How much time was spent getting video to be widescreen, just to make sure that no one’s eyes actually go to the edge of the frame? I’m learning Apple Motion (which, three chapters into the Training Manual, I’m liking) and here’s the background for seemingly every tutorial:
Clearly, the feathered black edge is meant to make the sides something that your eyes avoid looking at.
And that’s the point with most color correction. How much color correction is designed to keep you focused on the center of the image – or for all intents and purposes, the fullscreen part of the shot? How excited were we when color correction tools made it easy to mask around the main character’s face and darken everything else, to direct our eyes to the lead character, and, essentially, void out the part of the screen that makes it widescreen?
Why do we need widescreen, again?
Just two glasses of wine and a Motion Workbook. I’ll be here annoying my wife with my insights all night – you just get the part I’m willing to type. :)
Google Maps now includes inside the Ed Sullivan Theatre, with the recently torn down David Letterman set. You can check out the audience, and even get a bit backstage!
“That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.”
– Charlie Chaplin
This is a tough one to write, because I know lots and lots of people who have made or are making science fiction, and I’m sure this doesn’t apply to you. :)
But here’s why I don’t like amateur science fiction: Because it’s boring.
I recently read a comic called Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan. It’s a pretty fantastic blending of Sci-Fi and Fantasy – lots of crazy characters that are common in both genres interacting in fun ways. But that’s not what makes it so good.
What makes it so good is that it takes those elements for granted: the crazy sci-fi (there are people with tube-style televisions for heads that can show things they want to project, but when they get emotional, they lose some of that control and start to show images reflecting their feelings), the great fantasy (there’s a spaceship forest where spaceships grow and if they like you, they might take you where you want to go), all that is just there. But the story is about the parents of a baby girl who are hunted and hated because they’re from warring races, and the child is considered an abomination.
It’s a chase, with our lead characters on the run from some truly powerful, fascinating, and gruesome people. It’s fun and exciting and just a good story. And it also has all these fantasy and sci-fi elements. But it’s just a good story.
And that’s where amateur science fiction tends to fail. I’ve sat through way too many films that are only about the sci-fi concept, and doesn’t seem to care that I’d like to be entertained. Also, most concepts, I’ve seen before, 50 years ago on the Twilight Zone, or read 30 years ago in an Alan Moore comic in 2000 AD (a book that’s been around long enough to have passed the future year of its title).
Because everything’s been done already. There’s no new idea that you can show me. And that’s OK, it doesn’t have to be new. But it does need to be entertaining.
An old teacher of mine (another old screenwriting teacher – Hi, Gil!) hammered this home with me. A guy in my screenwriting class thought he had the greatest idea for a film – aliens come and they eat our garbage and shit gold bricks. I wasn’t deep enough into storytelling to get what wasn’t working there- it sounded original, but felt empty. And Gil hit it on the head with the question “And what’s the story?” The guy repeated the same thing about the aliens. “But what happens?” And that’s the problem. The idea is a setting – it’s the same as “I’ve got an idea. It takes place in prison.” That’s not a story – there are no events. It’s not even the premise, it’s just one element of something that could take place in a story. But it’s not a story.
A story is about a guy who comes across a gold brick, and tries to hide it from his family that he’s trying to abandon (there’s a character with a goal). And he goes through ridiculous trials and conflicts to keep the brick from the family. As he finally is able to escape with his new-found wealth, the global economy is shattered when aliens are discovered and the gold standard is ruined by their bathroom habits.
Way too much amateur science fiction studies the aliens, instead of telling a story that could work whether it’s about aliens or not, and the aliens are just a cool element in a much cooler story.
And the final version: Denny O’Neil’s Comic Book Structure. I’ve been talking about storytelling structure on the blog for the last couple of weeks, and different people’s definitions of structure. Here’s the first post with all four definitions, then here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3 to get you caught up.
Denny O’Neil is a pretty famous comic book writer from the late 60’s to the 90’s. His biggest comics were Green Lantern/Green Arrow in the early 70’s, considered to be a landmark run in making comic books more relevant to current social themes, as well as being the editor of the Batman books from about 1985 to about 2000. If you know about important times in the Batman mythos, that time period is pretty key. My favorite, though is a book he started in 1987 called the Question, which included a reading list in every issue of thematically related books to each story. That’s how I came to the works of Hermann Hesse and Robert Pirsig, and my library still has many of those books that I bought because he suggested them.
