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10 Gems of Knowledge You Should Know Before Directing

This past weekend I attended a short course through AFTRS (Australian Film Television and Radio School) called ‘Introduction to Directing’. The host was Ian Watson, an Australian director who has directed on various successful TV shows including ‘Underbelly’.

Let me tell you I did not have high hopes. All I was hoping for was at least 1 new piece of knowledge and that anyone sitting next to me would wake me nicely if I drooled over their elbow.

I was ecstatically wrong. There was a wealth of knowledge and my eyelids remained snapped open (despite the fact that I’d had only 2 hours sleep).

Instead of wading through this Scrooge McDuck wealth of knowledge, I’ve decided to pluck out the real gems that made my ears prick up. The ones that you could make some giant earrings out of and still have some left for a set of grillz.

Here they are:

1. Make the premise as short as possible.

Every scene, every script, every beat has a premise, a concept that it is trying to convey. Figure out what it is and make it short. For example, you could be wanting to drive conflict by telling actors the premise for a scene is:

DirectingGems-Premise01

OR you could achieve the same result by saying:

DirectingGems-TheKnife

Nicer huh?

2. Don’t micromanage in small teams.

There can be a tendency to want to control a lot in a small team. You have to trust that everyone knows what they’re doing. Let them do what they’re there to do.

3. Every time we cut, we break tension.

This is something that made complete sense when I heard it, but I had never actually considered. It’s possibly why the infamous “long take” shot in Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) makes me feel so uptight. In this shot, I feel as if the world is incredibly fraught with danger for Clive Owen’s character because you never get a break from following him, you aren’t offered another perspective and everything happens in real time. It’s a relentless way of forcing the audience to stay within the moment.

That being said….

4. Use cuts to punctuate beats.

One of our exercises was to physically direct a short scene in a script consisting of about 5 beats. One person wanted to shoot the whole scene as one shot.

This choice was completely fine but it meant that any changing beats were not defined by cuts. It could read like theatre, as if we’re just recording the action. Even if you as a director can “feel” the beats being played out using one shot, the audience may not. Adding cuts punctuates these beats.

If you’re going to do away with cuts, than you will have to find other ways to define the beats.

5. Directors must be like builders.

Another person in the class pointed out how incredibly involved we were becoming in the minutiae of the scenes, the beats and the premise. Is this involvement with all the small details actually getting through to the audience? Would they recognise these details?

Ian gave us an analogy about builders, something to the affect of:

DirectingGems-A builder

What Ian was saying was that by being involved in the minutiae, you can make sure that a story is coherent. An audience won’t see all the thoughts that have gone into the foundations like the premise but they will understand the story overall. And even if they can’t articulate why they feel this way, they will understand that the story has been told well and maybe they’ll say:

DirectingGems-coolMovie

6. Know who is driving the scene.

In a scene, even in shots, there tends to be one character who’s intention is more dominant than other characters or elements. Their intention is probably driving the story forward. This character is said to be “driving the scene”. It’s important to understand which character this is so that you can give them more screen space or screen time.

Here are 2 examples using Ratatouille (Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava2007).

DirectingGems-RemyCheese

In this scene, Remy (the grey rat) is telling Emile (the brown rat) about his passion: food. When he discovers that Emile has a fantastic piece of cheese in his bag, he can’t contain his excitement. This translates to Remy being the more animated of the two and the character the camera follows more. Emile’s movements are smaller so as not to draw the focus away from Remy and he is awarded less screen time.

Despite Remy being the main character for the film, he doesn’t drive every scene. In this scene:

DirectingGems-Chef

– Remy is trying to help Linguini the chef to cook. Linguini is venting his frustration at how Remy is biting and scratching him under his shirt in a bid to control his movements.

Linguini is driving the scene. This means that most of the shots are shot at human eye level, rather than at the eye level of Remy. As a result, Remy is smaller on screen and his intentions are diminished along with the size of his character. This makes us feel as if we are with Linguini and reinforces the fact that his motivations are driving the scene.

7. Actors are the guardians of their character.

This is particularly true for episodic actors who have a history of playing this character. They are likely to know how the character will react and feel in certain situations.

If you as a director are uncertain of whether an actor should, say, deliver a line with sincerity or sarcasm, it is important to consult the actor on how they feel the character would act. Actors can help you to maintain consistency with the character by protecting their character’s behaviours.

8. You don’t have to play games with actors.

I asked Ian: “If you wanted an actor to feel intimated in the shot, would you as a director go about bullying them on set to make them feel intimidated?”

