Saturday, May 24, 2008

Three Mini-Indy Posts

In honor of the new Indiana Jones movie, here are three small posts concerning the airplane fight in "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

#1: The Plane Fight: Simplified Geography

If you take a look at how the "Flying Wing" airplane from the movie is laid out, it has a cockpit at the front of the plane (the part with the open canopy) and a turret at the rear of the plane with machine guns sticking out of it (sorry to sound so technical, but bear with me here). There appears to be a crawlspace connecting the two that's probably about twelve feet long.

Okay, so the pilot is standing in the cockpit during the fight, until he's knocked unconscious by Marion with the plane chocks (the things that hold the wheels in place until you're ready to takeoff). The part I want to talk about is a ways down, but I'll include every shot in this section, just for those who want to check out the staging and cutting.

So after she conks him on the head, he falls onto the plane controls and the plane starts to rotate in place.

She jumps into the cockpit to pull him off the controls, the cockpit closes shut, and then she sees a truck of German soldiers approaching so she abandons the effort to lift the unconscious pilot -

ducks out of frame-

there's a very brief wide shot of the whole tableau (very brief - like maybe 12 frames)

-and then she's in the rear turret, and begins to blast away at the German truck with a machine gun.

So here's the part that's interesting to me: there's no scene of her crawling through the tube that runs down the center line of the plane, traveling between the cockpit and the rear turret.

Now, later both she and Indy realize that there is gas flowing towards a fire nearby-

And he climbs on top of the plane to get her out. At first he tries to free her from the turret - that's the turret he's pulling on here, and the cockpit is on screen right. But the turret is stuck, it won't open, and the German mechanic interrupts Indy's efforts.

Indy is knocked to the ground and the fight continues there. Here you can see the empty cockpit behind them - she's still in the turret.

After the mechanic is finally dispatched, and the gas is reaching the fire, Indy reappears near the cockpit. If you look closely, you can tell that Marion is just finishing her crawl from the turret back to the cockpit.

Maybe everyone else is more observant than I am, but I actually had never noticed until recently that she even spends the sequence in two separate locations; in my defense I haven't watched the film that many times in my life, but I always thought that the cockpit was where the machine guns were located and I completely missed that she was moving between two different points during the sequence.

The reason I bring all of this up is to point out how much can be glossed over or under-explained in film. I know I said (two posts ago) that carefully presented geography is the key to making an action sequence work - and it is - but the unimportant parts of the geography can be left out in order to let the viewer focus on the parts that really are essential.

When board artists, writers and film makers are just starting out, they tend to over-explain everything and sometimes seem to feel that no single step in a process can ever be left out, lest the audience be confused or disoriented. This sequence is a good example of a piece of action that can easily be skipped and the audience doesn't miss it at all. I have to admit it, but I certainly would think, if I were boarding this sequence, that it would be necessary to include a cut away shot of her crawling through the middle section of the plane before she appears at the machine guns and begins firing away. But that's really just "shoe leather" (that's slang for unnecessary footage of characters moving from one spot to another) and doesn't have any entertainment value for the audience, so it's a smart choice to leave it out.

I wonder if Spielberg ever even shot coverage of that?

It's also worth pointing out how much more interesting the scene is because Marion is wearing a flimsy, feminine dress through all of the action - it's a great contrast to all of the "tough guy" stuff that she's doing all through this part and creates great visual interest. It's a great choice that might seems obvious at first glance, or like a throwaway idea, but it actually serves to lift the sequence up above what you've seen before or what you would expect to see.

#2 The Plane Fight: More Simplified Geography

Another good example of Simplified Geography, or maybe better known as "What you can leave out that you don't think you can". This is a really good example of something that has never bothered a viewer of a film, and yet, you would never ever get away with this if you were storyboarding in animation.

As the big mechanic notices Indy and gets into the fight...

Marion is crouched by the wheels of the plane, looking around, scanning for some way to help Indy out. her gaze falls on the chocks underneath the plane's wheels...

Cut back to the German mechanic convincing Indy to join him into a fight...

Then back to Marion, removing the chocks from beneath the wheels...

And then wide as Indy slides down and engages in battle with the mechanic.

Now this long shot with the mechanic is actually a shot that lasts a really long time. As you can see, it's long enough for Indy to try to trick him by pretending to see something, then he kicks the guy, then tries to punch him, misses, gets punched by the big guy and starts to fall on his rear end.

