Don’t Cross the Line!

Believe it or not, filmmaking comes with a lot of rules. And while artists may scoff at some seemingly arbitrary conventions, it’s important to know why they exist and how they can affect your audience and artistic vision. Today’s topic for discussion is the 180 degree rule.

Don’t cross the line!

The 180 degree line is an imaginary line that follows the action of a scene. (If you’ve never heard of it, it will make more sense as we go along.) For those of playing at home, you may recognize that 180 degrees is half of a circle. The rule dictates that your camera will always be on the same side of that line.

Who the F#€& came up with that?

Part of this is just physics. If you’re watching something (a sporting event, a street fight, paint drying) you tend to watch it all from the same place. If you want to change your perspective, you can walk to the other side of the stadium, but it’s going to take you a few minutes.

The ancient Greeks, who basically invented western civilization (and also theater) and are frequent this blog’s whipping boy, decided to set things in stone. Literally. They started building all of these amphitheaters.

 

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(Image via:  https://www.athenswalkingtours.gr/blog/index.php/2011/11/04/the-great-theatre-of-epidaurus/)

You’ll notice that all of the seats are on one side. (It’s almost like half of a circle?!) The front of the stage makes a straight line, which taken as a whole, is called the proscenium. It is betwixt this line the actors and audience shall not cross.

Here’s another ancient theater with a much fancier proscenium.

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(Image via: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Theatre_of_Orange)

And here’s a view of a modern theater proscenium.

proscenium theater

(Image via: https://www.tes.com/lessons/H18uvEDH3eMUDA/copy-of-copy-of-types-of-stage-in-performance)

In all of these cases, you can only watch the action from one side of the stage. As a spectator, whether you’re in seat  B6 or FF139, you’re always watching on the same side of the line.

Now if we build a set on the stage, there would only be three walls. Much like this living room set from Malevolence: Bereavement. 

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When you build three walls of a set, the “fourth wall” is the proscenium. The audience must pretend that there’s a fourth wall. And that’s why an actor speaking directly to the audience (or looking straight into the camera) is “breaking the fourth wall.”

house of cards fourth wall

(Image via: http://www.businessinsider.com/house-of-cards-times-kevin-spacey-talks-to-audience-2015-2)

Millennia later, film followed suit, generally filming all of the action from one side of the line. In addition to following an established dramatic convention, it also makes it easier to film. The lights, camera, dolly track, sound mixer, additional second second assistant director and therapy dog all have a place to hang out without mucking up the set.

Trek.jpg(Image via: http://tng.trekcore.com/gallery/thumbnails.php?album=216)

What does it all mean?!

Moving from a wide shot to close ups, filmmakers need to make sure they stay on the correct side of the line. Consider two people sitting at a table, talking.

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Sally, on the left, is looking towards the right frame of the camera. When you move in, she STILL needs to be looking to camera right.

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Even in a closeup without Harry in the shot, she’s still looking to the right.

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Similarly, Harry should always be looking to his left.

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(Screen shots from When Harry Met Sally’s infamous restaurant scene.)

A simple situation like this is pretty easy and straightforward, but it would also make for a boring cinematic universe. The good news is, actors can move. And every time the actor or camera moves, so does the line. In fact that 180 degree line is more appropriately called the “action line.” And when things are moving, that line can go all over the place.

Long Steadicam or handheld shots like this work because the audience can follow the action in real time. It’s when you cut to a new camera angle that things can get confusing.

For example, if someone exits frame to the right, which direction should they enter the frame from in the next shot? If there are six characters standing in a circle, what is the direction of the action? If a character hands a prop to another character whose back is turned, should he be reaching camera left or camera right?

Fortunately, the script supervisor and director of photography should be keeping track of all of this. If you’re an aspiring DP or scripty, well, you’ve got some research to do. (I would recommend Joseph V. Mascelli’s The Five C’s of Cinematography to start.) But the intricacies of continuity and action lines aren’t the real reason I wanted to write about this.

Who cares?

Although this won’t really affect the writer, the 180 degree rule has some interesting psychological effects that influence storytelling. For example, if two people… or Matchbox Cars are chasing each other, they need to be traveling in the same direction.

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If we turn one of the cars around, they may be headed for a collision.

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Similarly, if your character drives from left to right on his commute into work, he should drive from right to left on his way home. Odds are, no one will ever notice whether or not you do this, but it’s one of those subconscious things that can disorient an audience if done incorrectly.

