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Date: Saturday, 12 Apr 2014 13:45
One of the key aspects of being an animator is that you really need to know who a character is and what their personality and character are before you can animate a single frame of film. How does this character think? How does this character move? Do they do things deliberately and methodically...or abruptly and instinctually? Are they a passionate character? Or more reserved? Exuberant? Or more contained? Of course, what they're thinking and feeling in each particular scene has a profound effect on all of that as well.

The consequence of not considering all of this is that you will end up treating your character like a puppet, moving them from place to place within a scene and having them go through meaningless, mechanical motions. This, obviously, defeats the whole purpose of creating animated characters and trying to get the audience to see them as living, breathing creatures that can generate an emotional response in the viewer.

I didn't spend much time as an animator before I got into story, but I feel that the time I did spend in animation helped me very much when I was trying to develop an approach to storyboarding. It made the character's personalities foremost in my mind whenever I think about how to board a sequence. I feel like my best ideas and the genesis of the best "moments" I've created have always come out of figuring out ways to mine and exploit a character's inner personality and quirks to come up with entertaining, original and meaningful moments.

If I was going to humbly offer one piece of general advice to a prospective storyboard artist, I would tell that person to develop their sense of character and how to impart a personality in every aspect of a character's being: the words they choose, how they speak, how they move, how they think...literally, everything about a character should have some basis in their deep personality and character. Otherwise, characters become uninteresting, lifeless robots and you won't be able to create a scene that's funny...or emotional...or dramatic. You won't able to get anyone to care about anything you board.

"Dr. Strangelove" is a movie that I recently re-watched after I noticed it was available to stream on Netflix. I hadn't seen it in a while, but I definitely recommend it to anyone that has never seen it before. It's one of Kubrick's older movies. Personally, I actually prefer Kubrick's older films to the work he did later in his career (the internet will now descend on me with pitchforks and torches, I'm sure).

Anyway, spoilers for "Dr. Strangelove" ahead...

I bring up the film as an example of great characters that are embodied by actors who flesh them out by making great choices. Part of what emphasizes the fact that the characters are played well is the fact that Peter Sellers plays three parts in the movie, and plays them all very distinctly and differently. In the character of Mandrake, he does a great job of portraying an English soldier who tries to maintain his dignity and calm as the world unravels around him and he tries to deal with a couple of madmen (Sterling Hayden and Keenan Wynn, both also great in the film). Also, Sellers plays the President of the U.S., and really does a great job of playing him flat and straight (as you'd expect a President to be) and I like how you sense he's trying to maintain his professional demeanor and be a good leader...but you really sense how out-of-his-depth he is as he tries to deal with the crazy people descending into chaos around him. The most well-known character he plays in the film is Dr. Strangelove, and it's definitely the broadest character, but for me it's not as interesting as the others because it's so broad that it becomes a bit of a cartoon. There's so subtlety to the character. There's no subtext to the Nazi scientist...he's just a crackpot. Sellers does a great job of playing the character though, as he always does. I don't know who's idea it was that his character has no control over what his right hand does, and he's always fighting to keep his hand from giving the Nazi salute. It's a crazy idea, and a memorable one, and leads to some physical comedy.

Some clips of Sellers in his various characters:

As Mandrake, the British RAF officer who has realized that he is dealing with an off-balanced lunatic in Sterling Hayden's character, Sellers tries to keep his calm and deal with a character that is clearly beyond reason (I love how Sellers focuses on the gum wrapper in the scene, and how he folds it and fusses with it to show his inner turmoil in a restrained way):

Later, Madrake tries to desperately reach the President to give the "recall code" that will avoid nuclear war and the end of the world. He's thwarted by a phone operator that doesn't understand the urgency of the situation, and Keenan Wynn, who also doesn't really grasp the importance of what is happening. I love how Wynn's deadpan demeanor plays against Seller's barely contained frustration and panic. This is a great scene for Mandrake, as you see him trying to stay calm, but finally he is pushed too far and allows himself to bark at Wynn's character...but in a very reserved, mannered way. Wynn comes off as a soldier who was given orders, and has already completed those orders (in a previous scene), and really has no idea of what needs to happen next, and no interest in taking any initiative in making anything else happen beyond what he's been told to do. I really love this scene:

In the next clip, Sellers appears as the President, having to call the Russian Prime Minister (who is partying with his mistress, apparently) and break the "bad news" that bombers are headed for Russia with nuclear warheads. This type of "hearing one side of a telephone conversation" comedy seems to have been very popular in the sixties. I love how you can tell exactly what "Dmitri" is saying by Seller's reactions and responses. Sellers does an amazing job of playing a guy who's trying to be friendly and break bad news in the nicest way, and then starts to struggle as the conversation goes off the rails quickly. As a side note, look at the great variations in staging that make a simple, talking scene feel dynamic and interesting. Also, "Strangelove" has great cinematography. It's a great example of how to control values in a black and white medium.

Sellers as Dr. Strangelove (playing against himself as the President), as the Nazi crackpot pitches the idea of going underground to avoid the nuclear devastation and is constantly distracted by his hand, which has a mind of his own, and wants to give the Nazi salute:

I have to say, though, my favorite character in the film is Buck Turgidson, played by George C. Scott. Buck is a great character: he's an American general more interested in "beating the Commies" than avoiding a nuclear holocaust, and the one person that truly seems to be enjoying the descent into chaos that happens during the film. He seems unable to grasp the gravity of the situation (as a side note, oblivious characters are always great for comedy) and his priorities through the film are completely out of whack.

A quick aside about writing: there are a lot of scenes in "Strangelove" that are about what is the most important priorities, and characters who are funny (and create conflict) by placing the wrong things as priorities over more important considerations. As a nuclear apocalypse approaches, Scott's character is more concerned that the Russian ambassador will see the American War Room and "the big board" than saving the world from destruction. The Russian ambassador is more concerned with taking secret photos of the War Room than avoiding nuclear war. Wynn's character is more concerned with how the Coca Cola company will feel about vandalism to it's property than stopping the errant nuclear bombers, etc. As you create characters and stories, one way to give characters a comedic flaw is to give them the wrong priorities and place them in conflict with people who are rational and trying to focus on the right things.

Anyway, as far as Scott's performance, it's a great example of how the character's personality comes through in everything he does. His high energy, great attitudes and expressive poses would put many an animated character to shame! Everything he does in invested with an absolute certainty that everything he does is right. He's cocky and flamboyant. He's a ton of fun to watch.

I wish I could find his character's introduction on youtube, but in lieu of that, here's a great clip showing an amazing piece of performance. Scott lays out his plan for committing to all-out nuclear war and "catching the Russians with their pants down". I love how enthusiastic he is about such a grim subject, and he has so many great little acting beats as he goes from conspiratorial as he lays out his plan, to petulant when the president shoots him down, to indignant at the idea that the Russian ambassador will see "the big board". Scott's character always seems to think he's the smartest guy in the room and can't figure out why nobody is agreeing with him, and he always seems to be place importance on the absolutely wrong things. Playing both of those characteristics make him such a great character:

In the War Room, Scott talks about how good the Air Force pilots are, and as he tells the President that a nuclear accident is unavoidable, he acts with all the exhuberance of a toddler who just got an amazing gift for Christmas:

This clip ends with a very original bit of acting (some stories say it was an accident), but maybe my favorite Scott moment from the film: Scott rolls to the ground and leaps up as he gestures towards the big board. It makes him feel excited and kid-like, and I love it. That final pose is great. It's amazing. Any animator or story artist should be proud to come up with a pose and attitude as good:

Anyway, I only mention "Dr. Strangelove" because I re-watched it recently. Any time you watch a film, be on the lookout for actors who are great at really inhabiting a character and investing that character with attitudes, poses, tics and gestures that communicate who they are and what they're feeling. As an animator or a story artist, this is an invaluable tool to have at your disposal and will make the difference between scenes that come to life and ones that just sit there, flat and lifeless.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Dr. Strangelove, George C. Scott, Peter ..."
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Date: Thursday, 03 Apr 2014 22:35
A couple of commenters pointed out that they thought the "How to Draw Comics Comic" post was a bit underwhelming and not the best example to show as advice on how to draw comic books. To be clear: I was not posting the pages as a way of saying that they were the greatest resource ever created on making comic books. I thought that when I discussed the questionable pedigree of the book, that much would be clear. My motivation in posting it was more in the vein of making it available as a rarity for people who've never seen it. Yes, "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" is a better resource (and I've talked about that book before), but it's also still in print and readily available to anyone that's interested. The "How to Draw Comics Comic" is not.

It may not be a perfect resource, but I still think it's worthwhile. I think that--even though the text may not be written in the best way, and some of the illustrations are a bit crude--there are some kernels of good, solid, basic information within the book.

I say it often, but maybe it bears repeating: I would hope that with every instructional book you read--no matter who wrote it or who endorses it--you read it with a critical eye and question every line that the author writes (and that advice goes is doubly true when it comes to blogs). There's no one right way to draw a comic, or paint a painting, or do a drawing. If there was one book that was full of dead-on accurate advice that worked for everybody, then everyone would be a great artist and we would all only need to own that one book. In reality, every art book is full of some advice that makes sense to some people, and just doesn't work for others. That's how art works. There's no absolutes, no "right" or "wrong" way to do anything, and if you tell yourself otherwise, you're limiting yourself in a really prohibitive way.

Personally, I don't read art books thinking, "let me download this info into my brain and then I'll know exactly how to do exactly what this artist does". The reason I like reading art books is because, as I read them, there's a debate going on in my head: does what this artist says make sense to me? Or would I approach this problem differently? Do I have a way of working that could be improved by adapting some of the techniques the author suggests? Or does my approach work better for me as it is? By reading about their technique and comparing it against my own, I'm able to sharpen my own understanding of why I do what I do and test my methods to see if there's a better way I could be doing things. One of the worst habits an artist can get into is doing things the same way over and over the same way without questioning why they're doing things the way they are. And even if you don't end up changing your work habits after reading the book, you'll still have a better understanding of why you do things the way you do and why they're the best approach for you.

The idea of exposing yourself to many different viewpoints is the same philosophy that explains why I watch a lot of movies. Some people feel you should only see the best movies, and that seeing any movie that might be sub-par is a waste of time. I would say that I get a lot out of seeing movies that aren't "perfect" (as if there was such a thing as a "perfect" movie), because no matter how imperfect the film may be, I like to see what the film makers tried to do, and it gives me an opportunity to ask myself: would I have approached the subject matter that way? Is there another way to do it that I think would work better? And by having this debate in my head, I learn a lot about what different possibilities there are for tackling problems and I find it sparks my imagination to think of new ways to tell stories.

Another way I like to test my perceptions is by reading film reviews. If I like a movie, I'll read negative reviews of the film. If I dislike a movie, I like to read positive reviews. That can help me get insight into questions like: did I miss something about the film that connected with other people? Did I have a different interpretation of the movie than that reviewer? Was there something in the film that didn't work for the reviewer that worked for me? Or did we have the same impressions of the film, but the deficiencies weren't enough for me to dislike the film? And so on.

