Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Flat = Funny and Depth = Dramatic

One of the most basic and perplexing challenges a board artist faces is how to get the desired emotional response from the audience. Many times people will board a dramatic and serious scene, only to find that when they pitch it to a room full of fellow board artists, the audience doesn't take it as it was intended and breaks into laughs instead. Or vice versa...a board artist will pitch a scene that's meant to be funny and the room will be totally quiet, with no laughter happening at all.

A big part of what makes us feel like we should laugh at a scene or take it seriously is the visual cues that are used within the sequence. So one of the easiest ways to ensure the audience reacts to your story in the intended way is to use the right kind of visual language.

These are examples from two comedies: "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Nacho Libre".

Bright colors are a good visual cue to tell us that a scene is supposed to be funny. Also, a general feeling of flatness makes a scene feel humorous, and anything you can do to emphasize that feeling of flatness can add to the humorous aspect. Symmetry is usually very helpful to make it feel flat. And if a character is walking, or a vehicle is moving through the scene, it should be moving either parallel to us or directly towards or away from us. That way, it's not creating any depth as it travels through the frame.

By contrast, here are some dramatic scenes from "3:10 to Yuma" (the modern remake), "Touch of Evil" and "The Verdict".

These are markedly different from the comedic examples. Here, the palette is much more subdued - less color makes a scene feel less "cartoony" or gives less of a carnival/circus feel, and makes us feel less like laughing. Also, depth is created as much as possible...there are objects in the foreground, middle ground and background as much as possible. The camera is tilted to create more depth and more dramatic angles. Even when the horizon could create a flat line, the camera is tilted slightly to avoid creating any horizontal lines.

When Charles Schulz first started drawing "Peanuts", he drew with a lot of diagonals and created a lot of depth within his simple style.

This makes sense. In art school we're all taught to create dynamic angles and a sense of depth in our drawings because we're told these things make a drawing better (and they do).

But just making good drawings isn't really the whole point of a comic strip - comic strips are supposed to be funny. And I think at some point, Schulz realized that if he flattened out his drawings, they became funnier.

So flat visuals are great for setting a funny tone and visuals with depth are great for setting a dramatic tone.

For a film like "Nacho Libre", this creates some pretty clear guidelines about how to art direct your movie and set up your shots. The same is true for "3:10 to Yuma". Each film has a clear overall tone and mood that's very extreme and consistent throughout the movie (in one case, comedic, and in the other, dramatic).

But most movies live in the middle of the two extremes. Most films have some serious parts and some comedic parts. So is transitioning from one type of scene to the other awkward and clunky?

Actually, no. Dramatic shots with depth and flat shots with humor can easily co-exist right next to each other. When done right, the audience doesn't even realize the difference. But as film makers, we can use these techniques to create a laugh in the midst of an action sequence to break the tension for a moment before returning to action and drama. And vice versa: a humorous scene can suddenly turn dark and foreboding....and then just as quickly switch back to hilarious.

Here are some screengrabs from the first Star Wars movie, from the beginning and the battle aboard the Rebel Blockade Runner. These shots are actually all right next to each other. Here they are, in order:

Here, in the midst of the battle scene, are two shots with a lot of depth and drama as rebels and stormtroopers battle it out. Then, in contrast to these dramatic and exciting scenes, there is one very flat and comedic scene as R2-D2 and C3-PO travel through the corridor, right through all the heavy blaster fire (notice they are traveling parallel to camera, to give the scene that flat and funny feeling). Then it's followed by more dramatic scenes as the battle rages on.

So within a sequence you can slip from one type of scene to the other, and if done well, the audience won't feel the change of mood at all.

Every scene in my life I've boarded pretty much fits that description; except for extreme cases, most scenes have some dramatic moments of emotion and some moments of lightness. Those are the type of scene I like to board most; I love the challenge of transitioning from one type of moment to the next and finding the right balance of laughs and emotions as well as creating the right staging to get the audience to feel what I want them to feel. I particularly enjoyed that challenge in working on "Tangled"; there were so many great scenes that I felt had a particular challenge in that regard.

For example, the scene where Rapunzel enters the "Snuggly Duckling".

I love the mood of this scene because it's both comedic and dramatic at the same time. It's a scary scene for Rapunzel - this is the type of place and the type of person her Mother has made her terrified of. And yet the scene is funny as well - from Flynn's P.O.V. the scene has a lot of humor, because he doesn't really think they're in danger, he's just trying to trick Rapunzel by playing to her worst fears.

The scene is a delicate balance - if the scene becomes too cartoony and funny, you might think Rapunzel is an idiot for being scared of cartoony clownish thugs and you'll stop liking her. So the thugs in the bar have to convey some real menace.

At the same time, if the guys become too scary or intimidating you can't laugh at them, and there's no humor to the scene.

