Thursday, November 16, 2006

Character Introductions

This is a bit of filmmaking 101 that everybody already knows. So forgive me for even talking about something so basic, but like a lot of things I discuss, it's one of those things that everybody knows and yet people either forget to do it or they don't do it effectively as they could.

Basically it's the concept that how you introduce a character in a film should be crafted very carefully so that you communicate to the audience exactly what the character is about. The first time a major character appears, they should be presented in a way that reveals their personality strongly and clearly.

This is one of those things that filmmakers of yesteryear knew and accepted without question. Nowadays, filmmakers don't seem to think this is very important and so it's rare to see a good character introduction in modern films.

So why is it important? I think it's because you have to make the most out of every minute of film time you have. Film is "life with the boring parts cut out" and so every part of your film has to be interesting and make the strongest statement possible. Everything in a movie should be heightened - better, more exciting an more dramatic than things that happen in real life. That's just going to lead to a more interesting movie, period. So make a strong statement with the introductions of your character. The stronger you introduce them and state who they are to the audience in an abbreviated fashion, the quicker the story can get rolling. If the audience meets your main character and understands in 15 seconds that this guy is a guy who's afraid of commitment (or whatever his problem is) the quicker they get what the film is about and you can get started telling the story instead of wasting time in a complicated set-up to tell the audience who they are. Anytime you can get through set-up in a movie quickly you're on the right track. We've all seen films where the spent too much time setting up stuff or wasting time on "shoe leather" moving from location to location when they could have just cut from place to place.

Like many things in film, this works better if it's done in a smart and effortless way. The audience should get it on a more subconscious level than a conscious one. If they see what you are doing then the trick doesn't work. So it's better to not be too heavy-handed with this stuff. If your character is very complicated, then put the simple and strong statement over first and then add shadings to it as the story moves along.

Obviously, there is the other side of the coin: sometimes you want to lie to your audience. If you want your audience to think your main character is a good guy you can introduce him that way, and then you "sucker-punch" them later when you reveal he is a bad guy. The movie "Ransom" did this: you think Gary Sinise is a good cop before you find out that he is in cahoots with the kidnappers.

Two of my favorite displays of this technique are from animated movies. The classic one is the introduction of Cruella from "101 Dalmatians". First of all, it's a classic approach to have other characters talk about someone before they appear. Then you get what they're about before you even see them and it builds up anticipation about them. You can get information about what they're about or how others view them if that can save time so you don't have to do it after they're introduced.

So Roger sings a whole song about Cruella which tells you all you need to know about her. So once she appears in her whirlwind of energy you already don't like her and don't trust her. It colors all of her actions, and when she's actually being "nice" to Anita you see it as phony and insincere.

Also you get to see how she drives before you see her. It's always more effective to see a character's personality manifest itself somehow before you see the character, to see how they affect the world before you see them. And before you get to see her in person, Cruella comes roaring around the corner in her car, scattering pigeons along the way. And her car itself has a very definite look to it - instead of a generic looking car, it's got a very sinister look which tells you a lot about the driver.

But the best part about Cruella is how visually smart her introduction is. The first time you see her you see her silhouette through the glass of Roger and Anita's front door. And the image looks just like a spider in a web - a pretty clear visual symbol for someone who's creepy, manipulative and mistrustful. And yet it's not heavy-handed. Most people don't really notice it for what it is, even though Roger sings about her as being a spider. But it really gives you a creepy feeling about her before she appears which helps heighten the emotion of the story very effectively.

Another great intro that comes to mind is Scar in "The Lion King" - he's about to eat a mouse. Honestly, what kind of Lion would waste time eating a mouse? Only one too sickly, lazy and underhanded to go out and hunt wildebeests. Also you get that great moment where he slams his paw down on the mouse - when I saw it in the theater for the first time, it really made the audience jump. That put them all on edge and you watched his first scene with an upset, off-kilter feeling. Very effective.

Hitchcock, of course, is well known for his great character intros. One of his most famous textbook examples is from a film that's not that well-known: "Lifeboat". An analysis of the beginning of the film is like a master class in beginning a film quickly and effectively. He gets across a lot of setup in a really compressed amount of time.
WARNING: There are spoilers below. If you haven't seen "Lifeboat" in the 60 years since it was made and you don't want me to ruin it for you, don't read any further!

The opening credits of "Lifeboat" are shown over a smokestack from an ocean liner. But as soon as Hitchcock's credit is over, the camera pulls back to reveal that the smokestack is sticking out of the water. The the smokestack sinks completely from sight. Within a minute of the film's opening we are made to understand that a ship has just sunk.

Then the camera pans across the ocean surface. We see debris floating on the water and all of it is there to tell you information you need to grasp the situation.

First we see this Red Cross crate that tells you where the ship was from and where it was going: from New York to Great Britain (the film was made during WWII).

Then we see some other objects that personalize the passengers on the doomed ship and make them seem more real, make the situation seem more immediate: a checkerboard, a magazine, some wooden spoons. I think all of this stuff also is there to tell you that this was a civilian vessel and not a military one. Then we end on a corpse in a German lifejacket with the markings of a U-Boat on it, which tells you that a German U-Boat was responsible for sinking the ship and that the submarine itself was sunk in the conflict.

