Monday, April 30, 2012

Picking the Right Moment to Illustrate

I know I've talked about this one before, but since I'm on this kick of talking about how to get more storytelling into a drawing or an illustration, this seemed like a good time to revisit the concept and expand on the topic with some new perspectives.

When you sit down to do a drawing or painting of an event or a story, how do you know exactly which moment to pick as your moment to illustrate? This can be especially challenging when dealing with a scene full of action and drama.

There seem to be two schools of thought on this. The first type is the kind you see on the cover of pulp fiction novels from the 30's-50's.

Pulp Fiction covers always seem to be trying to cram as much action into the cover as they can (a lot of comic book covers seem to try this approach too). For example, someone's breaking down a door right as they're shooting another person who is just at that moment burning a screaming person with a white hot poker.

So when the Pulp Cover painter thinks about picking which moment to illustrate, he seems to be asking himself, "what's the most exciting moment in the whole book I can pick to show on the cover?" I imagine this is what sells books; those books are all about action so a potential buyer probably looks at all the covers and picks the one that looks like it has the most exciting story inside. So I think of this way of working as the "Pulp Cover" or "Comic Book" approach to picking the moment you use as the basis for your illustration, and it seems to be all about getting as much action as you can into one image and putting the viewer right in the middle of the violence.

The other school of thought I like to think of as more of an "Illustration" approach. Painters like Pyle and N.C. Wyeth seemed to have a different method of finding the right scene to portray.

These types of paintings seem to be created by showing a moment either before something momentous happens or right after something momentous happens. I like to think of it as they show either preparation or aftermath. But not the moment of action.

In this Wyeth illustration from "Treasure Island", the heroes are preparing to raise the flag of their fort, in defiance of the pirates that are laying siege outside the walls. He could have painted the moment where the flag is raised in a heroic fashion against the sun, with pirates firing their muskets at it and the heroes straining to raise the flag. It could have been painted as a big dramatic moment, but instead Wyeth chose the moment before: the simple action of the character sewing the flag to the flagpole and preparing to hoist it above the fort.

The moment seems charged with a lot of dramatic weight in a way that a moment of action can never be. Moments of action are somewhat flat: in a moment of action, characters aren't feeling deep, complex emotions. They're either scared or angry, or maybe they could feel triumphant or defeated, I suppose....but in moments of action, when people are breaking down doors or ducking a bullet, they aren't feeling any deep complex emotions.

In the Wyeth moment above, there are deep complex emotions at play: the feeling of defiance, the sense that these people have made a hard choice and are going to make a statement to their tormentors that they are not afraid and they are not going to surrender (I know you can't really get all that from the illustration - you need to read the book to get the proper context).

So that one is definitely a moment of preparation.

Another one by Wyeth that I love - the pioneer stepping out of his canoe, pausing for a moment before plunging into unexplored, unknown and hostile territory (I think it's from "The Deerstalker", but someone tell me if I'm wrong).

Another moment of "preparation" that has a lot of dramatic weight. Because it's a moment of "pause", there's a stillness that lets you look at his face and read emotions into it. Again, in moments of action, the faces of the characters tend to be contorted with effort and strain...which means you can't play deeper, more thoughtful types of emotions on their faces. When you're dodging a punch or firing a gun you can't be reflective or thoughtful, so the "Pulp Cover" kind of painting can never be that deep or subtle in the emotions they portray.

I'm not picking on the "Pulp Cover" or "Comic Book" way of selecting a moment, and there are times when that's definitely the right choice for the subject. But one of the reasons why I appreciate the "Illustration" approach more is that film is great at capturing movement and action. It's very hard for a single image to capture the feeling of kinetic force, movement and action in the same way that film can. Distilling exciting action into a single frozen image isn't really the strength of drawing and painting (in my opinion). I think that the approach taken by Pyle and Wyeth plays more to the strengths of illustration and painting. But that's just me.

Here's one by Pyle that portrays the moment after pirates have attacked a town and won the battle. They are forcing the representative of the town to kneel in front of them (the mayor?) and you can see their collected booty in the lower left - clearly they've sacked the town and taken everything of worth they could find.

I like this approach better than, say, a painting of a giant battle of pirate ships firing their cannons at the town. I like this scene of "aftermath" because it implies a huge battle for the town in your mind. But the painting shows so much more than just a shows character and relationships. The pirates have a great sense of personality and character, and their relationship towards the town and the town's mayor is very clear. The pirates are clearly in power and the town is at their mercy. All that would be hard to get in a painting of an epic land and sea battle. A painting of a giant attack on a town by pirate ships isn't really a good format for showing characters and relationships. 

This one is an interesting one by Pyle because it actually does show a moment of action but he's handled it in an interesting way.

In the first place, Pyle chose to put the "camera" back a ways from the action. That's very different from the "Pulp Cover" approach, where it seems like the painter is trying to get everything happening in your face as much as possible.

Even though it's a fight, Pyle picked a moment where the two pirates seem to be "deadlocked" in combat - they seem to be at a moment where they're both frozen still, trying to overpower the other. So even in a fight, Pyle has picked the most static kind of moment possible - not like in the "Pulp Cover" style, where the painters seem to try and paint their figures in the middle of a violent action, like firing a gun or slashing someone with a knife.

