Sunday, November 28, 2010

Story vs. Storytelling

After getting into animation, I’ve been watching/studying movies (animated or live action) for quite some time and to be frank, I’ve found only a FEW to be actually good. I started thinking why. Quite a lot of the movies that didn’t work for me have actually done really well at the Box office. So what is it that I didn’t find interesting?

I sat and analyzed it, and I almost was on the verge of declaring myself a freak and dialing the nearest Asylum, when I finally saw the light!! It was really the storyTELLING that was the culprit. Ah ah aaaah, please note, I’m not talking about the story or the concept here… but the TELLING part of it.

The more I thought about it, the more it dawned to me. Stories may be great, but if the storyTELLING doesn’t work, it’s as good as a goner! This led me to the conclusion that


“STORY IS KING BUT STORYTELLING IS KING-ER!!” (You can quote me on that... ahem ahem!)


Ask yourselves one simple question. When you were a kid, and your grandparent, mom, dad or whoever used to tell you bedtime stories, what would actually enthrall you? Yes the story had to be interesting. But more than that, it was how it was TOLD that would keep you rooted and glued. The way they would change their tone to express every emotion, describe every situation until you were imagining the EXACT thing they were trying to make you imagine… THAT sold the story. You felt the story because they felt the storytelling!

And this is what has been carried on to the world of film-making. The director tries to convey the SAME feel, only this time instead of actually being there and narrating, he’s doing it through frames (meaning, through staging, colours, lighting, acting, music, all that jazz). (And well, of course there are movies that have a narrator too, like Little Manhattan for instance!). If the frames have normal staging and stuff, then the director is probably telling you THOSE parts of the story in a normal tone. If the frames have tensed staging (and stuff), THOSE parts are where he changes his tone to a dramatic one to express that feeling, much like your elder(s) did while telling you bedtime stories. And if you’ve come back from the movie BLOWN away, then the director has successfully told you his story!

Telling a story is really a feeling. You’re trying to convey a feeling in your heart through the magic of storytelling, be it vocally, or visually. And that feeling can make or break a great story.

Let me give you an example of what I’m trying to say. Let’s say, I have a concept, an idea, and I really wanna tell people about it in a way that they’d never forget…. because the idea means so much to me!

So here’s the idea/concept: “People should be careful when they’re walking alone on lonely streets, lest they get robbed/beaten up by goons”. Man I love my concept! So I now wanna tell a story/ a situation that would enlighten it more. Here goes:


“You're walking from Church, alone, in one of the toughest parts of the suburbs. You're nervous, timid, looking over your shoulder when suddenly you encounter him pouncing from the shadows, the streetlight flashes on something shiny in his hand, no time to think, whoosh whoosh whoosh!” (that “whoosh whoosh whoosh” is the sound he makes with his knife, the shiny thing in his hand… yes he kills you!) [taken from a deleted scene from Liar Liar actually]


So there! You like the story eh? Heck it’s swell! But it’s still in written form. What if I told you the story verbally like THIS?



Like it now? No?? It sucks?? It almost put you to sleep?? DARN!! All the months and years I spent working on my super amazing concept, went down the drain!!!

Okay gimme another chance! Let me tell you the SAME story like THIS.



That better? Woohoo I‘m back on the job!!

So you see what I’m trying to say? The first one had everything in a monotone. No tension, no buildup, no drama. It only acted as a sleeping pill. Bedtime story indeed!

The second one immediately got you “INTO” the story, simply because of the way he spoke (and why not, it’s Jim Carrey after all!). You could almost IMAGINE the situation he was creating. And VOILA! He got an audience!

So now, instead of verbal, if a director were to say the SAME story VISUALLY, this is how it would/could look in both cases (try it with sound and without).

Here’s the first one:



Blah!! Ain’t it?

Here’s the second one:



Okay still not the best storyboard you've seen, but it's at least a little more interesting than the first, isn't it?

And if you notice, even without sound, you (hopefully) get the exact same feel I'm trying to convey through frames. There's an amazing video on YouTube that tells exactly this from a different perspective. Check it out!

So that’s my whole point! No matter how hard you work on creating a great concept, a great story… it won’t matter a bit if you ain’t TELLING it right! The characters have to evolve, the plot has to thicken, the situations should rhythmically alter between normal to funny to dramatic to emotional, and yes the Pay Off should be worth the Build Up.

One great tip I read in “The Illusion of Life” is to never take away a moment JUST when the audience starts to enjoy it! And to add to that, I’d like to say never DRAG a moment too. It should be a perfect balance. The audience should neither feel bored watching an overpushed situation because they had already anticipated long back what to expect next, nor should they be like “Woah! I was just starting to love that scene, and its gone!”

Maybe this is why many of the SUPERHIT movies don’t work for me. Let’s compare two such blockbusters “Disney/Pixar’s Finding Nemo” and “Dreamworks Madagascar”. If I write down only the concepts/ideas of both movies, they would be:

MADAGASCAR: A bunch of zooborn animals let loose in a real jungle.

