Filmmakers are using technology and social media in surprising ways. Recently, I spoke with Jingyi Shao, a writer/director who was once in my screenwriting class at USC, but is now a peer working with me in a writers’ circle. I share the conversation because I'm interested in how filmmakers use technology in creative ways. Feel free to comment and join the discussion...
Sean: So, you mentioned this in our writers’ group, but tell me about how you use Instagram as a creative tool, both as a writer and a director.
Jing: Originally I saw Instagram as a visual tool. As a director, I would use it in a multitude of ways. First, most obviously, you can follow your favorite filmmakers - cinematographers especially like to post stills of what they shoot, post pictures of where they are, and post other images that just interest or inspire them. On one level you're looking for what you admire, but you're also seeing what they admire. It’s a very interesting way to quickly scan visual pallets of color, mood and imagery.
Then I started using it more as a practical tool for location scouting. Say you are shooting in Los Angeles, and you need a boxing ring. You can very quickly search for “boxing ring” on Instagram and scroll through several hundred pictures within a minute. Many have geo tags, so you can immediately go there. But also, you can see other people’s perspectives of these places. You might walk into that boxing gym and say, "Okay, I want to shoot this punching bag." On Instagram someone might have posted a shot from the floor looking up or from above looking down or from the perspective of the speed bag itself. You know what I mean? The images are both practical and inspirational.
Ultimately, Instagram inspires my writing because I can follow people's online “personality,” and see what they're interested in. Sometimes how they tag or how they caption their own posts is interesting and revealing. You get a peek inside their character: how they speak, what places they might go, and what they value. When we populate a screenplay with characters, we have to imagine the details: what foods do they like to eat, what clothes do they like to wear, what friends do they hang out with, what do they do on a Friday night? You can see all this within the app.
Of course, we could get into an argument about whether what they post is their “real” selves. We could ask… Is that just a public face? But since we're just fleshing out characters, we can just take the traits and details we need from what these people reveal of themselves.
Sean: It seems like Instagram is a great character building tool because regardless whether it is entirely “real,” all sorts of information about Instragram users is conveyed in the pictures they take, and the places they go, and the things they share about themselves. Screenwriters are often asked to write about characters who are nothing like them (the writers) at all, characters we don't have necessarily have an intuitive understanding of, and this is certainly a way to observe people we might otherwise not have direct access to.
Jing: Absolutely, and it's always those little details that seem really random, but in the right context, they become very powerful - details that enrich the story. When you approach a character abstractly and break down his reasons, motivations, and “Wants,” the story can become too logical. Every person has an inherent logic, but that logical pattern is revealed over time, with an accumulation of details. I feel like sometimes in writing, we start with that logical breakdown instead of discovering these organic and authentic patterns through observation. On Instagram, I can just observe complete characters.
Instagram is also a pop culture machine that can quickly divulge a lot of information about how people are living, behaving, and speaking right now.
It’s extremely fast. I think we work in a medium that is very, very slow. It's the slowest art form because it takes so much money and it takes so many people and you have to jump through so many hoops to get a thing out there in the world. I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of the films coming out of Hollywood are remakes. I think the people who have worked for decades to get their films made about what is important to them don't always have a clear idea of what young creators are paying attention to.
By that I mean that older Hollywood filmmakers make things that are important or powerful to them, but these things might not be as relevant to young people of today as they think. There is more of a generation gap between film/tv leaders than other industries like music, art, fashion. Because it takes less money and resources to create their music, art and clothes, the development in these other industries seems a bit faster and of the moment.
Sometimes I'm on Instagram and surprised by what I find. I'm like, "This has 100,000 likes?" Really? But if you spend a little time and look into it, you realize, "Wow, this is actually what's powerful to people. It’s what people are interested in. You actually start to understand it.
Sean: So, you see Instagram as a window into millennial culture, but also a window into pop culture - a kind of culture that isn't necessarily represented in movies yet. Movies are still working from a traditional template of characters. For you, Instagram gives you a whole new pallet of people, imagery, behaviors, and concerns that aren't being reflected in movies and TV right now.
Jing: Yes. Especially when you're a writer and you want to create something naturalistic and authentic. You have to be able to operate in that space. You have to include social media and technology in the story. In television, there are multiple episodes of shows like Atlanta and Master of None that deal with social media. It's essential to the experience of the character's lives. So to take that out or to leave that out would make it artificial and dated.
My conversations on this subject will continue…
I have nothing to add except that this conversation has inspired me to install an Instagram app into my phone and I've been scouring through it. I agree with Jing's observation that every person has a "logic" to them. It's usually something I can suss out in a prolonged conversation with the person but it has been interesting to SEE the visual markers of somebody's mind.
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