Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The 180 Rule and When to Break It

The 180 degree rule is the most basic rule in filmmaking. There is a really good short primer on it here (thanks wikipedia!). I will attempt to explain it briefly for those who are unfamiliar with the rule, but mostly I want to talk about the fact that live action filmmakers break it occasionally, while in animated films (at least in my experience at Disney) it is considered a big taboo. On most of the animated films I've worked on it would never even be considered as a remote possibility, and I think that is too bad, because sometimes breaking the 180 rule can result in a better visual impact and can also enable you to get a great reaction shot that you couldn't get otherwise.

Okay, first a simple explanation: if you have two characters talking, draw an imaginary line between them. Now the rule states that you need to keep the camera on one side of that line and never cross over to the other side.

You can put the camera anywhere you want as long as you don't cross the line to the other side of the two characters. This way, no matter what shots you have, you can cut them together in any order and the green character will always stay on the right side of the frame and the blue character will always stay on the left.

If you break this rule and shoot one shot from the other side of the line, the characters will be flopped: the blue guy is now on the right and the green guy is on the left.

This can confuse the audience because, for example, if the characters look similar, they may start to get the two people mixed up. Or they may think that the characters switched places between cuts, or they may think it's a time jump to a different location at a later time or something. It can cause unnecessary confusion in the audience's mind, and we always want to avoid that.

The problem becomes even more apparent when you're doing a scene where people are in action. For example, when a character is running, you want to consider the path they're traveling along as the line that you don't want to cross. Obviously, if you shoot from the other side the line, the character will look like he's going the opposite direction.

If you start to cut these two different shots together you will create a lot of confusion: did the character turn around and start running back the other way? Or is it two characters running towards each other and they're going to collide?

That's why you'll notice that - especially in animated movies - a destination is always kept to one side of the screen or the other and the character is always traveling that way. A good example is in Disney's "Bolt" - Bolt is traveling from New York to Los Angeles and he is always traveling towards screen left. All of us Americans grew up looking at maps of the US with NY on the right hand side and LA on the left so this inherently makes sense to us and it helps keep us clear that he's always traveling towards his goal and not suddenly turning around and heading back towards the East Coast.

So anyway there you go. Probably obvious stuff for everybody...

...but I bring it up because sometimes there are good reasons to break the 180 rule. For a complete discussion of continuity and how to maintain it or break it effectively, I recommend "The Five C's of Cinematography" or "Film Directing: Shot By Shot".

Here's an online clip from the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie which has two good examples of breaking the 180 rule. Mild spoilers ahead, I guess...

The first one is when this giant wheel breaks free from it's mounting and goes rolling down a hill. Now as far as the path of action on something like this, it would have to be assumed to be the path that the wheel is traveling. So if you take a shot from one side and then cut it against a shot from the other side, it would look like the wheel was rolling from left to right and then from right to left - two different directions. Right?

At 3:22, you'll notice that there is first a shot from one side of the wheel of the wheel breaking free and starting to roll from the left to the right

And then, two shots later there's a shot from the other side, of the wheel starting to roll from screen right to screen left

So clearly these shots break our 180 degree rule. The wheel appears to be going one direction, and then the other. But I like the use of both angles here and I think it works just fine. It clearly shows that the wheel has broken loose on both sides and is now rolling free. Also having two different shots of it starting to roll allows the filmmaker to extend that moment of breaking free for greater emphasis. Also cutting from one angle to another that are opposites like that creates contrast and makes for an exciting and dynamic cut.

There's no possibility for confusion here, because we know there is only one giant wheel in the story at this point, and it couldn't possibly be two different wheels breaking free and rolling towards each other. So I think the "breaking" of the 180 rule here is totally fine. There's really not much risk of the viewer being confused by these cuts.

The other breaking of the 180 rule here happens in the same clip around 4:15. I think that the filmmakers made another smart choice to break the rule here.

Here are the shots, in order:

And here is a diagram showing where the camera is for each shot.

So the "line of Action" is the red line between E (for Elizabeth Swann) and P and R (Pintel and Rigetti, the pirates, and yes, I'm a nerd for knowing their names). Now when the wheel enters, most people that I've worked with would play it safe and say that you should just stay where the camera is in set up (1), that is, just have our foreground characters stop and watch as the wheel rolls through the scene, and then have them go back to their fight with each other all in one continuous shot in setup (1).