Mascelli goes so far as to argue that vehicles traveling west to east like an airplane flying from New York to London should move left to right on screen. I guess that wouldn’t apply to Australian filmmakers…

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(Image via: https://www.mapworld.com.au/products/australia-upside-down-world-map-in-envelope)

Once upon a time things that traveled from left to right were considered to be progressing while things that traveled right to left were regressing or retreating. (Presumably because most western languages are read left to right.) Curiously, that doesn’t seem to hold as much weight as it used to. The Eagles, the only team in the NFL whose logo faces the left finally won a Super Bowl.

NFL logos

(Look at those contrarians in the last column!)

And a not too distant political campaign with a right-pointing arrow didn’t end up working out so well.

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The line can also effect how you feel about a character. The furthest you can get from the 180 degree line is 90 degrees. This is the most objective or voyeuristic point of view. You’re not part of the action, you are an outside observer.

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(Not sure what’s happening on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and I’m pretty happy at this distance.)

As you get closer to the line, you become more subjective to the point where characters are speaking directly to you (breaking the fourth wall), and you feel like you’re part of the story.

That’s a hefty workload for one little line.

When can you break the rule?

When ever you want! The thing to remember is that audiences have become accustomed to these conventions. Breaking the rule will lead to confusion and disorientation. If that’s the feel you’re going for, do it! Just make sure the audience can still follow the story. (Remember that post about empathy? You want to be sure you’re showing your character’s confusion, not just confusing the audience.)

But for 99% of what you shoot, the 180 degree line is going to serve as a tool, not an artistic choice. To get to the heart of your story as effectively as possible, make sure your audience is focused on the right thing, and don’t cross the line!

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(Screenshot from The Big Lebowski via makeameme.org )

Make Movies, See the World

In this crazy business, you’re going to end up travelling for work. It’s as certain as Murphy’s Law or the phrase “It’s perfect” being followed by “Let’s do it again.” (As I write this, some of my coworkers are prepping for a schlep down to New Mexico to finish our current project.) If you’re lucky when you travel, you’ll have a one-night stay in clean and completely forgettable accommodations. If you’re unlucky, you may end up with bedbugs, a lifelong vendetta against a hotel chain, or brain surgery. (I’ll get to that.)

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(Ah, yes. The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. Never been, but I hear it’s nice in the summer. via: http://stephenking.wikia.com/wiki/File:The_Overlook_Hotel.jpg)

The “Quality” Inn

The second feature film I worked on set up shop in a Quality Inn. We rented roughly an entire floor for the crew to stay in and jury-rigged two rooms into an office. Productions will often rent designated office space in hotels (rooms with extra phone lines, printers, and a higher desk to bed ratio than 1), but you can only do that if you use a hotel that has office space to rent. (Something you should consider if you plan on being there for fifteen weeks…) Even as I was making the necessary renovations to our office, something about our hotel choice didn’t sit right.

For example, while waiting in the lobby for crewmembers to arrive, I noticed that a lot of people would come off the street to use the lobby bathroom… at the same time. Then there was the problem that the hotel was managed by Indians (from India), but the cleaning and maintenance staff were Hispanic. I realize this sounds racist, but it’s not really a recipe for success if your management and staff can only communicate with each through a shared, tenuous grasp of English. A minor request like, “Could we please get a second phone for the office, and, for the love of God, please fix the leaking sink,” would result in them replacing the phone (but not giving us a second one) and telling me there was nothing wrong with the toilet.

But production soldiered on and we made the necessary adjustments on our own. We removed all of the pictures to put up schedules, hangers for file folders, and dry erase boards. We disassembled the furniture and packed it into the closet. And we drilled through the walls to pull in that second phone line from the room next door. (This is what happens when you give creative people problems, free time, and power tools.)

The hotel did get its revenge. About ten weeks into the shoot, it became infested with bedbugs. Granted, this can happen anywhere, but as you can guess, the Quality Inn didn’t do the best of jobs handling the situation. First they denied it. Then they shuffled our rooms around much like the Catholic Church trying to hide a pedophile. And much like the Catholic Church, things didn’t work out great.

When we wrapped, the wardrobe stylist, who by this point had witnessed the rise and fall of several bed bug civilizations in the cast’s clothing, decided to just walk away and let the hotel deal with it. The baffled cleaning ladies dutifully threw the remnants of our film’s wardrobe into the trash. (It was a horror film, and frankly, torn bloody cheerleader outfits are not something you want to be seen carrying around.) For some reason, the staff thought this would be our procedure for checking out of all of our rooms. Two days later, when our poor production assistants were wrapping the set, the cleaning staff decided to empty out their rooms. They took fifteen weeks of accumulated living detritus (clothes, personal items, food, film equipment) and unceremoniously threw them in the dumpster. (They did pilfer some of the less bedbug prone merchandise like a rather nice poker set that only miraculously re-appeared in the break room after much cajoling and arguing in multiple languages.)

