Sunday, January 18, 2009

Flat is Funny, Depth is Dramatic

More material from a recent talk I gave at Disney: this is a bit of basic staging and storyboarding knowledge that people tend to disregard and ignore. It's one of those things that seem so simple and obvious that it seems almost unimportant but it makes a big, big difference!

Okay, here it is: when you're staging and/or storyboarding a dramatic scene (meaning an action scene, a mysterious scene, a scene of tension, an emotional acting type scene, etc.), it will always work better if you follow these rules: 1) create depth within your staging, 2) place the "camera" in such a way as to avoid symmetry and to create diagonals within the frame, avoiding straight lines within the composition completely, and 3) whenever possible, use a darker and more limited palette without a lot of bright colors.

These are from "3:10 to Yuma" and they are a great example of how to create depth and diagonals, however they are very bright in color and tone. Unfortunately I don't have any from a good action film with a limited palette. a good example would be "Aliens", the James Cameron film, which uses a very limited palette and has a lot of great action scenes.

Look at how the camera is placed to create dynamic angles within the frame. Many times when filming an action scene or other kind of dramatic scene a director will tilt the camera a bit to the side to eliminate any horizontals and turn them all into diagonals which are much more dynamic.

These ones from "Touch of Evil" are a good example of how a darker, more limited palette and frames with a lot of depth can help create more of a somber and/or dramatic mood.

This Bill Peet drawing is a good example of how a somber mood can be created by the way tone is used. The staging here isn't necessarily that dramatic - it's staged pretty flatly - but the dark tones give a real sense of a somber scene. You could take this same scene and color it brightly and it would have a totally different feel.

The second part of the rules go like this: when you're staging and/or storyboarding a comedic scene, the opposite applies: 1) look for ways to create movement that is either parallel or perpendicular to the camera, 2) look for ways to create flat staging, including symmetry, and remove as much depth as possible from the frame, and 3) use a bright palette of colors.

These screengrabs are from Steven MacLeod's awesome blog FRAMEFILTER, which is full of great screengrabs from a wide variety of films.

Look at how flat all the staging is. With these characters, their movement is all either moving straight away from the camera or moving parallel to where the camera is placed. For whatever reason, creating a sense of flattened space cues us that something is funny and greatly enhances the feeling whenever you are trying to present a comedic idea. Also bright colors seem to cue us that something is funny while muted and darker hues seem to tell us that something is serious and dramatic.

I'm not really sure why these rules work, and maybe it's so obvious already to everyone that you may wonder why the heck I bother bringing it up. A lot of what I talk about seems so simple that I guess it can seem pointless to talk about, but this concept can really make the difference between whether a sequence works or not.

I've seen it countless times in other's work and my own: when you board an action scene (or any other dramatic type of scene) and make the mistake of drawing flat staging, it always ends up detracting from the feeling that you are working hard to convey. And I've seen people who draw really, really well do a humorous scene and somehow it has so much depth in it that it's not as funny as it would be if it was flattened out. When I catch myself making these same choices that detract from the scene, time and time again it always helps when I go back and follow these "rules" more vigorously.

Also distance can play an important part in both of these types of sequences. When you put the camera far back enough, even the most extreme action can become humorous. Even watching someone get hit by a rocket from a bazooka and fly through the air could be humorous from far, far back, whereas seeing that happen up close could be handled humorously or dramatically, depending on the way it was handled.

On the other hand, putting the camera far back from the action when a scene is supposed to be dramatic can really hurt the tone of the scene because being far back from something has the (obvious) effect of making you look at it in an uninvolved, dispassionate way. Just like close-ups make us feel connected to actors in a movie seeing them from far away can make us feel separated from them and make the audience conscious of the fact that they're detached observers. So use that knowledge to put your camera where it will have the desired effect. Always be aware of where you are placing the camera, and why. Don't just place it wherever it feels right; where you put the camera (and where that puts the audience) has a lot of meaning and can help you get the emotional response you want the audience to have, or it can totally undermine what you are trying to do.

One last set of examples: without reading the dialogue here or even knowing what the situation is, just by glancing at these two you get an immediate feeling of drama from one and a feeling of comedy from the other.


Adam said...

I've gotta say, I love your blog, but this is some strange advice that is so easily refuted. There are countless examples of how the opposite can be true on both lessons. Let's use Billy Wilder for both: in the Apartment, depth is use to great humorous effect. In the Lost Weekend, he uses flat shots to heighten tension and drama(think of the scene where he tosses the umbrella).
If these are "rules", they exist to be broken.

David Cousens said...

That's a really interesting post Mark. I'm going to look out for that in the future.


Kaj-Man said...

Here's my conclusion. I'm guessing these rules are parallel to our perception of world and life. With it's complicity and relativity world is more scary than funny. To make it funny we eliminate all the complex stuff and emphasize only the funny stuff which in a way is flat and simple.

Eva Kristjáns said...

I read your blog but have never commented. I must do so now because this is something I had never heard of before, but now hearing it, it makes so much sense! Being an art student who wants to work in pre-production, this is information that's going to be very useful.

I thank you for the time you put into this blog, because every time you post it's something that makes me think and conscious of what I draw :)

Jason Fittipaldi said...

