Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Vance Gerry Memorial Blog

Story Artist Ed Gombert (a legend himself) has started a new blog dedicated to the work of legendary Disney Layout and Storyboard Artist Vance Gerry. Vance was incredibly prolific and everyone in Story and VisDev at Disney was very inspired by (and in awe of) his work. Unfortunately his work is mostly unknown outside of Disney, because in his later years he worked on a lot of projects that never got made, so his work never made it into very many "Art Of" books.

Now, for the first time, Vance's work can finally be seen by a wider audience and he will surely get the appreciation he so richly deserves!

Check it out here.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Where to Get "Torch Tiger"

On the Torch Tiger website there is information about how to get your very own copy of "What is Torch Tiger?" if you weren't able to attend Comic Con.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What is Torch Tiger? - SDCC 2009

I won't be there this year (too much to do at work) but please stop by booth 2302 if you're at the San Diego Comic Con and pick up a copy (or several) of our new group book, "What is Torch Tiger?". It's a great book by some really great people.

Also, if you buy a copy, feel free to ask the artists working the booth to sign your book. You can return to the booth as often as you want and get more signatures, because the artists working the booth will rotate throughout the Con. Don't be too shy to ask them because they're all very nice and generous people! Just don't pressure them to reveal any Disney secrets! They won't. I try to get them to tell me stuff all the time, and they won't.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Hudsucker Proxy, The Third Man, and Dumbo

What do all of these films have in common?

Why, I'm going to use them all to talk about montages! Whoopee!!!

It's a good time to talk about montages since we're already talking about "Hudsucker". It has an amazing montage, probably the most complicated one I've ever seen. More on that later. But first, some explanation...

A montage is a film device where, usually, some section of the story that would take a lot of time to tell in a linear way is compressed into a few scenes.

The usual example is like one that's in the first "Rocky" movie where Rocky spent several weeks getting into shape and it was all compressed into several shots of him working out, running up and down stairs exercising, and doing things like eating raw eggs, all during the course of one song (many times montages are covered by a song). So montages usually show a progression, like someone who is going from out-of-shape to being totally in-shape, which would normally take weeks (and be really boring to watch happen on-screen), and condenses it to a short sequence that's interesting to watch. If you think of the old cliché where someone might say "I'm going to get in shape", and then you see words onscreen that say "six months later", and then you cut to the person and now they're in shape....well, the montage is very much like that but hopefully making the character's progress seem somewhat more believable and not completely taking you out of the film (like a card that says "six months later" might). And again, a montage minimizes the amount of boring uninteresting stuff that isn't essential to a story and that an audience doesn't want to see (always a good rule of thumb).

Somebody smart once said that movies are like life with the boring parts cut out.

Okay, so this is a far from exhaustive discussion of montages, everyone has their favorites and I know there are a lot of great ones out there. I'm just going to reference three here for a general discussion.

One of my favorites is actually from an animated film: the "Roustabouts" sequence from "Dumbo". It's compressing the hard and time-consuming job of raising the circus big-top to a short and succinct sequence.

Several great things are happening in this montage and are worth noting: even though it's about putting up a circus tent, it's always clearly from Dumbo's point of view and always relates to his relationship with his Mother, so instead of just being about putting up a tent it stays on point within the story. Also, the staging and weather build as the scene goes along to give it a building progression; when the scene starts it is only raining a bit but by the end there's a full-on thunderstorm. Also the first scenes are staged relatively flatly but by the end the scenes are more dramatic with the characters throwing things in and out of camera and lightning flashes. The source of the music is organic to the scene: the characters are singing a song as they work (as opposed to "Rocky", where an unrelated song plays on top of the sequence).

If you're having trouble viewing this clip as it's embedded, please visit youtube.com and search for "Dumbo roustabouts".

A couple of other great animation montages that come to mind are both from "Toy Story 2": the montage of the old man fixing up Woody so he's new again, and also "Jessie's Song" where Jessie describes how she was loved and then forgotten and abandoned by her owner. These are two different types of montage: the first is all linear events, compressed into a series of highlights to show Woody's progression from old and worn to new and fixed, in the second one, our character sings a song which covers the montage showing linear moments that are separated by time, with years passing between some moments. Each has a totally different type of emotional feel and both are extremely effective and well-done.

