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:

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