Wow, the last couple weeks have been pretty crazy. From making my first live action production to trying to get folks to vote on it, I definitely had lots of fun, but it wasn’t without lessons learned on the way. Several things I learned by producing my first live action video:
- Learn to Trust your DP. That’s easy because Sun Kim killed it. Check out his other works on the Widescreen Eye Films Vimeo page or his personal YouTube page.
- Talk quicker. That’s one piece of consistent feedback I got on set. In high school I had a civics teacher who marked people down whenever they said ‘um’ in a presentation. But lo and behold, did you know that in the real world, stall words are said to let people know that you’re thinking?
- Have a Get Out the Vote Campaign. Either have an organized way to get out the vote, or don’t enter your videos in a voting contest. Getting people to vote daily is cumbersome at best and an annoyance at worst. It’s selfish and slimy and a good way for Expedia to get their name out there at young filmmakers’ expense. It also strains relationships.
- Have a story. Make people care about your video. People can be doing anything in the world at the moment, why do they have to stop and watch your video? Nobody is obligated to give you anything—views, likes, favorites—you have to earn it. Create something compelling emotionally.
- Coverage. Have more coverage and B Rolls. You’ll thank yourself in the edit.
- Chill out more. I definitely had a hard time relaxing on set—for obvious reasons—but definitely stay loose and cool. The loose and cool version of me is definitely more fun to be around than the anxiety-stricken panic-ridden version of me, which is what I was to some extent at certain times.
So, I lost the vote campaign and didn’t get to Top Ten, and I’m not sure where my life is headed after this—but it was definitely fun to make the Find Your Love video. Once again, here it is: https://vimeo.com/44617663
Just imagine it as a love story, without the Expedia branding :)
Animators are the ones that throw the switch; the ones who make an audience forget that they are animated characters.
The most important thing is to try and find the truth. But you can’t do this by “method” animating. You can’t be in the moment for the length of time it takes to complete a scene. Actors do, while animators describe.
Best note of the day: You don’t have to do improv classes (Yeah!)
When you act out a scene, it’s important to remember that it is your body you are acting with, not your character’s. Your character can do things your body can’t (and is probably better at them as well).
Bill Tytla was the first animator to take acting in animation seriously.
Stanislavsky was the one who focused actors more on their preparation rather than on acheiving results. Method acting is the process of moving away from thinking about what you are going to do in a scene and instead, focusing more on what you need to do to prepare to make the scene honest and true. In this way, you allow the spontaneous to happen.
Meisner believed it wasn’t enough to rely on a sense of memory - that your memories were inadequate for the task of acting.
Sandy Meisner’s famous quote that great acting is - “the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
Approaching a Scene
Many things to consider in your preparation for a scene:
• The context of the scene in the sequence
• How does a character move physically; what sets them apart from others in the same film?
• Best way to stage a scene. Consider the correct angle to sell an emotion. In CG, it’s easy to lose the point of a scene behind all the lighting and rendering.
• Be aware of the composition of a scene.
Referring to the Shere Khan/Kaa sequence in Jungle Book.
Milt has set it up so you only look at one thing at a time. He crafted the scene so that when Shere Khan pops open his claws, everyone is looking there. Nothing else is moving. (Waste of time to always be moving all the background characters).
Your eye reacts to movement, color and contrast. Use those to direct your audience’s attention.
Fred Astaire is good at that - staging a dance so you look exactly at what he wants you to.
The life of a scene usually leads him from a very emotional point to a very technical one. Emotional as he figures out the acting; technical as he makes it look good.
You need to block things out with enough juice to communicate your intentions to the director.
Example: The Pinocchio scene with the tail popping out to point out: clear line of action and a clean and natural balance and rhythm to the poses.
Don’t have a whole bunch of different attitudes within a scene. Usually there is one or two major poses per scene. Horton as an example of animation having too much to it. Loved the scenes with JoJo because you could actually focus on what he was doing.
Remember the timing within a scene - make sure you have enough time to do the action that you want. Don’t force something in there just because you think it looks cool.
