Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Writing The Short Film - Week Four (And Five)

This article follows, week by week, the course I teach at USC's School of Cinematic Arts called Writing The Short Script. You may want to check out previous weeks (click on):


In week four (and five) of "Writing The Short Script" students have started writing short scripts based on material generated from the exercises. As an example, take a quick read of one student's first draft, by clicking the link: Pencil People.

The writer developed an idea from the earlier "Memory" exercise, in which she wrote about playing with colored pencils as a child, pretending the pencils were people.

Notice how she establishes a clear protagonist who WANTS something. Then she builds the tension on the playground as this protagonist has trouble getting it (recall our definition of STORY.) Notice how the pencil-play on pages 1-2 is a scene of PREPARATION, and how the ending on page 4 prolongs a moment of heartbreaking AFTERMATH. The pencil people scene PLANTS an expectation/hope as Tobi (the pencil) chooses Tracy. The playground scene PAYS OFF that moment as Tobi (the real boy) chooses Ada.

In general, the point of this exercise is to take a vivid and unique memory and build a short script around it that plays with the concepts we've been talking about in class. Effective short scripts are usually built around one climactic moment (like Tobi's Choice,) with all the supporting beats before and after heightening that single moment's dramatic (or comic, or frightening) impact.

Now that the writer has done the first draft, if she wanted to develop the project further and shoot it, we could give her more feedback. We might suggest she revise the script to make sure that it will be clear to the audience that the Brown Pencil is Ada and the Yellow Pencil is Tobi. We might suggest ways of shooting the playground scene so that it feels like we are experiencing it from Tracy's point of view.

Always, always, always get feedback on your script and revise before shooting. You can revise a script a dozen times, but you usually only get to shoot once.


Continuing with screenwriting terms, in week five we discussed "character." There often isn't a lot of time for complex characterization in short films. There are no long "character arcs" or deep explorations of backstory. None the less, there are a number things we can consider to keep our characters from becoming one-dimensional and boring.

1. Make them specific. Imagine your characters not just as a DOPEY BOY or HOT GIRL. Visualize the little details of appearance, dress, attitude, speech and behavior (especially when under pressure) that makes them uniquely themselves. Often all that is needed is a few choice details and behaviors to imply a complex personality.

2. Make them pertinent. Ask yourself, "Why them?" Why is this character the perfect person (the funniest/most interesting/most ironic/most dramatic) to experience the ordeal of the story? Since you can pick anybody,  choose the person whose specific characteristics make the events dramatically, comically, or terrifyingly acute.

3. What can we SEE? Specific details that reveal character have to be obvious to the viewer. They have to be things we can see or hear... and understand in an instant.

4. Choose your best. If you could only pick three details to reveal to us everything we need to know about this character in order for the story to have the greatest emotional impact, what would they be? As per 1-3, they should be specific, pertinent, and visible. In a short film, you are likely not to have time for more detail and depth than that.

Class Whiteboard

Furthermore, for a reader/viewer to truly empathize with a character, we have to have a sense of his or her wants, needs, and motives. In other words, we have to have a Theory Of Mind about them. We have to sense what they are thinking and feeling, moment by moment, as they struggle towards some sort of objective.

If we have no idea what a character is doing or why, we are liable to lose interest.

Short Films Of The Week

There are several problems with many of the short films I have shared on this blog so far. Popular shorts on the web tend to be dialogue-driven comedies with a twist ending, and they are often not particularly cinematic. Several students pointed out that the setup-punchline structure gets old... very fast. Since my goal is to help my students develop their craft and expand their vision as filmmakers (not just help them make a popular short,) many of the films I'll explore in upcoming weeks will move beyond what has gone viral on youtube.

This week, I'd thought I'd stress visual storytelling without dialogue. Some of the best short films ever produced were filmed in the silent era. So this week I am suggesting you watch at least one of three classic SILENT shorts. They are...

MĂ©nilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)

Un Chien Andalou (Salvidor Dali and Luis Buñuel, 1929)

My guess is that you have not seen at least one of these three, and every serious filmmaker should study all of them.

Short Film Scripts

By Week Five, students started writing their short scripts for a project that they will actually shoot. The variety of subject matter, from narrative films to experimental, from comedy to drama, was very encouraging. Some examples of first drafts (and there will, of course, be revisions) include American Fried Rice and Unfinished Image.

In American Fried Rice, notice the use of atmosphere and environmental detail to give us a sense of the protagonist entering a new world. Notice how the title and the opening image are paid off in the climax. This short a good example of how PLANT and PAYOFF can be used to deepen and explore THEME.

In Unfinished Image, notice how the protagonist's WANTS and NEEDS are explored, and how sexual tension (See Week One) is heightened entirely without dialogue. Characterization is achieved with just behavior and context. One of the suggestions I had for this script was for the writer to explore the final AFTERMATH moment a bit more deeply.

Since many of you are going to want to put music in your films, check out:

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Writing The Short Film - Week Three

Short films are not mini-features, and some of the screenwriting tools we associate with features - Three Act Structure, Save The Cat Beat Sheets - don't necessarily apply to pieces that are 2-7 minutes in length. However, there are other tools that are powerful and useful - at any running time - for heightening emotional impact as well as creating unity and cohesion.