But I don't think that's nearly as interesting or entertaining as cutting around to see their faces and register their shock as they take in this unusual sight. So I think the cut around to the other side is warranted and justifiable and adds to the scene. Also the addition of cuts breaks the action into a longer, more extended beat which lasts longer and "milks" the funny moment better than if it just rolled through the one shot.

One smart thing that makes the jump around to the other side work pretty well is that when the camera goes around we only see closeups of the character's faces. That's good because if we saw all three of them in one shot it would throw us off because they would be switching sides of the screen with each other.

But here's where I would have done it a little differently: I would have eliminated shot (5) and rearranged shots (3) and (4).

Here's why: in the first shot, which is (1) and (2), you're back behind them as the wheel, chased by Jack, starts to roll into the background of the scene. Then you jump to shot (4) of Jack running (instead of 3).

This might be better progression because you're cutting closer to the action of the wheel and Jack, and it might feel like a more natural cut to go to Jack running than going to Elizabeth's face. Jack is running the right way, so you haven't really "crossed the line" yet, but by virtue of the camera jumping closer to the action, then if you cut right to (3) and (6) it feels like the camera has first jumped closer to Jack, and then swung around to look at Elizabeth and then the pirates, instead of going back and forth across the line, which is what it feels like in the finished film. So here's what it would look like:

My version has the disadvantage of cutting from Elizabeth to the pirates and back to Elizabeth, which some might say feels weird to see Elizabeth twice in shots so close together, but I don't think that would bother me in actual practice. If it were possible I would probably combine both of Elizabeth's close-ups into one shot (the latter one) for simplicity and to keep it from getting too "cutty". Obviously Gore Verbinski is an awesome director and I'm not saying my version is "better" at all, it's just my own personal preference, based on what I've done before and what I think works better from my own experience and taste. If nothing else hopefully you'll get something out of seeing the two contrasting versions and deciding for yourself what works and what doesn't or you. Run your eyes across the film version and then my version and see what feels better to you. There are many other possibilities for schot order and I'm sure many of them would work great too.

Okay, is everyone confused now? Probably! Sorry. I tried to be clear but....yeech. It's a hard topic to write about and not the most interesting one, I admit! If you're confused leave a comment and I'll try to clarify for you.

There's nothing wrong with my Disney colleague's tendency to keep the screen direction consistent and not to want to experiment with it too much. It's totally understandable - unlike a live-action set, we can't make a physical line on the floor and keep our camera on one physical side of it. Our "lines of action" exist in our minds only, and we don't have physical actors to point the camera at either! Our "actors" exist in the theoretical world and so a lot of care must be taken to make them consistent from scene to scene and artist to artist. All of our shots pass through many departments and the easiest way to organize screen direction simply and consistently to minimize confusion. I just sometimes wish we could take a look at this rule and ask ourselves if we might gain something by setting it aside from time to time. I always want our animated movies to have as sophisticated a visual language as our live-action counterparts.

Okay, so what's the point of all this?

I guess I would say that this nicely fits within my (constantly repeated) philosophy that you should get to know the rules (whether it's filmmaking or drawing). Then as you gain experience and knowledge, you can choose to break the rules, using your experience as a guide to tell you when it's worth it to break the rules - what are you gaining, and what are you losing by breaking this rule or that rule? Too many times people don't have the patience to learn the rules (or principles or guidelines, if you prefer those terms) and they end up breaking all of them all the time, either out of ignorance that the rules exist or a desire to be rebellious for the sheer sake of being rebellious. Our limitations exist for a reason, they are our framework and guide, and if you don't know the rules, then I would say how can you know if you are breaking them?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Milt Kahl Academy Videos

In a similar vein to the post below, here's more interesting Disney history: a few videos from the Milt Kahl Discussion at The Academy are now online here.

I found the videos quite interesting. They cover some interesting anecdotes about Milt's time at the Disney Studio and some insights into his working methods and approach to animation.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Disney People, Bill Peet and Joe Rinaldi

Bill Peet Jr. maintains a website devoted to his father, legendary Disney Story artist and children's book author Bill Peet.

