I know I've already talked a bit about this topic, but I recently saw Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" and it inspired me to revisit the subject. It's a film with very deliberate staging choices, which has a huge impact on the mood and emotional experience of watching the movie.
In this previous post, I talked about how flat staging creates a different feeling than staging in depth. By "flat staging", I mean whenever the camera is placed so that the action is either perpendicular or parallel to the camera and where the characters are usually seen straight on or in profile. Basically, flat staging is what it sounds like: staging the action so that, to the viewer, everything looks flat and has very little depth.
Flat staging works best when trying to create a humorous mood. Many comedies use this (as do dramatic movies when trying to have a lighter moment). In animation, some of the most funny shorts tend to favor this kind of staging to maximize their comedic mood...
"Winnie the Pooh" is another good example. "Winnie the Pooh" is pretty much all staged flatly, but also in a "diorama" like way. What I mean by that is that there are few close ups or dramatic angles in "Winnie the Pooh". Everything is staged in medium shots, where the action happens in the middle distance away from the viewer. You always feel slightly set back and separated from the action.
This affects your whole emotional experience while you're watching the film, because staging and camera placement have a huge impact in how we feel while we watch a film. Where the camera is placed (as well as how the scene is lit and how color is used) tell us how to feel about what we're seeing. It's impossible to separate how a scene is staged from how to feel about it.
"Moonrise Kingdom" has probably the most specific and deliberate staging choices of any movie I've ever seen. Wes Anderson chose to stage his film in a way that's a lot like "Winnie the Pooh" - every scene in the film is staged in a very flat way (many of his films have this kind of staging, of course). In every scene, if a character moves, they move either parallel to the camera or directly towards the camera. There's very little depth in almost any shot and many scenes are symmetrical in their design. The best way I can describe it is to say that watching the film feels like looking at the illustrations in a children's book.
This has a huge impact on the mood of the film and how the viewer feels while watching the story unfold. It has a very whimsical feel that gives the film a quirky and charming sensibility. That type of staging is a perfect match for the writing, which is very quirky and charming. So it seems like the perfect marriage - the way the film is shot complements the intention of the script and the feel of the characters in the movie.
That's our goal as storyboard artists; to storyboard in a way that uses every tool at our disposal to tell the story in the best way possible.
The interesting thing about this type of staging is that, as you'd expect, the emotional range of the film is rather contained. Because the whole film is shot in this flat and whimsical way, the film never goes to an extremely dramatic or emotional place...it stays in the quirky, charming and "small" world that it starts out in.
I'm not criticizing that choice - it was clearly the film maker's intention. The film is a period piece and is meant to stay contained in the charming world that it's set in. An intense dramatic scene would feel as false and out of place in "Moonrise Kingdom" as it would in "Winnie the Pooh" or in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
By contrast, films like "Tangled" or "Brave" have stories that go to a very emotional and dramatic place. If either of those films stuck to flat staging the entire time, I think it would feel very unsatisfying and frustrating to the viewer - like the film makers weren't committing to the full emotional range of the story they're trying to tell.
Again, most films have a range of both types of staging....flat when they're trying to be humorous, and deep when they're trying to be exciting, emotional, scary or dramatic.
So the next time you're watching a movie or a TV show, be conscious of how the action is staged and why. Along with the color choices used, and the type of music in the soundtrack, staging is one of the most important tools we have to create the emotional response we want from our audience.