narrative

Evaluation

The question that I’ve asked myself at the beginning of this year, after my first term on this course was How can facial expressions help communicate character’s emotions and inner monologue and therefore make the audience empathise with him/her? Even that I had some basic understanding of the subject it was a challenging task. First, what is empathy and why is it important in film or animation? Well empathy is simply our capability to understand feelings of another person, ability to put ourselves in their shoes. It doesn’t always mean that we like the particular person, but we somehow care. As an animator ability to make a wider audience care is important to me. Without making them care people would not be interested in watching my work.  In his book “Acting for Animators”, Ed Hooks says that “We humans empathise only with emotion. Your job as a character animator is to create in the audience a sense of empathy with your character” (2011). So if we’re only empathising with emotions, what really are they? It’s really difficult to come up with a definition of emotions, I would say they’re a response or a reaction to what is happening around us. Later in his book Hooks says that “it is impossible to express emotions without thinking” and that’s hard to disagree with. How do I, as an animator show that the character is thinking? Probably the easiest and the most popular way of showing a thought process in a character’s mind is blinking. Blinking makes a character stop for a second, it’s like a mental punctuation point. So that’s what I did in my short animation, whenever the character was changing a thought or was making a decision I made him blink. Blinks are also a great way of adding life to the character. There are different types of blinks in animation, they can be fast, slow, there can be half blinks, there’s even something called “the Pixar blink”(when the one eye blinks few frames earlier  than another one). I tried using different lengths of blinks in my animation to add some variety into it. In my research and observation of short and full featured animations and film I’ve noticed that characters blink differently when they’re happy and differently when they’re sad.

Quickly into my research I’ve realised that reading expressions and emotions from still images isn’t really the best way of researching empathy in animation. Facial expressions are motions and motions can’t be caught in a still image. I’ve also then realised that the narrative will be a major part of my research, as it would be rather to achieve empathy in a character without a story and motivation behind characters actions.

While working on my project I came across few obstacles. Early on I made a bad character design decisions, I was being cautious with the style that I was trying to portray, balancing between realism and cartoony style didn’t give me satisfying results, even that I only realised that at the final stage, when I couldn’t do any changes. Design and style can also play an important role when we’re trying to achieve empathy and in a narrative. Establishing a world that the character is can also help with making the audience care and empathic toward our character. We need to inform the audience of what kind of the environment the characters are in, so the audience what be distracted and confused and would rather focus on character’s actions. Another problem that I came across happened while I was doing blend shapes. Exaggeration is important in animation, it is considered to be one of the principles of the art form, that’s why I was trying to get as many exaggerated and over the top expressions as I could, but it was pointed out to me that some of them aren’t appealing at all and don’t work. Again it was the design fault, as I’m confident that it would work with a cartoony looking character. Some of the limitation came also from mistakes that I did the modelling phases. To get the shape of the head that I wanted I’ve used too many edge loops, which later make my work harder as I’ve spent too much time doing blend shapes, with the results that weren’t always satisfying. However, in a way, these not so perfect moth shapes emphasised the role of eyes, eye brows and eye movement in my character.

Early on I was looking at Paul Ekman’s research about facial expressions and his six, or seven universal emotions (anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise and contempt). Few of them are hard to recognised in a still photograph, without any context. As I’ve mentioned earlier, expressions are motions, so presenting them in a still image wasn’t useful for my research. However these basic, or universal emotions were a good start and from them I could move on to other expressions that I could want to achieve. Pixar in their latest film “Inside Out”(2015) decided to portray 5 of them and anthropomorphise them as characters in this movie. What is interesting is that they’ve achieved different emotions by overlapping some of the main one.

Pacing and timing is an important part of animation, especially while doing a series of transitions of the emotions, like I tried to in my short animation. The result could have been better, some frames should been hold for longer, some transitions should have been smoother, it would really improve the final product.

Hooks E., 2011. Acting for Animators. 3 Edition. Routledge.

VanDerWerff  T., Chart: How Inside Out’s 5 emotions work together to make more feelings, 2015, [online] VOX Media, Available at: http://www.vox.com/2015/6/29/8860247/inside-out-emotions-graphic? [Accessed date: 30 June 2015]

Advertisements

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

Recently I’ve watched a Ted talk presented by Pixar’s filmmaker Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed “Finding Nemo”(2003), “WALL-E”(2008) and wrote scripts for Toy Story movies and Monsters, Inc. In his talk he spoke about storytelling, how he approaches it when he’s writing a script and why do we love stories.

