Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Basic Staging Principles (part 1)

I gave a talk at work the other day about staging. It seems like I always end up giving talks about staging and yet I find it's always a hard thing to talk about. I've never heard anyone else give a talk about staging so I have nothing to compare my talks to. I'm constantly re-writing my talks based on how confused the listeners look at each point of my talk, to try and find the right information and the best way to explain it.

I think one thing that was successful this time around was the following handout on really basic staging principles. This stuff seems so basic that I know people tend to glance it over and then toss it aside, thinking that it's so simple and obvious that it's not worth thinking about. All this stuff is simple and obvious but that's what makes it so effective. It's visual storytelling stuff so the audience feels it in their gut instead of in their head and it can really make a sequence or composition work much better when you use it right (or it can undercut the effectiveness of a scene if you use it incorrectly).

For example, there was a sequence at work recently where people kept saying that the villain in the movie wasn't working in a particular sequence and that the villain just didn't feel menacing or powerful in this one area of the film. Ideas were kicked around about re-writing the scene and totally re-conceiving it. But in the end, as I suspected, moving the villain up high in the scene and moving the other characters in the sequence down low made all the difference and fixed all of the problems.

So, as everybody knows, staging a character (or building, or vehicle, or anything else) in an upshot will tend to make them look big and powerful. Characters like Darth Vader are usually shown in upshots to make them look menacing and larger-than-life.

In "Touch of Evil", the camera frequently shoots Orson Welles from below to make him look not only threatening and powerful (which he is) but also to emphasize his obesity which is a symbol of his inner corruption (in my interpretation, anyway).

Downshots, of course, are the opposite and make the viewer feel like he's looking down on the subject. Figures seen in downshots feel smaller, weaker, and more powerless, so usually we reserve them for characters that are in that position within the story.

A nice interchange of upshot to downshot that illustrates the powerful/powerless principle.

The higher a character is in the frame, the more powerful they tend to feel. And the lower in frame that they are, the more powerless they tend to feel.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but this one can be really useful in making the audience feel a dynamic between two characters that goes beyond their words and acting. It can help the visuals tell the story in a visceral way.

Here are a few more variations on the powerful/powerless motif. It's always good to keep this stuff in mind because you're making a statement about your characters when you place them within your composition. So be careful that what you're saying by their placement isn't fighting what the story is trying to do.

When you're drawing closeups, here's a trick to always be aware of: if a character is turned so that they're almost placed on the same axis as the camera they will look as if they're almost looking into the camera and the audience will feel as though they are looking into the character's eyes. This can help the audience feel very connected to (and intimate towards) your character. They will identify with and like your character more.

On the other hand, the further you turn the figure away from the camera (and more towards a profile) the less connection the audience will feel with the character, because it feel less like making eye contact with them.

So be careful how you draw your characters...don't always have them staring just past camera in closeups, only do that for the right occasions. For example, don't have them staring right past us when they're angry...that would feel weird and could make the audience feel like the character is mad at them, distancing them from your hero. And don't have the villain ever staring too closely to our eyeline...we might feel too much sympathy towards them (unless that's your intention).

Speaking of Closeups, here comes an old man rant...

I think films today (in general) use way too many closeups (and so do board artists)! My impression is that older films (both live-action and animation) used a lot less closeups than they do today. Closeups are a powerful statement and are great for emotional and dramatic scenes where a lot of subtle and/or powerful action is required. But because they are so powerful, I tend to hold back on them until the emotional climax of a scene so the scene can build to a rush of emotion. If an emotional scene is all closeups from beginning to end you can't really build (the actor's intensity and emotions can on their face, but the staging soon becomes repetitive and boring).

Closeups are easy to draw and don't require much imagination or layout skills to create, so I can see why people fall back in them.

So....what kind of situations are closeups good for?

Like I said, they're great for intimate emotional moments, and for subtle shifts in emotions or subtle acting changes that couldn't be seen in a wider shot.

Also they are good for showing the audience small objects or other things of interest that are too small to be seen well in a wider shot, or that the film maker wants to give special emphasis to.

Medium shots are the most common type of shot. They are good for lots of things! Like action scenes - they allow you to see the character's faces as well as the action clearly. Action staged in shots that are too wide aren't nearly as exciting and you can't see the character's face as well.

Also they are good for all types of scenes that aren't intimate, dramatic or emotional enough to warrant a closeup.

Medium shots are great because they contain enough of the background to keep the environment alive and interesting, while allowing the viewer to see the character's facial expressions as well as body language. Sometimes people seem to think that a series of closeups of character's faces will be the most effective way to board a romantic love scene between two characters, when in fact medium shots can be better at putting the scene over if, for example, the two are sitting in a romantic and beautiful setting. Sometimes seeing the background and taking advantage of the lighting and color can really help put the emotions over better than the character's expressions.

