You have this great idea for a feature film. Or maybe for a TV series. And you definitely want to produce it. But once again, you might find yourself struggling to overcome the enormity of tasks required to develop your idea: finding funding, time, locations, equipment, coordinating people’s (your team’s) busy life schedules…
But hey, maybe this idea of yours could be turned into a short film, so less time is required to make it, and also less money and less resources.
You might then think: “But I’ve made many shorts already”, or “But a short film isn’t long enough to develop my feature idea”. Yes, but how about making a short film as a proof of concept?
What is a Proof of Concept?
Proof of concepts are short films carried out in a way that highlights the main aspects of your film idea’s premise, showcases the potential of what you and your team are capable of, and shows where the idea could go whilst proving its feasibility.
The value of short films is often underestimated. When an idea is condensed into a short and is properly executed, that short can turn out very powerful as there is usually no place for “longueurs” or dilly-dallying with your story. Quite the contrary, the story needs to be concise and to the point. Any short that starts by ticking that box is on the right track to becoming a great proof of concept. Another aspect to consider is that the story doesn’t necessarily have to finish in a way features do, with all ends tied up neatly, and every question answered. Rather, it’s normally best to just point it in a clear direction. This will allow the idea room to develop, without any constraints.
So for now, put all limits to one side and just let your production skills and resources determine where and when you have to hold your horses.
Creating the Proof of Concept
This is especially important in terms of setting and developing the world you are creating. It’s worth trying to outline as much as possible of that world and character’s backstories without explicitly showing them, but instead hinting at them.
Obviously, this is easier said than done: developing an idea can be a daunting task. Ideas can easily get out of hand, especially when it comes to creating a feature. This is why thinking in terms of a short can help narrow down your idea and get a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve. Short films are also great for practice with the team.
It might be an understatement, but it is important to find the right people to work with, and if possible stick to working with them consistently. That way everyone develops a natural coordination with one another throughout different projects, which improves the team’s chemistry and ultimately constitutes an added value to the productions the team works on. This is one of the most important factors in the creation of a proof of concept, since it contains the potential to make the idea come to fruition through collaborating with a production company or studio, or even selling it.
Portfolio & Festivals
Once the short film is done, you need to be ready to show a whole portfolio of where the idea is going or what it could evolve into. This might be comprised of a treatment, which is different if it is for a feature or TV. While the treatment for a feature should focus on developing the story, the one for TV should not focus so much on story but rather outline if not the whole show, at least the first season. In addition, a synopsis, the finalised script, character developments, backstories, precise plans for the budget and production requirements, locations and even crew (the importance of having a team already gains its weight here) are some of the elements you’ll need to include.
Submitting your proof of concept to festivals is a different strategy to attract interest from people in the industry by getting some exposure. However, the film has to show a clear vision as to where the idea goes, since there would be less (if any) chances to explain whatever doesn’t come across just by watching the film.
Successful Proof of Concepts
It is inspiring to learn that some very famous, critically-acclaimed films were spawned from proofs of concept, such as: Inception, 300, Sin City, Saw, District 9 and Whiplash.
Saw: Saw’s screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan conceived the idea for Saw, but it didn’t attract interest until they made it into a 7-minute long short, which was literally just one torture scene. This was enough to showcase their ability to create an intense and gruesome story that went onto create a new genre, one that revolved around macabre torture games. They eventually got to pitch the idea to Lionsgate, one of the major production companies that showed interest in their proof of concept.
Whiplash: Although producers were reluctant at first to commit to director Damien Chazelle’s idea, he found a creative solution by making a proof of concept, comprised of a scene from his feature-length script. When his short was ready, he submitted it to festivals and eventually found support for the feature version of his idea when winning the Short Film Jury Award at Sundance 2013.
So, if you’ve got a feature up your sleeve but don’t have the resources to watch it bloom, definitely think about using the proof of concept strategy. Because who knows, with dedication and a bit of luck, maybe your film will be the next one on the list!
The Problem with the Three-Act Structure
Writing a script is a bit like a helter-skelter ride. All bumps and twists and no end to the dizziness.
Probably the most problematic part of any script is its structure, and more specifically, the three-act structure. Here we’ve got the second act, the murky midpoint where the writer’s expected to jam everything important–your conflict, climax and resolution–between page 30 and page 90. You can see the problem.
Act one is managed into a relatively easy 30 pages, ditto the third act. It’s the second act that can get tedious. If you’ve written a script using the third-act structure before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Structure is heavy. You need those healthy intermissions every thirty pages.
Kristin Thompson, author of Storytelling in the New Hollywood, found severe flaws within the three-act structure definition, claiming that the three-act structure has a negative effect on films, as it’s more based on page numbers than dramatic logic.
