Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dissecting a Sequence From "The Dark Knight"

A friend sent me a link to this video, which is great. In it, Jim Emerson, a film writer and critic, breaks down a sequence from "The Dark Knight" and explains why he finds it confusing. It's a great primer on screen direction and the 180 degree rule, and why those things are important.

In the Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight) from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

When the audience is confused and disoriented, they start to use their brains to try and decipher what's going on, rather than to engage with your movie and care about what's happening onscreen. In an action sequence it's particularly important to keep your audience absolutely clear about where all the characters, vehicles and landmarks are in relation to each other. Otherwise, there's no tension or drama.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Kagemusha" and some Composition thoughts

I was streaming the movie "Kagemusha" on Netflix and, like all Kurosawa films, it had great compositions. So I screengrabbed a few to share and talk about.

If you've never seen a Kurosawa movie, check out "The Hidden Fortress" and "Seven Samurai". They're subtitled, and both are made in black and white, which I know is kind of a turnoff for some people. But that's a shame, because these are both amazing films, and not in the typical film school "this is a boring movie that you have to sit through because it's become a classic" way...they are really great, entertaining and amazingly well-made movies. I have watched both of them multiple times and they are truly great. And a delight to watch.

Anyway, back to "Kagemusha". I've talked before about creating a "frame within a frame". It's a handy compositional tool, useful for getting the eye of the viewer going where you want it to go. You just create a frame within your composition to frame your subject. Some good examples from "Kagemusha":

 In this one, Kurosawa uses frame-within-a-frame to separate the people on the left from the person on the right, to sell the idea that the people on the left are unaware of the person on the right and do not realize that they are being overheard.

You can see how it's a useful tool for creating depth and interesting compositions, as well as for directing the viewer's eye, and can be used in an infinite variety of ways.

In this one, the land and the ocean create useful frames for separating the two groups and emphasize the differences between them (which you can get a good idea of, just from the differences in their costumes). I like the way the shoreline leads right to the face of the figure in the foreground to make you focus on him and his expressions.

In this example, Kurosawa creates two frames to show the two groups spying through the holes of a collapsed house. It's a great choice of location because the walls of the house make an interesting texture that fills up the frame.

Same thing here - he creates an interesting composition by placing the two people at the right and left edge of the frame, which is an unusual choice that creates an interesting composition. Then he places a rock between them that creates an interesting shape and is full of texture that looks great onscreen.

Here's another good example. An interesting composition is created by putting the watching figures higher than you might expect and widening out the shot to create an interesting texture with the rocky hillside. They're spying on an army, so the choice of putting them so high and making them so small really sells that idea that they're hiding and peeking down from their secret perch.

In fact, this reminded me of a layout concept that Dan Hansen (former layout teacher, and now the head of the Character Animation program at CalArts) used to say. He said that when a character is at a location that's down low, place them low in your composition. And when a character is up high, put them high within the composition.

Why does this matter? It helps because it reinforces visually what you're trying to say and helps keep the audience oriented as to where everyone is in relation to each other. Try it yourself - draw a storyboard where a character is down low, but put them high within your composition. Then draw a storyboard of a character that's in an up high place, but low within the composition. Look back and forth between them and see if it feels okay or seems awkward. It's definitely possible to pull this off, but I think you'll see if you try it that it can seem confusing, and the other way works better for simplicity and clarity.

Here's another great compositional technique that people don't use very often but that works well. You have one part of the frame (in this case, the background) lit all in warm colors...then another part of the frame (the foreground in this example) lit with cool colors. It separates the two areas and gives it depth while creating a nice contrast.

Anyway I hope you found these examples interesting as well and I hope that if you've never checked out a Kurosawa movie you'll try one and see what you think. Personally, I haven't seen them all myself although I'd like to, someday. I haven't finished "Kagemusha" either but if there's more good stuff to share I'll post it soon.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Inspiration from Steve Jobs

With Apple CEO Steve Jobs being in the news this week, I read a few articles about him. He had a couple of quotes that I really thought were interesting. Here's the first one:

"When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there,"
he told Newsweek in 2006. "But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions."

 This is amazingly perceptive and truthful to me. It applies to story and it applies to drawing. Your first instinct when trying to solve a drawing problem or a hole in your story is to add layers of complexity. Oftentimes the best solution is really rather simple and involves removing complexity instead of adding it. And it's worth remembering that often the first solution we think of is the most complicated, but if we keep at it, examining the problem from different angles and trying different solutions, we can come up with a better solution that would have been impossible for us to see at the start.

