I hope the layout posts have been interesting. When I first went to CalArts, I was so convinced that I was going to be an animator that I paid no attention to learning about layout. Then, when I found my way into the story department, I really struggled to grasp how to (as I saw it back then) "fill out the background behind the characters". But over the years, I realized that layout is so much more than just a backdrop for characters. The layout and the characters should work in harmony when it comes to telling a story and informing the audience about the emotions that the character is feeling.
So I have a certain passion for layout because I had to work so hard to understand how it works. And because I had to search high and low for answers and look at tons of artwork to get a grasp on how to work with layouts, I guess it's easy for me to articulate a lot of information about it. So I hope you don't mind and that it's not boring or tiresome.
Anyway, a few more thoughts on layout (and how it relates to storyboarding):
Create a clear "stage" for the action.
This may seem obvious, but a big part of the layout's function is to create a "stage" for the action that's going to happen within the scene. The characters should be able to act and move through the scene without foreground elements covering up their actions or background elements cluttering up the scene and distracting from the characters. In general, you don't want too much detail or clutter behind where the characters are going to be performing.
This sounds easier than it is in execution. There's a real art to laying in background elements that don't distract from the characters because they're overworked, confusing or odd-looking (you don't want viewers to be wondering what that thing in the background is...if it's a streetlight, it needs to read as a streetlight)! It takes time and experience to know how to fill in an environment so that everything you draw works in concert with the characters to create a good composition (no matter where the characters move throughout the scene) and also provides the right mood and tone for what the story needs of the scene are.
When I say that the layout needs to function as a "stage" for the action, that doesn't always mean creating a big blank empty space in the center of the composition where you place the characters. The characters shouldn't always be right in the center of the frame, and the "stage" can be whatever it needs to be. Everything should service the story. So make the best choices to fit what the story demands.
Here, a feeling of being trapped and desperate is achieved by putting the dogs under the stove. It might seem like a cramped place to stage the action, but that's exactly the point.
Being under the stove creates an interesting composition and breakup of space, and seeing Perdita being graphically weighed down by the heavy shape of the stove is a nice visual way to communicate how she feels.
A similar example, from the same movie: the archway of the bridge is another nice use of layout to make Pongo and the puppies feel "trapped" as they hide from Cruella.
Creating the best "stage" to tell the story may involve different heights and levels in order to tell the story. As I've often mentioned, the layout of this scene from "Tangled" needed to support the story point: that Mother Gothel was in power, and the Stabbington twins were subordinate to her.
So we created an environment where she could be above them and we could get shots of her above them, shots looking up at her so she appears powerful, and shots looking down at the twins so they look powerless.
Sometimes, a scene calls for a stage that can accommodate compositions making the powerful characters look big in the frame, and powerless characters small and minimized (artwork by Vance Gerry).
Another Vance Gerry sketch (from "The Rescuers"), showing that a large empty stage can be the right choice for making a character feel small, alone and powerless.
Many times, creating a frame within the composition can be a nice way to create a stage for the action (and crop out blank, uninteresting areas of the frame).
As I've often repeated, creating a "flat" stage will tend to give more of a comedic effect to a scene...
...while creating a stage with more depth to it will feel more exciting and dramatic.
One of the most important aspects of layout is that it needs to work in concert with all of the action in the scene to make sure the audience is looking where you want them to look. Obviously, we want to make sure the audience is always seeing exactly what we want them to see. That way, they always know what's going on and what each character is doing and feeling.
This can be a challenge, especially in action scenes with quick cuts and fast action. It can be very easy for the audience to become confused or disoriented, and if they miss certain key actions and emotions, they may not be able to follow the plot or understand what the characters are doing.
The most basic way that a good layout achieves this goal is by making sure that the viewer's eye remains focused within the composition and that their eyes are directed towards the center of interest.
Again, as I pointed out above, many times you can create a "frame within a frame" to get the audience to look where you want them to look. Here, the characters head is contained within the frame of the doorway so that we look right at his expression and he doesn't get lost within the composition.
Here, the layout creates a blank portion of the background as a frmae-within-the-frame so the hair can be seen clearly.
Here, the curtains behind the character's head create a nice frame to contain his head and gives extra emphasis to his expressions.
Also, remember that he eye will always go to the area with the most contrast...that is, the whitest white against the darkest black. It doesn't have to literally be pure white against pure black, but just wherever the greatest contrast is within the frame. So place the greatest contrast where you want the viewer's eye to go.
Here, by turning these images into black and white images, you can see how the film makers put the most contrast where they wanted the viewer's eye to go.
Also, you should always be conscious of everything in the frame as graphic elements. In a linear way, you should always be pointing the viewer's eye where you want it to go.
Always be aware of how perspective is influencing the graphic lines in your scene. Is the perspective helping to point everything where you want the audience to look? Or are the graphic lines pointing the viewer's eye out of the fame and creating a weak composition?
Most of the time, the way I use layouts to contain and direct the viewer's eye is pretty simple. A lot of shots in dialogue scenes just need some simple framing to give the character's expressions a clear stage and keep the viewer's eye from sliding off the edges of the frame.
I tend to create frames around the character's faces (if possible) and to direct lines towards their faces and eyelines to help emphasize their expressions.
Here's one by Franquin. Notice how the surfaces of the road and hills aren't flat surfaces...they curve towards our characters. Also, there's a grass hill behind our characters, and it bisects the eyeline of the character that is speaking to draw your attention to his expression.
Another by Pyle, using frames around the character's faces for emphasis and lines that are directed towards the subject's faces.
Yet another framing of the face, courtesy of NC Wyeth.
When it's converted to black and white, you can see another example of how contrast can draw your eye to the important part of the frame.
More great use of lines to keep the viewer's eye looking at the most important part of the composition, courtesy of Wyeth and Pyle.
Directing the eye to where you want the viewer to look is even more important in story sketch than it is in the fields of painting and illustration. A story sketch will only be on screen for a few seconds, or even a fraction of a second, in some cases. In a good story sketch, there should be no ambiguity about where the audience should be looking.
Okay, I'll stop there for now....more to come soon!