This is what she says about the four-act structure: “A great many of these films — indeed, I would contend, the bulk of them — break perspicuously into four large-scale parts, with major turning points usually providing the transitions.”
What she believes is that the third act structure fails to explain how the bulk of Hollywood’s films are put together. Instead the four-act structure helps put everything into perspective. She breaks it down into the setup, the complicating action, the development, and the climax.
The second act therefore, is divided into manageable, bite-sized portions, that can help you, as a writer, get through this murky wasteland.
There are major benefits to writing according to the four-act structure. Number one, you get to really focus your second act on what’s important: the hero-flaw confrontation. This means your protagonist confronts his or her major flaw, which will then allow him or her to face their antagonist (and this flaw) in the third act. This gives room to make the final flaw or failure to overcome all that more powerful in the later act, because we’ve focused on the protagonist’s inner struggles beforehand. Using the three-act structure, you might have skimmed over this detail because you were too busy confronting the second half of act two, which, let’s face it, when squished together, is thoroughly confusing.
1. Set up
The set up (page 1-30) establishes the initial set up, introducing our character, their flaw, the antagonist and paves the way for the life-changing circumstances (the inciting incident) at the end of it. Much like the three act structure, the four act structure starts off pretty much the same in terms of initial action sequence, making use of the Typical Day in the Life of the character. This follows the daily routine of the main character, right up until the inciting incident disrupts life as they know it.
2. Complicating Action
The second act (30-60) then has to deal with the second set up, the life-changing scenario, the hero reacting to the inciting incident and seeking out the way in which they will eventually overcome this flaw of theirs (having already been established in the first act), the hero-flaw confrontation. Act two covers overcoming the problem presented by the inciting incident and this act will then end on imminent doom, as the character fails to overcome the antagonist/source of evil, ending on a cliff-hanger, with the major crisis revealed.
One of the interesting components of Thompson’s four act structure is that she found there was a midpoint in films where act two and act three meet that often manifests itself in a particular scene. She argues that these sequences have a major turn where less effective films tend to sag, and this turning point effectively breaks Syd Field’s long-winded act two into two separate portions. This major turn (near the halfway point) takes the story into a new direction, a shift, and is based on the protagonist’s goal.
What does this mean? Basically, the character’s goal might be achieved and replaced with another, or the protagonist realises he/she needs a change of tactics to reach said goal and puts them into motion, introducing a whole new scenario.
This scene is not only the turning point of the story but where the goal of the protagonist or theme is articulated–here the scene portrays the film’s overall theme, or purpose, which can often go against the protagonist’s actual goal later on. The midpoint’s goal reflects the final act’s moral lesson. A character’s goal of revenge for example, might be thwarted by this same character’s realisation that something else much more important is at stake. But the point is, the midpoint needs to happen so that the audience can understand the character’s goal, it’s a breather, a pause where this is somehow outlined.
The third act (60-90) will then see your protagonist fully accepting the flaw and working to overcome it alongside the allies. The development stage portray the obstacles and delays used as tools to further your character, action, plot, etc.
They have to accept the fact that their plan was shot to pieces, but there must be a new approach they then put it into action. Your hero will be ready to face the upcoming battle. This leads up to the climactic event at the end where your character will (or won’t) defeat their antagonist, but now your character has gone through a fully developed life-changing character arc; they are not the same person they were at the beginning of the script, having accepted their flaw and are ready to face the battle. But all hope is lost, or is it?
The fourth act (90-120) will then of course, cover the final battle, see your hero face the antagonist, and witness their victory or loss. Act four mostly covers the resolution and the final scene, so that your story can wrap up any loose ends, ending on a high note.
To put into visual terms, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is a very good example of a successful four-act structure. The first act introduces us to Rocky and his self-doubts, and the inciting incident, how Rocky has the chance to compete in the heavyweight championship. The second is Rocky reacting to the inciting incident. He’s training but he’s weighed down by his self-doubt, his major “antagonist”. In the third act, Rocky comes to accept his flaw and works hard against it, so that finally in the fourth act, he’s ready to overcome it and battles, literally, in the ring for victory.
The middle section of a script is a bit like a wasteland, and if you just try writing your script according to the four-act structure, you might find it a lot easier to navigate through the swampy, boggy bits. Also, in the middle you’ll be able to pause and concentrate on the heart of your story, focusing on what your story is about, your main theme. Using the four-act structure doesn’t mean adding any extra acts, you’d simply be splitting the second act down the middle, dividing it into two thirty-page chunks.
