The Rules

You’ve probably come across a variety of blogs, books, and gurus who insist there are “rules” for writing a screenplay. (Maybe you’ve even read something to that effect on this very blog.) But are there really? Is there a secret formula for success? Well, yes… and no. Depends on who you ask. But maybe this is a better way to explain it. 

An Analogy

Here’s one way to look at it. Screenwriting is like building a house. There are some generally agreed upon “rules” for houses: protection from the elements is a must. Generally a door to keep you and your stuff safe. Probably indoor plumbing and electricity. Bathroom and kitchen to make this a full service abode. Hopefully a window or two but otherwise…

The thing is, doors, electricity, and plumbing have rules. Doors need to be appropriately framed with headers. There are physical limitations to what you can do with electricity as well as safety precautions. Water flows downhill. If you want your sinks to drain and your toilet to flush, you’re going to have to install your plumbing correctly. 

None of this has any bearing on the number or size of the bathrooms. None of it affects the shape of the house or the material you use. But there are definitely trends because some things are more effective or more efficient than others. 

You have cheap houses for the masses. 

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(Image via: http://longisland.mamasnetwork.com/2012/04/levittown-history/)

You have artistic houses for creative folks. 

wing house

(Image via: https://davidhertzfaia.com/747-wing-house/)

You have rustic retreats. 

cabin

(Image via: https://www.vrbo.com/335812)

And ostentatious abodes. 

mansion

(Image via: http://www.mainlinetoday.com/Main-Line-Today/April-2015/The-Main-Lines-30-Most-Expensive-Homes/)

Point is: they’re all houses. They all meet the same basic requirements while expressing the art and lifestyle of the builder and the inhabitants. 

Screenplays are similar, and many screenwriters will describe themselves more as craftsmen than artists. Yes, you need a creative mind, but you also need to know when to use a hammer and when to use a saw. Similarly, screenwriters need to be adept at understanding “the immutable laws of screenplay physics” as Blake Snyder calls them. Is your comic relief effective or overpowering? Does the story drag because the protagonist’s obstacles are episodic rather than escalating? Does the dialogue feel wooden because there is no subtext? Or maybe there’s no sense of urgency because your script violates the unity of time. 

Or maybe your script feels cliched and predictable because it  follows the rules a bit too closely. (This would be the home building equivalent of a stamped out, mass production condo.)

condos

(Image via: https://njcooperator.com/article/uniformity-in-condo-design/full)

And this is the final important thing to remember about the rules. Rules are meant to be broken. 

Below are 2 examples of VERY successful movies that very clearly break screenwriting “rules.” I don’t care how much you want to bend the rules or try to contort things so they fit into some mold in a bizarro world. These are generally bad screenwriting choices, and yet, nobody cares. 

Your Protagonist is not active enough. 

Your protagonist should drive the story. Their decisions and actions push the movie forward. That’s why they’re the protagonist. Blake Snyder calls this “The Hero Leads.” And if your hero is just some schmuck who gets dragged from place to place like a cosmic lump on a log, Snyder calls him “Johnny Entropy.” But I have another name: Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge has probably gotten the most mileage out of doing the least work of any protagonist ever. Wikipedia lists 20 film adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and more than two dozen TV adaptations or episodes. But what does Scrooge actually do with all this screen time? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

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(I guess that’s why he’s in his pajamas for the whole thing. Image via: https://www.falter.at/the-vienna-review/2007/savoring-scrooge)

Marley, not Scrooge initiates the Christmas hijinx.  Then the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future drag Scrooge on a time bending whirlwind. But apart from some tepid protests, Scrooge just goes along for the ride. Yes, at the end, Scrooge makes one massive 180 degree turn and starts giving his money away. But for the other 80 minutes of screen time, he’s as passive as Mr. Entropy himself. 

The thing is, nobody cares. Since his creation 175 years ago, the audience has loved Scrooge’s largely unearned transformation from miser into philanthropist. And every ten years or so, a new production company capitalizes on Scrooge’s ability to do nothing and make cash. Do you always need an active protagonist? Well…

scrooge 2

(Image via: https://www.disneyclips.com/imagesnewb/ducktales.html)

Hook ‘em in the first 15 pages

It’s important to hook your audience in the beginning of your script. Fifteen to twenty pages/minutes is a good rule of thumb. It gives you some time to establish your “world” before you hit your characters with the inciting incident. And when you analyze a story, most professionals look at scripts from the perspective of the protagonist’s conscious goal. 

In Jurassic Park, a beloved, award winning, visually stunning, and financially successful film, you could make an argument for any number of main characters, but I think many people would agree that Alan Grant (Sam Neill) is the protagonist. What’s his goal? To make it out of Jurassic Park alive. Well that can only be his goal if the dinosaurs have already escaped their pens, which means the power going out is the inciting incident, which means, the inciting incident doesn’t actually happen until almost an hour into the movie! 

