This semester I am taking ANM 499 Digital Storyboarding for Feature Animation with Pixar Story Artist Kristen Lester. I am chronicling my experience on the blog for myself and for those interested in learning more about storytelling. I highly recommend trying your hand at the assignments we were given, as well as watching the films assigned. Happy boarding!
*In order to fully discuss Kristen’s notes, I detail events that occurred in the films we watch. Watch the film, then read on to see how we analyzed the film. And you should watch the film, because this week we watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
Hello Dear Readers!
Yes you read that title right – for our homework assignment, we watched Star Wars. Yep, that is why I am paying the big bucks to be in art school. All you poor business majors have to write reports. I get to talk about Luke Skywalker. Nah nah nah.
Why Star Wars? Well by now I hope that many of you have read or are currently reading
The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.
Star Wars is the seminal hero’s journey. Classic storytelling. At its time, Kristen told us, no one had ever told a story this way before. Hard to believe, as it seems like every summer blockbuster is told this way, but someone had to start, and that someone was George Lucas.
Now this movie holds a special place in my heart, because I did not see it in its entirety until I was 16. I saw Return of the Jedi numerous times on NBC (thank you NBC Sunday Night Movie!) and Dad recorded The Empire Strikes Back from HBO. In fact, our first VHS copy of Empire was so old and overplayed that the first ten minutes of the film were practically unwatchable — pale dudes wearing white on an ice planet fighting snow monsters on a VHS tape where the color had bleeded out. YIKES. So I knew those films, but not the original. In fact, this assignment marks the SECOND time that I saw Star Wars Episode IV. But it will not be the last.
One of the great things about this film is that the entire world is set up before we even meet Luke. We meet almost everyone else first, but then when we meet Luke, we can tell by the music and scenery that he is our main guy.
Kristen used the film to clearly define the pinnacle of screenwriting and filmic storytelling, the Three Act Structure. (Cue John Williams’ fanfare here.)
Act I defines these important questions:
It establishes the intro and the setup (A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…) It also establishes the characters and their relationships, their back stories, and the character’s expectations for their futures. For example, we learn that Luke Skywalker lives on a desert planet with his aunt and uncle, that his father was killed by the Empire, and that he longs to join the academy and fight the Empire for the freedom of the galaxy. And that he would rather get power converters than tend to a moisture farm.
Luke looks across the barren landscape of Tatoonie, longing for adventure.
Act I also establishes the INCITING INCIDENT. This sets the story in motion. It changes the character’s sense of self, disrupts their plans for the future, and forces them to deal with something because their sense of the world has changed. In Luke’s case, meeting R2D2 and C3PO leads him to discover the distress call from Princess Leia, which leads him to search for Old Ben, aka Obi Wan Kenobi, which leads him off of Tatoonie and onto adventure.
In Toy Story, this is Buzz’s arrival to Andy’s room, causing Woody to soon be replaced as the alpha toy. In my previous post from ANM 372 Storyboarding class, in A Cake Story, this is when the chemical spills on the box of cake ingredients in the delivery truck.
Often the Inciting Incident is a new set piece, like when the Green Army Men in Toy Story leave Andy’s room. So if you look for a new environment, you’ll often see the Inciting Incident.
Also, this often occurs on page 10. If you are familiar with screenplays, you may have noticed this. It’s not always on page 10, but if it hasn’t happened by page 25 you’re movie may be in trouble.
Next in Act I is the First Act Break – this happens when circumstances change and something makes the character make a choice. In the case of Star Wars, Luke is on the fence about joining Obi Wan until he returns home and sees the charred remains of his aunt and uncle. He cannot go home again, he can only move forward. He must make a choice.
And this leads to the problem many stories face – if the character does not make choices, the movie will not work. So if you’re movie is boring, ask yourself “is my character making choices, or are things just randomly happening to them?” Because the choices your character makes will lead them to their goals, and the established goal in Act I will ultimately lead to the global goal of the entire film.
Next: ACT TWO
In this act, our hero pursues his or her goal through increasingly difficult obstacles. This leads to the MIDPOINT, which:
- Changes the direction of the story – for example, we’ve been led to believe that once the Droids reach Alderan, all will be well. But then Darth Vader using the Death Star destroys the entire planet. What will Luke and his cohorts do now?
