Sunday, January 25, 2009

Color, Music and Mood

As I mentioned in the post below, when putting together a film, the palette you use and the music you choose are the most important tools for making the audience feel the way you want them to feel from scene to scene. As I said, a dark palette will make your audience feel one way and a bright palette will make them feel another, just as a palette of cold colors will give one feeling to the viewer and one of warm colors will give a different feeling.

Anyway this is far from a hard-and-fast rule, of course, and there are plenty of contrary examples. Sometimes contrast is your greatest tool: for example, if your character is depressed, putting him in the middle of a colorful birthday party may make him seem all the more depressed by contrast, and may work even better than putting him in a gray room on a rainy day.

Anyway here are some screengrabs that I got from this great site: As you look at each one, think about the feeling you get from each based on the colors used. It's easy to see why so may film makers exploit the way color and tone can help amplify the feeling they are trying to communicate.

Music functions the same way; the musical soundtrack is very helpful at getting the audience into the mood that you want them to experience. We all know what it's like when they show a trailer at the movies and that sweeping, epic music kicks in...we know exactly what type of movie they're selling and what type of emotion we'll get from that movie. And then think about when you see a trailer for a comedy, and think about the kind of music that usually kicks in...a light, jaunty kind of number that makes the movie feel light and fun. So in the minute or so that the studio has to sell you on the idea of the movie they use music to help sell the type of feeling the movie will have when you go see it. Imagine what it would be like if the type of music in the trailer was reversed, if a trailer for a movie like "Revolutionary Road" had light and bouncy music, or if the trailer for "Hotel for Dogs" had big sweeping music that sounded like it came from "Braveheart" or something. The contrast would probably have a confusing effect, although it might also be pretty funny.

If I had the time and/or the resources I would love to take clips from movies and re-cut them with different music. Definitely if I taught a film class I would do that, it would really be informative to experiment around with that. Maybe somebody on the Internet has already done this and somebody could point us all in that direction.

That's one of the most interesting parts of animated film production - when you're assembling the story reels, cutting together the storyboards with the temp dialogue, sound effects and temp music - culled from other soundtrack CDs, of course - it's really a great opportunity to see how different music can affect the feel of the storyboards. The wrong music can really keep the boards from succeeding. A lot of times the music is too far one way and it feels like the music is trying to oversell the emotion of the scene. If the music is bigger and more dramatic than the moment deserves, the music calls attention to itself and the sequence feels false because the film hasn't earned it at that spot.

Making films is all about manipulating the audience and getting them to react to your story and characters in the way you want them to react. But if the audience becomes aware of what you are trying to do to manipulate them then it won't work and they won't have the emotional reaction you want them to have. It can be very easy to overplay your hand and ruin the effect you're trying to accomplish.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On Rules

First off, thanks so much to everyone that wrote a comment about the last post. I am glad it made sense to everyone and that people found it helpful. Also thanks to those that wrote comments disagreeing with me, I always appreciate that as well, and reading those comments inspired me to clarify a couple of things and to talk a bit about a topic I talk about often, namely the idea of "rules" and whether they exist in regards to art.

Obviously everything I write on my site is my opinion and my opinion only. Everything I write is based on my experience as an animator and storyboard artist.

I think it seemed to some readers that I was writing about every facet of art that exists when I talked in the previous post about staging things to get different effects. In general, I don't really write posts that relate to every facet of the visual it says on the banner at the top of this blog I mostly write about storyboarding unless I specify otherwise. Anyone is welcome to read this blog and comment about what I write but it's mostly about storyboarding. That's why I mentioned that I have had pitches of my own work fall flat when I ignored those staging rules...I am really talking specifically about storyboards which don't have the benefit of things like music and color, which are other strong clues a movie gives you to indicate whether a scene is comedic or serious. So I find it helpful to use whatever clues you can in storyboarding to set a context for your audience so that you get the desired response from them.

It's no accident that many movies take advantage of these concepts to help get a reaction out of the viewer as well; that's why I used examples from live-action movies to make my point. Of course, I always assume that it goes without saying that not every movie, comic book, TV show and other medium will follow each "rule" I discuss scrupulously.

Which brings up the often-discussed topic of "rules". Are there "rules" for artistic endeavors? If we follow these "rules" are we limiting our creativity and quashing our instincts?

I find it interesting that people ask this about some artistic fields and not others. Film and drawing have a strange thing in common: some people seem to think there's no reason to have to know anything about either discipline to succeed in them. Frankly, many people seem to think it's detrimental to the quality of their work to study their art. They seem to think that if you just "jump in" and "go with your gut" that you'll be better off than spending any time studying either discipline and learning a solid foundation of knowledge before you attempt to say, write a film or become a storyboard artist.

And yet nobody would ever think they could pick up a bassoon and play a Mozart concerto on it without years of study beforehand. Nobody would assume they could jump up on stage and "wing it" through Swan Lake and be as good as someone who studied ballet for ten years.

