Layout Tricks

Temple of the Seven Golden Camels.

Layout Tricks (Part Five)

One more thing worth mentioning in regards to layout is the importance of silhouette value in designing your layouts.Here’s a quick review on the definition of silhouette value, and how it relates to posing characters:

Just as silhouette value is helpful in drawing poses that express what you’re trying to say with your characters in a clear way, silhouette value can be helpful in making sure the audience knows what your layout is trying to say and reading it the way you intend for it to be read.For example, here is a quick drawing of a house and some trees.

The trees are blocking the outside wall lines and the corners where the roof meets the walls of the house, so you don’t get a good, strong clear read of a house silhouette and it takes you a moment to realize that you’re looking at a house. Can you read that it’s a house with trees in front of it? Sure….but it takes a moment. And a house is a pretty typical standard shape. If you start drawing objects that are a bit more unusual, you get into readability problems a lot more quickly when you don’t silhouette them well.You might be thinking that this is a subtle distinction…that the trees are obscuring the house and that’s why you can’t really read the house. But I think it’s more than that. After all, it is possible to have trees in front of the house and preserve the readability of the house, as long as you do it in the right way….more on that in a second.So in this next drawing, I’ve moved the trees to behind the house. Now you can clearly see the house shape….but now, the tree trunks aren’t silhouetted well. They’re right up against the edges of the house. They’re cut off and they’re a bit hard to read as trees. They’re cluttering the edges of the house and now the readability of both the house and the trees is suffering.

Below is a better version of everything….the trees are moved away from the house far enough that they read as separate objects and you can see the silhouette of the house clearly. And the drawing has some depth because the foliage of the trees is tucked behind the house a little bit. If you’re going to cut off part of an object, pick a part that is a big continuous shape (like the foliage of a tree). We know how trees work and we can easily make the assumption that the tree leaves continue behind the house.

Here’s another version that works fine too. Here, there’s a tree in the front yard that obscures part of the house, but it doesn’t really hurt the readability of the house. Why is that? Why is it okay to obscure the corners and silhouette in some cases, and not in others?

I think, in this case, as long as one plane of the house is silhouetted well, you can get away with obscuring the other plane. And if only one plane is going to be silhouetted, pick the most distinctive side. Here, the front side of the house is silhouetted. That’s what we usually picture when we picture a house in our minds: the peak of the roof, the front door, etc. So we are able to quickly “read” the familiar silhouette of a house.

This concept applies to big objects in your layout, as well as small ones. When you’re drawing objects and props in your backgrounds, keep in mind that most objects have a distinctive silhouette that helps them “read” quickly to the viewer. If you don’t stage them in the right way, you can create a lot of confusion in the viewer. Here are some common everyday objects staged from two angles: a confusing one, and one that exploits the silhouette of the object so it can be read clearly.

I chose extreme angles to make my point, obviously, but you see what I mean.Silhouette value can be applied in more ways than just in the poses you choose for your characters, and can be very helpful for drawing successful backgrounds as well as successful character poses.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Layout Tricks (part four)

Another simple way to get the effect you want from your layouts is to use the right shape language for the type of feeling you’re trying to achieve. Often, you are trying to impart a certain type of mood or feeling to the viewer. You’re not just drawing a house; you are drawing a house that’s supposed to feel haunted. Or comfortable and homey. Or cold and sanitized….whatever is the best option for the story you’re trying to tell.Usually, the key to achieving the mood you want is by using the right kind of lines and shapes. Graphical elements can impart a strong emotional feeling, without the viewer even realizing that they’re being influenced in that way. You should use that to your advantage when trying to create a certain mood. And to make sure you’re not using the wrong kind of shape and undermining what you’re trying to say.Again, this seems kind of simple and obvious, I know. But I can tell you that I’ve used all these “tricks” myself time after time and they’ve really helped me out and helped give my work the effect I want.Vertical lines are great for imparting height. They are great for giving a sense of grandeur and magnificence. They should be used for making things look impressive and awe inspiring. They feel elegant and sophisticated.Castles always make me think of vertical lines. I wouldn’t know how to draw a castle without verticals. Certainly it’s an easy way to make them feel imposing and impressive.

Being at the bottom of The Grand Canyon and looking up at the verticals above you would certainly make you appreciate the feeling that verticals can give you.