In TV series, scripts depend on the four-act structure. Pick any and you’ll see this division is mostly noticeable thanks to the way the programme is separated by the advertisements, or commercial breaks. With hour-long episodes, there’s an ad every 15 minutes or so, breaking the episode into four perfectly even-timed chunks. You’ll be doing the same thing with your script. Buffy, Lost, House of Cards, they all run according to the four-act structure, so even if it’s just for peace of mind, to give you that little extra push as a writer, it’s well worth considering.
You might not have considered taking part in a collaboration. As writers, we’re very individual people, going at it as lone wolves, isolating ourselves between four walls to write and plot and scheme and essentially, go mad. But what happens when we actively share the madness with another writer? Below you’ll find out the main benefits of doing so.
Many writers who have stayed together, have become successful together. It’s all about finding the process that works for both of you.
Divide up your writing tasks
Writing together lightens up loads in every sense. You can each write to your strengths. Each writer can focus on their fortes, rather than agonizing over their downfalls. At the beginning of a collaboration, if you each outline your strengths and weaknesses (Who’s better at character-building? Or Script format?), then you can each perfect your craft, and learn from the other in your weakness. It’s a win-win situation. If you do this well, you’ll also be waving goodbye to any writer’s block, as you won’t be stuck in a rut with your biggest weaknesses–you’ll have someone there, battling them alongside you.
You build up a tolerance to feedback and (constructive) criticism
This is VERY important in the film industry. If you’re a person who’s hyper sensitive about tweaking so much as a sentence in your script, this won’t last for long with a writing partner. If uncomfortable at first, you’ll build a hardened shell to your partner’s suggestions and won’t hesitate in changing major plot points at least five times a day. Your script won’t suffer for it (quite the contrary in fact) and you’ll both find that honesty will lead to stronger scripts. You forget about your ego, and focus on the good of your story and the well-being of your writing partner.
This being said, you probably will occasionally argue with one another–especially when it comes to cutting favorite bits or beloved characters. This is totally normal however, as disagreement is a vital and integral part of the screenwriting process. But, argue your case nicely and then move on.
Adding hype and excitement
Once you both break the ice, you’ll inevitably end up having a whole lot of fun. What with jokes, writing prompts and endless title brainstorming, writing will become such a social act it won’t even feel like work anymore.
Writing is a lonely exercise
You’ll have your own creativity support group to go to. There’s nothing worse than feeling lonely and misunderstood about your writing, not understanding why it’s not going anywhere. But with a writing partner who essentially wants the same outcome as you do, there’s no one better to understand you. Having someone in the same situation as you takes the terror right out of your job (in this case script) prospects.
Dual Brainstorming is more effective
Someone else’s enthusiasm is contagious, not only will it lead to better brainstorming sessions, but you’ll find yourself so wrapped up in the world you’ve created with your partner, that the rest of the real one may even cease to exist–the ideal state when you are creating. Writing with someone else is essentially the WD40 to rusty brain gears.
The Writer’s Workout is better designed for Two
Creating a long-term plan in which you write for a period of time every day is far more easily accomplished when you have established appointments with a partner you don’t want to cancel. Plus, as lone writers, we generally carry out quality control every time we finish a segment of a script, or maybe even at the end of the first draft, inevitably stretching out the time it takes to improve it. When writing as two, the quality control is ever-present and ever-functional. It happens naturally as we go along, listening to the other person’s ideas. This makes way for changing things on the spot, and so by the time you get to the draft-stage, you’ve got yourself a far more solid script.
Yin and Yang: Two Imaginations are better than one
As lone writers, we are often blind to the gaps in our story, to the gaping holes in our logic until it’s too late. With another writer looking over your shoulder however, you’re more likely to catch any uneven stuff before you send it off into the ether.
Here are a few scriptwriting partners who have all taken collaborations to a whole new level:
Coen Brothers for No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, Fargo. Apparently their screenwriting process works like this: One will write an initial scene, pass it to the other where he will then continuously try to outdo the first in any way he can: plot, characters, building tension. This helps push them to break boundaries and create better scripts.
Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Annie Hall, Manhattan. Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman would outline the script idea together, the finer points of each scene, and then Woody would go away and write the draft. And then it would be a back-and-forth scenario of tweaking and polishing and walking around New York City discussing it.
Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead. First of all they created “Flip drafts” for their screenplays before they even started writing the script. These were story-board type breakdowns of each scene, including major characters, camera shots and key events. This helped them have a clearer idea of where to begin in their script.
The Duffer Brothers perfected their Stranger Things scripts, by first imitating their 80s idols like John Carpenter as well as M. Night Shyamalan. By combining other people’s elements, tone and styles, they developed their own unique voice which unequivocally shines by itself.
Finding the “write” partner
First and foremost, most script collaborations are between people who know each other fairly well. From best buddies to spouses to siblings, there are a whole lot of writing partners you might not have considered. If you don’t have anyone who moves around your social circles who writes, then you most definitely need to change that.
