Category Archives: Year 1

Character Model- plans for further development


For the most part, I am pretty happy with this model, but there are some things I would like to enhance/fix to feel that it is complete and ready to use as part of a full ‘showreel’ production. Probably easiest to list these in point form-

  • integration of the shoulder through the chest – I need to somehow re-run the geometry from the shoulder down into the chest so that these body parts are more integrated. When Ava lifts her arm it should pull vertices from the chest area upwards.
  • A more complete eyelid solution – I would like to start using blendShapes for eye blinks. This requires eyelid geometry that will deform well. This is not the case as yet.
  • A shirt that is more ‘cowboy’ –  I would like her to be wearing a shirt that buttons right down the front with press studs.
  • The belt on her waist is currently integrated into the main geometry, this was a quick fix rather than a permanent solution. I need the belt to be a separate object.
  • Details – although details are less important than form and structure, there are still plenty of accessories that will enhance a character like this. Here are some extras that I am planning to build and add: belt loops, holster and guns, spurs on boots, filigree detail on boots, scarf around neck, skull and crossbones belt buckle.

I look forward this having this complete for further and more complex rigging in the new year.


Modelling Studio 1- Critical Reflection

Critical Reflection –

Most good articles and tutorials on organic modelling begin with a statement about the importance of understanding form and structure and holding back on detail.

Glen Southern, in an article for 3D world magazine suggests that the ‘two big mistakes modellers make are adding too much detail too quickly and not getting the form and volume correct (2010).’

After a modelling semester mainly focused on organic modelling I can now attest to this fact. Learning how to study an organic structure and ‘feel’ how it is put together and how it moves is critical to being a productive modeller. As somebody who had only modeled hard, non-deforming, man-made objects before, I quickly realized the importance of topology in how something moves.

Personally, a turning point was a class project modelling and rigging a penguin. It was impressed upon us the importance of studying not just how something looks but how it moves and the underlying structure of its anatomy. When it lifts it leg to take a step, which parts of the body move with it and where do we see definition lines from the tension of muscles. This is the driving force behind ‘flow’.

After building the ‘box model’ for the penguin and thinking the model was 90 percent complete, I found that many times those hours could then be spent tweaking and re-running edges to get the structure to ‘flow’. I don’t pretend to have ever got it right, no matter how many attempts. Like traditional sculpture, I have realized that it may take years, if not a lifetime to truly master this art.

But I did make some leaps forward with regard to being able to see the patterns of edges and how they ‘should’ look and what it is that I am striving for when modelling. I guess being able to see that is a start. Some ‘visualisation’ techniques were explored to help with this, such as colouring up rows of faces with a shader, taking a screen shot into a paint program and drawing edge loops or even a printout and a texta can work wonders.

These ideas were re-enforced when the human anatomy lectures began. I started to feel more confident with body parts and the best methods for building them, especially as we tackled the most difficult anatomy like hands and faces. I personally find the face the most challenging and this proved true with my final character model. The face is such an expressive part of the body and there are a great deal of underlying muscles that need to move correctly to form convincing expressions.

Perhaps what I took out of this class most was the knowledge of how much I do not know yet and hopefully the patience to push through some boundaries. The class made me realize that in the balance between learning the tools and learning the art, it is the art that really takes time. To quote Erick Miller (2006) ‘I’m from the school of thought that you should be an artist more than a technician’.

I definitely feel motivated to practice more traditional sculpting and more Maya modelling and eventually start to explore dedicated sculpting software like mudbox and Zbrush.

3D world 2010 Tips and tricks for organic modelling
accessed 28 November 2012.

Miller, E 2006, Maya Techniques:Hyper-Real Creature Creation, Autodesk, California.

Organic Character Modelling Project

Stage 1 –  Character Design

I have made the decision on what type of story to tell for my animatic. Having recently been on a spaghetti western binge, watching the ‘Dollars’ trilogy by Sergio Leone among others, I was taken by the cinematography techniques and simple story telling power of the genre. It would translate well to a very short- one minute sequence

Rather than a burly, unshaven, male hero my story will involve a character called ‘Ava’ that is the antithesis of this image –  a young girl who does not ‘appear’ fit to be in the mans world she is entering. The current vision of her in my head is doll-like and frail. She has very skinny limbs and walks a little pigeon-toed. She is a gun-slinger, but in her world everything is man-sized. Nobody manufactures equipment in her size, hence everything is too large for her including her guns, hat and boots. This influences her gestures as she always looks weighed down and about to trip over herself.

