It's not hard to create a piece of stop-motion animation these days and show it off to thousands of people. A fast search at Youtube yields countless versions of an action figure moving around on a tabletop, lit by a desk lamp, with a haphazardly focused camera set up on a tripod and aimed more or less down at the action. Such things are fun to do and are a useful—maybe even an essential—step for learning. But to really engage an audience of strangers, the animator's ambitions may need to be a bit higher.
A movie—a Movie—can enthrall, elicit laughter, wring tears. A Movie is what comes out after a seemingly endless series of decisions have been made. In stop-motion animation, we must make many of the same decisions required in standard movie making, and many others that are not part of standard production.
What are the choices and decisions? And how do they influence each other? These questions are the realm of movie aesthetics, and are at the foundation of the art of Movies. This article provides the briefest of introductions to some facets of aesthetics; its primary purpose is to suggest that every facet of a movie be thought about and designed. Every topic here is worthy of much more exploration.
Art and Technology
More than many forms of communication and art, movie making is intrinsically technical. Movie makers are constantly choreographing a dance between the technical and artistic sides of their endeavor. By knowing what your technology can do, you have more control over your artistic choices.
In this shot, the filmmakers limit depth of field (depth of field refers to the range of focus in a frame, from camera to far infinity). At the beginning of the shot, they focus on the Rocky character as he speaks. That's where we look, and we scarcely notice the fuzzy figure in the background. But then that character, Wing Commander Fowler, calls out something. The filmmakers change the focus during the shot (this is called "racking focus"), so Rocky is out of focus and Commander Fowler is sharp. The filmmakers control our attention with the focus.
Now compare those images with a shot from later in the film, when Rocky finds Ginger in imminent peril.
In this shot, Mr. Tweedy the farmer (at the far right of the frame) is holding Ginger while Rocky looks down from above. The basic framing is somewhat similar to the earlier scene with Cmdr. Fowler. But in this case, the filmmakers want us to be aware of both subjects simultaneously, so both are in focus (more or less). (Note that in this still, Mr. Tweedy and Ginger are somewhat difficult to see, but in the moving image, their movement makes them very obvious in the frame).
In general, movie makers manipulate the range of focus using technical means, primarily by their choice of lens (longer lenses create the illusion of a narrower depth of field than wider angle lenses); by their choice of aperture (which they control with the amount of light on the subject or with the sensitivity of their recording medium); and by the distance of the lens to the subject area (the closer the lens to the subject, the narrower the depth of field).
In the Chicken Run example, we have two shots with two different decisions about the same issue. Now consider all the different technical decisions required in creating a motion picture! We can make these decisions guided only by practical reasons, or treat each as a tool to help us communicate.
Frame, Flux, and Sound
Let's break down all of the aspects of a movie into three broad areas: Frame, Flux, and Sound. These three areas are arenas for aesthetic decision making. We must design them when we make a movie, if we wish to make a work of quality.
The (usually) rectangular field that contains an image at any given instant of time. What are you showing? What objects and characters will the audience see? How are things in the frame arranged in relation to each other and in relation to the camera (that is, the audience)? How are they lit? How are they exposed? What colors and tones are they? What's in focus? For puppets, how realistic are they? How are they dressed? These are just a few of the vast amount of questions that can be asked in the context of the greater question: "What am I trying to accomplish?"
The changes that occur in a series of frames; some are incremental over many frames, others comprehensive from one frame to the next. ("Flux" is a term that is idiosyncratic; you won't find the term used much in discussions of cinema, but it's a useful one.) Are the objects and characters moving in the frame? Is the camera moving? Does the camera follow the action of the characters or objects? Do characters or objects move into or out of the frame? Is the lens changing in some way during the shot (such as zooming in or out, or changing focus)? Does the lighting change? What shot came before this one? What shot comes after? How quickly does one shot cut to the next? How are you making the transition from one shot to the next (e.g., straight cut? dissolve?)? How are your puppets moving (e.g., smoothly? jerkily?)? Does the sound change? Again, these are just a few questions that can help you design a well-made movie.
The stuff that occupies your ears as you watch a movie. Do the characters speak on camera? Is there narration? Is there music? Does the music support what is being shown on screen, or does it seem to contradict expectations? (For example, over a death scene, is "Pop Goes the Weasel" playing?) What sound effects do we hear? Are they realistic? Do all the sounds originate from within the frame, or do some sounds appear to originate offscreen? Unlike "regular" motion picture production, remember that in animation, the soundtrack must be built completely from separately recorded pieces. Sometimes (especially when we see characters speak), some or all of the sountrack is recorded prior to the animation being started. How does the sound influence character design, and vice versa? Once again: decisions, decisions, decisions.
Point of View (POV)
Stories are told by an observer. Who is the observer? What is the relation of the observer to the characters in the story? Is the observer a character in the story, or a powerful, all-seeing god, or something in between? Answering that question at any given moment during a movie tells us what the "point of view," or POV, is at that moment.
Camera Point of View
Every shot in a movie is taken from a physical point of view. (That's kind of a "duh" statement; the camera has to be somewhere, after all.) Choosing the point of view is a major decision to make when designing a movie.
