Thursday, March 15, 2012

Call Northside 777: Every Choice Comes From the Story

The Jimmy Stewart movie "Call Northside 777" is not a great movie, but there were some great choices in lighting and cinematography that I liked. I started out just writing about the values and cinematography, but that led to a few other thoughts about how to make artistic choices, and how every choice you make on a movie comes from the story, which means it's really important for every person on a movie to know what each sequence is about (as well as the overall story).

In the film, Stewart plays a newspaper reporter trying to uncover the truth behind a man who he thinks was wrongly sent to prison for killing a police officer.

This is the scene that made me start to think about some of this stuff. In it, Jimmy Stewart goes to confront a woman who lives in a run-down apartment building. It's a tense scene, full of mystery: you don't know what he's going to find, and all the choices contribute greatly to the feeling the film makers wanted to convey.

He walks up to her apartment and is shrouded in darkness as he reaches the door. He lights a match to make sure he's at the right apartment, and there's an insert shot of her apartment number: three.

The choice of a crooked and beat-up looking "3" that has nail holes randomly placed attached to a weathered and cracked door is no accident. That's a great choice of prop and setting that convey a powerful feeling about the state of the apartment and the condition of the person inside. In animation we have even more control over the art direction of these type of things - after all, we have to design and build everything from scratch - so there's no excuse not to always use your art direction to support the story point (more on this in a bit).

 While he's waiting for a response, someone in a nearby apartment opens their door to check out the noise which temporarily throws him into light and then back into darkness as the door closes. A great use of light and dark to create a mysterious, uncertain mood and to say we're surrounded by unseen people lurking in the shadows.

I love the way only one light bulb is working in the hallway and the stairs seen in the background are warped and worn, creating a great effect as the top of each step is thrown into relief by the light. It creates a visceral feeling of a dark, dingy, run-down and possibly dangerous place.

The design of everything in a movie - including cinematography choices and set design - should support the story. Everyone who works on a film should know the story as well as possible when they're doing their job. If you're a character designer, layout artist, animator or lighter, it's impossible to make choices and do your job unless you know what the function is of your piece within the story.

For example, suppose you're in layout and you're told by your director you need to design a hallway in an apartment building for your character to walk through, and then he's going to knock on a door.

Could you go off on that much information and design an apartment hallway? I couldn't....there are millions of possible apartment buildings you could create. I would need to know the function of that hallway within the story in order to make choices as I figure out my design.

Is it (like in this film) a run-down, seedy apartment building where a scene of great tension will take place? Or is is a luxurious apartment building inhabited by millionaires? Or something in between? Is this an apartment building in a big city? A small town? In the middle of nowhere? What year or era is it? What country is it?

The other part I need to know is how the characters in the scene are our hero nervous and anxious (like in the film above) or something else? Is he happy - going to see his girlfriend? Or going reluctantly and with a heavy heart to see his dying grandfather? Going to his boss's house to admit a mistake he made that will get him fired? And does the emotion change during the scene - if he was happily going to see his girlfriend, but then when his knock at the door is answered, it's his girlfriend's mom, and she tearfully tells our hero that his girlfriend has been in a terrible accident, that would mean we would have to design the set so as to give two different feelings: one as he's arriving happily and another as the shocking truth comes out and his world starts to spin.

The same thing applies to lighting a scene, of course, as well as designing characters. I have to admit I see a lot of character designs where the artist has created a great design but there's no sense of the personality or function of that character. Every aspect of a character design- from the way their face looks, to their posture and the clothes they wear - is an important choice and affects the way the audience will perceive them in the story. Your hero and heroine will look very different from the secondary characters in a movie. Usually the hero and heroine need to convey a wide range of dramatic acting so their design will be more conservative and straight to have more flexibility as each scene calls for them to be funny or sad or happy or angry or whatever. Side characters that have less range of expression and emotion should usually be designed more simply so that they convey their simpler function more quickly - they won't have as much screen time so they'll need to impart their function in the story more quickly to the audience.

Real actors are cast the same way. Great actors have a certain indelible quality that they bring to every role. Actors aren't interchangeable just like character designs aren't. It would be like saying that George Clooney and Paul Giamatti could play the same roles. They couldn't. They each bring a certain type of distinct personality and character to the parts they play. They're both good at the type of roles they play. But they're not interchangeable.

The same is true of Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre.

Anyway, the point is that, when you're working on a film or show you need to know the story in order to make choices. What's the function of each scene and character and what range of meanings will they have within the film? How do they start out and do they change over the film? How do we want the audience to feel about each character, each set, each prop?

Every choice you make on a movie has a dramatic effect on how the audience feels. And making the audience feel what we want them to feel is the greatest tool we have at our command when we tell a story. And if we screw it up by making the wrong choice, we lose our chance to make our audience have an emotional, resonant experience as they watch our films.

So here are some more screencaps from "Call Northside 777". Some are good examples of using the lighting and values to tell the story, and some are just great examples of using values for clarity and visual interest.

Some of these have as much control over the values as a painting by a great master. Great use of grey and white and black for clarity and for setting a mood.

SPOILER ALERTS from here on in by the way. If you're interested in seeing the film, it's available for instant streaming on Netflix, which is how I saw it. I'd never heard of it before.

More from the scene where Stewart confronts the woman who's false accusation may have sent an innocent man to prison. He tries to get her to recant her testimony.

