This document was a guide for students interested in pursuing a career in at Walt Disney Feature Animation Studio. It outlines what they were looking for at the time in portfolio submissions. Click to open PDF.
Establishing Villains – Part 3: Anton Chigurh
Okay, I know I said I would do something old and classic for Part 3, but I was just dying to get this out first.
No Country For Old Men (2007) has a one of the best villains. His name is Anton Chigurh, and he kills people with an air pressure gun. He’s tall, and imposing. He has a hippy haircut, and freaky buggy eyes. He’s always serious and intense. And like most villains of the creepy variety, he doesn’t emote much. Here’s the first shots of Anton Chigurh; they follow the same convention as before: Don’t show his face.
When we do see his face, its when he’s in the middle of strangling a man to death. How cool is that intro? It’s not hype with a bunch of other actor’s going on about, “Keyser Söze! Keyser Söze!” (The Usual Suspects (1995)). The first thing you see is what this guy can and will do. This is a great example of showing over telling. In order to establish a villain, introduce him doing something vicious like this right away. You can reveal more of your villain’s character later in an exposition scene (like the one below). Doing it this way is a lot better than hyping a guy up with talk for half of the movie (telling) without actually showing what he can do.
Obviously this isn’t his first murder, this shot says it all:
The coolest part of the film, and the one I want to analyze in this post, is the scene below. Watch it now.
This is the expository scene I was talking about. Anton quickly establishes power and controls the conversation. When I watch this scene I end up feeling like the clerk; I’m totally intimidated. But why? There isn’t enough contrast in shots throughout the scene to make me feel this way. There are some tighter shots, and slight close-ups; There’s very subtle up and down shots used. But nothing that would help me feel like Anton is in control from a strictly visual standpoint.
The answer is in the dialogue. The scene is basically four minutes of Anton and the Clerk asking each other questions. Anton asks about fifteen questions, and the Clerk asks about twelve. We get to know Anton, but we still don’t end up knowing anything about him. At the same time, we know everything about the clerk. We know when he closes, what time he goes to bed (9:30), where he lives (the house out back of the convenience store), where he grew up (Temple, Texas), and how he came to be in the town he’s in today (marriage). That’s the big difference. We feel threatened by Anton and empathize with the Clerk because Anton knows everything about the Clerk (us), and we still don’t know anything about Anton. There’s only one question the Clerk asks that gets a straight answer:
The Clerk: Where do you want me to put it?
Anton: Anywhere, but not in your pocket.
But this still doesn’t reveal anything else about Anton; he goes on to create more uncertainty (fear) by saying, “…Or it’ll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin…Which it is.”
How vague is that?
Okay, so what do we know about Anton? We know he doesn’t blink much. We know he doesn’t like people asking him questions. We know he is confident. We know he doesn’t think highly of the Clerk (“You’ve been putting it up your whole life, you just didn’t know it”). And from that we can assume Anton believes what he does in honorable. It’s safe to assume that if the Clerk calls the coin toss incorrectly, he’s going to die. We know this, but the Clerk doesn’t. That’s called Dramatic Irony, and it creates the tension at the end of the scene and keep us on the edge of our seats.
So all of the information we have on Anton just makes him scarier. The fact that he leaves killing people up to chance makes him even more reckless. What a fantastic villain.
We don’t know who he his, we never know what he’s thinking or what he’s going to do, and he has no concience for killing. It all point back to The Unknown: the scariest thing to the human mind.
Build Your Own Camera Stand!
This information is kind of redundant these days. No way would anyone spend the time, and money to put one of these things together. It’s just not necessary anymore. But that doesn’t stop me from geeking out over it. How cool is this? An actual step-by-step guide to building your own camera stand? OMG!
It has a supply list, it has pictures, it has schematics. Any time you get a chance to use the word “schematics”, take it! 🙂
These are all from The World of Animation by Raul da Silva (Out of Print), which is like a late seventies version of The Alchemy of Animation. It’s a fantastic read for animation geeks though. You can download a .PDF version here.