- Raises the stakes – With the planet destroyed, Obi Wan’s worst fears are realized, the rebel plans cannot be delivered to Leia’s father, and all may be lost.
- May prove to be a false victory. As an example, think of Monsters University. After Mike wins the scare games, we think the movie is over. Au contraire.
This brings us to the Second Act Break:
- Setback in the global goal of the film
- Forces the stakes to be raised even higher – there’s not turning back now. And these stakes are often external, internal and philosophical.
For Luke, the stakes are win the day or be destroyed by the Death Star. Even worse, what will happen to the ethos of the movie? Will evil triumph? Is evil right and good wrong? Hard to believe things will go well when you see our mentor cut down in front of you by a guy in a black suit and a weezing problem.
This is also when the Evil Character often states their view of the world, i.e. We meet again, you will never defeat me, you have no hope, etc. etc. The Villain will pose a question to the hero, a question that the hero will be at a loss to answer. That he/she can’t answer…yet, because the hero does not yet know the answer.
For example, in Toy Story 3 (aka the film that makes me weep openly-farewell my childhood) Lotso asks Woody at the dump if he (Andy) loves you so much, then why are you here? Woody does not yet have an answer for the horribly cruel bear.
Resolution of the story and its subplots!
It is here that your questions are answered.
- the hero’s POV of the world changes.
- the hero achieves an epiphany, one that enables him or her to answer the question posed by the villain at the end of the Second Act break
- main tensions are brought to their most dramatic point
In the final battle scene, when Luke and the Rebels fight the Death Star, we are at the edge of our seats. Will Biggs take down the Death Star? No! His X-Wing is shot to bits! Will Wedge succeed? No! It’s up to Luke. But wait, will he use the targeting computer, or listen to the disembodied voice of his mentor and trust in THE FORCE? Luke stops messing around and completes his journey – he defeats the Death Star and becomes The HERO.
Resolution – Wrap Up Party and stuff that will be in the sequel
Everyone is safe and happy – they’re in casual wear, the angles of the all the buildings are straight and flat, the world is safe. Luke and Han get medals (no medal for the Wookie? Travesty!) They smile for the audience, cut to credits and epic music. The End.
Next week, we are watching one of my all time favorite films ever Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then the next week, we are watching a film that is not my favorite, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, to see how it went off the rails. (Hint – doesn’t quite follow the Hero’s Journey).
And now…onto the STORYBOARDS!
So last week we were assigned the hashtag #awkwardpromstory featured on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’s Hastag Wednesdays.
Below is my story:
I received a positive response from Kristen and my class. Then, Kristen gave me some excellent suggestions to improve the compositions and the story:
Kristen liked the opening shot a lot and recommended making it even easier for people to read. She suggested drawing a grid, crosshatching the mirror ball, adding shine, and setting the stage higher up. And she thought the banners were awesome.
Show that the dudes are REALLY alone by placing dancing couples in the foreground. This makes them look like even bigger losers. This also reinforces the MOST IMPORTANT STORY POINT – these guys are ALONE.
This shot more clearly shows what is happening – a rubber band shooting out of the guy’s mouth.
Comedy is better flat. Kristen recommended I break up this scene into two panels to better convey the action. A Rube Goldberg scenario occurs as the rubber band hits a woman, causing her to spit in a guy’s face, he falls back against a woman’ who spills her drink on a guy…
…then the guy falls back into the table, launching the punch bowl…
…sending the punch bowl flying into the Prom Queen and King. Kristen recommended I make this a downshot so that we see the action from the bowl’s POV, making it more dramatic.
And then – UPSHOT! More exciting as we see the Prom Queen’s face as she reacts.
And then this shot – we see the Prom Queen glowing with power and the crowd’s reaction of what transpired – she stopped the frickin’ punch bowl in MIDAIR. What???
Then we cut back to our Dudes, who look in astonishment. And the one says “Dude. Glad I didn’t ask her out.”
And there you have it – two versions to the same story, the second with clearer compositions, making for a more engaging story. In them, we show reactions, and a way for the audience to FEEL what is happening.
For our next homework assignment, we drew a word out of an envelope and boarded out images to convey that word. You’ll see my boards and my word next time.
Star Wars photos courtesy of herocomplex.latimes.com, www.thereformedbroker.com and abcnews.go.com