I did however get the last laugh. I was the last production person to leave the hotel and passed by our ramshackle office just as the hotel manager was opening the door. He had a look that was equal parts dread and disbelief, like some archeologist who had just pried open a newly discovered sarcophagus to exhume the discovery of his lifetime only to find it piled nipples deep with fifteen weeks of unspeakable film production horrors. I will cherish that look until the day I die.

grand budapest

(The Grand Budapest: too much drama for me. via: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/moviesandtv/columns/moviebob/11111-Is-The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-Wes-Anderson-s-Best-Film-Yet)

Staybridge

On that same film, the producers quickly realized that they couldn’t keep our talent in the same hotel. Contractually, they weren’t allowed. Fortunately, even though we were filming eight miles west of west bumblefrack, there was a four star hotel within thirty minutes of the set. Unfortunately, they drew their staff from the same pessimal talent pool as the Quality Inn. Despite our block of rooms (which we wanted to keep and simply refresh when one actor left and another arrived) the staff decided to release one of our rooms when an actor checked out. That left me in the unenviable position of having to find another four-star hotel within the same hemisphere as our location.

I ended up in customer service hell, listening to prerecorded messages and repeating account numbers until I had apparently shouted enough profanity to merit live human intervention. The operator first recommended a cheaper hotel that was managed by the same parent company. It was only a few miles further away. I explained to him that I was contractually obligated to secure a four or five star hotel for my client to which he cheerfully replied, “Oh, we’ll we don’t use a star rating system, we use diamonds.”

“All right, how many diamonds is it?”

“Seven.”

“Oh. Out of how many?”

“Ten.” Granted, he was not being graded on this exchange, but I wish to God he had been because that would come out to a D-.

He does get an “A” for effort, though, because he then tried to find me something that was at least eight diamonds (which is apparently equivalent to four stars) and triumphantly told me that there were some available rooms in “Reeding.” I could be wrong, but I am fairly confident that Reading, PA is named after Reading, England and despite its misleading spelling is pronounced “Redding” across the globe. For my own amusement, I asked where he was located.

“Texas.”

So much for local service. We ended up shuttling the actor back and forth from New York.

Ace 

More recently I stayed in the world’s most pretentious hipster hotel. The furniture was made out of repurposed wooden pallets, the wall fixtures were bare copper piping, and the room numbers were filthy plastic lamps that looked like they had been salvaged from a fleet of 70s era taxi roofs.

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(Welcome home!)

It gave the overall impression of crashing on a friend’s couch in a shitty, walk-up apartment. I would know because I’ve done it. (No offense, James.) The pretense was so complete, I genuinely thought they were pumping in artificial city noise. It sounded like my room was directly above a subway station, below a construction site, and wedged between a kitchen and a brothel. It wasn’t (at least I don’t believe so), but the hotel had somehow managed to find the least sound dampening material know to man.

The real coup de grace, however, was that several of the walls were painted black. Seriously. Here’s a picture of my room with all of the lights on.

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It could have been helpful, since we were doing night shoots, but a friend of mine got up in the middle of the day to pee, walked into one of the walls, and gave himself a concussion. He later required brain surgery. No I am not making that up. You can look for my review here or just read it here.

Then there was the ultra-modern “W” in D.C. (Seriously, are kindergarteners naming these places?) This is the kind of place that is so chic that it takes you twenty minutes to figure out how to turn the light on. The evening I checked in, I had been working for fourteen hours in the rain and just driven an hour and a half to the hotel. I boarded the elevator with my luggage including a pillow.

Some bros got on after me. They were headed to a party on one of the upper floors, one of those those yuppy gatherings that is equal parts networking and mating ritual. Joking around, they asked why I was carrying the pillow. I think I said something to the effect of, “Because I have a knife on me and if you say anything else, I’m the only one leaving this elevator alive.” The rest of the ride was tense, but silent.

I also had to do battle with the bathroom, which was something I thought humanity had more or less conquered about fifty years ago. The newest rendition of the toilet, however, has no tank, so you have no place to set your phone, glasses, or shower beer. The massive, minimalist, walk-in shower was impressive as well, but also lacked any place to set your beer… or soap… or towel. That latter issue required you to either hang your towel over the door (getting your towel soaking wet) or leave your towel at the sink (getting everything else wet as you went to retrieve your towel).

fontainbleau

(Goooodlfinger… via: https://fontainebleau.com)

But Wait! There’s More…

Then there was the time I couldn’t sleep because of how loud the HVAC was. I took the vent off of the wall and shoved a pillow in it. Or the creepily friendly hotel manager who repeatedly invited me into his office to chat about gladiator movies. While it’s never happened to me personally, a handful of my coworkers have returned to the hotel after working fifteen hours and opened their doors only to find that the hotel has somehow rented their rooms to someone else and not bothered to tell them or deactivate their room keys. And in perhaps the ultimate absurdity, who can forget the time someone literally took a dump outside the production manger’s door? (No, it wasn’t an irate crewmember.)