I have started on some simple gestural drawings to try to flesh out who she is:





Have spent some more time thinking about ‘Ava’ and how she will look and move. Some random things that are influencing me at the moment:


Rango – I just love his proportions and how awkward he is, and that wavy bottom lip that contributes to his ‘dazed and confused’ nature.

Mark Ryden – I have always been a huge fan of the art of Mark Ryden. I have decided that Ava would be a young frail girl and many of his paintings have popped into my mind. I would say that his greatest strength as an artist is the way he walks the line between strength and frailty with his young female characters.



In Ryden’s work, the facial features are always positioned very low on the face. Noses are tiny, eyes are huge and quite wide apart. This gives his girls a slightly alien-like but ethereal quality that I would love Ava to have. I made the below ‘mood board’ on facial design and expressions that might help me make some decisions when placing the facial features – getting the face right on Ava is crucial to capturing her personality.


Preliminary modelling

I have thought a lot about Ava and who she is. I have sketched her more times than I care to recall and have made some ortho drawings of how I want the face to look so I think its time to jump in and start modelling.

I am starting at the head because its the biggest challenge for me personally. Most of the modelling I have done in the past has been hard-shell, man made objects. Yesterday, as part of a class lecture, I built an extremely detailed human hand model and that has given me a lot more confidence with organic topology flow.

I loaded my ortho face drawing into an image plane and am beginning to build edge flow out:


I started with a single quad at the mouth and extruded edges out. The basic idea is to have an edge ring circling the mouth and another circling the eye.


Although this looks weird and I have not really begun getting the shape right, the basic flow for the facial structure is there.

This is the side ortho plane I am using to help me get the shaping of the back of the head and the flow down into the neck.


With the head starting to come together, I have started on the body so that I can block out proportions and get a feel for how it is looking as a whole.


Started with a cylinder, then extruded arms and legs in the traditional ‘box model style’. This is where it is at now that I have ‘socked’ the head on.


After some more class lectures about edge ‘flow’. I have decided to play around some more with the head on my model. A recurring problem is that the number of edge loops coming down into the neck is way too high. A technique we have been discussing in class is to terminate some of these at the back of the head, especially useful for my model as she will be wearing a hat.


One of the other methods I have been exploring on the advice of my teacher is to decide on where I want the ‘poles’ to be (areas with valency greater the four).

Here I have re-directed the flow so that I have a pole to define the jawline. At the same time, I am starting to think about the termination of loops into the ear and how many edges would be optimum for attaching the ear.


I have decided I want the style of Ava’s ears to be quite realistic as opposed to overly simplified and cartoony.

I have been digging around online and found a tutorial that looks quite helpful and simple for building a human ear.

Modelling the human ear made easy (2008) <>accessed 02 November 2012.

Followed along with this tutorial today using the ‘2 interlocking loops’ method. I used a new scene for this and set up image reference using photos of my wife’s ear. I matched the number of edge loops to the number of loops terminating at the area to ‘sock’ in which is 14. Once I was happy with the results:


I exported and imported back into my Ava model scene.

Spend some time today refining the ear, nose and mouth areas, getting them shaped out a little better:


After experimenting, I have decided that the ‘no nostril’ look was best for Ava. This complicated things a bit as the nostrils can normally be used to terminate edges but this cute little button nose, slightly upturned was something that was important to the cuteness of the character.

The last basic element left to create was a hat. Starting with an 8 sided cylinder, I extruded the top edges in and the base edges out. The idea here was over-sized and a bit clumsy. I shaped it out freehand rather than using reference as t was important that the look fit in with the current head model.


Refining and Testing

I have created all the basic geometry I need now, so I am moving on to the refining and testing stage.

The most obvious starting point for refining the geometry was to make her  appear to be wearing clothes. I am surprised at the amount of improvement that I have made here in a relatively short period of time using a step-by-step method that goes like this:

  • Move vertices to define the outer borders of garments and accessories.
  • Select all the contained faces for that garment.
  • Extrude those faces to create ‘definition’ creases.


This method also worked to create the hair. This example shows how I have re-positioned and shifted the edge flow to create a hair-line and also extruded out a pony-tail and hair-band.


So for now and for the purposes of this semester, the final geometry design is now complete. Here she is in all her glory:


Rigging for deformation testing

After an exhausting rigging refresher-course with my teacher on Friday night, I spent the weekend constructing a basic rig with a set of control curves that could be used to manipulate Ava to do everything I needed her to do for my animatic.

