Monday, June 18, 2018

Animation 101: Constructing a Story for a Short Film, Part 2: The Image

Every idea comes from a single image, no need to worry about a story at this point, that comes later. This image is what the story is built around. It's the very first brick, but is not necessarily the foundation, matter of fact the first image can become a rather minor part of the final picture. What's important here is to start somewhere, and start with something that sparks interest and establishes emotion. More often than not, for animators in particular, this image is a hybrid of several observations recorded in your sketchbook and then fused with a personal emotional flare. For example, the way different people drive, the way certain woman walk or eat. Perhaps the relationship between a triangle and a circle (I can see right away that the triangle is upset that it can't roll around freely like the circle). Or, it can simply be two clouds with distinctly different shapes (perhaps one very large, and one very small). One of my Thesis students last year, Kai-sen Chan, came into class on the first day with a sketch of a cactus hugging a flower. Perfect! On that he built his film "Plant Story."
Kai-sen Chan's "Plant Story"
The image that a film is built around typically expresses some type of cleverness, intrigue, conflict(more on that soon) or irony. For my film "Puppet" the image that I based the story from was a quick sketch of a kid wearing a hand puppet, but the hand puppet had a very mean expression, as if he was about to do harm to it's creator. This image creates interest and is deviously ironic, and the panic that is building within the kid can be felt. In Konstantin Bronzit's masterpiece "Au Bout Du Monde", the image was most likely a single house teetering precariously on the sharp point of a mountain. The image evokes thought, as we have certain preconceived notions of what a house symbolizes (solidity, safety, home), and the idea that it is balancing on a graphic summit begs for further information. It's interesting to point out here that the "Image" doesn't necessarily have to be character based, it can be environmental.

Konstantin Bronzit's  "Au Bout Du Monde"
Very often a strong image that becomes an impetus for a film is something that doesn't sit right with the viewer, or contradicts the viewers typical definition of what they are looking at. Or, more on a basic level, makes us laugh. Peter Ahern's very first image for his thesis film "Down to the Bone", was a kid who is inside out. He built the film around this very funny image.

Peter Ahern's "Down to the Bone"
Even within non-narrative films, an image is created in the beginning. In Ishu Patel's film "Bead Game", he created a row of small beads, mimicking his sketches of the snow drifts in the arctic. This image captured what he wanted to communicate, which was the way particles move together to create broad smooth lines that reflect the beauty of the natural world. In George Griffin's "View-master" the image was a bunch of people walking and running. This image led him to intense study of the animated looped cycle, and that in turn steered his technique that dominated the overall message of his film.
From George Griffin's "ViewMaster"
In Koji Yamamura's film "Mt. Head", the image of a small plant or tree growing out of the character's bald head intently creates intrigue. When we see this image we ask ourselves why this is happening, as well as feeling the roots of the tree burrowing into the bald skin of the character. It's bizarre, and creates an emotional interest in the character.

Koji Yamamura's film "Mt. Head"
Furthermore, an effective image typically illustrates a strong contrast in several ways. Contrast, is of course, a very important element in practically every part of film making, and we will discuss it more later. For now, let's just say that we should all be searching for contrasts, and attempting to put it in every place we can cram it into. Use that imagination of yours to find wonderful contrasts everywhere.  A very large but graceful man, riding a very small and delicate bicycle could very well be more thought provoking that an average sized man riding an average size bike. Contrast equals interest. If we see a goofy clown, and an anvil falls on his head, we may chuckle a bit.. but take a slick business man and drop an anvil on his head, and it's an uproar. You see, we expect something crazy to happen to a clown, but a man in a business suit creates better contrast with that particular action. Vice versa, if a clown sat down at a business meeting and started talking serious business.. we would laugh.