Sign up to a screenwriting class, attend a meet-up, (at the very least) join a Facebook Group with screenwriters. Advertise your need for a collaborating partner and don’t be afraid to tell people you want to write together. Chances are they’re just too shy to suggest it. Challenge yourself! It might just be the best thing you can do. You won’t know until you try it.
What is an Elevator Pitch?
An elevator pitch is your script’s concept, boiled down to a bite-sized portion of words. Also known as loglines, they’re a bit like short sales pitches; they’re a two or three sentence long summary of your script’s plot–and they’ll dress to impress.
What does this mean? It means you’ve got to sell your script in an innovative and appealing way–be it for your intended audience, your agent, a producer, an actor… In the film business, a day won’t go by in which you won’t need to be pitching to someone about something related to your script, so it’s always good to have your elevator pitch handy. It’s got to be something that catches their attention, gets them thinking, and most importantly, gets them begging to know more.
Elevator pitches are called that because it should take you no longer than the time it takes for an elevator to reach whatever floor your ‘pitchee’ is going to (supposedly). The term came from the Hollywood myth that script writers used to catch execs and producers in their building elevators on purpose to pitch their scripts, and not only did the phrase stick–but you won’t get far in the world of scriptwriting without hearing this jargon being casually thrown about.
The good thing about an elevator pitch–painful as it is for a socially awkward scriptwriter to voice–is that it can help you shape the success of your script. If you manage to generate some interest over your pitch, you know you’re on the right track (or at the very least you’ve got a way with words, always a useful trait for a screenwriter). If however, you’re rejected flat on your face, then at least you can go home, cry a little, then start over. Cut scenes. Shape new ones. Polish old ones. Kill your darlings–there’s a reason that’s a time-old piece of advice. And then you can try again. And again and again until your script is ready, and you’ve a new, improved pitch to try out on someone else. Pitching scripts is like testing the waters, and the more people you meet and talk to, the more your networking circle grows.
They’re practically the same as elevator pitches, but they won’t be written by the scriptwriter (at least not usually). They’re extremely difficult to write, and highly underrated. To create a logline, you’ve got to compress 120 pages of script into two sentences and each word has to equal its weight in gold: Loglines have got to summarise, intrigue and sell themselves.
These are the short blurbs you’ll see as film synopses in cinemas and TV guides, in Netflix descriptions and on the back of DVD covers. Loglines will give very specific information about the film without being too explicit–but divulging enough so that your audience knows what the basic plot will be about. We didn’t all go to watch Stephen King’s IT thinking it would be about happy clowns, we knew he’d be a sewer-lurking weirdo.
As a scriptwriter, you can follow a logline’s guidelines to form the staple of your elevator pitch. Loglines are usually made up of the following:
- Your main character.
- The obstacle standing in the way of their goal (antagonist).
- A twist that makes your story unique.
If you hadn’t tried it already, coming up with a 90 second elevator pitch is tricky enough even when you know your story inside out. So the first thing to do in order to get your pitch tight and concise, is to layout the building blocks of your plot, and then play around with the wording. Write a simple summary of your script first, even if it’s bland and boring. Then start playing with the words to make it sound a little more exotic.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of successful loglines.
Titanic: A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.
Pulp Fiction: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.
Liar, Liar: A fast-track lawyer can’t lie for 24 hours due to his son’s birthday wish after disappointing his son for the last time.
Groundhog Day: A weatherman finds himself inexplicably living the same day over and over again.
Chicken Run: A dashing rooster and the hen he loves lead a daring escape from a poultry farm in 1950s England.
Note that it doesn’t have to be super wordy, in fact it’s better if it’s not; be clear and concise, and remember to portray the main setup and conflict.
Taglines are short (sometimes only two or three words long) phrases used to reveal the film’s nature from an advertising perspective, expressing the film’s theme by using humour, irony, double entendres and wordplay. They create buzz and sum up the tone or premise of a film. A tagline sets up a strategic and effective direction for a film and is meant to be catchy. Sometimes taglines show a film’s twist in just a few words and are an important part of the film’s marketing in the way that they’re the “face” of a film.
Let’s take a look at a few:
Chicken Run: “Escape or die frying.”
Pulp Fiction: “You won’t know that facts until you’ve seen the fiction.”
The Addams Family: “Weird is relative.”
Liar Liar: “Trust me.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: “Prepare to be blown out of the water.”
I am Legend: “The Last man on Earth is not alone.”
So what have we learnt?
Elevator Pitches describe your script and are used as a selling tool to engage the (financial) interest of an executive or a producer or for casting. Loglines are marketing tools devised to sell the film to an audience, and taglines are small hooks placed on film posters and film descriptions to appeal to the individual, often in the form of a word play or witticism.
