Balancing different elements in environmental design from story and character aspects :An exploration of shape and re-creation in environment design
The environment design in films and videos productions can emphasise the story and help express the emotions of the characters. It requires a high degree of creativity and also needs a strong artistic sense.
How do we maintain the balance and stability of various design elements in shape and position design for environment ? Is it better to design these elements in terms of their practical function and features or should their design be determined by the emotion in the storyline? How could we redesign the elements when we’ve already have some references?
The purposes of my research:
1. Figure out the way of design the environment from the story aspect.
2. Explore the way of shapes of the building and props design .
3. Explore how to make the characters alive through the expressive environment.
I am currently the environment designer for two contrasting animation projects. One is a dark tale that requires the colour, tone and style to be creepy and full of dangers. The other is set in a post- apocalyptic world that demands hopeless silence. This article will analysis some typical examples and show how did I use what I learned from the research to my practices.
As the growth of environmental designs for films and videos during the last decade, the foundation of this field became solid, but some aspects still remain argument and worth exploring. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the exploration of shapes of buildings and props , analyse the connections among environment, characters and story, which encompasses two concepts: find the suitable way to emphasise the characters’ feeling and performances by using props, build a environment structurally to match the storyline.
As I mentioned above, I am going to develop these explorations based on writings related to project’ production of environmental research and representations of some interview and progress of production for some movies. Furthermore, the practice are very important to expressing what you have learned from the research. Throughout the process of developing, we discussed the environment so many times as a collaborating team ,we understand that ‘An environment is never just an environment’, it could reflecting the character’s emotions and personality like a mirror in a particular way, it requires high creativity and the strong ability to understand the story. This essay explains some of the creative concerns, processes and challenges that we have confronted during the thinking and production of the environmental design works, and how did I utilized the references and transformed the useful parts to my own projects.
Emphasise the storyline
Here is a fabulous example of how the designer redesign all the elements from the references and consist them together to make it exactly fit the story. In the movie <The polar express>, there s a lonely boy who lives in a small house, the designer Rick Carter found an perfect inspiration for the house just near the Zemeckis’s boyhood home(Figure 3). What we could find in the original reference image is ,the house is weather damaged with the structure which is already a little bit incomplete ,however, corners are still contained . When we look at the final look of the house in the movie(Figure 1), we found that it has been ultimately placed in the imaginary world near a graveyard which is on the gloomy outskirts of the small town, there is almost nothing but several withered trees stand by the lonely house , the designer also separated the big window to 2 small windows looking out the world like two sad eyes. Otherwise, the house has been fenced to make us feel it’s out of tune with the outside world which is designer added in in the final scene. When we looking back to the story’s respect, the corners are all covered by thick snow which makes the house a rounded and smooth shape, it shows us the owner of this house is a kind boy not a villain (To utilize the ‘rules’ of design , curves cause comfortable, elegant, soft feelings which can sometimes be a symbol of good guys. On the contrary,straight and sharp shapes can feeling of hard and dull, often used as the elements for villains .) the rounded shape make audience realise the character’s personality and the story here is the boy who is lonely and no one want to talk to him , he is quite like trapped in this small cage. To emphasise this section of story, the artist David (2004)developed the environment from the figure 2 he added some worn iron fence and an signpost and an mailbox which is already useless and quite rusty ,which tell people that in this scene, there has been a long time since the last people came in and no body even remember this boy to send him any letter. Also, A lighted dilapidated factory has been set opposite to the house but still maintain a certain distance from it, just like the boy in this section, the Santa Clause didn’t come, he wanted to reach some warm things instead of staying in the little cage covered with snow and ice, the lighted factory Symbolises the hope here, but the boy just can see it only instead of reaching it. Even without any character in this environment ,we could imagine the story almost correctly.
When we transformed the elements I mentioned above to the project I am currently working for., similarly, the lonely house in the forest (rose and dust) requires a small house in the middle of the forest and obviously no other buildings near it. For matching the background of the story, we need to find some cottage in Scotland as the references then re create it. As the designer of< Brave >(2012) said :”The sets are characters to me, they are like the best supporting actors or actresses in the show.”(Pilcher,2012).They created a hut for the witch(Figure 4) which is hooded by the grasses and plants on the roof and walls, the shape of the cottage is irregular and crazy, the location of the hut is in the forests ,hiding in the depth of it, making it looks more mysterious and unknown..In my project, the cottage need to be lonely and interesting, after the discussion ,we all agreed to make it looks different from the normal Scottish cottages. First of all, the lines. Within the mood I described above, I was inspired to create some anomalistic lines , most of them are inclined , you can hardly see ninety degree angles, like the walls of the cottage don’t line up perfectly. Next step: the shape. Our story is about a sad and lonely girl trapped in the house like a bird without wings in some because her husband is gone. For enhance the lonely stuff, we could not add the majority of pants around or on the house(Figure 5), what we could do is give her an empty garden in front of her house without flowers or any plants. In the second section of the story, the girl was looking forward to go outside but she couldn’t be which requires the environment creating an oppressive atmosphere, when I was thinking about the bird, the idea of cage came out , as you can see in the final design of the house , the windows are exactly the cage style which are filled with the railings form the diamond-shape. Considering with the story behind , the girl goes out the house finally and find the only rose in the garden, I couldn’t make the cage thing so strong ,so I used the wooden texture railings instead of the steel ones. When we turn to the environment design inside the house(Figure 6), the props hanging on the walls are mainly photo frames which filled with the old photos she took with her husband, the furniture in the interiors are all double copies with the minor differences of the size and style , in addition , husband’s chair and some furniture that belonged to him before are covered with thick dusty and some spiders’ nets.All these elements could tell people the story happened before the beginning of the film and continue it, which could let us cut down some unnecessary parts in the progresses of production and also give the audience more imagine space of the story and film.
