Basic Staging Principles (part 1)

I gave a talk at work the other day about staging. It seems like I always end up giving talks about staging and yet I find it's always a hard thing to talk about. I've never heard anyone else give a talk about staging so I have nothing to compare my talks to. I'm constantly re-writing my talks based on how confused the listeners look at each point of my talk, to try and find the right information and the best way to explain it.

I think one thing that was successful this time around was the following handout on really basic staging principles. This stuff seems so basic that I know people tend to glance it over and then toss it aside, thinking that it's so simple and obvious that it's not worth thinking about. All this stuff is simple and obvious but that's what makes it so effective. It's visual storytelling stuff so the audience feels it in their gut instead of in their head and it can really make a sequence or composition work much better when you use it right (or it can undercut the effectiveness of a scene if you use it incorrectly).

For example, there was a sequence at work recently where people kept saying that the villain in the movie wasn't working in a particular sequence and that the villain just didn't feel menacing or powerful in this one area of the film. Ideas were kicked around about re-writing the scene and totally re-conceiving it. But in the end, as I suspected, moving the villain up high in the scene and moving the other characters in the sequence down low made all the difference and fixed all of the problems.

So, as everybody knows, staging a character (or building, or vehicle, or anything else) in an upshot will tend to make them look big and powerful. Characters like Darth Vader are usually shown in upshots to make them look menacing and larger-than-life.

In "Touch of Evil", the camera frequently shoots Orson Welles from below to make him look not only threatening and powerful (which he is) but also to emphasize his obesity which is a symbol of his inner corruption (in my interpretation, anyway).

Downshots, of course, are the opposite and make the viewer feel like he's looking down on the subject. Figures seen in downshots feel smaller, weaker, and more powerless, so usually we reserve them for characters that are in that position within the story.

A nice interchange of upshot to downshot that illustrates the powerful/powerless principle.

The higher a character is in the frame, the more powerful they tend to feel. And the lower in frame that they are, the more powerless they tend to feel.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but this one can be really useful in making the audience feel a dynamic between two characters that goes beyond their words and acting. It can help the visuals tell the story in a visceral way.

Here are a few more variations on the powerful/powerless motif. It's always good to keep this stuff in mind because you're making a statement about your characters when you place them within your composition. So be careful that what you're saying by their placement isn't fighting what the story is trying to do.

When you're drawing closeups, here's a trick to always be aware of: if a character is turned so that they're almost placed on the same axis as the camera they will look as if they're almost looking into the camera and the audience will feel as though they are looking into the character's eyes. This can help the audience feel very connected to (and intimate towards) your character. They will identify with and like your character more.

On the other hand, the further you turn the figure away from the camera (and more towards a profile) the less connection the audience will feel with the character, because it feel less like making eye contact with them.

So be careful how you draw your characters...don't always have them staring just past camera in closeups, only do that for the right occasions. For example, don't have them staring right past us when they're angry...that would feel weird and could make the audience feel like the character is mad at them, distancing them from your hero. And don't have the villain ever staring too closely to our eyeline...we might feel too much sympathy towards them (unless that's your intention).

Speaking of Closeups, here comes an old man rant...

I think films today (in general) use way too many closeups (and so do board artists)! My impression is that older films (both live-action and animation) used a lot less closeups than they do today. Closeups are a powerful statement and are great for emotional and dramatic scenes where a lot of subtle and/or powerful action is required. But because they are so powerful, I tend to hold back on them until the emotional climax of a scene so the scene can build to a rush of emotion. If an emotional scene is all closeups from beginning to end you can't really build (the actor's intensity and emotions can on their face, but the staging soon becomes repetitive and boring).

Closeups are easy to draw and don't require much imagination or layout skills to create, so I can see why people fall back in them.

So....what kind of situations are closeups good for?

Like I said, they're great for intimate emotional moments, and for subtle shifts in emotions or subtle acting changes that couldn't be seen in a wider shot.

Also they are good for showing the audience small objects or other things of interest that are too small to be seen well in a wider shot, or that the film maker wants to give special emphasis to.

Medium shots are the most common type of shot. They are good for lots of things! Like action scenes - they allow you to see the character's faces as well as the action clearly. Action staged in shots that are too wide aren't nearly as exciting and you can't see the character's face as well.

Also they are good for all types of scenes that aren't intimate, dramatic or emotional enough to warrant a closeup.

Medium shots are great because they contain enough of the background to keep the environment alive and interesting, while allowing the viewer to see the character's facial expressions as well as body language. Sometimes people seem to think that a series of closeups of character's faces will be the most effective way to board a romantic love scene between two characters, when in fact medium shots can be better at putting the scene over if, for example, the two are sitting in a romantic and beautiful setting. Sometimes seeing the background and taking advantage of the lighting and color can really help put the emotions over better than the character's expressions.

Wide shots are good for establishing a location the first time you see it.

Also they are good for imparting things like scale and grandeur to the audience.

A word about wide shots: it's really easy for board artists to fall into the habit of starting every sequence with a wide shot before cutting in closer to the characters as the scene progresses. This give the audience the feeling of "sequence-itis" as they get used to the pattern of cutting wide before each sequence and they begin to feel the beginning and end of each sequence. Look at live action movies and see how they get around this problem: interesting transitions and techniques like cutting close to an interesting object before cutting wide can be a lot more interesting. Also keep in mind that wide shots can "let the steam" out of a sequence by jumping back too far from the action and the characters....use them carefully.

Staging is a very personal and subjective area and everyone has a different sense of what works. Work carefully to find the best solution for each scene. The best staging both tells the story in a visual impactful way and expresses the emotions of the characters in a powerful way to the audience.

More to come....