Turning this philosophy to art books, let's talk about "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way", since it was brought up by commenters, and it is definitely a book worth reading if you're interested in drawing (and especially if you're interested in drawing comic books). The goal of the authors is to tell you how they approach that subject at Marvel. And the book does a great job of that. But is the advice given in the book the only way to make a comic book? If you deviate from the advice given in the book, are you doing it "wrong"? Are there "right" and "wrong" ways to create a comic book, and if your approach isn't one described in a manual about making comics, how can you tell if your choice is valid?

As an example, let's limit our discussion to two of the iconic art elements that give classic comic books their comic feel: the use of primary colors and the use of black areas.

First, let's talk about how those elements of comic book style came into being. Both of these things, as I understand it, came out of necessity. They were limitations forced onto artists by circumstance. They weren't choices that artists would have made if they had the choices available to them that we do today. So it doesn't make sense to adapt them without questioning whether they're the right choices for you. Let me explain…

I'm not a comic book expert, but as far as I know, the idea of inking thick black lines and adding black areas started out as a way to make comic art easier to reproduce. Obviously, when comics were in their infancy, the printing technology that existed had certain limitations. To overcome these deficiencies, comic artists had to make their artwork as easy to reproduce as possible. So adding thick black lines ensured that the artwork would reach the reader in a way that looked as much as possible as the artist intended, regardless of how poor the printing equipment was that was being used. And with a limited palette of colors that could be printed, black areas (as well as "white" areas--or, at least, parts that had neither black nor colored ink on them) became important tools at an artist's disposal. The best artists did a great job of maximizing these limited tools and started using areas of black ink (plus the white of the paper) to create clarity, dimension and mood to the best of their ability, in a way that would make them work even if the color was never added or was added in a thoughtless way. Some examples from around the web (by Milt Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Joe Kubert, and Noel Sickles):

Of course, most comic pages were meant to be colored, and again, the limitations of early printing dictated how color choices were made. I'm no expert on the history of printing, but choices were limited and printing pages with a wide range of subtle colors was not an option back then. Early newspaper comics (and comic books) had to be colored in a limited way, which lent itself to bright primary colors, and the limited options forced colorists to be inventive with color choices and prevented them from being literal when it comes to coloring characters and objects.

I like the way color is used, in these examples, more for clarity and expression than in a literal way. The same wall in a room may be colored green in one panel and yellow in the next. It's all about readability and contrast. Even the shock lines radiating from a punch are a separate color from the rest of the panel. The bold line drawings carry the story and express so much of the story that color is just there to help fill in forms and give the story a dramatic punch.

So the limitations of early printing contributed to the choices made by early comic book artists and contributed to the development of the "Marvel" style that continues to this day. Even though the style came partly out of limitations, the style is a good match for the subject matter. There's something about clean black and white lines with areas of black that is impactful and dynamic. It lends itself well to the subject matter favored by traditional Marvel comics, where good and evil are cleanly delineated and the emphasis is on dynamic, straightforward action. Even the use of primary colors is well-suited to Marvel superheroes and villains, who are clearly either good or evil. Older Marvel comics don't tell stories that have a ton of ambiguity or nuance. There aren't a lot of "grey areas" in the storytelling, and the bright primary colors reflect that. The choices of how the art is handled reflects perfectly the choice of subject matter.

And if you read "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way," it would tell you to make those exact choices.

The question becomes: what if you want to do something that isn't exactly a Marvel style comic? I would think that you'd still want to read the book, to hear their advice about what makes a comic book succeed or fail. You'd still want to know whatever advice you could glean about comic books, drawing and storytelling.

But of course you'd want to read the book with a critical eye, and ask yourself as you read: what aspects of this book apply to my work and will make my work better? And what aspects of this book won't fit with my style, aren't appropriate for my story and might undermine my subject matter? How can I deviate from the advice given in the book to find the best way to tell my particular story?

Modern comic book storytelling encompasses a wider range of subtlety and nuance than it used to, obviously. And a big part (I would think) of what makes that possible is the more varied options at the disposal of artists these days due to advances in the printing process.

Here are some examples of comic books that have styles that differ from the Marvel "house style" and show a concerted effort on the part of the artist to find a fresh style that accentuates their storytelling in the best way possible. The list could go on and on, but here are the first examples that popped into my mind...

I haven't read "Jupiter's Legacy", but I've flipped through the comic, and right away you get a totally different feel than you do from the Marvel examples above. The lack of thick black lines, big black spaces and the more subtle, monochromatic color choices give the comic a much more nuanced feel than, say, the Captain America pages above. The tiny touches of detail and subtle gradations of color shift tell you that this is a comic that is about more nuanced topics than the type of broad, straight forward subject matter that your typical Marvel Golden Age comic is attempting to tackle.

Which isn't to say that it's in any way superior--or inferior to--Captain America, Thor or Hulk comics. It's just different. It tackles a different type of subject matter. And the artwork and color palette are a reflection of that. The choices made by the artist are the best ones to match the subject matter the writer has chosen for the story.

Chris Ware is another artist that draws comics, but his work is very far from the advice given in the Marvel book. I am not that familiar with his work, but clearly, one look at his precise lines and lack of black areas and you can tell his work has a very different feel from Thor and Captain America, and from Jupiter's Legacy as well.

One of the central themes of "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" is to make every choice--whether it's staging, posing, or storytelling--as dynamic as possible. This is good advice for any artist, and it's a good skill to know how to make a drawing more dynamic, when the situation demands it.

That works well for Marvel subject matter. On the other hand, when you look at Ware's pages, the people aren't posed dynamically, and the camera is not placed in the most dynamic manner. This is, obviously, intentional, and is an integral part of what gives Ware's work the unique mood and tone that it has. Would his work be improved by being made more dynamic? Would that help him tell his story better? No, it would undermine the type of story he's trying to tell. And again, neither choice is "better" or "worse". They're just choices, and it's up to the artist to decide what choices fit his story and which would fight the type of story he or she is trying to tell.

Jeff Smith's "Bone" is another example of style and how it affects storytelling. "Bone" has been colored at some points, but originally it was all printed in black and white.

To accentuate the lightness of the storytelling and help carry the humor of the writing, Smith doesn't tend to use a lot of black areas…just simple, crisp black lines and lots of open space. Usually there's not too much detail. It gives his work a light feeling that fits the humorous tone.

When the situation calls for it (like in a dramatic moment, or when a pretty landscape drawing is called for), Smith will add more black areas to help accentuate the mood, add a more dramatic tone or bring depth to the landscape. But the artwork always retains its simple, clean style.

Another comic book that was originally reproduced in black and white is Will Eisner's "The Spirit". But Eisner's treatment of black and white is very different from Smith's…in order to create a darker, more mysterious feeling, Eisner uses black areas liberally and frequently has his characters and environments shrouded in shadow to create a feeling of mystery and unease. You feel like anything could pop out of the dark and scare you at any moment.

The large amount of space devoted to black (and dark grey) gives the pages a more weighty and dramatic feeling and a darker mood than pages with more space devoted to white (like "Bone"). Whereas Smith doesn't use a lot of detail to keep his pages light and easygoing, Eisner uses detail to make scenes feel more atmospheric and to give objects in the scene more weight and gravity.

Jordi Bernet's "Torpedo" is another example of using black areas to create a darker mood, while also using black to create shadows that obscure characters and throw menacing shadows over their faces. Again, a great choice of style to reflect the tone and mood of the storytelling. When you see colored versions of "Torpedo", they don't have the same "film noir" feel and there's less contrast in the images. I think the black and white versions are superior to the colored versions.

Anyway, I could go on, but I hope I've made my point! All of these artists deviate from the ideals set forth in the Marvel book to various degrees. Does that make them wrong? No. Does it make the Marvel book wrong? No.

That there's no one "rule book" for doing any kind of art, even comic books, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The storytelling and subject matter should dictate the choices, not how some book tells you how it should be done. Following a rule book is not how great art is created. The first comic book artists are legends because they created the style from scratch. They weren't following a book. They were experimenting, trying, failing, and learning what works and what doesn't. That's what an artist does! An art book can only shed a tiny bit of light--like a single candle--onto the dark, foreboding path of becoming an artist. The only way to cast a wide, bright light onto the path is to gather a giant fistful of candles, each candle representing the things you've learned from your own experience, the things you've read and been told by teachers, and your own taste and internal compass of what's right (now that's a twisted metaphor)! Don't look to any book (or dumb blog) as the ultimate bible on art or absolute rule book on how to succeed. Only you can find your own way through experience and experimentation. That's the only way to find your voice and become an original instead of a pale imitation. The only artists that get remembered are those that find a new path that's never been traveled before.

"If you can see your own path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path." - Joseph Campbell
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Bone, Captain America, Chris Ware, How t..."
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Date: Wednesday, 02 Apr 2014 10:44
Here is the final part of "How to Draw Comics Comic issue #1". Take a look at the final page, which teases what will come in issue #2…sadly, it was not to be.

Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Allan Fromberg, How to Draw Comics Comic..."
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Date: Sunday, 30 Mar 2014 22:09
Here's part two. I'll post the final installment in a couple of days.

Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Allan Fromberg, How to Draw Comics Comic..."
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Date: Friday, 28 Mar 2014 22:32
My friend Nathan gave me this comic as a Christmas gift, and I finally got around to scanning it and posting it here. Apparently it's been floating around the web for a while, but I made some high resolution scans so I think these are better than what's been out there.

I'm always a sucker for any kind of book or tutorial that talks about the artistic process and gives you insight into how any artist works, even if it's kind of remedial and basic. I just like seeing the process of other artists, and as I always say, there isn't much to drawing except the few basic concepts that make up the core of good drawing, and then it's all about using those concepts in increasing sophisticated ways as you become a better and better artist.

I don't know much about this comic, but I hear it has a bit of a controversial history. It was published in 1985, and credit for the art goes to comic legends John Byrne and John Romita Sr., but they didn't write the text (the text is credited to Allan Fromberg). I've heard rumors that John Byrne wasn't even involved in the making of the book, and that all the artwork in it was taken from sketchbooks of his that were bought by a third party. So when the book was published, as I heard it, Byrne felt like he was misrepresented and prevented them from printing any more issues of the comic (the last page contains a tease about what's to come in issue number two…which, of course, never materialized).

Anyway, that's just the story I heard, and I'm sure one of you can straighten me out and tell me what really happened. I can't seem to find much information about it online.

I'll post the comic in three sections over the next few days; this is part one.

