Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Writing for animation - 12

Doing the work of the cinematographer – Manipulating the response of the audience.
As a writer, you are not going to be framing the shots.  All the same, some understanding of how they might be framed is going to inform your writing.  I have talked earlier about how the placement and movement of the camera, real or otherwise, can influence the reaction to what is being shown.   The shots you describe in your script should give the storyboard artist some idea about what you want to achieve. 
How you arrange your shots, or place your characters in each shot, will set up certain expectations in the minds of the viewer.  Normally, when you are starting a script, or a new sequence, you will start with a wide shot that establishes where you are, and then either track or cut in to show your character and the action.  If you start your script with a close up, the usual implication is that when you widen the shot, it will reveal something unexpected.  You might start close on your character who is using a phone, and then widen to show he is in a cooking pot about to be eaten by cannibals, or start close on a lovesick woman spouting adoring words and widen to show she is talking to a six-eyed alien.  In spaghetti westerns, you might start on an extreme close-up of a pair of cold, evil eyes to set the scene and then widen to show the victim about to be shot.
It may be an old fashioned concept now, but when I worked in the theatre, a great deal was made of “making an entrance”.  It was important for an actor to make an impression the moment he arrived on stage.  Comic actors would arrive with a pratfall,  character actors with a piece of business, and leading actors would swan on like divas.  In animation, writers should take time to think about how they introduce their characters.  Often, of course, they will simply be there when the scene starts, but the medium allows for more imaginative introductions.  A powerful character may burst through a wall, a mysterious character might literally bleach out of a shadow, a comic character might drop into frame from the top of the shot, etc.  
Once you have introduced your characters, you can manipulate the way your audience responds to them by where you place them in the frame. I want to examine how you might want to make your characters vulnerable, powerful, or conspicuously out of place with a few straightforward and very obvious examples.
Making your character vulnerable:

There are several reasons why this character looks vulnerable.  It’s a baby.   It’s not wearing any clothes.  The pose it is in reveals the tender parts of the body.   We can see its baby fat. It’s doing something that puts it in a vulnerable situation – having a bath.  The warm colours, the domestic setting. It’s a high angle shot – we’re looking down, and so the character looks small. And, of course, it’s a misfit, with ridiculously big ears.

This character is quite the opposite.  The low angle of the shot emphasises the character’s size and power.  The facial expression, the rippling muscles, the aggressive pose, the violence of the action, the tension, the mask, the black marks on the background as if something is falling, or has been torn – all these things set up how we feel about the character.
Writers should not be proscriptive about this, but should be aware of the implications of what they are writing.  If you want to make your characters vulnerable, show them small in shot, from a high angle.  If you want to show Red Riding Hood is in danger in the wood, you would not have a tight shot from a low angle, unless you were suggesting it was the POV of the wolf in hiding. You would have a long shot, from a high angle, of her making her way tentativeley through a dark wood.  If you want to show the wolf as a threat, you would show him from a low angle, fairly close, ready to spring, with his teeth bared.  If the wolf was a comic character, you might first see him when he falls out of his hiding place in a tree, or when Red Riding Hood accidentally steps on his tail.
Here is another still. 

I am going to leave it to you to give reasons why this character looks conspicuous.  I can think of several.  Can you?
Next week:  Writing for the editor 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Writing For Animation - 11

Animation is an illusion.  It’s a series of drawn, photographed or computer generated images put in a certain order and played back at 24 or 25 frames per second.  You can change the order of these images, cut some frames out, or stay on the same image.  This is not how live action film works.  True, live action film is a succession of photographic images played back in the same way, but the expectation is different.  In live action filmmaking, the expectation is that people, animals, and the natural world moves in a realistic way.  Even in dream sequences, you expect people to move naturalistically.  Start taking a frame out here and there and everything looks jerky.  Take several frames out, and you have animation.  This is called pixillation.  In live action filmmaking, when you want something to behave in a way that it does not in nature, you invariably use an animated effect.
Of course, there are films that use rotoscoping, a technique where live action film is traced and painted, manually or digitally, to give the impression that drawings, or coloured images move in a realistic way.  Motion capture techniques will necessarily give a naturalistic flow to movement, and animation is often used to flesh out crowd scenes, or replace missing actors in long shot.  Animation can be made to look realistic, but this is not its strength.  In animation the general rule is: if you can do it in live action, then do not animate it.
Most animation is designed so as not to look realistic, and it does not follow any natural laws.  This allows great opportunities for timing, of gags, of movement, of scenes.  Tex Avery, the master of the fast paced gag, actually researched what the eye was capable of assimilating. He worked out that the eye could detect a movement in a minimum of five frames, i.e. about a fifth of a second.  He used this knowledge to set up gags at a frenetic pace, often cutting out frames after the film had been shot to speed things up.