Wide shots are good for establishing a location the first time you see it.

Also they are good for imparting things like scale and grandeur to the audience.

A word about wide shots: it's really easy for board artists to fall into the habit of starting every sequence with a wide shot before cutting in closer to the characters as the scene progresses. This give the audience the feeling of "sequence-itis" as they get used to the pattern of cutting wide before each sequence and they begin to feel the beginning and end of each sequence. Look at live action movies and see how they get around this problem: interesting transitions and techniques like cutting close to an interesting object before cutting wide can be a lot more interesting. Also keep in mind that wide shots can "let the steam" out of a sequence by jumping back too far from the action and the characters....use them carefully.

Staging is a very personal and subjective area and everyone has a different sense of what works. Work carefully to find the best solution for each scene. The best staging both tells the story in a visual impactful way and expresses the emotions of the characters in a powerful way to the audience.

More to come....


The Ivanator said...

awesome post. bookmarked it and put it in my pocket.

What you said: "My impression is that older films (both live-action and animation) used a lot less closeups than they do today."

What I think: most animation I've seen is they're taking full range of the body language expression more than facial expression, which lends itself having more of wider shots. Which lots of time can be "showy" or theatrical performance-like. I think with CU it's a "quicker way" of getting inside what the character is thinking. I haven't seen much of subtle acting or movement in wider shots as far as animation goes, which live-action does best obviously with all the actor's acting nuance that comes with it.

What do you say?

Stephen Thompson said...

Agreed, definitely a post I think I'll be coming back to again and again. Feels like I've been handed another tool for the toolbox. Or a Swiss army knife even.

James said...

Great post. It's always good to get refreshed on the fundamentals, and you break it down so well.

Willem Wynand said...

=) you did i great job, i feel i got that =), i'm actually excited to try make a film and actually take more care with staging now =). thanx mate

allen mez said...

No matter what the medium it really is all about visual storytelling. Thanks for breaking it down man.

Kendra Melton said...

wonderful examples :] thanks so much for sharing.

SKS said...

I didn't realize the amount of closeups in films today until you mentioned it, but now I remember any time I watched some older movies I would go "Why are we so far away all the time?" But when there is a closeup it really is much more dramatic. I'm one of those artists who falls into the category of using closeups because they're easy and I like drawing faces and expressions, but I'm trying to get away from that. This post really hits that home too.

Also I don't think I've ever posted on your blog before but I wanted to say I love it and all the information it offers. Thank you so much!

pako bagur said...

Great post!

Thanks for keeping sharing your knowledge.


Will J said...

This post is really helpful, Mark! It's good to keep the basics close to heart. : )

intergalactic said...

Hi Mark,

Great blog, great post, great break down of ideas and how they work...left me wanting more!


Jesse Hamm said...

Another solid post!

Your discussion of Christina's World inspired me to tweak the painting and see what effect it would have if Christina were bigger and higher than the farmhouse. Here's the result.

I also switched the house over to the left, to suggest that she's blocking it. Now she seems to dominate the scene! A fun exercise.

Greg said...

This was a great read, thanks for posting it! Great examples too. Looking forward what you have planned for part 2.

E. Will said...

Awesome post as always. I am definitely guilty of using the same type of wide establishing shot at the beginning of each sequence...I definitely need to put more thought into my sequence transitions.

Stephen Eusebio said...

Thank you. Plain and simple.


Crossover said...

Thanks alot! I can really use this on my comic strip panels.

mark kennedy said...

Thanks to everyone for all the great comments!

Ivanator - glad you liked the post! I am not sure I understand your question, to be honest! But I really appreciate the comment! Let me know if I can try to clarify anything further.

Stephen - thanks, glad you enjoyed the post!

James - thanks!!!

Willem - glad you liked the post!

allen - you're right!

Kendra - sure, thanks for the comment!

SKS - thanks for leaving a comment! Glad to hear from a long time reader. Yeah, the closeups thing happens to us all...it's just a good thing to be aware of.

pako - thanks! No problem.

Will - yeah, it's all about the basics, isn't it?

intergalactic - great! More to come!

Jesse - interesting! Makes a big difference doesn't it?

Greg - great! Coming up soon...

E. Will - it happens to all of us! Just be aware of it, and you'll find better solutions. Thanks for commenting!

Stephen - great! That's what I was aiming for!

Crossover - great! Thanks for the comment!

nuvoleanomale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AndyG said...

Great stuff! Would love to see more on the subject.

Daniel said...

Great post Mark.