Establishing Villains – Part 2: Sexy Beast
When I wrote Part 1, I originally intended to include this film as an example. But when I realized how much I was getting out of it, I decided to branch it off into its own separate study. It also inspired me to turn this into an indefinite series of posts. I don’t know when I’ll end it, but I know I’ll learn a lot. I plan to analyze some very old movies, real classics, so stay tuned for that.
I’m going to analyze a scene from the film, Sexy Beast (2000), starring Ben Kingsley as Don Logan, badass extraordinaire. First off let me say that if you haven’t seen this film, you need to. Make sure you also watch Ghandi (1982), also starring Ben Kingsley, and you will understand the measure of a good actor. Don Logan’s first scene uses The Unknown Principle I talked about in Part 1. This scene is a fantastic example of effectively establishing a villain, so I’m going to break the whole scene down so I can figure out what makes it work so well. Watch the scene below now.
All of the shots with Don are static. He remains rigid, with no expression.
Note the intense soundtrack. Juxtaposing these shots with those of small, slow movements, and looks of concern, effectively clues the audience in (without dialogue) to how bad Don Logan is:
These last two frames are from the scene proceeding this one.
There’s a huge contrast in the pacing between the scenes with Don Logan, and those without. Watch the clip above again, and note how quickly the shots with Don Logan jump around. Notice the amount of different shots we get of him; there’s a lot more cutting going on. Lots of cutting raises the stakes, and makes it seem more intense. Watch your favorite action flick or war movie; There’s like a billion cuts in the fight scenes. But let’s do the numbers here: In the parts of this scene without Don Logan, there are two cuts. In the parts of this scene with Don Logan, there are twelve cuts. Watch it again, and count them. That’s a big difference in pacing.
So the Don Logan parts have lots of cutting:
Lots of speed:
And dynamic angles:
This is right before Don Logan’s first line, and it’s a beauty. What a way to introduce a character. A hard stop into the drive way followed by a line that, in the commentary, Kingsley relates to a fist in the face.
Add this all up and you get a picture in your mind of an intimidating man. But this only works if the other shots (those without Don Logan) don’t have all of these elements, which they don’t. As Sidney Lumet or David Mamet would say, without dialogue you tell the story through the effective juxtaposition of shots. The director of this film set a precedant that he stuck to. This could quite easily have been reversed. The shots of Don Logan could have been silent, with no movement, and just plane old creepy acting (Silence of the Lambs from Part 1). It doesn’t matter how you make them evil as far as the pacing or shots are concerned, you just have to set a precedant, and stick to it. In this scene the music plays a huge part in pumping adrenaline into the audience.
Here’s some other great shots from this film:
I love the way he comes out of his dream. A quick zoom out with a sucking sound effect:
Using backlighting covers the face in shadow, and creates and imposing effect
Same thing here, this shot is right after the clip above.
Next up, something classic!
Excerpts: Bambi vs Godzilla by David Mamet
This is probably the most brutally honest perspective of the film industry I’ve ever read. I will undoubtedly read this book time and time again, but when I don’t have the time, I will refer to this page for my excerpts below.
Speaking on the truth in Dramas:
The audience has a right to these dramas, and filmmaker and the studios have a responsibility to attempt them.
*Page 78 subtext
The Three Magic Questions:
1. Who want what from whom?
2. What happens if they don’t get it?
3. Why now?
Stay with the money. The audience came because you advertised the star. Shoot the star.
Burn the first reel. Almost any film can be improved by throwing out the first ten minutes.
If you think that perhaps you should cut, cut.
If you laughed at the dailies, you aren’t going to laugh at the picture.
If you can’t figure out what the scene is about, it’s probably unnecessary. If it is necessary, it’s necessary only once.
The scene that works great on paper will prove a disaster.
If enough people tell you you’re dead, lie down.
