By Francis Glebas
When you’re an animation artist it’s important to get feedback on your work. After all, it’s said that in this business you’re only as good as your last movie. We have to keep improving and growing. Every project is a new adventure.
As a storyboard artist at Walt Disney Feature Animation, I asked my boss how I was doing. I was doing fine, but… sometimes my storyboards were, “emotionally cool”. This cut me to the quick. The heart and soul of filmmaking is emotions and here I was being told mine were unemotional. The meeting ended and I felt hurt. Then I felt angry. Then I made a decision. I could have shrugged it off, but instead, I used it as a learning opportunity. He was right, and I would correct it. It became my challenge.
I was working on Pocahontas and I felt that the scenes that I was working on didn’t give me an opportunity to show what I could do. Pocahontas was to be Disney’s first movie to go contrary to their brand of “Happily ever after.” The ending of the movie was storyboarded exactly as it was scripted and it was about as emotionally exciting as the ending of a summer camp movie- “See you next summer.”
My boss’s criticism had given me the seeds of opportunity. I could give the audience an emotionally satisfying experience.
The next time that I saw my boss I told him, “I won’t be satisfied until I make you cry.”
A FIRST PASS BASED UPON WRITTEN WORDS
The first pass of Pocahontas’ farewell sequence was storyboarded directly from the script by an excellent Disney storyboard artist. The sequence was competently written, but it was all talk, which was fine if it was a novel, but we were making movies! Animation is told visually, not through dialogue. All writing is rewriting and this first pass storyboard was simply the next rewrite, the first draft using pictures.
As I mentioned, the sequence was about as exciting and heartfelt as the ending of a summer camp movie. Everyone, including Pocahontas, was standing around the dock as they watch as John Smith and the ship leave for England. Pocahontas was supposed to be feeling loss and alone. The images telling the story never showed Pocahontas alone. How was the audience supposed to know how she felt? The images didn’t match the story we were trying to tell.
FIRST PASS OF POCAHONTAS ENDING STORYBOARD
WHAT KIND OF MOVIE WERE WE MAKING?
Everyone thought we were making a tragedy to be modeled after Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. I felt that Disney’s first sad ending could and should be so much more than the summer camp movie we had so far. (For the record, I like summer camp movies.) So I asked the directors, producer and the original storyboard artist for the opportunity to rework the sequence.
What was the first thing I did? I got something to eat- for my brain. I started watching movies- every sad movie that I could find. I watched various film versions of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Ghost and many more. Then I watched a movie that helped me realize that they had the wrong paradigm for their movie. It’s wasn’t like Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story. We weren’t making a tragedy.
Our paradigm was Casablanca! It was a bittersweet ending. We know that John Smith and Pocahontas love each other and that they will both survive, they just can’t be together for the greater good- just like Casablanca. Now I had a clear direction.
My drawings had to tell this story. This also was my chance to prove my boss wrong that my story work was not “emotionally cool.” I called the sequence my heartfelt farewell.
The characters need to feel sad but not tragic. They’re heroic. I thought about when I had left my home, friends and family in New York to come work for Disney Feature Animation in California. That was the feeling that had to go into the sequence -the sadness of leaving. However, something else was required to make it bittersweet. When I left New York, I was leaving for a great opportunity to fulfill my childhood dream of working on great Disney animated films.
“SHAPES SPEAK TO US . ”
The most important point of the sequence is how alone Pocahontas feels. How do you show how someone’s feeling? Body language can say a lot. But what is body language? It’s the shape the body makes when one is feeling different emotions.
Unless you’re a good poker player your emotions come through loud and clear. Doesn’t visual language work the same way? The answer is yes. This is the secret-every shape, line, composition has a feeling associated with it. In other words, shapes speak to us. They tell us how to feel.
So the shapes of our composition can tell us how to feel. It was on Pocahontas that animator Glen Keane told me that composition is like visual subtext. The text is what happens in the story. When you tell a story there are always things that are not stated directly but indirectly by the structural elements like shapes, colors, composition and of course music.
Visual composition or how the image is “structured” provides this role. Position in the frame is part of this subtext and it can be used to reveal power relationships between characters. Like the role of the music score, the images tell you what’s going on but the compositional structure tells you how to “feel”.