Using the ‘Interactive Skin Bind’ method, she is now fully rigged and attached to her skeleton system. Now it is time to have some fun with her, contorting her into the most extreme poses to see where the geometry flow breaks down.

Revisions made –

Through deformation testing, I have gone on to fix the issues listed here:

  • Armpit – I realized that some of the geometry under the arm had to be adjusted and pushed up to create space for deformation when the arm moved down by her side to prevent surface overlaps.


  • Knee/Elbows- some tightening of edges was required in the deformation areas of the knees and elbows. I found that three loops was a good number to help the geometry cope with limb bend as below:


  • Hands – when testing the finger curls on the rig I decided to completely rebuild the hand according to box/flow method I had revised in a modelling lecture. A complete circular loop is built into each knuckle to provide distribution of geometry for smooth knuckle deformations.


‘The Trial’ – lighting and cinematography report

The first live action sequence in Orson Welles’s ‘The Trial’ provides the initial insight into the conflict about to enter the life of protagonist Josef K.

As the Before the Law prologue concludes, the final image is the door.

The voice-over by Welles puts forward the idea that Kafka’s story has ‘the logic of a dream, of a nightmare’. The door frame dissolves into the next image of K sleeping.

A dissolve is used, rather than a straight cut, to imply a passing of time and to suggest  an ‘hallucinatory state’ (Prunes, M 2002). The composition on screen of K’s sleeping face provides a further link with the vocal narration. His forehead is composed on the 2nd vertical division of thirds. This framing combines with the key light on the top portion of his head to ‘signpost’ the viewers’ eyes into his dreaming mind. (Van Sijll, J 2001, p20). So a purposeful and dramatic connection is made, allowing the audience to believe that K’s dream is connected to the Kafka parable.

The next cut is to a shot of the connecting doors in K’s apartment.

The style of the double-doors and the framing on screen is remarkably similar in style to those in the prologue so once again forces a connection to the parable sequence. This familiarity is heightened by the use of light appearing to ‘leak’ under the doors in a similar way.

The doors have a menacing quality achieved through the use of a very low camera angle and a slight camera tilt. The doors start to open slowly, leading to the questions ‘what may be about to enter?’ and ‘why are they moving so slowly?’ Anticipation builds but the viewer is left to ponder while a cut is made back to K waking up.

As the inspector enters, we see a beautifully composed two shot over K’s shoulder. The composition of the two men along thirds and the deep perspective due to the wide angle lens creates a feeling of separation between the men.

This combines with the highly contrasted lighting – K in the dark and the inspector illuminated. As Cinematographer Edmond Richard discusses (Edmond, R ) a large white card was set up outside the window on the Boulogne studio to bounce a diffused morning light simulation. The light spilling from behind the curtains onto the wall just enough to create a menacing silhouette shape of the inspector while side-lighting his face.

The light from this set-up changes when the inspector opens the curtains, directing light onto K in almost the same way a light is shone toward someone in an interrogation room. The ceilings in the room are abnormally low, contributing to this claustrophobic, interrogation feeling. When Perkins is standing, only 20cm of space exists between his the top of his head and the ceiling of the set. (Edmond, R )

As the interrogation continues for the next few minutes, there is a stillness in the character of the inspector which is juxtaposed against the high-strung fidgety nature of K.

The camera moves downward while tilting up which re-frames the characters in a dramatic, almost theatrical way, as though we are a sitting audience looking up at a stage.

K then enters Miss Burstner’s room, a wide angle shot allows the shadowy figures to recede into the background as the finally galant K comes to the fore.

An ‘up-light’ style lamp is carefully positioned in the room to bounce light from the low ceiling and illuminate the three office clerks.

The officers and the clerks surround K, the tight arrangement of the characters re-enforce a feeling of dread and closing-in.

The next shot has a dream-like quality, a departure from reality.

K’s point of view is shown, we know this as the characters are looking into camera, but they appear to be looking downwards. Clearly K’s stature is on par with the three men, the previous shots revealed this fact. So this shot does not make physical sense. The audience is left feeling surreal and uncomfortably threatened in this black comic moment. Christopher Kenworthy calls this the ‘exaggerated height’ technique (Kenworthy, C 2011)

In summary, the intentional and measured lighting and cinematography techniques used in these opening nine minutes contribute to create a foreboding anticipation of the nightmare to come. The stage is set for the telling of Kafka’s story and for what Welles himself considered ‘the best film I ever made’. (Wheldon, H 1962)


Prunes, M 2002, Yale Film Analysis, Editing, accessed 16 September 2012, <

Van Sijll, J 2001, ‘Cinematic Storytelling, The 100 most powerful film conventions every filmmaker must know, MWP, California.