It was a tough scene to pull off but the artists that boarded it, laid it out and animated it did a great job of balancing the two priorities and making Rapunzel's fright real and sincere so the audience could empathize with her, and not look at her as a clown or see her as someone who isn't very smart.

Also we wanted Rapunzel standing up to them and attacking them as a real moment of heroism and courage for her and something that's hard for her to do. If the guys in the bar come off as cartoony and silly then it's not much of a courageous act for her to stand up to them.

Another scene that I think balances out the humor and drama is when Flynn escapes from prison. It's a serious scene (he's about to be hanged, and that has to feel like a real threat) but Flynn is saved in a way that has humor to it, to keep the scene from becoming too dark and oppressive.

But on the other hand, if the scene becomes too light and fun, you lose the sense that Flynn's life is in the balance and that if he fails in his escape he's going to die. So you can't go too far with the humor.

 I think that's one of the big keys to storyboarding a Disney movie: you have to make the threats and the drama feel real enough that the audience really believes that the characters are facing serious issues and a lot of jeopardy. But at the same time, we're not making "Saw" movies, and we need to balance the darkness with some lightness to make the movie palatable to all viewers, and create fun characters that make you laugh and cry so that you enjoy watching them and you enjoy going through their trials and tribulations with them and care whether they come through them (or not) in the end.


Tony Wisneske said...

Great post. I was really thinking about this when I went to see the re-release of The Lion King. In the final battle sequence between Simba and Scar, Pumba and Timon crack jokes during what is really the emotional climax of the film. It totally takes you out of the drama and made the situation feel not so important. Like, "Oh, they're making jokes, so the situation isn't that dangerous." The stakes were watered down.

I'm guessing they were hoping Timon and Pumba would be distractions from the serious tone the first act of the movie had, somewhat like Baloo in The Jungle Book. But Baloo eventually comes around to the sad reality of his situation, while Timon and Pumba remain essentially oblivious. They stayed two-dimensional and it hurt the emotional punch the film could have had.

I was watching Aladdin on TV recently and the same thing happened during the climax with the Genie making impersonations of a celebrity I don't even know. It's just unnecessary.

I'm all for mixing comedy and drama throughout a film, but I've seen it done badly too many times during the climax. It's when the film should be taken seriously for 5-10 minutes, holding my breath in anticipation. Make jokes during the dénouement.

Ok, getting off my soapbox now.

JasmineTanner said...

this was very helpful! thanks for the awesome post :D

Matthew Bell said...

Depth = a longer time to read, it lets the eye wonder & soak it all up. The complexity & visual relationships, the light, shadows, staging, form etc. Intricate images that can hide little pleasures or detail & ideas within them, reviled to the viewer through timely perusal & multiple viewings.

Flat = Quick & Clear, not only for depicting "funny". But because it's often understood in a heart beat. It's the "Light Bulb" going off in your head moment, that's the power/trick/pleasure of simple & readable communication of the image. It heightens your sense of immediate connection to it for solving & understanding the image & grasping the concept of it relatively straight away. All the visual relationships are direct & presented or staged in a relatively simply & clearly understandable way.

There are two parts to DRAWING & they are, Design and Draftsmanship

Flat is Design, Depth is Draftsmanship. Ideally an artist should be superb at both & be able to play & meander all along the scale from one to the other and any sort of wild combination somewhere in-between. Nowadays in 3DCGI the computer does the majority of our frame by frame draftsmanship of the forms for us and we really only have total controle over the design of the position of those forms, & it’s not from scratch every new frame the way it is in OLD 2D.

There’s a quote somewhere that talks about looking at a map Vs looking at the real & complex geography around you relative to your real position. It’s not always the best situation to have all the information & real terrain & its details spread out vaguely in front of you, what you need to know are the specifics of where certain things are that matter to you are. And so you pull out and look at a map with all these little flags or points on it instead. No, it’s not reality or exactly what is directly in-front of you, it’s only a visual approximation, but [in quite a few instances] it works better.

Do you see? This stuff applies 110% to us artists; whose concerns are how we could go about painting & drawing [i.e: depicting] things, & the powerful & wonderful abilities of simplification & abstraction that come from playing with styles of visual representation & the loose association of different shapes within your images just as much as it does with those folks who’re using the above sentiment in regards to surveying & documenting lands & locations on a grand scale.

Here are two poignant short films both with little Boats & flat, graphic & simple front-on or "stacked" dimension to them. To be honest with you, I think in a lot of instances they almost rival features in many ways with some of their strengths. Perhaps even outperform them in a few areas too. Little Boat - nelson boles On The Water - yi zhao

Afonso Ferreira said...

How can you talk about flatness making a scene feel humorous and not mention any Wes Anderson movies, that guy is a master flatter.

Awesome post your stuff is allways so helpfull, it makes me understand how to turn simple to special.

