Mar 22, 2007

In a story, it's the little things that count-a sort of manifesto

If anything from my experience of the last 15 years or so has made itself clear to me as a story truism, it's that the importance of the smallest details matter.

It's that the difference between a dull scene or a stock character and one that breathes, that thinks, is in the details. Details spring out and suggest themselves when the story artist believes in a character's reality no matter how superficially unlikely the scenario they're placed in might be.

There are times when a story artist is given a sequence that's already laid out pretty extensively: the characters must say this or that, do this, that and the other thing, get from here to there. Now, you might think that that would be a boring sort of sequence to work on--not necessarily.

Of course one wants to be as creative as one can, but in putting a feature film together there's not always an opportunity to start from scratch(and if there always is, the film's probably in trouble). Does that mean there's no room for the story guy to have fun, to make an impression, to enhance or "create" the scene? Far from it. But you'd better believe in the characters you're working with.

If you do, wonderful things can happen. Some of it might wander off in a direction that will result in the kibosh being put on the sequence in whole or in part--a great big old redo. But sometimes (often enough of you're both lucky and inspired)a sudden, truthful idea will pop up seemingly out of nowhere and work so well it's just got to go in. No one planned for it until it struck--you didn't see it until you were least expecting it, surrounded at your desk by crumpled paper and worn down stubs. Suddenly it's there, and it seems exactly the thing the character should say or do at that moment. If it really is as right as it feels, it'll make it into the film. You'd be surprised how often that happens, in spite of any and all obstacles.

This to me is the most exciting, rewarding part of my job, but it's not a daily occurance--it couldn't be. Films just don't play with too much going on at every second, all the time. They flow in a narrative dance in any of a million permutations, all with one commonly understood goal: to tell you a story.

And I should mention that the function of your storyboards is twofold: not only are you designing the action withon the frame, but most importantly you're responsible for setting the mood and emotion of the scene--that's how it's supposed to be, anyway. This really can't be stressed too strongly. The times that a completely flat, emotionless story sequence didn't work in boards but came to life in animation, out of nowhere is exactly zero. Can sequences be plussed by animation? You bet, and they almost always are--hugely. The medium is about moving drawings/characters, after all. But plussing has to start from something. The drawings needn't necessarily be fancy, but they must certainly read, and communicate. The more direct and meaningful the better. Otherwise the animator really is left with nothing to work with.

We in animation have a big hurdle, a doozy: we have to take a two-dimensional, stylized design of a character and entice the audience into caring about it. I believe the key to doing that is to lend the characters your faith while you board them--to invest them with little parts of your life in the form of those little details.

All of this comes from you, from your own real personal experience and your unique observation. To have to squeeze the wonky story-peg into a predetermined hole doesn't always work--often these characters take over, just a bit. Or a bit more than a bit. To know when and how to apply your observation and build each character a soul--that's where your day to day story experience hopefully takes you.

It's why I do this job, why I love it; it's like climbing a mountain that grows as I grow. The mountain is impossibly huge but it can be conquered at the most unpredictable times, if you keep your imagination open and remember to find truth and realness in the little details of life.

8 comments:

the doodlers said...

Hey there Jennie,

Well said. Re the mountain climbing analogy: Some days that story mountain seems pretty big and getting bigger. Thanks for your passion for the process. Closer to the top...ever closer... :)

Re: your 'Vorkapich-pure genius, never dated' post below: THAT is one hell of a piece of film making!!! My partner John and I just watched it during our lunch break. Whoohoo! Sent a visceral jolt through me. The nano-second cuts of the blond child, the womanon the ground as someone ran over her, the statue falling, people trying to avoid the runaway wagon... Guess Vorkapich was well aware of Eisentein's work. Maybe they worked together at one time..?

Right now I'm boarding a comedy, so I may not have a way to apply this to my afternoon's work (hey who knows?). Your posts sure got the ol' creative juices going so, thanks! Smiling though and through.

So glad to visit your blog again.

Cheers! ~ Arna

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Nice post about the importance of details! It's also nice to be reminded of the Vorkapich montage. I just watched it again and was amazed and inspired. I hope you'll put up more clips like that!

Jenny said...

Arna--lovely to see your icon here! : )
Thanks so much for the nice feedback--I was afraid it was as pretentious as all get out(and perhaps it is), but sometimes you just want to state the obvious or restate it to remind yourself what you love about your job...and btw I certainly believe that it applies to comedy, and boarding of all kinds! In fact, it's looking for and insisting on the truthful litttle details that can make a script-heavy assignment(like those I used to get in TV and on videos)bearable.
I'm so glad you guys dug the Vorkapich! If I possibly can I'm going to upload the disturbing dream sequence he did for "Crime Without Passion"-in fact that film on its own is definitely worth keeping an eye out for(it pops up on TCM occasionally).
Thanks again for your kind words...really made my day.

Jenny said...

Eddie--I will post more, definitely. : )

MrFun said...

Hey Jenny!

Your insightful comments remind me why I could never successfully teach a storyboard class. I honestly don't know what I'm doing -- so, how can I hope to teach somebody else?

Sure, you can always pass on the basics, and that's cool. However, what makes the board truly work still eludes me to this day.

Frank Summers said...

very inspiring words! its the little things that add up to make the big picture. i try to add that type of buiseness to my work but often the daily grind gets you down. thanks!

the doodlers said...

Hey Jennie, Re your thanks: You're welcome and ditto. Can't wait to see that dream seq.

Rafi said...

wonderful post. full of truth and inspiration. thanks.