The interesting thing is that nowhere in the shot is Marion visible. We can clearly see all the wheels of the airplane in the shot, and we just saw her by the wheels, so she should be somewhere in the shot. And yet she's not, and the viewer isn't jarred or confused by that at all. The next time we see any indication of her is when the chocks hit the pilot in the back of the head (see part #1 above).

If that wide shot was a quicker shot, I could see a rationale for leaving Marion out, but in animation storyboarding, if you did that (in my experience) people would tell you that you can't do that. That you would need a shot in between Marion's medium shot single and the wide to cover the fact that she slips away out of the scope of the wide shot. And yet, this version here works fine - in fact, it seems like it would be distracting to have her in the wide shot, she would take away from the main action and add a layer of complexity that would take away from the humorous aspect of the wide shot, which works well as a humorous setup because it's staged so flat and wide.

#3 The Plane Fight: Introduction of the Big Guy
Okay, this one is really subtle and I don't know that I can even communicate what an impact this bit had (and continues to have) on me, but I'll try. I guess it kind of jumped out at me when I was first looking at movies and trying to figure out what makes them work, so it had a big impact on teaching me something and that's why I love this bit so much. But, in and of itself, it might not seem all that impressive.

Okay, while Indy is fighting with the mechanic who's holding the wrench, we cut away to a hut nearby and we are introduced to the big muscular mechanic who's going to pummel Indy for the next few minutes.

I like his introduction because it's really good at making him look huge in a subtle, unobtrusive way. It takes several innocuous elements and uses them all combined together to add up to the idea that this guy is big. And yet none of the elements stick out as unnatural or contrived.

First and foremost, it goes without saying that his whole intro is filmed in an upshot to make his look like he looms above the viewer.

When we first see him step out of the hut, he is stooped over to get through the doorway and fit under this awning. He sees Indy, takes a couple of steps forward and stands up straight once he clears the awning. The camera pans up to follow him as he straightens up.

The camera follows him around as he walks forward to end on a shot of him (huge) in the foreground looking off towards the fight in the distance, which, being so far away, makes both the figures and the airplane look rather small compared to the big guy.

Now, again, its not a spectacular bit of film making on its own, I know, but what struck me about it was how many ideas were combined to make him look big, and yet how subtle they all were, and none of them called undue attention to themselves; they all feel natural and flow together so well that nobody would really notice them unless they are looking for them.

So many times in story boarding, I feel like I have a tendency (as do a lot of people, I've noticed) to over-think and over-explain things, to the point that you're belaboring the point. It's a real gift to have a subtle touch and be able to put things over without the audience being aware of the tricks you're pulling on them, but it's vital, because once they realize you're pulling tricks on them, the tricks lose all of their effectiveness.

In particular, the subtle pan up with him as he straightens up really left an impression on me, and, frankly, I use that all the time. Whenever I'm trying to show that something is big, I tend to use all the tools I can, but I include a subtle pan up a lot of the time. Also, if a character is looking down a deep hole, for example, I'll have a little bit of a camera drift down, or a push in, to make the hole feel deeper. I'll always try to use the camera movement to emphasize what I'm trying to say, and it all comes from noticing what Spielberg did with this particular section.

One more interesting thing to talk about concerning the whole sequence of trying to get onto the airplane is that the whole sequence breaks a kind of cardinal rule in film making: the whole sequence doesn't really have any effect on the progression of the overall story.

It's a good rule of thumb that something should always be different by the end of each sequence; that is, as a result of the sequence our hero should be closer to or further away from his or her goal. If things are the same at the end of the sequence as at the beginning, then the sequence is static and doesn't progress the story and should probably be taken out of the movie.

At the end of the airplane sequence, I can't say that Indy and Marion are any closer to their goal (of obtaining the Ark) or further away from it. In the next beat they are back at square one and Indy now has to try and commandeer the truck that is going to be used to transport the Ark.

And yet somehow the sequence works; it doesn't feel static or like a waste of time.

One more thing - take a moment to admire the frames of film here and note how simple the shots are. A great action sequence doesn't have to be made up of overly dramatic angles that ooze with dynamic angles and poses. A great action sequence can be made from simple, clear shots that tell an entertaining and dramatic story through the arrangement and timing of shots. Also take a look at how great the compositions in all of these shots are. Simple shots that have elements arranged well to create great breakups of space always work really well.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

Great post!

