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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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Pepsi Episode 3 – Japan

If you haven’t seen our latest Pepsi Ad for Japan, I encourage you to watch it now because it’s THOOPER KEWL!

It’s a take on the Japanese folk story of Momotaro (known as Peachboy) where a boy with various animal companions travels to an island to fight demons. This Pepsi Ad is the fourth installment (the series starts at zero) where the new demon seen (known as an Oni) is winged. I guess it’s mimicking the pheasant in the story? Who knows. All you need to know is it’s AWESOME.

I’m very fortunate to have had 4 shots on this ad. 2 of them are CG bird shots and 2 are simple Oni shots. The bulk of the animation was provided by our wonderful lead animator Chris.

The Oni shots were interesting in that the Oni is bigger than a multi-storey building, and so he had to move very slowly due to gravity having a greater effect on his mass (see 01:34). This was new for me as I’d never animated something that was meant to be so large, but our lead taught me to follow reference footage, extend the animation keys out over more time and then go back to tweak overlapping body parts.

The bird shots were tricky in that they had to be realistic movements of fast birds shot in slow motion. There also had to be about 25 of them customised to fly in random directions in one shot(see 00:25). This meant using a basic flight cycle for most of them and then varying their gliding and flapping motions over their flight paths. Then some of them were also perched on the walls and on ledges, so they had to have their own custom animations of them looking around or walking or taking off. All of these factors relied on one thing for pulling it off: study, study, study.

Reference footage like this:

-was a Godsend. It’s one example of the many Youtube videos I watched to get their movements working well. And although it may sound like a bit much for a 2 second shot –

Source: Meme-lol.

Source: Meme-lol.

The rest of the ad coming together can be put down to the rest of the incredible team at Alt.vfx.

And if you need more proof of how great our compositors, modellers and lighting artists are, just check out this shot:

Source: Youtube.

Source: Youtube.

Most of that mask in the middle is CG.

BOOM, FOOLED YA!

Click here to check out Episode Zero, Episode One and Episode Two.

Post-Production Terms

In the 3 months since officially becoming a junior animator at Alt.vfx (woo!), I’ve realised that I have also learnt something else: I can now sprechen ze language of advertising.

Yes, let's review the Cool "Hwip". Source: Precision Nutrition.

Yes, let’s review the “Hwip”. Source: Precision Nutrition.

Now this may not seem like a major thing for some cool whoozits out there, but imagine me in my all noob-ness wading into these kind of doozies: 1. “Hey, we’re having a WIP review at 1pm.” -OR- 2. “Can you just cache out me out an alembic?” – and having no idea what anyone is talking about. It’s like everyone is speaking Klingon while I only speak all things pertaining to cake. So I took note of some of the terms I’ve come to understand while working in post-production and turned them into a Venn Diagram, because let’s face it, WHO DOESN’T LOVE A GOOD OL’ VENN DIAGRAM?

venn_tvcanimvfx_terms_square

Click to enlarge!

Here are some of the confusing terms I’ve learnt and how they can relate to each other across the animation department, the VFX department and TVC’s in general. Now putting them in Venn formation doesn’t necessarily make them easier to understand, it just shows how terms relate and what arenas they concern most. But never fear! Your translator is here. Prepare for a blabbering list of explanations: TVC = Television Commercial. They’re the things that break up a 90 minute movie and turn it into a four hour marathon. CAD = Commercials Advice. In Australia, they’re the service that classify the ads before the ad is broadcast. Here’s a gem that didn’t pass through CAD according to the video description:

Spot

I swear Spot the dog used to have more than 1 spot. Source: Unbound.

SPOT = Another term for advert. Some campaigns for the same product may have several spots cut to lengths ranging from 15sec to a few minutes. Also, it’s the name of an adorable dog. SUPERS =  Text that is superimposed over the main image eg. “The Small Print”. ARCHIVE = When the ad has been broadcast and the files are not currently required, the project files are taken off the server and stored on a tape. The project goes from being “live” to being “archived”. POS = Point of Sale. At Alt.vfx, sometimes we supply images from the ad to be placed in a store near the cash register . V/O = Voice over. FYI: Morgan Freeman voice over is the bees knees.