One time I was talking to Bill Plympton about his creative process behind his most beloved film "Your Face". He told me that he was sitting on the subway in New York, and across from him was a man with a very small, very scrunched up face. So scrunched up that it looked like it was going to just keep getting sucked into his head, and then reappear on the outside, only to get sucked into the middle of his head again. And we literally see, very early in his film, this image true to form.  It's a theme that I love about his work. He divulges in his observations about people, pushing them further than mere representation.
Bill Plympton's "Your Face"
Another effective method of achieving this "Image" is through the use of audio. When I was creating my idea for "Masks" I had an audio track to inspire me. I simply played this bizarre track, and images would appear into my brain. The first image I drew was a group of masked men singing to each other, being watched my little people a fraction of their size, the men looked like they were in a trance, resonating the trance-like score created by Karl von Kries. Music can do this, it evokes imagery, and becomes a very visual medium when you listen to it in a certain manner. I'm sure Nick Park couldn't resist seeing animals in cages when he first heard the interviews of people talking about their lives in nursing homes. From that audio the visuals came. The essence of this formula can be exemplified in Walt Disney's masterpiece "Fantasia." The artists created the imagery solely based on the direction and feel of selected classical scores, and remained beholden to those musical scores. Audio in this way works as a device to give  the artist a frame in which to work, limiting where he/she can stray outside of that frame (for example, the Disney artists could not, in any way, change the music), and limitations can often be your friend and closest ally. "The enemy of art is absence of limitations" stated Victor Hugo.

At this point it's a good idea to ask yourself what the "Normal state" of your image is. Get to know your image so you can answer any questions about it possible. These facts won't be in your film, but knowing them will affect how you make it move, react, struggle, etc. The "normal state" of Nick Parks animals in a zoo, are just that.. animals in a zoo. The "Image" creates interest because there is a microphone in front of these animals. But it's important to know the state of these creatures prior to the recordings. In feature film making they call this "Establishing the norm" and you really can't move on into your inciting incident without doing so. Since we're concerned with making a short here, this process needs to be condensed a bit. As I mentioned in the introduction, the use of symbols is a great way to establish this norm, or instantly give the viewer a bit of back story on character. As just a quick example, a circle is instantly recognizable as an approachable, friendly entity. Where as a prickly star shape has more of an edge to it. The audience will subconsciously pick up on the long spines and lack of soft appeal, and you can take advantage of that preconception. Often times, in a short, the very first shot will establish this norm.  In Michael Dudok De Wit's film "Father and Daughter" the very first shot establishes the deep bond between father and daughter, illustrated by showing them riding bicycles together, the bicycle itself becomes a symbol of their connection and is used throughout the film, all the way to the end.
First scene of "Father and Daughter" by Michael Dudok De Wit. This image immediately establishes the deep bond between father and daughter.

So, go create that all important "Image", allow it to guide you on your journey to creating your story. Let this image work for you, and your story will grow rapidly in your mind. Allow the relationships and contrasts to ask questions about the characters and situations, allow it to establish the normal state, and suggest intrigue into what may be happening. Pay close attention to what the emotional state of your image is. If you don't know what the emotional state is, all you have to do is ask yourself what the character or object in your image is feeling. We all have these images within us, for various reasons. Who knows why we, as artists, feel the need to express these things and put those images out there. It's just what we do I suppose.  Animators are sometimes intimidated by starting a short film. This is typically due to fact that they are inundated with complex solutions to their ideas. We often look at problems and our first action is to add garbage to it, make it complex. This is not how story works. The short story is simple, wonderfully simple. This simplicity is summed up in your very first "Image." Stay tuned, next up is Part 2 of "Conflict!"


  1. "Atama Yama" means MOUNT HEAD. The film was done by Koji Yamamura.

  2. Great article Patrick, this helps a lot! I would love if Tisch-Asia would do a story work shop or something similar here in Singapore. I'm not an animator, but I believe much of what you're saying applies to both film and cartoons.

  3. Atama Yama is my favouritest short film.

  4. Amazing Work with your image .. I like it