Individually they’re idiots. Collectively, they’re a genius. Anyone who speaks of the audience’s understanding as diminished has never had to make a living by appealing to them.
When your plan of battle is proceeding perfectly, you have just walked into an ambush.
Life, in the art of drama or of the carver, cannot be aped, and the attempt to remove the element of chance must doom the project absolutely. For another name for “chance” is “mystery” and another name is art.
On the other hand, there are films of which we, quite literally, applause the grosses, while the films themselves are unwatchable (e.g., Titanic).
Now, the more the audience is told about the hero – the more their legitimate, indeed, induced desire is gratified – the less they care.
As we enter the cinema, we relax our guard. We do so necessarily, because to resist, to insist on reality in the drama, is to rob ourselves of joy. For who would sit through a cartoon thinking constantly, “Wait a second, elephants can’t fly!”
A traditional recipe for genius: inspiration, a plan, not enough time.
These men, and their performances, are characterized by the absence of the desire to please. On screen, they don’t have anything to prove, an so we are extraordinarily drawn to them. They are not “sensitive”; they are not antiheroes; they are, to use a historic term, “he-men.” How refreshing.
For if a regular person wandering in a mall somewhere may be shanghaied into watching a test screening, and if his opinion, and the opinions of his like, are the basis upon which executives determine how to place their bets, why not eliminate the executives entirely and proceed directly to the mall wanderer? Which is effectively what has happened in the casting session.
Feel free to treat everyone like scum, for if they desire something from you, they’ll just have to put up with it, and should they rise to wealth and power, any past civility shown toward them will either be forgotten or remembered as some aberrant and contemptible display of weakness.
Stanislavsky wrote that the last ninety seconds are the most important in the play.
Excerpts: The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim
I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you are comfortable with a lot of psychobabble. This book is FULL of psychobabble: Oedipus complexes, sexual insecurities, etc.
Basically this book is a high-minded discussion of the effects of fairy tales (and therefore most animation) on children. It discusses fairy tales from a story aspect, which is what interested me in the first place (that and the fact that Mamet recommends the book in his, “On Directing Film.”) While I did pick up a lot of good information, which I’ve listed below, the book is very long, and very dry. Just stick to my notes, all the good stuff, that which is applicable to film-making and animation, is listed below.
“Safe” stories mention neither death nor aging, the limits to our existence, nor the wish for eternal life. The fairy tale, by contrast, confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments.
We grow, we find meaning in life, and security in ourselves by having understood and solved personal problems on our own, not by having them explained to us by others.
Fairy tales enrich the child’s life and give it an enchanted quality just because he does not quite know how the stories have worked their wonder on him.
The fairy tale is therapeutic because the patient finds his own solutions, through contemplating what the story seems to imply about him and his inner conflicts at this moment in life.
The fairy tale offers fantasy materials which suggest to the child in symbolic form what the battle to achieve self-realization is all about, and it guarantees a happy ending.
Myths project an ideal personality acting on the basis of superego demons, while fairy tales depict an ego integration which allows for appropriate satisfaction of id desires. This difference accounts for the contrast between the pervasive pessimism of myths and the essential optimism of fairy tales.
The more secure a man is within himself, the more he can afford to accept an explanation which says his world is of minor significance in the cosmos.
On the other hand, the more insecure a man is in himself and his place in the immediate world, the more he withdraws into himself because of fear, or else moves outward to conquer for conquest’s sake.
This is why many fairy tales begin with the hero being depreciated and considered stupid. These are the child’s feelings about himself, which are projected not so much onto the world at large as onto his parents and older siblings.
Cleverness may be a gift of nature; it is intellect independent of character. Wisdom is the consequence of inner depth, of meaningful experiences which have enriched one’s life: a reflection of a rich and well-integrated personality.
The adult’s sense of active participation in telling the story makes a vital contribution to, and greatly enriches, the child’s experience of it.