I'll post parts two and three in the next couple of days.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Allan Fromberg, How to Draw Comics Comic..."
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Date: Thursday, 20 Mar 2014 10:00
Much has been said about the HBO series "True Detective", but I particularly liked this article on Vulture.com that talks about how the cinematographer worked with the director to get 9 of the series' more interesting shots. It's a short read (but it contains massive spoilers). The reason I recommend it is because the article spends a lot of time discussing how story influenced the choice of the staging and camera use, as well as the palette of each shot. The story should always be the basis of how you make all these decisions. Everything should reinforce the story you're trying to tell and every choice should work in concert to help tell that story the best way possible. No great film (or TV series) was ever created by making choices based on "I don't know why I made that choice, I just thought it would look cool".
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Adam Arkapaw, Cory Fukunaga, HBO, Matthe..."
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Date: Thursday, 13 Mar 2014 22:29
Anyone that aspires to be a great writer, story artist or animator ought to be an avid observer of human behavior and an obsessive people watcher. The better your understanding of what makes people tick and why people do what they do, the better you will be able to get those behaviors into your characters and create characters that feel real, unique and like three-dimensional living, breathing creatures. Creating characters that seem to be thinking and feeling as they move through the story will go a long way towards getting an audience to engage with your characters, feel something for them and believe in your story as it unfolds.

On the other hand, if you create characters without basing them on real behaviors or things you've experienced about life and human behavior first hand, you invariably end up basing them on characters that are just obvious clichés or copying characters that have already been created, and they will end up feeling flat, lifeless and dull.

Understanding what makes people behave the way they do is a big subject, obviously. There's no replacement for studying the people around you and observing people "in the wild" whenever you can. You should always try and analyze what people are doing and why. This can really open your mind to new ways of thinking about how people think and how their mental state shows through in their expressions, gestures, body language and speech.

There are, of course, many books on human behavior. I definitely recommend spending some time reading about and researching this area. It can really help you make sense of what you're seeing when you're people watching, and it can lead to ideas for acting and behavior that you wouldn't have thought of otherwise. Here are a few books that I've enjoyed on the topic (although I read all of them years ago, so I can't give you too much in-depth information about them):

The most comprehensive book on the subject of human gestures (that I know of) is Desmond Morris's Manwatching. Morris has written several books on human behavior, as well as ones dedicated to dog, cat and equine behavior. Manwatching was published in 1977 and is out of print right now, but if you are interested in a copy, try alibris.com or abebooks.com. It looks like you can pick up a copy staring at under $2.00. As a note of caution: it appears there is an abridged version called The Pocket Guide to Manwatching. I don't know how much shorter it is…I've never seen it. I'd recommend getting the full version of the book.

From the Amazon description of the book:

This is a book about actions, about how actions became gestures and about how gestures transmit messages. Psychologists have long studied what makes people tick. Now Desmond Morris reveals what makes people twitch, stare, grimace, point, poke and shrug. Here is a complete and fascinating catalog of human behavior, closely examined in Morris's lively text and hundreds of telling photographs, drawings, and historical prints. In this captivating anthology of body language are the postures, hand gestures, and facial expressions that accompany our true feelings, often hidden under the mask of convention. Here is how we pantomime the meaning beneath our outward behavior in the whole range of social situations.

I photographed and transcribed a few examples from the book, just to give you an idea (click to read the caption of the photo below):

The text referencing this picture reads: when a man and a woman have to squeeze past each other, the man twists towards the woman, while she twists away from him.

Manwatching is full of things like this: seemingly small pieces of observation that you never thought about before. But after reading the book, you'll suddenly start to see that these things happen around us all the time---without the participants even realized they're exhibiting any kind of learned behavior!

And the text for this picture reads: the Body-cross-a temporary barrier formed at moments of tension. When individuals feel exposed or threatened they often form a barrier across the front of the body by making contact with themselves. This may be done with a simple arm fold, or may be disguised as a small grooming action, such as (below) a cufflink adjustment, handbag attention or bracelet checking. This need is felt even by experienced public figures, especially as they cross a threshold on a formal occasion.

Manwatching is truly an exhaustive study. Morris does a good job of tracing the history and evolution of many gestures, and he goes to great lengths to describe the differences in gestures from culture to culture. What's considered perfectly acceptable in one culture may be horribly offensive in another, and many gestures with deep meaning in one culture are completely meaningless in another.

I definitely recommend Manwatching, but I should warn you that it does read like a bit of a textbook, and the overwhelming amount of information may make it seem like a daunting read to some. If you want a simpler, lighter version (or if you, like me, are fascinated by the topic and want two different sources on the subject), you might take a look at The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease. It looks like the hardcover is still in print and available. But it's been around for a while, so I'd bet you can pick up a used copy for less, if you're interested.

This book is definitely easier to read and more digestible than Morris's book, but (if I remember correctly) isn't as in-depth as Manwatching and doesn't devote as much time explaining how the gestures evolved over time. Here are a couple of examples to give you a feeling for the book:

An explanation of what the gesture means when someone stands, holding their hands clasped behind their back:

The book seems well-researched and has some great insights. One strange side note: it is full of very simply drawn artwork to illustrate certain gestures (as opposed to Manwatching, which is prodigiously illustrated with photos as examples, but also has some detailed drawings for reference). I'm surprised the authors of The Definitive Guide… didn't seek out a better illustrator. But the illustrations serve their purpose, and that's all they need to do, I suppose.

Here's one of my favorite bits: an explanation of why people act so strangely on elevators (it's because we are not used to people being in our personal space, but that's a necessity of being on an elevator, and so it causes us to adopt weird behaviors for the duration of the ride):

Along similar lines, one last resource to recommend is The Human Face, by Brian Bates with John Cleese. Again, it seems to be out-of-print (I've really taken too long to write a blog post about these books, I apologize) but the DVD covering the same material seems to still be available (I haven't seen it, so I can't say how good it is). As the previous books were concerned with gestures and mannerisms, The Human Face is all about how the human face evolved, how we recognize our fellow human beings by their faces, how expressions work, etc. Again, I think it's worth reading for anyone interested in being an animator or a story artist…expressions are such a key to showing emotions, and anything you can learn about how the face works as a tool for expression is bound to be helpful. The book is written in an interesting way and it's very accessible. It's not too dense with text and it's full of lavish illustrations to explain the points made in the book.

I hope you find these recommendations helpful. Obviously, none of these books is a "Bible" that must be followed absolutely, and they should not be treated as formulas for acting or emoting. The best characters are always based on the thoughts and ideas of the people that created them, and not based on a catalog of human behaviors. But all of these books can be helpful at setting context of what certain gestures mean and helping to understand why we act the way we do, as well as giving insight into what a person is thinking and feeling when they move or act in a certain way. I've definitely found all there of these books to be interesting and inspiring and I hope you will too.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Allan Pease, Barbara Pease, Brian Bates,..."
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Date: Sunday, 23 Feb 2014 14:29
I know this article has been making the rounds (I saw it on reddit's front page last week), so many readers have presumably already seen it, but if you haven't, check out Emily Asher-Perrin's article entitled "Erased By Time and Blockbusters-the Cautionary Tale of Ron Weasley".

It's a good illustration of the difficulties that you face when turning a giant novel with a lot of character development into a two or three hour movie. Also, it shows how hard it is to balance three characters in a movie and give them all equal weight (it's much easier in a novel, which can be much longer), especially when you're dealing with three human actors who will--naturally--give different levels of performance.

One can only wonder how it might have been if the Harry Potter novels had been turned into a miniseries instead--like the Game of Thrones books have been. Turning a single novel into 10 hours of material instead of 3 hours obviously gives you more time to dedicate to each character and the unfolding of the plot can be handled in a slower, richer and more fulfilling way. It allows you to explore each character's motivations and thinking in a way that I feel the Potter characters deserved but didn't get from their film interpretations. Who knows, maybe someday someone will re-interpret it that way!
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Emily Asher-Perrin, Harry Potter, Ron We..."
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Date: Saturday, 15 Feb 2014 14:07
In the comments for my last post, J. Kelley asked in the comments if I could write about what makes a good story portfolio. I thought that was a good suggestion for a blog post, because people e-mail and ask me that from time to time.

As I wrote down some thoughts, the post got longer and longer (sorry about that) and suffered from a bit of "scope creep". It went from being about portfolios to encompassing a wider perspective about what (in my opinion) makes a good story artist. People also ask me about that topic from time to time, so maybe some of you are curious. I apologize if it's too much. I feel like the qualities I think are important might sound abstract and vague, so I felt like I should explain them as thoroughly as possible.

First, some disclaimers:

I am not representing the Disney company in any way in this post. If you want to get their official information about being a story artist and applying for a job as a story artist, they have a website here that is the best way to read about applying for a job and contacting the Disney company if you have any questions. What I am posting here about portfolio advice and the job of a story artist is entirely my opinion.

I also want to point out that I've never worked at Pixar, or DreamWorks, or Blue Sky or anywhere else. Please be aware that those studios have (I assume) completely different standards and expectations when it comes to story applicants. Also, the definition of the job "Story Artist" means something different at every studio.

Furthermore, it is worth setting context for this post by pointing out that most of my colleagues at work would say that I am way too hard on portfolios. I am the first to admit that I look for a lot in a portfolio and that is because--in my experience--for better or worse, there is not a lot of time for "on-the-job training" at Disney. Story is different from some departments in that there isn't a lot of ramping up or training within the department and there is very little in the way of group assignments. Story artists are given a chunk of the movie to board on their own and they need to be able to do that in a short amount of time without much help, guidance or supervision. In story, everyone needs to be able to deliver a sequence quickly that works at a certain basic professional level. It can be hard to tell who will be able to do that from a portfolio, but I look for certain things as clues to the abilities of the applicant. What follows are some key ingredients I look for in submissions (as well as things that I think make a good story artist):


This is extremely important. I can't over-emphasize how important clarity is, and yet I don't think people grasp how fundamental it is to the job successfully. Storyboarding is all about making sure that every story point is clear (without the crutch of dialogue or having the artist explain what's happening), and if you can't do that, nothing else matters. Once the viewer is confused, whatever comes after is lost on them. Period. Also, I don't think people realize how incredibly hard it is to be clear about what you're trying to say. It takes a tremendous amount of work and thought. I think most people don't put nearly as much effort as they should into this discipline.

The whole point of looking at a story portfolio is to see how that person handles the telling of a story. If I get confused at some point about what is happening in your boards and I can't tell what's going on, nothing that comes after that will register with me. I need to follow every step of the story to understand how the cause-and-effect of your story is unfolding. I need to know if the applicant understands how action and reaction work to progress a story. You may have great sketches at the end of your sequence that show your character crying and being upset, but if I don't understand why they feel that way, I don't know if you can tell a story. I only know that you can do nice drawings of a character crying.

So if you want to be a story artist, you need to put a lot of effort into learning to draw things clearly (this is difficult) and learning how to present ideas in a way that makes them crystal clear and idiot-proof to everyone who looks at them (this is also difficult). There is always the old advice to show your work to as many people as possible and see if they can understand it. That can be a great tool. If you do this, remember that you have to let people look at your work without the benefit of you standing there and explaining it to them. Because that's how we will be looking at your portfolio….you won't be here to explain what you were thinking. It has to be clear to us from the images alone.

The other way to get perspective on your work and see if it's clear is to simply take a break and come back to it. I frequently look at my work in the morning and see problems that I couldn't see the night before. Distance will allow you to have a fresh perspective on things.