Another good montage I like is from "The Third Man". It's a good example of an informational montage; it covers a bunch of stuff that isn't really interesting to the audience, per se, but it's important to the character so it's important within the story.

Possible spoilers (the film is fifty years old, so I don't know if it's possible to give spoilers for it, but anyway....)

Okay, here's the setup: Joseph Cotton's character has come to past WWII Vienna to find his friend Harry Lime. Lime has been killed in an accident, but the circumstances surrounding the accident are suspicious, and the police keep digging into his death. Cotton's character can't figure out why the cops are so relentlessly investigating the accident, and it turns out that it's because they suspect Lime of selling black market fake penicillin that has caused a number of deaths. Cotton steadfastly refuses to believe his friend could be guilty for a long time, but eventually asks the police to show him their case against Lime.

Those of us in the audience aren't really interested in a highly technical dissertation on fake penicillin and how it's been traced to Harry Lime. All we care about is if the hero, Joseph Cotton, can be convinced that he was wrong about Lime being guilty. He defended Lime through the first half of the movie; if he can be convinced that Harry Lime is guilty, then it must be true, and that's all we really need to take away here to get on with the story: is Lime guilty or not?

So in a brief montage, with a short bit of music covering it, Cotton goes from certain his friend is innocent to convinced that his friend is guilty.

Unfortunately, this clip isn't on youtube and I don't have the capacity to put it there myself (my computer is still kaput) so I did some screengrabs and I'll describe what's going on as best I can:

Okay, so Cotton has finally come to the point in the story where he asks to see the evidence against his old friend. So here the detective is putting up a slide show screen and says "we're going to have a magic lantern show" (an old way of referring to a slide show). Hopefully you all know what slides are, because they're a pretty archaic technology...

Okay, so the other policeman (actually they're soldiers but that's irrelevant) starts the slide show and as the lead guy launches into the presentation he turns and....there's a slide of a rhinoceros there. He turns and chides his assistant, who apologizes, saying he's got them muddled (that's comedy, by the way) and then the lead guy starts out indicating one of the guys involved in the plot to sell black-market penicillin, saying that they want to question him but he's "disappeared".

Joseph Cotton says something like what is this, a police station or a morgue, and then the detective says "we've got better witnesses". At this point, he turns back toward the screen, and the music takes over the dialogue, and now the short montage has begun, as we cross dissolve to...

...an eye looking through a magnifying glass, which cross-dissolves to...

...some papers, covered with mysterious marks, being tossed onto a table. A mirror comes in, presumably showing us that there is a code written backwards within the mysterious markings. This cross-dissolves to...

...the detective, whose lips are moving, even though we can't hear him. He holds up one vial, and then another. This cross-dissolves to...

...some fingerprints under a magnifying glass, which cross-dissolves to...

...a close-up of Cotton, taking all of this in. A great shot! Once again, keeping the montage on point within the story. It's all about convincing this guy so it's great to get a shot of him soaking all of this in. Otherwise it's just a montage of information being marched by, without the emotional component and the story point that a big change is happening here; a man is learning that his good friend was actually a despicable criminal.

Anyway, this cross-dissolves to...

...a downshot of all three of our participants, surrounded by the files and material that they've been covering. The music ends and the montage is over. Short and effective! By the way, love the body language here: the chief detective is sitting back, as if exhausted by his lengthy presentation, or maybe just sitting back because he's said all he has to say and the ball is in Cotton's court now. And Cotton is eagerly sitting forward, flipping through a file...

...and as we cut closer, he closes the file - another great way to say that they've looked at everything, and this is the last shred of evidence, and he's now "closing the file" on his friend. The finality of closing this last file is a great "button" to the montage and gives it a great end beat.

Also I like the progression of this montage, of going from close-ups that are almost abstract to a close-up of Cotton to the wide shot, showing everything they've covered. It gives it a great build in going from close-ups to a wide shot.

So Cotton closes the file and says something like "Wow...I never thought he was capable of something like that." He has clearly been convinced! And all this major turning point in the movie took was about 30 seconds of screen time or less. Nice!