So what do I look for in hotel? Cleanliness. For the love of God, I can sleep in the bathtub, just make it clean. In the first world, water and electricity are (I hope) a given. Refrigerators are nice and ranges can be a fun perk if you’ll be there for a few days. Location is also very important. Proximity to set is nice, but proximity to a bar and some dinner options is more important. Hotel bars can work, as long as the food is decent and not too expensive. If your crew has to drive forty-five minutes for dinner every night, it will be abundantly clear at call time.

For your own sanity, throw earplugs and a sleep mask in your travel bag. Even the best hotel can have noisy neighbors. And personally, I’ve found that while it is a pain to drag the slippers, contour pillow, and chia pet along for a shoot, those little touches of home can make a surprisingly big difference after a brutal shoot day.

Finally, no sharing! Sharing rooms is one of those red flags that should make you wary about working with a company. It’s a sign that they’ll be pinching pennies and cutting corners every step of the way. And do you really want to deal with that after listening to the producer’s nephew snore all night?

While it’s true that working out of a hotel can be a pain, it’s also a fun to work in and explore new cities. Get the all you can eat crabs in Baltimore, check out Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and try the edibles in Colorado. But no matter what happens when you travel for work, you’re going to end up with some interesting stories.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

It can’t be helped. We exist in time/space. We’ve all been at work, staring at the clock,  wondering when our time in purgatory will come to an end. But on a film set, the different circles of hell each have names and meanings. As a filmmaker (especially if you’re a production assistant (PA)), it’s good to know what these times are and how they affect your day.

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Call Time (In)

This is the time you show up to set. For our example, let’s say call time is 6:00am. This is known as “general crew call” because it’s when most of the crew will show up. However, any good production manager will say, “Be sure to check individual call times.” Production will generally have a “pre-call” to make sure doors are unlocked, parking is sorted out, and the caterer knows where to set up breakfast. Your individual call time is listed next to your name on the call sheet (pretty straightforward). So with a 6:00 call time, a PA can expect to have an individual call time of 5:00 or 5:30. Even so, if someone asks you what the call time is, they’re probably asking about general crew call. (And remember, if you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fired.)

Depending on the day, other departments may have a pre-call as well. The grips or set dec may need to get in early to prep a location. The camera department may have a special piece of gear to prep for the day. But no matter how many staggered call times there are, there will always be an official general crew call.

First Shot

First shot is when you get your first shot. (Duh.) The script supervisor is in charge of recording this. (On a small shoot without a script supervisor, however, an assistant director (AD) may record it.) Ultimately, this time goes to the 2nd AD who puts the production report together. An AD or producer may ask you when the first shot was. All you have to do is ask the script supervisor. (Fun note: The script supervisor is the official timekeeper of a film set and keeps a record of all of these times.)

Lunch!!!

Ah, the second best time of the day. Lunch is owed to the crew 6 hours after general crew call. In our example, lunch would be 12 noon (6 hours after call). Technically, production can break whenever they want, but there may be repercussions…

Meal Penalty

If production does not break after 6 hours, they owe the crew meal penalties (AKA money). This is why production almost always breaks after 6 hours and why ADs always freak out after 5 hours and 45 minutes. (Sadly, PAs do not get meal penalties and often end up working through lunch. But sometimes they do get to break early.)

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NDB

What about those grips who were in at 5:30? Shouldn’t they break at 11:30? Yes. That’s why many call sheets will say, “All crew must NDB.” That stands for non-deductible break. As time permits (say the director needs to have a heart to heart with his star) crew members break away one at a time for a 30 minute break. That way they don’t go into a meal penalty, but production may continue uninterrupted. They will still break for lunch with the rest of the crew.

Grace

Production may also ask for a grace period to finish a shot in progress. This is only 12 minutes and needs to be asked for and agreed to by the crew. Then you may break for lunch at say 12:03 without going into a meal penalty.

Last Man

Crews generally break for half hour lunches, but that clock doesn’t start until the last crew member (last man) is through the line. Let’s say lunch was called on time at 12:00, but the crew needs to be shuttled 10 minutes away to catering. It takes a further 8 minutes to get the entire crew through the catering line. So your half hour starts at 12:18. As a PA, it may be your job to watch the line and call last man. After that last man is through the line, tell the AD the time for last man.

