CAP 201a - Computer Animation I

Lab 1 - Production Planning and Storyboards

Objectives:

Pages 14 - 31 in Wyatt discuss planning stages for an animation. Pages 24 - 31 describe a typical storyboard for an animation. Pages 108 and 109 discuss continuity. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Planning an animation
  2. Use of storyboard
  3. Examples of cinema that do not tell a story
  4. Reasons for having continuity
Concepts:

An animation production, whether it is for a movie, a commercial, a game, or "just a video", benefits greatly from being planned properly before its production stages begin. Every author we encounter has a little different spin on these concepts, so let's take a look at what Mr. Wyatt has to say.

On pages 14 - 31 in the Wyatt text, the author outlines a production life cycle. There are several steps in any production done properly. Mr. Wyatt's pre-production flow goes like this:

  • someone gets an idea
  • research is done for idea elements that will be used in a script
  • a script is written (this process can involve lots of looping substeps)
  • characters are designed, modeled, and may be test animated
  • storyboards are created
  • a schedule for overlapping phases of the production is created

The actual production cycle contains more steps.

On pages 24 - 31, the author deals specifically with his idea about a storyboard, with appropriate examples. Consider the examples from pages 24 and 25. Three characters are shown. A series of eight events are depicted in the storyboard, in a sequence of fourteen frames. If we were to turn this into an animation, the last seven frames might be used just as they are. The first seven frames could use some elaboration. Something might happen in each one in addition to the moment that is shown. In my opinion, something more should happen in each of those frames. If it does not, we might be satisfied with this story as a cartoon panel, and not need to make an animated feature of it. That is my impression from the material. What would happen if a production were to be made by a director who does not share this idea?

In 2011, I ran across a discussion in Salon of a movie technique that is described (and derided) in a video essay by Matthias Stork. Mr. Stork calls the technique Chaos Cinema. Links to his two part essay are below. My reasons for bringing up his essay are that it is enlightening, and that it relates well to this week's concern with storyboards and what you do with them.

When you are in the planning stages of a production, a storyboard of your concept should be a jumping off point for the director, not an endpoint. The storyboard is meant to show key shots, which are normally developed by in-between shots, additional shots, camera movement, and other forms of visual story telling.

In some of the video sequences provided in Mr. Stork's essay, it is tempting to presume that the directors saw the storyboard as a final draft, something that needed no additions. If we examine chaos cinema from this point of view, that of being intentionally unpolished and unfinished, we see a danger inherent in allowing ourselves to stop thinking creatively too soon in the process of creation. Yes, you must stop eventually, or you will never finish a project. However, the time to stop is when your story is told, not before. Let's watch and discuss some of his essay at this point.

Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

The initial shot from The Dark Knight of the Joker is fine. It seems to be there to introduce the word Chaos, and to lead into two chaotic sequences from the same film. The street sequence is typical of the technique that we will see in the essay: fast cuts, short shots, bright explosions. The fight at the party sequence strikes me differently. I wonder if the chaos was more a method to hide the fact that Batman is not actually displaying very good or very interesting fighting techniques. Compare the street sequence we just saw from The Dark Knight to the one that is shown next from Bullitt. The smooth camera work in the older film, which many of you have never seen, should illustrate the difference: Bullitt was telling a story in the chase sequence, where The Dark Knight was conveying an experience. Can a movie do both? Yes, it can and often it should. The problem that Mr. Stork describes crops up when one is sacrificed for the other.

Moving ahead to the Indiana Jones sequence (Raiders of the Lost Ark), the author's narration complements the sequence. It immediately follows a sequence filled with quick cuts from The Wild Bunch. In the latter film, the viewer can become lost in the sequence shown. We lose track of where each shot is taking place in the scene. In the sequence of Indy moving from the hood of the Nazi truck, to the grill, then to the fender, there is a visual continuity with every change of shot that leaves the viewer in no doubt about where we are or how we got there. As we change to the point of view (POV) of the characters in the car, we are not lost, because we saw the car twice already over Indy's shoulder, and then again when Indy was on the right side of the screen and and the car was on the left. Each cut goes to a location that was already established in a previous shot. The classic technique of establishing and using each location is displayed in other sequences as well.

At 3:30 in the video, the author takes us to a Transformers sequence which we are told displays a type of film making called Intensified Continuity. I wonder if it began with an idea like "let's skip ahead to the more interesting shot". Taken to extreme, this can easily be lack of continuity. If we only see the "interesting parts" we will lose what happens in between, which could be vital to the point of the piece, assuming the piece has a point to make, which may be debatable for some films.

The next sequence of shots is from two films, making it harder to follow. It is also short. I had to view it twice to get the feeling of what I just saw. Is the author stacking the deck for this deal? Maybe not. He is, in fact, showing us another feature of the Chaos Cinema technique: things are only on the screen for a moment, so you had better not look away if you want to see it all. This is not the kind of shot that will stay in memory, because you will not see it long enough to recall it. Like a car accident, it happens quickly and brutally. You recall the rush of the experience, but you may not recall the experience itself. If you missed some of the action, well that's all you missed, because the narrative was not really advanced by it anyway.

Move ahead to the slightly longer sequence from Battle Los Angeles. Watch this sequence, then pause for a moment. Can you, as a modeler, lay out the scene that this sequence takes place in? Can you block the movement? I doubt you can do either with any degree of certainty. I know I could not, without external references. If you were making a video game version of this sequence, the good news is that you could get away with a lot because the bad news is you can't be sure where anything happened.

