Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Milky Waif – cheating continuity – part 4: screen directions

Let’s start on a detour: The Axial Cut
An axial cut is defined as a connection of two camera setups with identical camera-object-axis. The difference between shots is then, how close the camera is to the object. This device has been used heavily in the early silent years but has been relegated to special occasions in later years (just think of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001).

The Birds: Jessica Tandy finds farmer Dan Fawcett killed by birds. This is not a truck or zoom in but a series of three shots without any sound at all.

In animation the axial cut is useful because there is no perspective change, so it isn’t necessary to draw a new background. Classic cartoons have very clear and simple screen directions, so axial cuts hardly noticed at first view.

There is a special kind of axial cut that is motivated by the nature of the hand drawn animation medium. I usually call it:

The Cheat Cut

Here we have a standard zoom on Jerry (left and middle image) which ends with a “cheat cut” (an axial match cut that is intended to go unnoticed) to a closer BG and cel setup of the same room that is more practical (right image). In the first setup the details have to be drawn and animated smaller which causes large fuzzy, wiggly lines when optically enlarged. As everything can be drawn in larger proportions the lines are clearer and steadier in the second setup.

This seems to be standard practice for golden age shorts and can be observed in cartoons of any studio of the time. The transition would be smoother with a cross-dissolve but this usually implies a leap in time.

Cheating On Screen Directions
The light source is on the left. The perspective on the room and on Jerry is three-quarters. Jerry’s face is already to the right.
Waking up because somebody was knocking he looks to the right. We then see the green door on the right.
It is revealed as the outside door. Gazing straight into the camera is fairly common for both Tom and Jerry without ever distracting from the story.
Remember the light source inside is on the left, so light from the artificially lit kitchen seems to illuminate Jerry’s apartment. From the outside the door is brown working better with the basic cold-warm setting. In contrast to the cold outside world, Jerry’s apartment is seen as warm from the outside…
…which must be quite attractive for Nibbles in the nutshell. So here it comes: Jerry looks back in but what he sees is a different part of the room. In this supposedly warm part of the apartment the carpet has a large yellow part which is not existant in any of the round carpets in dark/nighttime backgrounds.

Jerry then runs around Nibbles so that he is again on the left side. But when they go to the right, the green outside door has been substituted with a mousehole to the kitchen as we see in one of the very few point of view shots.

Flat Panels
In spite of backgrounds that almost always imply diagonal camera angles, the action is basically staged on a flat right to left axis on a right angle to the camera. A concept that has already become evident in the long pans (previous posts) is also applied to most of the other shots.

In other words: the characters’ perspective is not congruent with the perspective of the background but it works because we are only paying attention to the characters’ eyes.

There are some obvious advantages there: the characters don’t have to be drawn from different angles, they don’t have to increase or shrink in size within shots and more important from a storytelling point of view, it’s easier to show the line of action on these silhouettes than on almost full frontal characters in over-shoulder-shots.

As can be seen from numerous Tom and Jerry poses these silhouettes work best when the body is depicted in 3/4 with the head in profile. Very often the ears are slightly cheated into ¾ as well so as to prevent the head from appearing overly flat. It’s not always as extreme like in these examples. Many times the head itself is not completely shown in profile. Eye (pupil) positions are always very clear so that there is no question if a character is looking to the left, the right, up or down or straight at us.

Preston Blair educational poses from the first edition of “Advanced Animation” 1945.

This basic spatial disposition (Jerry’s safe harbor on the left, Tom’s realm on the right) is maintained throughout the whole film. So although rooms and backgrounds (and the position of the bowl of milk) change according to the film makers’ convenience the once established 180° rule is never violated, at least superficially.
So whenever Jerry is running to the left he is running away from Tom. This is even maintained when Nibbles has hit Tom with a hammer and they are running away from the mousehole. Tom himself is mostly kept to Jerry’s right.

This is different with Nibbles whose interest in milk is stronger than that in survival.

Short Cuts
Although the distance from the mousehole to the bowl of milk has been thoroughly established, Jerry obviously takes a short cut when he is trying to rescue Nibbles. There is no time (and therefore no space) inbetween these two shots whereas we have seen a long pan just prior to that connecting the to places.

 This is also the case when Nibbles is blown back to the mousehole.

On Jerry’s way back from Tom, however, the path seems to be dangerously long. This not only heightens the tension, but also exaggerates the concept of right to left as an easy progression and left to right as harder.

Breaking The Flatness
Special camera angles and difficult perspectives on characters are reserved for the climactic fight. Forced into the corner, Nibbles suddenly becomes aware of his vulnerability.
 Jerry again comes from the left to the rescue. Most often Nibbles is inbetween Tom and Jerry…
…although Jerry tries really hard to stand between Tom and Nibbles at all times.

In the end, Jerry is triumphing over Tom by being located both higher and on his right. In fact, Tom sits now between Jerry and Nibbles.

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