Drawing from films

Drawing from films is a ridiculously useful exercise. It’s not enough to watch films; it’s not enough to look at someone else’s drawings from films. If you want to be in story, there’s no excuse for not doing this.

The way this works: you draw tons of tiny little panels, tiny enough that you won’t be tempted to fuss about drawing details. You put on a movie - I recommend Raiders, E.T., or Jaws… but honestly if there’s some other movie you love enough to freeze frame the shit out of, do what works for you. It’s good to do this with a movie you already know by heart.

Hit play. Every time there’s a cut, you hit pause, draw the frame, and hit play til it cuts again. If there’s a pan or camera move, draw the first and last frames.

Note on movies: Spielberg is great for this because he’s both evocative and efficient. Michael Bay is good at what he does, but part of what he does is cut so often that you will be sorry you picked his movie to draw from. Haneke is magnificent at what he does, but cuts so little that you will wind up with three drawings of a chair. Peter Jackson… he’s great, but not efficient. If you love a Spielberg movie enough to spend a month with it, do yourself a favor and use Spielberg.

What to look for:

  • Foreground, middle ground, background: where is the character? What is the point of the shot? What is it showing? What’s being used as a framing device? How does that help tie this shot into the geography of the scene? Is the background flat, or a location that lends itself to depth?
  • Composition: How is the frame divided? What takes up most of the space? How are the angles and lines in the shot leading your eye?
  • Reusing setups, economy: Does the film keep coming back to the same shot? The way liveaction works, that means they set up the camera and filmed one long take from that angle. Sometimes this includes a camera move, recomposing one long take into what look like separate shots. If you pay attention, you can catch them.
  • Camera position, angle, height: Is the camera fixed at shoulder height? Eye height? Sitting on the floor? Angled up? Down? Is it shooting straight on towards a wall, or at an angle? Does it favor the floor or the ceiling?
  • Lenses: wide-angle lens or long lens? Basic rule of thumb: If the character is large in frame and you can still see plenty of their surroundings, the lens is wide and the character is very close to camera. If the character’s surroundings seem to dwarf them, the lens is long (zoomed in).
  • Lighting: Notice it, but don’t draw it. What in the scene is lit? How is this directing your eye? How many lights? Do they make sense in the scene, or do they just FEEL right?

This seems like a lot to keep in mind, and honestly, don’t worry about any of that. Draw 100 thumbnails at a time, pat yourself on the back, and you will start to notice these things as you go.

Don’t worry about the drawings, either. You can see from my drawings that these aren’t for show. They’re notes to yourself. They’re strictly for learning. 

Now get out there and do a set! Tweet me at @lawnrocket and I’ll give you extra backpats for actually following through on it. Just be aware - your friends will look at you super weird when you start going off about how that one shot in Raiders was a pickup - it HAD to be - because it doesn’t make sense except for to string these other two shots together…

Little white mouse out for bloooood

Little white mouse out for bloooood

New Year, big question

Today I am answering one question:

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In life I was vermin

In death I am a prizefighter

In life I was vermin

In death I am a prizefighter

The apartment I’m living in now has a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows in the bedrooms. Sitting on the floor watching the city go by is relaxing, but watching space would be even better.

The apartment I’m living in now has a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows in the bedrooms. Sitting on the floor watching the city go by is relaxing, but watching space would be even better.

"The Cat" by Tove Jansson, from The Summer Book



(Pssst. Our Tove Jansson collection is currently available at 40% off the retail price.)

IT WAS a tiny kitten when it came and could drink its milk only from a nipple. Fortunately, they still had Sophia’s baby bottle in the attic. In the beginning, the kitten slept in a tea cozy to keep warm, but when it found its legs they let it sleep in the cottage in Sophia’s bed. It had its own pillow, next to hers.

It was a gray fisherman’s cat and it grew fast. One day, it left the cottage and moved into the house, where it spent its nights under the bed in the box where they kept the dirty dishes. It had odd ideas of its own even then. Sophia carried the cat back to the cottage and tried as hard as she could to ingratiate herself, but the more love she gave it, the quicker it fled back to the dish box. When the box got too full, the cat would howl and someone would have to wash the dishes. Its name was Ma Petite, but they called it Moppy.

“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”

“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”

“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”

Her grandmother sighed and said nothing.