Okay, so lastly, here's a montage from "The Hudsucker Proxy". I'm sure there are montages that cover more story but I sure can't think of any.

Again...spoilers ahead...

Here's the setup: Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) has convinced his company (Hudsucker) to manufacture his idea, the Hula Hoop. The montage covers a lot of story, on an almost global scale, but the important story point is that Norville goes from a nobody (that everybody thinks is an idiot) to a success as his invention takes off with the public.

...me, I woulda picked "The Wacky Circumference", but what do I know?

The montage has three distinct parts: the exciting build of the research, development, marketing and manufacturing of the Hula Hoop, the lull in the middle where it seems that the invention will be a failure, and the exciting ending, where the toy catches on and Norville becomes a success. Look at how the music works well to indicate these changes of pace and how it changes to suit the mood of each part. Music, camera moves, staging and cutting help make things that might other be really boring (like, say, cost assessments) entertaining and fun to watch. Music is also such a helpful tool to unify really different ideas that jump around in time and space to make them all feel like one idea. Hearing the same musical themes under different ideas make them all seem like one unified piece.

I love how, even when one funny idea is presented - like the marketing execs brainstorming names for the product - there's another funny idea layered on top, like the secretary reading the different Russian novels in the foreground to denote the passage of time (also love how the bottle of booze is a touch of color in the window of the marketing bullpen). Just deciding to show those guys in silhouette is a master stroke, too, and I can't think of a funnier way to present them.

Anyway I don't even know what else to say about this one....it's just a marvel to watch.

The only other thought I have about montages is that they're due for a rethinking. Animated films seem to make use of montages quite a bit, and I have to say, there's usually a point on all the films I've worked on where someone says "We'll just put a montage here to cover this stuff".

That's fine, but montages have become such a "staple" of our movies that I suspect we take them for granted and they may have become a bit of a cliche unto themselves. I can't really remember when I saw a montage that really blew my mind as far as originality and coming up with a unique take on the concept of the montage (I know, "Up" had a great long bit of montage in the first part of the film, you don't need to leave comments reminding me of that! Of course that one was awesome).

Anywhow, all I'm saying is that I think the whole montage thing is wide open to re-invention, so maybe someone will come up with a unique take on the concept soon.

Even if not, montages are a great tool and one that's well done is a pleasure to watch indeed.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Torch Tiger Auction

Please take a look at the ebay auction of one copy of the "What is Torch Tiger?" comic which also includes a Torch Tiger t-shirt and a full set of pins made to promote the comic. The proceeds go to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The book looks great - even better than last year's - and keep in mind that it will probably be the only way you'll be able to get a copy signed by all of the artists.

For more information visit the Torch Tiger website. You can see a great preview of the book on the ebay auction page or at the Cartoon Brew post about the auction.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Hudsucker Proxy - Romance, Music and Camera Work

Warning: this post contains mild spoilers (if it's possible to "spoil" a film that's been out for fifteen years).

"The Hudsucker Proxy" is a film by Ethan and Joel Coen. It's an interesting movie - definitely worth seeing - but pretty eccentric and definitely not for everybody. It's a very slick and well-directed movie, but much like "The Big Lebowski" the stylization of the movie is so strong that the hands of the filmmakers are felt on every frame. Many people feel that the strong stylization of the film creates such an artificial feeling that the film is never really able to reach a sincere tone and doesn't ever get to an emotional place.

Be that as it may, the film is undeniably well directed and does a lot of things really well. It's one of those movies that just viewing it will teach you more about film making than a year of film school could. For all it's quirks it's one of my favorite movies of all time.

I could write about this film for months but here are just a couple of interesting things I like about it. This first clip isn't very spectacular but it's a really great example of a few subtle touches that the Coens utilize to great effect.

Okay here's the setup: Tim Robbins is an earnest but not-too-bright guy who's been promoted, unexpectedly, from the mailroom to be the CEO of the Hudsucker Corporation. He doesn't realize it, but the board has secretly placed him there because they are hoping his stupidity will depress the stock price of the company so the board can buy all the stock back up at a discount (confused? Not to worry. Understanding the film's plot is not essential to this discussion so don't fret).