As hard as it is to write an elevator pitch, it’s important that your script matches your pitch. So if you have changed your elevator pitch a lot, and digressed from your actual script story to make it sound more interesting, you might just want to reconsider tweaking your script. Writing elevator pitches is an important writing exercise for anybody, as it helps single out blatant problems in your script you hadn’t noticed before. So no matter what, it’s all good practice!
Everyone likes a good story. And arguably, story is the determining factor to “make or break” a film, often prevailing over other elements. But even the greatest of stories needs to be told properly. When it comes to films, as it is an audiovisual medium, there are plenty of devices at the filmmaker’s disposal that aid storytelling. Particularly speaking of the “visual” side, there is obviously, cinematography. While heavily linked to other visual elements such as production design or an actor’s performance, cinematography also influences these other elements, to the point that it can shape them. In particular, cinematography is comprised of components such as composition, which is a basic tool in terms of storytelling, especially when mastered.
In the same way there are different set structures that can be used to mould a storyline when script writing, there are also basic set rules for composition. Some of these rules are for example, the “Golden Ratio”, the “One-Point Perspective” or the “Rule of Thirds”.
The first is based on the Fibonacci Sequence and can be found in nature and the human body and has been used in countless works of art and design. This ratio has proved to be very pleasing to the human eye, therefore using this sequence as a reference when framing, it is possible to get an interesting shot or picture straight away.
The second is immediately associated to Stanley Kubrick, who used it widely throughout his filmography, eventually becoming one of his staple framing techniques. It consists of creating a single vanishing point, by framing in a way so all the lines converge on that same point. This creates a sense of depth, as it adds a third plane to a two-dimensional picture.
The “Rule of Thirds” is an imaginary grid that stems from dividing the frame into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. The dividing lines form nine boxes with four intersections, which can be used for reference when framing. In fact, a very common practice is to place important characters or objects on these intersections to emphasise their importance within a shot. Like with the Golden Rule, this is also a way to create an immediately interesting shot, as it is also visually appealing.
Beyond the Rule of Thirds
Learning the basics of these rules and then mastering them is very important, like gaining a solid knowledge of the basic techniques of any craft. It is then, when these can be taken to the next level, which might mean departing from their more traditional use to bend and break them for effect. This takes us beyond the Rule of Thirds, to an apparently simpler approach at first sight, but that in reality contains a lot of potential as a storytelling tool. If instead of dividing the frame into thirds, we divide it down the middle both vertically and horizontally, we get the “Quadrant System”, a grid with only four boxes instead of nine. With this grid as base it is possible to achieve unconventionally framed shots that can give life to a scene. Especially when it comes to highlighting a character’s situation or to delve into its personality, thoughts or to convey certain feelings to the audience. The TV series Mr. Robot makes a constant use of this method. In this show, characters are often “awkwardly” placed in the corner of the frame, which increases the amount of negative space, i.e., the space around and between the subjects of an image. This makes characters seem small in comparison to their surroundings, which conveys feelings of isolation, loneliness and powerlessness.
Furthermore, the high amounts of negative space produce a jarring effect on the viewer, especially since characters are “out of place” in the frame, and therefore this creates visual tension because we are not used to it.
In addition to negative space, visual tension is also comprised of gazing direction and breathing room. Gazing direction is the way in which the character is looking and breathing room is the distance between the character’s head or face and the edge of the frame. Both can be combined like in the following picture to create visual tension. In this example, placing Elliot so close to the edge of the frame with so little breathing room creates a sense of unease and discomfort.
Another use of placing characters in the boxes can be to establish dominance. When two characters share the same box it usually signifies confrontation. In a dialog, this can represent a power struggle between the two characters.
A similar effect is achieved by dividing between top and bottom. In this show, another way of representing characters’ insecurities and doubts is by placing them at the bottom of the frame, and making them small in comparison to their surroundings.
When defining the cinematography based on this system, it is important to be aware that not every single shot might need to be framed in an unconventional way, therefore it is important to know when to use this technique, in favour of storytelling. A combination of asymmetrical (or unconventionally framed) and symmetrical shots might give the visuals a right balance and will boost your story by having the right contrasts when emphasising particular aspects of the same in regards to characters, feelings or moods and even places.
Chris and Ben Blaine (also known as The Blaine Brothers) are an award winning English writer-director duo who have garnered much praise for their short films and sketches for Film Four and the BBC. In 2015, they released their debut feature film, Nina Forever– a darkly comic, twisted and genre defying tale of love, death and un-dead exes.