James Baxter’s “perfect animator” exists somewhere between Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, and Ward Kimball:
• Milt for pure draftsmanship, posing and technique.
• Frank for truthful acting.
• Ward for shear graphic ingenuity.
Ward Kimball is the one that constantly pulls James away Milt and reminds him that animation is not real; you can actually do whatever you want.
Analyzing Live Action
If you find yourself watching a greatly acted scene but not knowing exactly why it works think, how else could they have done it? That helps you figure out what kind of preparation they had to go through and helps you to see the kinds of choices that had to be made.
Comparing the work of Frank Thomas to Milt Kahl
Frank Thomas always considered the “actor’s animator.” While Milt used poses to communicate his intentions, often focusing on a single drawing, Frank used actions to communicate the intentions of his scenes.
Milt’s scenes tend to have very strong “tentpole” poses; what happens inbetween them is often the same motion (headshakes, hand gestures, etc.). Frank was more concerned with the feeling and flow through a scene. He made drawings that wouldn’t necessarily work on a model sheet, but in motion they feel right.
Showed a sequence with Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone where she speaks to Wart on the table. The “one little finger” and “ugly” scenes were Milt and they look very familiar (move like other characters). Beautiful but reminiscent. Frank’s scene is the one directly after where she walks by Wart looking down at him from the corner of her eye. Milt would probably never have done this kind of acting, but it feels more truthful to the scene.
Showed sequences from Jungle Book comparing the different ways of approaching animation on Baloo. The scene of Baloo screaming “Bagheera!” at the edge of the cliff was Milt’s. Baloo gets up and starts punching the air. Milt seems more considered with making awesome drawings that animate beautifully. Seems to get carried away with the mouth shapes on “mangy monkey.” Frank probably would’ve used that opportunity to have Baloo connect more with Bagheera. Example; the scene of Baloo waking up Mowgli - very different acting choices.
When people say something is well-engineered, they usually mean mechanical objects like cars and planes, or complex systems like the internet. But the term well-engineered can also apply to art.
A Simple Plan is an example of a movie that is well-engineered. The story behind the movie is both significant to our existence as humans (and therefore worth telling) as well as flawlessly told. Everything in the movie matters and is there for a reason.
Before reading further, go ahead and take the time to watch A Simple Plan, a movie about three ordinary guys who happen upon a gym bag full of millions of dollars. For those who have seen it, a movie breakdown is after the jump.
To see the underlying beauty of A Simple Plan, look no further than the first act.
The very first thing we see is Hank, the main character, working at his job while his voice over narrates: “When I was still just a kid, I remember my father telling me, what he thought it took for a man to be happy. Simple things, really. A wife he loves, a decent job, friends and neighbors who like and respect him. And for a while there, without hardly even realizing it, I had all that. I was a happy man.” Hank is saying to us, happiness consists of the little things in life. So in the first couple minutes, the point or armature of the story is laid out. This is solid engineering.
The very next thing we see is Hank leaving his job early for family obligations. Good. Great, actually. He is turning down money to spend time with his family. He was a happy man, which is exactly what the narration was saying a moment ago. This is sticking exactly to the armature.
In the very next scenes, Hank is going through town on his errands. What do the film makers decide to show other than that he has “friends and neighbors who like and respect him.” Again, this is sticking exactly with the very first thing said in the movie.
Then he comes home to his pregnant wife. They show him being happy with the wife he loves, sticking to the armature yet again. He was a happy man.
Most writers would stray at this point, opting to “flesh out their characters”, but since when does fleshing something mean adding extra stuff to it? You only add enough character detail to help viewers understand the point you want to make.
The next parts of the movie involve character conflict. Hank’s idiot brother Jacob arrives with his low-life friend Lou. There is a very clear line in the sand between Jacob and Lou in one camp, and Hank in the other:
The video uploader decided to call this clip “backstory”. But this isn’t backstory at all. It is at the core of how the rest of the movie will unfold. It is really at the forefront. Here’s another important scene:
It’s obvious that Hank wants to run things around here and that he doesn’t trust his idiot brother with decisions. Jacob clearly resents this.