There's a cool page here where he's posted some caricatures Bill did of some of his Disney co-workers. If you click on the drawings, some of them link to really interesting casual pictures snapped of the artists at work. If you click on the caricature of Disney Story Artist Joe Rinaldi, it will take you to a page with another caricature of Joe, plus some candid photos and a brief passage about Bill Jr's memories of Joe.

Anyway, thought I'd pass this along - I'm sure a lot of people who are interested in Disneyana will enjoy seeing these candid photos. The Bill Peet site is full of great unpublished Peet work including a great page of unpublished Book ideas.

If there's anyone out there that has any information about the life and/or work of Joe Rinaldi I'd love to hear from you. Bill Peet has left us quite a legacy of his work and life but those of us at Disney know very little about Joe or his life. I own some pieces of Disney art that I think were done by Joe, I will get around to posting them someday.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Confessions of a Lazy Character Designer

Much as I enjoy pursuing my own projects (like "What is Torch Tiger?") I am not very disciplined at forcing myself to develop great and original character designs. The part of a project I really want to spend all my time on is the telling of the story - working on the staging, the expressions and the clarity and pace of the storytelling.

So as far as character designs go, I try to get through it so I can get to the stuff I like. That seems like a blasphemous statement, huh? The web is full of great websites where great artists post amazing and original character designs (look no further than my links!). Character Design is an art and a discipline and I totally admire people who are good at it. So I am not writing this post to share all my wonderful knowledge or anything, but heck, I'll do my best to share what I've learned from my limited experience in this arena (I had some wonderful teachers at CalArts that taught amazing classes on this topic and it's no reflection on them how little of it stuck with me).

So admittedly my standards for designing characters is low (I'm not proud of that, but it's true). Here are the criteria I try to meet when doing designs:

1. It should be something I understand in three dimensions and that I can draw from any angle. It should look appealing from every angle.
2. The design should lend itself to expressive expressions and poses. Those expressions and poses should be appealing as well.
3. It should look as original as possible; not like something you've seen before

But as far as that last one goes - everyone has a different idea of that. Obviously my designs aren't exactly ground-breaking or shockingly fresh and original. But I do try very hard to make sure I'm not repeating something I've seen before.

When I set out to design some vultures for my Torch Tiger, I had grand aspirations to do something really new and different. I didn't want to draw the cliche Disney cartoon vulture so I did a ton of research to try and find a new approach, to re-invent the cartoon vulture.

Guess what? I ended up drawing the stereotypical Disney cartoon vulture. The problem was that the more I looked at photos of real vultures the more they looked like the stock vulture design to me. They really do have those weird tufts of feathers at the base of their necks. When I tired to re-invent them and pull more from the awesome shapes that real vultures have they lost some of their appeal and expressiveness. Also the tone of the story got more disturbing every time I pushed them towards the more realistic, or evil or menacing. Cartoony vultures made it more palatable that they were talking about chowing down on a corpse.

Real vultures are so cool looking. They are ripe for re-invention but I will have to leave that up to a better artist.

So I tried to put my energy into designing three distinct personalities (more on that later).

Anyway, that leads to what I think is the most important law of character design, and one that doesn't get talked about enough, is:

5. The character design should describe the personality of the character.

I'm a big believer in the idea that when you look at a design, you should get an immediate sense of what that character's personality is. It's just like in live-action: directors cast actors who are going to bring a physical presence to the role and look like what the audience expects the character to look like.

There is a big difference between the types of actors cast as leading men and those who are "character actors" who tend to be cast in the supporting type of roles over and over.

People who are "character actors" (and not leading men or women) have a look and a persona that comes through that matches the type of character the director is trying to put over within the film (people like Steve Buscemi or Paul Giamatti) . That way the director doesn't have to spend a lot of time establishing what "type" of character this is, when you see the actor he's picked you get a sense of what type of character this is. It's a "shorthand" that helps the telling of the story.

If the designs of your characters don't work well in telling the audience what type of personality they are then you have to do extra work in informing the audience what they are like. The best characters are ones in which the design, voice acting and animation are all unified and work together in concert to create a great character. The sooner the audience can hook into exactly what type of character they're dealing with, the quicker they can engage with the story and focus on the events that are unfolding instead of trying to decipher what type of character they're seeing.