Stanton says that we all love stories because “Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories.”(2012). I think that’s something that gets overlooked sometimes when we discuss stories. It seems to me that the main reason people like stories, whether is it a novel book, or a movie, or a story on a radio, we seem to think that it all comes down to the entertainment, how we, humans want to be entertained. But his point is different, or at least he gives it a fresh perspective, as he sees it from a different angle.

As a storyteller/writer you should “know your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal”. This is important – it shows that stories should be well planned ahead and the ending should be figured out from the start so the middle part is the journey to that goal. Coming up with endings is hard, I realised that while planning and writing the story for my final project and I’m still not satisfied with it.

Another point he makes is to ““Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care. We all know what it’s like to not care”.(2012) This is something that every scriptwriter should have in a back of his head, that the only way to catch audience’s attention, to entertain them is by making them care. Later on he goes on about how we should make the audience put things together, make them work for it. So instead of giving them everything on a plate, let’s make it fun for them to solve it for themselves. As he says “We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.“(2012).

A character should have a spine, a goal, something they’re striving for. He gives examples of Pixar characters, such as WALL-E, or Marlin from “Finding Nemo”, but what’s really interesting is what he says at the end, that these goals can sometimes lead to some bad decision making, that characters get in trouble because of them, there are new obstacles in front of them. And that’s what makes stories much more interesting and entertaining.

He also talks about how he was struggling in the early days of Pixar, while writing “Toy Story”. At the time there was a certain formula for animation movies. For example there was a lot of singing involved and there was some romance. The story wasn’t working out and Disney was panicking, so they wanted all these things in the movie. But Stanton and the rest refused, and as he says: “And thank goodness we were just too young, rebellious and contrarian at the time. That just gave us more determination to prove that you could build a better story. And a year after that, we did conquer it.”(2012). It shows that there are no hard rules in storytelling, there are only guidelines. However liking the main character is something he says is a “fundamental”.  I think it would be hard for the audience to relate to an unlikable character, especially in the animated movie. Although there are examples of successful stories with unlikable characters in main roles, I’m thinking about House from “House MD”, or Kevin Spacey’s character from “House of Cards”, but I’m not totally convinced they’re unlikable. They might be evil(in House of Cards case), or rude and cynical like House but there’s something about their characters that people like.

According to Stanton one of the most important ingredients that a story should have is a sense of wonder. “Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent. It can’t be artificially evoked. For me, there’s no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling — to hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder”(2012).

He ended his talk with saying that drawing from our own experiences, our own stories is also something a storyteller should do. “Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.”(2012)

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story, 2012. [online] TED talk. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story/

Nature of time in film based on examples of ”Rashomon”(1951), ”Interstellar”(2014) and “Memento”(2000)

As filmmakers we can present the time in any way we wish to and it can be used for the benefit of our film. For example in “Memento” Chris Nolan use starts with the ending of the story to then progress to the beginning, which in itself isn’t revolutionary, it was done in films such as “Pulp Fiction”, “American Beauty” or “Fight Club”, and later, after Nolan’s film it was used in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, which I think is a great example of this “technique”.

Time and its perception play a huge role in three of these films, even that in each of them they are used in a different way. What they all have in common is that they use it to tell a story in an unusual way. “Rashomon” uses flashbacks and different points of view, “Interstellar” talks about relativity of time and “Memento” uses a reverse chronology to tell the story.  Two of them tell the story in a nonlinear way.

