Thursday, September 8, 2011

I'm Ready for my Closeup!

The face is typically one of the first things an artist learns how to draw. Not just in the formal training, but sometimes even in childhood. A face is the number one image that a viewer can connect with. This is so much so, that people often 'make order out of chaos', wherein we will attribute a facial likeness to something that is not a face: i.e. an electrical outlet can look like a very surprised person. The reason this occurs is because the face is the primary mode of showing emotion. Body language comes in second. Emotion is one of the most basic things that a person can understand and identify with. You don't have to teach a person to cry, smile, or concentrate. We just do it, and we can recognize it in someone else immediately.
This is why an artist can take advantage of the close-up. A close-up is a camera angle where the primary subject is the character's face. It can range anywhere between including the character's shoulders and a significant area above the head, to showing one very large eye.
Using a close-up draws the reader in to a very intimate level with the character. Think of it this way: if you are actually this close to a person in real life, the
only reason you'd allowed to be that physically close to them is because you are intimately connected with them. When a person's face takes up most or all of your visual range, there is a lot of trust and vulnerability that they are allowing you to share. And if they aren't wanting that, they will retreat away from you.
Because the face is one of the first things an artist learns to draw, it is in some ways the easiest thing for them to draw. Thus, many times, an artist will cop out and pull the camera in close to the character simply because it is easier or it looks cool. Now, to be fair, a character's emotions aren't always cranked up to 11. A close-up doesn't need to be a very intimate thing, but like every other camera angle, there must be a purpose to it. For example, if someone is saying something important--even if they don't realize it's important--a close-up helps emphasize that importance. But just as pulling the camera back takes in the importance of the environment, bringing the camera close prepares the viewer for the importance of emotion.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Out of Your Element, Donnie!

A well-constructed character has some sort of talent, ability, or general quality that sets them apart from the crowd. Even the 'average joe' types need to have something about them that makes them more interesting than the other characters of the story, in order to make them worth the reader's time. Of course, I'm sure you could think of exceptions to this rule, but for the sake of time, just go with me on this one.
The character's quality that sets them apart offers the writer two equally valid options: putting that character 'in their element' and taking them 'out of their element.' I've been watching some Star Trek: The Next Generation recently, and the episode "New Grounds" displays both of these ideas very well. For those of you that have a life, let me fill you in on the character Lt. Worf. He's a Klingon, which is an alien race based on wolf pack, alpha male, warrior mentalities. He is very strong, and hell-bent on duty and honor, and how they relate to combat. Previously in the series, Worf's mate Keylarr dies and leaves Worf their son, Alexander. In this episode, Worf must deal with suddenly becoming a single parent.
Out of the element:
Worf is the ship's tactics and security officer. He's a Klingon. He's a bachelor. He is in no way cut out to raise a young boy. Thus, it becomes very interesting to watch him struggle to operate in this very unfamiliar territory. At first, Worf tries to use what is familiar. He instructs his son about honor, discipline, and Klingon heritage. Not only does it not work, but it pushes Alexander away. So Worf must learn something new and grow as a character to find out how to deal with this problem. He learns that in matters of the heart, a firm hand is not always the answer, and that Alexander is dealing with the death of Keylarr, too. Thus, they must work together to confront their feelings. That's not something that Klingons are very good at. But Klingons are good at fighting battles together, which is another way of looking at their mutual problem. Worf was out of his element. He tried to solve it first with what he knew, and that didn't work. He learned something new, and adapted it to himself, making the solution his own.
In the element:
In reference to a page where Supergirl blasts out her heat vision, Dennis O'Neil says "Supergirl shows her stuff, as every good superbeing should at some point in every story" in The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. Whatever the character's qualities or talents are, the audience needs to see them showcased. In the episode's final act, Alexander is caught under heavy debris in a fire. Worf may not know how to be an idealistic dad, but if there's an I-beam on top of somebody, Worf is the one guy on the entire ship that can do something about it. So, the audience gets to see what makes Worf such a unique character in comparison to everyone else. Usually, this is the most visually interesting part of any story, and it's typically in that final crisis. This is what the audience waits for and pays to see. What's really great about this episode is that this final action kills two birds with one stone. Earlier in the episode, Worf thinks he can't raise Alexander and wants to send him to Kronos, the Klingon home world. But Alexander secretly runs away. The episode's sub-plot is the cause of the fire. Worf is in crisis. He's the ship's tactics officer: his duty to the ship is to stay on the bridge and try to protect the crew, but he's also a father, and he can't stay on the bridge while his son is dying. In a moment of crisis, characters instinctively choose what is most important to them, whether they understand it or not. Even though he was getting ready to send Alexander away, he leaves the bridge to save his son. The danger is a type that Worf is qualified to handle, and it teaches him what's most important in his heart.
Having a character deal with something they are unfamiliar with can be just as interesting as watching them do what they're best at. If they do too much of either, though, it will become problematic and predictable.