One thing is certain.  Animation is rarely used to slow things down.  This is because doing things slowly requires more drawings, and therefore more labour and cost.  Also, the “inbetween” images in rapid action are often distorted.  The slower the action, the more realism is needed in the drawing.
Writers need to be aware that timing in animation is quicker than in live action.  This impacts on the way characters move, the way scenes are constructed, and, sometimes, on the way the film is cut.  People don’t amble in animation.  If there is a scene of a couple ambling along a riverbank, you know this is merely a setup to lull you into a feeling of false security before Godzilla rises from the water, a spaceship drops onto their heads, or they get struck by lightning.  In any sort of screenwriting, it is best to avoid scenes and action that do not move the story forward.  This is even more true of animation.  Long panning shots of rolling countryside, scenes of beautiful sunsets, scenes where characters travel from one place to another, riding across the range on horseback, or driving along the motorway are rarely seen in animation.  The same with scenes where people swap platitudes, or go fishing, play chess, etc..  There are lots of reasons for this.  Paintings and computer generated images do not have the depth and beauty of a magnificently shot landscape.  Animation is also expensive.  Why spend money on travelling, which you could spend on gags or action, on something that moves the story forward? The basic rule is:  Get into scenes at the last possible moment.  Get out of scenes at the first possible moment.
We have all seen animated shows for young children where cute animal characters sail along the river, while others call from the bank, saying Hello, How Are you? and Happy Birthday! I hate this sort of writing, with no conflict, no character and serious expense.  I want to start the scene with the confrontation inside the Water Rat’s house where he says There’s no way I’m coming to your birthday party! If I was writing a scene where cute animals sail happily along a river, there would be Niagara Falls just around the corner!

We’ve already talked about keeping dialogue to a minimum.  When constructing a scene, we don’t need to see people entering or leaving a room, saying hello or introducing themselves.  This is an unnecessary expense and will slow up the storytelling.  If you need to build the scene, then do it with bold, but sharp pieces of action, and if necessary, dialogue.  Try to avoid scenes where everyone has to have his say.  Concentrate on one or two characters to carry dialogue and action.
On the page, an animation script is longer than its live action equivalent.  You usually count a page and a half (and sometimes more) for every minute shot because, for reasons that I have already explained, you need more description.  A scene that lasts a minute, i.e. a page and a half, would feel extremely long, and I would advise trying to keep most scenes a lot shorter than this.
It is quite usual, especially in 2D shows, for the producer or director to stipulate how many shots he wants you to write in an episode.  This is usually for budgetary reasons.  In a 2D show, every shot needs its own painted background, and the director will know exactly how many he can afford.  Sometimes this is for creative reasons.  Action adventure shows often require fast cutting, and the director will want to encourage you to keep up the pace of the action.  A preschool show might require an average of about twelve shots a minute, action adventure shows will demand a lot more than this.  Obviously, these need to be a mix of short and longer shots, geared to the pacing of your story.  There is nothing more monotonous than a show that changes shot regularly every 5 seconds.
Next week.  Manipulating the viewer’s reactions.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Writing For Animation - 10

Doing the job of the cinematographer.  Description.

I once worked as a story editor for a 2D animated series called Petit Potam for Marina Productions.  For reasons that probably had more to do with the budget than the creative thrust of the series, the producers had carefully designed the whole village in which the episodes took place before any scripts were written.  I was given a detailed map of the village, and told that this was where the stories had to take place.  It gave me details of where each of the characters lived, where the railway station and the school were, and the bridges under which the river flowed. This made my life easier in some ways, in that I did not have to describe the locations, but was extremely limiting in others.  Several times scripts had to be rewritten for reasons that were purely geographical, as I received notes along the lines of “Petit Potam wouldn’t pass his friend’s house on the way back from school because it’s in the other direction”.
Despite this, the series was very successful, and, with my writing partner, Andrew Offiler, I went on to write a Petit Potam theatrical feature, in which I had the opportunity to invent more extravagant locations and situations.