Hammond watch

(We don’t have eons here, Mr. Hammond. Image via: http://watchesinmovies.info/movies/jurassic-park-1993-2/)

Does that mean the power going out is the midpoint? Or should Spielberg have cut the first twenty minutes and had more screen time of Grant trying to save children from velociraptors. Or maybe you don’t always need your inciting incident in the first twenty pages. 

You could make an argument for any of those things. But the bigger point is that Jurassic Park is a great movie and that the rules are not so hard and fast as they might appear. 

As a filmmaker, it’s important to know the rules. Like a builder, you are part artist and part craftsman. The “rules” are more of a user manual than a blueprint. They’ll help you understand how a screenplay works without really telling you how to make one. So don’t cling to the rules like a Dickensian judge. Successful movies, like life, find a way. 

judge 2

(Image via: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1167541/European-courts-powerful-says-British-judge.html)

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.

 

epidaurus-theatre-3

(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.

Le_Théâtre_Antique_d'Orange,_2007

(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. 

IMG_0979 MALEVOLENCE FIELDIMG_0993

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…

upside_down_2

(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.

hillary logo

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.

Pink_Floyd_-_WYWH

(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!

you-crossed-the

(Screenshot from The Big Lebowski via makeameme.org )

This Is Not a Pipe

Photo manipulation is nothing new, and for anyone growing up in the digital age, Photoshop has morphed from a proprietary digital editing program into a verb. Now, with a few intuitive swipes on a smartphone, you can turn your mediocre vacation photos into vintage “instagrams,” crop, distort, color correct, add text, and even add special effects to your videos. While most of this computing power is used for cheeky fun, everyone holds in their hands the ability to make photo-realistic, doctored images. “It’s only true if there’s pictures.” Not necessarily.

Until recently, audio and video manipulation were only possibly if you had a large team of special effects professionals at your disposal. Doctoring video and audio recording simply took too much computing power. Now, that’s no longer the case. Two new technologies will allow you to manipulate video and audio recordings with the same ease as Photoshop.

The first allows simple drag and drop editing of audio files. The most of advanced of these, Adobe’s VoCo, will seamlessly enter typed text into previously recorded audio files. Without recording any additional audio, you can generate a new file of Neil Armstrong’s famous moon landing that reads, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Or, “That’s one small step for a woman, one giant leap for mankind.” Or, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for your mom.” As long as you have twenty minutes of previously recorded audio file, the program can generate whatever new audio you want. This is particularly troubling for public figures who have days worth of audio files easily accessible to the public. In theory you could make an actor, athlete, or politician say whatever you want. The repercussions should be obvious and disturbing. For a more thorough explanation and example, listen to this podcast from RadioLab.

The second technology (also discussed in the podcast) is a motion capture technology that allows for real time manipulation of video images. This is similar to the motion capture technology Hollywood uses to create anthropomorphic creatures like Gollum or King Kong. Here you can see a sample of an edited video of President Obama. If you look closely, you’ll notice some irregularities where the program could not satisfactorily meld the two videos. But the bigger point is that this technology is becoming cheaper, better, and more accessible.

Is this the end of trust as we know it? Can we no longer believe anything we see with our own eyes? That would be the case if you accept film as reality. But film isn’t real life. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I say it. Usually, I’m pointing out that theatrical feature films are more exciting, prettier, simpler, and more entertaining than real life. But for this post, I’d like to look at things from the other angle. No film, no matter how realistic or “unedited” it looks is reality. It’s just a film. Film isn’t real life.

In the commercial and theatrical world, professional filmmakers intentionally alter reality. They use all kinds of tricks to make things intimidating, pretty, ugly, or endearing. Makeup, costumes, and lighting turn a perfectly charming Emilia Clarke into the Mother of Dragons.

But these tricks are still in play even if you don’t use them intentionally. Here are two pictures of a friend of mine at a mud run.

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In the first, you can clearly see the falling rain. (No, those aren’t orbs…) In the second, you can see that it is still raining if you look at the water. But the change of angle and focal length means you can no longer see the falling rain. (This is the same reason why it sometimes looks like it’s barely sprinkling at rained out sporting events.) I didn’t hide the rain intentionally, but that’s the reality of the situation.

The important thing to remember is, consciously or not, all media is an interpretation of reality. When you’re on vacation and take a picture, it captures some part of the moment, but it isn’t a recreation of the moment. You’re limited by the abilities of your camera. You choose to photograph the Grand Canyon not the parking lot next to the Grand Canyon. You crop out the guy wearing that ridiculous Hawaiian shirt. And what about the people in your photo? Are they like my nephew, who for two years refused to smile any time someone pointed a camera at him? Or do they ham it up for the camera in the hopes of becoming an internet star?