Kenworthy, C 2011, ‘Master Shots, Vol 2, MWP, California.

Wheldon, H 1962, Orson Welles on ‘The Trial’, accessed 12 September 2012, <;

Edmond, R (video), Interview with cinematographer Edmond Richard (French language, German subtitles), accessed 14 September 2012, <;

Report- Modelling

Creating 3D models in Maya is a unique and evolving art form that requires the understanding of many disciplines including form, anatomy and mechanics.
While Maya supports 3 surface types – NURBS, Polygons, and Subdivisions. This report will focus on aspects of Polygon modelling.

© 2012 Jimi Green

Polygon models are versatile, intuitive to model with and are well suited to hard surface and organic forms. They are the most common surface type used in the film industry and are the ‘backbone’ of all game art (McKinley, M 2005, p13).

A polygon ‘mesh’ is constructed using flat faces that share edges and vertices. A standard workflow is to create a low resolution or ‘proxy’ model for ease of UV layout, rigging and animation, then to ‘smooth’ the model toward the end of the project, whereby the geometry is subdivided to the level required. Each level of subdivision quadruples the number of poly faces (Palamar, T, Keller, E,  2011). Faces with 4 vertices are known as ‘quads’. It is best practice to keep models to quads wherever possible as four-sided faces respond well to subdivision and deformation. 3 sided faces (tris) and n-gons (faces with 5 sides or more) tend to cause pinching in the model (Miller, E 2008).

© 2012 Jimi Green

There are some limitations, boundaries and rules an artist must be aware of.

Polycount – your software/hardware combination is only capable of displaying a finite number of polygons. As ‘polycount’ increases, the computers ability to process and display them reduces exponentially. Careful planning is required to only increase the density of polygons where and when it is necessary (Miller, E 2008).

Geometry To Avoid

© 2012 Jimi Green

Non-planar – It is best to keep all vertices of a face along a single plane. If a vertex is moved off that plane, it becomes a ‘twisted’ or ‘bent’.

‘Lamina’ – where faces share all their edges- in other words one or more faces are directly on top of each other.


© 2012 Jimi Green

where a third polygon is extruded from a shared edge or

where two polygons share a single vertex (bow tie)

© 2012 Jimi Green

The above problems can be remedied with the ‘cleanup’ command which will delete the bad geometry.

Non-conformed Normals – normals determine which side of the surface will face the camera for rendering.

© 2012 Jimi Green

Correct normals appear like the above, facing in the same direction.

© 2012 Jimi Green

this next example (with normals displayed and without) has some faces pointing in toward the model.

The remedy is to select all the faces pointing the wrong way and apply the ‘reverse normals’ command (Palamar, T, Keller, E,  2011).


An advantage of poly modelling is that very few tools are required. Some of the most used include:

© 2012 Jimi Green

Split polygon– probably the most simple and widely used of all the tools, it creates a split through a one or more face(s) to add geometry.

© 2012 Jimi Green

Insert edge loop – allows you to select and then split the polygon faces across either a full or partial ‘edge ring’ on a polygonal mesh.

© 2012 Jimi Green

Extrude – Pulls new polygons out from existing faces, edges, or vertices. (Autodesk Maya 2013)

Techniques and workflow

While the tools are relatively simple, an understanding of what you are building is perhaps the most important aspect of any kind of 3D modelling. If you are building a complex mechanical form, then it is important to know its function, form and how it works. Are the forms smooth or hard-edged and to what degree?

If the form is human or another living creature then you need to know how the masses make up the form. The first step should be sketching and research to solve these questions. Giovani Nakpil suggests the next stage should be modelling in clay as ‘touching something tangible’ helps to figure out how the masses interact with each other, the rhythm and movement of the forms. (Dacol Jr, C, Van Beek J, Nakpil, G, 2009)

‘Image planes’ allow importing of orthographic reference into Maya before building. This, combined with the ‘box modelling’ method – starting with a poly primitive and shaping and extruding limbs and other body parts, is a common technique.

