Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Animation 101: Constructing a Story for a Short Film, Part 3: The Conflict!

Conflict hangs out in the same playground as Contrast, and it is possibly the single key element that creates a story. Without conflict, there is no story, only character and design (which can work just fine by the way, story can become a big pain.. but I'm not going to start on that).  Characters Create Contrast. Contrast Creates Conflict. Conflict also includes something very dear to animators, which is Motion! Take your "Image" that you carefully crafted, and simply put it into motion. There you will discover your conflict. It will be a lot easier if your original image has contrast built in, but if it doesn't, no worries.  One of my students, Maryellen Atkins, created an image of a ship inside a bottle. The moment she put this image into action we had a story. The ship is trying to escape.. it slowly moves back, then strikes the glass as the entire bottle moves forward. The ship wants freedom. The conflict is clear, it's trying break free so it can sail away in glory.

Maryellen Atkin's "Ship in a bottle"
I like to look at my image and ask myself what the opposite of that image would be, and illustrate that right next to it.  One of my students, David Huang, has been observing how people ride bicycles. One of his more interesting observations was a very relaxed rider. Let's use this as an example of finding the "Conflict" within his "Image"... there he is, riding peacefully along, riding with such a relaxed attitude that his feet aren't even on the peddles.. they are thrown up on the handlebars and he's in a full reclining position with his hands behind his head. Nothing can disturb this man. Not even.. BANG an impatient, dirty, noisy, massive public transit bus, filled with horrible impatient screaming people. It follows directly behind him, practically on top of him. Contrast of scale, mood, color, emotion, gracefulness, weight, cleanliness.. gentlemen, we have "Conflict."

At this point it's vital to stay true to your character. Contrast does not equal Contradiction! Another student I know created a character that was very poor and desperate, yet there he was sipping sake and smoking cigarettes! That is a contradiction. Better to support your character's personality with props and circumstance, rather than going against it. This will ultimately serve the conflict as you make each personality very clear. This same poor and desperate character will look even more poor and desperate when confronted with a wealthy, well fed antagonist.  Allow every element to feed into your conflict. If your character is starving, exaggerate his thinness, have him eating his belt, study how hungry people move, how they talk and walk. Illustrate the extreme opposite of this, and study that. Study how fat people move and talk, how they eat. Study Study Study. There is a world out there to observe and digest.

Conflict needs to build. Years ago, my screenwriting teacher called it "Upping the Stakes". I like to simply call it "build up" in preparation for a release. This is the volcano that is about to erupt. This is the bridge that is about to collapse. Push it farther, build up to an extreme, and hold it as long as you can.  Then, bring back some contrast. You're building, building, building... and then break to a quiet subtle action.. then back to building building.  animator PES used this trick when he animated commercials for Coinstar. PES typically gives all his objects a directive, a mission. He then builds on this showing a larger world of multiple objects all striving toward a similar goal, boldly moving and breaking through barriers. But then he will cut to a more quiet, individual moment, a character struggling to do what all the others are doing without effort. This character is the "Gimp" and brings contrast and emotion to the build up sequence. This break from a build up is a wonderful way to inject a bit of contrast at the very moment where everything is at it's most tense. PES did this again in his short film "Game Over" where we are led on a tour of classic video games, acted out by household objects. When we cut to a new game, there is a quiet mood (for example the deep two note melody of "Space Invaders") and each game sequence builds up until it's time to cut to the next game. PES brilliantly ended this short with pac man disappearing into a simple "Game Over".. (more on endings and resolution on next post).
PES's "Gimp" character for Coinstar
In a short film Conflict can often times be simple continuation and building up of circumstances, gathering up into a crescendo and a leading to a breaking point.  Your image of a single character walking.. he's joined by another, they pick up the pace, they are joined by another, and another, and more.. until hundreds of people are sprinting in practically one entity. The conflict here is the action itself, it's race against itself, and it's unsustainable pace. Everything must stop at some point.


Characters fighting to pull each other free from "Handshake"
 In my film "handshake" the conflict is clear, the two people are stuck together, and wish to pull themselves apart. I build this up, or heighten it, by illustrating that the harder they struggle the more entangled they become, this struggle then builds and builds. But Conflict doesn't always have to be so obvious, it can be subtle or even mechanical, or it can be the build up itself like I mentioned. Conflict is something that can be reinvented in new ways, and here is where your creativity and experimentation will pay off. There's a more intense personal conflict happening in Hisko Hulsing's "Seventeen." We see a teenager coming of age, and his conflict is the outside world of monstrous maturity. This world is represented by several factors, including prostitutes and thuggish co-workers. The main character is also struggling with himself, and the desire (or inevitable decline) to actually become part of this world.

Conflict can come in so many ways. Conflict is everywhere. It's in the picture frame that won't stay up, it's in the drunk man trying to focus his eyes, it's in the dented aluminum can standing next to a brand new un-dented version. Conflict is your "Image" put into motion, given a struggle, some type of circumstance that brings it away from the norm. What we've done here is establish this normal state, and then change it, giving it a challenge, a story. This conflict inevitably ends with the "resolution." And that is up next.

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