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I’ve been reading NYBR’s translations of Tove Jansson’s books - Summer Book, Fair Play, and The True Deciever. If you read and liked the Moomin books, with quietly honest & philosophical undertones underneath all the adventure, you’ll probably find something great in these. I’m learning valuable things about being an artist and making art from the characters in these books, approaches to problems I’ve been struggling with.

If you haven’t read the Moomin books, what are you waiting for!? 

I’m glad she wrote them. They’re like letters from the big sister you never had. 

Questions, answering some questions -

Ways to practice pitching, animation programs, stagnation and sound.

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Writing as a drawing tool

Writing as a drawing tool - yeah, that sounds weird. If you wanted to work with words, you’d be a writer, right?

This isn’t beautiful writing, though. This is organizational, planning writing that I’m going to talk about. Writing out a scene beat by beat. Outlining an entire story.

Full disclosure: I’m not a visual thinker.

If I’ve only met you a few times, I recall you in terms of a general impression and descriptive words. I have no picture of you in my head. It’s kind of crazy that I’ve gotten this far in this field without a mind’s eye, but using writing as an intermediary between intention and drawing has helped me a lot. If you’re a visual thinker you probably have your own methods of working, but either way I hope this is useful.

When I jump straight into boards or thumbnailing, it can be easy to get lost or forget the point of view I intended to convey in the scene.

When I work straight ahead - in either writing or boarding - it’s easy for me to go down the rabbit hole of possibilities. The farther down the rabbit hole you go, the harder it is to distinguish which choices are serving your goals, because this option is awesome — wait, and this one is, too. All of them are interesting and worth pursuing, and sometimes you forget where you were going in the first place.

While that exploratory work is useful, it can be deadly when I’m crunched for time.

Not LITERALLY deadly but deadly to productivity for sure.

So that’s where writing comes in.

When I write down where the scene should end up, what each character is doing, that’s one thing I don’t have to constantly grip in my mind. I’ve got it on my notepad, and my mind is freed up to explore within the constraints I’ve set down.

It all seems clear in my head, but it helps to write it down. Seeing the whole thing down on paper gives me a good look at where the disorganized areas are, so I can make adjustments. When I go straight ahead, it’s easy to tell myself I’ll figure it out when I get there… but this brings me to another point:

Writing is so, so much faster than drawing.

I’m not talking about flowery description. I’m talking about basic “she goes there, he feels this, because of this she does that,” etc. You can knock this out in five minutes. Even looking at the bare bones it’s easy to see where you’re losing the spirit of your pitch.

I’d much prefer to find out that I’ve lost the spirit of my pitch in five minutes than an hour later, after thumbnailing the whole thing.

Here’s another advantage: I can write down my plan, approve of it in sound mind, and have that paper with my plan for the scene or story written on it when I am:

  • tired
  • drunk
  • in the throes of self-doubt
  • seduced by the compulsion to change everything at the last minute
  • wondering whether this was ever a good idea and what is on TV (very subtly different from the throes of self-doubt)

If you’re not convinced, you’re not convinced.

If you are, here are some guidelines:

When you’re beating out a scene, think about WHY the audience is watching - like, what do they want to find out? Think about what they probably EXPECT will happen (so you can support that) and what ACTUALLY happens (so you can surprise them with it).

Write down everything that happens in the scene. Descriptive words help (because again, when you’re tired and can’t decide what the acting should be, you can look at your descriptive word and just do that).

  • She looks up, confused.
  • Above: wasp nest on a tree
  • Wasps buzzing around it
  • She is horrified
  • She runs

For an outline - for your whole story - things are a little different. A general guideline I use for writing out an outline is that each of the following gets a paragraph:

  • the concept of the story
  • who the main character is
  • what is her place in the world
  • what goes wrong (inciting incident)
  • how does she try to fix it (act 1 break)
  • brief description of complications (act 2)
  • what really goes wrong (midpoint)
  • low point
  • resolution (act 3)

It seems counter-intuitive that almost half of the outline would be setup for the story, and that the end would be just one paragraph, but this really does work and make sense when you need to see your whole story in just a few pages.

So next time you have a story idea, try writing some things down before you start sketching your favorite moments. Maybe you’ll like it.

More questions!

This week: set planning, NDAs, dropouts, and film races

(sorry about the walls of text; the formatting is acting up for some reason)

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