Its purpose is to direct the audience’s attention, and make it clear what is of greatest importance in a scene; what is happening, and what is about to happen. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas defined it as “the presentation of any idea so that it is completely and unmistakably clear“, whether that idea is an action, a personality, an expression or a mood. This can be done by various means, such as the placement of a character in the frame, the use of light and shadow, and the angle and position of the camera. The essence of this principle is keeping focus on what is relevant, and avoiding unnecessary detail.
Consider the image at the top. Remy is hidden among various spices and quite small in the frame. With all that visual complexity, he would become lost if the other elements in the scene are not staged in such a way as to guide the viewers eye to what’s important. Not only does the coolness of his color contrast with the consistently warm hues of the shelf contents, Emile’s face, ears, nose and neck all point to Remy. The spice tops point in on him, the lines of the cookbook, the shelf and even the shadow all point to what’s important in the scene. None of this is random.
Plot and character progression is revealed in a myriad of creative ways, and not just limited to where the physical elements of the scene line up. Keeping in mind that shot readability is paramount, consider Remy’s brother Emile hanging from the ceiling lights. To pronounce him more and make him “pop” from the busy background, he is given a bright rim light – much brighter than then other parts of the hanging lamp. It also helps immensely that the many diagonals elements of the composition all point straight to him: the barrel of the gun, the hand, the glasses, even the curves of the wood trim!)
Another great example of using staging – when Remy is trying to figure out where to cook his cuisine, the viewer is given the clue to the background chimney. This is a classic storytelling technique- give the viewer more clues than the characters. When the rack focus switches to the chimney, Remy’s idea also comes into focus. What I also love about this shot is the camera is given a personality, as if it’s showing Remy personally the answer. He even swerves back into the camera view (panel 5) for no realistic reason other than it’s great Animation!
To summarize – design principles to help establish solid Staging – differences in Color, Depth of Field, Saturation, Brightness (vignettes and shadows), Size, using lines and shape directions in the environment, Occlusion, and Movement (differences in animation speed, direction, type, etc).
From Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson:
Staging directs the audience’s attention to the story or idea being told. Care must be taken in background design so it isn’t obscuring the animation or competing with it due to excess detail behind the animation. Background and animation should work together as a pictorial unit in a scene.