Shot Flow

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:

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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.

11 Responses to “Shot Flow”

  1. Alonso Says:

    Interesting, definitely something I need to study more. I wonder why they have that piece of bark there. Actually the first time through, because I was paying attention to camera work, I felt like the 2nd to 3rd shot was a bit of a jump cut, a blurry dark shape in basically the same shape across the cut. I just finished Impro by Keith Johnstone (which was great), I think Bruce Block’s is now the next on my list.


  2. Kevin Says:

    Here’s a word of advice for when you get to the Bruce Block book — as much as possible take a look at the films he’s referencing as you go through the book. It’ll make reading the book take about a year, but it’ll be worth it! It’s really hard to talk about technical film ideas without real examples. I’ll guarantee you’ll gain a huge new appreciation for some of the great filmmakers, and your own work will get richer.

    As for the cut between shots 2 and 3 in my example, you’re right. The solution in that case could have been as simple as doing a quick rack focus during shot two, so that at the tail of the shot RJ is sharp and Verne et al. are blurry. Then you both guarantee where the audience is looking at the cut, your hookup is perfect, and the storytelling point (the introduction of RJ into the situation) is clear in both senses of the word.

  3. zoomy amalgamated » Blog Archive » Compaq Bird Says:

    […] around. Jolly good form! The eye is led around the frame (feature animator Kevin Koch calls it shot flow) in a sneakily pleasing zig-zag, with setups and change-ups in a one-two punch. E.g.: bird looks […]

  4. Kevin Says:

    Hey, Zoomy, that’s a fun bit of animation of the old Compaq Bird. What I find interesting is that, despite the frantic pace and the constantly changing backgrounds and perspectives, the bird is easy to follow because the animator has kept the character right in the sweet spot, in the center of the screen. You feel like the bird is all over the screen, but it’s not, so the cuts work even when there’s a huge change in perspective and so on from shot to shot. Play the clip with your finger over the bird, and you realize why it’s pretty clear.

    Thanks for the link.

  5. Brad Says:

    Hey Kevin. Great Blog. Bruce Block book is such a great reference for films, and this is a great example of the concept in animation. I find myself using tv shows to explain these concepts to students, because I find that in tv they really dont want to disrupt things visually too much. Great example. thanks Kevin.

  6. TStevens Says:

    I once took a storyboard class with a director named Dick Sebast.

    He made the best analogy for this. It is a little like playing pool: every shot you take should set you up for the next one.

    Aside from the basic composition in the OTH shot (as commented) 12 frames is just nowhere near enough time for most shots to read unless they are static and well staged. However, even if this shot was 24 frames or more, I think it still would have been hard to read.

    This is a case where I can see how the Storyboard panel probably worked just fine but it didn’t follow through on the final shot. When you are dealing with characters that blend right into thier surroundings it becomes difficult, even in the best staged scenes, to find the action. Ironically, all of these animals are by nature meant to blend into the forest. From a design POV it forces you to re-consider how you approach color and shape so they read correctly on film. If you took this same shot and used human characters you would never consider staging the main character in a yellow/green cotume against a yellow/green BG.

    Thanks for posting!

  7. Peter Says:

    He sure does, the little dickens! With your permission I’m going to snag your incisive observation and append it to my post, for posterity.

  8. Kevin Says:

    TStevens, pool playing is a really nice analogy. I’m going to use that from now on with my students. I think we as animators are often the ones guilty of not thinking that way when we’re working on a sequence that’s been handed out to a gang of animators, so people are simultaneously working on shots that will hook up. If the director isn’t thinking this way, then we need to as much as we can, which means collaborating.

    Oh, and that second shot is actually 23 frames (if memory serves). I think with the Quicktime compression it’s only playing every other frame. I think that’s the bare minimum for it to read, IF it was perfectly staged. Of course, because of the needs of the rest of the sequence, this was easier to say than to do.

    Peter, I think you’re referring to your posting of the ‘Compaq Bird’ animation, and yes, you have my permission. Thanks!

  9. madmind Says:

    This is a great explanation of a point about which I admittedly never much thought about – which is doubly embarrassing since I not only watch movies regularly but also want to make my own 3D short movie.

    I watched the clip some times now and a rack focus is indeed a good way to solve this problem. I think I would also have tried to use a camera movement to bring RJ into focus. At the beginning we have the bunch in the same yellow spot, then the camera moves, shifting our focus onto the blacker tree that comes into the frame. And when the camera get slower, RJ moves into the image.

    On the other hand, my approach probably would have added way too much movement and emphasis to this short “bridge” scene.

  10. Travis Tohill Says:

    Wow, another great blog. I’m wondering why they didn’t address some of this in more detail in the AM lessons. Glad I checked this out before finishing the next project. Thanks again for the insights.


  11. Michael Says:

    There are a couple of analogies I use with my students about shot flow, and they both stem from football (or soccer, to you peeps in the USA).

    First, the only thing that makes football interesting is that it is contained within some white lines. Same with cinema: the limits of the screen (the frame) create the drama as much as the actors.

    The second thing is that the audience in both football and cinema concentrates almost entirely on the point of focus throughout the game / film.

    So: Make your audience glued to your story by giving them a flowing point of focus.
    That is what a good director does. He/she directs the audience (not just the actors) to the important region of the screen to show the most meaningful aspect of the narrative.

    It might be an interesting exercise to substitute the main character’s head in every shot with a football (not joking) to test how well the shot flow works. Just a thought….

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch