Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Recommended Podcast

I sometimes listen to the podcasts done by Jeff Goldsmith, senior editor for "Creative Screenwriting" magazine. Recently he interviewed Michael Ardnt, who is the writer of "Little Miss Sunshine"and I highly recommend downloading the podcast. You can find it in itunes by searching in podcasts for "creative screenwriting".

You'll get more out of it if you've seen the movie, but even if you haven't there is some great stuff about general moviemaking and character development. Warning: there are spoilers involved so if you haven't seen "Little Miss Sunshine" yet you might want to wait until it comes out on DVD and see the movie before listening to the podcast.

The beef I have with most screenwriting resources in general is that they usually concern things that aren't related to story, stuff which is probably fascinating to writers trying to break into the business but kind of irrelevant to those of us who are only concerned with the workings of story. Usually screenwriting interviews focus on topics like how to get an agent or how to get your script in the hands of an "A" list actor.

The interesting thing about the Michael Ardnt interview is that Jeff asked a lot of those kind of questions but somehow Michael seemed to answer each one and at the same time he managed to work in tidbits about story structure and character development along the way. I listened to the podcast while I was driving to work and I found myself constantly pausing the interview to write down notes on what Michael had to say. I still have a few minutes of it I haven't listened to yet so if you see me on the freeway tomorrow morning you might want to give me a wide berth.

Anyway the best part about the whole thing is that it's totally free so go check it out! Isn't the internet cool???

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Good Commentary Alert!

I don't know how many of you actually listen to the commentaries on DVDs but if you do you know that most of them are pretty uninformative. Directors don't seem to talk much about the things I find interesting - like storytelling, staging, editing, acting, etc. - and they all seem to fall into talking about things that I don't really have any interest in hearing about. They usually talk about stuff like which scenes were shot on location and which were shot on a soundstage, how hard it was to get the movie made or how they were able to persuade a particular actor to be in the movie.

Maybe I'm in the minority here and the public is actually interested in hearing about stuff like that. But all filmmakers - even bad ones - are always thinking about story and how to put the movie together while they are working on their films so I wish they would discuss it and give us all the chance to learn from their experiences. Maybe by the time the film is done they are just sick and tired of talking about it. Or maybe they don't want to share their secrets with the rest of us!

In any case I make it my duty to let you know whenever I stumble across a good commentary. So this last week I listened to both commentaries on the "Miramax Collector's Series" edition of the"Swingers" DVD and I enjoyed them very much!

The first commentary is by Doug Liman (the director) and his editor. There are some good little sections where they discuss the editing and storyline of the movie that are pretty interesting. Doug talks about some scenes that were changed in the script and why they didn't work and how they fixed them. That's always great to hear. There are some sections where they discuss the locations where stuff was shot and how they managed to pull off making the film with no budget and stuff that is probably interesting to guerilla filmmakers. I have no interest in that kind of stuff but some people might, and like I say, there's enough interesting stuff to make it worth listening to.

The second commentary track is by Jon Favreau (who not only acted in the movie but wrote the script as well) and Vince Vaughn. I found this track to be really interesting and informative. Usually when actors do a commentary track they don't have much of interest to say but Jon and Vince are really articulate and really have a lot of great stuff to say. They really know why every scene is in the movie and they talk about what makes the movie work and why their characters do what they do. One of the things Jon said that really struck me was that since he was writing a movie about friends he "wrote scenes where they were always fucking with each other, because that's what friends do. You don't really mess with someone unless you know them and like them".

Another good feature on the disc is some deleted scenes. There is an alternate scene for the ending that Doug refers to in his commentary and he says "It just didn't work that way so we used this version". It's really great to compare the deleted scene with the one in the movie because you see right off the bat why the final one is superior. The deleted one was just wrong in tone and the staging really hurt it. It's always great to be able to compare and contrast scenes that way.

Anyway I don't want to oversell the DVD but, to me, thecommentaries were far superior to the usual DVD fare. The worst one I ever listened to was "The Score" - Frank Oz and his cinematographer talked about what kind of lights they used to light each scene. I'm sure this is interesting to budding cinematographers but it drove me insane because that's not my area of interest.

Now take all of this with a grain of salt. Personally, I really like "Swingers". To me it's a really smart movie and unlike anything else I've ever seen. And every time I watch it I see a new layer. But that's just me and it's definitely not everyone's cup of tea. It's a small indie film and it's not "Lawrence of Arabia". Doug Liman is one of my favorite directors (am I the only one that thinks "Go" is a work of genuis?). Anyway, I always hate to recommend something that people might not enjoy as much as I did, but for $10.99 from Amazon I think this disc is definitely worth buying. Or add it to your Amazon wish list and someone will get it for you for Christmas. Or add it to your Netflix queue. Hopefully you'll enjoy it as much as I did!