© 2012 Jimi Green

© 2012 Jimi Green

If the character is symmetrical, only half the model needs to be created.

© 2012 Jimi Green

Then duplicate the model and scale to -1 in x

© 2012 Jimi Green

Use the ‘combine’ command to form one mesh.

© 2012 Jimi Green

Then most importantly – marque-select all the overlapping vertices and use the ‘merge vertices’ command. This ensures proper geometry.

The results from this box modelling method can be quite pleasing, however they will not necessarily be adequate for deformation under animation controls. The model will benefit from ‘retopology’ or changing the ‘edge flow’ of the geometry, based on the regions and divisions of the body, emphasizing the relationship between the various structures (Miller, E 2008).


McKinley, M 2005, ‘The Game Artist’s Guide to Maya’, Sybex, San Francisco

Palamar, T, Keller, E,  2011, ‘Mastering Autodesk Maya 2012’, Wiley, Indiana

Dacol Jr, C, Van Beek J, Nakpil, G, 2009, ‘Character Modelling 3’, Ballastic, Adelaide

Miller, E 2008, ‘Autodesk Maya Techniques- Hyper-Realistic Creature Creation’, Autodesk, CA

(Autodesk Maya 2013) Autodesk Maya 2013 onscreen help menu.

Robot Arm Creation- workflow summary

This is a summary of the tools and techniques used in the creation of my animated robot arm project for a ‘3D Artistry’ assessment. It is written somewhat ‘after the fact’ and in the future I think I will try to update project blogs as I go!

The brief was to design a robot arm, model it, UV map it, texture it, set up a system of ‘hierarchical’ rigging and produce a 30 second animation where the arm interacts with a ‘mystery box’.

Somewhat obsessed with ‘Steampunk’ designs at the time, my initial idea was to go in that direction and I began searching the web for something on which to base my design. This was the kind of stuff I found:

After making a few sketches (that were so raw I don’t even feel like I should post them!) I dived into the modeling process.

After several days pushing polys, this was what I ended up with:

I learned a lot from building this, not having done much organic modeling before, but alas, it was a bit of a waste of time.

On showing the progress to my lecturer, I realized that I had missed the point about the kind of rigging we would be doing. This type of organic model would only lend itself to ‘skin binding to joint’ kind of rigging. To make it suit hierarchical rigging I would need to bust it into smaller manageable pieces.

I made the decision to go back to the drawing board with a new design. Busting this model into pieces would have destroyed the integrity of this initial ‘steampunk’ idea. This model will keep for another day and as I said, I learned heaps so it wasn’t really a waste of time. It did however step up the pressure to finish this assignment!

Under time pressure, I decided to go with a more conventional robot design. I decided that the aesthetic was less important than the ability to operate it via a simple rig since the point of this exercise was more focused on rigging and animation.

Again hitting the almighty google and taking inspiration from more imagery than its worth listing here, I had my design and it went like this:

2 cylinder-like shapes make up the ‘bicep’ and ‘forearm’ masses rotating from a central elbow. A ball-joint for the ‘wrist’ enables the hand to rotate on all three axis. A human-like hand has fingers extending from ball joints and each finger ‘shell’ can rotate only in X.

This system I knew would be efficient to rig and it would be capable of performing not only robot tasks, but also some human-like movements.

The hierarchical rig would just be a series of parenting where the movement of each joint had a flow-on effect. Although simple in principle, careful attention is needed with naming conventions and grouping to get the right result. This is what it looks like in the ouliner:

So with the modeling and rigging done, the machine had life and it was time to make it look pretty!

The UV mapping process was a big learning curve for me as I had not mapped complex objects like these before. I was used to just bungling my way through without much deeper understand but this time I wanted to really control the textures, hiding seams and making sure the most interesting textures would appear in the places that would be facing camera. The main areas of interest would be the forearm which I wanted to have a weathered metal look and also the fingers which I had decided would have letters spelling ‘love’ and ‘hate’ like the old prison tattoos. I figured this would add personality and make him more appropriate for the ‘bar’ setting he would be in!

So I projected the UV maps, painstakingly moved the seams to the inside and underside ‘unseen’ areas and made sure the textures would be consistent without any noticeable warping. Then I saved out UV snaps to work over in photoshop.

Starting with a few free images I obtained from (a huge thank you to them and a free plug for you!) a began rebuilding them over my UV snapshots, re-positioning elements in relation to the features my model, repainting painting out details I didn’t want and painting in additional detail in areas that needed it.