The world becomes alive only to the person who herself awakens to it.
Only after one has attained inner harmony within oneself can one hope to find it in relations with others.
Excerpts: On Directing Film by David Mamet
David Mamet’s books are always entertaining reads. David Mamet is to live-action screen/play writing what John K is the animation: The wise-ass old curmudgeon with a chip on his shoulder and a knack for expressing his opinions in a way that makes you laugh AND think…because he’s usually right. I recommend anything he writes. You don’t have to agree with him on everything, but at least let him affect you. I have more excerpts from more of his books coming up soon. Click the book or title to be redirected to Amazon where you can buy this book.
A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful. What remains? The story remains. What is the story? The story is the essential progression of incidents that occur to the hero in pursuit of his one goal
Let the cut tell the story. Because otherwise you have not got dramatic action, you have narration.
If you find that a point cannot be made without narration, it is virtually certain that the point in unimportant to the story (which is to say, to the audience): the audience requires not information but drama.
Only the mind that has been taken off itself and put on a task is allowed true creativity.
It is the objective of the protagonist to keep us in our seats
How do we keep their attention? By withholding all information except that information the absence of which would make the story incomprehensible.
You tell the story. Don’t let the protagonist tell the story. You tell the story; you direct it. We don’t have to follow the protagonist around. We don’t have to establish his “character.” We don’t need to have anybody’s “back story.”
The more we “inflect” or “load” the shot, the less powerful the cut is going to be.
Make each part do its job, and the original purpose of the totality will be achieved – as if by magic.
If the job is the objective, then when that job is given or when that job is absolutely denied, the scene will be over.
The less the hero is inflected, identified, and characterized, the more we will endow him with our own internal meaning – the more we will identify with him.
When the hero either gets a retraction or finds that he cannot have a retraction or will be restored. The story will be over.
Every time you make a choice as a director, it must be based on whether the thing in question is essential to the story telling.
It’s the nature of human perception to go to the most interesting thing.
You tax the audience every time you don’t move onto the next essential step of the progression as quickly as possible.
It is the nature of human perception to connect unrelated images into story, because we need to make the world make sense.
To get into the scene late, and to get out early is to demonstrate respect for your audience
If a person’s objective is truly – and you don’t have to do it humbly, because you’ll get humble soon enough – to understand the nature of the medium, that objective will be communicated to the audience.
If you’re honest in making a movie, you’ll find that it’s often fighting back against you.
The acting should be a performance of simple physical action. Period. Go to the door, try the door, sit down. He doesn’t have to walk down the hall respectfully. This is the greatest lesson anyone can ever teach you about acting. Perform the physical motions called for by the script as simply as possible.
Cartoons are very good to watch – are much better to watch, for people who want to direct, than movies.
Every time you show the audience something that is “real,” they think one of two things: (1) “oh, dash it all, that’s fake” or (2) “oh my God, that’s real!” Each one of these takes the audience away from the story you are telling, and neither one is better than the other.
We don’t have to know it’s a slaughterhouse. We have to know it’s where he wants to go.
Stick to the channel. The channel is the super objective of the hero, and the marker buoys are the smaller objectives of each beat, and the smallest unit of all, which is the shot. The shots are all you have.
The task of any artist is not to learn many, many techniques but to learn the most simple technique perfectly. In doing so, Stanislavsky told us, the difficult will become easy, and the easy habitual, so that the habitual may become beautiful.
It’s not up to you to decide whether the movie is good or bad; it’s only up to you to do your job as well as you can, and when you’re done, then you can go home. This is exactly the same principle of the through-line. Understand your specific task, work until it’s done, and then stop.
Excerpts: The Portable Film School by D.B Gilles
So here’s another book post. This time it’s D.B Gilles, “The Portable Film School,” which sounds like a Film School For Dummies caliber of book, but is actually quite fresh and informative. I was able to pull a number of nuggets out of this one. Most of what I got out of this one was a list of other books to read (which I’m excited about), and movies to watch (which I’m really excited about).
