Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book review: Setting the Scene

The following book review was originally published in Technical Communication, Volume 60, Number 1, February 2013, the quarterly magazine for The Society for Technical Communications.

Setting the Scene: The Art and Evolution of Animation Layout
Fraser MacLean. 2011. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. [ISBN 978-0-8118-6987-4. 270 pages, including index. US$60.00.]

Setting the Scene: The Art and Evolution of Animation Layout is a detailed history of layout in animation. MacLean writes with obvious passion and love for the animation industry and layout in particular. I was thoroughly entertained as I peered behind the scenes of beloved animated movies.

Some of MacLean’s passion gets away and the details begin to overwhelm someone with no history in animation. He writes, “Usually drawn in red pencil with the wording in bold capitals, …camera guides indicated what the required fielding (or aspect ratio) of the scene was, where the N/S, E/W (North/South, East/West), and START and END (first frame and last frame) positions were for any requested moves” (p. 43). It begins to make my head spin trying to imagine the work he describes with the cameras.

The book also has many passionate quotes from leaders in the animation industry. MacLean interviewed those he could and the mentees of those he couldn’t. They all sound just as passionate as his writing. You can flip to nearly any page in the book to find one. In discussing lighting in computer-animated movies compared to physical lighting, he quotes Pixar Director of Photography Sharon Calahan saying “If you really want that bounce light there, you have to add it, you don’t get that for free” (p. 198).

However, it does not include the theory of layout design. Some discussion of theory comes about as part of the process of the evolution of layout design, but none of the theories are discussed in detail. This book may aid you in thinking about how to lay out videos that are more fun, but I didn’t read anything that would apply to training videos for software. For example, MacLean points out “how important it is for scenic design to make its impact at the unconscious level” (p. 31).

Setting the Scene also, importantly, includes many spectacular pictures. Again, you can flip to any page in the book and come across beautiful art. These inspiring examples of layout are all described in a caption that lets you look at the movie snapshot under a new light, examining why they decided to lay out a scene the way they did. MacLean describes a background painting by Tom O’Loughlin as “heightened perspective and strong diagonal compositions are used in these Sylvester and Speedy Gonzales backgrounds to help emphasize the contrast in scale between the cat in charge of the gigantic ship and the tiny mice” (p. 130).

If you are lucky enough to create videos, video games, or even photos with humor and heart as part of your technical writing, this book might provide a new way to think about your visual layout approach. As a software technical writer, I did not find any information to apply to my work as much as I enjoyed it.

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