A few people have e-mailed me and asked for advice on how to become a better story artist. A good story artist has to know how a film is put together. An extensive knowledge of cutting and staging (staging means where to put the camera to best tell the story) is essential. There are a few books on cutting, but I have never read much that deals with staging. Listening to director commentaries on DVDs is always a good way to learn about films but really insightful commentaries are few and far between. Most directors tell long boring production stories or spend all the time telling you where things were filmed and what was really on location and what was shot on a soundstage. Who cares? Talk about fimmaking and story! Ah well. Someday I will post some movies I have found to have good commentaries. Feel free to post suggestions in the comments!
A good place to start is all the Pixar movies. They all have excellent commentaries.
Anyway, there is really only one really foolproof way to study film and that is to simply study it. When time permits, here is one way I approach boarding a sequence: I will find a sequence in a movie that is similar to what I'm going to be boarding. I will put the DVD in my laptop and watch the sequence through once. Then I will watch it with the sound off so I can see how the visuals are carrying the story without the distraction of the sound effects and music. Then I will go through the DVD scene by scene, pausing on each scene and doing a quick drawing of each. This helps my mind see what is going on: it's a more active way of experiencing the movie than just watching it and helps me see what is going on. I look at how each idea is staged. What angle did the fimmaker pick to best show the idea? What did they do to make sure the cutting works?
What made me think of writing this post is that recently I was thinking about a scene I was going to board and one sequence I ended up watching as reference was from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. Of course, I wish I could say I was looking at “Citizen Kane” or something impressive like that but unfortunately not in this case. But Speilberg is like Pizza: even when it’s kinda bad it’s still pretty good.
This is one page of the drawings I did while going through the sequence frame-by-frame. They’re not great drawings at all – I had no idea I was going to post them here and actually I just retrieved them from the trash. They’re just quick little notes as I copy what I see – each one is done in a couple of seconds, and I didn’t really try to slavishly copy exactly what the frame was doing because I wasn’t looking at it for composition at this point – just doing little sketches of what shot followed what shot to try and get it straight in my head.
One of the first things you discover this way is how often live-action films disregard the accepted "rules" of filmmaking. There are many good books that cover these basics and talk all about the "no-no's" of cutting: you know, jump cuts and being careful not to confuse the audience by “crossing the line” or changing the screen direction between shots (click to read a definition of jump cuts and crossing the line. People in animation tend to be very slavish about following these rules. Live action films tend to play a little fast and loose with these "rules", and I think that’s part of what makes live action films more exciting, in a way. Audiences are so visually sophisticated that they don’t need us to adhere to these rules all that much anymore, but animated films still do.
If you are looking for a good primer on the rules of film cutting, try "The 5 C's of Cinematography" or "Shot by Shot".
Live-action films stage things in different ways than animated films. When storyboarding, it’s important to board everything in a way that is going to be clear to everyone watching the reels. So you usually end up only showing what you need to get the idea across. Showing more than you need can confuse the audience about what is important within the frame and what they are supposed to be looking at. Movement is one of the most important ways to attract the human eye in a shot – a tiny figure in a giant landscape will attract the eye if it’s the only thing moving. But storyboards don’t have movement to draw the eye, so we have to use color or contrast to draw the eye – or better yet, stage each shot so that the most important part is easily seen within the composition.
For example look at this shot – the idea this shot is communicating is that Indy (Harrison Ford) has just handed his gun to Willie (Kate Capshaw) and told her to hold it. Click for a better look.
As Indy reaches for more bullets Willie fumbles with the gun for a beat
And then she fumbles it right out the window.
If you drew this as storyboards it would be really hard to stage it this way and get away with it. If the idea is that Willie fumbles with the gun, why do we need to see the kid in the front seat? What is Indy doing? No matter how you drew him he would probably come off as a confusing indistinct shape and be distracting to the most important idea – that the girl is fumbling with the gun. People would be looking at the weird Indy shape, trying to figure out what it is and also probably looking at Short Round’s face, because faces tend to draw our attention. If you really wanted to stage this action in this way you would probably throw Short Round and Indy into silhouette so they become less important and then put color on Willie to make sure the audience looked at her. But I think if you storyboarded it this way, most animation directors would say that, at least for storyboarding, this is a pretty complicated way to stage some simple action.
I guess what I’m trying to say is to look at live action films and figure out how they are put together. Get inspired by the way they stage things, so you aren't falling back on staging things the same way every time. Look at how live action films are staged and cut and learn from them. Animation should be as sophisticated as live action films should and they usually aren’t.
But also don’t storyboard in a way that sacrifices clarity for cleverness.
Among the many things to look for when watching live action is how the filmmaker uses values. How does the lighting tell the story? One of my favorite live action techniques is throwing everything in shadow except the actor’s eyes. It makes you focus on their eyes without the cheesiness of an extreme eyeball close-up.
I put this one in black and white so you could see what I was talking about. Black and white movies have great lighting that is rarely matched by modern films…probably because old movie makers were ripping off great painters of the past. Today movie makers just rip off old movies (and yes, I am aware of the irony that this post is all about ripping off movies).
Look at movies and see how they stage things with a lot of depth when they want moments to play in a dramatic way.
Sometimes filmmakers stage things with a lot of depth to add to the beauty of a scene.
And then look at how they stage things flatly when they want something to play in a comedic way. Take a peek at this scene from “Temple of Doom” that’s trying hard to be funny. As Kate gets frightened by animals in the jungle, she runs back and forth in the Foreground in front of Indy and Short Round. She runs parallel to the camera and the two guys are placed on a plane parallel to the camera to create a couple of flat levels that is supposed to emphasize the humor of the scene (in theory anyway).
This is the "funniest" sequence I could find in this movie. Not a great example of flat staging, but anyway, it's something to look for in other movies. Comedy films tend to be staged more flatly to help carry the feeling of humor.
This supposedly funny bit is all about Kate Capshaw being surrounded by jungle wildlife and shrieking in terror. As she backs away from a snake, she runs into a monkey, etc. But this poor monkey looks more scared than Kate. It looks like someone threw him into the scene and he bolts out of frame as quick as he can.
Also as you look at films take a look at how they stage scenes of characters talking to keep them interesting. And look at how they use composition as a way to make things stay visually appealing.
Every film, good, bad or indifferent is a collection of choices made by the filmmakers, actors writers and everyone else who worked on the film. Look at them and evaluate where they suceeded and where they could have done better. There's no better film school than that!