The following is an excerpt from Francis Glebas’ Directing the Story. Francis Glebas, a top Disney storyboard artist, teaches artists a structural approach to clearly and dramatically presenting visual stories. Here, Glebas teaches you multiple types of casuality.
Newton’s laws of motion, inertia, force, and momentum are very useful in action sequences and especially comedy. Life being out of control is very funny, if it is happening to someone else. Once again I would like to tell you a story in order to demonstrate the power of this next concept. Earlier I told the story of my storyboard work on Pocahontas. I am now going to show you how it applies to design, composition, and directing the eye.
Physical causality , however, is not the whole story. What else is there? After I ask this question in my story class, I ask a student to get up and turn on a light. He or she does. I say some words and the student acts. The class now gets the point about linguistic causality . In other words, when we speak we can create causes. For example, consider when I tell you, “ Please continue reading. ” My words have caused you to continue reading and also to consider the cause of words creating effects.
Look how much more emotional this shot is when we add the character’s reaction shot. We become much more emotionally involved. A simple look can be a cause in human actions. I am sure you have heard the expression “ If looks could kill ” ? Emotions are a form of causality. If we feel something, if may cause us to take action. We may take action to change the situation, persuade others to change the situation, or try to put our heads in the sand and forget about the situation.
Emotional causality doesn’t only react to our emotions. We act when other people have emotions. We try to make a loved one happy when they are sad.
Detection of a crime is said to be a matter of opportunity and motive. Motives are reasons based on causes for anyone to take action as an effect of those causes. In film, character motivations are one of the most important tools for bringing believable characters to life.
Emotional causality can become unsettling when one person blames his or her actions on another and vice versa. In this case each action creates a loop causing more and more reactions and the actions escalate. It is a variation of the kid’s game, “ He started it. ”
Human emotional actions are even more complicated because we are the only species who use signs. Lions don’t write books or make movies in order to change a situation. They can’t change their spots, if they had them. Our semiotic-based imagination allows us to create these conditional situations where we can imagine lions with spots that spot removers can’t remove.
Semiotic causality exists because we respond to signs. We stop at red lights because it is a sign to stop. Number signs can be a cause for humans. We read the stock market quotes, the speedometers of our cars, and the thermostats in our refrigerators. The wrong number could have terrible consequences, like getting a speeding ticket or ice cream melting. In the beginning of our country a lantern was a big cause. “ One light if by land and two if by sea ” was a signal for the colonies as to how the British troops were approaching.
Structure affects how we interpret screen events. If we juxtapose two shots the audience will make a comparison between the two items perhaps attributing that the first shot caused the second shot. Press a button in shot one and a car explodes in shot two. Our minds make the connection that pressing the button caused the car to explode, even if we later learn it was just a doorbell.
Natural forces such as weather and geological forces follow the laws of physics. In film they don’t have to. Welcome to the twilight zone of supernatural causality where things can happen for no explainable reason. Horror films exploit this all the time. In fact, horror films couldn’t exist without it.
Inanimate objects can take on a malicious presence. Film can show ghosts and other things that aren’t there. A character looks and sees something. Someone interrupts that character and he or she turns away. When the character looks back, the thing is gone. The supernatural quality is simply created in the minds of the viewers when they try to make sense of the edit.
Seeing the future is impossible although that doesn’t stop many fortune-tellers from trying. In movies, predestination is achieved by simply showing a shot of the outcome of an event before it appears in the film. Later in the film when the event’s full context is shown, it will feel like we have seen it before.
The television series Wonderfalls exploits strange sequences of causality when plastic animals tell a girl to perform random acts, like breaking a taillight. Events progress and the small action suggested by the plastic animal is revealed to be part of the catalyst of a grand plan that changes people’s lives. The significance of the actions leaves the girl feeling crazy but suggests to us that the world is more complicated than we can ever imagine.
Excerpt from Directing the Story: Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques for Live Action and Animation by Francis Glebas © 2008 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved. Directing the Story can be bought Amazon, BN.com, or your favorite online retailer.