This is nothing new. Film has been an interpretive art since its inception. Below are two of the earliest war photographs ever taken. These are from the Crimean War in 1855, twenty-three years before the first movie was made.

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Both show a scene of desolation strewn with cannonballs. But it’s the second one that would make photographer Roger Fenton famous. Simply put, it’s a more striking photograph. Fenton wanted to show the horror and destruction of war, but he was restricted by his cumbersome film equipment. His solution? Move the cannonballs onto the road to take advantage of the high contrast. Although it was much more labor intensive than Photoshop, it’s the same basic principle. He altered his photo for effect. He sought a deeper “Truth” that wasn’t reflected in “reality.”

In the late 1920s, surrealist painter Rene Magritte created this thoughtful painting called “The Treachery of Images.”

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If you don’t know French, the text reads, “This is not a pipe.” Of course it’s not a pipe. It’s a painting. It represents a pipe. Our brains conceive of it as a pipe, but it is not a pipe. The same holds true for all media.

A definition might be helpful here. Media is the plural of medium. The two definitions that come to mind are medium (size), as in the size between small and large and medium (fortune teller), as in someone who communicates between the living and the dead. Both of course share the same Latin route, medias, which simply means middle. It shouldn’t surprise you that our news sources are generally referred to as “the media.” They are the middlemen. They transport ideas from the source to us. But along the way, they must interpret it.

Media is also used in the art world to describe the material that an artist uses. You may see the phrase “mixed media on canvas.” This medium might be oil paint, latex paint, clay, canvas, silk, steel, analog audio recording, digital video recording, computer programs, or even food. The point is, the artist interprets the world through this medium. Film, as an artistic endeavor, is its own medium. But never forget that the six o’clock news, the news radio traffic report, and the Wall Street Journal all operate in artistic mediums. To explain in more detail, I’d recommend listening to Malcolm Galdwell’s Revisionist History podcast from a few weeks ago.

In it, he discusses this famous photograph from Birmingham in 1963.

footsoldier

It seems to show a police officer unleashing his dog on a black protester. But it doesn’t. The man in the photograph wasn’t part of the protest. He wasn’t a “Foot soldier,” as the Civil Rights activists called themselves. And the police officer hadn’t unleashed his dog on him. If you look closely, both men seem surprised and the police officer is leaning back, trying to pull the dog away. But that’s not what the nation saw.

This photo highlighted the brutality of the Jim Crowe south. It represented the discrimination, the institutionalized hate, and the lynchings. It shifted public opinion to the side of the Civil Rights movement, and it was all done on purpose. Bill Hudson, the photographer, chose this picture over the hundreds of other photos he had taken that day. The editor of The New York Times chose to put this story above the fold rather than any other news of the day. This is what a medium does. It takes the raw data, curates it, interprets it, and disseminates a cohesive message. In doing so, a medium must disregard data that fails to support its message or obfuscate its position. In its quest for “Truth,” it must necessarily deviate from “reality.”

To further clarify, look at Ronald S. McDowell’s statue inspired by Bill Hudson’s photograph.

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The figure representing Walter Gadsen, the student, is considerably younger and shorter than he was in reality. The police officer is emotionless and inhuman, reminiscent of T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which came out four years before the sculpture was dedicated. The police dog’s mouth is wide open, bearing vicious, anatomically improbable fangs. But remember this is a piece of art. This is not a pipe.

The push and pull between film as art and film as documentation will never end. But as a filmmaker and consumer of media, it’s important to acknowledge that film is a medium. It is not reality. There is no magic bullet, no enforceable code of conduct, no ten commandments of filmmaking that will ever make film purely objective. Reality is reality. Film is film. The best thing you can do as both a filmmaker and a consumer is educate yourself.

It’s important to learn about technology, to learn what is possible and how to spot a fake. But it’s also important to learn about art. You know—art, that thing that gets cut when we want to tighten budgets. Learn about artistic conventions. Learn to read the meaning behind how a frame is composed, how set decoration reinforces the theme, and how story arcs are constructed. Understand that models and movie stars are just people, too. Appreciate the complex and tragic story of Aaron Copland and Fanfare for the Common Man (examined here in another great podcast). See the allegory between Game of Throne’s White Walkers and climate change. Learn how Proust’s understanding of memory preceded neuroscience. Discover the 1920 play that introduced the word robot and the idea that robots are out to kill us. And, above all, recognize that just because you see a video of something doesn’t mean it’s reality. In fact it’s not reality. It’s just a video. And while there will be a degree of objective truth in it, there will always be a degree of the artist’s truth. After all, it is a video. It is not a pipe.