Speaking of geography, one of the things I've always noticed earlier in the film is during the scene in Marion's tavern in Nepal, when Toht & his henchmen arrive, she starts the scene talking with him--"How about a drink for you & your men" in one angle of the bar, but in the next shot when he goes to the fireplace--"Your fire is dying here. Why don't you tell us where the piece is right now"--she's moved to a similar, but different location along the length of the bar. It's a better location for the action that follows, & it's not a jarring change of location, but it's definitely there. Check it out!

Justin Barrett said...

Regarding whether or not the end of the sequence has Indy and Marion either closer to or farther from their goal, I feel it most definitely places them closer to their goal.
Even though destroying the plane wasn't part of their plan, it still means that there is one less obstacle between them and the ark; i.e. one less way that the bad guys can transport the ark to its next location.

Anonymous said...

I'v seen Raiders dozens of times and I've never noticed that Marion moves between the cockpit and the turret.

Heh- that'll give me a reason to watch it if I need a reason.


Anonymous said...

Great Post Mark,

I have one question though, I'm not sure I understand really the whole Staging part of Storyboarding. What exactly is staging? How can you tell good staging from bad?

Floyd Norman said...

Great thoughts, Mark.

I've often tried to point out how deceptively simple Disney storyboards were when I first arrived at the studio.

Years later, when I returned to Feature Animation in the nineties, I noticed how much "clutter" there was in boarding. Too much "showboating" and not enough story telling.

David Cousens said...

Nice post Mark. I always find your insights on things like this a very interesting read.

scott said...


great insights on continuity!

Yes, we try to justify too much. Right on, Floyd!

If you like that , go look at the poolroom sequence in Pinnochio and see how things move around (inside a round building!)

tomnel said...

Great observations! For some reason I got the feeling that there was moving between the cockpit and turret but now that you point it out its surprising that it was never shown. Also interesting to me are shots R47 and R48 there is a big "crossing the line" jump cut but I never noticed it. amazing what we can get away with.

Jenny Lerew said...

Jeez, this is a great post. Barry wrote exactly what I was going to, so I'll just second that-never noticed either.

This film is just chock full of ingenious shortcuts that not only streamline but enhance the action...I wonder how much was Steven and how much was the editor(was it Kahn?)? I mean, it doesn't matter, really, because obviously the editing was a close collaboration. I just wonder how these things come about. In the case of the cockpit/turret it's got to be a plan, but isn't it nuts how often key things turn out to be happy "accidents"-or desperate improvisation? Talk about finesse.
And It's neat to point out the importance of the drift and the push in/pan up to give a subtle something extra to the setup, too.

I'm delighted that you can draw so much out of this one film-makes me want more! You could do an entire semester on this one title.
(btw-"talking" Indy arrived the other day; he's a biter! Real teeth? Scary!)

jodi said...

wow, I love this post. Yeah--in writing, it's simply assumed (or it should be) that a cut away means something else is going on while you have your focus elsewhere. I think watching Marion crawl from the cockpit to the turret would have been overkill. It works because they assume the audience is intelligent enough to connect the dots.

Have you formed any new opinions about the Crystal Skull?

Vince Gorman said...

Great post. I've got to echo Jodi. I saw the Crystal Skull and lets just say I was disappointed. While I feel it in my gut, I have a tough time describing why a scene or movie doesn't work. You're particularly skilled in that and I look forward to your thoughts.

Beast said...

Good points.
As for your point about marion in the background. I always find it distracting in animated films when background characters move around too much.
The plane sequence is an obstacle. And seems more about balancing the film with failure and success than forward or backward progresssion.
If everything went right for indy the film wouldn't feel real.

Stejahen said...

Hey, always enjoy for posts and find them very helpful. Have you considered doing an audio podcast? I don't know of any specifically on drawing.

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for all of the nice comments!

anonymous -Cool, I will check it out, thanks!

Justin - what I am saying is that the sequence doesn't affect the final outcome of the movie, i.e. if it were completely removed from the movie, the audience would not be confused or miss it at all. There is no "value" changed by the sequence: the Nazis are in possession of the Ark at the beginning of the sequence as well as at the end. It adds a lot from the perspective of pacing but I tend to disagree that it's necessary to explain which avenues the Nazis have to remove the Ark and show how those avenues become closed to them. Would we also need to see Indy destroying a Nazi train? A Nazi boat? Anyway, the point is that all I am saying is that it's interesting that the sequence breaks a very basic film rule and yet it doesn;t hamper the film in any way.

barry - good! I'm glad I'm not the only one who didn't notice that before....I thought I was being kind of a dummy.

anonymous - I would define staging as basically where the camera is placed. Good staging is using the best angle to show everything clearly and to tell the story. Bad staging is when it makes the story point confusing (rather than clear) or imparts a meaning to the audience that is not what the film maker meant to express.