Finally, one last conflict between Hank and Lou:
It is after this scene that Hank, Jacob, and Lou accidentally stumble across a staggering sum of money—4.4 million dollars—and hatch a plan to keep it a secret. Now the armature is being put to the test.
So why did these particular scenes of conflict matter? Most writers would take conflict for granted. They think it’s a default that characters should conflict with each other so conflict just happens. But I just said a moment ago that you only add enough character detail to help viewers understand the point you want to make. Nothing ever just happens in a well-constructed story.
It turns out the conflicts between Hank, Jacob, and Lou prove to be crucial to how their secret unravels—and their secret must unravel for the armature to be proven. Remember, all we are trying to do is to prove the armature—in this case, that happiness consists of the simple things. If the armature is true, then the gym bag full of money shouldn’t bring them happiness. In fact it ought to bring them sorrow and pain.
So, given that their plan to keep the money must unravel, there is an easy way to do it and the right way to do it. Here the writer decides that their undoing must be intrinsic to who they are. This is the right way. It is far scarier to be brought down simply by one’s own character—it has the feeling of inevitability and adds armor to the proof of the armature. Having decided this, the writer had no choice but to show you who the characters are and what their conflicts are as soon as possible. You see, he was logically bound by his obligation to prove the armature.
So even the character conflicts are there for a reason. The things we learn from the three clips above about Jacob’s resentment of Hank’s decision-making, Lou’s distrust of Hank because of his higher education—they all lead to each person’s demise. Just watch the movie again and you’ll see. Most writers would have pushed character into the “backstory” and started off with the obvious exciting part. Scott Smith decided to have character prominently displayed, even if it meant delaying the exciting part.
I can’t stress to you the importance of making your point very clear at the very beginning and then sticking to it all the way through. There is no room for wandering thoughts in the construction of anything, whether it is a movie or car, a blog post or a software package.
This post was engineered to prove that films that resonate with us are built on solid engineering principles.
What makes a great movie is not its originality, but its razor sharp focus.
Take The King’s Speech. It’s about a King who overcomes his fear of public speaking to deliver a wartime speech to his citizens. It is a great movie.
But at the core, it is saying nothing new. Overcoming fear is a theme of numerous self help books and movies. I won’t bother to name all the books and movies that try to address this issue.
Here’s examples of other movies that are unoriginal:
Psycho is about a transvestite killer. It contains one of Hitchcock’s most memorable scenes and many people think of it as original. But if you wiki it, you’ll find that it is based on a play by Josef Stefano, who adapted it from a novel, which is actually based on true events of actual crimes committed by a Wisconsin serial killer.
Dial M For Murder is another Hitchcock thriller based on a play. Yet another one is Rope.
What differentiates The King’s Speech from its competition is its focus, not its originality. Every scene served the story. Remember, the movie is about a prince who overcomes his fear of public speaking. Well, the very first scene is of the prince absolutely bombing a public speech.
Well, duh. Isn’t this obvious? Yes it is. Obvious and unoriginal. So obvious it was overlooked. Overlooked as a story, overlooked by Hollywood and overlooked by moviegoers until now.
The King’s Speech is spot on. Every scene had to do with Albert’s fear of public speaking. There were no wasted shots. They make it look easy, but if it really is easy then there should be dozens of movies this year with the same kind of focus as The King’s Speech. Well, there isn’t.
Almost all movies try to be original, but they somehow always end up having the same corny special effects, the same bad guys, the same hot girl, one of ghosts, aliens, or robots, or all three.
Meanwhile, not many movies actually know what it is trying to say.
It’s okay to drive home an old point, as long as you are focused.
I am quite sure that stories have been around as long as humans have existed. The medium through which we tell stories may change, but stories will always be told, if only because people will always want to hear them. We seem to have an innate craving for good stories.
Over the last couple of years we’ve seen an explosion of storytellers on Youtube and Vimeo.
But I have scanned the most popular channels and I regret to inform you that most of our popular Youtube celebrities have forgotten why people tell stories. As a result, they have made sub-par films with little meaningful content.
Ask yourself why stories exist, and you will inevitably come across the notion that maybe they exist to entertain us. This is what our Youtubers have latched on to.
