Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Here's my Christmas card this year (once again featuring our Miniature Schnauzer).
Best wishes for a wonderful holiday and a happy New Year!!!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"I've Got a Plan..."

Have you ever noticed that, in movies, when a character says, "I've got a plan", there are two things that can happen next.

One of those options is that the film cuts away at that point, and we (the audience) don't get to hear what the plan is as the character explains it to whoever he was talking to. Then, as the plan goes into action and it unfolds, we are surprised at how it twists and turns as the characters execute their plan.

Here's the scene from the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" where Jack steals the Interceptor out from under the British Navy that illustrates this first approach.

Jack never says "I've got a plan" per se, but it's pretty clear he has one and at no point do we (the audience) know what he's up to (nor does Will Turner, it seems). So as the plan unfolds, everything is a surprise to us and fun to watch...all the way to the end, where he anticipates every move his enemy will make to try and stop him. If we had heard all those details in advance, it would take all the fun out of watching it unfold.

The other way to go is that after the character says, "I've got a plan...", we do the opposite: we don't cut away. We stay with the character as he or she lays out their plan in detail. That way the plan - as the characters are expecting it to unfold - is clear in our minds. We know exactly what each character's role is in the plan, what they're supposed to do, and when, and what the characters expect to happen at each point and what they expect the final result to be.

The reason to play it this second way is so that they audience is completely clear on what's supposed to happen....and then dramatic tension (or comedy - think "I Love Lucy") is created when the plan starts to go completely wrong. Maybe the world doesn't react the way the characters thought, maybe the guards decided to change their schedule that day, maybe one of the characters falls asleep and misses the crucial step everyone was relying on him or her to perform. Doesn't matter....the point of this second way is to set up an expectation and then create drama (or comedy) by how the plan doesn't match what we were setup to expect.

The point of both ways is to surprise you - either by completely withholding information or by giving you all the information you need so that you can understand what's going wrong and how bad that is for the characters.

Think how boring it would be to hear the characters plan out their moves and then see them execute it in exactly the way they planned it out. It'd be like watching the same thing twice....once as they talked through it and then as they actually did it. It's be like watching a movie where everyone says what they're going to do before they do it: "I'm going to punch you now", "I'm going to shoot you now", "I'm going to kiss you now".

In a lot of ways, this little example holds the key to much of film making. Either withhold key information to surprise your audience with later, or setup an expectation that you subvert later by delivering something else. It's that simple. As Jerry Bruckheimer once said about film making, "Just keep throwing 'em curveballs."


"Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" falls into the latter category: that is, they have a lot of plans in the film and they definitely explain them out in advance for the audience to hear. I don't think there's any other way they could have approached it in that particular case: the plans in the movie are so complicated there's no way to explain everything that's happening to the audience as it's happening. And their plans are so reliant on getting technology to work in unison with the physical parts of the plan that I don't know how you'd ever explain that while it's unfolding. It would make no sense and would create pauses in the action that would totally destroy the rhythm of the action sequences. So they discuss their plans with each other before they put them into action, and they explain the technology-based parts of their plan to the audience in a natural way: they have one tech-savvy guy who understands all this stuff better than anyone else on the team, and so the rest of the team naturally has to ask him questions about all the technology, and he explains it to them....and to us, the audience. So as we jump into the action, we know as much as we need to know to understand what's happening and what the technology is supposed to be doing (and what it's not supposed to do, so we know when it's failing). Otherwise there'd be no dramatic tension if it started to malfunction or do the wrong thing.

There are better examples of this type of thing in the film, but here are some clips that are available online that illustrate the point.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Choices Create a Believeable and Consistent World

As artists, when we create stories in a visual medium, we control the look of everything. Every character, every background, every prop and every detail has to be designed. We have to make a choice about how each and every thing will look, and why. It can seem overwhelming,

So how do you know which way to make those decisions? For me, everything always seems to go back to the story and what will tell it in the best possible way. Each and every detail you draw can contribute to the story you're telling, if you put enough thought into your work and design it right. And if you don't think ahead and don't put much thought into what you're doing, you can undermine what you're trying to say.

Here's an example: our story (be it an animated film, comic book, whatever) opens on our main character's house, before we even see him.

Our character's house has walls that seem to be falling in and a roof that appears to be sagging. Most of the windows are too dirty to see in, but the ones that we can see through have old sheets hung in front of them instead of curtains or blinds. The house is in dire need of a paint job, and the front lawn hasn't been mowed in forever - the grass is waist high. Piles of old newspapers lie on the front step - the owner is too lazy to collect them and they continue to pile up day after day.

When we see a house like that, we make a lot of assumptions about the type of person that lives there. We ascribe a lot of qualities to them based on the way their house is kept. It doesn't have to be a house, of course...the character's car, their clothing, their posture, etc....all these things are choices we have to make as artists and each one can have a real effect on how the audience perceives our characters.