One crutch that people try to use to make their ideas more clear is that they start adding dialogue to clarify what's happening. That's not a good way to fix clarity problems. In storyboarding, it is always our goal to try to tell the story with the visuals alone so that the audience would understand what is happening even if they watched the movie with the sound turned off. This is because visuals are more powerful than dialogue and can convey the story much more powerfully than lines of speech can. We know people (and characters) can lie to us, so we don't always trust dialogue. We trust what we see with our own eyes. So visuals always have more power. Because of that, we look for story artists that can tell a great story without any dialogue. That said, a little bit of dialogue is okay. Sometimes you need it to help tell the story in the best way. Just don't rely on it to cover over confusing parts.

Look at other artists you like--especially ones that tell stories in their work--and examine what they've done to achieve clarity. Look at films you love and ask yourself how they achieve clarity, and if there are confusing parts, what makes them confusing? How could they be clearer?

A couple of hints I can give you to help with improving the clarity of your work: number one, only present one idea at a time. Only one idea can be communicated per story sketch. Often, people will try to present two (or three) ideas at the same time. This always leads to confusion. Change one idea per sketch to help the viewer follow along and get each new piece of information in a clear, digestible manner to minimize confusion and misinterpretation.

When story sketches are cut together in story reel form, each sketch is typically onscreen for a couple of seconds. In action sequences, each sketch may be onscreen for less than a second. So it's important to present one idea at a time (as well as draw clearly) so the audience can grasp what is happening in each sketch.

Here is an example:

In the first sketch, a man in a kitchen drops dishes as he carries them.

In the second sketch, a cook tastes soup in a kitchen.

In the third sketch, both ideas are presented at once.

I made these examples for use in a talk on storyboarding, and during the talk I show each sketch for about two seconds (with a frame of black in between). It may not be as clear here in blog form, where you can stare at the image for as long as you want, but hopefully you can still see my point. Two ideas presented at the same time create confusion because the viewer may register one but not the other. Also, everything in a film is about action and reaction. If action and reaction are happening at the same time (or two actions, or two reactions), it creates a confusing narrative. The order of events is unclear.

The other tip I would say to help with clarity is to draw as simply as possible (while retaining enough detail to convey the acting, emotions and required subtlety of the scene, of course). Avoid unnecessary or extraneous detail. Everything in a story sketch should contribute to the story point of the sketch. Anything that's there for the sole purpose of making the drawing prettier may add confusion. And we look for people who are able to draw their ideas up quickly and efficiently. Story artists have to work fast. Adding a lot of extra detail and/or color to a drawing always makes me suspicious that the artist didn't understand what the point of the sketch was, or might have trouble working quickly and roughly when deadlines are tight.

What would you add to these sketches to make them more clear? Adding anything to them would only hamper their clarity and unity of message.

Deciding what to leave in and what to remove from a sketch is an art in and of itself. Obviously, if the point of a sketch is that a woman is admiring a very expensive dress in a store window, I might take the time to draw the dress in a way that makes it look fancy and ornate, because that helps sell the story point I'm trying to make. But if the story I'm trying to tell is that a woman is pretending to admire a dress in a store window so that she can spy on her husband across the street, I'm not going to put time and effort into making the dresses look ornate. That would be distracting and confusing from what's really happening in the scene. So a big part of being a great story artist is knowing what to include in a sketch…and what to leave out.

I have always been a big fan of Quentin Blake's work because I feel that he has a great sense of how many lines it takes to say what he's trying to say. He doesn't embellish with unnecessary frills and flourishes.

I have met a few people who find his work too simplistic and plain for their tastes. The thing I admire about his work (other than the obvious energy and life it has) is that I think it takes a lot of experience and sophistication to know just how much you can leave out and still communicate. Animation is best when it is clear, direct and forceful without unnecessary nuance and baggage.

If you look at Bill Peet's Disney storyboards, his early work shows a level of detail and rendering that is completely absent in his later work.

If you go here, you can see Michael Sporn's post with some of Bill's work from Dumbo, which was released in 1941. I've seen more than is shown there, and it all has a high level of rendering that characterizes Bill's early work.

By the 1960's Bill's work is much more efficient and streamlined. Obviously, storyboarding is about getting the idea up and trying it out quickly. So working faster and getting it up sooner is a big help. Also, decades of having to redo and redo your sketches as the story changes and improves will convince you to draw simply, if nothing else does. It's not worth putting a ton of work into each sketch if it might get replaced by a better idea tomorrow.

 Even when he does render things, it's about selling the environment and still feels much more dashed off than his careful Dumbo work.

One last important point: a drawing doesn't have to be clean to be clear. A rough drawing that communicates is much, much better than a cleaned up drawing that is confusing.

So those are some thoughts on trying to explain what I mean by clarity. The bottom line is that your drawings and ideas must communicate clearly to viewers and you must be able to tell a story without confusing or losing the viewer.

Character and Personality

Storyboarding has changed and evolved over the years. Storyboard artists are now expected to put more information into their boards than ever before. In particular, story artists are expected to deliver boards that contain specific expressions and poses for every character in every scene. At Disney, nobody is expected to draw the characters exactly on model (we don't even have designs yet when we start boarding anyway), but the poses, expressions and acting for each character is expected to be clear and readable, as well as the right kind of acting for the character in that particular moment. We are trying to develop the characters and explore their personalities. So we need to be as specific as we can be about who they are, how they act and how they think.

Some people don't really see the point of this. Sometimes people say that--if a story was really working--you could simply block in stick figures and still have a good version of the story reels.

I understand where this type of statement comes from. Sometimes directors want extremely subtle nuances in storyboard acting and they can expect so many poses that it no longer seems like story boarding…it's more like animating. That's frustrating and causes board artists to question why we're putting so much work and polish into the boards when the audience will never see them.

But at the other end of the extreme, I would say that stick figures wouldn't suffice to tell any story, no matter how "good" the story was. Stick figures don't really convey personality and don't do well at conveying expressions and acting. And it's very important to get a sense of who the characters are, what they're feeling and thinking, and why they're doing what they're doing. It's hard to get into a stick figure's "head". And those things are important. After all, what the characters are thinking and feeling are the things that drive the story forward and make the viewer care about the events that are happening on screen.

In other words, to say that stick figures are sufficient to storyboard a movie is to suggest that the characters are of minimal importance within a story. That a story is merely events that happen, and who or what is affected by these events is not of consequence. But in my opinion that's fundamentally wrong…it's impossible to separate the characters from the story. Story and character are the same thing. The events of the story happen because the characters make them happen by their decisions and the actions they take. And they make their decisions and take actions based on the events that unfold as the story progresses.

So I would say that stick figures are not sufficient for storyboards because they wouldn't give you insight into what the characters are thinking and feeling, which is of vital importance to making the audience care and feel emotion. At the same time, I agree with people who say that you don't need to get super specific and belabor subtle expression changes in story boards. When you focus too much on details in storyboarding, you tend to lose sight of the shape of the overall story. And feature storyboarding is all about finding the shape of the overall story. Animation is the place for nuancing subtle expression changes….once the story and characters are figured out.

So with all that in mind, when I look at story portfolios I look for people who can draw characters in a way that expresses personality and character. I look for people who draw poses and expressions that are appropriate for each character and give me some sense of who they are. I don't like it when people draw the same "stock"poses for everything….when every character has the same walk pose, or if every character has the same cliched pose to convey that they're "thinking", or if every character has the exact same expression when they get angry…that's a sign to me that the artist doesn't really think deeply about character. They're just using the same poses for everything and not pushing themselves to find distinct expressions and poses that are unique to that character and to what is happening to them in the moment.

By way of example, "anger", in particular, is an expression that people tend to draw a stock version of on every character. But every character has a different level of anger that they can reach….someone like Cruella deVil has a much deeper level of anger than say, Rapunzel does. And they're going to express their anger in vastly different ways. And how often is a character really "angry"? That's a broad term that doesn't imply specifics. Rather than drawing a character that's "angry", ask yourself: what is the specific thing they're reacting to, and what is the response this character would have? Are they irritated in this moment? Or livid…or infuriated….or ready to cry in frustration…or in a murderous rage…or whatever. Know exactly what your character is thinking, and push yourself to find the best pose and acting that fits the specifics of their inner feelings. And don't use the same acting twice, even for the same character! Always find a fresh take for the acting of each moment, a new angle on the character that makes them feel alive and real (to both the audience, and you, as you try to learn who they are and get inside their heads). Which sort of leads to a bit of a sidebar…the subject of portfolios that contain:

TV Boards

It is very hard for me to look at boards from an animated television show and judge whether the applicant can be a successful board artist at Disney. I know that probably seems unfair and unreasonable. But the problem is that--when you're working on a TV show--the character designs are dictated by the show, the character's personalities are defined by the show, and the script pages have contributed a lot to the content of the storyboards.

Now, I boarded for TV myself and I know it's not easy. I'm not saying it's easy at all. It's extremely tough and demanding work. But when I look at boards from a TV show, I don't know how much the board artist contributed in terms of developing the characters. They may be copying poses right off a model sheet. The little character touches that make the boards shine might have been put there by the board artist…or they might have come from the script pages. It's really hard for me to get a sense of how the board artist thinks and what their taste and sense of entertainment are, because in TV so much of that is set by people other than the board artist.

An even bigger problem is that I can't tell what the applicant's drawing style is. Because TV boards have to be done in the style of the show, I don't know if the artist can draw in a way that will work at Disney. That's not to say that there's a strict house style that you're forced to draw in at Disney…far from it. Story artists are totally free to draw in their own personal style. But at the same time, when we look at a screening of the storyboards cut together, we want it to feel like one whole story with all the characters as consistent as possible throughout…not a bunch of unrelated mini-movies cut together. If the drawing style of the boards switches radically between each sequence, it can be jarring. So some sort of communal style is helpful. Too many disparate styles is distracting and takes our focus away from the main point of story reels: to figure out if there's a movie in there, and how to move forward and make it better.

Also, a big part of story reels is to convey the tone of the finished film. So a drawing style that gives a reasonable approximation of what the look and tone of the final film will be is helpful. It just gives everybody a better sense of what the finished product will look and feel like, which is a big component of our job. Speaking of which...


I think that it's very important for Story Artists to have a drawing style that is appealing (that is, pleasing to look at). Again, this is one of my more controversial opinions. Not all of my co-workers agree that appeal is an important requirement for story artists. After all, as I pointed out, nobody outside of the studio will ever see the storyboards. They're just a tool, a blueprint of the movie. Who cares if the story sketches are appealing?

Years ago I would've agreed with that sentiment. But over the years I've noticed what a difference that appeal can make in story sketch. After all, the way story sketch is viewed is that we edit all the black and white story sketches together and record our own voices as temporary dialogue to represent the whole film. So we end up watching 90 minutes of story sketches without the benefit of (real) actors, color, or the movement and life that animation will (eventually) bring to the film. It can be tedious. And if you add unappealing drawings to look at on top of that….it can affect the way you feel about the story and you may end up finding problems where--if the sketches were just a bit more appealing--you wouldn't see the same problems.