Monday, May 30, 2011

It's Not a Bad Story, You're Just Not Emo Enough!

I've recently been playing through Final Fantasy VIII, which I thoroughly enjoyed when I was in high school. Now...not so much.
For those of you unfamiliar with the game, it's a long, long story, but for the purpose of this post, I'll just say that it's about angsty teens dealing with seemingly giant problems. My point is that back when I was 18, the game had a lot more pull for me. This has a lot to do with the fact that I myself was an angsty teen at the time.
This is about the general concept of target audiences. A target audience is any demographic that a form of entertainment is designed to appeal to. At first, one might think that an artist should try to make their work appeal to everyone, or at least as many people as possible. But this is impossible. I don't care how great your story is, but a 3 year old boy, a middle-aged housewife, a tween girl, and me, a twenty-something guy, cannot be interested in the same material. Peoples' brains are just too different.
But once those differences are distinguished, people become so similar within their sub-categories that it's downright creepy. Guys between the ages of 18-35 will watch anything with cleavage, explosions, and/or stupid humor. Tween girls will latch onto metro-style boy toys that can dance. Toddlers won't watch something unless it is simplified down to its most basic form, and appeals to their incredibly basic understanding of color, number, shape, morality, etc. The list goes on, and most entertainment companies have the human race figured out on a psychological and sociological level. Even if you think you have different tastes than these general categories, you simply fall into a sub-category with many other people. All humans seek entertainment, and that is something that somebody can make a profit off of.
How, then, can an artist use this to their advantage? First, the artist must ask themselves 'what is my target audience?' Probably the easiest one to aim at is the one you yourself fall into. If you like it, odds are, people similar to you will like it. But you have to determine what it is about your work that people would like. Look at other stories that have the same audience: what are their focuses? What do they downplay, or completely skip on? Different audiences have different attention spans: how do you need to adjust your work to compensate for this? If you're aiming at a target audience that you are not really a part of, that's fine, but do your homework. At the risk of betraying my own demographic, I have to admit that I really don't like zombie movies. But if I was commissioned to make a zombie comic, book, or film, my first step would be to find out which zombie movies/comics/books are the favorites and get a hold of those ASAP.
I'm almost done with Final Fantasy VIII. I can see some qualities in the story that still appeal to me, but I've outgrown it. But that's okay, because the world is never in short supply of angsty matter how much I may wish it.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Space Travel Before It Was Cool

Some of my favorite science-fiction stories are about space travel. Now, there are obviously a lot of stories that fit into that sub-category, but my favorite ones are about space travel before mankind could actually do it. Think about it: now that humans actually can live and work in space, or on the moon, how might that have influenced the fiction writers and illustrators of today, as opposed to before the concept really began to take form in the 1960s?
Science-fiction movies and TV shows of the time before the NASA program had a much more simplified concept of space suits, rocket ships, aliens, and technology. Novels and comic books showed space travelers as pretty basic explorers, wearing jumpsuits with domes attached to the head and a small breathing apparatus. Planets very distant from a sun would simply be cold, as opposed to housing liquid methane, and planets close to the sun might be kind of hot, rather than instantly-boil-your-face-off hot.
I've always viewed these kinds of stories as a bit more 'pure' in their imagination. Though the NASA program--and others like it--have become a spring-board for a great number of fantastic ideas, science fiction stories preceding space travel had a tendency to focus more on the 'fiction' as opposed to the 'science.' A lot of this quality has been lost because audiences today simply can't stretch their disbelief as much as they used to: for many decades, space suits must be depicted as bulky, multi-layered, vacuum sealed costumes, in order to keep out the harmful environments that all people know exist in space.
In this sketch, I tried to imagine a space suit of someone walking around on Saturn's moon Titan--a moon extremely distant from the sun. One of my goals was to imagine the suit as if it would have been imagined in the 1950s. The man is wearing a flight suit, with a few attachments for the airless, freezing, icy environment.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Silhouettes: Part 2, You will Know Us by our Shadows