Jennifer Jason Leigh is a hard-bitten newspaper writer who senses that the board of the Hudsucker Corporation is up to something and she got a job posing as Tim Robbins' secretary to get the scoop. She wrote a story exposing Robbins as a boob and a puppet of the board that has gotten him in hot water with the investors, but he doesn't realize his secretary and the writer who exposed him are one and the same. So, as you can tell from the scene, while Robbins is pouring his heart out to her she feels guilty for being the cause of all of his troubles, and wants to tell him the truth, but is afraid to.

This post relates specifically to the part staring with the speech that Tim Robbins has at about 2:30 into the clip, up until the end of the scene at about 5:15 into the clip.

Anyway, one of the challenges posed by the scene is fact that the film is very stylized, and the Robbins character really has been played as an earnest doofus up to this point, and Leigh's character is a tough-as-nails fast-talking newspaper woman. So how do you play a sincere love scene between these two? Their characterizations are built to play comedy well but it's really hard to write an honestly sincere scene between the two of them, unless you totally soften them, making him less of a doofus and making her softer and gentler.....which wouldn't be true to the characters that have been set up, and would feel like they were from another movie. It would just feel like a cheat if they changed their personalities to accommodate what this one scene needs them to be.

So I think Joel and Ethan wrote a brilliant scene that doesn't compromise their great characters. Tim Robbin's great speech about being animals in a previous life is so perfect. It can play sincere and you really believe it could sound romantic to her, and yet it's also goofy and he breaks the sincere moment by making the silly "deer" joke and laughing at his own bad pun, which is true to his character and yet also sweet in a certain way. It's a great solution to a very tricky scene.

Also I just think this is a great example of how important music is to a movie and how it can make or break everything in a film. The music is so amazing as he tells his story. It comes in at just the right moment, as the scene switches gears to a sincere place, and it builds wonderfully, reaching a climax at just the right point. The beauty and sincerity of the music carries the scene and makes sure that the silliness of the speech is minimized and it comes across as a real romantic moment between two people who are falling in love.

Imagine the scene without the music - it would be very empty and wouldn't play nearly as well. It would be much more of a straightforward comedic scene.

The camera placement for that speech is wonderful too. Being able to see both of their faces at once is really great - you can see his earnest sincerity and her hesitation and regret all at once. Having them looking down at and commenting on the people in the street below is a great way to naturally get into that kind of camera setup where they're both looking at the camera (and us). It's important that he can't see her face so he doesn't realize the turmoil she's going through as she struggles with how to tell him the truth.

The long take of this speech scene - doing it without cuts - is such a key to making it work. It allows the scene to build beautifully. Imagine it with cuts and you can see how that would undercut the power of the scene.

Also, before Robbins begins his speech, notice how the camera, looking at the two of them, starts a long, slow push-in on their faces. This is always a great camera trick to give a moment a building intensity. If you look for it you'll find it in many, many movies and it always works well, although you'll probably never notice it unless you're looking for it. It helps ramp up the intensity of the scene before he begins his romantic speech.

Then the camera does a pull back to a wider framing as he makes his joke and breaks the intimacy of the moment - the camera is helping to tell the story, getting closer as they get more intimate, then pulling back as they pull back on their intimacy. Tim Robbins, as he cracks his joke, steps back which gives the camera a physical reason to pull out just a bit and keep him in frame, so his movement motivates the movement of the camera. Then notice how, after that, as the setups become closeups of each of them, he continues to step closer to her, and she turns towards him, then away from him, and then back towards him - their physical proximity takes over as the clue to how intimate the scene is getting.

So after his joke breaks the romantic moment, the tension is lost briefly, the camera pulls back, but then their closeups and physical proximity begin to build the tension all over again, until they kiss. Then the camera jumps back to enable a faster push in towards them which is a shot that builds quickly in intensity (in contrast to the slow push in we saw earlier). Push-ins (or trucks) with the camera are always great for building intensity.

Again, the music serves the scene well, although not nearly as subtly here. True, it's an ancient cliche to have the music swell as two characters kiss, but it's earned here, I think, because the music started out so soft and gentle, and has built to this big swell of emotion here.

