The premise of their scene is that one character is in a verbal conflict with two surrounding characters. The main character, lets color them blue, has some support from the character to their East, lets color them reddish (not their full support since they are just learning the facts of the conflict). The antagonist character, greenish, is on the West leading the conflict.
The composition to stage the shot went something like this:
Pretty clear right?
Not the most exciting way to stage this verbal conflict, you say? What other ways can we add variety and excitement to a shot where you must (as a directive of the story/ direction/ etc) clearly show all 3 characters faces (to deliver their dialogue and acting performance) in this verbal conflict.
If we drop a grid down on the frame (dividing up the screen into thirds) we see right away how even and static the staging is even if we were to soft focus the background with a different camera focal length.
Let's take a look at what Orson Wells cooked up for this same type of scene in the 1958 noir classic Touch of Evil.
Here we have the innocent Sanchez (center) "caught" by the wrong arm of the law, Capt. Hank Quinlan (West) and supported by "Mike" Vargas (East)
We can already see there is greater variation in how the players are arranged in the quadrants.
Sanchez is the lowest and smallest figure in the foreground. He also has almost the lowest eye-line in the set up (more on that later).
We can further see the variation illustrated by breaking it down to simpler shapes.
Wells and cinematographer Metty "framed" Sanchez both figuratively (in the story/ dial) and literally between the two larger shapes in this set up. Quinlan takes up the largest space in the comp. His girth pushes right up to camera and practically over Sanchez. Sanchez is pinned between Quinlan's mass and the dark wall of onlookers behind him. There's no where to go.
Ok I know this is unfair, since I didn't do this for the shot at the start of this entry, but I think even if all the lighting keys and rendering were equal, we can still plumb the depths of the subtle design layered into the T.O.E. set up.
In the above breakdown, we can see how the main focal points are clearly defined by the areas of light and shadow. Quinlan is getting the most light exposure, Sanchez second most exposure, Vargas third most exposure, and the supporting cast gets the least exposure. Incidentally, the amount of "face time" that the supporting cast exhibits is subordinated by design so there is no question as to which faces to focus on through the scene.
Wells and Metty further define the focal points in the scene through use of Value (lighting). Similar to what was described above, Quinlan, in this murky world of grey stands out with the highest contrast. Sanchez second, Vargas third, then followed by the supporting cast.
Here's another interesting touch of storytelling in this comp. The variation of Eye-line of the main cast. Sanchez (the shortest of the players) has to look up to Quinlan putting him in a weaker position. How many times have you been to an important officials office, where you sat before their huge desk in a short legged chair as they peered down from over their desk at you? Same principle.
Because of Sanchez's position in frame, it could be implied that Vargas has a clear eye-line to Quinlan because Vargas can see over Sanchez. In the first comp of our colored characters the Red (East most) character has an implied eye-line to the West but when flattened out, looks more like he/she is looking at the back of the Blue character's head.
When you watch the scene in real time from Touch of Evil, take note of Quinlan's eye-line. Quinlan has a persistent lack of connection to Sanchez's eye-line or Vargas when he's delivering the damage to the accused (Sanchez). Sanchez, desperate to escape the situation and plead his case, cannot catch Quinlan's eye. Does it feel like a deliberate attempt to amp up the desperation for the one who is caught?
Picking up on that previous thought, notice how the loyal followers of Quinlan (the other police), never break their eye-line on Sanchez. If we were composing the earlier scene with a supporting background cast, would their eyes be on which ever character that is talking for each line of dialogue? Or could we sell the subtle story point as above?
Quinlan's trained dobermans are fixed on the target and waiting for the order to attack.
This take on the FLOW of the scene's characters is something that is very subtle. Once designed into a scene it can take something average and make it dynamic to hold on for 6-8 seconds of screen time.
Squint at the position of the actors, the cast of light, the value of the costumes and background. Notice how the arrangements of the shapes lead the viewer's eye from Quinlan to Sanchez, pass through Vargas into the BG then back around again to Sanchez. Zeroing in on the man "caught" in the trap.
This last point of Spatial Depth, is what brings dimension to this three character setup. Taking note of the angles at which the characters are positioned in the scene. Quinlan's shoulders are angled at Sanchez. As well as Vargas shoulders. Their bodies break from parallel to picture plane and imply a direction for the viewer's eye, pointing the way. By contrast, the supporting players behind the FG players are parallel to picture plane and "flatten out" which blocks the eye from traveling deeper into the set up. However there is a subtle dynamic line created by lowered horizon and background components that drive the eye right to Sanchez. Everyone, every part, every element, subliminally signals to the viewer...."Look at this guy, Sanchez!" as well as traps him in the composition.
How does this stack up against the first comp we saw at the start of the post?
There are no hard and set rules on staging dialogue for animation and film. No "Right" or formulated way to "always stage dialogue this way". The same tools and film language are at everyone's disposal. As film makers experiment and make decisions, the choices that are made should best suit the material/ story to be delivered. It always comes down to the context and subtext of the story beat and how that can be best served by the staging to be most impactful.