As an experiment try to draw different emotions, but just use abstract images. What is truly surprising is how similar different people’s images are of each particular emotion. Anger is often represented but a jumble of jagged lines. Peacefulness is expressed with flowing horizontal lines. Think about this when you are this when you’re composing your shots.
In the farewell sequence, I approached it in a shotgun fashion rather than a linear approach. I searched for key iconic images and then created the continuity around them. Thumbnail drawings were often drawn and redrawn many times to find just the right composition. Don’t be afraid to throw stuff away. Keep experimenting. It pays off.
Continued in PART TWO…
A dock isn’t big enough for the ending of this movie. I chose to show a vast expanse of beach with settlers preparing the ship for setting sail. I wanted a more desolate location. The weather also had to set the tone. A foggy morning hid things from view and thus feels mysterious.
It also wouldn’t work to have everyone there already. This cheats us of the tension the narrative question of Smith wondering, “Will she come?” This was missing from the first pass and helps build expectancy during the ending.
The answer to the narrative question, “Will she come?”, is the arrival of Pocahontas. Like any star, she needed a big entrance. It should be a big deal that she’s arriving. She emerges like a ghost through the fog leading her clan bringing food for the settlers.
We also needed to show that everyone saw Pocahontas differently now. Whereas before she was a “savage”, now she was an Indian Princess. How do we show this difference visually? The men take off their hats in her presence to show respect.
The next narrative question is will Pocahontas go with John Smith to England. Decisions are defining moments that reveal character. They should never be rushed or tossed aside. We need to see the character’s internal struggle. Pocahontas has to look around seeing the fragile peace that has emerged. She looks to her father for guidance. Pocahontas realizes she is needed in Virginia.
The good-bye scene itself must be pushed for all its worth. It is not a peck on the cheek moment. It’s their first and possibly their last kiss. It has to be one of the most passionate kisses in film history and it has to be close up. It is as if their souls are now one and should never be parted. This sets it up for the audience to feel the pain when they leave each other.
But wait, there’s more. The moment needs to linger. How do you show they don’t want to part? Their hands slowly painfully part. Remember, it’s all about story-delaying, making the audience wait for the answer to their questions.
John Smith waves good -bye, but now he uses the Indian wave that Pocahontas taught him earlier in the film, it’s all the more poignant because Smith when she first showed him the wave he had said let’s stick with “Hello” not “Goodbye”.
In order to convey how alone Pocahontas feels to the audience they must see her alone not surrounded by lots of people. She must be shown to alone in some way so I had her run to a peak to get a view of the ship sailing away. I thought about when I leave someone at the airport, I wait and watch their plane fly off, savoring that last moment of being with them. That’s what I had Pocahontas do.
At her rocky peak, she watches as the ship disappears on the horizon. This shot shows Pocahontas as very alone, she alone occupies her position as peacekeeper. The shot shows her dominating the frame suggesting her nobility and strength
HERE’S THE COMPLETE POCAHONTAS’ HEARTFELT FAREWELL
TIPS TO REMEMBER
•Analyze your compositions exploring each design element at a time, as well as overall. For example, check to see how just the color works, or the light dark pattern or the arrangement of lines.
• Design and composition principles apply to every level of film construction from single shot composition to the overall structure of the whole film. As filmmaker, you’re the conductor of the moving visuals. Use composition to create visual drama.
•Composition is subtext. It tells the audience how to feel. Make sure you know what you’re saying.
•Strive for visual clarity in your images- simple but dynamic.
•Experiment with moving the camera around until you find and stage the best composition. It really is a process of searching within your material.
•Make sure each shot has a focus or center of attention. Make sure this has the greatest contrast of value.
•Watch where your characters are in the frame and what it says about them.
FAREWELL ON YOUR CREATIVE JOURNEYS
It was all about the “moving” pictures. This was one of those scenes where words fail, the images “say it all”, and the moody temp scores.
I knew that I had achieved my goal when the executives were crying at the conclusion of the story-reel. The aftermath of the Pocahontas screening was that Jeffrey Katzenberg said that we hadn’t earned that ending yet. A film is a whole experience, each piece building upon the others creating a dense network of meaningful connections. We still had some rewriting to do in act two.
I felt vindicated and learned a valuable lesson. You have to put your heart into your work, whether it comedy, drama, horror, action or romance. That’s our goal. We want to avoid boredom. We want excitement in our lives. We watch movies to feel alive and yes, that feels good. I’m still struggling to be better than my last picture…