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.