Ian responded with how he doesn’t play games with actors.Allegedly some directors do “monster” their actors, but you don’t have to. Ian knows he can achieve the results he wants in other ways. Part of that is in respecting an actor’s process and in recognising when they’re about to “pop”. If they’re about to give you the performance you need (eg. about to cry), you can rework your shooting schedule to shoot their crying shots first.

9. Tension is the enemy of the actor.

Actors spend time learning to relax so they can embrace their role. Bringing tension to the set can mess with their process.

So try to keep the set relaxed. Chill.

10. Story is king.

And finally, my absolute favourite lesson of the day was simply this:

DirectingGems-saveTheStory

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5 Great Tips from an Animation Pedagogy Forum

The panelists from Pedagogies for Practice.

The panelists from Pedagogies for Practice.

“Ummm, pedagogy? Is that like a Ped Egg for your foot?”

Nope! It’s the forum I attended on the weekend where professionals (including Academy Award winner Adam Elliot) discussed how animation should be taught to students. They also shared tips about the industry and these are 5 points I took away!

1. ANIMATION DIRECTING SHOULD BE PURSUED; ANIMATION SUPERVISING CAN BE OFFERED

Having experienced the role himself, Florent de la Taille (a GOBELINS graduate) pointed out that if you want to become an Animation Director, you have to pursue the role from the outset. Waiting for the role to float gently down to you from the heavens in a halo of gold is probably not going to happen.

On the other hand, you can be offered the role of Animation Supervisor based on your excellent work. You just have to give an indication to your studio that you want to be considered. Animation Supervisors bear a lot of responsibility for the sequences they’re supervising, so not everyone puts their hand up to keep the kids in check.

In addition, Florent advised that if you’re really gunning for the role of Animation Supervisor, you have to check that the studio where you’re working even NEEDS one. If they don’t, then apply elsewhere specifically for that role. Be aware: some studios don’t take on outside supervisors. Some studios work on a Japanese system where you have to work from the bottom up. I feel like I can hear Drake rapping as I wrote that…

What a polite ass. Shrek 2 (2004, Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon). Source: Reflectionary.

2. CREATURE ANIMATION – DECIDE ON A VIABLE REALITY

How can you layer human behaviour over creature animation?

By deciding on the rules of that world before you begin animating.

Myrna Gawryn (a teacher of character behaviour and movement) answered my question by giving  an example of Donkey from Shrek: sometimes he walks on all fours like the quadruped he is and  sometimes he sits with crossed legs. Ergo, sometimes his physiology is respected and he walks  like an ass (tee hee!) and sometimes he’s given human behaviour like washing his hoofs to ramp  up the humour. Each creature should have rules to follow so that we as an audience  understand  why Donkey can sit cross-legged, but isn’t walking upright like a pig in Animal Farm.

3. SCRIPT, SCRIPT, SCRIPT

Audiences can forgive bad animation but they won’t forgive a bad story.

This one is especially true because it comes from Adam Elliot, a claymation animator who says  he’s never animated a walk-cycle in his life. Seriously. Check out his Academy-Award winning  short film Harvie Krumpet. It’s just a lot of it blinking eyes.

But I would take his lack of walk-cycles and Harvie’s endearing story any day over Frozen. Pretty  pictures are one thing, but not knowing who is the villain is another.

If only they’d followed the mantra: SCRIPT, SCRIPT, SCRIPT.

4. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE MORE TALENTED THAN YOU

WOAH, epiphany! No one has ever told me this before. Now that I’ve heard it, I realised it’s something you should ALWAYS do.

If you surround yourself with more talented people, then they can fill in for your weaknesses and also help improve them. Now I know how to fight you, my terrible texturing skills!

5. ANIMATION IS A PART OF A LARGER ECOSYSTEM

If you think about ‘art’ as being an ecosystem, then you realise that animation is just one part of it. Go explore what the rest of the ecosystem has to offer!

Like my cousin’s theatre performance that involved crazy nuns. Or trying to play ‘Edelweiss’ on the harmonica. Or learning how to make croissants from scratch!

*Note to readers: You need to have foresight into your croissant cravings. If you think: “Mmmm….yeah I do want croissants in 72 hours”, then go ahead and bash the butter into that pastry!

5TipsPedagogies_Ecosystem

The point is explore – try – create! Everything you experience can help you to evolve in your chain of the ecosystem. Who knows what your outside interests can influence next?