The point of view can be either that of an outsider with varying degrees of omniscience, or that of a character in the scene. An "outsider" POV can pretty much go and be anywhere. The outsider POV is not part of the action, although it may have its nose deep into it. It can be under a wheelwell looking at an axle about to break (a place no person could be), or it can be high overhead looking down upon two armies about to converge in battle.
An "insider" POV puts us more into the scene and makes us empathize more with the characters in the scene. It may be shot from just over the shoulder of a main character, or even "through the eyes" of that character, it may be limited in its view by obstructions within the scene, or it may be located at different heights so that the subject in the frame will psychologically seem more or less powerful.
Consider four views from King Kong.
In this shot, Kong is atop the Empire State Building. Where are we? In this shot, we're just hanging around omnisciently. We're not in an airplane, because in this shot, we're not moving. We're not in a nearby tall building, because in the time of this movie, the Empire State Building was the tallest in the world. We're observing with godlike detachment.
In the second, Kong is trapped as a spectacle in a theater. Here, we are to some degree a member of the audience, but not exactly. This is an intermediate POV between omniscience and that of a character on scene.
In the third, we're looking up at Kong. We're standing on the street looking at this rampaging monster. But we're not any particular character in the story.
In the fourth, it feels as though we're in Kong's hairy hand and he's looking right at us; now we have the POV of an actual character in the movie.
Another way of thinking about POV is to consider the degree to which we want the audience to empathize with a character in the scene.
We can see from these examples that it's quite possible to switch points of view within a movie.
Story Point of View
We've been talking about point of view from the standpoint of individual shots. However, there is also a "higher level" point of view to consider, which has to do more with the script than the camera. From whose point of view do we experience the story? Again, there are choices that range from omniscience to individual character, and again, the choice can change within a movie (although doing so has to be done with great care). Indeed, the stories of some movies are told from multiple and conflicting points of view. The most famous example of this is Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, which tells the story of an assault and rape as told from participants, victims (one of whom is a ghost), and witnesses. The trouble is, each of the tellers of the story tells a different version. Their points of view don't differ just because they were situated in different places; their perceptions each reflect their own personal interest, and none seems any more reliable than the others.
Although these two shots are from essentially the same camera POV, their story POVs are different. In the first, the woman is the victim of a brute; in the second, she is attracted to his animalistic power.
Choosing a Point of View
So, what are the choices? They range from:
Complete omniscience: The camera and story can go anywhere and be anything or anybody in the movie. We know much more than the characters in the story do.
Limited omniscience: Admittedly a contradiction in terms: the camera and story can go most places, but information relevant to the outcome of the story is hidden from the viewer. We know somewhat more than the characters in the story do.
Quasi-first person: We follow a particular character and see the story only from that person's perspective. We know only what that particular character does.
Complete first person: We see the story literally "through the eyes" of a character (In such cases we might only see the main character when the character is looking at a mirror. One such film is called Lady in the Lake
Many feature films—perhaps most—employ several of these points of view during the course of the movie. Being careless about switching around, though, can leave the audience feeling cheated. For example, the point of view might tell us everything that's going on throughout a movie, and then suddenly at the end a main character pulls out a Swiss Army knife we have no idea he has, which he uses to solve a problem. Most films spend most of the time bouncing between "Limited omniscience" and "Quasi-first person."
Advice for Beginners about POV
For beginning movie makers, and especially beginning stop-motion animators, it's an easy trap to set up the camera almost arbitrarily just so it can record an action. If you're just doing a test, that's fine. But if you want to tell a story, you should think carefully about where you're locating the camera for any given shot, and what the point of view is for that shot from the story perspective.
Mise-en-scene is a French term that we find frequently in academic discussions of cinema, as well as in criticism. Literally, the term means "placing on stage," and refers to all the elements that end up in a particular scene, how they are arranged and appear, how they interact, and how they help achieve the goals of the movie makers. Frankly, you hardly ever hear movie makers use the term in the actual process of making a movie. It's unlikely that Hitchcock ever said, "Here's what I want for my mise-en-scene." And yet, the best movie makers are deeply concerned with it.
Both show an interior of a space ship. Clearly, different choices have been made to represent that idea. The filmmakers didn't just say "We need a space ship interior. Let's see what we have in the warehouse." They created and expressed a vision for what they needed to communicate their ideas. Kubrick wanted a pristine, nearly inhuman lab-like environment; Scott wanted an organic, industrial one that looks cobbled together and very, very used. The color schemes, the lighting, the composition of the frame, the costumes, the make-up on the actors: all enhance the set design and work together to create very different worlds and viewing experiences.
Perhaps the best way to study cinema aesthetics is to analyze a movie you like sequence by sequence, scene by scene, shot by shot, and sometimes even frame by frame. Ask yourself all the questions you can think of while watching: What's the POV? Why this composition? Why that transition? Why these colors? Why that music? Why this pace? Even if you can't discern a reason "why" something has been done, it can be useful to ask "how" it was done. And the flipside to every question is, "How does this affect me as a member of the audience?"
Careful questions, careful answers, careful decisions: these will help you make Movies worthy of the name.
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