FINDING NEMO: An overprotective dad fish loses his son and goes to find it.

So which sounds more interesting? To me it’s definitely the former. It really opens up so many new possibilities, so many exciting situations, while the other sounds like a lame tale straight out of daily soaps.

But after watching both the movies, I have to admit, I couldn’t help but being moved by Finding Nemo.

The execution was so amazing, the characters were so well etched out, the pacing of the film was so rhythmic, and yes, the storyTELLING was so beautiful, it really held me in awe! At this point I feel forced to mention that when Dory was first introduced, and she said she suffered from short term memory loss, I was like “Oh man! Now she’s gonna annoy me with her ‘forgetful’ behavior by bringing in forced humour.” But no… not even ONCE did I find her annoying. Her memory loss element was so timely and efficiently used in the film that I couldn’t help but laugh my lungs out AND at the same time, care for her with an “Awww”!

Meanwhile although Madagascar wasn’t really that bad, but on the whole it only seemed like a bag of jokes to me. The characters didn’t really connect, the situations seemed forced, all in all, to me, the storytelling fell flat in the face! Only characters I liked in the movie were the penguins and King Julian!

So that made me realize that unless your TELLING is good, your story ain’t going nowhere!

Now you may ask me, “But I’m just a painter, an illustrator, an animator, a modeler, a photographer, how can I be a good storyTELLER? Isn’t that really the storyboard artist’s and the Director’s job??” Not really! EVERYONE can be a good storyteller. It can be through words, paintings, drawings, animations, modeling, sculpting, photography, music, ANYTHING!

If you don’t believe me, check out Pascal Campion’s illustrations, or my good friends Sumeet Surve’s or Roshan’s work. They tell stories in just one frame! The staging, the colours, the energy, the movement, the expressions, all these factors come into telling a story in a drawing/painting. For photography, check out my good friends Varun Thottahil’s or Santhosh Pai’s work. For modeling, check out the awesome Anand PG's work. They tell amazing stories too!

We’re all storytellers. And I strongly believe that if told well, we can make the SIMPLEST of actions look interesting. There can't be a better example of this than Bird Box Studios. Check out their shorts if you haven't already!

To illustrate this point further, check out this small clip from one of my favourite movies ‘Swades’.



The situation is simple: the guy wants the girl to hide the cigarette pack so his mom doesn’t see it (she’s not actually his mom but he considers her to be).

The situation could be dealt with in so many ways. It could’ve finished in half the time it takes here, or even less. But the director chose this. Why? Because it not only gives us an easily connectible situation, but also shows the playful chemistry between the girl and the boy which they share in the whole movie, and tells us so much about their personalities. Here’s how. I’ve tried to break down the scene and give the unspoken communication between the actors some speech of what their thought process could be during this sequence (please ignore the mom’s lines, for all who do not understand the language, she’s simply praising the caravan facilities):

Guy: “Hey! Heeeeey!”
Girl: “Huh?”
Guy: “You see those?”
Girl: “What?”
Guy: “THERE THERE!! DOWN THERE!”
Girl: “Ahaa! Cigarettes!”
Guy: “Please put them away, please!!”
Girl: “How about I simply tell your mom about it?”
Guy:”Oh no!! Not that! C'mon a little help here! Put them away PLEASE???”
Girl:”Sheesh! There you go.”
Guy:”Thanks, oh thank you so much!!”
Girl: “Whatever.”

It tells you the guy is sweet because he obviously 'likes' her (he doesn’t get all pissed off and turn chauvinistic when she doesn’t agree to put them away at first), and he respects his mom to the point of NOT letting her know that he smokes; the girl is playful and modern, with her own set of ideals and is not too impressed by the guy or his oh-so-cool caravan (and also later in the movie you realize she actually doesn’t like smokers). What a way to tell so much through such a simple situation!

Even in animation, we have the power to do the same thing. Check out these VERY simple situations done by my good friends Vinay Prasad, Asif Siddiqui and Harish. K (please note, some are not final yet… as they told me):

Vinay:


Asif:


Harish:



Situations are so simple, yet told so interestingly. A passerby trying to eat free pastries but unfortunately paying a heavy price for it, an amateur golfer trying to play golf, a ballman trying to kick a ball away only to see it returning to him all the time.

So there you go! That was what my post was all about. I believe if a story is great, it still is only halfway there until storyTELLING pushes it to a whole new level! Heck good storytelling can even make a senseless story work: The SouthPark Movie or Andaaz Apna Apna for instance (well, yes, they worked for me!).

These are simply my ‘smartass’ thoughts. No way do I wanna say that what I think is the LAW!! I’d actually be obliged if we could have a nice discussion on this in the comments section… throw in your ideas (even if that means rubbishing mine completely), it’ll be great to share your thoughts too! So until next time, this smartass post ends here!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Caricatures

Still new to caricatures, especially when it comes to colouring them. Here are some of my friends most of whom have been a part of my growing up years. :)

The newly weds!

My classmates!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010