As Stefano Ghislotti said in his article about “Memento”, “The film is interesting because it reflects the absence of the past in its narrative structure. As an effect of composition, the main character’s memory disease is directly perceptible to the viewers.”(2003). In the beginning of “Memento” we can see that a Polaroid photograph that fades to white, which should already give us an idea that there is something different about the timeline and the narrative of this film. In that scene we actually see the ending of the movie. Then the scene fades to a black and white and we see the protagonist in a completely different place. We learn that this will be common pattern in this movie, colour scene will be alternated by black and white scenes. Now we have two narrative timelines, one in colour which shows the events in reverse and one in black and white which for most of the film seems to show the action in a chronological way. Because of its unusual structure the movie keeps the viewer guessing and thinking what’s coming next, and viewers have an advantage over Leonard, who’s condition stopped him from making new memories. Nolan creates tension and suspense by adding new photographs, or situations to the story, which then explain some previous mysteries(e.g. broken window in the Jaguar, bullets in the pick-up). We see Leonard being used and taken advantage of by two characters, Teddy and Natalie. At the end of the movie, which actually could be a beginning of the story, we realise how hopeless he is, he has no one to turn to. He’s most likely going to continue his  quest of finding the killer of his wife(even that we know that he has already done it) and the only way he is going to keep going is by his the habits he developed, such as remembering to make notes and keeping a pen around him. That’s something that differentiates him from Sammy Jankins, another recruiting theme of this story, who were also an important part of the film.

“Rashamon” uses a different approach to time, the story is told in a usual, linear way, however we hear four different versions of the same incident. It’s pretty much impossible by the viewer to tell who was telling the truth and what actually happened on that day in the forest. The technique of using flashbacks and presenting different points of view were somehow new to the cinema when Kurosawa made that film. He explores the topic of perception in this movie. Some might say that it talks about how truth is relative and subjective, such as an American film critic, Rogert Ebert. On the contrary, Error Morris, who’s a director, claims that truth can only be objective and that “Rashamon” is a “movie about how everybody sees the world differently. But the claim that everybody sees the world differently, is not a claim that there’s no reality”.

The role of time in “Interstellar” is different in comparison to those two movies. Perception of time and its relativity is very real in this film. While in “Memento” and “Rashamon” it was used as a tool to tell a story in a different way, in this case the narrative is pretty normal. In this film time is important because of a few aspects. Humanity is running out of it – in “Interstellar’s” universe Earth is no longer a sufficient place to live for humans, it’s not as welcoming as it used to be, the backstory and reasons behind it aren’t explained, but we know that because of a mysterious virus that is destroying crops and dust streams humanity needs to find a new place to live and needs to do it fast. So because of that lack of time we have our first struggle – struggle of a man with the nature. To save humanity our protagonists have to make a huge decision and go and look for a new planet for humanity. As space is a vast place we know that travelling in it take years. And that’s when the aspect of time comes in again. The crew that goes on that mission is sacrificing their lives on Earth(even that some of them don’t know it yet) for a greater good, to save humanity. But in the process of doing that some of them won’t be able to see their children grow older, or spend last years with their parents. Relativity of time and time dilation comes into play again when they have to land on a first planet. As it turns out one hour over there was equivalent to 7 years on Earth. It had a huge impact on characters that realised that even if they had a chance of coming back to Earth it could be a completely different place. That planet was also another representation of a struggle of a man vs. nature. As they’ve spent more time on there that they’re assumed they initial plan had to change as well. One of the most emotional scenes in the movie happened just after they come back from that planet to their ship. The idea of them watching 23 years’ worth of messages from home, seeing his son growing up, getting married and having kids, while he couldn’t be there or even send a message back home had to be heart breaking. After they plan changed they moved to Mann’s planet which was a literal and figurative struggle of man vs. man. At the end of the movie we’ve learnt how old Cooper is and that his daughter is close to the death. This was one of the last examples of time dilation coming into play in the movie.

All three examples show how time could be used in film and what talented filmmakers can do to make their films better with the smart use of it. It can be used as one of plotlines and an obstacle, like in “Interstellar”, but it can also be used in a narrative way to present a story from a different point of view, using a different chronology.

 

Memento, 2000. [Film] Directed by Christopher Nolan. Universal City, California: Summit Entertainment
Rashomon, 1950. [Film] Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Tokyo, Japan: Daiei Film Co. Ltd.
Interstellar, 2014. [Film] Directed by Christopher Nolan. London, England: Syncopy Inc. Los Angeles, California: Lynda Obst Productions
Stefano Ghislotti , 2003. Backwards: Memory and Fabula Construction in Memento by Christopher Nolan [online]. Available at: http://dinamico2.unibg.it/fa/fa_mem01.html [Date accessed: 25.11.2014]
Roger Ebert, 2002, Rashomon [online] Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-rashomon-1950 [Date accessed: 26.11.2014)
Errol Morris, 2004, Interview with The Believer [online] Available at: http://www.errolmorris.com/content/interview/believer0404.html [Date accessed: 26.11.2014)