How much description you need to write is obviously going to depend on how much freedom you have to create the world the characters live in, and also the nature of the series itself.  One of the joys of writing “SuperTed” was that the series demanded that he fly off to different locations to help people or creatures in distress.  He not only travelled the world, but flew in his rocket to the Planet Spot.  Apart from those scenes in his tree house, in the rocket, or in his space station, there was very little re-use of backgrounds, and everything could be invented.  This is the joy of 2D, where you can create new locations for the cost of a few backgrounds and layouts.  The same is not true of stop motion, where a new character might cost £10k or more, and a new set or vehicle much more than that.  In the writer’s bible for Igam Ogam, our current stop motion series, we include photographs of the characters and sets, because, although we have a couple of more generic sets that can be re-dressed, the numbers of sets and characters are fixed.  And although CG allows a lot more flexibility than stop motion, the creation of new locations is labour intensive and so expensive.

Obviously, if something has already been designed, or already exists, there is no need to describe it.  I have already mentioned how your script needs to summon up a visual picture for the storyboard artist, but that does not mean that you have to cram it with detail.  Put yourself in the story artist’s shoes.  If your character is hanging from the Statue of Liberty, there is no need to describe the statue, since we all know what it looks like.  But we do need to say whether he is clinging onto Liberty’s nose, or whether his jumper has caught on the tip of the flame and he is literally hanging from a thread.  If the scene is happening in a London Street, then we may need to know if it’s full of skyscrapers, shops, or in a leafy suburb.  We might want to get a feel for the mood of the street.  Is it dark?  What is the weather like?  Is it sparkling new, or seedy and run down?  You need to paint a picture in a few words, to give us a feel for what is happening.  And remember who inhabits this world.  If your London street is being explored by a dog, you probably do not need to describe anything more than three feet off the ground.
You need to describe the important characters in each shot, and the important features of the setting.  You have to paint a picture for the storyboard artist.  You do not have to describe everything in minute detail.

Here is a still from The Fantastic Mr Fox.  This banquet scene is crammed with detail, and probably took weeks, if not months, to shoot.  If you were scripting this scene, you would paint a picture of the banquet, mentioning the long table loaded with food, the large white cake, the characters sitting and standing, drinking, eating and chatting.  You might describe a couple of pieces of business to give a flavour of what is happening, and you would certainly describe the action of Mr Fox raising his glass for a toast.  The intricate detail you would leave to the director and storyboard artist. 
Too much detail will make your script difficult to read, and create confusion about what is happening in the story.  Realistically, however persuasive an image you are creating, the director and storyboard artist will have their own ideas, and either add or change what you have written.
Here’s another picture.

If you were writing this scene as a script, you would describe a small spacecraft landing in the distance on a dark, barren planet, its two headlights throwing beams along the sandy bottom of a deep ravine that cuts through a mountain range.  Three astronauts walk towards where, in the foreground, half hidden in a cavern, looms a large, menacing shape, a glass sphere surrounded by metal claws.  It almost looks as if it is watching them… You wouldn’t have to describe either the spacecraft, or the creature (vehicle?) in the cavern because that is the art director’s job.
Here are a couple of examples from scripts I have written.
This one is setting up a location:
 We PAN past a couple of conventional-looking planets, then some gravestones float by.  SFX: EERIE GHOSTLY LAUGHTER…  An assortment of bones float past, some obviously human, some obviously not, then a carrot, and a dazed chicken, a three-headed calf, a foetus in a jar of formaldehyde….  This is the debris that floats through this part of space…
Into the FOREGROUND of the SHOT floats suddenly the S S Karloff, a space ship that looks eerily like Norman Bates’s house in Psycho.
You can find this 1 minute 40 seconds into Psi-5 if you scroll down on http://www.calon.tv/categories/20091216_1 .  You will notice all the objects have been replaced with equally ridiculous alternatives.  The director has understood what is important about the scene, and interpreted it.
Here’s another example.  This time from a script for a feature film about the Pied Piper, which, unfortunately, was never made.  I think it speaks for itself:
We PULL BACK from a CLOSE-UP of STELLA's face to show LEWIS, STELLA and JULIUS standing high on a plateau, in a pre-dawn twilight.  The BIRD flutters above their heads.  Beneath them, several miles away, the PIPER's rambling palace rises from the plain.
A silhouetted figure stands out against the ridge of this promontory.  We see him raise a pipe to his lips.  Out of the darkness, we hear the soft strains of a flute, and the promontory begins to pulsate with light.  We can begin to recognise the crumbling turrets of a rambling palace.
The flute music elaborates the theme, growing more confident, and a rich, colourful landscape rolls out from the palace like a carpet.  Grass, trees, little hills and valleys roll out, breaking against the edge of the cave like a wave, and spreading a rich blue colour up the walls and roof to form a sky.
There is a JOYFUL SHOUT.  We PAN DOWN the wall of the palace to see the Children burst out of a door, spilling out onto a beautiful multi-coloured meadow.  They SHOUT and rag each other.  As the countryside unfurls underneath their feet, they get caught up in it.  They rampage on the unfolding grass and trees…

