"Time and Time Again" Production Blog

Chronicling the production of the stop-motion animated short, "Time and Time Again" by Mike Bates. All images, characters, weird machines, etc, Copyright 2003-2007.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


Fellow stop-mo filmmaker and blogger, Misha Klein has recently been touching on the important things of animation, like good acting. (Check out his site, looks like a great film!) So in the spirit of important things, I've decided to post a little on the less flashy, but far more important: Story! (with some character and acting sprinkled in.)

If you've heard anything from the people of Pixar Animation Studios, you will know that they really, really value story. And if you've ever seen a movie of theirs you know that you should probably listen to them, because their movies have more depth and watchability than most other films, animated or live action! I am just amazed how they can blatantly divulge their secret to success (in quality as well as finically) on every disc in great detail, and competing animation studios (or even Hollywood) doesn't catch on and apply these important basics!

From Time Magazine's list of the 100 best movies under the Finding Nemo entry:
"Pixar doesn't make cute movies for kids. It tells universal stories through a graphic language so persuasive that children and adults respond with the same pleasure and awe. It's as if the Pixar people have the first clue to the next, higher form of popular movie art."

So go now and get a Pixar DVD (Indeed, all of them!) and listen carefully. It might be the closest thing to attending a CalArts class.

Speaking of CalArts level education, I just went to the library and got some what look to be awesome, awesome books. I can't wait to read them. Recommended by the great Carl Willat, they are:

Composing Pictures by Donald W. Graham. (A one-time CalArts and Disney instructor)

Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior. by Desmond Morris (What is behind gesture?)

Here are some books I've actually had a chance to read, and read again often. I definitely recommend them:

The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams. The animation basics, all laid out.

The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Advanced study, a must read. For story and character: start with page 367, the beginning of the chapter on "Story" and read till the end!

The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression by Gary Fagin. I love this book. It breaks down what is happening in the face for every expression. Very important to know, because the face and eyes are what we as humans look to the most. Hint: when animating, watch your eyelids, they tell a lot about the state of a person and changes greatly the way a gesture is perceived. For instance, If you see white above the eyes, the person is very alert, maybe surprised or excited. If the eyelids are down, the person is restful, more relaxed in their situation. The use (or non-use) of blinks are important to! Very interesting stuff. Walter Murch's book, In The Blink Of An Eye also tells how in film editing, a cut is basically a blink for the camera. So it seems in film the eyes are key!

So now back to making-of!

When you do narrative, you have a line that you need to preserve, a line of story, where you want the viewer to follow. (Occasionally more than one, but if it's the same movie, they should meet up at some point, or at least touch, like Pulp Fiction.) No duh, right? You can carry that idea right into your animation and ask: How does each scene and shot play into the story "line"? Preferably it gives it some peaks and valleys and color, but it continues to move it forward at all times in an entertaining way. To make a line interesting, when I can, I love to try to create what I think of as "pregnant moments," where you sort of bunch up the "line" and let it go. Basically you build a shot, or series of shots, to create interest, sometimes intense interest, getting the audience to ask, "What's going to happen next? How is this going to play out?" It's good to vary the build-up using a variety of situations and emotions. Things like: How is this character going to react? Oh, he's not going to like that! or Will he get out in time? It's more fun (for the viewer and animator) if these moments are based in character. I suppose this build-up can also happen on the broader scale of the whole film, leading up to the climax, but be careful not to leave it built-up for too long, the audience can lose interest!

Along similar lines, I enjoy the way Alfred Hitchcock tells a story through the use of the point of view (POV). I think it really draws you into the story through character. You really experience the film emotionally through a viewer in the film, as opposed to having a detached eye from the outside looking in. Time and Time Again is is a "wrong man" sort of narrative, so the POV-centric way of shooting will probably fit well into the "wrong man" genre, a Hitchcock favorite. The problem is, Hitchcock's way with the camera can feel a little slow these days because we are used to post-Star Wars way of cutting and variety of shots. I think people get kind of antsy when a they are shown a person's POV for more than a few seconds. I think they want to look around and they think, "I wouldn't stare this long" and the shot feels contrived. So, I'd like to use this somewhat old fashioned way of POV storytelling in a way that the modern viewer can enjoy. Can it be done? We'll see!

To close, here's an important quote from the book The Illusion of Life (p. 414), where Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson talk about the successful moments in Jungle Book that "live with an audience":

"None of it is possible, however, if the crew has failed to develop the characters to the point where their thoughts and their actions seem natural and believable. It cannot be achieved mechanically, or by copying, or by wishful thinking, but only by careful build-up, understanding and a love for the characters."

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