Saturday, November 28, 2009

Basic Staging Principles (part 2)

Staging is such a subjective area that it's really hard to talk about - there's really no "right" or wrong way to stage anything, as long as the action and emotions are clear to the audience.

So when I'm trying to figure out the best way to stage a scene, I try to find the staging that best expresses the feeling you want to put across. How are the characters feeling and what staging puts that emotion over the best way?

I remember when I was working on "Home on the Range" I ran into a tough problem in that regard. The jackrabbit character in the movie was acting as a guide for the three cows in the movie. He claimed to the cows that he knew where he was going...but at one point he became lost and didn't know which way to go. The difficulty was that he couldn't tell the cows he was lost because he didn't want them to know. So there was no dialogue solution to make the idea clear. Also he had no prop that would help - if he had a map he could look at in a confused way, or a compass that he could look at in a puzzled manner, that would help clarify the idea. But I had none of those things to rely on. So I found the best solution I could think of - I staged it like this:



You start on a closeup of the rabbit glancing left and right, looking puzzled and confused. Then you cut back to see his surroundings all look the same, and as you pull back, he ends up looking very small in the midst of the large and overwhelming environment. These two shots together were the best way I could think of to say, visually, that he was lost.

That was a 2D movie, of course, and I suppose in a 3D movie maybe I would have tried a different approach, maybe like the camera circling around him as he looked around, puzzled and confused.

That scene isn't in the final movie, by the way.

When a character is supposed to feel lost, abandoned, or alone, a wide shot with a lot of empty space around them is always effective. Here are a couple more examples: a Norman Rockwell painting of a lonely salesman on the road, playing solitaire in a hotel room by himself, and one by Vance Gerry from "The Rescuers" of the orphan Penny, alone by herself in the orphanage bedroom.




Things that are staged in a very flat way (where the action is perpendicular or parallel to the camera) feel very comedic, by their flat nature. Use this to your advantage when staging scenes that are meant to be funny.



Here are some examples from Steven MacLeod's Framefilter blog that illustrate this theory. Just look how funny these pictures look, even without knowing their context within the story.



Some of them are very symmetrical as well. We usually try to avoid symmetry because it flattens out a picture, but in these examples, where flatness is helpful to the funny moment, it was used purposefully.

The same action, when staged in depth, becomes dramatic and exciting.



Here are some examples from different live action movies that show how dramatic a picture can be when it has depth.



These are from "The Illusion of Life" and they are a great example of how to improve the staging of a scene. Here are two examples of how to stage Bernard slipping down into a hole.



The first one (on the the left) has many weaknesses that are improved in the second example (on the right). The one on the left is very flat - the wall that Bernard is clinging to is flat onto the camera. Also the lines that describe the wall are parallel to the edges of the frame so the whole shot feels very flat, which would be more appropriate for a comedic scene. Laying out the scene this way makes the animator's job tough, because you can see how awkwardly Bernard is looking over his shoulder to look at the danger beneath him and we can't really see his expression all that way. Also the composition has him too close to the bottom of the frame, for my tastes, because there's no negative space beneath him to make it feel like he could fall down into the abyss.

The second one is better in many ways. The best part about it is that you can easily see his scared expression clearly and also see the peril beneath him at the same time without having to twist his head around awkwardly (like it was in the first example). Being able to see the danger in the scene as well as how he feels about it make for a great choice for staging. Also the sense of depth in the second shot makes for a much more dramatic scene, instead of the flat first example. Also this staging allows diagonal lines through the composition which add more drama too.

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....