Saturday, July 07, 2012

Staging and How it Affects Mood and Drama

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.

"Winnie the Pooh" doesn't have a lot of closeups, and there are no upshots, or downshots, or scenes that look inherently dramatic.

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 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.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

While watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I noticed during the ship-to-ship battles, we start with a shot of the full bridge and then gradually close in on the man in captain's chair. The scene goes from being about the operation of the ship, to the confrontation between Khan and Kirk. The increasing close ups work like a fuse to let us know that the big dramatic boom is coming soon.

Also, in "The Shawshank Redemption", Tim Robbins has a lot of space around him in order to demonstrate that he is a loner, and different from the other prisoners, and has many opportunities to "grow" in this enclosed setting. However, his chance of an appeal is foiled by the warden towards the end, we see him sitting against a wall. The shot is done at an angle so that the frame is 2/3rds wall and his character is isolated in a very small space. For added symbolism Morgan Freeman kicks a piece of soapstone against said wall. Soapstone is what made up the chess set from earlier. Essential the scene is telling us the the king is cornered and has no possible moves left. He is finally trapped.

Jeca Martinez said...

great article! I didn't know that different types of staging have different effects on people til now :) thanks for the tips! :D

James Bourne said...

Mr. Kennedy, your posts have helped me as a board artist so much. Thanks to your posts, I've learned a great deal about staging, comedic timing, and appeal in my drawing style. I have a short that I've boarded which uses different styles of staging, and I was wondering if I could get some of your feedback on it:

She-Thing said...

THanks so much… now I'll be 100% conscious of staging the next movie I'm going to see (Spiderman!! :p) But indeed, I'll see what's going on Moonlight. One movie that I also noticed what you're saying, I think it's overdosed and unnecessary, is Fantastic Mr. Fox. Too much of the monotony, on the other hand a movie that doesn't (in my pov) is Darjeeling Unlimited or, a movie that's not from Anderson, is Be Kind Rewind. They both contain this surreal sarcasm and the "eccentric" staging that does work in the ideal, comedic, way.

Alberto Gomez said...

I love how daring Wes Anderson is in terms of staging. Besides his compositions are really masterful.

However, I guess that boarding his movies must be pretty restrained for the artists. Same thing for Pooh. You must observe a very particular style that limits your choices as a board artist.

Kristian K said...

Tomas Alfredson and Hoytema also used a lot of flat shots in Let the Right One In and some in and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but to a very different effect.

Anonymous said...

I like Wes Anderson's films, but after seeing this over and over again, part of me wonders if these staging decisions are driven by the story, or if it's simply a stylistic gimmick that he keeps using because it's fun a quirky and isn't yet played out.

David Balan said...

@ Erik Johnson

I never noticed that about Shawshank - really cool observation! Thanks for that. That kind of visual storytelling and symbolism is great work, and mostly because it works beneath the audience's conscious awareness.

Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

Thanks David.

Speaking of working beneath the audience's conscious awareness, RedLetterMedia did a video review of Star Wars Episode 3, were towards the end they discuss the flat angles of the prequels compared to the more dynamic and subtle symbolism of the originals films' staging.

If you haven't seen it, I recommend it.

Also, in the commentary for "Jaws", Speilberg comments how after the boat starts to sink, the shots are done at water level, it make the audience feel like they are treading water and in danger along with the characters.

murf said...

Great insights; many thanks.

Mike Scott said...

Great, thanks.