Then the camera pans up to see a lifeboat in the distance. We move closer to the lifeboat and see that there is a woman sitting in the boat.

Her clothes tell you a lot about her right away. She has just been on a boat that was attacked and sunk and yet she is wearing a fur coat and a giant diamond bracelet. She is leaning on a big set of fancy luggage that tells you she took great pains to save her own possessions amidst all of this devastation. She is smoking a cigarette and seems totally unfazed and removed from the destruction all around her.

She is so removed in fact, that she looks down and sees that her stocking has a run in it...and she sighs with irritation. All of this does a great job of telling you a lot about what kind of person she is with just a couple of shots and very little screen time - the movie is only about two minutes long at this point. She is clearly not the type of person that will deal well with the hardships of a lifeboat, that's for sure.

Immediately after this she hears a voice, and looks off. Another survivor is swimming towards her. She picks up a movie camera and films the guy as he approaches. At the time this film was made a movie camera was probably a pretty rare thing to be carrying around so this tells you that she is a journalist (I'm guessing it would back then anyway).

In this great framing device of the camera viewfinder, she films this guy swimming towards her. As he swims, he sees some money floating on the water. He stops swimming, picks up some of the money, and then pockets it before climbing into the boat.

What kind of person is thinking of picking up money after being on a boat that was sunk? Who would pause on their way swimming to a lifeboat to take the money? Again, that tells you a lot about this guy.

I haven't actually watched the movie in a while, but as far as I remember, there are several other great introductions of the other characters as they climb into the boat. Check it out sometime.

There is also a great introduction for the villain of the piece - the captain of the German submarine. In the middle of a conversation, one of the survivors on the boat looks over and his eyes widen.

Then they cut to what he sees - a hand on the edge of the boat. Then the other hand comes up. It may not seem all that effective here, but in the movie it's a very creepy and weird introduction. We find out later that he is murdering people in the boat when no one is looking. In the absence of any weapons in the boat, he is killing people with his hands, so playing up his hands stresses how dangerous he is. In fact, throughout the film several shots play up his hands which makes him seem very threatening and animal-like.

Anyway, I could go on and on but you get the drift. There are many more classic ones and everyone has their favorite character introductions. They're everywhere. Go and seek out some great ones for yourself!


Anonymous said...

I can't tell you how much I enoy reading your blog! I look forward to it each morning (and get a little bummed when there isn't a new entry.) It's the only thing keeping me sane at my current (crappy) job.

Your knowledge, not to mention the links you share, have been VERY helpful. I just wanted to say 'thank you' for all the hard work. But I also want to say 'damn you!' since you've shown me how much more I need to learn. Stop for about two or three years and let me catch up.

Again, thank you for all your hard work.

P.S. I just wanted to nominate "Raiders of the Lost Ark" for one of the best Character Introductions of all time.

Skribbl said...

Give us some bad examples so we know what NOT to do! You rock!

Anonymous said...

Hey, don't forget "Casablanca", wherein we hear all about the character Rick for several minutes from those whose lives he deeply affects. Then we see Rick's HAND signing a document, and pan up to reveal Bogart's face. Director Michael Curtiz packs a visceral, visual punch without firing off a single Roman candle. It plays as subdued on TV but comes off like gangbusters when shown in a theatre, the way it was meant to be seen.

Jim M. said...

Leon, "The Professional". Hands down my favorite.

bclark said...

wow the cruella/spider catch was great, you totally feel it but it does not call out to you and distract you. great blog, a daily read.

Kristine said...

Love the post today!

Guess I'll be checking out that A.H. film. And thanks for posting commentary with stills of what you're talking about.

I would say the intro of Capt. Jack Sparrow sticks out in my mind as a great intro of a character.

christopher said...

Yeah I'll second the Jack Sparrow intro as far as modern films go.

Thanks for this awesome post Mark. I definitely think this is one of those important things that seems easily forgotten or overlooked.

RoboTaeKwon-Z said...

Mark! Great post! It really gets you thinking!
Here are some intros you wouldn't think of as being great, but they work:
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Real Genius
And here's one that uses character introductions to set up expectations about certain characters only to have them turn out to be completely false:
Kung Fu Hustle.

Matt J said...

Superb post as usual. I happen to be storyboarding the opening sequence of a film at the moment where I have the introduction of 3 major characters so your post was a good reminder to really make the most of their 'entrances'.
Last night I was watching MOBY DICK with your post in mind & focused on the intros of each character. Of course Ahab & Orson Welle's Preacher stand out.

mark kennedy said...

Great comments everyone, thanks for writing! Thanks for posting other good ones, so people can go check out more inspiration.

anonymous-glad you like the site. Sorry your job is crappy, I hope it gets better. You are right about "Raiders" that one is great.

Sribbl-thanks! You too baby!

anonymous-yes, classic example, a great one.

Jim m. - yes, love that one.

bclark-thanks, glad you like it.