That probably sounds crazy. I understand that. If the story is solid and working….who cares if the sketches are appealing or not? Well, part of it is just human nature. People like looking at things that are easier to look at. And when story sketches are easier to look at, it just makes the experience of watching them more palatable and enjoyable. It draws you in and encourages you to keep watching and follow the story and characters. And you can focus on the story and what works and what doesn't, instead of being distracted by clunky drawings that are unpleasant to look at.

It's just like software. You can write a great, useful program that works well but has an ugly interface. And people will use it….but they will have a better experience using the program if it has an attractive interface. That's just the way humans are wired. And you can rail against it and complain about how unfair it is…or you can put work into making your drawings more appealing.

And again, appealing drawings have the advantage of giving viewers a better sense of what the finished product will look and feel like, which is important. The closer story sketch can replicate what the finished product will look like (within reason, of course), the more everyone will get a sense of what's working and what isn't. When people discuss the film and talk about how to make it better, they all have one clear impression of what the film is going to be. They aren't all having to make judgements about how the story reels will be changed as they're translated into the finished film. This helps everyone talk about the film and get quickly on the same page about what works and what doesn't. There aren't huge gaps in the understanding of what everyone is looking at.

So I look for applicants with a certain amount of appeal in their drawing. It doesn't have to be Mary Blair, but if you like to draw like Robert Crumb (and there's nothing wrong with that) I might feel like you're not the best fit for the job.

Staging, Blocking and Storytelling

I've dedicated a lot of space to talking about characters and acting and posing and how they relate to story sketch. The other big component of story sketch, of course, is that the story artist has to have a knowledge of film making. A story artist has to know how cutting and editing works, and have a good understanding of how to use staging (where the camera is placed to best tell the story) and how to use blocking (how the characters move through the scene) to tell the story in the most powerful way possible.

I've written many posts on cutting, staging and blocking if you want to get my thoughts on those things (simply type "cutting", "staging" or "blocking" into the search bar at the top of the site to find them). There are some good books that talk about these things as well. And, of course, there's no better education than looking at movies and asking yourself why the director placed the camera where he placed it and why the actors are doing what they're doing within the scene. Does it work? Does it not work? Could it be better?

I really look for Story applicants that aren't afraid to move the camera and pick interesting angles--not just for the sake of interesting angles--but to tell the story in the best way and make the viewer feel what the story artist wants them to feel and to enhance the telling of the story.

This is another new wrinkle that has become the job of story artists in recent times. For many years, story artists at Disney would concern themselves more with presenting ideas in a clear way than with picking specific camera angles. As camera work has gotten more sophisticated, and production schedules more compressed, it's become more important (and expected) for story artists to make decisions about layout and where the camera ought to be placed. The layout department will still interpret the work as they see fit and they will change and improve the staging to better tell the story, but if the story artist has made choices about the best place to put the camera, it gives the director a better tool to discuss when he or she issues the scene to layout. And again, it'll give everyone a better idea of how the scene is working when they look at the film in story sketch form.


I look for Story Artists that are able to get a sense of entertainment into their work. At the end of the day, every moment in a film should be entertaining. That doesn't mean every moment has to be funny. Dramatic moments should be compelling. Action sequences should be exciting. Sad moments should feel genuine and real and not cloying and manipulative. So I always look for people who know how to present each idea in a way that's interesting and draws me into the story and characters. It doesn't matter how great the idea of a scene is if it's not executed in an entertaining way. I've been doing boards for a long time, and on every movie scenes get boarded and re-boarded and re-boarded. There are always certain scenes that just aren't working until the right person re boards them with their own personal "take"…and suddenly the scene works for the first time. It's all about taste and knowing what each scene needs to work just right. I can't articulate it any better than that…more than anything, it's about having good taste and good instincts.

So I look for portfolios that have a good sense of entertainment. Whether the portfolio contains storyboards of a dramatic scene, an action scene, or a comedy scene, I look to see if they've been handled in a compelling and interesting way.

As far as life drawings and animal sketches go, I don't personally look at those things when I'm viewing a portfolio. I really go right to the boards….being able to draw great animals doesn't really tell me if you know how to storyboard. But that may be important to other people, and I think many studios still set a requirement that portfolios have to have these things, however….so check the requirements of whatever studio you're submitting to.

Another valuable resource to look at is any of the recent "Art Of" books from any Disney film. They should give a good idea of what we look for in storyboards.

I hope this has been helpful to anyone who's ever wondered what qualities make a good story portfolio (in my opinion, anyway) and what qualities a good story artist needs to have. Let me know if you have any questions or want any further clarification.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Disney, portfolio, story artist"
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Date: Monday, 27 Jan 2014 22:00
Sorry it's been so long....Happy New Year.

I hope the layout posts have been interesting. When I first went to CalArts, I was so convinced that I was going to be an animator that I paid no attention to learning about layout. Then, when I found my way into the story department, I really struggled to grasp how to (as I saw it back then) "fill out the background behind the characters". But over the years, I realized that layout is so much more than just a backdrop for characters. The layout and the characters should work in harmony when it comes to telling a story and informing the audience about the emotions that the character is feeling.

So I have a certain passion for layout because I had to work so hard to understand how it works. And because I had to search high and low for answers and look at tons of artwork to get a grasp on how to work with layouts, I guess it's easy for me to articulate a lot of information about it. So I hope you don't mind and that it's not boring or tiresome.

Anyway, a few more thoughts on layout (and how it relates to storyboarding):

Create a clear "stage" for the action.

This may seem obvious, but a big part of the layout's function is to create a "stage" for the action that's going to happen within the scene. The characters should be able to act and move through the scene without foreground elements covering up their actions or background elements cluttering up the scene and distracting from the characters. In general, you don't want too much detail or clutter behind where the characters are going to be performing.

This sounds easier than it is in execution. There's a real art to laying in background elements that don't distract from the characters because they're overworked, confusing or odd-looking (you don't want viewers to be wondering what that thing in the background is...if it's a streetlight, it needs to read as a streetlight)! It takes time and experience to know how to fill in an environment so that everything you draw works in concert with the characters to create a good composition (no matter where the characters move throughout the scene) and also provides the right mood and tone for what the story needs of the scene are.

When I say that the layout needs to function as a "stage" for the action, that doesn't always mean creating a big blank empty space in the center of the composition where you place the characters. The characters shouldn't always be right in the center of the frame, and the "stage" can be whatever it needs to be. Everything should service the story. So make the best choices to fit what the story demands.

Here, a feeling of being trapped and desperate is achieved by putting the dogs under the stove. It might seem like a cramped place to stage the action, but that's exactly the point.

Being under the stove creates an interesting composition and breakup of space, and seeing Perdita being graphically weighed down by the heavy shape of the stove is a nice visual way to communicate how she feels.

A similar example, from the same movie: the archway of the bridge is another nice use of layout to make Pongo and the puppies feel "trapped" as they hide from Cruella.

Creating the best "stage" to tell the story may involve different heights and levels in order to tell the story. As I've often mentioned, the layout of this scene from "Tangled" needed to support the story point: that Mother Gothel was in power, and the Stabbington twins were subordinate to her.

 So we created an environment where she could be above them and we could get shots of her above them, shots looking up at her so she appears powerful, and shots looking down at the twins so they look powerless.

Sometimes, a scene calls for a stage that can accommodate compositions making the powerful characters look big in the frame, and powerless characters small and minimized (artwork by Vance Gerry).

Another Vance Gerry sketch (from "The Rescuers"), showing that a large empty stage can be the right choice for making a character feel small, alone and powerless.

Many times, creating a frame within the composition can be a nice way to create a stage for the action (and crop out blank, uninteresting areas of the frame).

As I've often repeated, creating a "flat" stage will tend to give more of a comedic effect to a scene...

...while creating a stage with more depth to it will feel more exciting and dramatic.

Direct the viewer's eye where you want them to look.

One of the most important aspects of layout is that it needs to work in concert with all of the action in the scene to make sure the audience is looking where you want them to look. Obviously, we want to make sure the audience is always seeing exactly what we want them to see. That way, they always know what's going on and what each character is doing and feeling.

This can be a challenge, especially in action scenes with quick cuts and fast action. It can be very easy for the audience to become confused or disoriented, and if they miss certain key actions and emotions, they may not be able to follow the plot or understand what the characters are doing.

The most basic way that a good layout achieves this goal is by making sure that the viewer's eye remains focused within the composition and that their eyes are directed towards the center of interest.

Again, as I pointed out above, many times you can create a "frame within a frame" to get the audience to look where you want them to look. Here, the characters head is contained within the frame of the doorway so that we look right at his expression and he doesn't get lost within the composition.

Here, the layout creates a blank portion of the background as a frmae-within-the-frame so the hair can be seen clearly.

Here, the curtains behind the character's head create a nice frame to contain his head and gives extra emphasis to his expressions.

Also, remember that he eye will always go to the area with the most contrast...that is, the whitest white against the darkest black. It doesn't have to literally be pure white against pure black, but just wherever the greatest contrast is within the frame. So place the greatest contrast where you want the viewer's eye to go.

Here, by turning these images into black and white images, you can see how the film makers put the most contrast where they wanted the viewer's eye to go.

Also, you should always be conscious of everything in the frame as graphic elements. In a linear way, you should always be pointing the viewer's eye where you want it to go.

Always be aware of how perspective is influencing the graphic lines in your scene. Is the perspective helping to point everything where you want the audience to look? Or are the graphic lines pointing the viewer's eye out of the fame and creating a weak composition?

Most of the time, the way I use layouts to contain and direct the viewer's eye is pretty simple. A lot of shots in dialogue scenes just need some simple framing to give the character's expressions a clear stage and keep the viewer's eye from sliding off the edges of the frame.

I tend to create frames around the character's faces (if possible) and to direct lines towards their faces and eyelines to help emphasize their expressions.

Here's one by Franquin. Notice how the surfaces of the road and hills aren't flat surfaces...they curve towards our characters. Also, there's a grass hill behind our characters, and it bisects the eyeline of the character that is speaking to draw your attention to his expression.

A great example by Pyle. Everything leads to the character's face. Again, it can be helpful to place lines that travel right through your character's heads. It seems like that would be a compositional no-no....but it works great for leading the viewer's eye right to the subject's face.

Another by Pyle, using frames around the character's faces for emphasis and lines that are directed towards the subject's faces.

Yet another framing of the face, courtesy of NC Wyeth.

When it's converted to black and white, you can see another example of how contrast can draw your eye to the important part of the frame.

More great use of lines to keep the viewer's eye looking at the most important part of the composition, courtesy of Wyeth and Pyle.

Directing the eye to where you want the viewer to look is even more important in story sketch than it is in the fields of painting and illustration. A story sketch will only be on screen for a few seconds, or even a fraction of a second, in some cases. In a good story sketch, there should be no ambiguity about where the audience should be looking.

Okay, I'll stop there for now....more to come soon!
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: ""Tangled", 101 Dalmatians, Charles Schul..."
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Date: Monday, 16 Dec 2013 16:00
One more thing worth mentioning in regards to layout is the importance of silhouette value in designing your layouts.

Here's a quick review on the definition of silhouette value, and how it relates to posing characters:

Just as silhouette value is helpful in drawing poses that express what you're trying to say with your characters in a clear way, silhouette value can be helpful in making sure the audience knows what your layout is trying to say and reading it the way you intend for it to be read.