These articles on the basics is what I come here for.
I like the way you explain and expose the things that give the audience a particular "gut feeling"


claudi said...

Thank you so much for this post and all the ones before this one :) They are brimful of useful information. Thx for sharing!

vinimation said...

Great post, I remember seeing inside the actor's studio with steven speilberg where he spoke of his character looking offscreen to show that they were thinking and being vulnerable at a specific point. What do you think?

Graham Ross said...

Great post. BTW saw 500 days of Summer this weekend. Great compositions in that one! Although perhaps too many close-ups?

R.Dress said...

Wow great notes!

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Gabriele Pasqualino said...

just found your blog.. it's full of awesome and useful stuff!! :P great

abhishek singh said...

i'm always enlightened after reading through your posts! they leave u in an introspection of the artistic choices one makes and the way one realizes them,
thanks for sharing your insights and experience

Geardrafter said...

As a side note, I think another reason closeups are more common today is technological in addition to theatrical. Camera technology today is far further than what it was 50 years ago; it's possible to zoom in much further on a person and still ensure good detail and lighting, and some people want to take advantage of that. Then again, there can be such a thing as TOO much detail; I don't need to see every skin cell on the bridge of a guys nose...

Oswald Iten said...

About your "old man rant": I'm also someone who misses the films where closeups were reserved for the real climax. I believe the problem is that nowadays most of the films are made with the fact in mind that they will have to be readable on a tv screen as well.

This automatically makes closeups necessary and makes it impossible to have well staged wide shots because, as many commenters have pointed out, on a tv screen it just looks too far away to see anything properly. On a movie screen on the other hand, these medium or long shots are no problem.

Nowadays even Cinemascope movies are filled with closeups which deprives the format of its initial possibility of wider and more complex staging. Of course on TV the scope frame is even smaller than standard.

Closeups naturally contain less information, so it's not only possible but necessary to cut faster to reveal different information.

What I miss most are the well staged shots where you can see how all the characters relate to one another in space and how different people react while you also see the speaker (just think of Kurosawa, Hitchcock or any great director working before the blockbuster era). Those shots can last much longer because there is so much in the shot to look at that we don't get bored unless we look at it from across a room on a tv screen.

Of course in animation more characters in the shot mean more work and more money. But there has to be a workable way to achieve the same progression of shot widths and a feeling of spacial relations without robbing closeups of their emotional power.

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Mike B said...

great post. I'm working on an animated sequence right now that requires good staging to get the emotions right. There really is so much to a scene that can make or break it.
Do you also feel that the direction an action takes place makes for different moods? What I mean to say is, would/could there be more tension built up in a scene if the action moves right to left (in opposition to the normal way we read things)? If my character is nervous about the situation, could the direction of the actions help to translate the uncomfortableness to the viewer? Naturally I have a tendency to board things moving from left of frame to right. I'm trying to play with the idea of switching the direction of the actions.

Also, that is a great painting you picked out for an example. She's lower on the screen and in a submissive pose. yet she's larger in frame and to the left side giving her(or her emotional state) more weight. And the house, though higher is pulled almost right on the edge of the frame. great compositional balance throughout.

thank you for your posts,

David Cousens said...

Awesome post. Just awesome. I will definitely be passing this info on whenreever I can.

Thanks Mark!

mark kennedy said...

AndyG, Daniel, and Claudi - thanks for the comments! Glad you liked the post

vinimation - Yeah, that sounds good! Thanks for the post!

Graham, and R. Dress - thanks for the comments!

Gabriele and abhishek - thanks for the kind words!

Geardrafter - you're right. Very good point, I hadn't thought about that.

Oswald - very thoughtful post, you're right, of course. Hopefully those wider types of shots will come back into style.

Mike B - I do think that the way characters move can affect the feeling, depending on which way we read, but since different cultures read in different directions, it's better (I think) not to worry about that and focus more on keeping the screen direction consistent. Anyway, I hope that helps.

David - Great, thanks!!!

Dylan said...

so great and helpful thank you soooo much for compiliting this.

Anthony said...

As far as an up-shot = power, down-shot = weakness example, I suddenly recalled a brilliant reversal of this -- as power shifts from one character to another -- in the movie "The Little Princess" (1995). I actually found the clip on YouTube (link below):

The evil headmistress (seen in up-shot) is angry at the little girl Sarah (seen in down-shot); but Sarah snaps back at her and the camera actually cranes down from a down-shot to an up-shot on Sarah, shifting the power to her, away from the headmistress. Here's the YouTube link -- go to 6:00 and let it play through 6:45.

It's an obvious technique, but still gives me the chills. Some smart and fun camera direction going on there.

Love your blog.

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