Sunday, April 10, 2011
The Elements of a Scene: Setting
I'm going to do something different for several entries. What's above is a scene from The Grapes of Wrath, based on the novel by John Steinbeck, screenplay by Nunnally Johnson and directed by John Ford. The scene is only 3 minutes long and not central to the plot of the film. However, it is like a one act play that has all the necessary elements for drama.
I became aware as an animator that a good performance depends very much on the script. Good actors with a bad script are fighting an uphill battle. There are many elements that have to be present in order for a performance to work. I eventually composed a list of these elements that can be summarized with the clumsy acronym spomcorbass, and I want to examine this scene in light of these elements. They are:
In the past, I didn't pay much attention to setting, but I've come to realize how critical it is. Too many animated films use setting as the basis for the background visuals, but ignore its other aspects. Setting is not only time and place, important though they are, it is also a social hierarchy and the expectations of the characters. Setting isn't merely a geographical location, it is a cultural context as well.
The above scene is set in a roadside diner off Route 66 in New Mexico. Based on the waitress's familiarity with the truck drivers, they are regulars. This scene is all about food and money, and practically every shot has a signboard in the background advertising something to eat and its price. In animation terms, the layouts never let us forget where we are or what the scene is about.
Culture is both invisible and arbitrary. It is invisible to those living within a culture as it is simply the way things are done. It's what's considered normal. However, as soon as a person confronts a different culture, the arbitrariness becomes apparent. There is more than one way for people to organize their lives.
While I'll talk about business in a later post, everybody, with the exception of Pa Joad and his children, is behaving in way consistent with the cultural nature of a roadside diner. The waitress is clearing tables, the cook is cooking and the truck drivers are eating. The invisible expectation is that the customers will only order what's on the menu and that they will pay the stated price. Pa Joad can't fit the culture's expectation of how to behave in a restaurant for economic reasons. He needs groceries, not a prepared item, and he can't afford to pay for the whole item. While this is a working class establishment, his request clearly marks him as someone beneath them. His request breaks the accepted pattern of behaviour associated with the setting, which creates the conflict that drives the scene.
While the scene is not central to the plot, it is central to the film's theme. What's more important, the system or the people within it? If people are suffering, shouldn't the system change? In this scene, there are hints that people can support each other in spite of the system, something that's developed later in the film.