3D DIRECT October 24, 2000
The Reel Deal
Telling the Tale
by Pat Johnson
An animator in training is usually called upon to produce a short film to demonstrate the skills that will ultimately lead to getting that great job. Unfortunately, in the world of 3D, too many students begin this process by concentrating on ways to show off newly mastered 3D skills. What they don't realize is that the audience for these demo reels is more interested in the originality of the story and how well it is being told visually than in demos of whiz-bang 3D. Writing an effective story and then bridging the gap between the printed page and visual version can be agonizing.
There are many ways to approach the development of the story, but every story requires you to build characters, develop conflict, and create resolution. A well-written tale is the first critical step, but the thing that will carry you off to the animation studio of your dreams is how well you translate this story to tape. One rule will always apply to this process and that is the 80-20 rule. You must accept the fact that 80 percent of the work on your final, showcase animation will be in the planning phase. Twenty percent of your time will be applied to the actual 3D work.
Sanjay Patel, an animator at Pixar who developed many scenes in Toy Story 2 (Pixar, 2000), used the rule of the four Rs when he completed his student demo reel at Cal Arts. The four Rs are Research, Readability, Relate-ability, and Rock and Roll. Well, ok maybe that's five Rs, but however you count them, they work.
Research is the golden rule. Never develop a story in a vacuum. If you are not familiar with the emotional aspects you bring to the tale, if you have not researched locations and details, your story will be hollow and fake. Even a good alien story requires some recognizable roots in the known world to insure that it will resonate with your audience.
Readability relates to the manner in which the story unfolds. Do you lead your audience through the story in a manner that allows them to understand what is happening? This does not always mean that you start us out by watching the characters begin at "Once upon a time," and lead us straight through to "Happily ever after," in a linear manner. Though poorly used plot twists and flashbacks can make a story too complex, it is often true that readability in visual storytelling does not always come from watching a character go through his/her adventures in a step-by-step sequence. Before you decide on how you want to work out the sequencing, watch films and animations that use a variety of timing contrivances and analyze the story elements that work for you.
Relate-ability is closely associated with research. It also includes elements of emotional honesty and the storyteller's ability to engage the audience in suspending its own reality and embracing that of the story. You will succeed at this if you work from the standpoint of material that you really know. Incorporate landscapes that relate to those you know. If you are telling an emotional tale, be sure you have experienced the emotions or you will not be able to recreate them effectively. (For those of you who are still in school, and perhaps have not experienced the highs and lows of life's roller coaster, stick to themes you really have experienced. They may not be grandiose, but they will have an authentic charm.) Find ways to give the audience as many clues as possible to characters by relating them to familiar icons. Sanjay gives the excellent example from Toy Story 2 in which he was able to deal with the character of Al when he appears dressed in a chicken suit for a TV commercial. When he was given the scene he was directed to make it like the Hal Worthington used car sales ads. This familiar and humorous icon made the rest of the job easy. Sanjay cautions, "Don't go off in a direction you don't know."
Rock and Roll is the final key to creating a visual story that gives you the edge on the next animator in line for your dream job. Anything that gives your work an extra kick, a unique plot twist, an exceptionally funny bit of business, or a moving moment will capture and hold the attention of the studio hiring squad. Originality based in familiarity may seem a difficult set of goals. Again, Sanjay offers his own demo animation as an example. His main character was a cactus. What was interesting about this was that the cactus was entering puberty, sprouting spines for the first time and struggling with his new persona. Most people have seen a cactus. Most can relate to the difficulties puberty brings to adolescent life. Seeing these physical difficulties exaggerated into cactus spines and viewing them through the eyes of a cactus was the Rock and Roll factor.
Assuming that your story is brilliant, you are now faced with the challenge of bringing it to life visually. This will include portraying your characters truthfully, pacing the scenes appropriately, lighting them effectively, and selecting color pallets that carry the mood from scene to scene. But the pitfall here is that it doesn't work to develop the animation one scene at a time. It is difficult but essential to integrate these aspects of visual storytelling, to keep them consistent, and to weave them together in a way that the audience can fully embrace. As anyone will tell you, great storyboards are the key to this stage in your 80 percent plan. But, Randy Nelson, Dean of Pixar University suggests that before storyboarding, it is good to step back and assess the entire piece from a unique point of view developed by Bruce Block of The University of Southern California. The structure he teaches in his course, The Visual Components of Film, will soon appear in a book by the same name. To summarize his theory, you have now reached the time to analyze the story structure.
Sidebar: Constructing the Script
Bob McKee's Story Structure Seminars have been playing to packed auditoriums for 13 years in Los Angeles, New York, London, Toronto, Vancouver, and Sydneyhe really gets around. His more than 25,000 students have included writers, producers, and directors with impressive credits both in TV and film. Vancouver Film School's Writing for Film & Television Curriculum Director, Katherine Billings, considers his teachings, "at the top of the list for anyone interested in writing for film or television." She adds, "I have had the pleasure of taking his seminars in Los Angeles and urge you to seize the opportunity when he comes to your town." (For a full listing of McKee's seminar schedules and dates, please see: www.mckeestory.com).
What does that mean? It includes many things that can't be covered in this article. But the core of Block's system is to decide what emotional elements drive the story and then assign visual cues to these elements. You choose the system of visual cues and make them clear and consistent. Then stick with them throughout the piece. The audience will instinctively understand your combination of emotional and visual elements if you stay absolutely consistent to your system. One way to begin is to view the story from the point of view of flat and deep space. In the realm of flat space, there are no dramatic visual cues to indicate distance or depth. In deep space, there are clear, dramatic, and numerous depth cues. Let's assume that your film starts out in a safe, comfortable, happy mood, then enters into the conflict within the story that builds and resolves, ending in another safe, comfortable scene. If you assign flat space and a specific color palette to the safe environments, and then assign deep space and a different palette to the scenes of conflict, the audience will soon learn and relate to these visual cues. Assuming that you have planned your system intelligently, by keeping it consistent you give the audience the gifts of Research, Readability, and Relate-ability. Then you can concentrate on the Rock and Roll without worrying that you will obliterate the story with too many effects, too much action, or confusing visual cues.
The last stage of the 80 percent process is the storyboarding and layout process. These will be covered in greater detail in future articles. However just to give you a hint from a seasoned professional, Rikki Cleland-Hura, supervising layout artist, Feature Division, Pixar Animation Studios, offers the following insight. "In Layout, we map out the practical aspects of the scene in terms of placing characters within the set, determining their staging and blocking. We then use composition, camera movement, timing, and shot flow to map out the emotional character of the scene. Overall, our role in planning layout is to support the telling of the story, both in terms of its practical and emotional goals through all of the visual tools at our disposal. We get a lot of help doing this from the storyboards.
"A story that is rich in emotion and clear in action makes planning the filming a joy. There is so much we can do through layout to support the story and discovering those elements is the best part of the job. But the clarity of the emotional components, the kinds of action called for, and the choice of setting are the aspects that affect layout most. When these translate well visually and are not horrifically complex, then our work is pretty smooth.
"A good example from Toy Story 2 is Jessie's story, the sequence that shows her background story. The emotion the directors were looking for was very clear, there were at most three characters in any given shot, the action was simple, but varied, and the settings were designed to help support the story, and yet flexible enough to be easy to work in. To summarize, I imagine it goes without saying that to translate easily in layout, the story needs to be well woven."
Pat Johnson, formerly of Pratt Institute, is a CG consultant and educational advisor.