I love how Jimmy Stewart's suit is so crisp and bold - he's wearing a black hat, a tie with a precise pattern and a suit with pinstripes - against the muddled grey, disordered background of the lady's disheveled apartment. Great, subtle visual storytelling that sums up the whole movie in an image that looks ordinary at first glance. He looks entirely out of his element here. He stands for truth and justice and the world he's descended into is all about lies, deception and corruption.

Love the way her face is thrown into silhouette. Always a great technique when done right.

They are surprised by her lover at one point.

In this scene Stewart has to tell the wrongly convicted man's mother that there's no hope of reversing her son's conviction.

Throwing a character's face into shadow can be a powerful device. It can make someone look sinister or create mystery because we can't see what they're thinking or feeling. In this case, it allows the Mother's grief to remain more private (we can't exactly see her expression) and allows her to retain her dignity while also making sure the film doesn't become manipulative, which is usually how it feels when you see someone crying in a movie. We get her anguish, but it's more powerful to not see her expression clearly because we project onto it with our imagination.

Here, the values aren't really that integral to the story, but I just love the control of values for clarity.
There's no place where two similar values lie next to each other and the light and dark values are evenly distributed well.

I always love this technique of having a shadow cross the top of the frame. It keeps your eye on the stage and the characters and doesn't allow the eye to wander off the top of the frame. Also it ensures there's no strong contrast at the top of the frame to pull your eye up.

The climax of the movie is a scene where a photograph is developed that might clear the name of the convicted man. The whole movie has come down to this moment. Developing a piece of film could be a small, uninteresting moment, but because it's the climax of the film and a very tense scene, the film makers lit it dramatically, with strong dramatic light from below that creates great contrasts and stark shadows. More than any of the others, this setup reminds me of a painting by an old master.

I said SPOILER ALERTS, right? Okay, well, here's the scene where the wrongly convicted man is released from prison (really, was there ever any doubt that Jimmy Stewart was on the right side?).
Again, great distribution of values for clarity.

I love how Jimmy Stewart (in the background) is framed by that shadow. Keeps him important and powerful even though he's small. Great composition too...he's the guardian angel, watching over the happy reunion he's been working towards all through the movie.

Great use of values and great arrangement of figures for an interesting composition.

The last shot...the camera pans from the happy reunion to the one man who made it all possible. Again, great framing with the building, and great use of values and contrast to make him stand out and feel strong although he's small in the frame. He's small against the big, powerful prison behind him, but because of the composition and the contrast on him he doesn't get lost in the image. That's a metaphor for the story of the film....the little guy takes on the enormous power of the state...and is victorious in the end.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Six Years

I missed my chance to take notice of the six-year anniversary of my blog, which happened on March 4th. It's been a great six years, thanks for all the feedback and words of support!

The final preview image of my graphic novel is up here.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Head, Ribs and Hips part 1

When we think about the expressiveness of the human body it seems like the further out from the torso the extremity is, the more flexible and expressive it is (shoulders seem pretty expressive, hands even more so). We don't always think of the rib cage and pelvis (otherwise known as the hips) as contributing to great expressions, but the relationship between the head, ribs and hips tell us a lot about a person and can have a big part in telling us the age and health of the person and what their mental state is at that moment.

Here's the "default" posture, the one we think of humans as having naturally and the kind of posture we associate most with youth.

I think in our minds when we look at how people are standing we subconsciously relate their posture to this "yardstick" (above) of how we know young people with perfect posture might stand. And when the relationship and orientation of the head, ribs and hips changes from this upright "norm", that can tell us a lot about that person: Are they young? Are they healthy? Confident? Happy? Sad? Or are they old? Are they sick? Are they in pain? Scared? Do they feel defeated or overwhelmed by the world?

So obviously there are two aspects to "posture", or the orientation of the head, rib cage and hips. There's the way we carry ourselves in normal everyday life (do we slouch? Or do we walk upright?), and the more immediate effect our mood has on our posture. A person with perfect posture may slouch when depressed, tired, or sick, but otherwise may carry themselves upright and straight.

 The relation ship between the head, ribs and hips is an interesting balance of angles that play off of each other. It's a mistake to think of them like this:
If there's one thing to remember about the human body, it's that it's an amazingly fluid collection of balances and counter-balances. The ribs and hips are no exception:

The fact that the human body (and all living things) is full of masses counter-balancing each other and curves connecting them is the greatest tools we have as artists to give our drawings fluidity and rhythm. Always look for ways to emphasize these beautiful curves!

Of course the relationship between the head, ribs and hips is not rigid and unchanging. The spine (which connects all of them) is very flexible.

So this installment is all about the relationship between the head, ribs and hips when we're standing upright and when the forms are perfectly balanced.  In the next part we'll talk about dealing with those forms when you're NOT standing perfectly upright (which is about 99% of the time, of course).

Almost every move of any substance you make with your body has a ripple effect on how these three forms relate to each other, to maintain your balance. Even turning your head from a standing position to look to the side brings your head out forward, which means your rib cage leans back to compensate and your hips will either lean forward to balance the whole thing out like this:
Or your hips may move back (like your ribs did) to counterbalance your head. Either way, try it and notice that if you move your head off the perpendicular to look to the side, you will feel movement in your legs as your ribs and hips rearrange to compensate...proof that the whole body has to be involved in making even the smallest of adjustments.