Express the emotions of the characters
In spite of the fact that we only have one character and one location in my Ikaros project has been technically determined, we still want to express the diversification of the emotions for the character. As the character is falling down through the whole film, what we can do is change the environment around him instead of changing the costume of him., the location has to be decided to take references in Dundee and shoot as the live action. Then here comes an argument, how can we actually reach the hopeless feeling ?Is it enough just destroy the buildings in technical way or we need to do the re-creation ? In light of this argument, the construction of the whole environment becomes significant and, in many scenes of the movies, especially with regard to Madagascar2 (2008), there is a location called Crash Site(Figure 7,8), actually, the ‘aircraft factory ‘could be more suitable name for the whole environment .Designer wanted to make the crash site to reflect the hopelessness and trapped feeling of the animals’ situation. What we can see is :this is a desolate area which is rough and barren with dead plants (such like scrub, trees etc.) ,bare dust with tufts of grass, the concept art of it demonstrates the designer’s vision as a lonely and dry wasteland perfectly. In this scene, all of the animals came together and fix the plane by themselves(Figure 9), the story here is just a turning point, the emotions of the zoosters translated from hopelessness to picking up the hopes again. As the beginning , the animals were living in the urban city but suddenly their plane was crashed in the desolate ground ,even the audience could easily feel the huge gap between the two different feelings. But as the chimps constructed polleys, platforms etc.,the desolate patch of ground becomes a big flourishing factory under the designer’s direction
All the elements are huddled in a circle to increase the emotion of trapped. The giant ,wilted wood consisting of a wall to avoid characters escaping from this area, all of the plants here are designed with the sharp edges and corners on the branches for making the uncomfortable feelings.For the changing of emotions for animals ,Alex (2008) added some modern props such like the tracks and cranes made of woods which increased the modern feelings and suitable for the whole environment , though these elements are largely distinct from the nature, there are still significant connection between them and made them rationalization, such as the wooden material. If we think through the basic shape aspect ,we can find the these props added in later are all recreated by curves and let us feel cozy .Like Cronkhite said “There’s tools, there’s poundings.”(2008), this environment now is busy and chaotic, we could almost see the props and machines just pound and swing ,also, with the sanding stuff in the background, we could imagine there is constant construction noise which makes it got the urban quality , which suits the characters in a way , just like going back to there former lives. To sum up, these environments expresses the changes of emotions of the zoosters successfully even without the actions and characters in it
As well as talking back to the IKAROS project(Figure 10), we decided to redesign the environment finally. Similarly, we want to show the audience the hopelessness or even desperation to the audience with the environment, as long as we only got one character through the whole movie ,I have to say that environment is almost a character in this project because in many scenes, the environments ,background are covering the most of the shots. Then how do we achieve the goal of so important part in our project? First of all, we need to consider on the respect of basic elements, to highlight the icy feeling, we set the shapes and corners all around our buildings , I did some research in the rusty pipes and constructive buildings include some steels and cements covered with dirt and dust. Steels are exposed outside just look like thorns ,.With these elements ,we could make our buildings looks evil and dangerous .Secondly, regard to the changing of our ‘ikaros’ emotions, we need to change the positions of the buildings and props though the editing of shots. Our character felt messy and perplexed at the beginning ,also, we can see nothing from his glasses. I added some clouds and smoke in the first environment which covering most elements in the scene . As the story progresses, the feeling of chaos becomes clearer, we removed the clouds away and show the dangerous buildings , obsolescent scenes with broken props in it to the audience to convey the heavy and depressed mood of character to the audience. We will just use the one location as the main environment to achieve our final effect . Against this daydream we must place the reality of huge details added in the one huge environment which is the biggest challenge for myself, each detail will perform one emotion for the character, even the main feeling of him is sadness and hopelessness, but we still have to capture the different feelings of the character to make him alive. So, if an environment cannot serve for the emotion of the role, it will be fail without soul in it.
Is it better to design these elements in terms of their practical features or should their design be determined by the emotion and background in the storyline?