Also, unlike the "Pulp Cover" style, it seems that Pyle isn't focusing on the emotions of the people involved in the fight. In this painting, Pyle seems to be playing the fight - not off the combatants - but off their audience, the pirates who are intently watching the fight. The pirates watching seem very invested in who wins (probably that person will be their new captain) and I love the sense of character and attitude the watching pirates have. Their grim seriousness and intensity gives the picture so much more weight - this isn't just some drunken brawl that just broke out...there's a lot riding on who wins this fight. Again. the "Pulp Cover" fights don't seem to have that layer of deeper meaning or interest, and to me, that's what makes Pyle work so much better and deeper.

Anyway, to sum up, it seems to me that the Pyle approach works well because it offers more opportunities for character, personality and storytelling. As exciting as a moment of violent action can be, you're limited in the amount of story and character you can get into a painting like that. So it bears repeating that there's no right or wrong way to illustrate anything, but knowing how to pick the right moment can at least help you say what you want to say in the best way possible.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Contrast Can Be Enough to Tell a Story

We've been talking a lot at work lately about ways of getting a lot of "storytelling" into an image. Some artists are masters at painting a beautiful picture and some are masters at telling a story through their pictures. What makes the difference between the two?

Sometimes it's as simple as creating a contrast within an image. When you show you audience two things, they compare those two things and create ideas about the differences between them. As simple as that sounds, this can be more than enough to create a story within the mind of the viewer.

Norman Rockwell did this very effectively. Here, the contrasts couldn't be more basic: grey, static symmetry and control vs. color, chaos and excitement.

In this one, the family heads off the church, and dad has elected to stay at home.

Rockwell does all he can to create contrasts between the two distinct groups. The figures in the background are rigid, straight and symmetrical (and they're all walking in sync) while Dad slouches in an untidy, symmetrical way. The church goers are dressed conservatively and dark while Dad's outfit is full of color and a crazy pattern. His messy disheveled newspaper (both in his hands and all over the floor) adds to the effect, as does his rounded chair, in opposition to the vertical straights of the curtains behind them and the rigid, flat, straight lines of the house we see through the window that frames the church goers (there's a reason that house is seen flat-on, with no depth or perspective).

Even Dad's cigarette smoke is a crazy, disorderd zigzag of a line.

Sometimes it's as simple as warm colors against cool.

The idea is simple but's not just a portrait of a person in a newspaper stand. It's cold out and the newspaper vendor has created a warm, cozy fortress against the freezing temperatures. Not a huge, spectacular story but one with a lot of charm and mood.

I love this next one. Rockwell flattens everything out (see the previous post) for maximum comedic effect. The window of the truck makes a great frame-within-a-frame to highlight the two truck drivers. Everything about the truck drivers says "practical and everyday"...their uniforms, their caps, even their rough skin texture. They're in a plain truck, doing some sort of everyday job, nothing glamorous or exciting. These are practical, everyday guys that work hard for a living. Their attitudes suggest that they like to clown around and have fun.

Everything about the girl is the opposite. She seems very reserved and almost disgusted by the guys (but too reserved to show it). Everything about her is in contrast to the two guys: her soft skin tone, her golden fair hair, the sleek lines of her car, her driving gloves...and especially that ridiculous hat. Clearly that hat has no purpose other than to look fashionable (I doubt it would even stay on in a convertible, but that's besides the point). I love how Rockwell gives that hat such a ridiculous look. It's clearly not to keep the sun out of her eyes and not to keep her hair contained. It's obviously has no practical use, it's merely for show, and Rockwell clearly took great efforts to communicate that to the audience.

On other thing I love about this painting: the fact that he added the reflection in the back of the side mirror to show us that they're stopped at a red light. He wanted a flat composition so he didn't want to compose it in depth the include the stoplight, so he found a smart, elegant solution.

The red stoplight is important, because if the audience thinks these guys are doing this kind of thing while they're driving... well, suddenly it's not whimsical and fun anymore. Then it feels like a story about distracted and irresponsible truck drivers about to plow into somebody! Without the stoplight to tell you for sure, you'd be distracted by that question ("are they driving? Or at a stoplight? Or stop sign?") and you wouldn't be able to just focus on the details and enjoy the story.

Another great Rockwell use of contrasts, here it's a father and son as the son waits for the train to take him away to college. Everything about the differences between the father and son (and the environment the son is leaving behind) tell a simple, emotional story.

I used this idea of contrast myself when I was painting a picture for my graphic novel. The idea I was trying to create was that of a young boy thrust into the role of King before he was ready. So I wanted to show what the expectation of a King was to create the contrast between what is expected of him, or what the previous version of a King was....and what he is, to create the idea that there's a big gulf between the two, and that's he's wholly unprepared.

Creating a story within one piece of art can sound like a big, confusing concept to wrap your head around but it's not, really. And creating a simple contrast can be very effective for communicating a powerful idea.

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.