Thinking in Narrative, Not Shot-to-Shot

Today I attended a stop motion workshop. As final years, we were split up and each assigned a group. Each group was then given a stanza of a poem. The task of the day was to create an animation to accompany our given section so that, by the end of the day, the whole poem would be illustrated.

During the day, our production plan unraveled and the narrative fell apart. Our end contribution was unstructured and had a poor link to the story. Looking around the other groups throughout the day, I tried to pinpoint where lay the cause for our group’s downfall.

After further reflection after the workshop, I singled out a number of differences in my group’s approach. But one stood out to me as the possible main cause. This was the fact that we had approached the scenes modularly, we assigned one image or thought to each line and built up a shot around it. Rather than thinking in scenes and settings like a filmmaker, I was thinking of flat image shots in succession like someone making a powerpoint.


The Benefit of Narrative

In some cases, the best approach for a motion piece is a shot-to-shot sequence like the one shown above. There are times when this approach is strategically the best, however, most of the time there is a better and more engaging alternative out there.

If you look at the top motion pieces out there, they will carry a narrative through them. This narrative can run either from start to finish, like Cub Studio’s Guide To American Football:

How To Catch Yourself Out

To avoid falling into this trap you’ll need to catch yourself out at the pre-production stage. These are the following read flags you’re likely to encounter if you are thinking too literally about your visual representation.

    1. The ideas came to you easily
      Your first ideas are vomit. 95% of the time. So stick your fingers down your throat to get them all out, write them on paper and burn it. Don’t use them unless you have good reason to. Better ideas will come through if you aren’t lazy.
    2. The shots each feature a different scene or image
      If the shots each feature a different scene or image, you could be dangerously close to slideshow territory. Think of creative ways to show what needs to be shown (bear in mind this is not necessarily everything mentioned in the script) without having to change the setting or the scenery.
    3. The lines literally match the shots
      Look at the storyboard and the script you put with it. Are the visuals anything more than literal descriptions of the text provided? If they are, you need to think a little deeper. Don’t just show what is said, outright. Show what is spoken in the link between two lines, in metaphor and most importantly, as a whole.
    4. If you jumbled up the lines, it would still make sense
      If you created one visual for each shot and they don’t have any narrative link running through them, then there is nothing connecting them together. You could jumble the lines up and it would still make sense because they don’t come together as one piece.

This is NOT a Rule!

Of course there are some pieces of work where a new shot for each line or point is effective, but you need to be careful, stay on your toes and don’t use cliches or rely on your vomit ideas. You could produce something really quite nice, like Buck’s video, Onward Internet.

Not an overarching rule, but just something to keep in mind.


Author: Pip Williamson

Pip // Animator & Motion Designer

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