Here’s the ‘base map’ for the forearm that I was happy with before building all the other texture nodes, you can see the UV map on top for reference:

The smaller shell on the bottom right is for the insides of the cylinder that would not really be seen. I strategically inserted rusty elements close to seams where they would naturally be more rusty if the robot arm was real.

Then I moved forward with building the colour, bump, specular and diffuse maps, moving back and forth to from Maya to Photoshop for render tests. At this stage I also established the lights in the scene so I could test the textures in their actual environment.

Here is the final lighting setup I decided on. A combination of one area light and one spotlight for the main lights, then another area light with much less intensity for rim-light behind:

and here is what my photoshop layers pallette looked like after building all the seperate textures out into layer sets:

Once I had linked these to the correct file-nodes in maya. I did some final render test and they looked like this:

As I said, the main focus of the texturing for me were the forearm and also the fingers, so I chose angles that displayed these areas best. For the elbow joint, a created a ‘hammer finish’ design using PS textures and also engraved the robots name ‘Tinman 3000’ using a combination of bump and diffuse. Other surfaces were mostly just procedural Blinns. The table surface was created using the 3D ‘wood’ procedural. In the second image above, I also utilized the depth of field settings in mayas software renderer for selective focus.

Let me re-enforce that this texturing process was pretty exhaustive, it doesn’t happen quickly- in fact, just to create the text on the fingers required 24 different photoshop textures in total.

Right, so with the ‘beauty’ treatment out of the way, I could begin animating.

The idea that evolved with the help of my lecturer was to have a ‘beer coaster’ slowly but suddenly enter the robots field of vision and to have him reacting to it in various ways. My initial idea was to have him performing more acrobatic movements, flipping the coaster up in the air and catching it. My lecturer steered me away from this as the main point of the exercise was to give the character personality and a better way to capture that was a more simplistic idea of creating human reactions to the coaster. So the ‘mystery box’ in this scenario is the coaster.

So, here is quick rundown of the key-frame poses for my animation- firstly the arm is static when the beer coaster drifts into the frame:

then, when the coaster drifts into the robots field of vision, there is a surprise reaction:

then the character moves into a ‘holding pattern’ while it considers:

next, the character starts to nervously creep towards to mystery box to explore it:

my inspiration for this creep was that kind of nervous walk that Elmer Fudd does in Looney Toones- think ‘be vewy vewy quiet…’:

I actually watched this quite closely on youtube to study the timing and exaggeration of the movements.

My character then gives the coaster a prod to test the response:

then backs into a ‘wait and see’ position:

taps his fingers while considering:

has an idea!

that idea being to give the table a big bash and see what happens:

so, after all blocking in the key-frames and doing all the in-between movements, it was time to tweak in the graph editor:

and if you think that looks confusing, you would be right!

I also learned some other lessons along the way of this project to do with organizing the rig and making things easier for ‘the animator’ (which was me anyway!)

Some of these include:

Locking and hiding attributes that are not required. You can see from this channel box screenshot that the only animatable attribute of this selected joint is rotate X. This is because I locked and hid all the other attributes.

If a joint is not supposed to move a particular way, then make sure the animator can not make that mistake!

also in the attribute editor, I decided to set limits on how far some of the rotations would go. This ensures that none of the surfaces intersect when driven too far and saves you having to look closely every time you push towards those limitations.

and 2 great tips for selecting joints while animating:

firstly, the use of selection handles positioned next to each joint

and also, the use of quick select sets. I actually made a few of these for selecting various groups. They can also be added to custom shelves if you are feeling really lazy, however they must be re-made if working on another computer- i.e- when I am working in one of the computer rooms at college.

All in all, I was happy with my end result. There are things that I will do differently next time and I guess that is the point. I have built better models in the past when that has been the sole purpose, but this is the first time I have really focused on work-flow and my first attempt at rigging and animation.

Time to take a heard-earned, end of semester break!

Screen techniques used to progress the narrative.