Look no further than "Up" to find a great example of this. Everything about their appearance is so spot-on specific to their personalities, and the animation and voice casting on both characters is phenomenal. They are extreme opposites of each other in every way which is always great for interest and entertainment.

I'm going to talk a bit more about "Up" here and I'll keep it very vague...this shouldn't be much of a spoiler but in case you want to avoid all knowledge of the film skip the next paragraph.

Also at one point in the movie "Up" there is an example of a character where the design and voice are in direct contrast to each other and it's very funny. The reason it works so well is because when you see the design you expect one thing and then you get another. But something like that won't work unless the design is carefully worked out so that when you see the character you're primed to hear one thing in particular...and then it's turned on it's head, which is funny. But if the design wasn't done in the right way, the joke would fall flat. Another aspect to consider is the point of the movie where this happens. It happens fairly late into the movie, which I think is part of why it works. Because all through the first half of the movie, the film has been crafted perfectly so that all of the voices fit the designs perfectly. So when you come to the point where you meet a character who has a voice that doesn't match his's much funnier. If a movie opens with a character with a voice that doesn't match his design, it will never work as well, because the audience won't really know if that's common or uncommon for the world of the film. As far as they know at that point the film might take place in a world where everyone talks in a way that contrasts their design.

So when I was designing my "Torch Tiger" designs I knew I only had eight pages to put over my story and characters. It's the story of three desperately hungry vultures who conspire to knock off a passing cowboy so they can feast on his carcass.

I wanted to come up with three character designs that telegraphed their personalities right away. There's a regular, main "Straight" vulture, and then the other two are variations on him: a slow, dim-witted heavy vulture (who never talks) and a skinny, agitated and stressed-out vulture (who talks constantly). I tried to keep their personalities and characterizations simple because eight pages is really a short space to tell a story and it's really difficult (if not impossible) to get any kind of nuanced or complicated characterization within that amount of time.

Their would-be victim of a cowboy presents more of an interesting problem: it's kind of a macabre story so I wanted the designs to be goofy enough to keep the story light. Originally I was planning to make him look pretty seedy and disreputable, like a western bad guy, so that you would be on the "side" of the vultures and not be disgusted at the thought that they were "doing him in". If he looks like he's an unsavory character and maybe "deserves" to be done in then maybe the story is a bit more palatable and you can laugh at it instead of being disgusted with it.

Also I toyed with making him look really dumb because that can also help us not feel so sympathetic towards a character.

But somehow I ended up with a sort of neutral-looking guy. This is going to sound strange, but when I was drawing a more extreme version of this character it threw the story into a different framework. When I drew him as a typical kind of Western bad guy, your mind sees him and says "Oh, that's a criminal", and then you're waiting for that idea to come into play somewhere, for his "criminality" to mean something within the story. But I didn't have room for that within eight pages, so I couldn't really play that out. Plus, the more dangerous and menacing he looked, the more dark the tone of the story became. So I kind of ended up with a bland "everyman" cowboy, because that's what the story seemed to need. The story isn't really about the cowboy, it's about the vultures, so what I needed more than anything was just a target for their mischief that read immediately as a cowboy...nothing more, nothing less. Any "inflection" I put on him seemed to throw the story into more complicated territory and added confusion to the simplicity of the tale I was trying to tell.

So I thought I came up with a pretty original looking cowboy, and he was fun to draw and I could get pretty expressive with him. As I was cleaning up my comic, my eight-year-old daughter looked over my shoulder and said "Oh, you're drawing that cowboy from 'Home on the Range'". So I guess I wasn't being as original as I thought. I worked on "Home on the Range" and never considered the similarities until she pointed it out. By the time she mentioned it it was too late to change it. Next year I'll have to show her my designs earlier in the process.

So that's it from an overall philosophical standpoint. Hopefully someday I can talk about the more artistic and technical side of character design, like proportions and rhythm and stuff.

Well there you have it. Hope that helps somebody, somewhere. In summation: a design - be it for an environment, a character, or even a prop - should always serve the story first. A cool design that doesn't serve the story is just a cool design. It's like wearing shoes made out of gold. It may look cool but it's going to be uncomfortable and it's not going to fulfill it's primary function: to help you walk around from place to place.

All images copyright 2009 Mark Kennedy