Friday, May 06, 2005

Alligators & Meteors

I think in terms of allegories and metaphors. Anybody who knows me knows I'm just always spouting off these things. When I worked at Big Idea, Dan Philips, our VP of production used to laugh whenever I brought something up in a meeting that used an allegory to make a point. He called it "Lango-Lingo". Heh.

Anyhow we were going over some scene planning the other day at work. One of the questions that came up was staging and how many different ways you can use the screen space in a single scene to stage a character and not belabor the point. I am usually of the mind that simpler is better. Stay with concise statements and limit the amount of things you're trying to say in any given scene. Now much of that is in the hands of the director or the story team, but as animators it's our jobs to be sure that we can make things better. Sometimes it's a good idea to suggest a break up to the director when a scene is feeling like it's trying to be too much. Anyhoo, the conversation turned to "Well, when is it too much to put into a scene?" And then I rattled off my allegory.

I like to think of animation as a visual language. We're trying to say something. It's the director's job to say something meaningful. It's our job to be his "speechwriters". Anyhow, I started to break down the idea of animation as a language this way. I drew parallels between spoken/written language and animation.

First up is "What do I have to say?" Whatever it is, it had better have some kind of meaning. Ed Hooks thinks of this as the shaman speaking to the clan. Don't draw the circle in the dust next to the campfire unless what you have to say brings meaning to those who gather to listen.
After that, we get into the particulars of how to say it. In literature you have these basic break outs, from global to granular:


Thinking in terms of animation, I came up with this connection:

Book= Film/Movie
Chapter = Act
Paragraph = Sequence
Sentence = Scene/shot
Word= Pose

I think it holds up. Think about a writer. Sometimes the difference between sublime and ordinary writing is the choice of words. Same with animation. The choice of poses, really working for the best ones to clearly connect the idea, is often the difference between so-so and OhmygoshHowDidTheyDoThat?! And a great scene is the combination of just the right poses, arranged in just the right order, to move you through the story. In that way I liken somebody like James Baxter to Ernest Hemingway. The beauty in both their work is they give you the right notes and nothing more. The perfect words/poses. The perfect combination with out fluff or chaff. Pure gold. And that's where this metaphor started to apply to our discussion about how much is too much for a given scene. A sentence is best when it says one thing clearly- or at the very least one thing at a time with clear markers between thoughts (parentheses). Same with a scene. I think it's best to get one idea across and do it well, or if multiple ideas are presented then be clear about the markers between them (animation parentheses?)
Now a scene may have mutliple sentences in the script, but those sentences are still just saying one thing from the character's POV. The subtext is singular, though the text may be convoluted. If you try to cram an entire paragraph into a single sentence it's a labor to read. If you try to cram too much into one scene you force your audience to endure a bit of a beating. Now, there are ways to move across multiple exchanges in a single shot/scene, but these have to be handled carefully. You must be able to clearly delineate the switch over to a new idea or point of subtext- most often by switching to a different character speaking as the scene turns on its narrative axis to move the story along. (animation commas? animation semi-colons?) If we aren't mindful of keeping the delineation from one idea to the next very clear then it ends up being a bit of a muggle- a run on sentence in animation if you will.
What do you think? Does this notion hold water or am I just all wet? I'd love to hear some other folks' thoughts on this concept.



Unknown said...

I think it's a great metaphor, Keith. I too am one who is fond of a word picture or two now and then. It makes the abstract visible and even believable at times. Perhaps a way of seeing how it holds up is to take a really great well written narative and break down a little of what the author is doing in that. Most successful authors use the texture of the complex and the simple juxtaposed together to create "beats" in writing. One often used technique is a rather long and/or complex sentence or series of sentences in narative followed by a short and sweet (sometimes one word) retort. It's the punch of a gag in written form.

C.S. Lewis once said something about that if you are given a man of average intelligence and common sense, if you can't explain a concept to him in a way he can understand it, you don't understand it yourself. As animators we must always pick a "word" not only for it's cleverness in a particular context, but because it makes a point- and more importantly, the point we want to make.

Great thoughts, man.

Anonymous said...

You're right on. And you can watch any movie (animated or not) and see exactly how what you just wrote applies, or if it's a real bad movie, how it doesn't.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I definitly believe that's a good metaphor for animation. One of the reasons being one of my own experiences. Last week, I was going through all of these old videos I had ever since I was like 5,6,7 or so. A whole lot recorded animated features and shorts among them. I guess my parents noticed that I loved animation, even back then. One thing that surprised me, was that a couple of them were recorded from BBC, so they were in English without subtitles. And at that age, I didn't know any English at all. But now I've looked at them again, and I noticed that even then I completely KNEW what was happening in the story, even though I couldn't understand a word that the characters were saying. So basically, the imagery ALONE was telling a story, and that is definitly one of those things about animation that does not cease to amaze me. And there's a big chance that if the scenes had too much information in them, I wouldn't have been able to "get" them the way I did.

So yah, it's definitly true.

- Benjamin

Thom said...

Keith, it's a good metaphor as far as it goes (which is an admirably long way). At some point it breaks down because there's vast differences in the two mediums. What's the literary equivalent of an ease out, for instance? Or line of action? My first impression is that the metaphor is most helpful while thinking about the phrasing of your scene.

Zev said...

Along these lines I just ran into a Chaplin quote that says Show them what you're going to do, do it, and show them you've done it...which in the literary world is Intro, body, conclusion or in animation on a different scale anticipation, action, and follow-through.