In Week Three of "Writing The Short Film" at USC's John Wells Division of Writing for Film and Television (that's our new name btw), students are writing short scripts around the prompt, "Preparation for a Date or Significant Event." The idea is to explore three concepts:

Plant and Payoff

In The Tools of Screenwriting, David Howard writes, "A 'plant' is a preparatory device that helps to weave the fabric of the story together. It can be a line of dialogue, a character's gesture, a mannerism, a prop, a costume, or a combination. Later in the movie, when the circumstances have changed, there is a "payoff" in which this line, gesture, prop, whatever, is repeated and takes on a new meaning."

As you write short scripts, you should look for opportunities to introduce an object/dialogue/activity and then bring it back later in a different context, infusing it with new a meaning, one that tells us something essential has changed for the characters. Some examples...

An object/prop plant and pay-off: In Sideways, a wine bottle dated back to 1961 is introduced as one of Miles’ most prized possessions. He looks forward to drinking this wine at a special occasion. Later in the movie, after he has been to his ex-wife’s wedding and realized she will not get back with him, Miles ends up drinking this prized wine in a McDonalds by himself, from a cheap plastic cup.

In an example from the short film we saw in Week One, objects are "planted" in The Lunch Date - the shopping bag and the boxed salad - both of which are possessions that the old woman is worried might be stolen by homeless men. Near the end, both the shopping bag and the salad are "paid off" creating a new meaning and an emotional punch.

Dialogue plant and pay-off: In 300, before raping Queen Gorgo, Theron says: “This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this. I am not your King.” Near the end of the movie, Gorgo speaks the same words back to him as she thrusts a knife into his chest: “This will not be over quickly. You will not enjoy this. I am not your Queen.”

By way of example in a short film, here is "A Man Walks Into A Bar." Notice how the film is structured around two conversations, one before an event and one after that event. Notice how the lines of dialogue in the first half have one meaning and context. Then notice how they come up again in the second half with a different context and meaning.

Preparation and Aftermath

In Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, Paul Gulino calls a scene of Preparation "an important tool that can greatly enrich an audience's experience of a film...which is explicitly designed to create an expectation in the audience - usually Hope and Fear (see Week Two and the definition of Tension)...These are scenes that can often be cut without affecting the plot, but they greatly enhance the emotional impact" of an important event in a film. 

Later, Gulino writes that a scene of Aftermath "provides punctuation in the story, lending emphasis to certain important moments. They inevitably follow emotionally charged scenes, and are usually characterized by little or no dialogue or activity, and are heavily atmospheric, often enhanced with music."

A famous screenwriting saying goes: “Tell your audience you’re going to do something and, afterward, tell them how you did it.” 

Preparation could be anything from the planning before a heist to an athlete practicing to the point of exhaustion before a big match. In these cases, the Aftermath scenes might be the criminals celebrating a successful caper, or the athlete facing the disappointment of a loss.

In general, we don’t want to jump right into an important event; we want to be with our characters as they plan, worry, dread, predict, avoid, and eagerly await what is coming. And afterward, we want to see how much this important event has changed them or their surroundings. Often the audience needs a moment to "take in" what has happened and to understand the consequences. 

So, scenes of Preparation heighten the Tension by triggering Hope and Fear in the audience as they imagine a future event going well or going badly. Scenes of Aftermath dissolve tension as the audience catches their breath, and comes to terms with an event that may have unfolded in a way they didn't anticipate.

The long briefing for the Osama Bin Ladin raid in Zero Dark Thirty is an example of a Preparation scene. The somewhat muted celebration after the team comes from the operation is an example of an Aftermath scene. In The King’s Speech, King George and Logue warming up to the climactic speech is a Preparation scene. The uproarious success of the speech as the crowds salute King George is an Aftermath scene.

In short films, there is often only a single "event" that occurs near the end of the story. Most of their running time is spent building anticipation with scenes of Preparation for that single coming event. Here is one example, in which a man asks his friend to do something for him, and the short builds more and more tension as the time comes for the friend to actually do it. The last comic bits of the piece surround the unexpected aftermath.

In a longer example, the short film First Match, notice the multiple scenes of preparation leading up to a girl's first wrestling match. Notice how the final scenes of Aftermath are handled with minimal dialogue and thick atmosphere. 

Repetition with Variation

Many of my students this semester have experience in the arts: music, painting, architecture, dance, and so on. In all the arts, establishing a pattern (a melody, a rhythm, a set of movements, and so on) creates a set of expectations in the audience. As that pattern repeats itself, the variations can create surprise, delight, shock, and further expectation for the next cycle.

M C Escher

The same is true of narrative storytelling. In this short film, "Black Hole," a man reaches into a hole over and over again, with various intentions, various results, and an ultimate consequence.

Another one to watch for Repetition with Variation is Standby by writer/director Charlotte Regan. The four minute short is a series of scenes that all take place in the front of the same police car - essentially the same shot repeated again and again over time to explore the friendship between two police officers.

Next week I'll be lecturing about Character, specifically how to create and establish compelling characters in a limited time frame. Please respond in the comments if you have questions or suggestions! For the previous classes, check out:

Writing The Short Film - Week One
Writing The Short Film - Week Two

And the subsequent classes...

Writing The Short Film - Week Four

For more on screenwriting and filmmaking in general, check out:

Writing the Treatment