For example, here is a quick drawing of a house and some trees.

The trees are blocking the outside wall lines and the corners where the roof meets the walls of the house, so you don't get a good, strong clear read of a house silhouette and it takes you a moment to realize that you're looking at a house. Can you read that it's a house with trees in front of it? Sure....but it takes a moment. And a house is a pretty typical standard shape. If you start drawing objects that are a bit more unusual, you get into readability problems a lot more quickly when you don't silhouette them well.

You might be thinking that this is a subtle distinction...that the trees are obscuring the house and that's why you can't really read the house. But I think it's more than that. After all, it is possible to have trees in front of the house and preserve the readability of the house, as long as you do it in the right way....more on that in a second.

So in this next drawing, I've moved the trees to behind the house. Now you can clearly see the house shape....but now, the tree trunks aren't silhouetted well. They're right up against the edges of the house. They're cut off and they're a bit hard to read as trees. They're cluttering the edges of the house and now the readability of both the house and the trees is suffering.

Below is a better version of everything....the trees are moved away from the house far enough that they read as separate objects and you can see the silhouette of the house clearly. And the drawing has some depth because the foliage of the trees is tucked behind the house a little bit. If you're going to cut off part of an object, pick a part that is a big continuous shape (like the foliage of a tree). We know how trees work and we can easily make the assumption that the tree leaves continue behind the house.

Here's another version that works fine too. Here, there's a tree in the front yard that obscures part of the house, but it doesn't really hurt the readability of the house. Why is that? Why is it okay to obscure the corners and silhouette in some cases, and not in others?

I think, in this case, as long as one plane of the house is silhouetted well, you can get away with obscuring the other plane. And if only one plane is going to be silhouetted, pick the most distinctive side. Here, the front side of the house is silhouetted. That's what we usually picture when we picture a house in our minds: the peak of the roof, the front door, etc. So we are able to quickly "read" the familiar silhouette of a house.

This concept applies to big objects in your layout, as well as small ones. When you're drawing objects and props in your backgrounds, keep in mind that most objects have a distinctive silhouette that helps them "read" quickly to the viewer. If you don't stage them in the right way, you can create a lot of confusion in the viewer. Here are some common everyday objects staged from two angles: a confusing one, and one that exploits the silhouette of the object so it can be read clearly.

I chose extreme angles to make my point, obviously, but you see what I mean.

Silhouette value can be applied in more ways than just in the poses you choose for your characters, and can be very helpful for drawing successful backgrounds as well as successful character poses.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Monday, 02 Dec 2013 20:20
Another simple way to get the effect you want from your layouts is to use the right shape language for the type of feeling you're trying to achieve. Often, you are trying to impart a certain type of mood or feeling to the viewer. You're not just drawing a house; you are drawing a house that's supposed to feel haunted. Or comfortable and homey. Or cold and sanitized....whatever is the best option for the story you're trying to tell.

Usually, the key to achieving the mood you want is by using the right kind of lines and shapes. Graphical elements can impart a strong emotional feeling, without the viewer even realizing that they're being influenced in that way. You should use that to your advantage when trying to create a certain mood. And to make sure you're not using the wrong kind of shape and undermining what you're trying to say.

Again, this seems kind of simple and obvious, I know. But I can tell you that I've used all these "tricks" myself time after time and they've really helped me out and helped give my work the effect I want.

Vertical lines are great for imparting height. They are great for giving a sense of grandeur and magnificence. They should be used for making things look impressive and awe inspiring. They feel elegant and sophisticated.

Castles always make me think of vertical lines. I wouldn't know how to draw a castle without verticals. Certainly it's an easy way to make them feel imposing and impressive.

Being at the bottom of The Grand Canyon and looking up at the verticals above you would certainly make you appreciate the feeling that verticals can give you.

By contrast, horizontal lines give a feeling of peace and calm. They feel stable and comfortable. Whenever you see someone sitting on a peaceful beach, the horizon creates a strong horizontal line that feels very relaxing and peaceful.

Another variation is the horizontal "S" curve composition. If you have elements creating an "S" shape in the frame, it takes time for the eye to travel along the curved shape, and that can be helpful for making the eye linger on an image.

Franquin used an "S" shaped composition for the last panel of "Le Repaire de la Murene" to make your eye linger over the frame for an extra beat and give a feeling of finality.

Diagonal lines tend to feel unbalanced and unsupported. They usually give a composition a violent or unsettled feeling. They are good for action scenes and scenes of tension, suspense or scariness. Here are some examples of diagonals in animated films where they're employed to convey this type of feeling:

A frame of Gollum in his cave that uses diagonals to give a creepy, unsettling feeling:

These pictures of abandoned places are composed to create diagonals in the frame, which enhances the crazy, off-balance feeling you get from viewing them:

Circular shapes give another type of feeling. Circles are soft looking and feel comfortable, reassuring and un-threatening...maybe because they don't have any edges. Circles can be great for creating soft, comfortable, homey and quaint environments.

The earliest Disney characters were all curves, with no edges or straight lines. I think a big part of their charm and quaint look is because they are all based on circles and that gives them a comfortable, cozy feeling.

Anyway, these are just my first impressions off the top of my head on how I think of these different types of shapes and how I tend to use them. These are not hard and fast rules at all. After all, the Death Star is all circles...and it's pretty threatening, and not at all comforting!

All of these thoughts on shape are totally pliable and open to interpretation.

Lastly, here is a sheet from one of Andrew Loomis's books where he talks about the psychology of each type of shape and line:

If nothing else, just remember that every type of line and shape imparts a certain feeling. Make sure you're choosing the right line or shape for what you're doing, and don't undermine yourself by accidentally making the wrong choice.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Andre Franquin, Andrew Loomis, layout"
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Date: Thursday, 14 Nov 2013 12:54
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 do....one little thing at a time!
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "blocking, silhouette value, staging, Tan..."
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Date: Sunday, 27 Oct 2013 10:43
This one will seem really simple. It might even seem odd that I'm writing it down here...but I remember when this idea first "clicked" for me, and now I do it without thinking when I'm drawing a layout. But it wasn't always that way. It took me a while to realize that this was a helpful layout trick for making my layouts have depth.

Besides, every drawing trick I know is really simple! Anyway, all this topic involves is looking at shapes and objects that repeat in your composition to give the feeling of depth.

The most obvious examples are the typical ones: telephone poles and railroad tracks.

We know each telephone pole (and railroad tie) is the same size, so as they get further away from us and get smaller, we perceive depth and distance.

This are obvious examples, but you can use that same trick - of objects repeating within your composition - to suggest perspective and distance.

Here, using the foreground, middle ground, and background idea I talked about in an earlier post, I created some depth in these incredibly simple sketches. In a city scene, you can use windows on buildings (which the viewer assumes are all roughly the same size) to create depth with just a few quick lines. As the windows get smaller on each successive level, that feeling of space going back into the frame is achieved.

Here, I drew a simple highway going over three hills. The road signs and lines on the road give you a sense of depth.

And almost every environment has objects that repeat that can be used to achieve perspective. Most city scenes are especially easy because there are always cars and people that populate the streets. But there are many other options too. Mailboxes, streetlights, sidewalk squares, billboards, etc.

This one by Franquin has cars and people to indicate depth, but he also uses the road texture, building windows, etc. My favorite touch is the vertical "Quick" sign in the foreground. There's a similar vertical sign in the background that says "Monopol" and your eye assumes that they're about the same size, because they're similar signs. Immediately, a nice easy sense of depth is created.

Another one of my favorite examples by Franquin. This time, he achieves a good feeling of depth by having close up leaves in the foreground, semi-distinct leaves in the middle ground and then suggestions of tree foliage in the background. Three different layers of leaves at different distances from the viewer, getting smaller and smaller as they get farther away from us creates a great feeling of depth and space.

The variations are limitless, and don't have to be obvious at all. Here, John Romita Jr. uses a statue in the foreground and similar statues in the background (on the top of a cathedral) to show scale. We assume all the statues are the same size.

Some more examples. From Cosey:

A Dare devil city scene by Chris Samnee:

From Tintin by Herge:

By Bill Peet, from his Autobiography:

Anyway, keep your eyes open for unique ways to use this technique in your own work. It's a handy trick for creating depth and perspective without it drawing attention to itself and distracting from the rest of the image (which can happen if you try to put telephone poles and railroad tracks in every frame). Here are some real world examples for inspiration.

Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Andre Franquin, Bill Peet, Chris Samnee,..."
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Date: Saturday, 05 Oct 2013 23:05
Here are a couple of other thoughts to keep in mind that are helpful in creating depth in layout. These things may seem simple and obvious (like a lot of concepts about drawing), but they have helped me quite a bit over the years.

Planning your layout to have alternating patches of sunlight and shade on the ground can be very helpful for showing depth as space recedes into the distance.

Also, creating those alternating areas of light and shade can help keep your ground plane from becoming ambiguous as it stretches away into the distance.

Atmospheric perspective occurs when particles in the air obscure your vision. This is usually very apparent when there is smoke, dust or fog in the air, but it occurs even on clear days. There's always a certain amount of water in the atmosphere, and as we look at objects that are far away from us, the cumulative effect of all the particles we are looking through obscures those objects. If you can capture that effect in your backgrounds, you will be able to create the feeling of depth. It doesn't have to be that pronounced or noticeable. Even a small amount of effort can create a good feeling of depth.

Because of this atmospheric effect, any landscape will have more contrast in the foreground than in the middle ground, and there will be more contrast in the middle ground than the background. The further things are from the viewer, the less contrast they will have on them.

Here's two examples. In example 1 below, the foreground area has the most contrast. The middle ground area has lass contrast than the foreground, and then the background and sky are the lightest areas. The objects in the distance have the least contrast. It looks correct and there's some (simple) depth to the picture.

In example 2, I reversed it so that the background has the most contrast and the foreground has the least. It's very confusing graphically, and there's no feeling of depth.

The same thing goes for detail. Because of atmospheric perspective, we see a lot more detail in objects that are close to us. The moisture (or smoke, or dust, etc.) in the air obscures the details on objects as they get further away from us. Again, you can use this effect to create depth very simply.

Here's another example to show how this works. In example 1 below, the foreground level has more detail. The middle ground has less detail, and the background level has the least amount of detail.

In example 2, I reversed it so that there's more detail in the background and less detail in the foreground. It looks very graphically confusing and makes no sense.

And, of course, atmospheric perspective affects color as well. Color will always appear more saturated when it's closer to the observer and it becomes less saturated as it gets farther away from the viewer.

Again, all of these might seem like completely obvious observations. But most of the things that I know about drawing are very simple techniques that can be used in very complex and sophisticated ways.

Here is a small selection of examples to illustrate all of these points. More layout material to come...

Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Cosey, Franquin, layout, Noel Sickles, R..."
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Date: Tuesday, 01 Oct 2013 23:44
One of the first posts I wrote was a very simple trick for storyboard artists dealing with layouts and backgrounds.

