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.