Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Characterization Technique - Lollipops and Context

When you look at a a photograph, even a black and white photograph, it can be very hard to tell relative brightness and darkness. If you put a gray object against black, it will look lighter than the very same object set against white. It's worse with color.

In the old days, before Photoshop's sampling tool (eyedropper), we had a little tool we called a "lollipop." It was a circle of cardboard on a stick, with a hole in the middle. The cardboard was medium neutral gray. When you lay it over a photograph, you can isolate a spot from the nearby colors. And when you do that, you're often surprised at what you see.

Context changes everything. In a photograph of a face, the shadows may look like dark brown or gray, and yet when you try to replicate it in a painting, those colors look flat. Hold a lollipop up to the area, though, and you can see that the shadows are much richer than you thought - full of purples and blues, and sometimes even reds or greens.

In context of the whole photograph, you can't see just what technique created that vibrant shadow. When you isolate the shadow, though, you can see it and learn from it.

You have the same problem when trying to study characterization. Our image of a character depends on the overall context. Any story is a flood of information. And yes, taken as a whole it can be useful to study. For instance a recent post on Show Some Character discussed Dr. House, of House M.D., as an example of an interesting jerk. It's a good posting and gives a good overview of how such a jerk can be a popular character.

But House is a very complicated character and there has been six seasons of development to look at. It's hard to even find individual examples of technique in that show, because so many of the examples will depend on the knowledge we have of the characters and situation. For instance, one of House's great qualities is his ability to surprise us... but most of his surprises are based on the fact that we already know a lot about him and have expectations.

And once you know the character it's really hard to pretend you don't. It's hard to get a "lollipop" into your brain and block out what you know, so you can see things in isolation. Sometimes, though, it happens by accident.

The other day I came across a YouTube video made by some fan of Daniel Craig. She had cut together some choppy scenes from a subplot of an old TV show. The show is not available in the US at the moment, and though it was based on a book, I happened to hate the author's other books, so I never read it.

So the scenes were presented to me utterly without context. I could see nothing except was what presented to me in the hole of that lollipop. Cool.

Even better was that I was intrigued by what I saw and I looked up more about the TV show and book, and found that I might like it. That led me on a quest to find a Region 2 version of the video. Double cool. This is exactly that we want our small out-of-context details to do. We want people who happen to pick up a book and glance at a page to be interested in investigating further.

So even though the clip probably misled me about the character and story (just as seeing purple would never make you think of skin tone), the technique in that clip was interesting and worth study.

Tomorrow, I'm going to post a link to the clip, and analyze the effect of three basic character techniques on making a different kind of jerk character into someone sympathetic.

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