I am more comfortable with the chase sequence from Inception that follows, less comfortable with the fight sequence from The Expendables immediately afterward. I don't mean that I wouldn't have enjoyed the scene in The Expendables. My expectations for any scene in those films would be different. I suspect few would disagree with the author's comments about the nature of Chaos Cinema, starting at about 5:30. That is not to say that either sequence is bad or fails. They work, but they might have been done differently if the directors wanted or needed to give us a sense of placement in the scenes.

As a student of the cinema, I must take a moment to reflect. Is a film technique confusing just because it is new? Not necessarily. When the first director decided to pan a camera across a scene to follow an actor (The Great Train Robbery), he was asked if he was afraid the audience would not understand what had just happened. Thankfully, no one pondered this too long, and movie techniques advanced. You turn the camera, and the audience understands. Am I just being afraid that the Chaos Cinema technique will be misunderstood by the audience because it is new? I don't think so. I think I am more bothered by the lack of knowing where we are in any shot, and the lack of a linear story track. Movies, books, and music are all art forms that are pretty linear, and I miss that when it disappears. In Chaos Cinema, as Mr. Stork remarks (5:48), "It doesn't matter where you are. It barely matters if you know what's happening on screen." Well, if that's so, it also barely matters which Chaos Cinema movie I'm watching, game I'm playing, or commercial I'm ignoring. And that should matter to any movie maker.

What follows are more examples of action sequences that could easily be intercut with other action sequences, losing no story continuity because the viewer is expected to make up his own continuity or to do without it.

The author makes an interesting point that the sound track in this kind of movie is more precise than the video, and that this provides an anchor for the viewer to what is happening on screen. This leads to another insight for us. If we are not using the visuals to tell the story (which I do not recommend), we had better pay close attention to the sound, so that it fills in the gaps. His opinion about the film Quantum of Solace is that the film makers did not enhance the visuals with sound as much as they allowed the two to compete for our attention. In this case, there are simply two experiences. The sound does not complete the visual, it is simply there as well.

In the last segment of this part of the essay, the author compares the car chase he has been showing us from Quantum of Solace to one from Ronin. Ronin, unsurprisingly, is an older film than Quantum of Solace, and it displays a more traditional continuity of visual content.

As a devil's advocate, I will ask at this point whether this matters much to a movie viewer? If the average movie goer is aware of the word "continuity" at all, he probably thinks about things like the actor's jacket being zipped or unzipped from one shot to another, the Coke bottle in the actor's hand being opened or unopened at the wrong time. Regardless of whether I know the terminology to describe my dissatisfaction with a product, I can still be unhappy with it. If there are other choices available, I will eventually stop buying the product I don't like. Let's hope there will be other choices. Mr. Stork's fear seems to be that currently, there are not.

On pages 108 and 109 in the Wyatt text, there are some reasons given for having various forms of continuity. Mr. Wyatt discusses continuity in six areas:

  • space - This is the type of continuity problem we see ignored in Chaos Cinema. The viewers may be left wondering what just happened where, or they may give up on the story all together.
  • time - The audience may be given a sequence of events that are shown faster than they could happen. This is common in movies that depict a span of days or years, and audiences do not usually have a problem with it. Chaos Cinema would seem to open new possibilities for confusion here.
  • direction - This may relate to the Inception sequence. Characters are shown in a chase sequence, but the direction they are running seems to change from one shot to another. In this case, and in many, I think this can still work.
  • costume - Mr. Wyatt mentions this only in an aside. He is talking about the jacket problem above. It happens in many films, and is usually not distracting when it does not relate to the plot or it is subtle.
  • hookups - Mr. Wyatt means that shots within a sequence should hook together without unintentional changes. What about sequences hooking together? Not so much because sequences are natural places for changes in time, place, etc.
  • sound - Mr. Wyatt did not get to this point in his discussion. We can assume he is talking about the sound issues that Mr. Stork addresses in part 1 of his essay.

I think that Mr. Stork and Mr. Wyatt would agree about the principles in the text. Wyatt says that continuity invites the audience to be engaged in the film. Chaos Cinema seems to be more like a fireworks display. Colorful and exciting, but not mentally stimulating.

 

The second part of the essay continues with more examples.


Chaos Cinema Part 2 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.


In the second part of the essay, the author shows us an example of Chaos Cinema done well (The Hurt Locker) as well as some others done poorly, then he makes an interesting point at about 4:02. His commentary that most Chaos Cinema is "lazy, inexact, and largely devoid of beauty or judgment" can be a criticism of other techniques as well. Any tool will produce bad results if it is the wrong tool for the job. His impression is that this is the way this technique is often used. It is not producing art, but instead is producing a rapidly forgotten experience.

Advice? If something doesn't belong in your video, don't put it in your video. If it makes the audience sick (Cloverfield), ask yourself if it was necessary. Are we always trying for high art? No, but shouldn't we try for it? When you make your storyboards, think about this. Think about clarity everywhere, unless the work requires something else.

Exercise 1: Animation for the dresser

  1. Consider the dresser/chest that you started in the lecture section this week. What could you do to create an animation using it? Plan an animation lasting at least 10 seconds, preferably longer.
    Think of an idea. Write it down as part 1.
  2. Develop the idea into a script. This is part 2.
  3. Write a description of each character you have used in the script. Yes, the chest is probably a character since it will be animated.
  4. Create a storyboard proposal for your idea.
  5. Turn in your work for this exercise, including all four parts listed here.