Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Brad Bird on storyboarding (mostly)


Simply put, the Disney method is to develop the "business" of the story (gags, situations, emotions, etc.) completely before dealing with how the business is to be presented. To consider the staging of a scene at this early point was seen as a straight jacket; a restriction of possibilities and a liability to the healthy growth of a story.

While I believed in the effectiveness of the Disney method (it's hard to argue with Walt's results), my insatiable appetite for well-directed movies had begun to have an effect on my own thought process. It became increasingly harder for me to have an idea without simultaneously imagining how the idea was staged. "Why separate it?" I challenged. "If someone comes up with a better way to do a scene, you can always change it!"

While staging is no substitute for story, I felt then, as I do now, that the camera is an unseen character, the eyes of the audience. It can assume a million different natures: a restless child, a cold killer, a fly on the wall...

With a production schedule a year shorter and a budget less than half the size of our friends at either of the two D's (Disney and DreamWorks), our margin for error is minuscule. (they have these limits in exchange for Warner Bros not breathing down their necks with a bunch of comitees trying to market test and merchandise the film before it's done)

One of our most useful tools has been the use of After Effects (because it allowed him to plot out camera moves, which could never really be plotted out in animatic before, thus figuring out the "character" of the camera)

once they got it down (aftereffects), it was actually less work for them than conventional storyboards

Because it allowed us to introduce much more movement into our story reels, which can become almost painfully static, it enabled us to get a much better approximation of the finished film at a much earlier point, particularly when combined with a non-linear editing machine like an AVID, which can easily speed up or slow down moves, lengthen holds or pluck out frames.

Working with Jeff, who was part of that early Simpsons storyboard team, and his stellar crew, we solved many timing and staging problems before the scenes even started layout. This new process also occasionally influenced my editing decisions, where the kinetics of certain shots suggested their marriage, the way it often does in live-action films.

Did this process save us tremendous amounts of money?

No, but it gave us a chance to try things that were more ambitious than our schedule and budget really allowed. We could imagine the pace and the unfolding of our film accurately with a relatively small expenditure of resources. We were free to make the big mistakes in the cheap part of the process. (it didn't save money, but it allowed them to be bold and risky without risking a lot of money, so they were able to take the risks necessary to find the golden parts)


How did Bird reduce costs? For one thing, he reduced the bureaucracy. "Bureaucracy is quite an expensive thing," he says. "We didn't have that. We simplified certain things. We spent a lot of extra effort on the planning. A lot of the shot planning was being very elaborate in our animatics.

"We solved a lot of our problems in that part of the process. What that helped us do, is when it came time to do the actual scene, most of our questions had been answered. So we didn't waffle a lot. We knew where we were heading. Even though we were changing the film all the time, we weren't waiting until a later stage of the process to answer certain questions.

"We simplified the lighting on the characters as well. The relationship between the boy and the Giant is the core of the movie. The key to us was to make them seem like they're inhabiting the same world."

One plot point the movie doesn't address is, why is the Iron Giant on Earth? It's a subject that Bird is reluctant to discuss in detail.
"The people at Warner Bros. asked that question very early on," he says. "I didn't want to answer it because once you start to answer it, it becomes a Pandora's Box and the whole movie becomes about the Iron Giant's back story. The minute you start to talk about it, you explain a little and it begs more questions which beg more answers which beg more questions. Pretty soon it becomes a movie about a warrior race of robots and not a movie about a boy and a giant metal man.
(this makes me think of the Indian Jones brainstorming sessions, or the Notes on a frog (what execs would do today to One Froggy Night). Consistency of world, and tying all the threads up is not essential to telling a satisfying story)

"A lot of times you can be more profound when you suggest things and you don't say them. Our intention was to make it bigger by leaving more to the imagination."

When I first got into it, the visual language of television animation was very, very rudimentary. There was a standard way of handling things, and that had gotten into the art form itself, to where people were doing this stuff by rote. The rule was, whenever you go to a new location, you do an establishing shot, whenever somebody's moving, you have a medium shot, and whenever anybody's talking, you cut to whoever's talking. It's all done at eye level. You never have high angles or low angles or anything like that.

Any time you think you're making a film for them, not you, that's a dangerous direction to head, because there's something patronizing about it.

Any time you think you can press a certain button and get a laugh, you're probably not pushing yourself. It's like when you go to a comedy club, and the less experienced comics get up and start pulling out the lewd jokes. It's like, "Yeah, you can get a laugh, but you're not gonna make history with that." Then you get the great guys, the guys we're still listening to. Have you ever heard a Nichols & May routine? I mean, that stuff is as contemporary as ever, and it's, what, 40 years old? My jaw still drops at how cool Nichols & May are. I think that's what I would like, to do something that's cool a hundred years from now.

I love the graphic quality and the imperfection of 2D, and that it's very tactile in a way that CG hasn't quite got yet.At the same time, CG allows freedom with camera movement and lighting that I wish we had in 2D. It allows you a degree of control, too, with tiny facial changes that are very difficult or impossible in hand-drawn animation. Once you get down to less than the width of a pencil line between frames, it's difficult for somebody to control that. Whereas in CG, because you can get it down to one pixel, you can do really subtle stuff with the eyes, and the audience can detect it.

In the Incredibles DVD one of the storyboard artist says you board until you start wanting to put in details, details are for animation so you don't go that far.

hey anyone have any books or links to learn more about imbuing the camera with character?

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