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen began a cinema career together in the mid-eightees. Their partnership shares the writing, directing and producing credits and the result are films instantly recognizable due to their their own brand of narrative structure, character development and dialogue. The visual aesthetic may change to suit the story but it is the types of stories they choose to tell that make them so idiosyncratic. One of the team’s most renowned qualities is work ethic and organization. Much of their success can be attributed to the crystal clear vision that begins with the idea for a screenplay and encompasses every minute detail through to final edit. The duo operate with control, bordering on obsession, over the tiniest of details. Where other directors encourage actors to ad-lib and welcome new vision, the Coens expect actors to read every word exactly as it is written. The same goes for anyone performing a task on set- they can explain exactly what they desire from every member of the cast and crew and will not consider suggestions. Author Paul Coughlin describes their approach as ‘a total control they maintain over their vision from script to screen'(Coughlin 2003). When using screen techniques to progress the narrative of their films, it is an holistic and systematic approach that contributes to the believability of the worlds they create, especially when visiting a particular genre as they did with their homage to film-noir, 2001’s ‘The Man Who Wasn’t there’.

‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ is the story of Ed Crane, a calm, measured barber of few words who attempts to blackmail his wife’s boss, Big Dave, in an effort to obtain the funds for investment in a dry cleaning business. When Dave discovers Ed is the blackmailer, the plan begins to unravel.

When looking at the screen techniques that progress the narrative of the film, it is important to look at the film’s placement in time and space – small town America , 1949. For authenticity, the choice was made to shoot the film in black and white, or more correctly, have the film ‘appear’ in black and white since it was actually shot on colour stock, then converted (Film 4 2001). The choice of removing colour from the style equation helps to define the period and lend it more of the film-noir look that was intended. The dark story of murder and betrayal can be compared to film-noir of the 1950’s, indeed Deakin points to 1955’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ as an influence and contributed to the decision to go for a ‘slightly B-movie’ sensibility. He describes the film as being ‘very much about darkness’ (Deakins Part 1, 2001). Other than the high contrast black and white look, there are other tools used to transport the audience to post WWII USA. Examples like the brilliant set design of the period barber shop complete with candy-cane sign, the wardrobe of smartly dressed men in hats and ladies in elegant dresses are obvious, but it is the subtle brush strokes of the Coens that are more telling. For instance, the very direct dialogue of the characters suggests a different time, where people had prejudices and were not afraid to voice them. While the camp, dry-cleaning enthusiast Tolliver is often referred to as ‘the pansy’, Ed and his wife Doris also have their racial prejudices, Doris referring to their Italian side of the family as ‘the Wops’ and Ed making mention of ‘the nips of Nagasaki’.

As with all Coen films, character development is the main objective. Knowing exactly who the characters are, what motivates them and how they change over the journey is the main narrative priority. In this film, Ed Crane is the central protagonist. As Joel Coen admits, one of the challenges of telling Ed’s story is the fact that he is so restrained, unemotional and a reactor. Eds life is about reacting to others, he would never initiate a conversation and loathes small talk. In the characters own words- ‘I just cut the hair’. The film-makers paint a picture of a man who always looks uncomfortable in his own skin, he even looks uncomfortable sitting on the sofa.

To re-enforce this solemn nature, he is surrounded by opposite characters. His boss at the barbershop, Frank, is always talking. In an early shot where Ed, also the narrator, is explaining how Frank’s incessant talking gets on his nerves, the camera pans closer and closer to Frank’s mouth for comedic effect:

The camera gets so close to Frank’s mouth we almost feel like we are going inside.

Ed’s wife Dorris also talks a lot and has a ridiculously fake laugh, especially when her boss is telling jokes. This juxtaposition with Ed’s quiet contemplative nature is used to re-enforce the feeling that Ed would like the world to be a quieter place. He ‘has a stillness about him’ as Joel Coen explains when discussing the decision to cast Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane. Of the actor, he says ‘he had the confidence not to embellish that stillness when it wasn’t necessary'(Film 4, 2001).

With the decision to blackmail Big Dave, Ed’s character begins to change, he is darker and affected by his thoughts. From the scene where Ed is typing the blackmail letter, we cross straight to the barbers shop where he is clearly having an existential crisis. He rambles to Frank about the way the hair keeps growing; ‘it’s part of us, then we cut it off and throw it away’. He is reflective and pessimistic and the hair is a metaphor for his relationship with his wife- his marriage is the hair and he is chopping it off like it has no value. Of course, the dialogue is then pushed further with black comedy; ‘I’m gonna take this hair and throw it out in the dirt, I’m gonna mingle it with common house-dirt’.

So it is the decisions made along Ed’s journey that shape him. The next character to have a lasting effect is Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson). When he discovers her playing a piano in the attic of Nirdlingers department store, he instantly feels an affection for her which grows throughout the film. She seems to be everything that his wife is not; innocent, playful, quiet, polite, deep thinking and despite the fact that she is a child, it could be argued that he falls in love with her. Ed begins to dream of a more honest and pure life as Birdy’s manager and mentor.