"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." - Orson Welles

The "rules" don't exist to quash your artistic freedom; they are there to liberate you. Art has limitless possibilities so artists use the "rules" to organize and give their work control and, therefore, beauty as well as meaning.

If I gave you a box of 64 crayons and told you to draw a picture, would you assume that the best way to approach it would be to make sure you used every color at least once in your drawing? Would you say you feel "limited" by only having 64 colors and say you needed 128? Of course not - we all know that the best way to approach the drawing would be to pick a small number of colors - 5, 7 or 8 or so - that look good in conjunction with each other and stick with those, using them in a balanced way. Some of the greatest works of art ever created were created only using one color...

...or no color at all, even (check out any drawing by Rembrandt).

The last thing to say about the "rules", of course, is that of course they can - and should - be broken. They exist to be experimented with, pushed, bent and broken. But the problem comes when people don't want to take the trouble to learn them first. The only way to really know how to break them is to learn them and follow them until you know them inside out. Then you have the sensitivity and the understanding to know under what circumstances they can and should be broken.

I can't tell you how many times I have looked at a great drawing and thought to myself that what makes the drawing great is the careful application of the most basic and fundamental "rules", and nothing else. The "rules" can take you really far, if you are humble and patient enough to learn them. I hate to see people expend so much energy denying this truth and making things so much more difficult than they have to be by rejecting the idea of "rules" and turning their backs on hundreds of years of knowledge passed down from every artist who has gone before us....but so be it, obviously we all have to find our own way, and I wish everyone luck on their journey.

Okay, I know this is always an inflammatory topic and, like any subject that makes for great debate, I will never convince people on the other side of this that I am right just as they will never convince me that they are right...but I had to say all this anyway.

Something else more interesting coming soon, I promise!

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.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Do Your Research, it's Easier than Ever

Every artist knows the value of doing your research. We all know the temptation to make things up in your head rather than doing the work of figuring out what it actually looks like, and we all know that when we fake things instead of doing our research, the viewer can tell that we faked it.

If you have to draw the deck of a pirate ship, look at real pictures of ships. If you have to draw a Tibetan village, look up pictures of one. I'm not one of those artists that goes to extremes on this - there are artists that, if they had to draw a Tibetan village, they would read everything they could about the history of Tibetan architecture and they would make sure that they were drawing a village that anyone from Tibet would be able to distinguish the exact time period when it was built and where in Tibet that particular village would be. I admire that kind of dedication but I don't have that kind of is too short. I'm a storyboard artist at heart and I tend to worry about the big picture, the overall thrust of everything and I don't tend to focus on details because there's never time for details in the story process. Within the animation process that's the focus of the layout person, the Visual Development artist, the modeler and others. For storyboard purposes I would focus on drawing a village that feels like it belongs in Tibet so the audience would believe it and not be distracted by a village that doesn't feel right, unless there was some specific story point that related to specifics of Tibetan architecture (did any of that make sense?).

Anyway, in the olden days artists used to talk about using "clip files" which was a collection of pages culled from magazines and newspapers that had great reference material. Personally, I never did that but I do have a house full of books that I have collected over the years to cover reference on everything from locations like jungles and deserts, books about the history of costume, books on ships, cars, horses, cats, dogs, you name it. I have spent easily thousands of dollars on reference books over the years!

Anyway, that's a thing of the past now, of course. These days I do all of my research online, which is a million times better than trying to find the right book to buy and then trying to remember where you put the book later. It's also a lot cheaper.

For many of you this may be an unnecessary post. But I write about it because I am constantly shocked at how many people I talk to that don't do their research the same way I do. There are some great research sites on the internet that many people never think to take advantage of.

I do most of my photo research these days on two internet sites: flickr and Corbis.

Flickr is great because it is all content generated by everyday people. It's got millions and millions of photos uploaded by people all over the world and totally searchable. I've found some amazing photos on the site. Just a couple of weeks ago I used it to find pictures of horses sitting down. In fact I use it almost like a crutch - I constantly search, using variations in my wording, to look for inspiration even when drawing the simplest actions, just to try to spark a new idea in my min for doing commom actions and activities in interesting ways.

Corbis is great too - it's a database of commercial photographs that are meant to be licensed by magazines, websites, and other people who need photos for articles and things like that. But it's searchable (and free) for everyone. If you need reference of a pretty sunset or something like that Corbis is great because all the pictures are incredibly beautiful and professional looking.

There are other sites too - Getty Images is a lot like Corbis but I find Corbis easier to use. Getty Images is better for looking up vintage illustrations and photos, whereas Corbis is mostly contemporary (and staged) photos. Also Yahoo! Images and Google Images are all depends on what you're looking for.

And of course I am totally indebted to wikipedia as well, the online encyclopedia made up of user-generated content. I've used wikipedia for everything from using it to understand how to invent and draw a vintage steam engine to finding out more about my favorite artists of the past. It's truly an amazing resource.