Back In

Back in is the time lunch ends. In our case, that would be 12:48. The crew is “back in” at catering, so don’t expect to shoot anything until everyone’s taken that 10 minute shuttle back (~12:58). At lunch, after the last man is called, PAs will be asked to inform the crew. E.G. “Last man 12:18. Back in 12:48.” As with these other times, you may be asked to relay this info to and from production, the ADs, and the script supervisor.

First Shot After Lunch

Same as the first shot, just… after lunch.

Camera Wrap

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(That’s a wrap…or is it lunch? Or both?)

“That’s a wrap. Everybody go home!” Ah, the best time of the day. When the first AD says those magic words, it’s time to start packing the trucks. This is the official camera wrap, but much like the official call time doesn’t dictate when you stop (or start) working.

Wrap (Out)

Once the trucks are loaded and the crew is shuttled back to the parking lot, they are “out.” This is the individual wrap time and varies from department to department. Departments are generally (but not always) out as a group (e.g. the grips are out at 7pm). Most productions will assign a PA to each department to get out times. This information is relayed back to the 2nd AD for the production report. To simplify things, most productions have started using daily time cards that a representative will fill out and pass to the PA. That makes it easy to just run everything back to the office.

(Note: remember that 6 hour rule? If you continue to film 6 hours after lunch, production will owe another meal break or go into dinner meal penalties.)

Production Report

The production report is a kind of mirror image of a call sheet. Whereas a call sheet is when you’re supposed to show up and what you hope to achieve for the day, the PR is what ended up actually happening.

At the end of the week, production will send PRs to each of the department heads. PAs often call these “cheat sheets” because crew members will copy the information on them to their time cards. But PRs have much more information on them than in and out times (injury reports, rerates, additional crew members that weren’t listed on the call sheet, etc.). Department heads (or their seconds) should actually be checking the PR to be sure that the information on them is correct. If you want to sound like you have a clue, call them by the correct name.

Now when someone asks, “Did we break on time Tuesday?” “What was call time today?” “When are we back in?” or “What was camera wrap last night?” you’ll have a vague idea what they’re talking about.

Bonus! Time cards!

To make this all a bit more confusing, times cards are filled out in 10ths of an hour on a 24 hour clock. Before your brain explodes, let me explain. First, a 10th of an hour is 6 minutes. 0:30=0.5, 0:18=0.3, 0:48=0.8. So 7:24 is… 7.4. Not that difficult.

A 24 hour clock simply means that Instead of going to 1pm, you go to 13.0. Just add 12 to the normal time. 3:24pm=15.4, 5:42pm=17.7, 11:54pm=23.9.

But wait, there’s more! If you bleed into a new day, you don’t reset the clock. So midnight becomes 24.0, 1am is 25.0, 2:12am is 26.2. (Last week, I wrapped at 31.0 or 7am Saturday morning.)

On set, everyone still speaks about time in the normal 12 hour, 60 minute way, but if you see a bizarre number like 14.6 on a PR, now you know what it means. (Also, it’s always morning when you start your day even if it’s 7pm… or 19.0.) As a nerdy form of masochism, check out the time card below and see if you can get the same results I do! (Notes: Even though I list the whole lunch time, only 1/2 hour is deducted from the time worked. Also, straight time is 8 hours, 1.5X is 4 hours, any additional time is 2X.)

Time Card Math

The Muse

One of the biggest issues I faced in college was coming up with ideas for scripts. Without too much self-pity, I have to admit that it’s difficult for college students to write a decent script. For one thing, they simply don’t have enough life experience. Production issues create another major problem. While film students may have brilliant ideas (probably not, but maybe), they don’t usually have the means to produce them. You can only shoot a dorm room from so many angles. Something that really would have helped and that I recommend all young writers do is find their muse.

The Muse

In classical Greek mythology, the Muses were goddesses (or nymphs) who flitted down from the ether and whispered ideas to artists. The Greeks (who were also ridiculously chauvinistic) believed that there was a pure, objective form of beauty and that the Muses themselves embodied it. Naturally, this is what the artists used as inspiration for their work.

In subsequent drama, the muses are often portrayed as beautiful women whom tortured artists obsess over. In an amazing example of life imitating art imitating life, Maxfield Parrish, who had a major influence on the look of fantasy in the early Twentieth Century, fell in love with his model, Susan Lewin. But when his wife died and he didn’t marry Lewin, she went off and married someone from her home town (at the age of 71!). Parrish never painted again.

Reveries 2(Who would think the guy that painted this would have relationship drama?)

But your inspiration needn’t be a woman. (In fact it’s probably better if it’s not.) Nature may be your inspiration. Or music. Or old literature. Or Irish folktales. Or history. Or true crime. Or you may even just jot ideas down and pull them out of a hat like Mad Libs. I, strangely enough, stumbled on NPR.