Make “frames” not “love”. Source: Dangerously Fit

FRAME HANDLES = Uber important! If a shot is 80 frames long in an edit, the animation and visual effects department may in fact be working with 100 frames (10 extra frames either side of the 80 frames) so that the final edit can be extended or slipped if required. These extra frames are called “frame handles”. GRADE = A nickname for colour-grading the image. When footage is initially retrieved from the camera, the colours look like my hair when wet (“flat”, dull and washed out). It is up to Compositors and Colour Graders to “nourish” and “revitalise” the colours to the correct hues that suit the mood of the ad. WIP = Work in Progress Client Approval = The client could be a director, an advertising agency or the media team of the company being advertised, but either way, they need to give the tick on different elements along the way. Massive Rig/Custom Rig = Alt has done a few ads requiring software called “Massive”. It specialises in creating digital crowds of whatever you need (in Alt’s case, deer and human armies). Any animation/motion-capture animation created for Massive needs to be exported for the simplified Massive rig. However, it is possible to modify the Massive rig to include extra controls. Modifying the rig is known as a Custom Rig. RX, RY, RZ and TX, TY, TZ = Rotate in the axis X,Y,Z and Translate in the axis X,Y,Z. I’ve carried these over from Animation Mentor because it’s so much easier to understand if you want a character to move in TZ space rather than saying: “move him forward” if the character’s “forward” direction actually means it moves left on camera.

Mmm, my kind of layout.

Mmm, my kind of layout.

LAYOUT = Laying out tracks and 3D elements required for a shot with little to no animation in a 3D scene ready for an animator to animate. TRACK = A 3D representation of the actual scene that was shot with a live camera. A track should include the camera’s movement and any object tracks. Object tracks are tracks created for any moving objects that will need to interact with 3D elements. For example, in the Honda ad, we were given an object track for the hands to attach a 3D wheel to. ALEMBIC FILE = A file type that animation is exported as so that it can be used in other software like Houdini or Soft Image. MEL/PYTHON = Scripting languages. MEL stands for “Maya Embedded Language”. If you speak MEL and Python, you can control more within some softwares and eventually rule the world! CACHE = In computing, a cache is a way of storing and accessing data. Within visual effects, a cache is an exported version of a 3D element that only stores the element’s 3D vertices and doesn’t export any skeletons or rig controls. This is a much lighter and less fussy way of importing animation into programs outside of Maya. COMP = Composite. Each layer within a shot will end up here and when it’s exported out, I like to say it’s Straight Outta Compin’. MATTE = An image element that will be layered with 1 or more other images. ROTO = Rotoscope. Within animation, roto means to trace over footage frame by frame. In VFX, it’s a similar concept, except that they are only concerned with the silhouette. If you have the roto of, say a person, you can use that silhouette as a matte to outline the person, cut them out and place the person on their own layer. This is super useful if you have to layer that person in front of or behind sections of the image. PLATES = Footage. I believe it’s a throwback term to how film was once processed using glass plates, but now in VFX we use the term to describe a background image or a foreground matte. Particularly within animation, you need a background plate of the live footage within your animation scene so that you can see how your animation lines up with the geography of the scene.   PHEW! That was a lot of explaining. It may not interest everyone, but for those out there who may be a little confused about studio terms that are thrown around like hot cakes, this might help you out! And speaking of hot cakes, I think I know what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow.

Pancake-venn-diagram

Source: Flowing Data.

Alt vfx

Latte anyone?

Latte anyone?

Yup, I’m working at this beautiful studio called Alt vfx! They specialise in creating awesome VFX for TVC’s (television commercials). Wow, the more you get into the ‘biz’ the more acronyms you acquire.

Like PA (Production Assistant). Although I’m not doing VFX yet and mainly do client service, when I do clock off from my shift, the VFX crew is nice enough to let me watch them work. FREE LEARNING?! Boom! I’m there.

If you want an example of one of their ads, check out the one where Australian athletes transition into each other. Sure they’ve won awards for other ads, but this one’s my favey! Simple idea, well executed and when it’s on, everyone has a chip halfway to their mouth as they stop to watch. Enjoy!