O’Neil went on to teach comic book writing and had his own version of storytelling structure specific to writing comics. Here’s the outline:
- Inciting incident.
- Establish situation and conflict.
- (Major visual action.)
- Develop and complicate situation.
- (Major visual action.)
- Events leading to –
- Climax with Major visual action.
First I want to dissect this as a standard super-hero story, and then look back at it to imagine it in other genres, where it has a lot to offer.
A quick side-note. As a comic book fan, it’s important to me to mention that I’m using a typical super-hero story as the generic genre of comic books, but you should know that comic books are much more than super-heroes. There are many great comics that have nothing to do with comics, and you should check them out. No matter who you are and what your interests, there is a comic book that you would love, I’m certain. You might need to look past the first 18 shelves in your local comic store, which are all super-heroes from Marvel and DC, but they’re there, and many are awesome. Go check some out!
So the standard super-hero story is about action, and the Hook is where you grab the viewer. In a super-hero story, that means on page one, someone should be hitting someone, or saving someone from a burning building, or some other exciting action. Get the story off to an exciting start to “hook” the viewer into reading the rest of the story.
The Inciting incident is a behind-the-scene writing term for the moment the hero gets into the story. For our super-hero story, it might be the Joker robbing a bank, which incites Batman to catch him and bring him to justice. It’s that event that causes our hero to take action, whatever that may be.
Establishing the situation and conflict is actually not much deeper than it sounds. The story needs to set up its details. The Joker was last seen at some location, and has been known to associate with Catwoman recently. Whatever info we need to be able to follow this story.
Major Visual Action. I like this a lot, and we’ll get into why when we look at this point for other genres. In super-hero stories, it generally means a fight. Batman finds Joker, and they beat each other up for a bit before Joker escapes with the help of Catwoman who takes Batman by surprise.
Develop and complicate the situation – again, not a lot to discuss. The situation gets more developed. Batman digs into Catwoman’s last whereabouts, and discovers she was seen at the Ace Playing Card Company warehouse – might the Joker be there, too?
Major visual action – more fighting! This is why we buy super-hero comics, right? Joker and Catwoman overpower Batman because they’re on their home turf.
Events leading to the climax – more complications and development of the story. Batman figures out why Joker and Catwoman are teamed up and what their plan is, and prepares his own plan to stop them.
The climax with Major Visual Action – and they duke it out and Batman wins! Hooray! And they celebrate their victory in the denouement – the “moment after.” Like the “what’s different” moment in the Bob Reiser structure, but in French.
So what does all this comic book stuff have to do with your story? Everything. While this is specifically for comic books, and probably directly for super-hero stories, this structure has some excellent reminders for any film storyteller.
The first is that your story needs a hook. What draws the viewer in and makes them want to watch? Your story is likely to be seen in one of two places – youtube or a film festival. Both of those places have HUGE options of other films to look at. Think about your own habits. How long do you watch a youtube video before you click to look at something else? I’m a pretty rough audience and give about 10-30 seconds at most. Sometimes less, almost never more unless I know it’s something I want to see. Film Festival screeners are the same – they’ve got a stack of films to get through in a short amount of time and if you don’t hook them somehow, why are they going to take the time to watch your whole film? You have to start with something that draws us in! Your first moments are the most important moments, and they need to be something that tells me this is worth my time.
The other great reminder in this definition is the repeated “Major Visual Action.” No matter your genre, film is a visual medium, and so many of us fall into the habit of having our films talk through every moment, that we need to be nudged and pushed to make our films visual. If you have a comedy, you should include major visual comedic moments. If it’s a romance – major visual romantic moments. If it’s a drama, let me see some visual drama, not just words thrown around. It’s a great little prod to get us out of the dialogue and into the visual actions.
And those are the four storytelling structure definitions that I use – both to teach and for my own work. They each have something that helps draw out key elements in telling stories, and I suspect others find different uses for them than I do. Let me know if there’s a version you like that I don’t have here (there are LOTS of them), and please, point me to them. I’d love to add more to this list!