To be clear, I’m not necessarily talking about the news broadcast. But NPR does a lot of in-depth reporting about human-interest stories, technology, and even book reviews. And delving deeper into these subjects often tickles my brain. How will this technology change the world in ten years? Why was this peculiar law written in the first place? How would this news story unravel differently if the gender roles were reversed? I stash away all of these ideas, characters, and psychological puzzles, and I let them simmer until they coalesce into my next idea.

Hey, that was my idea!

If you’ve read my posts about copyright, you hopefully have a handle on how to protect your work. But what do you do when you’re sitting in a theater and see a preview that seems an awful lot like that script you’ve been working on for years? Well, sadly, probably nothing.

One theory of creativity questions whether we can ever come up with an original idea or merely recombine things we have already experienced.

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(image via a fun article at AmandaBarnes11)

Even if you don’t fully agree with that theory, it’s not hard to see that the zeitgeist, the “spirit” or “attitude” that’s driving societal trends, will have a major influence on what artists create. Something happens and then BAM, eighteen months later, you’re inundated with scripts that are all about the same thing.

When I started covering scripts years ago, I read three scripts in one month that tried to tackle Die Glocke. It was a supposed Nazi time travelling machine that crashed outside Pittsburg in the 1960s. The scripts were all very distinct from each other. None of them had the same characters or general plot outline so none of them infringed on the other’s copyright. Sadly, none of them were very good, either. But it did have me wondering where the sudden interest in Die Glocke originated. (Sidebar, I’d stay away from moon Nazis, time travelling Nazis, and really any sci-fi Nazis when you’re writing.)

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(Thank you SciFiIdeas, but that’s a hard pass.)

This wasn’t the first time I’d noticed the phenomenon, either. 1995 brought us Braveheart and Rob Roy, true stories about Scots fighting the English for independence. Then there was 1998 with it’s hyper-realistic World War II epics Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Okay, sure, lots of war movies come out every year, but 1998 also brought Deep Impact and Armageddon as well as Antz and A Bug’s Life. True, especially in the last case, studios may be intentionally trying to steal market share from their competitors. But scripts don’t materialize overnight. The inspiration for the stories, the drive to produce the stories, and the technology required to make the films all coalesced independent of one another, but at the same time. (Wikipedia actually has a page dedicated to so-called “Twin Films.”)

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(Maybe we’d all be better off if one of these had been a documentary. Image via another fun article here.)

I’ve had to kick myself more than once for coming up with an idea, but getting beaten to the punch. (Not to say that my ideas, sketched out in a journal, would be as good as or even similar to the works that came out later.) In December of 2008, I made a note that I should write a dark comedy about cancer. I even wrote that “The Big C” would make a good title. In August of 2010, Showtime premiered The Big C. (Too bad you can’t copyright titles.) In April of 2013, I started jotting down notes for a TV series about pirates. It just felt like the time was right. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. A few weeks later, watching previews before The Great Gatsby, I saw a trailer for the Starz series Black Sails. You can ask my wife, I nearly threw a shoe at the screen. In March of 2006, I scribbled down something about a love story for a musical I was brainstorming. It was about Aaron Burr…the man who shot Alexander Hamilton.

hamilton

There is a silver lining to all of this. At least I can say with confidence that my ideas are not totally off the mark. In fact, they’re not even off the market. You can’t copyright cancer or pirates or American history. So long as my expression of these topics is different than the others, I’m still good to go. Furthermore, when pitching my own version of the famous Burr/Hamilton duel, I can use the success of Hamilton to entice investors. Of course, I have to be careful not to use any of the fictionalized characters, dialogue, or other original plot devices that the brilliant Lin Manuel Miranda used.

Should you watch movies that are similar to your idea? Of course. Everyone else is. If you pitch an idea about a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs to an investor, you better be able to explain how it’s different than Jurassic Park and why it’s worthy of their money. Watching similar projects will also inform you about what works and doesn’t work for a particular genre or story. It may even spawn another, better idea. Don’t be afraid that watching similar work will influence what you’re writing. It will. But if your project is so similar that it risks copyright infringement, you should probably quit while you’re ahead.

What if one of these other movies was really, shockingly similar to a script you had already completed and registered with the copyright office? That was the case when FX was sued over its show The League. Two writers say the series had multiple similarities to their own work The Commissioner. While I couldn’t find the results of the lawsuit, I seem to recall it being settled out of court. http://deadline.com/2012/09/fx-networks-sued-for-copyright-infringement-over-the-league-joseph-balsamo-peter-ciancarelli-jeff-schaffer-337937/

Obviously, if you have legitimate reasons to believe that someone stole your “original work of authorship” that was “fixed in a tangible form,” you should fight for your rights. But my bigger point about the zeitgeist is, don’t get too paranoid.