First, some history: I started out as an animator, and so I was always more focused on learning how to draw characters, expressions, and poses. The idea of drawing layouts or backgrounds was not something I ever thought about at all.

But after being an animator for a few years, I transitioned into storyboarding. Suddenly, I had to deal with drawing backgrounds and layouts. I was very intimidated at first...most of my boards featured a character in the center of the frame, with just a slight suggestion of a layout sketched in timidly around the edges.

Pretty quickly, I realized the limitations of this approach. When you don't feel comfortable drawing backgrounds, you're limited in how much you can move the camera and utilize the environments to help tell the story.

So I went in search of help with layouts. I wasn't able to find a book on the topic (although I know there has been one published since then--someone let me know if it's been helpful to them). I learned to do layout by looking at what some of my favorite comic book artists had done with their layouts.

So one of the first simple techniques I discovered (and the subject of one of my first blog posts) was a way of organizing layouts to make them less intimidating. And that's to divide layouts into three levels: Foreground, Middle ground, and Background.

Carl Barks used this technique quite a bit, and very effectively.

The great thing about this technique is that you can stage your action on any one of the three levels, depending on how much emphasis you want to give each element. There's something that I always found so overwhelming about trying to abstract the whole world into a stage and backdrop for my characters and action...the idea of reducing all of that into three distinct levels really helped make layouts more manageable. And the best part is that when you do it right, the viewer isn't aware of the separation of levels...it just feels like a spacious world, full of depth.

Some more examples from Barks from around the web:

This may not seem like a super exciting or helpful tip...but that's true of a lot of drawing advice that I have found helpful over the years. Sometimes all you need to create better drawings is an organizational tool to help arrange your design elements and keep them from being a disorganized mess.

I'll talk about a couple of other layout thoughts in the next post.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Carl Barks, layout"
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Date: Monday, 16 Sep 2013 23:23
As we build the story of an animated Disney Feature, we constantly screen the storyboards of the movie for audiences of people inside our building to get their opinions on what isn't working in the story and to get their suggestions on what we could do to make the story better.

There are lots of ways to improve a story. It's not an easy process, though, and there are always many different opinions on exactly what's wrong with each film, let alone how to tackle the story problems that each story inevitably faces. It's such a nebulous and confusing subject that people are always looking for methods or formulas that can be applied to every story in order to find the answers more easily and rapidly.

Every film maker wrestles with story problems...that's why there are so many books on screenwriting available these days.

When we collect notes from people at the studio about how to make each story better, we get a lot of people who write notes pointing out the flaws in the film's logic. People always point out the events that don't make any sense or are inconsistent with events that happened earlier in the story.

It's good to be aware of these things. I certainly understand why people point these things out: I hate movies that don't make any sense and I can't stand it when characters in a film do what the plot demands they do to move the story forward, instead of what that character would actually do at that moment.

But it's worth keeping in mind that story logic is not always absolute. I've worked on films where the crew tried valiantly to iron out every bump of logic in the story with the goal of making the movie fit together perfectly and make sense so that it would work with all the precision of a fine watch.

But observing the inner workings of a watch is boring and tedious. It's not interesting or exciting. And our films aren't documentaries; they're works of fiction.  In my experience, almost every movie has some moment that's a leap of faith...some moment that departs from logic and allows the story to go to where it needs to go in order to move forward.

You can get away with a moment like that, as long as you do it carefully, and it's the only way for that particular story to work. The trick to making a moment like that work is to remember that--for the most part--people watch movies emotionally, not logically. Audiences will go with something if it's the only way for the story go where they want it to go.

The most famous case in point is a moment from "Toy Story": we see from the beginning of the story that toys are conscious of any person entering into a room, and they will choose to fall down lifeless wherever they are to keep people from realizing that toys are actually sentient beings.

When Buzz Lightyear comes into the picture, he's completely unaware that he's a toy and keeps refuting Woody's demands that Buzz accept that he's just a toy. Buzz actually believes that he's a Space Ranger on a dangerous mission to save the galaxy.

And yet....whenever Andy comes into the room, Buzz drops down lifelessly, just like the rest of the toys.

That makes no logical sense. If Buzz doesn't think he's a toy, why does he fall down every time a human being comes in the room? Shouldn't he continue to walk around and go about his Space Ranger business?

From what I hear, the film makers and story crew at Pixar tried to figure out a logical way to prevent this story "hole" during the making of "Toy Story", but just couldn't figure out a way to make it work satisfyingly.

I think it works just fine (and let's face it, nobody notices this leap in logic) for two reasons: number one, we the audience know Buzz is a toy, even if he doesn't, so when he acts like all the other toys we accept it as typical toy behavior.

But the other reason (and the much more important one) why we accept it is that, as I said, we watch movies emotionally. We accept leaps in logic if they allow the story where we want it to go. We are invested in the story of Woody competing with Buzz and we want to see how their conflict and rivalry will work out. Will Woody regain his spot as Andy's favorite? What will happen if he doesn't? How far will he go to stay on top as Andy's number one toy? These are the questions we want to see answered. We have no interest in seeing what would happen if Andy suddenly saw his toys walking around and talking. That's a completely different movie and not at all what we've invested in emotionally when Buzz shows up and ruins Woody's life. So we accept the "cheat" because it allows our story to continue on the way we want it to.

Always look for logic when it's possible to do so. But for those rare moments when you need a leap of faith to keep the emotional story working, don't be afraid to let go and abandon logic for just a moment. It might, in the end, be the best solution for the story.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Pixar, Toy Story"
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Date: Monday, 02 Sep 2013 18:34
Some pages from John Romita's Jr's first issue in the new series of comic books that feature Hit Girl (I'm afraid to use the real title and create a NSFW post title).

 One of the things that makes John Romita's work a cut above most other comic artists is the way he incorporates visual storytelling, using the pictures to help convey the emotion he's trying to impart within the story. I'm constantly surprised how many comic artists, story artists and film makers don't seem to give that much consideration to telling their stories in a visual way. Many people are content to simply show the events of the story as it unfolds, without using the camera and point-of-view of the viewer to heighten and accentuate the emotions that the viewer is supposed to be feeling.

Here's a simple example: four pages from his recent work where several superheroes are attempting to break Hit Girl out of prison (warning: NSFW language).

I like, in particular, the way JRJR uses staging in certain panels to express the mental state of the superheroes involved in the scene, starting with a heroic upshot as they confidently undertake their mission:

Then, my favorite composition from the group: the shot that shows just how intimidating the prison walls are. A great illustration of the mental state of our heroes: they have suddenly realized how tough it's going to be to break into prison and they are staring to have second thoughts.

It's a choice some artists might shy away from because it creates a big empty space in the frame...but I love how the heroes appear small compared to the wall. It's a great choice to make it a bit of a downshot, looking down on them. Also I like how you can't see the top of the wall; it's so massive that it can't even be squeezed into the composition.

Lastly, I like the composition of this one:

Making the guard big in the foreground and the heroes tiny in the background as they run away gives you a sense of who has the power here and who is powerless. The prison wall taking up so much space in the frame adds to this feeling too; the heroes are relegated to a small, cramped area of the composition and they feel minimized and ineffective, which is exactly what is happening within the story.

Just like the last few posts showing how certain films use staging and blocking to tell the story in a visual way, comic books can be very instructive and full of good (and not-so-good) examples of how to use visuals to tell the story in a powerful and emotional way.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Hit Girl, John Romita Jr."
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Date: Tuesday, 30 Jul 2013 08:41
Here's a great scene from the film "It's a Wonderful Life" that has great blocking, staging and camera work that all contribute to the telling of the story (see my previous discussion on blocking and how it can help tell a story here).

 If you've never seen the movie, it's posted on youtube in its entirety here. It's a great movie and definitely worth seeing if you've never had the chance.

So here's a quick setup that tells you all you need to know for this scene: George (Jimmy Stewart) lives in the small town of Bedford Falls, and his dream is to get out and see the world. But every time he tries to leave, circumstances keep him stuck in the town. He's particularly agitated during this scene, because his brother has just returned to town. George thought that his brother was returning to town to take over some of George's responsibilities so that George could leave town, but George has just learned that his brother has become engaged, and now plans to take a job working for his fiance's father....which will leave George stuck in Bedford Falls, once again.

So right before the scene begins, George, frustrated, goes out for a walk to clear his head and think. He ends up outside of Mary's house, where the scene begins.

Some backstory on Mary: she has always had a crush on George, and the record that she plays (and the artwork she places on the easel in the scene) are references to a night she and George shared years ago. Obviously, she's still thinking about that night and trying to remind George of the time they shared together, but he's distracted by his own gloomy thoughts and not at all in the mood to be romantic.

I don't even know where to begin with this scene, everything works so beautifully. It's so well written and staged and blocked that I hate to even try to explain what's going on, for fear that I won't do it justice....but I'll try, anyway, and although there are a ton of great things happening in the scene, I'll just focus on some major ones. But there's so much to see...take a look and check it out beyond the aspects I'm mentioning.

One of the first things to notice about the scene is that--even though the bulk of the film is told through George Bailey's point of view--this scene is told from Mary's point of view. You're with her (and not him) as she runs down the stairs, puts on the record, and invites him in, and you stay with her (and not him) as he leaves the scene halfway through (only to return a beat later). The big reason that the scene is played this way is very simple: she's driving this scene. The scene only happens because she makes it happen. She calls George into the house and she has a definite goal for what she wants to happen in the scene, so it's easy to track the ups-and-downs of the scene as she struggles to connect with George and tries different ways to rekindle her relationship with him. George has none of those layers to play here. Seeing all of her actions up front as she runs down the stairs, check her hair in the mirror, put the artwork on the easel and start the record all help clarify her state of mind and show her deliberate intentions for what she hopes will happen in the scene.

The scene would work even if you stayed with George and saw it all through his point of view as he comes in the house. But that would be a lot less interesting. George has nothing to play here....he's very flat, emotion-wise. He's just frustrated and agitated. That's not interesting, and it's also not fun to be with him and watch him play those emotions. Mary has so many more layers to play in the scene, as she tries to drop hints about how she feels, and then tries to provoke a reaction out of him, and he just acts as a brick wall to bounce those things off of. So it's much better to be "with her", and that's why so many camera setups favor her, while at the same time minimizing him...

...the angles allow you to see the thinking and processing on her face, while not seeing too much of him, so that you can focus on her and her struggle to communicate with him. Again, he doesn't have much to play: he's just stuck in his own head, and brooding about his own troubles. So it's good to minimize him within each setup; we know where his head is at, and his emotional state isn't changing for the first part of the scene. So the staging gives the focus to Mary, so she has a clear stage to play all of her shifting thoughts and emotions.

The blocking is great throughout the whole scene: the movement of the characters really helps give the scene a progression, delineates the "energy shifts" as the scene moves from one idea to the next, and helps illustrate their emotional states and what they're thinking. The overall blocking beats work great: first they are separated by a wide gulf (her in the window, him in the street) and then the distance between them gets lessened as they stand in the doorway, then inside the door, and then stand in the parlor (or whatever that room is), and then sit down together. These progressions allow them to be closer and closer to each other, and allow for tighter and tighter shots as the scene goes on, and also the scene feels like it is building because they are occupying more and more intimate parts of the house as they move from the front yard to the doorway to the inside of the doorway and finally to the parlor.