By contrast, horizontal lines give a feeling of peace and calm. They feel stable and comfortable. Whenever you see someone sitting on a peaceful beach, the horizon creates a strong horizontal line that feels very relaxing and peaceful.

Another variation is the horizontal “S” curve composition. If you have elements creating an “S” shape in the frame, it takes time for the eye to travel along the curved shape, and that can be helpful for making the eye linger on an image.

Franquin used an “S” shaped composition for the last panel of “Le Repaire de la Murene” to make your eye linger over the frame for an extra beat and give a feeling of finality.


Diagonal lines tend to feel unbalanced and unsupported. They usually give a composition a violent or unsettled feeling. They are good for action scenes and scenes of tension, suspense or scariness. Here are some examples of diagonals in animated films where they’re employed to convey this type of feeling:

A frame of Gollum in his cave that uses diagonals to give a creepy, unsettling feeling:

These pictures of abandoned places are composed to create diagonals in the frame, which enhances the crazy, off-balance feeling you get from viewing them:

Circular shapes give another type of feeling. Circles are soft looking and feel comfortable, reassuring and un-threatening…maybe because they don’t have any edges. Circles can be great for creating soft, comfortable, homey and quaint environments.

The earliest Disney characters were all curves, with no edges or straight lines. I think a big part of their charm and quaint look is because they are all based on circles and that gives them a comfortable, cozy feeling.

Anyway, these are just my first impressions off the top of my head on how I think of these different types of shapes and how I tend to use them. These are not hard and fast rules at all. After all, the Death Star is all circles…and it’s pretty threatening, and not at all comforting!

All of these thoughts on shape are totally pliable and open to interpretation.Lastly, here is a sheet from one of Andrew Loomis’s books where he talks about the psychology of each type of shape and line:

If nothing else, just remember that every type of line and shape imparts a certain feeling. Make sure you’re choosing the right line or shape for what you’re doing, and don’t undermine yourself by accidentally making the wrong choice.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Reminder: It’s the Little Things

Lately, I’ve been writing little posts with tips for improving layouts. As I’ve mentioned, they’re all things that took me a long time to figure out. And every single one of them improved my layout abilities substantially.However, when I look at them written out, they always seem underwhelming (like a lot of the things I write about). They seem kind of obvious and inconsequential. And maybe they seem that way when you read them.But here’s the thing: all the great concepts I’ve ever heard for improving one’s art sound, at first blush, too simple to be of any use and therefore easy to discount. There aren’t any big complicated concepts that you can uncover that will immensely improve your work overnight. There are only a lot of simple concepts that can be combined and employed in sophisticated ways to add up to a great drawing.Years ago, legendary Disney animator Marc Davis used to teach a drawing class at Disney for the young, up-and-coming artists. One of the animators that used to take his class told me that Marc used to say, as he would talk about drawing, “and again…” constantly. Because he would talk about the same few things over and over. But they’re all important things, and each one of them can make a big difference.I used to teach a story class at CalArts, and I remember I was giving a talk to the class about a few concepts that I thought were important. One of the topics I covered was silhouette value (here’s a quick explanation/refresher):

