Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Storyboarding/"Shootout at the Great Pumpkin Patch"

Just as a brief introduction to what nowadays is a lucrative gig for sequential artists, for this class I have a couple quick exercises in storyboarding. Most film producers will at some point employ the services of an artist who will compose shots and also rough out props, costumes, deal with pacing issues etc. in short just about everything the director has in mind and translate this information visually to the rest of the crew. They are often the first buffer zone in a production between the director's vision and everyone else.

As a warm-up to the main exercise, I first hand out copies of the script from a scene in "The Big Lebowski," and have the students thumbnail roughs to the infamous bowling alley sequence (done to the soundtrack of a flamenco cover of "Hotel California" by the Gipsy Kings and featuring John Turturro as Jesus Quintana):


CRASH--scattered by a strike, in slow motion.


Still in slow motion. We are looking across the length of
the bowling alley at a tall, thin, Hispanic bowler displaying
perfect form. He wears an all-in-one dacron-polyester stretch
bowling outfit with a racing stripe down each side.


On the Dude, sitting next to Walter in the molded plastic
chairs. The Dude is staring off towards the bowler.

Fucking Quintana--that creep can
roll, man--


Displaying great slow-motion form as the Dude and Walter's
conversation continues over.
For previous classes I've even gone so far as to schedule a quick reference sketch trip over to the university's bowling alley for this assignment. The students are given xeroxed sheets with 16 panel boxes per copy to roughly work up some shots that, in their minds, would best illustrate the above sequence. I reiterate the concept of an unlimited budget, and for them to really push their imagination to the limit in constructing creative compositions., I have yet to see a student come even close to the trademark flavor of what eventually appeared on the screen as a finished scene. Between the Coen Brother's distinctive directorial style and the unique cinematography of Roger Deakins, what reads as a pretty simple and straightforward block of text is transformed into an utterly surreal sequence. This little in-class quiz is used to drive home the points made above about really pushing the envelope and envisioning a completely creative solution to what otherwise would be a comparatively boring and basic series of images.

Now with that lesson in mind and keeping the Coen Brothers as a benchmark example, for the main exercise, I cue up two identical scenes from two different films on DVDs: the iconic showdown at the OK Corral as depicted in "Tombstone" and "Wyatt Earp." Each film has its own different take on the exact same sequence of events: in this specific instance, just the walk down the street through town towards the OK Corral, and ending immediately before any shots are fired. Often I find it helpful to turn off the volume so as to better concentrate on the visual aspects alone - though sound mixing and orchestration play a crucial role in developing the scenes as well.

We then discuss by comparison and contrast how each film goes about imparting a steadily mounting sense of tension; stylistic choices are made through the usage of camera angles, the composition of specific shots and the deliberate, methodical pacing. Each respective director makes conscious decisions as to how best to convey the monumental confrontation and utilizes similar techniques to ratchet up the atmosphere as the inevitable showdown progresses. While both films each have their own comparative strengths and weaknesses, and one can tell who had the bigger budget and where the "money shots" went - but this is part of what gives each picture it's own respective distinctiveness. Subtle cues such as tight shots on facial expressions, slow pans from a crane, the inclusion of seemingly insignificant details like cast shadows and zooming in on boots,; these all add up to tell the crucial story.

Now I show the equally short and iconic sequence from "It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown" where Lucy sets up the classic football yank-away gag. I review the entire progression of events a couple times, including in slow-motion + pausing at key moments to do some quick sketches of the key details from action poses. Together with some handouts of strips done by Schulz illustrating the classic scenario , students have enough resources to begin the assignment proper: storyboard out the same sequence but this time compose it if it were instead a western. This is a challenge to incorporate many of the visual cues employed by that genre and transplant them onto Charlie Brown and Lucy, setting them up for an epic and suspenseful showdown.

By using some of the methods we analyzed in the two movies depicting the walk to the OK Corral, we re-cast and re-imagine the beloved characters in Peanuts, and create a sequence fraught with peril and frontier menace. This exercise is a great way to show how simple changes in pacing and framing selective shots can give the sequence a completely different tone and look. Posted here are a few selected samples from student takes on re-envisioning the scenario - they usually come up with some pretty interesting, unusual and amusing takes.

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