Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Elements of a Scene: Business

This is the fifth in a series analyzing a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. For this entry, I want to talk about business. Business is what performers do in a scene besides delivering dialogue.

An awful lot of animation, especially TV animation, has degenerated into talking heads. All the audience sees on screen are shots of characters talking. The animator spends a lot of time figuring out where to put in an arm gesture or a head bob to keep the character alive while the dialogue is delivered. It's boring for both the animator and the audience.

It's better for everyone if a character has something to do in addition to speaking and the obvious thing is to give the character something to do that relates to the setting or the meaning of the scene. Business is something that is usually not in the script and is the creation of the director and the actors in working out the staging of a scene.

The above scene is in a roadside diner and there are obvious bits of business as a result. The waitress clears dishes off a table. The fry cook works at the grill. The two truck drivers eat and drink throughout the scene, giving them something to do while Pa Joad makes his request, as they say nothing the whole time that Pa Joad is present.

There's nothing particularly inventive in this, but it does provide action for the characters. Where business in this scene gets interesting has to do with Pa Joad and his children.

In buying the bread, Pa Joad takes out a change purse and there are two bits of business relating to it that help to illuminate his personality and situation. He produces the change purse around 1:24 and when it appears that the fry cook is being charitable, giving Pa more than he can pay for, Pa snaps the change purse shut at 1:34. That action helps to communicate Pa Joad's pride. He knows he's poor but he's determined to pay his way, not take a handout. When Pa decides to accept the whole loaf, he digs deep into the change purse for a dime from 1:39 to 1:45. That visually shows how little money is in that purse and how broke the Joads are.

The children have no dialogue for the entire scene and yet director John Ford is very skillful at giving them business. Ford has made a conscious decision that he's wants the audience to focus on the girl and not pay much attention to the boy. Note that at 0:21, when he brings the children into position outside the diner, he partially obscures the boy's face with the window frame and leaves it in shadow while the girl is facing the camera and is not obscured. That becomes more obvious at 0:27 when the camera moves closer.

When Ford finally focuses on the children, starting at 1:06, the boy is hidden behind his sister for part of his entrance and then immediately turns his head to look at the candy. By almost never giving the audience a clear look at the boy's face, Ford has successfully brought him into the scene without him taking attention from what Ford wants to focus on: the girl.

When she walks in, she grabs her father's arm and looks around. Those gestures say that she's nervous and needs the physical reassurance of her father's presence. Her nervousness is explained by how she moves her head. The audience senses that this is a new experience for her; she's never been in a diner before. When she spots the candy, she grabs her father's arm with both hands, a subtle expression of her excitement. After the bread is purchased, she goes over to her brother and puts her hand on his shoulder. Ford has used touch to communicate both her nervousness, her excitement and her closeness to family.

There are seven characters in this scene. That makes it tough to stage. How do you keep the audience aware of everyone without creating visual confusion? Ford does it by cutting to characters in various groupings and also does it by making characters more or less prominent by the business they engage in. Everyone in this scene has actions to perform; nobody just talks. That's a lesson that animators should keep in mind.


Michael Sporn said...

This series of yours is really fine. As monumental as your mosaics.

Ford's focus on the girl is in keeping with his attitude toward women throughout all of his films. They are the backbone of society. (Very similar to a number of Japanese directors such as Kurosawa or Imamura.)

Sad Animator said...

These scene analyses have been a great read Mr Mayerson, thank you for doing them.

One thing that strikes me with working in animation today is the hyperactive cutting and limited length of the average shot, no matter what business is happening in the scene.

While working on shots for television animation, (though this phenomenon is not limited to just TV anim), I often feel that I'm doing little more than having a character deliver a single line of dialogue, a lot of this "talking heads" type stuff as you've put it, before they jump to the next shot, which is usually more of the same.

And even if there is some scene exposition or action taking place, it’s always shown through a convoluted series of cuts pieced together rather than having a fluid and sustained shot that tracks the character or action though a scene.

What’s most frustrating about all this is that it’s not simply the fault of the board artists, the director or anyone involved in the production, as they’re all competent artists themselves who know about pacing and all of these issues.

It’s simply the limit of the budget and time constraints that dictate that it’s easier to have four or five animators doing little chunks of shots simultaneously, duck-taping them together and trying to make it work.
Rather than giving one or two a more sustained piece of animation to do and having them work within the scene to show multiple key actions taking place clearly in the one shot.

Upon questioning the current methods its been made clear to me that if we did attempt to do things 'the right way' and it took a little longer and we ended up missing a deadline for an episode the studio would be financially liable.


We all long to work on a project that has the ability to offer the artists sustained shots of animation & interesting character business, the way that Studio Ghibli often does.
But short of moving to Japan, France or parts of California, we're going to need a major paradigm shift in the culture of animation production in order to get that.

Sad Animator said...

"Upon questioning the current methods its been made clear to me that if we did attempt to do things 'the right way' and it took a little longer and we ended up missing a deadline for an episode the studio would be financially liable."

Basically they're not willing to chance it.

Mark Mayerson said...

In the old days, a director would do character layouts (or supervise them) and then time everything to the frame. That way, regardless of who was going to animate on a sequence, the director knew what the result would be.

I don't think TV directors do this, which is why they rely on short cuts that don't have to hook up.

Matt Bell said...

I think a lot of our focus in animation is so narrowed down (largely due to the process of animation) that we don’t take the time to properly layer in all of these seemingly mundane character actions / interactions, and therefore lose all these opportunities to be clever or specific in visually implicit ways.

But that’s just me trying to sound smart while parroting back pretty much what it is you’re teaching here.

Thanks for taking the time to write all this up and share it with us.

John Celestri said...

From my point of view as a published author of crime fiction/noir novels, what the characters are physically doing in a scene (aka business) directly reflect their personalities and how they are interacting with the other characters in the scene.

This is true even if the character is alone in his/her room. If I can't provide my reader with descriptions of character "business", then as a writer, I don't know what that character is all about and haven't fully developed that character in my own mind.

So, in regards to film, I believe that the script writer has the responsibility to suggest in the script what the characters are physically doing in each scene (besides just giving speeches and flailing their arms about). This is at least a starting point that can be developed/elaborated/or simplified.

Andrea K Haid said...

Thanks for posting this series! Great brainfood and inspiration.