a relentless pace. Every film has a different style and moves at a different speed. Think about the "Baby Mine" sequence in "Dumbo" where Dumbo's mother holds him and sings him a song. Or the sequence in "Lady and the Tramp" where Lady shares a romantic dinner and some spaghetti with Tramp. Obviously these sequences aren't advancing the plot, per se -and yet they are. Those sequences deepen the emotion and up the emotional stakes that drive the movie. The emotion you feel when Lady and the Tramp are separated, and then re-united, would be completely undercut if you didn't understand how much they cared for each other. That's why I would argue that the dinner sequence IS essential.

And I think a lot of Disney films recently have dropped the ball on this last one. It's hard to describe in a writing meeting why you absolutely need to spend the time developing the pure emotional parts. Some people seem to think the audience is going to be bored if the movie slows down for a bit. But the only way to cement emotion in the audience's mind is to slow down the pace and let the story get emotional. If the audience doesn't care about the characters and their problems then they're not going to feel any emotion at the end of the film. And if the film is all relentless drive, then the effect is assaultive. A film needs slow parts mixed in with the fast parts to make the fast parts FEEL fast by contrast. And it's okay in a "Die Hard" movie to be relentless, but the great Disney films have always been emotional, first and foremost.

I can't tell you how many movies I've worked on that seemed to work really well in the editing room and then fall flat (to me) when it's released and I see it in a theater. Somebody felt the need to "tighten" the movie, to "take the air out". Well, I think that's where the emotion always lives - in the quiet moments, in the "air" of the movie.

As I'm writing this I can't help but think of "Alice in Wonderland". What did the board artists tell themselves the point of each sequence was? Each sequence was an episode that explored some imaginative territory, but how did each advance the story? I think they were trying to have each sequence push her further and further into frustration and make her appreciate her rational (albeit sometimes boring) normal life. Certainly the sequence playing croquet with the Queen of Hearts and Alice's trial have a nice narrative drive, and you get what's at stake, but what would you miss if you removed the sequence where the flowers sing Alice a song?

So is this a clue as to why the movie doesn't feel as emotional as the other Disney Classics? I think so, and I think it's a good illustration of why this concept is so important in our work.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Really interesting post. It's also interesting how all of this counts for animation as well, and how an animator can make use of this kind of story knowledge. Now there are two things I was wondering about, and it'd be great if you could answer them if you find the time. (or some others who are reading this blog could probably answer it as well - if they find the time)

Do story artists usually get sequences assigned, or does it often happen in smaller chunks as well?

When people talk about the recent Disney films not being up to par, many mention Treasure Planet as well. I really loved it, and when I ask others why they don't like it I usually get an answer like "I don't get why it has to be in space." which isn't a good reason for a bad film or story to me. I can't think of any sequences right now that didn't push the story forward in one way or another, ánd it had the necessary, slow, more emotional moments. So why is it generally perceived as such a lesser film?


barry johnson said...

Great post Mark.
Vance Getty said you don't remember the "story" as much as the moments (Bambi on the ice, soot covered dalmatians in the snow).
It's the "moments" that let an audience embrace the characters and thus, care for the story they are in.

barry johnson said...

sorry...Vance GaRRy!!!!!!!!!

I've got the typing skills of a drunken ape :)

barry johnson said...


Skribbl said...

I thought it was Vance Gombert???

Thanks Mark for this post. I am just boarding a sequence right now and I can't tell what's different. Shit. Now because of you I have to start all over again. Thanks. (in good way)

mark kennedy said...

Thanks guys!

I wrote a tribute to Vance - I haven't posted it yet because I still have to scan some art. Then you guys can e-mail or post comments to talk about your Vance stories, if you want.

Danny said...

I am curious about what you would say to nemo considering its sequences. Nemo's beginning and end are tight and progress steadily, but the rest of the movie almost follows a daily soap scheme - a small episode with a (except for overcoming issues) irrelevant goal being tackled, and after climax a cut to the son and vice versa. If it was a movie from a different studio i probably wouldn't mind to much, the shorts themselves where always beautifully told, but considering toy story 2 and especially monster inc. (in which you couldn't leave out one bit and still the movie doesn't feel forced) it's a bit of a let down... or is it just me seeing it that way?

Dan said...

Great post Mark, very insightful. I love the examples you give with your theories, they solidify them completely. Keep it up, it's all so inspirational.

Wilbert Plijnaar said...

Great piece Mark!
It shows there's more to storyboarding than drawing alone .
What you write about "Alice" I feel is true for almost all "Quest" stories which essentially are a corridor with doors, behind which lie events, characters and situations. After the room is explored, the main character returns to the corridor and finds the next door. The interior of the rooms might provide the viewer with a temporary WOW but the order of doors usually doesn't make much of a structural difference in those kind of stories. Also with each opening door a new story has te be started up. I think therefore 'quest stories ' often feel so repetitive. The only thing that keeps us going is our involvement with the protagonist(s) and the reason he/she/they are in the corridor in the first place. Which is tru for any story of course. Problem with Alice is we just don't give much of a bleep to begin with.

Just for fun: do you have any suggestions what could improve the impetus of that story?

mark kennedy said...

Hey guys, great questions. Let me try to answer goes-

Benjamin-usually it's sequences because a sequence is a solid chunk of continuity, so it'll look better in the story reel if the drawing style doesn't change too much - as it does if you divide it up among many people. Also it creates problems because board artists have to figure out the cutting and transitions between their chunks and it can get confused. A sequence has to be a little mini-movie within the movie and has to start slow, build to a mini-climax (of action or emotion) and then come down from there to a bit of an ending (usually). SO it's better for one person to take it and work out that rhythm themselves. Does that answer your question?
I agree with you that "being in space" isn't enough to condemn any film. If you like a film then don't feel like you shouldn't. But I sense that you're like me - you always want to know why people react differently than you to a movie so you can learn from their POV.
Just because a movie fulfills the requirement that each sequence move the story forward won't make that film work, of course. There's a lot else at play.

