"You can introduce characters in odd, unusual, or active environments. James Bond films often open with dramatic action scenes meant to be thrilling and unique, but which also name a story issue....
If there's nothing interesting about the story environment you're using to introduce a character, why did you choose it? Can you make a better choice? Are you describing your environment in a way that clearly impacts your audience? Think of your story environment as a character in the story, rising up to act, to block, to help, to frustrate your main character."
These passages come from Bill Johnson's A Story is a Promise book. Again, I highly recommend this as one of the finest books I've seen on the subject of story. Along with Robert McKee's Story (the bible on Plot Driven Narrative) and Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing (Character Driven Drama), this forms the Trifecta. Most books I've read on story give you the bones and muscles and the organs that make up the anatomy of story... Johnson gives you its soul. I still recommend reading more (especially the 2 others I mentioned), but Johnson's book goes deeper than most, bypassing most of the anatomy to get right to the inner core, the true dramatic thrust that makes a story into a living organism.
In the above quoted passages, he was really discussing character and how to introduce them in a dynamic way without stopping the dramatic movement of the story (something most inexperienced writers tend to do... they let the story stall while they introduce characters). He just mentioned using environment in these few sentences, but it gave me a jolt. I realized this is something else that's done in these stopmotion films I've been dissecting... they all use environments dramatically... environments that were custom designed to help make the story issues concrete and palpable. Balance, Quest, The Sand Castle, and In the Box (which I haven't discussed yet, but it will be upcoming quite soon I promise) take place in specialised worlds that are definitely not part of the real world. They're more like dream worlds, that have their own very specific laws and physics... custom tailored to fit the dramatic action at the core of the story.
I don't think the image I posted above really demonstrates what Im talking about all that well... in Krysar the world is warped and stylized beautifully, and it does create a sense of everything being cohesive, all from one mind and very dreamlike. But I don't believe the environment in Barta's film really acts in any way against the protagonist, as it does in the other films I mentioned in this post. I would have posted an image from one of them, but I used Balance for the pic in the last post, and I couldn't find any nice big pics from any of the others.
Strangely enough though, in searching, I did run across an old post on my own blog about Balance and Quest from 2006. I've long been fascinated with these films and others like them, and I have been attempting to understand what makes them tick. In reading what I wrote back then, I was trying to explain the question, answer, question technique, and came pretty close. But now my understanding of it is much clearer... then it was muddy and fumbling. Ahhh... if only a clearer understanding of why something works would translate to being able to make it work in my own films.....
Ok, that's more like it! Any of Bickford's films take place in an active dream world! But I'll leave that awesome shot from Krysar up there at the top... I do like the way it looks. And having both pics here helps to illustrate the crucial difference... a simply picturesque environment versus a truly active one that helps to name or define the story issue, or the main dramatic thrust of your story.
I've been alerted by a couple of my keen-eyed readers that I wasn't being very clear in this post. The images I posted in particular failed to get across my meaning. In order to see my point... an active environment engaging the characters as opposed to a beautiful and highly stylized but dramatically inert environment, I need to post clips! So here they are...
Starting with Jiri Barts's beautiful Krysar:
Krysar clip 1
Krysar clip 2
Krysar clip 3
These clips are ones I originally posted on my Darkstrider site, kindly uploaded to YouTube for a wider viewing audience by Niffiwan. Don't misunderstand, I love this film!!! But as beautiful as it is, it illustrates a static environment.
In contrast we have the ever-morphing world of visionary Bruce Bickford:
... And perhaps the ultimate living environment...
Environment in his films is in constant, ever shifting restless motion, and occasionally extrudes a part of itself to interact physically with the characters.
Now, this idea of an environment actually physically moving and changing to help or harm characters isn't really what Bill Johnson meant. He was talking more about choosing an environment that allows you to block or help a character toward their goal. But to me, this is one of the ideas that take on a whole new level of meaning in the short animated film. We can really take it to the utmost, and actually have environments with inimical intentions, that reach out and bitchslap the characters, or that cuddle and embrace them.