In addition to the two points above, I am going to demonstrate that the design of the elements aims to be determined by the background instead of their practical features or functions . Chrokhite ,who is the production designer of <Madagascar 2>(2008),showed his breakthroughs in the environmental design in the location of Africa in the film. The biggest challenge of this environment is Africa, a place that people are much more familiar with comparing with the land of Madagascar.” People have an idea in their heads of what Africa looks like, so the challenge here was to bring them a world that they would recognize as Africa.”(Darnell ,2008).However, how could they make audience feel fresh and also bring the Africa to them is unlike they had even seen before. As Africa is a huge world with majority of elements(such as jungles ,animals etc.)in it, it is too complicated and cause itself more dominating that the characters, when the environment is too distracting ,it will be fail. What we can see in the conceptual design is ,they used a lot of Africa factors such as :sculpture, textiles and masks. Even the texture of the braches of the trees are look like the typical tattoos in Africa. Furthermore, to match the whole style of the film, the trees are kept simple , The shapes are hard and some branches are even sharp, with these, we see how the environment demonstrate the feelings of the characters broke into Africa in the first time and also inherit the landscape features. (Figure 11,12,13)
“I like to call the visual landscape of a film the ‘filmscape’”(Carter,2008). which is the environment of where we go and what happens there. It’s the space of the film. That’s exactly what we want to chase in our projects. when you play the film in your own mind, you can imagine what it’d feel like to walk into these environments, every props you can touch in your mind and feel they are exactly belong to here, to the story itself.
Conclusion: Let the expressive environment make the films impressive
As wang (2013)elaborated “Environment design in the movie is like a special stage erected for the film, the characters are like the actors, sets of the stages and props can add to the glory of the actors and film itself.”. A good film need the expressive environment to make it alive , if we just pieced elements together make them look like exactly what we can find in our real life with their particular functions, or we overdesign them to let them become overwhelming, the film going to be fail in any way. This article offers a practical analysis of the elements in environmental design , paying particular attention to the shape , position in sets of buildings an props .
All of these examples I mentioned above demonstrated that we should build everything structurally, normally, people could even live in it. Like the house in the Rose, we made a house with several structurally room and all the props that we may use in our real life ,then we threw things off kilter. Same as the Ikaros destroyed world design. We want to be realistic but not photoreal. The environment should designed from the film itself aspect and make our characters to fit in the world , to make people believe this world as existing.
Mark,,C.Z., Steve,S.,2004. The art of The Polar Express, California: Chronicle Books LLC .
Jerry,B.,2008.The Art Of Madagascar 2,USA, Insight Editions
Jenny ,L.,2012.The Art Of Brave, California, Chronicle Books LLC
Lei,W., 2013. The role of the animation environmental design. In: The magazine of Xi'an Fine Arts College.,ed.2013. Xi’an : Xi'an Fine Arts College Press. Ch.1
Interview with Yiran Feng
As well as talked to Yiran , who was an matte painting artist before, I can easily find that he thought most people will focus on the character and storyline Comparing with the environment in the film ,even though he was working on this area, he personality thought that the environment is only the background of films .As I asked that if he thinks that the environment will be a character in the film ,Yiran didn’t think that the environment could take place of the character because it has no movements and dialogue, so that the environment could only attract people from the visual but lack of attraction from auditory. However, I am not that totally agree with him,.As a designer of Madagascar2 (2008)said, ‘ in Madagascar saga the scenery is as lively as the performers ,the environment is just like a character to us and also acting with all the actors and actresses. ’Although the environment can’t really move the dial, but it still occupies a large proportion of the film, also, the first shot of the film is always an empty environment without any characters.
Then the next question was about why the example of environment could makes him impressive, the reason was also based on the storyline and the ambience. The most important fact should be harmony between all these elements: lighting, building and landscape design, which should deliver a good ambience that the story or action is about to happen. I can’t agree more, because we can imagine the background from a good environment even without colours but can’t lack of shapes ,space and positions .the evidence is when I showed him some monochrome pictures from some games and movies, he could exactly told me the right storyline which are almost the same in the original ones.
Though the talking about my own projects, I realized that a good reference location is not only have the buildings and props that similar as you want , but also including the original landscape features, even the weather and climate should be noticed and make full use of them. As he suggested, the rose and dust which is based on Scotland., and Scotland’s landscape is so tactile, so lush that is the goal that our environment want to achieve .So. for example, our interiors’ feeling is old and one of the owner is not been here for a long time, so whenever I’d design a wall or the roof inside the house , I ‘d overtake their surfaces with lichen and moss. That could make the house both match the storyline and suitable for the landscape. For extension, Yiran purposed that because our environments should emphasise the emotions of the girl who is sensitive and moody, the weather in Scotland could help it perfectly, like make a good background for a story for the changes of the girl’s feelings. The last significant thing that in his experience is take your camera with you as usual as possible, because you will never know what kind of surprise you will find every day, record them and keep updating is so useful to pushing yourself , try to make every elements around you to be fun ,that’s what a good designer should be.