Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Reminder: It's the Little Things

Lately, I've been writing little posts with tips for improving layouts. As I've mentioned, they're all things that took me a long time to figure out. And every single one of them improved my layout abilities substantially.

However, when I look at them written out, they always seem underwhelming (like a lot of the things I write about). They seem kind of obvious and inconsequential. And maybe they seem that way when you read them.

But here's the thing: all the great concepts I've ever heard for improving one's art sound, at first blush, too simple to be of any use and therefore easy to discount. There aren't any big complicated concepts that you can uncover that will immensely improve your work overnight. There are only a lot of simple concepts that can be combined and employed in sophisticated ways to add up to a great drawing.

Years ago, legendary Disney animator Marc Davis used to teach a drawing class at Disney for the young, up-and-coming artists. One of the animators that used to take his class told me that Marc used to say, as he would talk about drawing, "and again..." constantly. Because he would talk about the same few things over and over. But they're all important things, and each one of them can make a big difference.

I used to teach a story class at CalArts, and I remember I was giving a talk to the class about a few concepts that I thought were important. One of the topics I covered was silhouette value (here's a quick explanation/refresher):

As I was speaking, an exasperated woman in the class called out, "you know, we know this already". I guess she felt like she'd heard it enough times in other classes and she was ready to hear something new! But the thing is, when this same person did her class assignments, her characters didn't always have great silhouette value and it was often hard to read her poses. As it is for everyone. Most professionals I know don't always have great silhouette value in every single one of their poses. I certainly don't. It's something that everyone forgets and everyone could strive to be better at incorporating into their work. So just because you've heard it once, twice, or fifty times, that doesn't mean that you're perfect at it and you never need to hear it again. And the more complicated your characters and compositions get, the harder it is to get good silhouette value in your poses. The more subtle and nuanced a pose, the more difficult it is to get silhouettes that work.

The little things make a big difference, and they're easy to forget because they seem small and inconsequential. But forget enough of the little things and the drawing falls apart.

Blocking and staging is another concept that I used to talk about (ad nauseam) to my CalArts class, and I know that can be another one of those topics that seem uninteresting and unimportant (see my "It's a Wonderful Life" post for an example of using staging and blocking to tell a story). Where the camera is placed and where the characters stand and how they move through a scene can seem like one of the "little things". But staging and blocking, to me, are one of the most powerful tools you have for telling a story, as well as getting the audience inside the character's heads and getting the viewer to feel what you want them to feel. And if you don't put enough care or thought into the staging and blocking, the whole scene can fall apart. And if a scene falls apart, the whole movie can fall apart. And even professionals who have been storyboarding for a long time can neglect or shortchange their staging and forget how vital it is to the success of a scene.

Here's just one example of how a small change in blocking turned a scene that wasn't working into one that did (and saved a lot of time and effort in the process). During the making of "Tangled", we were looking at the storyboards for the scene where Gothel manipulates the Stabbington brothers into doing what she wants them to do. The boards were really well done, and yet they didn't seem to be quite working the way we wanted them to work. When people saw it, they felt that there was no way that the Stabbingtons would ever listen to Gothel and agree to her proposal. They were so much bigger and more intimidating. Why were they even listening to her? She has the crown that they want. Why don't they just overpower her and take it away? One person saw the scene and said it was the writing that was at fault. It would need to be rewritten and re-conceived. They thought the whole character of Mother Gothel needed an overhaul.

But in reality, as simple as it sounds, the problem was one of staging. The board artist had put Gothel and the two brothers on the same ground plane as they talked. So since the brothers were so much taller than her, they towered over her, making Gothel look weak and powerless and making it unbelievable that she could get them to agree to her proposal.

The solution was a very simple one. We reboarded the scene, and this time Gothel was placed on a rock above the two brothers. Now the camera could look up at her and down on them. She's above them visually and feels more powerful. The scene worked and nobody had any issues with it anymore. And it was all the same dialogue as before.

Changing the blocking was such a simple fix, and yet if the scene hadn't worked it could have doomed the whole film, because you wouldn't have believed that what you were seeing was possible or realistic. At the very least, if we hadn't tried that adjustment, we might have spent weeks or months re-writing and re-conceiving Gothel's character.

So don't take the little, simple things for granted. Not only can they could save you a lot of work, they can really take your work to another level and elevate everything that you little thing at a time!


Excessit said...

Sir, your blog is amazing! As an aspiring comic artist I'm finding your tips invaluable and my scenes look a lot more solid. Are there any reads you'd recommend on storyboarding and screenplay? Have you considered writing a book on the subject?

Mi Li said...

Every post you wrote here is AWESOME! Learned a lot from you ! Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

That's a really useful and enlightening case study! Truly an eye opener for me!

You sir, got a great blog that is both useful and intriguing to read at the same time.

A said...

This is a very timely post for me - thank you!

It's also fascinating to hear about the "Tangled" scene.

VictorLizcano77 said...

Mark, I love your blog, while I might not be living the dream of animation or doing comics. I feel like I learn so much from you.

Whatever happened to The Forever Mechanism?

Robb said...

Wow, thanks for this post. The Gothel story really drove things home for me and beautifully illustrated the importance of utilizing the things we've all heard over and over again. Thank you!!

Adam Elfstrand said...

Like all your "reminders", this one helped me out a lot! Thank you for being so generous with your wisdom.

R.Dress said...

Great Post!

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