As someone once said, "writing is re-writing". I have always found this to be absolutely true. I have always found that "drawing is re-drawing" as well.

I think Hemmingway once said "The first draft of anything is shit." This has also always been true in my experience.

Okay, the second quote that struck me was this:

"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do," he once told Stanford grads. "If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on."

"Loving what you do" has a unique meaning in the animation business. To me, there are three parts to consider about the job we do when talking about "loving what we do":

The first component of "what we do" is the artistic struggle of (and satisfaction you get from) producing your own work and judging it against your own taste and artistic standards. This part would be the storyboards you draw, the scenes you animate, the backgrounds you paint, etc. The artwork you are personally creating during the making of the film or show.

The second component of "what we do" is submitting our work to the directors, producers and our peers, and working with them as we hone our work, improve it and alter it to fit appropriately within the larger scheme of the project.

The third component of "what we do" is the project as a whole (the entire film, TV show, video game or whatever) and our satisfaction or disappointment with how it turns out.

So there are a lot of aspects that go into our attempt to "love what we do". Some of them are under our control and some are not. All of us lose sleep over what we do and lay awake at night worrying about our jobs and the projects we are working on (at least I do, and I assume everyone else does too). And in my experience, people spend more time agonizing over and lose more sleep over the parts of the project that are out of their control than the parts they do control.

It always saddens me a bit to see how many people on the internet identify themselves as "bitter animators" and the like, and how many people write in an angry and bitter way about animated projects they've worked on (or in some cases haven't worked on but still hate the film with a passion, either because they think it's bad or they hate the people that made it). I completely understand how painful it can be to spend years of your life and countless hours late at night on a project that didn't turn out the way you hoped it would. The majority of films I've worked out haven't turned out as well as I had hoped. A very small number of them actually turned out anywhere near as good as I hoped they might. On all of the films I've worked on, I spent multiple years working on each one and sacrificed plenty on all of them in an effort to try and improve them as much as I could within the scope of my responsibilities.

I think a big part of why I don't look back on those projects with regret about the time I spent on them is that I always spoke up openly about what I thought was wrong and could be better. Most of the time people disagreed with me and didn't see the problems the same way I saw them. They didn't always agree with the solutions I was proposing. Fair enough. But because I spoke up and expressed my honest opinions I was able to sleep at night knowing that at least I had tried to help and I hadn't kept my feelings bottled up inside, festering away.

I think a lot of the time when people become bitter it's because they aren't speaking up about the problems they see. Sometimes it's because they're afraid they'll look like a fool and sometimes they're afraid they'll be fired. Certainly I've worried about both and risked both as well. But I've always found at Disney that if I spoke up in a respectful way - without insulting or belittling the project I was discussing, or the people making it - people didn't get angry at me because they could tell I was just trying to make things better. They haven't always agreed with me but they only rarely got mad at me. And I'm still there after 17 years. So from my limited experience that approach has worked, anyway.

There has always been plenty for me to love and get satisfaction out of in my time at Disney. Even when I didn't agree with the way the film was going I could always throw myself into working on my drawing, boarding my assignments to the best of my ability and learning more about drawing and film making and developing characters and putting all of that into my boards. I can honestly say that I love the job of storyboarding and working with a story crew so I can say that I really am fortunate enough to have a job that I love. And at the very least, even in my worst experiences when everything seemed hopeless and pointless, I was still being paid to draw every day and that's no small thing. I've also been fortunate enough to have always worked with the most amazing people in the world and that's no hyperbole. I've enjoyed every story crew I've ever worked with and I look back on every film I've worked on with fondness for the board artists and amazement of how much fun we had, even when things were at their most frustrating.

Abraham Lincoln said, "If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will". Every job has its ups and downs and, as artists, we are especially prone to getting frustrated and disillusioned. But within all of us there was once a younger, more idealized person who got into this business because we wanted to do good work and learn how to be a better artist. No matter how frustrated you are with your job, those things are still within your control and nobody can keep you from doing your best work or learning to be a better artist: that's entirely within your control.

 No matter what, nobody except you can keep yourself from learning, and growing, and finding satisfaction in the work you do, and those things are very important keys to leading a happy least in my experience!