And what a great choice to have the light on them drop out before the camera fades out, instead of just doing a regular old fade-out (which would be the more obvious and expected choice). Doing it this way feels more dramatic and, again, helps push the scene away from comedy towards a more dramatic feel.

The structure of this scene - with his joke breaking the intimacy - may seem like a misstep. It could easily seem like that joke ruins the building intensity. But actually I think it's a great touch. To slowly build intensity and passion over a long scene doesn't always work as well as you think it might. Passion is intense and tends to reach a saturation point very quickly. I think it always works better just like the Coens have played it - let it build slowly to a climax, then release the tension a little, and then you can crank up the intensity more quickly to a more intense height, and then you usually have to get out of the scene rather quickly, because once you reach that fever pitch of emotion, you can't sustain it for long. If it goes on too long it runs the risk of starting to feel false or manipulative to the audience.

Okay, I could talk about this film forever (heck, I could talk about this clip forever), but I will stop for now, and maybe I will talk a little more about the film next time.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Verdict "I'm Her Attorney"

Ugh....sorry to go so long between posts. My ancient laptop finally died and I have no funds to get another, so blogging has become really tough for the time being...

Anyway, here's a great scene from "The Verdict" starring Paul Newman and directed by Sydney Lumet. It's been a while since I saw it so forgive me if I'm a little off here, but here's the setup: Newman's a lawyer who's been hired by the family of a woman who, during a routine surgery, was turned into a vegetable by an anesthesiologist who carelessly gave her the wrong medicine. The family wants damages from the doctor so they can pay for her expensive medical care. Paul Newman is an alcoholic has-been disgraced lawyer who, these days, only tackles easy cut-and-dried cases like this - basically an ambulance chaser. For him the case starts out just representing a quick settlement and some money, and he wants to just settle it quick, grab his share of the cash and move on.

This scene, however, is a turning point. As he goes just to grab some quick Polaroids of the injured woman to show the jury for sympathy, he unexpectedly comes face-to-face with the real tragedy of this victim. Suddenly the fact that this woman's life has been totally destroyed becomes real to him. You can see it in Paul's acting really well, which is amazing, of course, but the real reason I wanted to share this scene was two other elements that I think are really smart.

The Polaroid photos are a great, great tool here. The fact that Lumet doesn't show us the girl until we see her in the photos works well, first of all, so we get the full weight of her situation by having to wait - and getting more and more curious - about what Newman is looking at. The long scene where you're just watching the photos develop - slowly - is an awesome metaphor for exactly what is happening here: his long, slow realization that she is a real person who has suffered a terrible blow and she has no voice of her own. This isn't just an open-and-shut quickie case, there was a real injustice done here. This woman can't fight for herself and she needs someone to fight for her, to bring her doctor to justice, and he's the only guy who can do it.

The Polaroids are a brilliant way of showing this idea, and yet it would be so easy to present that idea in a forced and fakey way, but Lumet has such a deft touch that it doesn't feel unnatural at all.

The end of the scene is really amazing too. All through the movie, he's just referred to this as just a quickie case and that he's going to rush through this one and get on to the next. He never really shows any interest in this woman or her problems before this point, he's lost all passion and interest in the law and it's become just a way to make a quick buck to him. Throughout the movie he never refers to himself as an attorney, much less her attorney. So when the nurse asks him to leave the room, his simple answer of "I'm her attorney" has a much deeper meaning. The surface meaning is simply "I don't have to leave this room, I have a right to be here" but the deeper meaning to the audience is that he has had a revelation, that he has been re-energized by this woman and her plight, and that he is now going to fight for her, as her attorney, and do his best to get justice for her. This visit to her hospital room, which he thought was a routine stop to get photos of her, has unexpectedly touched him and become a turning point in his life.

The most impressive aspect of all of this is how naturally all this is accomplished. The idea of using a polaroid developing to suggest his slow realization and the way the simple statement "I'm her attorney" are both simple ideas that come off as very organic and natural but are very powerful and effective. It's always tempting for filmmakers to make sure they hit their "important" ideas over in a way that nobody will miss and get very heavy-handed with them. But Lumet found a way to make natural things that are happening in the scene have a much deeper, more profound impact by the way they are presented.