As I was speaking, an exasperated woman in the class called out, “you know, we know this already”. I guess she felt like she’d heard it enough times in other classes and she was ready to hear something new! But the thing is, when this same person did her class assignments, her characters didn’t always have great silhouette value and it was often hard to read her poses. As it is for everyone. Most professionals I know don’t always have great silhouette value in every single one of their poses. I certainly don’t. It’s something that everyone forgets and everyone could strive to be better at incorporating into their work. So just because you’ve heard it once, twice, or fifty times, that doesn’t mean that you’re perfect at it and you never need to hear it again. And the more complicated your characters and compositions get, the harder it is to get good silhouette value in your poses. The more subtle and nuanced a pose, the more difficult it is to get silhouettes that work.The little things make a big difference, and they’re easy to forget because they seem small and inconsequential. But forget enough of the little things and the drawing falls apart.Blocking and staging is another concept that I used to talk about (ad nauseam) to my CalArts class, and I know that can be another one of those topics that seem uninteresting and unimportant (see my “It’s a Wonderful Life” post for an example of using staging and blocking to tell a story). Where the camera is placed and where the characters stand and how they move through a scene can seem like one of the “little things”. But staging and blocking, to me, are one of the most powerful tools you have for telling a story, as well as getting the audience inside the character’s heads and getting the viewer to feel what you want them to feel. And if you don’t put enough care or thought into the staging and blocking, the whole scene can fall apart. And if a scene falls apart, the whole movie can fall apart. And even professionals who have been storyboarding for a long time can neglect or shortchange their staging and forget how vital it is to the success of a scene.Here’s just one example of how a small change in blocking turned a scene that wasn’t working into one that did (and saved a lot of time and effort in the process). During the making of “Tangled”, we were looking at the storyboards for the scene where Gothel manipulates the Stabbington brothers into doing what she wants them to do. The boards were really well done, and yet they didn’t seem to be quite working the way we wanted them to work. When people saw it, they felt that there was no way that the Stabbingtons would ever listen to Gothel and agree to her proposal. They were so much bigger and more intimidating. Why were they even listening to her? She has the crown that they want. Why don’t they just overpower her and take it away? One person saw the scene and said it was the writing that was at fault. It would need to be rewritten and re-conceived. They thought the whole character of Mother Gothel needed an overhaul.But in reality, as simple as it sounds, the problem was one of staging. The board artist had put Gothel and the two brothers on the same ground plane as they talked. So since the brothers were so much taller than her, they towered over her, making Gothel look weak and powerless and making it unbelievable that she could get them to agree to her proposal.The solution was a very simple one. We reboarded the scene, and this time Gothel was placed on a rock above the two brothers. Now the camera could look up at her and down on them. She’s above them visually and feels more powerful. The scene worked and nobody had any issues with it anymore. And it was all the same dialogue as before.

Changing the blocking was such a simple fix, and yet if the scene hadn’t worked it could have doomed the whole film, because you wouldn’t have believed that what you were seeing was possible or realistic. At the very least, if we hadn’t tried that adjustment, we might have spent weeks or months re-writing and re-conceiving Gothel’s character.So don’t take the little, simple things for granted. Not only can they could save you a lot of work, they can really take your work to another level and elevate everything that you do….one little thing at a time!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Layout Tricks (part three)

This one will seem really simple. It might even seem odd that I’m writing it down here…but I remember when this idea first “clicked” for me, and now I do it without thinking when I’m drawing a layout. But it wasn’t always that way. It took me a while to realize that this was a helpful layout trick for making my layouts have depth.

Besides, every drawing trick I know is really simple! Anyway, all this topic involves is looking at shapes and objects that repeat in your composition to give the feeling of depth.

The most obvious examples are the typical ones: telephone poles and railroad tracks.

We know each telephone pole (and railroad tie) is the same size, so as they get further away from us and get smaller, we perceive depth and distance.

This are obvious examples, but you can use that same trick – of objects repeating within your composition – to suggest perspective and distance.

Here, using the foreground, middle ground, and background idea I talked about in an earlier post, I created some depth in these incredibly simple sketches. In a city scene, you can use windows on buildings (which the viewer assumes are all roughly the same size) to create depth with just a few quick lines. As the windows get smaller on each successive level, that feeling of space going back into the frame is achieved.

Here, I drew a simple highway going over three hills. The road signs and lines on the road give you a sense of depth.

And almost every environment has objects that repeat that can be used to achieve perspective. Most city scenes are especially easy because there are always cars and people that populate the streets. But there are many other options too. Mailboxes, streetlights, sidewalk squares, billboards, etc.

This one by Franquin has cars and people to indicate depth, but he also uses the road texture, building windows, etc. My favorite touch is the vertical “Quick” sign in the foreground. There’s a similar vertical sign in the background that says “Monopol” and your eye assumes that they’re about the same size, because they’re similar signs. Immediately, a nice easy sense of depth is created.

Another one of my favorite examples by Franquin. This time, he achieves a good feeling of depth by having close up leaves in the foreground, semi-distinct leaves in the middle ground and then suggestions of tree foliage in the background. Three different layers of leaves at different distances from the viewer, getting smaller and smaller as they get farther away from us creates a great feeling of depth and space.

The variations are limitless, and don’t have to be obvious at all. Here, John Romita Jr. uses a statue in the foreground and similar statues in the background (on the top of a cathedral) to show scale. We assume all the statues are the same size.

Some more examples. From Cosey:

A Dare devil city scene by Chris Samnee:

From Tintin by Herge:

By Bill Peet, from his Autobiography:

Anyway, keep your eyes open for unique ways to use this technique in your own work. It’s a handy trick for creating depth and perspective without it drawing attention to itself and distracting from the rest of the image (which can happen if you try to put telephone poles and railroad tracks in every frame). Here are some real world examples for inspiration.

