“The Garden” by Joan Miró. This majestic Spanish artist’s abstract compositions play beautifully with shape, line and color to help evoke sensations that lie within the realm of the surreal – ideas which would be too difficult to present in more realistic form.
“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.” – Tennessee Williams
Shapes are the essential building blocks to visual art. In animation and film composition, design and movement of those building blocks will define the message you wish to deliver. It’s why it’s essential that animation artists study and practice the use of line and shape whether you work in story, concept, animation or modeling/rigging.
Solid understanding of the power of shapes, line and color will aid strongly in the construction and definition of any character. Size, variation and repetition of those elements strengthen the impression of any design. From Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmations.
In graphic design, the interplay between line and shape help define ideas, sometimes in the most simple yet powerful way. Street signs do this, as do company logos and superhero symbols. Great design is direct and unmistakable.
Design elements can signal power or danger. In the case of DC Comic’s Batman, it shows both. The welcoming curves played against the sharp edges and pointed bat ears not only define the characters physical traits, but indicate a conflicted agenda – a dangerous hero who both steals the spot light yet roams in the dark. It can be argued that the Batman symbol is the most distinguished and possibly best designed logo in the superhero universe.
The primary edge of shapes can be defined as either straight or curved, implying either linear or circular movement or revealing a sense of intensive direction or gentle comfort and welcome. The choice of your shapes will define the overall aspects of your art.
The sharp, angular designs used by renown illustrator Gerald Scarfe gave Hades an edginess uncommon among Disney characters. In conjunction with James Wood’s sharp tongue and Nik Ranieri’s playful animation, it makes for a very interesting and particular personality. From Walt Disney’s Hercules.
While sharp, straight edges give a sense of danger and lack of refinement, round smooths shapes convey comfort, harmony and wholeness. Sharp designs can be aggressive or dated, while rounded ones can feel welcoming and modern.
In the 2008 Pixar release, Wall-E, director Andrew Stanto, plays with the contrast of time and space as exemplified by the difference in design and detail between the rustic, angular Wall-E and the simplistically modern, yet soft and streamline Eve.
These Milt Kahl’s hand studies, done for Disney’s Sword in The Stone, demonstrate beautiful use of form and line, culminating in appealing design and elegance.
The application of these concepts can also be applied in dramatic action for both movement and pose. Straight lines and sharp edges can help emphasize great force and clear sense of direction. Sometimes the forward thrust of action can be tempered with the addition of sharp turns and reversals which aid to signify dimension and change of direction.
Playing straights against smooth curves and sharp turns, Glen Keane’s exciting animation from Walt Disney’s Tarzan demonstrates great dynamic power and energy. Keane’s work is famous for its immense force and magnetism both in drawing and movement.
The famous ‘map room’ shot from Steven Spielberg’s 1981 masterpiece, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Using carefully delineated shapes and line via light and shadow, the director guides the viewers attention to exactly where he wants them.
The best art often makes balanced usage of both straights and curves, both in shape and movement. The degree and balance of usage will be determined, as usual, by the intention behind the work.
Akira Kurasawa’s Ran is one of the best film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s work. There’s astounding beauty in the stillness of some scenes while others engage sweeping movements of form. The film’s mastery on display from the acting to the cinematography is worth slow and intense study for both animators and live action filmmakers alike.
In summary, realize that as animation artists you control very specific elements of your craft, and one of those tools that you wield is your presentation of lines and shapes, which are, decidedly, straight or curved. Sometimes these effects can be overt, at other times subtle or inconspicuous. How you use them will have a profound effect on your audience, intentional or not. Just remember, contrast is everything.
“A curve does not exist in its full power until contrasted with a straight line.” ― Robert Henri