I love how the staging on the two-shot has depth at first, as she tries to sincerely connect with George...

...and then, after the Mother interrupts, and the scene gets more comedic, the staging gets flat (because staging with depth always feels more dramatic, while flat staging always feels funnier).

Also, George's reactions are more important in this part of the scene, so unlike the first setup (where Mary was doing all of the acting and it made sense to minimize George so we could focus on her), now George has an equal part in the emoting and reacting and we need to give him some screen space so he can play that out and we can see his expressions clearly.

(And, in reference to my previous post about the "Lone Ranger" poster and two objects being equally weighted, notice how Mary is slightly more centered and higher than George. A neat solution to favor her a little and create a good composition).

Then, more great (and yet, so simple) blocking as George stands up. Him standing up is a great way to show that their small moment of not quite-intimacy has been broken by the mom's interruption, and allows the camera to widen out to a less-intimate range so you can feel the distance growing again between them, and to show his continued agitation and unsettled feeling. As Mary loses patience with George and as she begins to get frustrated with him, she stands up and snaps at him to try and get a reaction out of him (again, the simple act of her standing up is a great energy shift in the scene and it's a simple action that helps accentuate the change in her demeanor). And as she confronts him, his frustration gets the better of him and he walks out of the scene. The ringing of the telephone is a great added agitating element that helps adds more conflict to that moment.

I also love the staging as he crosses angrily in front of her and storms out...it allows you to have him leave the scene and linger on her after he goes, and see on her face that she didn't mean to goad him into leaving. The wide shot helps make her look alone and kind of lost in the space as she clearly feels regret over what has happened.

After he exits the scene, the use of the record to show her mental state is just brilliant. It seems so simple, and yet her smashing the record (which is the song they listened to together so many years ago) tells you so much about how she's been hoping things would go with George, and how upset she is that things have gone so badly with him. And smashing a record is such a violent act...it really adds some real punch to that moment, and shows what the stakes of the scene are: she's very much in love with George, and if she can't re-connect with him, she'll be devastated.

Also, the act of him leaving, and her crossing to the record player is all great blocking because it allows the camera to pull back even wider and get away from the closer, more intimate shots we were seeing when they were sitting together. The wide shots (coming after the closer, more tight two-shots and closeups) tell you that the intimacy and warmth of the scene has been lost, because the closer and tighter the shots, the more intimate a scene feels. The wider the shots are, the more distant and unemotional the scene feels.

The whole idea of his hat and leaving it behind is also a brilliant--yet simple--bit of blocking that allows him to come back into the scene...and creates some great staging as she talks to Sam and we see George, behind her, hearing all of this and the effect it has on him. She can be big and powerful within the composition and he is small and less powerful. It shows how much pull Mary has over him in this moment.

And, of course, the idea behind the phone call with Sam is brilliant, because the two of them are forced to share the receiver and be in close proximity with each other, and while the phone conversation goes on, they become more and more aware of each other and their feelings for each other consume them. A great idea to use the phone call (and the prop of the phone) to help tell the story.

Take a look at how the reference to Mother being on the extension (which seems like just a quick throwaway joke) serves an important staging purpose: it allows you to cut away from a medium two-shot of them talking to a shot of Mother and then back to a closer, more intimate setup seamlessly, and helps give the scene a feeling of building intimacy and connection. And the closer shot is great, because you're close enough to focus on their faces, and all the subtle shifts of expression as their feelings blossom without any distracting background elements. And all that subtle acting wouldn't be as powerful in a wider shot (even the first two shot we began with below).

But obviously if you had begun the phone call with this closer, more intimate shot, it would have felt too close and personal for the beginning of the conversation. So you want to build to a shot that is that powerful and so intimate. Always look for ways to make a scene progress and build; a scene should always go from less intimate to more intimate, or less dramatic to more dramatic, etc. Just like the structure of a film, each scene should rise to a climax within itself. A good writer or story artist knows this and uses all the elements of staging and blocking to help accomplish this.

This scene is such a great example of what every scene in a movie should contain: the viewer should have a clear, solid idea of what each character wants out of the scene, and it should be clear in each moment how each character is trying to go about getting what they want, and how close or far away they are from their goal. I love how, in this scene, the staging and blocking change every time Mary tries a new tactic to connect with George, and also changes as she loses patience with him altogether.

And, above all of these considerations, a scene should always be the most entertaining version of that idea that it can possibly be. The characters should be entertaining and compelling as the beats of their story unfold, and this scene is a great example of how to put great characters in opposition and get an incredible amount of fun and entertainment (as well as emotion) out of them as they struggle to get what they want.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: ""It's a Wonderful Life", blocking, Donna..."
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Date: Tuesday, 16 Jul 2013 23:56
When I first saw the poster for "The Lone Ranger", I was struck by the was it was composed and I felt like it could be the basis for a little discussion about composition.

This is the main poster that I saw most frequently.

I saw this version as well.

And then here's the original image that the poster was obviously based on and that I saw reprinted with a few articles about the movie.

 There are actually quite a few things that are interesting to talk about regarding the poster, and whether it's the best image to try and sell a big, fun summer blockbuster...but let's start with talking purely about composition.

The thing that inspired me to write this post was that the image breaks one of the most basic "rules" of composition. As we all know, symmetry is bad in composition, so one of the first rules you'll find in any book on composition is that you should always avoid creating a composition where two objects are given equal weight. 

And in all the above images of Tonto and The Lone Ranger, they're given equal weight: they're both equally important within the composition.

Then, maybe somebody was thinking the same thing, because I started to see this variation of the poster:

I'm not sure that this one works any better. I assume their thinking was that everyone is coming to the movie to see Johnny Depp. So they gave him more emphasis to (I assume) try and at least emphasize one over the other and make it a better composition. But it just seems awkward to cut off part of a figure like that. That's another basic rule of composition, by the way: never crop a character on a joint (like the elbow, or at the knee, or at the shoulder, as it is in this example) because it looks awkward and makes characters look kind of amputated.

Also, the movie is called "The Lone Ranger"...seems like an odd choice to minimize the titular character like that and squeeze him out of the frame in favor of Tonto...even if Tonto is played by a bigger star.

I was surprised they didn't do something more like this with the image:

I cropped it so that there's more space around The Lone Ranger and he has slightly more importance--he's closer to the center of the composition so he has more weight, and yet Tonto still has plenty of real estate in the composition. At least this way I feel like one is favored over the other so there's some hierarchy (and neither figure is being cut off).

Then, I saw this variation of the poster...

Again, I think having two images that have equal weight is a strange choice. It's just not a great composition. And when you're making a film called "The Lone Ranger", isn't it weird to have Tonto occupy the top (and therefore more important) space?

There's one more aspect--beyond composition--that 's worth discussing about the original poster: the color palette. If you're trying to sell a big, fun summer blockbuster, normally you have more of a palette that suggests color, life, excitement, fun....and, by contrast, the restrained palette used on the poster for "The Lone Ranger" feels more like the kind of palette I'd expect on a poster advertising a serious drama or a documentary. I'm surprised they didn't punch up the colors in this poster or shift it to a slightly warmer, richer color spectrum (but I'm no expert....maybe they had their reasons. If anyone has a suggestion of what I might be missing here, please let me know).

So I Googled "Lone Ranger poster" in order to find images for this post, and I found some other variations that I thought were better versions (to varying degrees). With the things we've talked about in mind, let's take a look at some of the other ones, and take a look at where they stand as far as compostion and color choices (and again, this is all my opinion--shoot me a note if you disagree or want to express a counterpoint).

This one has more color and punch to it. I like including the blue of the sky. The skin tones and touches of color on the characters are more saturated than in the original poster, so the palette seems more appealing and better suited to a fun summer blockbuster...but it's still a little on the dull side, color wise, and kind of dark. Making Depp smaller within the composition is a better choice than giving the figures equal weight, and touches on yet another principle about composing images: it's not always the larger element in a composition that dis the most important. Sometimes the smaller element has more importance and focus within the picture.

Beyond all the composition and color aspects, I guess we should pause here to touch on the most fundamental question of all, when designing a movie poster: what statement is the poster trying to make about the movie? Is it appropriate to the type of film? Is it clear about what it's trying to say? And will it convince people to see the movie? That's a whole discussion in itself, obviously...

But this image above doesn't exactly say "big, fun summer blockbuster" (neither does the original poster at top, in my opinion). I guess this one above is trying to say more about the relationship of the two characters, and the idea that The Lone Ranger is a strong, upright Boy Scout type, and Tonto is a bit skeptical about being forced to work with a guy like that. But no sense of the adventure or fun of the movie is hinted at in the poster, and that's usually the kind of thing the campaign for a film like this is trying to sell.

This one has an even better palette. Featuring the saturated colors of the sky and the landscape gives it a colorful feel that seems appropriate to the type of movie you're trying to market. Including the small figures against the landscape gives the impression that the film has a scale and scope to it that is appropriate for a big summer blockbuster. And even though the two heads are equally weighted, I think it's okay because they create a bit of a triangular composition with the small figures below.

 The thing that seems funky in this one is having The Lone Ranger looking off to the left. The strong direction of his look pushes your eye out of the frame a bit. I think it would work better if he was looking off to the right instead. That way his and Tonto's eye direction would be towards each other and would create more of a closed circuit within the composition (and relate to each other better).

In this one, Depp overlaps Hammer, but it still feels like the two of them are evenly weighted. And the fact that they are looking in different directions seems like it confuses the eye. The strong eye direction of both of them pushes me out of the composition to both the left and the right. And, again, the palette seems so muddy and dark...an odd choice.

And beyond that--again--what are you trying to say about the movie? In this one, I'm not sure at all. The two characters aren't really relating to each other at all. I don't get any sense of their relationship within the movie.

Then lastly, there's this one, which I admit I never saw in public (and seems to be an International version):

I don't know where to begin with this one. At least they suggested what some of the landscape of the film and the characters might look like. It still seems like a gloomy palette for a fun summer film and it doesn't look like the palette I'd associate with a Western either. All the imagery is so serious and brooding, as is the palette. There are so many elements here that don't relate to each other that I don't get any sense of order or composition. There's no hierarchy or importance here.

Normally I try to avoid talking about negative examples of things, and I really, honestly don't mean to be snarky or mean-spirited. Please don't take it that way. Obviously, designing movie posters is not an easy job and it's all subjective. I only posted these examples because they generated a strong reaction in me, so they're helpful to use so that I can relate my impressions, and hopefully spark some thoughts in your mind about what I'm saying and whether you agree or not. But regardless of what you think of these efforts (or my judgement of them), one thing I think we'd all agree on is that, before you begin designing any piece of art--whether it's a poster, painting, drawing or whatever--decide what you're trying to say and what type of mood you're trying to convey. Then let those things be your guidelines as you compose the picture and choose the palette.
Author: "mark kennedy (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "composition, Johnny Depp, The Lone Range..."
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