Basic Staging Principles (part 2)

Staging is such a subjective area that it's really hard to talk about - there's really no "right" or wrong way to stage anything, as long as the action and emotions are clear to the audience.

So when I'm trying to figure out the best way to stage a scene, I try to find the staging that best expresses the feeling you want to put across. How are the characters feeling and what staging puts that emotion over the best way?

I remember when I was working on "Home on the Range" I ran into a tough problem in that regard. The jackrabbit character in the movie was acting as a guide for the three cows in the movie. He claimed to the cows that he knew where he was going...but at one point he became lost and didn't know which way to go. The difficulty was that he couldn't tell the cows he was lost because he didn't want them to know. So there was no dialogue solution to make the idea clear. Also he had no prop that would help - if he had a map he could look at in a confused way, or a compass that he could look at in a puzzled manner, that would help clarify the idea. But I had none of those things to rely on. So I found the best solution I could think of - I staged it like this:

You start on a closeup of the rabbit glancing left and right, looking puzzled and confused. Then you cut back to see his surroundings all look the same, and as you pull back, he ends up looking very small in the midst of the large and overwhelming environment. These two shots together were the best way I could think of to say, visually, that he was lost.

That was a 2D movie, of course, and I suppose in a 3D movie maybe I would have tried a different approach, maybe like the camera circling around him as he looked around, puzzled and confused.

That scene isn't in the final movie, by the way.

When a character is supposed to feel lost, abandoned, or alone, a wide shot with a lot of empty space around them is always effective. Here are a couple more examples: a Norman Rockwell painting of a lonely salesman on the road, playing solitaire in a hotel room by himself, and one by Vance Gerry from "The Rescuers" of the orphan Penny, alone by herself in the orphanage bedroom.

Things that are staged in a very flat way (where the action is perpendicular or parallel to the camera) feel very comedic, by their flat nature. Use this to your advantage when staging scenes that are meant to be funny.

Here are some examples from Steven MacLeod's Framefilter blog that illustrate this theory. Just look how funny these pictures look, even without knowing their context within the story.

Some of them are very symmetrical as well. We usually try to avoid symmetry because it flattens out a picture, but in these examples, where flatness is helpful to the funny moment, it was used purposefully.

The same action, when staged in depth, becomes dramatic and exciting.

Here are some examples from different live action movies that show how dramatic a picture can be when it has depth.

These are from "The Illusion of Life" and they are a great example of how to improve the staging of a scene. Here are two examples of how to stage Bernard slipping down into a hole.

The first one (on the the left) has many weaknesses that are improved in the second example (on the right). The one on the left is very flat - the wall that Bernard is clinging to is flat onto the camera. Also the lines that describe the wall are parallel to the edges of the frame so the whole shot feels very flat, which would be more appropriate for a comedic scene. Laying out the scene this way makes the animator's job tough, because you can see how awkwardly Bernard is looking over his shoulder to look at the danger beneath him and we can't really see his expression all that way. Also the composition has him too close to the bottom of the frame, for my tastes, because there's no negative space beneath him to make it feel like he could fall down into the abyss.

The second one is better in many ways. The best part about it is that you can easily see his scared expression clearly and also see the peril beneath him at the same time without having to twist his head around awkwardly (like it was in the first example). Being able to see the danger in the scene as well as how he feels about it make for a great choice for staging. Also the sense of depth in the second shot makes for a much more dramatic scene, instead of the flat first example. Also this staging allows diagonal lines through the composition which add more drama too.