By contrast, picture a house with a fresh clean paint job with brightly painted shutters on the windows. The roof is clean and perfectly straight, and the windows are all sparkly clean. The lush, thick grass of the front yard is trimmed neatly and the whole house is surrounded by a perfectly even white picket fence.

In both types of houses we get a strong feeling about the person that lives there and takes care (or doesn't take care) of their home. We've made strong decisions that help tell our story and inform the audience about our characters.

Many times I feel like I see stories where people think "Okay, I need to show my character's house before we meet him" and then they'll just draw a bland, nondescipt house. The house doesn't tell anything about the character - it's not being used as story ammunition to tell the story in a more powerful, involving way. It's just a graphic symbol that says, "house". And it's a totally missed opportunity.

Or on the other hand, sometimes you see artists make a choice that doesn't quite feel right. For example, imagine if Elmer Fudd pulled out a rifle and pointed it at Bugs Bunny, but instead of his usual cartoon hunting rifle, the gun was a completely realistic looking gun, covered with detail and even tiny flecks of rust. It would feel totally jarring and it would take you out of the cartoon. You'd definitely be done laughing at the cartoon. You would be reminded of the fact that you're watching something made by artists that made weird choice that doesn't fit....the spell has been broken.

Good artistic choices feel like they weren't even choices that were "made", they just happened naturally. A good story where everything is designed properly just feels right, and it feels it's a real, actual place where everything actually exists. It doesn't have to be a realistic world, everything just has to relate to everything else properly. Everything has to be at the same level of caricature. Everything in Bugs Bunny's world should relate to Bugs Bunny. Everything in Pinocchio's world should relate to Pinocchio.

As an example, I'd like to point out something I saw in an issue of Jordi Bernet's "Jonah Hex" that inspired me to write about this subject.

First, though, here are some random pages from Bernet's "Hex" work to give an idea of the level of realism and grittiness he usually employs, which help give the story its tone and mood.

The grittiness and level of drawing help enhance the gravity and rather grim level of story telling. The violence feels like it has more weight and there's more danger and suspense to the stories because they're handled in a more serious way.

For contrast, imagine the page where Jonah is attacked by wolves drawn in the "Peanuts" style...the drawing style would feel really inappropriate for the subject matter. You'd never really worry that Charlie Brown would be killed by ravenous wolves. Just as, if "Peanuts" were drawn in the Jonah Hex style, they'd be a lot less funny!

So here's the section that made me think about this topic and inspired me to write.

In the spread below, Jonah is a young boy. His father kicks him into the sewage of the family outhouse and Jonah is forced to spend a long night climbing his way out.

Here's the particular choice that caught my eye and surprised me when I saw it: the stylized treatment of the stars in the panel when the camera shows the exterior of the outhouse.

Now don't get me wrong: this is entirely my opinion, and there's no right or wrong to this stuff, and I completely love Bernet's stuff - I always have.

But as I always say: the best way to learn is to look at other people's artwork and ask yourself why they did what they did, and what you might have done differently. More than anything, this is the method I used to learn whatever I have learned in's the best method that I know to learn anything.

And here's the thing: personally I find the stylized treatment of the stars doesn't quite fit the narrative. The stylized stars are very charming, quirky and quaint. They work great for other types of stories that have more of that kind of feel. But "Jonah Hex" is about as far away as you can get from that kind of story. Particularly when the main beat is about being kicked into a pit of raw sewage (by your Dad, no less) and having to climb your way out. The sewage is certainly handled with a level of detail and rendering that sells the idea that the sewage is disgusting (a great choice, by the way). So why not handle the stars in a more realistic way to underscore the reality and the severity of the moment? Why handle them in a way that (at least to me) lends more of a charm and whimsy to a story?

Here are some pages from the same artist (Bernet) but completely different characters and subject matter: these are from "Claire de Nuit". The characters are more broad and cartoony, which fits the more comedic subject matter, and the stylized stars fit really well. As I said before, those kind of stars are charming and whimsical. They fit better here.

Of course I should warn you that if you go looking for more "Claire de Nuit" examples, they tend to be very NSFW!

Anyway hopefully you will all take this the way I intended: I am not at all criticizing Bernet. I love his stuff. But when I look at any movie, TV show, painting or drawing, I am always asking myself the same questions:

What choices did the artist make?

Why did they make that choice?

What would I have done differently?

Some people get outraged when they think you are questioning other artists, and that is not my intent. I have simply trained myself to ask these questions to learn from other artists and improve my own tastes by learning from what they've done. Agree or disagree with me on this post - that's not the point. The point is to inspire you to ask the same questions. Too many times we look at a great piece of art and just admire it. To get better and learn, we should always be asking ourselves: what did that artist do that I agree with, and what did they do that I might have done differently?

After all, that's what makes us all individual and why every artist is interesting and amazing in their own way!