Keep Writing

The biggest way to get over your slump is simply to keep writing. This is what you want to do, right? It’s very unlikely that you’ll come up with and execute an original idea perfectly on your first go. If you trust yourself as a writer, you’ll just get back to work with your next great idea and hopefully hit the market before the next guy. I’ve also noticed another peculiar phenomenon.

phenomenom powder(Coincidence?! Image via PopCultureCruchBlog)

Ideas beget ideas. You’ll be in the midst of doing research for some project and suddenly get hit with another brilliant premise. Or you’ll finish a project just to realize it’s complete trash, but that one minor character you created is pretty cool and maybe, just maybe, deserves their own story. The muse can come from anywhere. You may also discover that your billion dollar idea that was going to make all of your dreams come true is just a massive pain in the neck. You might not be able to look at it for ten more seconds without vomiting. That’s okay. It may be a good idea (maybe not), but it’s not going to be your idea. And maybe, just maybe writing period educational pieces for children isn’t what your destined to do. The only way to find out is to try it and follow that muse wherever she or he or it leads you.

Tax Reform (A Sequel)

‘Tis the season – tax season, that is. If you’ve been following me, you know that taxes are kind of my hobby horse. One of the biggest problems for freelancers is that our taxes are ridiculously complex, but we don’t get any compensation for pain and suffering. I tried to remedy that a few years ago by invoicing President Obama for the time I spent filing taxes. (See below)

He didn’t bite.

Now that we’ve had the most sweeping tax “reform” in thirty years, you’d think I’d be golden. Well, it really didn’t really work out. We shall see if the Trump administration is more receptive to my work…

In the meantime, if you’re struggling with your own taxes, you still have two days to send them in or file for an extension. And if you’re completely baffled, may I recommend my post from last year: Taxes for Freelancers.

The Tragedy of Tragedy Girls

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(image via: http://www.dreadcentral.com/news/264412/tragedy-girls-starring-alexandra-shipp-brianna-hildebrand-hits-blu-ray-february/)

With the Oscars this week, you’re probably scrambling to watch all of the films you’ve head about but haven’t seen. One little nugget that flew under the radar last year was Tragedy Girls. I only learned about it through the Queens of Crime podcast. (Highly recommended if you like true crime stories.) I enjoyed it for all of the reasons I thought I would: a ridiculous premise (high schoolers become murderers to publicize their blog), campy humor, ridiculous gore, and surprisingly high production value. The acting was spot on and the cinematography was creative and effective.

All that being said, there’s a reason this film flew under the radar, and it can be a lesson for the aspiring filmmaker. Tragedy Girls disregards many of the “rules” of screenwriting, and it shows. It wasn’t bad enough to be a B movie, but it wasn’t likable enough to be mainstream. The biggest thing I felt while watching it was discomfort. And here’s why.

Does your protagonist need to be likable?

No. But they do need to be relatable. The main characters, Sadie and McKayla, are snotty, narcissistic teens who are obsessed with social media. And while they can be funny, they aren’t likable. Nobody is rooting for them to succeed. The film never builds a bridge between these antiheroes and the audience. There is no “save the cat” moment or humanization of these sociopathic killers.

The film could have humanized them in a variety of ways. It could have better explained why they were killers (bullying? revenge?), given them their comeuppance in the end, or given them an opportunity to make amends for what they did. It also could have made their victims more despicable, turning Sadie and McKayla into the lesser of several evils (think of Dexter). But for some reason, everyone else in Tragedy Girls, is strangely guiltless and generally likable.

The Three Act Structure

Tragedy Girls disregards the three act structure, starting with Sadie and McKayla committing their first murder and capturing (and torturing) a serial killer. While it does get things moving quickly, it raises more questions than it answers. Who are these girls? What is their ordinary world? Why do they believe they are morally justified in killing people? Why is social media so important to them? Why do they want to be notorious killers? Answering even one of these questions would help endear them to the audience which is, after all, the primary function of the first act.

From there, the girls spiral into their killing spree–a kind of Mean Girls but with murder. And while it does have its comedic moments, that’s sort of it for the rest of the film. If you don’t find that entertaining, the film has lost you twenty minutes in.

The final act offers no real resolution or change. Sadie and McKayla are essentially the same on minute 1 and minute 91, giving the impression of a drawn out SNL sketch rather than a feature film.

Too Close to Home

When you strip away the jokes, you end up with a movie about two teens who kill their classmates and get away with it. The film offers no real alternative to the outcome, and it isn’t really a cautionary tale. If, for some perverse reason, you end up rooting for Sadie and McKayla, you end up rooting for high school murderers.