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!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Rhythmic Composition

In these pages from the "Famous Artists Course", Robert Fawcett talks about creating a rhythm within a composition.

Over on the ASIFA blog, there are some other great FAC pages on basic composition. Also John K has posted some recent stuff on composition that's defintiely worth checking out, if you haven't seen it yet!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Things They Don't Teach in Art School #5

The other way to organize your figures is to make one side of the figure squash and the other side stretch.

Walt Stanchfiled talks a lot about this in his notes. Check out all the ones posted on Animation Meat for great information on stuff about drawing.

For those of you unfamiliar with animation terms, squash and stretch are usually used to describe how forms are affected by force. When a figure runs fast, it s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s out, and when a figure gets hit on the head by a safe it squashes down.

Squash and stretch is a part of all animation and not just in extreme actions. Squash and stretch are essential to the subtler aspects of animating as well. Squash and stretch are integral to changing a character's expression, which is the key to the "Illusion of Life" - the conceit that an animated character is a living, thinking being. The subtle change from eyebrows slightly lowered to eyebrows a little bit higher (from a squash to a stretch) can make the viewer believe that a character is having a realization and convince an audience that the character is real.

Anyway, this post is about a different use of squash and stretch. Just as we were talking about in the previous post, this is a helpful tool in terms of avoiding symmetry. Make one side of the figure squash and the other side stretch.

This is true to real life too. The way our muscles and tendons work make our limbs look this way. And when you bend over to touch your toes, you can feel the stretch that goes from your heel up your leg across your back and up to your head. And you can feel your stomach squash.

It’s a helpful way of organizing your drawing and emphasizing the forces that are happening.

Don't forget that it applies to clothing as well. Clothes are always a reflection of what the body is doing.

Most drawings have sides that alternate between squashes and stretches. As the body leans and tilts this way and that, It will lend itself to a rhythmic series of squashes and stretches on alternating sides.

Walt Stanchfield pointed out that this even applies to hair. The hair of the figure should squash on the same side that the figure squashes and stretch on the same side too. Otherwise the drawing can look disorganized or the ideas can cancel each other out.

This Alice model sheet is full of some good examples. Some are pretty subtle. I've highlighted the two most clear examples. Obviously, you can put all the hair on one side or the other as well.

I wish I had more examples to go with these last two posts, but it's very time consuming to hunt through all of my books and scan stuff for posting. Maybe I'll dedicate a post to just artwork that shows these two concepts at work sometime.

*A caveat to these last two posts:
keep in mind that these last two concepts deal with drawing on a graphic level. These methods run the risks of making you think of your drawings as just lines, which can be very limiting. Every great artist learns to portray forms in space and think three-dimensionally before attempting to draw on a purely graphic level. Picasso, Mary Blair, all the great artists who pioneered the flat UPA style - all of them learned to draw in the traditional way before transitioning into a more stylized and flat style. So keep these last two things in mind while you draw but also always think of your drawings as forms in space as well.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Things They Don't Teach In Art School #4

As we've discussed before, when you are trying to create good art symmetry is not usually your friend. Symmetry flattens things out and makes them uninteresting. Contrast is desireable for visual interest and symmetry is the opposite of contrast.

Again, why symmetry is bad:

Okay so we don't want both sides of a figure to be symmetrical. We need to find variety in our poses so that each side is different. I know of a couple of simple tricks to help you do this.

I found this model sheet on the ASIFA Archive Blog. Cool, huh?

And it has some examples of a cool trick I like. You make one side of the drawing the gesture, and make the other side the structure. In this one, the spine forms a nice simple curve while the belly sticks out, showing you the form of the shirt and pants:

Be aware that it switches back and forth from side to side in most drawings (like it does in both of these bird poses). Below, see how the spine is a simple straight and the belly shows the structure, then in the head it switches: The underside of the beak is the gesture line and the top of the head is the structure side:

One side of the figure is a simple line. It's the line of action, it contains the gesture and the force of the pose (usually it's the side with the spine). The other side is a more complex line and it contains the other stuff that makes the drawing look like it has volume: it has all the anatomy, the breaks in the clothes, etc.

This also creates a cool visual contrast: there's a simple side and a complex side. That creates a contrast that's pleasing to the eye.

A figure with two simple sides looks too plain and uninteresting.

A figure with two complex sides lacks force and has an unclear gesture.

Okay I will tell you the other trick soon (maybe most of you already guessed it). In the meantime look for more examples of this trick on your own!