So without further adieu, here are my notes/excerpts:
The bitterness of studying is preferable to the bitterness of ignorance
“…write about what you’ve experienced, but make sure you take the emotional essence and not the actual experience or you’ll be making a documentary, not an engaging film.”
The hero must fail before he succeeds.
In real life people may not change, but in art they must.
Talent is not a function of money
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London
Get the script as tight as can be
You’ll have a gut sense that no more constructive work can be done.
A lot can be done with a little money
“If an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, “It’s in the script.” If he says, “What’s my motivation?” I say, “You salary.” -Alfred Hitchcock
Some actors give great auditions and go steadily downhill after that.
“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of you life” -Lawrence Kasdan
“Write the story, take out all the good lines, and see if it works.” -Ernest Hemingway
Editing is where the filmaker is most vulnerable to showing whether or not he has taste and talent
“I am a bear of very little brain, and long words bother me.” – Winnie The Pooh
“Every line of dialogue should either reveal character, advance the story, or get a laugh.” – Augustus Thomas
“What a character is grows out of what he has been and done.” – Kenneth Thorpe Rowe
Tell nothing. Show everything.
Character should speak in what appears to be their natural everyday language. What they say must be carefully designed to move the story forward
Characters who are comprised of various aspects of real people are often the best. There are few figures in real life that can be transplanted bodily to a screenplay and yet remain believable and effective.
A compelling, complicated, three-dimensional main character with shadings, contours, and internal conflicts will hold an audience’s attention. But only for so long. There must be a story.
We don’t have to know everything about a character, especially the main character, right away.
An overwritten scene is like a conversation with a stranger that goes on too long.
Save the best detail for last. Always aim for the unexpected surprise, the huge revelation, the big finish.
“Strong reasons make strong actions.” – Shakespeare
The more you rewrite, the more you get in touch with your characters and the story you want to tell
Bad things do happen to good people and within a good person’s crisis there is drama and because you’re a screenwriter it’s to you to find the story
Keep your eyes wide open before you decide to marry someone and keep your eyes half-closed after you’ve gotten married
You’re either sailing full speed ahead or drifting. People who don’t have a plan get in the way of people who do.
Excerpts from Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
I’ve been doing A LOT of reading lately. I’ve mostly been reading about film making. I’m starting to feel the drawing itch come back, so I’ll probably read less, and starting sketching more in the coming weeks. I figured it would be a good idea to post my notes from the books I’ve read. This way I can access them from anywhere should I need to refer to them. And as a bonus, anyone that reads this can benefit from them!
Here’s my notes from Sidney Lumet’s book. This is an incredible book, click the image and go buy it now. Sidney is the director behind such amazing films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, 12 Angry Men (The original), Find Me Guilty, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (I LOVE this one!), Gloria, The Verdict (Paul Newman is my hero), and so many more. He’s one of those directors that doesn’t really make a bad film. Anyway, here’s my notes…
When I read a book like this, I usually attack it with a highlighter. All the little tidbits of information that are important to me at the moment, I highlight. It could be the name of a film that I haven’t seen yet, or a simple thing I should look out for the next time I see a movie again. Naturally, I also highlight great quotes, and useful, thought-provoking statements. Enjoy
There are no minor decisions in movie making. Each decision will either contribute to a good piece of work or bring the whole movie crashing down around my head many months later.
We’re not out for consensus here. We’re out for communication. And sometimes we even get consensus. And that’s thrilling.
I think inevitability is the key. In a well made drama, I want to feel: “Of course – that’s where it was headed all along.” And yet the inevitability mustn’t eliminate surprise.
The script must keep you off balance. Keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and yet, when the denouement is reached, still give a sense that the story HAD to turn out that way.
Normally I’m not concerned about audience reaction. But when you touch on sex and death, two aspect of life that hit a deep core, there’s no way of knowing what an audience will do.