Ben and Chris recently spoke at the ‘Shorts to Features: Journey of the Award -Winning ‘Nina Forever’ event hosted by IMIS on Monday 25th of September to talk about the transition from short film to feature film and the journey of their first feature from conception to premiering at SXSW.
I caught up with Chris for a chat following IMIS’s event:
LD: So, you’re professionally known as The Blaine Brothers, yourself and Ben, as film making siblings who write and direct all your projects together. Could you tell us a bit about how this came to be? When did you start the collaboration?
CB: We obviously used to play together a lot, but then I fell in love with animation and wanted to do some animation. Ben was always writing from a really early age and I was always doing art. So, I bought a camera to do animation and Ben had written a script with his mate Keith and said ‘Do you want to make this film with us?’ We spent the whole summer holiday making a feature length version of the Bible, like a piss take. But you know we’d not actually ever watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian at that point and there were jokes in there that were quite similar and obviously there’s a little bit of animation from me to complete it. But yeah, we had a good time arsing around in the woods with our school friends and putting on fake beards and playing around with fake blood and gore and doing stupid jokes. We sold it to the kids at school and it got banned by the school for being blasphemous which was great because it meant that it was something that everybody wanted because the school said they shouldn’t have it and we actually sold a lot more copies. We thought this is easy, we can make money from this! So, we started making short films and didn’t make any money from those for a very long time.
LD: Quite ambitious beginnings then!
CB: Well, sort of, it was just arsing around with a VHS camcorder. We didn’t have any idea about film making or where to place the camera or anything like that and we slowly learnt that by making short film after short film.
LD: So, moving on to screenwriting. What would you say are the benefits of having a writing partner?
CB: Well the enemy so often is the blank page and when there are two of you it’s a lot easier to not face yourself with a blank page because it might not be that you’re writing but you’re always talking. One of you is going to be helping the other one think through exactly what it is that you are trying to do. So, we rarely have the writers’ block thing that most have to struggle with and that I do terribly if I’m on my own. But together certainly it is a real joy.
LD: Does it present any challenges that you didn’t expect?
CB: It did early on. Ben always did the writing and I was always doing the camera work. Then I’d written a script for the first time and by swapping those roles it suddenly became really clear that we weren’t necessarily making the same film when we were shooting it. In one film, there was one character that one of us thought was alive and one of us thought was dead and was a ghost. But we didn’t figure that out until the edit and one of us was sitting there going ‘Sorry, you think what?’ We’d both been intending to make a completely different film, that was actually a good step to find that out and to start properly interrogating each other. And that film then Ben started to really rip apart as a script and we hugely improved it and rewrote it and reshot it as a short. Then after that it was kind of no holds barred, we were always just ready to rip into each other and try and make stuff better but mainly to be going ‘What is it that you’re actually trying to do?’ rather than what it says on the page. So often with a script the intention is actually not in the scene so it can be easy to misread the intention of what that particular scene, or what the film as a whole is trying to say. You can go off on tangents really easily so we just always keep talking about what it is we’re trying to do so when you’re writing it comes out from that.
LD: How do the two of you set about co-writing a script, do you have a specific method that you use or is it a bit more spontaneous?
CB: It’s a fairly regular routine of ideally writing every day but basically we share a screen so we’ve got two laptops but they’re both seeing the same thing. We write in Scrivener which is an application which has organisation so you can do each scene as its own little card and you can put those scenes within a folder for a sequence and you can put that sequence as a folder of an act so you can get the structure of your film and see it really clearly and write a whole bunch of notes. Usually when we’re writing we will talk and write notes and figure out what it is we’re supposed to be writing. We usually beat out a film using Scrivener and taking a while to actually get into writing it on the page because so often when you put a thing on the page you get really attached to the formulation of the words. That can be a really delightful thing but it can also be really that it doesn’t matter the way that those words are put together because an actor will come along and do it in a certain way and is it actually getting to the point of the intention of the scene, it can really get in the way. A lot of the time now we take a while to get around to writing and have talked it through so much that it becomes quicker to write and is a lot more liquid and fluid and easier to keep changing it.
LD: 2015 saw the release of your debut feature ‘Nina Forever’. What did you find you find where the challenges of going from writing short scripts to your first feature script?