Kristine- you're right, that's a good one too.


robo! Thanks for posting those, I should check them out sometime! I loved Kung Fu Hustle.

Maatj-cool, glad it helps, I haven't seen Moby Dick, I will check it out!

Anonymous said...

Your blog really animates cartooning!
Its interesting to learn the reasoning behind what you usually just feel intuitively, and pretty damn helpful too.
Being a swedish alterna-comix illustrator I must say it feels gratifyingly illicit to use Disney wisdom in composing pages.

/ Thanks for posting!

ps. One character introduction I love is Kaiser Soze in The Usual Suspects (spoiler alert) . The whole movie is essentially about introducing him. He is present everywhere; in stories about his brutal past, in the fear of those who have crossed him, in the doggedness of the police, and in the way the mood changes when his name is mentioned. And then, when he finally shows up, its just Kevin Spacey. Great introduction!

Steve said...

Great Post Mark, I have to check this movie out, sounds great...

I am just trying to think about some great character introductions... and I can't stop thinking about Toy Story, every character from Rex to Sid is just brilliantly done... great food for thought on this one... Thanks, Thanks, Thanks... =]

yuin said...

This was a reeeeally informative post. As a student of film and animation, I have to say this taught me a LOT. All your posts are great, and I always learn stuff from them, but somehow I found this one particularly enlightening. Great work! :)

warren said...

I forgot about the Cruella intro at the door - I like how they cribbed it from the original 'The Ladykillers' directed by Alexander Mackendrick.

The 'Lifeboat' analysis rocks! Thanks for the great stuff!

Dustin said...

"Shoe leather"?! Care to explain that one? The meaning is lost on me!

Closet Space said...

Hi Mark! Thank you sooooo much (once again) for this post! I'm never able to get my hands on many good old films, so I'm always excited to see postings of great composition and analysis of the shots. The information you provide is absolutely invaluable, thank you for taking the time to share it!

Dan said...

Fantatic Blog,

Every since your blog was recommended to me I have been checking it out, very insightful with great examples.

I'm writing a stop-motion script at the moment and you've really made me think about being a little more creative with my characters introduction...

Thanks for all your great posts


Jenny said...

Fantastic post!

I've been mulling a post for weeks now involving something along these lines--but even earlier(usually)than the character intros--the credits! I'd been thinking about how the opportunity to really start the audience off with a bang, jolt or otherwise get them into the story is just tossed off with an unimaginative use of the opening titles--but there are terrific exceptions--many from much older films. Hitchcock obviously thought about it did Disney. With exceptions(as there are always exceptions), I just think that considerign the ultimate control and design of our films, there's no excuse for slapping credits on top of a BG...again, there are always instances where it'd not help, but still..!
[Hey...remember the bad examples of character intro from Bird at school? I'll bet you do! From a Bluth film? ;D ]

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

This post reminds me a lot of the "opening shot" series at the Scanners blog ( I love it how in a lot of films, the opening shot is so well-crafted. One of the recent ones I loved is the one in Children of Men. I don't think it's out in the US yet, right? If you go see it, remember to watch that opening shot. It describes the whole film (and main character) so well.

mark kennedy said...

thanks for all of the great comments!

dustin - "shoe leather" is when a movie has a lot of unecessary scenes of people traveling from place to place. Usually a good director will cut from place to place so we don't have to follow the traveling part (unless the traveling is vital to the story somehow).

David Bishop said...

I love the way Colm Meaney's character Duncan Malloy is introduced in Con Air. He's the snarky DEA guy who constantly clashes with John Cusack's character in the movie. Malloy is first seen driving a snazzy, expensive sports car - with the license plate AZZKCKR - and he parks it in a disabled space. Talk about great character shorthand! Not only is it a memorable introduction, it tells the audience everything they need to know about his character and how much they're going to dislike him, all in about three seconds of screen time.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to introductions in general (not just characters) Raising Arizona's first ten minutes are utterly perfect in introducing the major characters and the plot. The movie itself is pretty close to perfection, but there are one or two missteps. Everything up until the opening credits start, though, is flawless.

Daniel Ƙhrgaard said...

The most explicit character intro I can think of is from the Battlestar Galactica mini-series from 2003: A number six cylon walks straight into a room and asks the much baffled man there if he's alive. He says yes, and she asks him to prove it, and then she kisses him. Thoroughly. When the whole place starts exploding, but she just holds him in place and kisses him again. Next time we see her, Number Six is looking at a baby in a pram, and noticing odd things like "It's amazing that the neck can support so much weight", much to the bafflement of the baby's mother. When the mother looks away, Six reaches into the pram, you hear the baby wimper (off screen) and then a snap as Six breaks its neck. And then she just walks away unfazed, and the mother starts screaming O.S.

So in about two minutes of screen time for the character you know that she's: seductive and overtly sexual yet very strange, either she can't die or there are more of her (she blows up in her first scene along with the man she kisses), and she's EVIL (she kills a baby, for cryin out loud!)

Sure, it may be pretty heavy-handed, but you know all about number six right away.

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