A character should be clear from his present actions.
If the writer has to state the reasons, something’s wrong in the way the character is written. Dialogue is like anything else in movies. It can be a crutch, or when used well, it can enhance, deepen, and reveal.
The way you tell a story should relate somehow to what that story is. Because that’s what style is: the way you tell a particular story.
Improvisation can be an effective tool in rehearsal as a way of finding what you’re really like when, for example, you’re angry. Knowing your feelings let you know when those feelings are real as opposed to when you’re simulating them.
No lens truly sees what the human eye sees, but the lenses that come closest are the midrange lenses, from 28 mm to 40 mm. The longer the lens, the closer the object seems, both to the camera, and to one another.
If I wanted to get rid of as much background as possible, I’d use a long lens.
When I need a long lens but want to keep the image sharper, we’ll pour in more light
Good camera work is not pretty pictures. It should augment and reveal the theme as fully as the actors and directors do.
Blue or red may mean totally different things to you and me. But as long as my interpretation of a color is consistent, eventually you’ll become aware (subconciously, I hope) of how I’m using that color, and what I’m using it for.
When this magic happens, the best thing you can do is get out of the way of the picture. Let IT tell YOU how to do it from now on.
I guess I’m talking abour self-deception. In any creative effort, I think that’s absolutely necessary. Creative work is hard, and some sort of self-deception in necessary simply in order to begin. To start, you have to believe that it’s going to turn out well. And so often it doesn’t.
Don’t let the difficulty of actually achieveing a shot make you think that the shot is good.
Don’t let a technical failure destroy the shot for you.
You have to keep your eye on the dramatic impact of the shot. Is there life there? That’s what matters.
When in doubt, look at it again a day or two later.
A good place to make an audio cut is on a plosive, a P or a B. An S works well.
Edit it for story, but as part of the form of melodrama, edit is as surprisingly, as unexpectedly, as you can. Try to keep the audience off balance, though not to a point where the story gets lost.
To me, there are to main elements to editing: Juxtaposing images and creating tempo.
If a picture is edited in the same tempo for its entire length, it will feel much longer. It doesn’t matter if five cuts per minute or five cuts every ten minutes are being used. If the same pace is maintained throughout, it will start to feel slower and slower. In other words, it’s the change in tempo we feel, not the tempo itself.
In movies where I’m not using tempo for characterization, I am very careful to continually change the pace of the movie in the editing.
I think of the tempo change over the arc of the whole picture. Melodramas usually accelerate…But in many pictures, towards the ends, I’ve wanted to slow things down, to give the audience, as well as the movie, time to breathe.
There are no small decisions in moviemaking. Nowhere does this apply more than in editing.
Movies are very powerfull. You’d better have a lot to say if you want to run over two hours.
Overlength is one of the things that most often results in the destruction of the movie in the cutting room.
Almost every picture is improved by a good musical score. To start with, music is a quick way to reach people emotionally.
The only movie score I’ve heard, that can stand on its own as a piece of music is Prokofiev’s, “Battle on the Ice” from Alexander Nevsky
I like to make sure that every music cure has enough time to say and do what it’s supposed to say and do.
Short melodramatic bursts or segues from one scene to another simply fill the air with useless sound and therefore reduce the effectiveness of the music when it’s really needed.
Apocalypse Now, which has the most imaginative and dramatic use of sound effects of any movie I’ve seen.
Howard Shore’s superb scoring for the Silence of the Lambs.
Everything becomes creative if the person doing the job is.
Without ancillary rights, most pictures would lose money. Commercial success has no relation to a good or bad picture. Good pictures become hits. Good pictures become flops. Bad pictures make money, bad pictures lose money. The fact is that NO ONE REALLY KNOWS. Through some incredible talent, Walt Disney knew. Today Steven Spielberg seems to.
And that’s what so much of making movies is about: fighting.
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