Anonymous said...

Of course there are always counter-examples. Coen brothers movies are full of dynamic and deep shots that are hilarious (think Nicholas Cage being pulled by his feet out from under the car).

Rodney Baker said...

Really enjoyed this write-up. It's something that on the surface seems so simple yet is so hard to keep in mind when setting up a scene. As you say, considering it in the early stage should save a lot of rework after others have watched/tested the scene out.

I appreciate your insight. In a Disney film that's got to be designed in or else risk the scene being too intense. I confess that I like those little moments that take you out of the intensity for a moment. It lets you relax a little even while we are anticipating getting back into the action. That anticipation is all important and helps to keep everyone in the moment for a long as we can possibly stand it.

and Hey Matthew Bell... nice commentary and breakdown of the terminology. I really enjoyed that.

velocityofme said...

I really enjoyed this. I am story boarding out a short right now and I kind of instinctively followed your guidelines- I'll be a little more aware of what I am doing now. I would really hesitate to call 'Nacho Libre' a comedy, though. I guess it's intended as one but in this case the signifier does not equal the signified.

Richard said...

Great post.
The flat compositions are really great for emphasizing the staging of the action- the actual stage itself almost appears to be irrelevant as the action dominates; whereas in a dynamic composition it appears to be the stage itself that grabs more of the attention to create a sense of mood.

James Carver said...

Very well put Richard! Man, the comments here are really adding valuable little bits of insight to the main Article. Great stuff guys! Wow, the power of the internet, communication & the collision of minds & ideas sparking off one another.

…makes me happy.

Chris Cormier said...

Fantastic post! You've shared something that I've never heard before, that will stay with me for the rest of my career. Thank you! The Peanuts example is amazing. Just brilliant.

Nikhita said...

What a great post! Thanks so much for the advice, that really answers a lot of questions... Pitching is fun but its not so when the audience reacts different. Good examples too! thanks again! :)

tomm said...

interesting post thank you!

Dapoon said...

Absolutely love this post! Thanks a lot! Definitely makes me look at scenes a whole lot differently now.

I have to agree with the first comment. A lot of otherwise good movies were ruined for me for suddenly bringing in unwanted humor in a serious climax. I was just beginning to get involved in that scene when BOOM! Someone just told a fart joke!

Quentin Lebegue said...

Super interesting post once again ! Thank you for sharing.

Rex said...

i can think of an example where the exact reverse of this rule is true.

take a comedy. maybe one of those awful cutaway clip shows like family guy. very flat.

and then WHAM they hit you with a dramatic and depth-ey parody of something. maybe the dad wants a donut and the son won't give it to him- then we jump to a mexican standoff sequence complete with revolvers- with camera angles presented in extreme perspective along the barrels of the guns.

this visual contrast is AMUSING. because of the context, there's no real drama here, but the implication of drama is what makes it even funnier in context...

James said...

Great insight. Your'e a fab teacher!
Isn't it partly to do with how we actually interact with/moving through the world as well:
generally when we're travelling or looking around and the perspective is constantly changing there's less time to take in everything and so a lot 'goes by'.
But the minute something grabs our attention, we lock focus and concentrate on that one thing (usually some sort of body/object) and hence in sort it becomes flat(we're not concerned with the distorting view beyond that object.
For anything to be funny it has to have our locked focus in that respect before it can be read or make impact and then finally, if need be, funny.

Also danger/awe/omnipotent/ struggling views tend to be replicating when we're not in control/less understanding and hence more searching around for the key things which CAN lock our focus and tell us the situation we are in.

I'm learning a great many things from this blog and its' readers comments.
Thank you all.

Anonymous said...

That's a very astute observation there James, really Smart & a great contribution to the wrangling of thoughts on this topic. Thanks for that.

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Anonymous said...

I agree for the most part. Wes Anderson's films like the Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore are definitely very flat.

However, in the Coen Brother's Raising Arizona, there are quite a few dynamic shots that still come across as hilarious. In situations like that they are shooting a ridiculous situation in a dramatic way, and I think they are spoofing what would be a dramatic scene in another story.

K.B. said...


Robert Wertz said...

Excellent and helpful post! The pub scene in "Tangled" is great example. The tension in that scene was beautifully managed.

Commenters pointing to the Cohen Brothers use of dramatic angles depicting absurd situations are spot on.

I would also like to point out Stanley Kubrick's use of flat composition to depict serious or horrific situations. He has used this to produce uneasy comedy in "A Clockwork Orange", almost daring us to laugh at things that are simply not funny. He also uses very flat compositions to generate horror and unease in "The Shining". By placing something truly unsettling in a shot composed to make us at ease he is actually increasing the tension.

These filmmakers are quite aware of the rules of shot composition and are deliberately subverting them to catch us off guard.