Al Pacino plays Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece series, The Godfather. The destruction of Michael’s original dreams, honesty and faith, makes him a sympathetic character — one that is flawed and relatable. The dark path he takes creates tremendous interest in its tale of lies, circumstance and inevitability. To see a dissection of a moiety of The Godfather, go here.
“The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.” — Ben Okri, Poet
We strive so hard as humans to be perfect, and by default we set ourselves up for failure. Now, failure itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, failure is required for growth and happens every time we do something new. But if we become dominated by failure by being obsessed with perfection, we kill the very thing that makes our art worth doing. Nature is perfect in its imperfection, as is humankind. Each journey is a deeply personal challenge to ourselves, and thru that journey we learn about our world and discover what makes each of us and our creations unique. It’s the imperfection in things that make everything interesting.
Modigliani’s off-kilter portraits of his most common subject, Jeanne Hebuterne, remain continuously interesting because of its strange and beautiful perspective of the human form. He took the simple, common-place portrait and gave it strangeness and uniqueness, influencing numerous artists and illustrators ever since.
In art, we don’t want just balance, but ‘imperfect’ balance. In film and animation, this applies not only to character development, but design, composition, color, timing and mood. Each is impacted by this principle that’s most difficult to master, not only in concept, but in practice. In our industry, thoughtless symmetry, tired visual gags, mindless action, cliche dialogue, and formulaic characters and stories have become an accepted norm. As artists we must fight this trend that could ultimately kill our craft.
“As a real person, he wouldn’t last a minute, would he? But drama is about imperfection. And we’ve moved away from the aspirational hero. We got tired of it, it was dull. If I was House’s friend, I would hate it. How he so resolutely refuses to be happy or take the kind-hearted road. But we don’t always like morally good people, do we?” — Hugh Laurie, on his character House
For education and inspiration, let’s look at some definitive examples where gorgeous imperfection does reign, where contrast, texture and appeal is maximized for the greatest possible enrichment of the cinematic experience:
(From left to right) Anthony Quinn, Peter O’Toole and Omar Shariff star in Lawrence of Arabia, originally released in 1962.
David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is a sprawling tale of desert warfare that apprises themes of tremendous aspiration, loss, tragedy and triumph. It’s a bold classic that explores every aspect of the human spirit through the life story of T.E. Lawrence who goes from being naive and likeable, to violent and vengeful in a marvelously soulful performance by Peter O’Toole. Along with stunning, unforgettable cinematography and a sweeping score, it’s compelling film-making that contrasts greatly from what’s being screened today.
A similar but more controversial example is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, from Martin Scorcese’s brilliantly directed Wolf of Wall Street. Lead characters don’t have to be likeable, they just have to be interesting. Check out this marvelous video by Film/Screenplay Instructor, Jennine Lanouette, for more on this subject.
The Toy Story Series from Pixar Animation Studio is arguably the best trilogy of all time.
John Lasseter’s Toy Story is a magical and landmark creation for many reasons. One of the keys to its success however, is its characters — each one unique, each one taking turns serving as either contrasting or complementary elements to each other, all the while ramping up the stakes for the audiences that feel so attached to them. The imperfection, both in the physical make up and personalities of the characters, make them fun and worth following through all their adventures. The entire series is a wonderful collated gem that will forever define Pixar.
For another great example of multi-dimensional casting, check out the wonderful ensemble of memorable characters in Akira Kurasawa’s 1956 classic, Seven Samurai. It may be the film that set the standard in multi-character development and thematic arrangement for modern films.
A powerful climatic image from the third sequence of Stanley Kubricks’ 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Stanley Kubrick’s immeasurable science fiction epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey (released in 1968) couldn’t be more relevant at this time in human history. Ahead of his time in dealing with themes about space travel, robotics and artificial intelligence, Kubrick laid out the atmosphere of his films using grandly open space. This space, often aligned with single point perspective, may give the illusion of simple symmetry and layout, but in fact allows for the contrast of mood and movement, which was often centrally located. The backgrounds serve as an encasement, as voids and tunnels that focus our attention to action where it matters most — in our hearts and minds.
Another film-maker who bucks the trend with standard composition rules is Wes Anderson, whose films’ stylistic choices (like in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic) play a huge role in both the atmosphere of the story and its impact on its characters.
The three good fairies from Walt Disney’s 1951 classic, Sleeping Beauty.
In Sleeping Beauty, the three little old fairies are the stars of the show. The leads, Prince Philip and Princess Aurora, are mere place holders that represent the standard heroes and damsels in distress from a bygone era of storytelling. All the color (both literally and thematically) lies with the fairies — Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather — who feature the most important ideals, emotional interest and conflict. Their physical design reflects all their different strengths, personalities and flaws. They make for beautifully perfect ‘imperfections’ that drive the humor and heart of the story.
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman star in The Shawshank Redemption, a film about injustice, self-evaluation and absolution.
Frank Dabaront’s 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, is the kinda of drama that seems to flow so beautifully due to its largely unseen yet carefully constructed action. In this film, two clearly but subtly flawed individuals, Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) and Ellis Redding (played Morgan Freeman) take turns finding humor, sadness, victory and defeat. Nothing looks or feels perfect here, not the characters, nor the surroundings which make up their environment and their predicament. Excellent writing, direction and editing move this film along in a way that results in a experience that moves swiftly and surprisingly, rewarding us each step of the way.
The Incredibles color script by Pixar Art Director Lou Romano.
These beautiful color keys by Lou Romano show the carefully assembled alignment of chromatic magnitude and arrangement. Color is often the biggest factor in relaying mood, tension and atmosphere, and in feature films, art directors like Lou carefully assess the storyboards and script to formulate the most appropriate designs for each individual sequence. Changes in color intensity, hue and value can alter the energy of a scene or sequence dramatically. These changes can be monumental, miniscule or unexpected. They are never perfectly the same.
Check out the color scripts of other films and artists that inspire you for it’s important to be periodically touched by outside inspiration. There are many, seemingly ‘unsung’ talents, that help make these films so effective.
A scene during Woody’s escape from SunnySide from Pixar’s Toy Story 3, animated by Doug Sweetland.
This marvelous Toy Story 3 shot by then Supervising Animator, Doug Sweetland, showcases brilliant contrast in design and timing. The poses, movements and phrases of action are dispersed in a framework that is rhythmically colorful and textured. The irregular and unexpected actions displayed offers a great variety of patterns of movements from the beautifully awkward jump to the frantic circular actions that suddenly follow Woody’s brief moment of accomplishment. Furthermore, the purposely ‘unrefined’ designs of Woody’s postures fit his character and toy design to a ‘T’ — making for a wonderful display of character and action formulation by the artist.
In Summary, it’s good to remember that our obsession for perfection can cloud us and deliver us away from our ultimate goals. For maximum results or more importantly, maximal experience, we must seek change, contrast, balanced asymmetry and imperfection in our artistry. If we must step back or away in order to do so, then that is what we must do.
“The detail adds an element of unexpected something. All fiction is false; what makes it convincing is that it runs alongside the truth. The real world has lots of incidental details, so a painting also has to have that element of imperfection and irregularity, those incidental details.” — Shaun Tan, author/artist of The Arrival