A miscellany of weekly ramblings on comics, art and film by Ted Mathot, storyboard artist and writer/artist/self-publisher of graphic novels and comics

Monday, October 29, 2007

Visual Storytelling - All the President's Men

A conversation I had recently with a director revealed (with some embarrassment) that I had not seen this 70's classic starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. So with no hesitation I set to it immediately. Having owned the film on DVD for at least a year it was high time I watched it and it is tremendous. The film is expertly directed by Alan Pakula and Gordon Willis' cinematography is excellent (not to mention the acting and script by William Goldman). One scene in particular really jumped out at me visually so I chose to break it down.

The basic story is of two reporters (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein played by Redford and Hoffman) who are investigating a possible government conspiracy relating to the Watergate break-in in 1972. In the scene below, Bernstein (Hoffman) goes to the home of a young woman in order to press her for information. Naturally anyone associated with the conspiracy is going to be tight lipped, which is what Hoffman encounters in the scene.

What's important here are the visual choices made by Pakula and Willis to augment the scene, one that easily could have been a very repetitive and uninteresting series of talking heads in the hands of less competent filmmakers.

The breakdown:

Hoffman enters the home and we see immediately the woman he wants to question, separated from him by the rungs of the staircase. Right off the bat there is a separation between the two; inpenetrable, like the bars of a jail cell.

Hoffman moves into position to talk to the woman. What really got me here is how Hoffman is placed in the shot -- he has framed the woman into an incredibly claustrophobic bit of screen real estate. She has been squeezed into a section about 1/100th the size of the frame.

Reverse of Hoffman separated from the woman by the bars. Again this is a visual separation to support the script.

Here Hoffman moves clear of the bars to open the conversation with the woman. A visual progression where the intensity (repeating pattern of the bars) has been lowered.

Reverse of the woman clear of the bars, but she is still not revealing anything.

Hoffman returns behind the bars and sits on the couch, trying to prompt a reaction from the woman.

The woman remains behind the bars, confined to her small space. Standoff.

Hoffman chooses to wait it out. Note the lighting of the living room here, because it will change as the scene progresses.

Hoffman has waited the woman out, she loses the game and comes out from behind the bars. A huge turning point in the scene, done visually.

The woman enters the living room and takes a seat across from Hoffman. Note the lighting has changed dramatically from before; her side of the room is now much darker and colder. She is casting a heavy shadow. This continues the visual progression in the scene; where before the progression was with line and shape (bars), now it is done with tone (light and shadows).

Hoffman resumes his questioning; note he is on the dark side of the couch.

Hoffman is served a cup of coffee and he moves to the light side of the couch (another progression of tone) next to the lamp.
What has been set up now is a classic interrogation scene. Hoffman asking the questions with a strong single light source over his shoulder.

Continuation of the interrogation scene, where the woman is lit by one source and casting a heavy shadow. The camera has pushed in on her, increasing the intensity. The questioning resumes in these two shots until the final shot.

Final shot of the scene - the woman has given Hoffman a lot of information regarding the case he is trying to build, but still manages to keep some of it hidden from him. This is reperesented (along with her requested anonymity) by the lamp which covers her face. I love this ending shot, it's a bold choice and speaks volumes.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Composition, part 3


Some of you may remember the composition posts from Current Flavor. I found these images from The Royal Tenenbaums in a folder and thought it to be a good time for another post.

I'm fascinated by Wes Anderson's use of flat space in his films and his ablility to create dynamic and excitng compositions using flat space (at times combined with deep space) that engage the eye as well as direct the viewer's attention.

Here are a few examples of such shots. I've added arrows to indicate flat space elements and diagonal points of interest.

Generating Interest with LINE:

LINE is one of the building blocks of visual structure and can be broken down into horizontal (least intensity), vertical (more intensity) and diagonal (most intensity). Here are the examples:

Mostly flat space shot of Margot; notice how she generates the strongest diagonals in the shot (phone cord, angle of neck/head, leg), creating an area of interest for the viewer that contrasts with the flat space surrounding her. Those familiar with the rule of thirds will see she's placed right on a dividing line.

Same scene, but this time it's Ethel's posture that's creating the interest. She is engaging Margot at this point. Ethel is active, Margot is passive. The body language says it all here and again they are surrounded by flat space elements.

Generating interest with SPACE:

This is sort of anti-rule of thirds. In this scene there is confrontation between the three characters. They are all squashed into the middle third of the frame, cramping it and raising the intensity. All the characters are vertical lines (not that intense), so it's the deep space and the arrangement of the characters that create the intensity. I like the camera placement here too; it's just above the eyelines of the characters; just high enough to be interesting and to keep us with the characters. Any higher and the shot would start to lose intensity.

Deep space again. Note the perspecting heads leading the eye to Eli. They are all perfectly placed, and for all intents and purposes, TOO perfect. But that is part of the director's style and the shot is richer for it. his face is also at the vanishing point of the shot and all other perspecting lines lead right to it.


I like these shots for how elements are grouped together. The first one is especially interesting to me, with the choice to put the homeless guy up there in the right hand corner and the caution cone and sawhorses in the left corner with Margo and the car being a bridge between the two.

Could this shot work without those other elements? Sure. But it's those extra bits that add interest and texture.

These bottom two shots speak for themselves - showcases for the awesome and hilarious art on Eli's walls. Anderson knew this was going to get a huge laugh; the characters basically have no dialogue here other than "what?" "did you say something?" and "No, I thought you said something".


Friday, October 12, 2007

R&I European cover concept

Here's another cover idea for the complete Rose and Isabel story to be published in Europe later this year. The idea with this one was to integrate R&I into the portrait of the family. The first study can be found here. Please post your comments and suggestions below. Thanks!


Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

I had been anxiously awaiting this film for over a year and finally had an opportunity to see it in LA. The film is still swirling around in my head, so no personal review yet, but I will say that I really enjoyed the film and an SF Chronicle critic simply missed the point when he said this:

"Who would have guessed that a biopic about Jesse James could be so boring? Instead of covering the action-packed parts of James’ life, this movie by “Chopper” director Andrew Dominik chronicles James’ final days and death at the hand of Ford. As a piece of visual art, the movie is often amazing. But as a piece of entertainment, it’s ponderous and spectacularly lacking in action. Pitt seems lost as James, and Affleck as Ford bears too strong a resemblance to wannabe JonBenet Ramsey killer John Karr."

Well, first off, the film isn't "about" Jesse James. And secondly, god forbid entertainment that ISN'T force fed to the audience, action scene after action scene gouged into our eyes, pounding our senses into oblivion with no trace of soul whatsoever. The film is a CHARACTER PIECE, something that's becoming more and more of a rarity in film these days.

The film is 2 hours and 40 minutes and I didn't lose interest for a moment of it.

More later.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

CORA Part One

CORA will be split up into three or four books which I intend to self-publish and release starting next summer. Here's a sketch for the cover of book one -- still working on color, but I'm fairly happy with the spare design of it.

Finality and death will be major themes of the complete story, and not just physical death of people but of ideals, ways of life, and relationships. The closing of the American frontier, as declared after the 1890 census, factors into the theme as well -- the end of an era we all know as the "Wild West". The end of the 19th century was a time of tremendous change in American history and will be for the characters of this story as well.