CB: Definitely not our first feature script! Ben had been writing them since god knows when. I started writing features not long after I started writing short films and Ben had already written some by that point. The biggest thing for us with Nina was that we got to the point that we’d been writing films and slowly but surely trying harder and harder to fit in the model that everybody expects of 3 acts and a down point here, that sort of stuff. It kind of kept taking the life out of the scripts that we were writing as we don’t naturally write in 3 acts, it just doesn’t really fit us. With Nina we basically just went ‘f*** it’- we’re not going to write in a genre, we’re not going to try and write anything that we expect anyone will like, we’re just going to write for ourselves. Literally the weirdest, darkest s**t we could think of that felt right and was making us laugh was all going in there. We fully expected the script to horrify most people in terms of them wanting to work with us because up to that point pretty much all the short films we’d been making were comedies and Nina is blackly comic but isn’t really a comedy and it’s quite horrific in many ways. We were kind of expecting people to say ‘Don’t make that movie! Why? Why would you do that?’ which was almost the point. In terms of the difference between the shorts and the features, a short always feels like you’re trying to express a single idea really simply and perfectly and a lot of the time it either comes out all in one go and it works or you keep going back to it and reworking it to the point that you’re not sure that it does what you want it to. With features it is all about the reworking of it. We always find it hard with a short, you feel like either it comes out and you’re like ‘yeah let’s do it’ or you get into development hell. It’s weird, it’s almost easier to get into development hell on a short film than it is on a feature, I guess because it’s so few words to be talking about compared to a feature where there is so much that you are able to change. I suppose a lot of that is the juxtaposition of one scene after another, as soon as you just move some scenes that’s changed the whole film, with a short you’ve probably only got about 3 scenes. You don’t have as many options available in order to see how it can work, it either does or it doesn’t.
LD: Bearing in mind the quite shocking subject matter, did you find that that made securing funding for the film quite difficult? Did people not really understand what genre you were trying to place yourselves in?
CB: Our attention was always that we were never going to go to the industry with it. We raised money privately, we’d actually saved up some money ourselves. We were doing editing for tv- working all hours means that we’re not spending the money so we had this chunk of money in the account and we thought ok we can use that to make the film and we can maybe double it and go and make it with as many friendly people as possible and with as small a crew as possible. The producer that we work with Cassandra (Sigsgaard) said she thought we could make it a slightly bigger movie using FDA scheme. So, we went to a lot of different people to raise the money but it actually came together quite quickly. I think if we’d gone to the usual industry sources we probably would’ve gotten ourselves stuck in the quagmire of ‘yeah but what genre is it?’ and all of those usual questions that you get. Because we were avoiding it we just got to talk to people who either really believed in us as film makers and were willing to come on board due to that or they actually read the script and because there was a real honesty to it and a real freshness to it, because it is a really different film, they could see how it could be a cool, interesting movie. So, we didn’t fall into those pitfalls and the money came together really quickly.
LD: Did you find that by getting financing by other means other than fully funding it yourself that anyone wanted to make any adjustments to the script or change the kind of vision you had for it?
When Cassandra came on board she gave us a bunch of notes and we definitely re-wrote with those in mind but it was still very much the film that we’d wanted to write. The biggest thing for her that sells us as film makers is our voice, so she was really on point in terms of going ‘yeah that doesn’t really feel like you guys’ and actually a lot of the time was pushing us to be weirder which was fun. We were really quick in going into shooting it and possibly could’ve developed it for longer but actually I think that’s part of the reason why we raised the money quickly because we were basically just set on the idea of ‘yup we’re going to go ahead and make this and we’re going to shoot it for whatever money we’ve raised and you can either be a part of it or you don’t have to be a part of it.’ We weren’t really beholden to anyone which was a really liberating feeling. But then in the edit we definitely got some feedback from our execs and they weren’t ordering us to do anything, they were very much like, ‘these are my thoughts but it’s entirely up to you’. It was actually really nice and again, they were actually encouraging us to go further and be more daring with what we were doing, so it was really positive.
LD: So, what advice would you give to film makers who perhaps have experience making their own shorts but are finding it difficult to progress from that onto making a feature film?
If you can think of something that you can make really small as a feature film and to be able to do it with no pressure, go do it! It’s the tricky thing of ‘you’re not a feature film maker until you’ve made a feature film’ you’ve always got that catch 22. So, Nina Forever for us was 3 people in a bedroom, and ok, there’s the two parents so there’s a little bit of stuff around their house but essentially we were thinking it’s kind of just two locations, it ended up being like 26. We were thinking this could be a really simple film, it’s something we could shoot on a DSLR, and it could just be me and Ben- I can do camera, he can do sound and just the 3 actors. It just felt like the kind of film we were totally ready to go and make and felt perfect for us at the time. When we were starting out and writing it we were thinking we were going to be making this for 20 grand, and it doesn’t matter if we fail miserably and if the film doesn’t work it’s just a chance for us to try and make something, and make something longer and learn all the stuff from that. That no pressure way of making a film can be really good because you can really get the pressure put on you as soon as you start getting money involved. A lot of the time you want your film making to feel free and to not have that pressure. There are so many good films being made now for pretty much f*** all. Actually, it’s almost like the film funders are waiting for you to make a film for not very much because they want you to prove that you can do a full-length feature. So, the starting point is no longer making a short for a certain amount of money, it’s making a feature film for nothing, following the Ben Wheatley kind of model. There is a real freedom in being able to do that and just going ahead and making something. There are feature films that people are making on iPhones that are winning awards and getting into Sundance. So, you can shoot on anything now and it looks great. So, you’re not going ‘we need to afford 35m film’, it’s more ‘Na I just need to edit it on my laptop- oh, I’ve already got that. I’ve already got some sort of a camera, away we go.’ But I think that’s kind of the way we always try to think about it- it’s just trying to be film makers so just making and not waiting and asking for permission.
