Monday, June 11, 2007

Flat space staging

I’m kicking around some ideas on backgrounds for a cartoon piece of animation that is less literal and more expressive. One of the things that’s been coming up in conversation with friends and colleagues is the trick of taking CG characters and using them more in a flat space camera arrangement. “Flat space” is a way of saying that the action primarily takes place on a single plane in depth with other objects/set pieces/visual elements used to define foreground planes and background planes. The concept is that the character action doesn’t move through those various depth planes but plays itself out on the single depth plane it starts on. This clip of Daffy and Bugs shows this concept really well. The foreground and background plates work to establish a scene with depth (stylized, but still with depth) while the character animation takes place on a primarily mid-plane level. Even when Bugs plays the xylophone he doesn’t really play the whole thing in depth, just a small part of it.

I forget where I found this clip online. If you know who originally posted this please leave a comment so they can get proper credit for taking the time to grab the footage.

If you look at a lot of the WB, Lantz, MGM cartoons they use almost all flat space staging except for specific shots meant for emphasis. You get into UPA and it’s almost all flat space. Seemingly only Disney bothered much with characters moving in depth in animation because only his shop could afford all the thrown away drawings it required to get a character moving in depth to look right. And even then the Disney shorts are almost all flat space work. I’m sure they didn’t have the budget to do too many fancy depth scenes in the shorts. Plus the multiplane camera rig did a lot of the heavy lifting of suggesting depth. Of course depth comes by default to CG so we don’t often worry about how to use CG without depth. For some the idea never even crosses their mind- why would you purposefully limit yourself? The challenges involved with a strict flat space staging paradigm are interesting to CG. CG tends to do better with literalism by default- build a static set, let your characters play out in the full depth of it and make them feel like they’re really “there”. In fact most of the rendering improvements in Cg over the last decade have been to heighten a sense of realism and “there-ness” to the objects and characters. Camera work has also had a greater emphasis on “there-ness”. Taking a look at CG animated films and VFX bonanzas more and more we see a heightened use of characters and objects moving in depth (specifically from depth to near camera) as a tool. Add in the latest hot buzz for 3d projection and you take this the next step. While it makes for cool theme park rides, I’m not fully convinced that full freedom in depth is inheirently superior. Overused it becomes a club to beat the audience with, I think- like putting too much sugar in a recipe.
In a flatter cartoon staging scenario the pedantic need for explicit “there-ness” is minimized. This flat approach is not literal, but it’s been highly effective for a long, long time. The trick in using a strong sense of flat space staging in CG I think is to get puppets that can be effectively pushed into shape for stronger flat space work and choosing a design and render style that from the first frame communicates that literalism is a lower priority in this world. Of course we’ll need to back this up with some pudding that has a hint of proof in it.

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