Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

The Elements of a Scene: Business
(May 25, 2011)

This is the fifth in a series analyzing a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. For this entry, I want to talk about business. Business is what performers do in a scene besides delivering dialogue.

An awful lot of animation, especially TV animation, has degenerated into talking heads. All the audience sees on screen are shots of characters talking. The animator spends a lot of time figuring out where to put in an arm gesture or a head bob to keep the character alive while the dialogue is delivered. It's boring for both the animator and the audience.

It's better for everyone if a character has something to do in addition to speaking and the obvious thing is to give the character something to do that relates to the setting or the meaning of the scene. Business is something that is usually not in the script and is the creation of the director and the actors in working out the staging of a scene.

The above scene is in a roadside diner and there are obvious bits of business as a result. The waitress clears dishes off a table. The fry cook works at the grill. The two truck drivers eat and drink throughout the scene, giving them something to do while Pa Joad makes his request, as they say nothing the whole time that Pa Joad is present.

There's nothing particularly inventive in this, but it does provide action for the characters. Where business in this scene gets interesting has to do with Pa Joad and his children.

In buying the bread, Pa Joad takes out a change purse and there are two bits of business relating to it that help to illuminate his personality and situation. He produces the change purse around 1:24 and when it appears that the fry cook is being charitable, giving Pa more than he can pay for, Pa snaps the change purse shut at 1:34. That action helps to communicate Pa Joad's pride. He knows he's poor but he's determined to pay his way, not take a handout. When Pa decides to accept the whole loaf, he digs deep into the change purse for a dime from 1:39 to 1:45. That visually shows how little money is in that purse and how broke the Joads are.

The children have no dialogue for the entire scene and yet director John Ford is very skillful at giving them business. Ford has made a conscious decision that he's wants the audience to focus on the girl and not pay much attention to the boy. Note that at 0:21, when he brings the children into position outside the diner, he partially obscures the boy's face with the window frame and leaves it in shadow while the girl is facing the camera and is not obscured. That becomes more obvious at 0:27 when the camera moves closer.

When Ford finally focuses on the children, starting at 1:06, the boy is hidden behind his sister for part of his entrance and then immediately turns his head to look at the candy. By almost never giving the audience a clear look at the boy's face, Ford has successfully brought him into the scene without him taking attention from what Ford wants to focus on: the girl.

When she walks in, she grabs her father's arm and looks around. Those gestures say that she's nervous and needs the physical reassurance of her father's presence. Her nervousness is explained by how she moves her head. The audience senses that this is a new experience for her; she's never been in a diner before. When she spots the candy, she grabs her father's arm with both hands, a subtle expression of her excitement. After the bread is purchased, she goes over to her brother and puts her hand on his shoulder. Ford has used touch to communicate both her nervousness, her excitement and her closeness to family.

There are seven characters in this scene. That makes it tough to stage. How do you keep the audience aware of everyone without creating visual confusion? Ford does it by cutting to characters in various groupings and also does it by making characters more or less prominent by the business they engage in. Everyone in this scene has actions to perform; nobody just talks. That's a lesson that animators should keep in mind.