A Dreamer Walking

It’s A Wonderful Scene

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy, Scene Analysis by Jacob on December 25, 2014

I don’t think there is any better time then the day of Christmas to introduce to you one of my favorite scenes of all time. The scene comes from the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But first I need to do a little set up.

This is considered one of the key scenes from the movie. In it you see the main character George Bailey at his happiest. He is filled with enthusiasm for the future and is going to “see the world”. You can also feel the sexual tension between two characters. Though George may be a little too high on his horse to understand it they both are deeply in love with each other. After this scene George finds out his father died and it goes down hill from there. Instead of going to see the world he gets stuck working at his father’s old business, The Building and Loan. His plan was to work there until his brother came back from collage. However, he finds out his brother got married and was offered a job with his wife’s father after school. Again, George is stuck in Bedford Falls working for his old run-down business. Now I have set it up, check out the scene displaying Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart at the pinnacle of their game.

Never have I seen a scene so elegantly walk the line between humor and anguish. The tension is so potent from the beginning and only intensifies the futher along we go. Capra once said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” Capra’s greatest weapon against dullness in his movies was conflict. Conflict is one of the storyteller’s greatest weapons. Where the resolutions in a movie can only entertain for minutes or just seconds, curtain conflicts can keep an audience on the edge of their seats through entire movies. In fact the greater the conflict the more satisfying the resolution.

The main conflict finally concluded in this scene had been building since the beginning of the movie. As you saw in the first scene I showed, the tension between Mary and George was strong. In this scene it’s intoxicating. The audience desperately wants to see these two together and Capra knows this. So naturally he does everything in his power to stop them from being together. I mean it starts from the very beginning. George tries to come into the yard and he can’t open the gate. When it come to setting up conflict the audience will buy into pretty much anything you do to get us deeper into the hole. What are the odds that the gate wouldn’t open? Yet, we don’t think twice about it because it’s stopping George from getting to Mary. On the other hand, you need to earn your way out of the hole. The audience won’t buy into any quick fix solutions.

George and Mary’s demeanor at the beginning could not be further apart. One is upbeat and happy to be back home in Bedford Falls. The other is slumped in depression and finds the town of Bedford to be a prison. If you ever find yourself struggling with making a scene feel interesting, it’s probably because you have not created enough of a clash between characters. The two characters are at different ends of the spectrum on every topic they go into. Mary went to collage and chose to come back home because she missed Bedford Falls, George would like nothing more then to go to collage so he could leave Bedford Falls. Mary couldn’t be happier George is there to visit. George keeps on explaining how he wasn’t really planning on showing up. Mary puts out an illustration of the man lassoing the moon and puts on Buffalo Gals. George hardly gives these things any consideration. All this makes the audience cry out in frustration. We so desperately want them to come together and the tension is just killing us.

One of the beautiful things Capra does is add in sprinkles of humor through out the piece. Capra basks in the awkwardness of the conversation. This whole scene has less to do with what is said but rather focuses on what is communicated between the lines. George makes the comment when he sits down, “Well, I see it still smells like pine needles around here”.  Mary, “….thank you.”. Neither we nor she think the comment was exactly a compliment but what else is there to say? Mary makes an effort to echo the sentiments the characters had years ago when walking home from the dance. She begins to sing the line, “And dance by the light of the..” and of course George doesn’t remember, another example of George missing the opportunity to connect with Mary. At this point of the scene the barrier between the two couldn’t be more obvious. However, Capra doesn’t yet want to let the audience off the hook. He knows he can go further but to do so he needs to throw in another factor.

In comes the mother. Mary’s mom forces the conversation to go to another stage. “George Bailey?! What’s he want!”. Finally Mary is able to get more direct. “What do you want”, she asks. This confrontation sends us into the final act of the scene. Mary starts to grow tired of George’s indifference. Her comment, “He’s making violent love to me, mother”, is probably the best laugh out loud moment of the whole scene. And before you know, it the two are separated. To add insult to injury Sam calls Mary, just another reminder to George of what he doesn’t have. The tension is shattered literally through Mary breaking the record. We think everything has been for not, and the audience is devastated.

BUT WAIT! GEORGE FORGOT HIS HAT!!!

Capra goes to an over the shoulder shot of Mary talking to Sam while George listens in. Look how flawless the staging is here. George seems to leave again and we watch as Mary’s mother comes into frame left. “He doesn’t want to speak to George”, she says. There is the small sight gag of George suddenly being right in front of Mary as she calls to him. Now Capra has set up a visual metaphor of the conflict at hand, Mary is in the middle of the frame with her mom to her right and George to her left. Who is going to win out?

The cut to Sam might not be needed but it does drive home the point even further. If we needed more of a reason to root for George this would be it. Sam has a girl right behind him while he talks, and he is dressed up in a high quality suit all the indications of a successful business man. George is everything Sam is not.

