One of the most common errors I see in student films, and sometimes in professional work, is a lack of attention to the flow of the viewer’s point of focus within a shot and, especially, across cuts. I use the term ‘shot flow’ to describe the way the viewer’s eye flows from point-of-interest to point-of-interest through one’s animation. Within a single shot it’s often dealt with intuitively. Since we’re animators, and frequently look at our shots in isolation, sometimes we stop there and ignore shot flow through a series of shots. This results in jarring cuts and confusing storytelling. Bruce Block talks about “contrast and affinity of continuum of movement” when referring to this subject, which sounds unnecessarily complicated, but his book The Visual Story, and especially his in-person seminars, are eye-opening and wholeheartedly recommended.
I’ll try to do a mini-seminar on shot flow, and how it can go wrong, using some shots I animated. This is an example from Over the Hedge, and it’s far from an egregious example, but I remember it troubling me at the time I was doing these shots. What follows in a three shot sequence from fairly early in the film. Antony Gray animated the first shot, and I did the next two. Verne the turtle has just been traumatized and forcibly ejected from the human world, and in the first shot Verne is excitedly telling the other animals that the other side of the hedge is dangerous and to be avoided. The third shot introduces RJ the raccoon as, literally and figuratively, the bringer-of-light. The second shot is a bridging shot, connecting these two story points.
Watch the following animation just once:
Now summarize what you saw. In particular, think about what you saw going on in the second shot. What was Verne doing? What were the other animals doing? What did you actually perceive in the second shot? If you’re like most people, you didn’t perceive much. You probably assumed the action continued across the cut, but have no idea of the specifics. (And note that the problems I’m referring to minimized by the tiny screen — this issue is greatly magnified in a theater.) In fact, I suspect that if I blacked out the third shot, and you just watched the first two, you would have been completely lost in the second shot.
Now watch the sequence again. The first and third shots are perfectly clear, but the second shot is probably still hard to follow. Why? Because your eyes are in the wrong place on the screen at the head of the shot, and you have conflicting action attracting your eyes through the rest of the shot. Before you can unconsciously figure out where to look, the shot is over. Let me break it down with still frames.
The point of interest throughout the first shot is Verne and, as the shot progresses, Verne’s face. At the end of the shot Antony has animated some nice detail in the eyes that keeps you looking right at the upper part of Verne’s face, which is where we’re typically looking when a character is talking. The following still of the last frame of the shot shows exactly where the audience is focused:
Now here’s the first frame of the next shot, with the exact same bit of screen space circled:
Oops. Not only do we begin the shot with the audience not looking at anything we want them to look at, but they’re actually focused on a detail (a chunk of bark) that will tend to hold their eye until they realize it’s nothing important. That realization might take a quarter or a third of a second, so they really see nothing for the first 6 or 8 frames of the shot. Here’s the situation six frames later:
The arrows indicate the places on the screen competing for the viewer’s eyes. We can look screen left, to pick up Verne again (who is relatively in focus and still talking and gesticulating), or in the opposite direction to pick up this huge, blurry figure leaping in from screen right.
When I watch the second shot alone, it’s clear what’s happening. I start out looking at Verne as he continues his speech to the animals; as RJ comes into the scene I switch my focus, so by the time he settles I’m looking at the side of his head. But in the sequence, I start out looking at nothing (or, rather, at a useless chunk of bark), and my eyes bounce back and forth between Verne and RJ without really focusing on either. Verne is talking, he’s in focus, he’s gesturing, and his action is a continuation of the last scene, so there are a lot of reasons to move my attention to screen left and focus there. RJ is in the foreground, he moving much more (movement is the number one attractor of our attention on screen), he’s larger, but he’s also out of focus, coming from completely off screen, and we never see his face or any detail about him. I think by the end of the scene, because of RJ’s greater movement, I’m just finally focusing on the side of his head, though there isn’t enough time to ever focus on anything. Here’s the last frame of the scene, and where my attention seems to want to settle the end of this shot:
And now here’s the first frame of the third shot, with the same screen area circled:
Assuming the audience is just starting to look in the place I’ve indicated at the end of shot two, we see that the third shot hooks up nicely. I don’t think the audience has time to really register that the second shot whipped by without them really ‘seeing’ it, so that’s why I say this is a fairly trivial example. But if you do this kind of stuff repeatedly, your audience will feel unsettled, and they’ll miss key pieces of storytelling.
The solution is to think about these issues in the layout stage. Don’t inhibit your storytelling by worrying about it sooner, but don’t get into animation without having your staging and camera worked out, both within a shot, and across all your cuts.