Daniel - great question. I know a lot of people found Nemo to be episodic. I personally felt that it was held together by a narrative thread that worked well:
1. a father who needs to learn how to be a better father goes on a journey to save his son and travels with a fish (Dory) who is child-like - this enables the filmmakers to show how Marlin learns along the way as he becomes a "father" to Dory. But there's more to it than that - he's not really as much a "father" to Dory as she and Marlin are extreme opposites and between the two of them they form one balanced personality.
2. A son who doesn't undersatnd or appreciate his father meets a fish who is the opposite of his father (Gil). Gil gives the child a lot of responsibility (perhaps TOO much) and believes in Nemo, letting Nemo do things his Dad would never do. Nemo learns to appreciate his father and understand his father's POV better and he gains a newfound understanding and respect for his father by realizing what his Dad went through to save him.

Well, it's late and I'm not quite articulating it right - but I felt that htese threads were unifying the picture and made it feel unified to me - not episodic. Neither one of these things were pushed very far, though - it would have diminished the appeal of the film if Marlin was a total neurotic or if Nemo was a spoiled brat - they were played just right, in my opinion. And if you're going to do an undersea movie, I think you have to meet a lot of different types of fish and mammals to really exploit that whole world - which can't help but feel episodic.

But I get where you're coming from - a lot of people shared your perspective. Michael Eisner wrote an infamous memo talking about how he didn't think Nemo was all that great - he felt it ws episodic too.

Dan- welcome and thanks for leaving the comment! Enjoy.

mark kennedy said...

Wilbert!!! Great, great post.

You ask a good question but I am so, so tired. Even if I WASN'T falling asleep I wouldn't know how to think about fixing it, if Walt couldn't!

Ah.....maybe tomorrow.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Thanks for the answers, Mark! Really appreciate it!

I had just watched the DVD commentary for and one thing they talked about was how they were making them take little steps at a time. Both Nemo and Marlin (and I guess in some way also Dory and Gill) changed a bit in each of those sequences. For example in the jellyfish sequence, Marlin learns to have fun again. In the sequence where Nemo almost gets killed in the escape plan, he subconsciously starts to know why his father was so overprotective. It's overall a slow transition towards the ending, where both characters have learned to understand eachother, and improve themselves.

mark kennedy said...

That is exactly what I was trying to say. Thanks!!!

Jenny said...

Great post, Mark!

(btw...I kind of like the sequence with the singing flowers. *ducks a brick*)

Well, I think the story guys were in a bit of bind with "Alice" to begin with; it's such a famous, beloved book--BUT, it's(the original) also not in any way, shape or form a "warm" story, nor is it a narrative of the type that typically makes a good film, period! It's a purely episodic dream-story. Maybe they should have taken more liberties with it than they did, because as it is, they came in for so many brickbats from critics, etc. about bastardizing the "classic".

warren said...

Three questions:

Do you think the temptation to 'take the air out' of a film via the emotional moments has something to do with a relative misuse of dramatic subtext in those same scenes?

Do many story artists in features often feel hamstrung by 'on the nose' dialogue?

Or is what I'm sensing these days (a lot of characters spelling out their feelings) a result of 'taking the air out'?

Crap...this might require a new thread...

Rocco said...

It's interesting that for each example of a movie or scene one person presents to make a point, there is someone who will comment that they feel the opposite.

Jenny likes the singing flowers, Benjamin likes Treasure Planet, and often people can't verbalize what it is they like about a movie or scene, it just resonates for them.

It makes me think, although there are certain standards by which a good story is developed, they can be doled out using an infinite variety of mixes and measures, resulting in very different movies that satisfy differing tastes of viewers. As pointed out in one of the comments, a good quest story will have great episodes of overcoming peril, but it must still satisfy basic story requirements that make you care for the character facing those perils.

A good analogy, (and not an original one), of using a limited number of specific elements to create stories would be music composition. There are twelve musical tones, seven of which create a key. Those same seven notes can be used to create everything from bach to punk to funk to jazz. Punk is meant to be a different listening experience than classical, but within its own genre a good song most likely satisfies the requirements that make it resonate with its audience.

When a great song is analyzed in theoretical terms, it almost always follows certain theories of tension and resolution, etc. But if you ask the composer what they were thinking of when they wrote the song, they will often give you a vague answer about a "feeling" they had while writing, or just doing what sounded good to them. Of course they have the theory ingrained so deeply in their subconscious that they don't have to access it consciously they can go straight to the expression.

So, I think that the point of this ramble is that the rules change somewhat from genre to genre, and from movie to movie, but the underlying elements of creating a story are universal and can be used to create bad formulaic stories as well as great stories with intangible qualities that you feel rather than know.

The bottom line is that reading blogs like this and Jenny's help us to be reminded of those theories and keep absorbing them until they reach the subconscious level where we don't have to think about them when creating, but can get right to the expressing part.

mark kennedy said...

I agree 1000%. well put!

Rocco said...

I was just reading through your earlier posts and saw the And Again... post in which you said almost verbatim some of the things I just commented, including the music analogy, ( I said it wasn't original, but...)


Next time I should probably read through a blog first before commenting!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Thanks guys for putting this out there. Very interesting read.

"Listen, learn and use what you want and works for you." – Bruce Lee