Drawing & Composition for Visual Storytelling

I found this Assassin’s Creed trailer, I was hoping to get some inspiration for staging dramatic action as well as some inspiration in composing shots for a widescreen format.

I think in animation we tend (at least I know I do) to think of shots that start, then an action begins, that action finishes and then you cut to the next shot where the next action begins. That way of thinking can be beneficial for animators because it gives them a scene with an entire action in it. It can be frustrating for animators to try and divide the same action over several different scenes. But I like how in this clip, the actions begin in one scene and then finish in the next shot (or the one after that), or that sometimes you never see the action actually finish, you move onto the next beat when it’s clear that a beat is over. I like that, and when I was boarding my most recent assignment I tried to do that more. It creates more excitement, if you do it right. Then the rhythm of the cuts can be surprising and unexpected instead of plodding and predictable. But you have to do it judiciously.

Also the camera never stops moving in this clip, which can add a lot of excitement to a scene when it’s done with restraint and reason, to compliment the action that’s happening. Too many times people just move the camera to move it and the effect becomes tedious or makes you seasick. But I liked the restraint in this clip and I thought the camera was always moving in a way that added to the impact of each moment.

One more thing: for the most part, Ezio (The Assassin) and his nemesis are placed in the center of the screen which gives them a place of power. In scenes where Ezio is not in the center, you don’t see his face, or only parts of him, and he’s usually bigger onscreen than anybody else. All of these things are great devices to make a character look powerful on screen.

Don’t worry about doing perfect sketches. They’re just for you, and it’s just a learning tool. But don’t just scribble them out, either, put enough into them that you are actually getting enough down that you are seeing the patterns and getting down how the staging and cutting is working. Be precise, but don’t spend too much time on each individual drawing. You want to do them fast enough that you can see the cutting patterns over several scenes, and if you spend an hour making each sketch perfect, you won’t ever get the feel of how several scenes are linking together in a row.

Do this exercise for yourself every week, choose a 2-4 minute clip from any TV show and movie. Pick good filmmakers, of course, and pick good scenes. At least in the beginning, stick with filmmakers that are known for preparing in advance and being meticulous about controlling what you see on screen. I would suggest directors like Hitchcock, Spielberg, Lucas, Kurosawa, James Cameron, etc. I spent many hours thumbnailing sections of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when I was first learning about boarding. The truck chase is a particular favorite of mine because there are many changes of screen direction at the beginning that are handled well.

Here’s some of my boards for the Assassin’s Creed trailer :

The important thing is to get something out of it and learn!

And one more piece of advice…if don’t think your drawing skills aren’t very good; and you absolutely don’t want to try to draw your way through a scene, try watching the clip without sound. This will allow you to focus on the visuals and concentrate on the cutting and staging without the distraction of the audio.

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