Next week:  What the scriptwriter needs to know about animation timing.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Writing For Animation - 9

Doing the job of the cinematographer: POV shots

Some years ago I went to a talk given by writing guru Robert McKee about horror films.  It included an analysis of the first Alien film.  He talked about how, in the opening sequences of the film, scenes of deliberate banality were shot from a moving camera at a low angle.  He made the point that this angle could never be a human point of view, and for this reason, we instantly felt uneasy, as if there was some marauding presence stalking the characters.

It made me realise how much of live action films is shot from a human point of view (or, if objectivity is required, from an angle slightly higher or lower than eye-level).  Of course, one of the obvious reasons for this is that live action films have predominantly human characters.  Another reason is that human points of view are usually comfortable for the cameraman.   The most adventurous live action camerawork is seen when filming animals.  Natural history programmes demand imagination, technical innovation, and a great deal of courage and patience, as cameramen wait hours in sub zero hides, balance precariously on microlight aircraft, or swim in underwater caverns. 

Animation camerawork may need imagination, and, occasionally, technical innovation, and it may well draw inspiration from natural history films.  It often features animal characters, or human characters whose proportions are far from naturalistic.  Unlike natural history cinematography, it can be done in comfort.  The most comfortable angle for an animator is the one he sets up between himself and the paper, or tablet he draws on.  The fact that it is easier to shoot from an unusual angle does not mean that you should necessarily do so, but you should be aware of the possibilities, and use the medium to emphasise important dramatic, emotional, or comic moments in your script.
Of course, even the most unlikely POV shots are possible in live action, given the right equipment, camera and budget, but they are often a lot easier to achieve in animation.  This is why much of the more extravagant camerawork currently found in live action films is animated. 
In animation, you can shoot from an impossible POV.
Live Action: Difficult POV

Animation: Impossible POV

This POV is impossible, both because it is not possible to move a camera around inside someone’s brain, and because it is anatomically incorrect.  (Incidentally, several animation studios have, at different times, tried to get the rights to make this comic strip, The Numskulls, which appeared in the Beezer, into a television series, because it presents such great opportunities for animation)
Writers need to be aware of the opportunities of the medium.  The opening shots of The Lion King, for example, showing the movement of large groups of animals, are directed from a high angle that would be difficult to sustain, even with the aid of a high flying helicopter.  In Tom and Jerry, POV’s from Tom’s mousehole would be difficult in live action.  The title sequence of Rugrats sets the theme perfectly by featuring the POV of a toddler crawling across the floor.  Needless to say, this was seen much more rarely in the series itself, since drawing in perspective is difficult, and therefore expensive.
Animation writers should be aware of the opportunities, not just for unusual and impossible POV shots, but for camera movements that make use of unusual points of view.  It is also important for writers to be aware of the limitations of the medium.  In 2D, drawn animation, tracking shots, i.e. where the camera pushes in towards an object in the frame, often require complicated movement of drawings on different levels, and also skills in perspective.  They are quite possible, but not as common as panning shots, because they demand more skill.  Stop motion animation can be very restrictive, because you invariably have a limited number of characters and sets.  The camera is usually fixed, though you can pull focus.  Camera movement requires an expensive motion control rig.  Computer generated animation offers the most potential; almost any movement is possible.  Many of the spectacular camerawork in live action is achieved with different forms of animation. Early CG shows often suffer from an excessive movement of the camera, as animators were finally liberated from the confines of 2D and stop-motion.  Of course, nowadays, elements of CG are used even in shows that are predominantly 2D or stop-motion, to allow for more flexibility.
When I talk to students, I ask them to come up with points of view that are either extremely difficult or impossible.   Then I ask them to come up with an impossible camera movement.  The most popular are those that involve shots or movements inside a human or animal body, but others include movements that travel through solid objects – walls, buildings, etc.  You should obviously not come up with extravagant shots and camera movements unless there is a real reason for them.  You are the writer, not the cinematographer.  I shall talk later about manipulating the viewer’s emotions and perceptions.  Obviously POV shots and camera movements are part of this.