After killing Big Dave, for which his wife is arrested, Ed hires Freddy Riedenschneider, a fast talking attorney from the city. Riedenschneider also has a great impact on Ed, and when he tells him ‘I’m an attorney, you’re a barber, you don’t know anything’ Ed seems to believe it. He puts all his faith and life savings into this man who he admires and in a later scene in the film, even borrows one of his often used lines ‘I’ve made enquiries’.

Another signature of classic film-noir is the use of ironic plot twists. The Coens have used many examples in this screenplay. Ed spends his entire married life with Dorris trying to avoid talking to her but once she is dead, he seeks out a medium to speak to her from the grave. Another is that the crime he ends up being punished for is the killing of Tolliver – the only one he did not actually commit. Irony is also used in subtle visual ways throughout the film in a comic, fatalistic way. There is a scene where Ed is skimming a magazine and the camera pans in on an ad for dry cleaning, the thing that started his whole mess. Maybe the most poignant ironic moment is in the final scene where Ed is being prepped for execution. Having spent his whole career shaving others, it is he who is being shaved down for the electric chair.

Cinematic tools are also used to progress the narrative, and there are several memorable visual techniques throughout the film. Low key moonlight, indoor rim light, classic film-noir long shadows and figure silhouettes are favoured to create an atmosphere of dark desperation.

When Dave’s wife arrives on Ed’s doorstep late at night, the camera angle is over her shoulder and the back-lighting casts long shadows on the door frame, creating a threatening feel.

This is re-enforced when the angle changes to over Ed’s shoulder and we see her face. The rim light, coupled with the veil and the facial expression combine to create a menacing look.

In the shot that leads into the fight scene in which he is killed, Dave is lamp-lit but his face is in darkness.

The fight begins and we see Ed from Dave’s POV.

The camera crosses the line of action to show Dave from Ed’s POV.

In an homage to film-noir, the next angle is a long shot with the fighting figures in silhouette.

A very ‘coen-esque’ shot from Ed’s POV lying in a hospital bed.

The most talked about cinematic moment of the film, when star lawyer ‘Freddy Riedenschneider’ explains his defense strategy to the accused.

Riedenschneider’s face moves in and out of shadow as he reaches various points in his epic speech about ‘the uncertainty principle’. Cinematographer Roger Deakins reveals the logistics of this shot were as simple as cutting a window shape into a piece of cardboard and back-lighting it with one lamp, however there were complexities like the decision of how close to place the lamp and the size of the cutout (Deakins Part 2, 2001).

Deakins, who has collaborated with the Coen brothers on numerous projects, uses adjectives like ‘profound’, ‘absurd’, ‘surreal’ and ‘like a mixture of a circus and an opera’, when reflecting on their work. Perhaps Deakins sums it up best with his description of the brothers as ‘true poets of the cinema’.  The duo’s consistent artistic success inspires cast and crew to return for future projects. When recounting the experience of playing the lead role of Ed Crane, Billy Bob Thornton emphasizes the confidence the brothers inspire on-set. Their talent, clarity of vision, and professionalism allowed him to ‘just be an actor’. On playing Ed Crane, Thornton maintains ‘All I had to do was go to work and do my job, they’ve done the rest’ (The Inside Reel TV, 2001). It is this obsessive nature of the Coen brothers’ film-making that always contributes to engaging and unforgettable narrative.

Reference List

Coughlin, Paul 2003, The great directors, Senses of Cinema, viewed 12 June 2012, <;.

Deakins Interview Part 1 2001, Cinematographer Roger Deakins interview. 46min, part 1, 2012, viewed 10 June 2012, <;.

Deakins Interview Part 2 2001, Cinematographer Roger Deakins interview. 46min, part 2, 2012, viewed 10 June 2012, <;.

Deakins Interview Part 3 2001, Cinematographer Roger Deakins interview. 46min, part 3, 2012, viewed 10 June 2012, <;.

Film 4 2001, The Coen Brothers interview about The Man Who Wasn’t There, 17 July, viewed 10 June 2012, <;.

Jaynes, Roderick 2001, The title that wasn’t there, The Guardian, viewed 15 June 2012, <;.

The Inside Reel TV 2001, Billy Bob Thornton Interview, Apr 2007, viewed 08 June 2012, <;.