Great, insightful post Mark! I've just recently discovered your blog and enjoy your posts. Please keep it up! :)

Dan said...

Hey Mark,

I'm reminded of the big fight scene in Kill Bill Volume 1. I think Tarantino said he chose to go to BW for the fight scene for artistic reasons. He also didn't want any gore to distract from watching and enjoying the sequence for what it is, a beautifully shot, and choreographed fight scene. I'd be interested in your comments or a post on this subject.


innisart said...

Great information, Mark. I think it is something that I haven't thought about much before, but it could explain why my attempts at realist paintings always look cartoonish. I was raised on the Sunday comics, like Hägar the Horrible, and I've transferred that familiarity of flatness to all of my adult work (I like to blame Asian art as an influence, but I know it was really Peanuts!).

I'll be back for my fishing license tomorrow.


FerGil said...

It might have been obvious for other people, but for me it was a small gold nugget, this post was. Thanks!!

o.n. said...

Thank you, this is excellent food for thought.

Alonso said...

really interesting post. do you have any book recommendations where I could learn all of these "rules" that everyone knows? Cuz I'm coming in without training so I don't know them. Thanks for the great blog!

Jeremy Elder said...

I think that those are some great guidelines. Also, Bullitt is a good example of action and a limited palate. They took out all of the red in the movie except blood.

Rosenbaum said...

Great post Mark, very insightful. Thanks!

Jonathan said...

This is such a great blog. I always leave with something to think about or having learned something special. So many great posts, well explained and illustrated, too.



Jean-Denis Haas said...

That's an awesome post. Just yesterday I watched "Apaloosa" and the comedy moments were staged flat and I only noticed after this post. :)

Bill Burg said...

Thanks for this great post, Mark. I was reminded of an example in Will Eisner's book on Comics & Sequential Art. I may misrembember the details here, but he took a simple scene--a man walking for three panels and finally blasting off with a rocket pack-- and staged it two different ways. The first was full of dramatic angles, the second flat to the camera. The sense of surprise and humor was lost in the version with dramatic angles. I always imagined that flat staging for comedy was kind of like telling a joke with a straight face: the "deadpan" camera makes the joke funnier.

Anonymous said...

Correction: flat CAN BE funny. depth CAN BE dramatic. These are not hard and fast by any means.

Sunny Kharbanda said...

Thanks for the reminders, Mark. This is one of those obvious things that we tend to forget or overlook, maybe because it's right under our noses.

I read somewhere that Brad Bird made the "Simpsons" team draw inspiration from sources such as Hitchcock and Kubrick, in addition to cartoons. He was obviously trying to make the show stand out from other 'toons of its time. In its heyday, the show had a successful mix of flat and deep staging, changing styles based on the story mood. For their brand of dark humor, it seemed to work.

Brad said...

You should check out
Bruce Blocks "The Visual S troy".
A contrast of flat and deep space is used a lot in the Incredibles. Watch the scene at the office where Bob works and throws his boss through the window.

Nice post.

mcnooj82 said...

Thank you for introducing me to this fantastic screencap blog!

Mr. Softie said...

it's hilarious that brad already mentioned bruce block. I was just going to chime in with bruce's comments on how you as the filmmaker determine the subjective value of elements like flat vs. deep space. and then you begin to mix those elements to better sell the emotional impact of your story. contrasting them at emotional turning points. etc.

mark I'm a longtime fan of your blog and your genius. but I think this post is a bit general. not to mention, most of your comedy examples are all modern comedies following the trend of proscenium staging. buster keaton did massive amounts of comedy in deep space.

perhaps part of the flat space comedy argument could be attributed to comedic moments tending to work better when you can see all of the actions/reactions of the characters involved. (moe slaps curly, whose recoil bumps larry -- you would hate to have to edit that out of three singles.)

anyhow, I love this blog and the thoughtfulness it engenders. looking forward to reading more.

Chris Staudt said...

This topic brings theater to my mind. I've seen directors go for dim, moody lighting for the dramatic scenes and much brighter lighting (which brings out colors too) for the lighter moments. The staging, too, can use varied distance from the audience versus everybody lined up. Tools of the trade in any visual medium.


maya said...

Great stuff- thank you so much for sharing!

Joanna said...

I'm glad you pointed out the obvious, it's something I never noticed.
And I'm gonna guess that flat staging works for comedy partially due to its inherent artificiality. Because it feels staged and because the camera doesn't create empathy it doesn't feel wrong to laugh at slapstick, and wacky antics don't feel awkwardly juxtaposed with a realistic world. I think that artificial on artificial layering is also why animation is such a successful medium for musicals.

Constructed Reality said...

quite a valuable piece of information i must say. i think that flatness adds to the comedy as it makes it simple to be read by the audience.
On the other hand depth is something which makes a shot difficult to understand i.e. becoz of the amount of space the eyes need to travel to capture the entire essence of the scene. thereby making the audience always a tad bit nervous and adding to the serious tone of the story.

Jeremy Canton said...

Fantastic post, Mark

Captain Jack! said...

Hi Sir,
my name is Nugros, me is a young film director from Indonesia.. I just want to say thanks for your this great blog. I learn much from here.. THANKS!