Floyd - yeah, absolutely simplicity is the best way to approach boarding but you don't see much of it anymore.

david - cool, thanks for letting me know...more to come.

tomnel - true, you can get away with a lot more than people seem to think. It all depends on how you do it.

jenny- yeah, I could fill a whole blog on just "Raiders" stuff, I swear. I gotta see creepy talking Indy...bring him in!!!

jodi - um, yeah, I have....I wasn't going to say much about it on the blog, though...I actually enjoyed it okay because I didn't expect anything out of it. I really don't like "Doom" or "Crusade" much so I put "Skull" in the same category...none of them can hold a candle to the first one, IMHO, maybe someday I'll explain why. Anyway if anyone can explain what was happening at the end of "Skull" to me I'll give them a hundred bucks.

vince- thanks for the kind words, I know exactly what you mean because I feel the same way - you feel it in your gut but can't articulate it. I started blogging, in part, to force myself to find ways to put things into words that I couldn't articulate. You should do that too - it helps you develop your sense of what is working for you and what isn't.

beast - I agree with your first point. As for the progression aspect, I still say that the plane sequence isn't really a progression forward or backwards...Indy is no better off or worse off at the end than at the beginning, and actually the Nazis are a bit worse off, if anything.

stejahen - thanks for the kind words but nobody wants to listen to me voice unless they have to, that's for sure. Unless you're planning a drinking game around how many times I say "um", "er" and "uh", there's not really any reason to do a podcast. Plus I tend to think that I need visuals to put all this stuff over...
thanks for the thought, though, it's very flattering.

mcnooj82 said...

Funny thing about action scenes that don't forward the plot...

I recently watched the Critic Commentary on The Matrix Reloaded again and they made the same comment. In this case it was meant to be one of their many criticisms against the film.

To a large degree, this is a good principle to hold to. But you certainly can't argue with the results in Raiders. You're already engaged with the characters and engaged with the plot. It speaks highly of the whole sequence that it feels right.

The plane sequence works as its own short film, much the same way as the opening sequence of the film does.

I'd say that the reason the freeway action sequence in The Matrix Reloaded deserved some of the scorn (even though it was very cool) was because what came before and after it was so very disconnected to it. Once the freeway chase ends, the movie just kinda STOPS. Raiders just keeps on going at a great pace.

Another interesting note about the plane sequence. A few years ago, I got to see the Raiders of the Lost Ark remake that those kids made over the span of 6 years or so. It was as shot-for-shot as they could make it and it was an absolute hoot to watch. I did notice however, that the plane sequence was omitted. But it wasn't a big deal. There was an action sequence right after it and there was nothing detrimental to the plot. I assume they just didn't have the resources to stage a sequence next to a running propeller with exploding trucks.

But I wonder if they knew it wasn't necessary...

Anonymous said...

Here's a late comment but I was watching a piece of an old Raiders 'making of' online after reading this post and -- you've probably seen this but -- I just had to post it.

At about 3:40 in the clip, you see the designer, Norman Reynolds, going over the Tunisian Village set with Spielberg, and it's so great -- Spielberg combines two scenes from the script into one location to simplify and to save the crew move and Reynolds gets a little itchy:

Reynolds - ...don't you think it's a little CONVENIENT to have it all happen in one place?

Spielberg - Well you see what it does is it gives us a geography...and I think that makes an audience a little more secure with a story...

Mitch K said...

This was a really great analysis! Thanks so much for sharing! :D

Laaz said...

Great post, thanks. I'm a huge fan of RAIDERS and I work in the biz, so it's had a huge impact on my life and career.

I will disagree with you one one point, that the scene does nto advance the story. It does, I believe, do that.

It does one crucial thing... it let's Beloq know that, once again, his nemesis has beaten him. He doesn't have the Ark... he hasn't won the war, but he's won another huge battle.

What's the last shot of the sequence? It's not Indy and Marion running away from the plane... it's Beloq, in a tight shot, slapping his hat on his thigh and cursing... "Jones!"

It's such a clever way of pulling that off.

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intergalactic said...

Just rummaging through your blog and reading up on some stuff that I had wanted to get back to...thank you for the posts, a wealth of knowledge!


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