What is wonderful at this point is Capra finds a humorous and organic way to keep Mary and George together. Sam suggests George go on the other extension and Mary replies, “Mother is on the other extension”. This is yet another humorous moment. It also does a far more important thing; it forces Mary and George to stay together. At this point, when the tension is at its highest Capra cuts to the key shot in the whole scene. It’s a tight two shot with Mary and George talking on the phone. Capra refuses to cut from this shot. What really elevates this moment is the silence between dialogue. The gaze the two have toward each other are agonizing. We can hardly bear it anymore. We are crying out for them to finally connect, to express their love for each other. And finally at the time the tension is at it’s peak with George declaring his refusal to give in, the phone drops and George admits his love for Mary.

When writing or shooting a scene the big question needs to be about who your characters are and what they want. Then you need to find ways to stop those objectives from coming true. Make them work for their goal so in the end your moment is earned. The amazing thing about this scene is how simple it is. It doesn’t take place on an expensive set and there are no complex camera moves. Anyone can do a scene like this. It consists of two characters who are unable to communicate. You don’t need anything more then this to create wonderful drama. In this scene Capra allows the audience to realize just how powerfully George loves Mary by refusing to give in right away. The end result is so potent because Capra earned it. Every shot in the scene is thought out and draws us further into the moment. This scene continues to remind me what is most important about cinema. At its core cinema is an exploration of humanity.

Ollie Johnston – Animator – Penny

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on December 17, 2014

Johnston #1

Ollie Johnston happens to be my favorite animator of all time. His drawings seem to flow like water and they all come from the heart. He started working for Walt Disney in the mid 1930’s and quickly became one of Walt’s greatest animators. Johnston saved one of his greatest performances for his last.  The last character Johnston was lead animator on from start to finish was Penny from the The Rescuers (1977).  What is truly amazing is how Johnston was able to climb into the skin of  a character of the opposite sex who was about sixty years his junior.

The true beauty of animation is you can animate anything. I have consistently maintained the animators at Disney were some of the greatest actors to ever live. Even Marlon Brando had his limits yet the actors at Disney could portray anything from little wooden puppets to fire breathing dragons with just the use of a few pieces of paper and a pencil. In reality human characters were some of the hardest characters to animate. The reason being everyone knows how humans move and act, thus one wrong line with the pencil might ruin a performance and stop making the character believable to the audience.

These drawings are an example of Ollie Johnston exploring the character of Penny and her cat Rufus. Johnston wasn’t the best draftsman at the studio, but each drawing expresses an emotion which shows the essence of who Penny is. In most of the poses Johnston seems to be intentionally turning Penny away from the audience. He expresses an extremely shy young girl which makes the audience want to love her all the more. When Walt was alive he communicated to all his artists the most important thing in animating a character were the eyes. By this time in his career Johnston has become a master at expressing emotion through his character’s eyes. With the drawings where we see her eyes they become the center piece of the pose, our eyes are drawn toward her’s and it’s clear Johnston builds the rest of the pose around them.

One of the coolest things about my studies of the animators at Disney is the discovery of the different styles they brought to their animation. One of the true beauties of hand drawn animation is the ability for the artist to use the pencil in different ways in order to bring to life a unified performance. Ollie Johnston was not the only animator of Penny. Animation is long and tedious medium. In today’s studios there are literally hundreds of animators working on a film and it takes them weeks in order to get just a few seconds of animation finished. In the 1970’s there were far less animators working on a project. However, it still took a whole team of animators to bring to life most of the key characters. As the lead animator Johnston needed to figure out a way to get his crew on the same page with the character Penny. Drawing sheets like this were priceless samples for other animators to study so they could keep in mind who the character was both in terms of design and emotion.

Johnston had a very soft style of animating compared to his peers. He was known to barely “kiss” the page with his pencil. First you didn’t even know what it was he was drawing and then a beautiful creature would start to come to life. You can see the soft lines in the drawings of Penny. The only thick areas are places where Johnston is trying to find the right shape or communicate weight. There is a flow to his drawings; no harsh angles and extremely pleasing curves. Glen Kean, one of Johnston’s pupils and a great animator in his own right, said Ollie treated the pencil like it was a living thing and let it guide his hand in order to find the pose.

The reason I consider Ollie the greatest animators wasn’t because of his draftsmanship or even his mastery of the principle of animation. I consider him the best because he made me feel for his characters. His animation made me completely buy into the illusion of a life. His drawings disappeared and beautiful characters emerged. I saw characters I could laugh with, be frustrated at, and cry for. One of the most potent scenes Ollie did was with Penny. Johnston animated the performance of Penny and Rufus in the clip below. In it you see Ollie’s mastery of the medium. The performance is full of restraint. He holds poses and communicates mountains of emotion through small subtle movements. I consider it one of the best pieces of animation I have ever seen. And the magic of it all is it’s done through a few pieces of paper and a pencil.