That really brings me full circle to discomfort. At every point in the movie, you’re not 100% sure if you should be laughing, cheering, or vomiting in disgust. I do have to tip my hat to the filmmakers because, production-wise, it’s very well put together. They also stick to their guns. They made a movie about unabashed serial killers who get away with their crimes. They bucked convention. As to whether or not it worked, you’ll have to judge for yourself. But as you build our own stories and craft your own characters, it’s important to keep in mind how some of these “rules” operate in screenplays and the reaction an audience can have if you disregard them.

 

Copy That (Part 2)

If you didn’t get enough of it last time, here are some more fun facts about copyrights! For example, did you know that like being a Scientologist or owning a gun, copyright is protected under the United States Constitution (Article 1 Section 8)? Or that Walt Disney successfully lobbied to extend copyright protections to their current length in order to preserve its copyright on Mickey Mouse. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. 

mickey-mouse-copyright

(image via: https://www.uprinting.com/blog/legal-concepts-need-know-content-marketing/)

Copyrights Never Die. They Just Pass into Public Domain

Seventy years after you die, all of your work will pass into the public domain or PD as they say. Public Domain means we the people now own your work and can do whatever we want with it for free. This is great for filmmakers who want to do a spinoff sequel to Hamlet or use Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in their soundtrack. But be forewarned, while Beethoven’s music is PD, specific recordings of the Moonlight Sonata are copyrighted by the person who recorded them. You’ll have to make your own recording of Beethoven’s music.

Interestingly, too, while you can make an adaptation or derivative work from something in the public domain, you can’t use any elements from other derivative works that are still copyrighted. The Wizard of Oz is a great case study. The original L. Frank Baum works are public domain, but the 1939 Warner Bros. movie is not. What’s the difference? For one thing, L. Frank Baum does not describe the Wicked Witch of the West as green. So when Disney made its Oz the Great and Powerful a few years ago, they had to be careful not to use Warner Brothers copyrighted shade of green. Read more about The Wizard of Oz copyright here.

(Sidebar, my first job in television was securing music rights for a high school band concert. We needed separate rights to broadcast the music and rights to synchronize the music to the televised concert.)

Fair Use

Fair use allows you to use part of copyrighted works for specific, limited purposes. Courts generally consider four criteria in fair use litigation.

1) Nature of the use. Educational and informational purposes are generally permitted while commercial purposes are generally not. Since I run a free, educational blog, I’m not too concerned about including a copyrighted image in a post to help illustrate a point. (That being said, if you own the copyright and were not credited or don’t want to be associated with my blog, I’ll gladly remedy the situation.)

2) Nature of the copyrighted work. While audio and video recordings may be copyrighted, audio and video recordings of newsworthy events (facts), may not be copyrighted. Time magazine, for example, tried to purchase the rights to the Zapruder film–the assassination of President Kennedy. But as a matter of fact and public record, the court decided the film should be in the public domain.

3) Amount of the copyrighted work. Screening the first scene of Saving Private Ryan to educate film students on a particular cinematography technique is probably okay. Screening all of Saving Private Ryan to a packed theater, not so much.

4) Damages. Of course, all of this comes down to money. If you start selling pirated Game of Thrones DVDs or Game of Thrones themed T-shirts, you’re taking money out of HBO’s pocket. But if you reprint a promotional picture for educational or news stories, you’re probably okay.

4B) Parody. But wait there’s more! One dicey way that you can ride off of the success of copyrighted work is parody. That’s how we end up with all of those porn parody gems. The key here is that your new copyrighted work is parodying a specific other work, but not infringing on the same market. That is to say, people who want to watch the adventures of Jack Sparrow will not intentionally purchase Pirates XXX.

PiratesXXX

(image via: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirates_(2005_film))

Similarly, no one looking for a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup will accidentally purchase Andy Warhol’s famous paintings. They’re different markets.

Campbells_Soup_Cans_MOMA

(Image via: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campbell%27s_Soup_Cans)

Other Intellectual Property

Intellectual property rights are largely covered in three categories: copyrights, trademarks (which I mentioned briefly in the previous post), and patents. Patents are distinct from copyrights in that copyrights protect “fixed works of authorship.” Patents protect processes. If you make the world’s first 5D film, you can copyright the film. But you’ll want to patent the process for making all future 5D films.

Copywriting

Copywriting is different than copyrighting. Writers may work on copy (text) for advertisements or articles. That’s called writing copy. And while copywriting may be copyrighted, make sure you’re using the right copy when writing copy about copyrights.

More fun with copyrights

Phew! That was exhausting. But the fun’s not over. www.copyright.gov actually does a really good job explaining copyrights. I highly recommend checking it out if you have questions.  In the mean time, get out there all of you creative people and fix some original work in a tangible form!