Layout Tricks (part two)

Here are a couple of other thoughts to keep in mind that are helpful in creating depth in layout. These things may seem simple and obvious (like a lot of concepts about drawing), but they have helped me quite a bit over the years.Planning your layout to have alternating patches of sunlight and shade on the ground can be very helpful for showing depth as space recedes into the distance.

Also, creating those alternating areas of light and shade can help keep your ground plane from becoming ambiguous as it stretches away into the distance.

Atmospheric perspective occurs when particles in the air obscure your vision. This is usually very apparent when there is smoke, dust or fog in the air, but it occurs even on clear days. There’s always a certain amount of water in the atmosphere, and as we look at objects that are far away from us, the cumulative effect of all the particles we are looking through obscures those objects. If you can capture that effect in your backgrounds, you will be able to create the feeling of depth. It doesn’t have to be that pronounced or noticeable. Even a small amount of effort can create a good feeling of depth.

Because of this atmospheric effect, any landscape will have more contrast in the foreground than in the middle ground, and there will be more contrast in the middle ground than the background. The further things are from the viewer, the less contrast they will have on them.

Here’s two examples. In example 1 below, the foreground area has the most contrast. The middle ground area has lass contrast than the foreground, and then the background and sky are the lightest areas. The objects in the distance have the least contrast. It looks correct and there’s some (simple) depth to the picture.

In example 2, I reversed it so that the background has the most contrast and the foreground has the least. It’s very confusing graphically, and there’s no feeling of depth.

The same thing goes for detail. Because of atmospheric perspective, we see a lot more detail in objects that are close to us. The moisture (or smoke, or dust, etc.) in the air obscures the details on objects as they get further away from us. Again, you can use this effect to create depth very simply.

Here’s another example to show how this works. In example 1 below, the foreground level has more detail. The middle ground has less detail, and the background level has the least amount of detail.

In example 2, I reversed it so that there’s more detail in the background and less detail in the foreground. It looks very graphically confusing and makes no sense.

And, of course, atmospheric perspective affects color as well. Color will always appear more saturated when it’s closer to the observer and it becomes less saturated as it gets farther away from the viewer.

Again, all of these might seem like completely obvious observations. But most of the things that I know about drawing are very simple techniques that can be used in very complex and sophisticated ways.

Here is a small selection of examples to illustrate all of these points. More layout material to come…

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Tricks For Creating Layouts (Part One)

One of the first posts I wrote was a very simple trick for storyboard artists dealing with layouts and backgrounds.First, some history: I started out as an animator, and so I was always more focused on learning how to draw characters, expressions, and poses. The idea of drawing layouts or backgrounds was not something I ever thought about at all.

But after being an animator for a few years, I transitioned into storyboarding. Suddenly, I had to deal with drawing backgrounds and layouts. I was very intimidated at first…most of my boards featured a character in the center of the frame, with just a slight suggestion of a layout sketched in timidly around the edges.

Pretty quickly, I realized the limitations of this approach. When you don’t feel comfortable drawing backgrounds, you’re limited in how much you can move the camera and utilize the environments to help tell the story.

So I went in search of help with layouts. I wasn’t able to find a book on the topic (although I know there has been one published since then–someone let me know if it’s been helpful to them). I learned to do layout by looking at what some of my favorite comic book artists had done with their layouts.

So one of the first simple techniques I discovered (and the subject of one of my first blog posts) was a way of organizing layouts to make them less intimidating. And that’s to divide layouts into three levels: Foreground, Middle ground, and Background.

Carl Barks used this technique quite a bit, and very effectively.

The great thing about this technique is that you can stage your action on any one of the three levels, depending on how much emphasis you want to give each element. There’s something that I always found so overwhelming about trying to abstract the whole world into a stage and backdrop for my characters and action…the idea of reducing all of that into three distinct levels really helped make layouts more manageable. And the best part is that when you do it right, the viewer isn’t aware of the separation of levels…it just feels like a spacious world, full of depth.

Some more examples from Barks from around the web:

This may not seem like a super exciting or helpful tip…but that’s true of a lot of drawing advice that I have found helpful over the years. Sometimes all you need to create better drawings is an organizational tool to help arrange your design elements and keep them from being a disorganized mess.

 

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