But saying that stories are for entertainment is like saying that food is for tasting good. Sure, food tastes good—and stories are entertaining—but we need food and stories for much more than that.
Food helps us survive because it contains nutrients.
A good story should have the same quality. At the core of every good story should be a piece of survival information. A story needs a reason to exist, a reason that is beneficial to the people who hear it—a moral of the story, and not just mere entertainment.
Notice how every child’s story has a very clear moral. Children are brought into the world without any life experience, so it’s imperative to give them as much nutrients as possible. We teach them to work hard and not be too lazy (Three Little Pigs), not to be too greedy (Story of King Midas), inform them of the dangers of going off into the woods (Little Red Ridding Hood), etc etc.
These stories contain survival information—they provide the nutrients children need in their first years.
We adults like to think we’re more sophisticated and don’t need survival information in our stories, but we all have life lessons we need to learn.
If you consistently fill your stories with survival information you will find that people will seek them out without any need on your part to advertise. This is what happened to Wong Fu Productions when they released Yellow Fever in the pre-Youtube era—and this is what could happen to you and your film too, if your film has a piece of survival information wrapped in a story.
But if you try to merely entertain, you will end up like all the other celebrities on Youtube—offering up videos that are little more than parodies with no survival information. You may become popular in the short run, but you will almost always be replaced by someone else in the long run.
“A wise man speaks because he has something to say; a fool speaks because he has to say something” — Old Proverb
The teacher didn’t teach me anything. I hear that phrase too often. When someone talks about doing poorly in a class they almost always assign blame to their professors. Don’t take that class, they’ll say, the teacher didn’t teach me anything.
On the flip side, maybe you didn’t learn anything. Knowledge does not just drop into your brain—you have to reach for it. It doesn’t matter how much you didn’t “get” the professor’s lecture—you can always ask questions at the end of class or arrange a meeting, or talk to a friend who got the information. Whenever you don’t learn, its always your own fault. Period.
Don’t blame our teachers. Our teachers are most certainly underpaid, by almost any standard. The amount of knowledge they have to offer and the life lessons you can learn from them—if you can just spend the time to know them—is immense. You can spend an entire lifetime learning from just a couple of good teachers. That is all it takes, really, a couple of good teachers.
I’ve been very lucky to have good teachers throughout the years. I’ve learned things from Jay Wiley, my high school science teacher, and Wayne Lackman, my high school music teacher, that I still apply to this very day. I’ve learned the Golden Rules from Barbara Mones, my animation professor, and I’m learning storytelling from Brian McDonald.
If I ever become successful at this film thing, I’ll know who to thank.
The title of this post and my previous post is an exaggeration of course. I want to over-emphasize my point, because I’m hoping that it might reel people in. Just like scope creep on programming teams, special effects will sneak in to your work or your team’s work if you’re not careful. This will surely muddy up the picture.
Pretty soon, you’re animating a bunch of special effects, eating up render time like nobody’s business, clogging up the farms and wasting unnecessary dollars hiring effects folks. I’m sure you’ll get some good explosions, airplanes might blow up, and look! There’s a black hole eating a mothership. But will the audience care about the people in that ship?
If you’ve seen the new Star Trek, you’ll know that in the first scene, James Kirk’s father sacrifices himself to save his son and his wife. The film makers took that time to get the audience emotionally invested in the film. That’s why towards the end you care that the Enterprise is being sucked into a black hole because you care about James Kirk and James Kirk is in that ship. Only then can you go ahead and animate the black hole scene. That’s a good use of special effects, but the special effect was set up by the story. Special effects never stand on their own.
2012 is a good example of a movie that doesn’t stand on its own because it relies on special effects to tell the story. But the special effects in 2012 were not story-driven. You might say, “but Jimmy, the story in 2012 is that the world is ending, so the effects were story motivated.” My response is: the world is ending is not a story. It’s a scenario. Towards the end you stop caring about the catastrophic events because you don’t care about the character.
The special effect has to be supported by the story. If the story doesn’t call for effects, then don’t use it.