This second aspect of the silhouette is in regards to character design. If I did my job correctly, you should instantly recognize these three people. The reason that you can is because there are characteristics about their structure and design that separate them from practically all other people you've ever seen. When I put it like that, it sounds impressive, right?
A character should be designed with this issue in mind. Overall shape and silhouette are important for the characters body, but it's doubly important for their head. This is because when the camera pulls in closely to the character (like when they are talking or expressing) they still remain instantly recognizable on some level--at the very least, distinguishable from the other characters. Thus, hairstyles and head gear become great assets to an artist.
But if the characters aren't going to be completely shadowed 100% of the time, why is this important? Excellent question, I'm glad you asked. Like I said earlier in this blog, the mind recognizes people by abstraction and generalization. What if the entire Looney Tunes cast was all rabbits? Do you think Bugs would stand out as much as he does from the rest of the cast? (remember, there are always exceptions to 'rules' in art: in the cartoon show "Tiny Toon Adventures" there were the two lead characters Buster Bunny and Babs Bunny. Two lead characters with nearly identical silhouettes. The writers knew that Buster needed a female counterpart/love interest, and that could only be accomplished with another rabbit, and Bugs Bunny--from the show's parent program--already established what rabbits looked like in this show. Thus, some tweaks were made to make Babs visually different on some level, but their contrast is largely in their personalities)
Characters with silhouettes instantly recognizable on a national or global scale are few and far between. And not every popular character has a perfect silhouette. What's most important is that the character is unique in their own cast.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Silhouettes: Part 1, For every Action, there's a Jackson

This image is taken from the book "Cartoon Animation" by Preston Blair. Here, he demonstrates the importance of the silhouette as it relates to action. The version on the right is still understood as a duck pulling the rabbit out of a hat, but the version on the left reads better because the shapes suspended in space on a basic level communicate the same thing.
Here's another way of looking at it: I recently saw this image from the play "The Butler Didn't," currently being shown at the Metropolis Performing Arts Center in Chicago. You might remember a statement I made a while back in this blog: nothing is more visually interesting than a beautiful woman. While I still hold to this idea, the actors compensated for this. Both women are in the foreground and are dressed very nicely.
So, why is your attention first brought to the young man in the dull grey suit behind them? Well, for one, he's in mid-air. It also helps that he's in the center of the composition. But there's still two beautiful women--one wearing a short, bright red dress--that are closer to the viewer, and therefore much larger compositionally. Let's look at this through the magic of silhouette-vision (i.e. 20 minutes of work in Photoshop).
Notice how subtle the two women's poses are. The one on the right is holding a wine bottle in front of her, which protrudes it from her silhouette, drawing attention to it, but no one in this composition is crazier than the guy in mid air. His arms and legs are protruding in all different directions. The larger man in the way back has no way of drawing attention to himself other than the fact that he is wearing the brightest color on the stage. If he wanted to draw attention to himself, the best thing he could do would be to take whatever it is he's holding onto and hold it above his head. That would reveal it from his silhouette and spread out his body more.
Creating a unique silhouette is essential in communicating an idea. In the case of action, the storyteller's job is to convince the audience that an action is occurring. Though subtlety is just as important as extremes, it should be quite obvious that the more extreme a pose is, the more clear it is what is happening. With all of this in mind, look at every one of Captain America's poses from these two pages by Jack Kirby. There are probably about a thousand reasons why Kirby's work is great, but these two pages are especially good at demonstrating how a good, unique silhouette does wonders for an action sequence.
Shameless plug: that's my brother, Michael Woods, doing the crazy jump. He's an actor in Chicago; if you're ever in the area, go see a play.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Two-Shot

The two-shot is any type of camera angle which hold two characters in it. With this broad definition, it's used a lot in film and comics. Fortunately, there's lots of ways to do it, all of which are explained in the book "The 5 C's of Cinematography."
For this example, I drew a normally risky two-shot, where each character is evenly placed in the panel, for the most part in a profile shot. The reason it's a risky camera angle is because when a person is perfectly profile, or facing directly, to the camera, the image is flattened and less interesting, i.e: more depth makes an image 'pop out.' There's also no background to the image, which doesn't help, but in the final version, there will be a word-balloon from the character on the right, placed in the top-center. The reason I went ahead with this angle, though, is because placing two characters profile to the camera maximizes the distance between them, which in this part of the story is important. If I wanted them to be compositionally closer together, then I might have put the camera closer to one of them as opposed to the other.
To make the shot more interesting, I looked at "The 5 C's of Cinematography" and what it had to say about two-shots. In most two-shots, you'll have one character dominating the image over another. This is done with lighting (being well-lit or shadowed), position (being higher or lower than the other character) or by "playing to the camera," (facing more toward the camera, or away from it). Since I wanted them to be eye-to-eye with each other, I couldn't make one higher than the other. The light is coming from the left of the panel, lighting the character on the right and putting the other in shadow. The character on the right is turned a little toward the camera, and the other is turned away. Lastly, the speaker is gesturing toward the other character. This not only creates an interesting shape of his silhouette, but also draws attention to the speaker.