A little bit about Genre
Genres pretty much define anything from the type of writer you are to the way your characters speak. You’ve a message to write, and genre determines the way in which your message is delivered.
After all, what you do with genre is create a niche which ultimately determines your audience; you’ve got your Western buffs, your Tarantino fanatics, your drama queens, the J-horror aficionados and your rom-com devotees. But whether you’re a noir intellectual who likes to sip warm wine and compare Kafka’s Village Schoolmaster to Haneke’s White Ribbon, or you’re just in it for Borat’s snappy but catchy one-liners, everyone’s tastes fit into a specific genre.
As a scriptwriter, when you begin to break down genre like this, you’ll see that it goes a long way in terms of it defining your characters and settings. You’re obviously going to need dusty towns for a Western or a futuristic spaceship for a dystopian. And let’s face it, a sociopath with a tangent for spilling blood isn’t going to be popping up in the Love Actually sequel anytime soon… and with good reason. We choose different genres because we like to fit films into boxes. We like to be amused, or horrified, or ultimately saddened. It’s how we categorize entertainment, and how we cope with the emotions they inspire.
So how do you categorize your script?
This first part’s easy. Even if you’re on the initial story stage, you can pretty much break down your script into one category, even if you’ve only developed your main characters. Do your main characters share undeniable chemistry? You might be leaning towards a romantic journey of self-discovery. But then let’s take a step further. Is it set in harsh Victorian times and there’s a social imbalance between the pair, making it a drama? Or are your characters fighting for their survival and have no time for romance?
Do you want to make your audience laugh? Do you want to pull a Stephen King and do nothing but inspire horror? Defining your script is also about the emotions you want your audience to experience.
There are so many twists and turns that influence the way you choose your genre, so the best advice is to simply experiment, and most importantly of all, don’t chase trends and fads just because they’re all the rage in that moment, but write the sort of thing you like to watch, regardless of popularity. If you do this, you’ll unconsciously be gathering enough research to know what works and what doesn’t (yep, watching the films you enjoy is legitimate research, I promise).
This doesn’t mean that you have to feel pigeonholed as a writer, but it is a smart move to determine one you like and write lots and lots of pieces in that specific genre. This is because practice makes perfect, and there are lots of different elements and story beats you need to know before you can dominate any one kind.
Which story beats fit which genre?
Genre establishes mood. Tone. Style. It’s a selling tool for studios and determines the demographics of the film’s audience. Knowing which genre you’re writing in will also help sell your script or acquire funding because it’s the first thing you’ll need to include in your synopsis, logline or elevator pitch. It immediately helps set the most important scene about your film’s setting and even helps shed light on what sort of budget you’ll be requiring. It is vital.
Down below we’ve helped outline the most common genres, and some of their unconventional sub genres, alongside a list of examples to help you visualise. Whether yours is a noir film, psychological thriller or a western sci-fi, there are certain elements you’ll want to include.
Dramas rely on exploring real-life issues through realistic and flawed characters, triggering an emotional response in the audience. If you’ve chosen drama, you’ll need to incorporate the ability to tell an honest story of human struggle and perseverance. When developing your character arc, you’ll need to take this into account.
Biography (Gandhi, the Sea Inside)
Courtroom (Erin Brockovich, 12 Angry Men)
Dramady (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, It’s Kind of a Funny Story)
Historical (Schindler’s List, The King’s Speech)
Melodrama (Brief Encounter)
Period Piece (Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice)
Political (The Ides of March)
Romance (Brokeback Mountain)
Comedy films are designed to make the audience laugh, using humour as its staple. An element you’ll need to include in script-writing is reversing the audience’s expectations, by creating scenarios that are the opposite of what they think will happen.
By subverting expectations with amusing–and often ridiculous–situations, the audience will find the humour.
Action (Hot Fuzz, 21 Jump Street)
Black-Dark (Burn after Reading)
Parody/Spoof (Scary Movie, Austin Powers)
Rom-Com (Bridget Jones’s Diary)
Slapstick (The Jerk)
Action films are designed to represent the spirit of physical action through chases, stunts, fights, battles and races. In the action genre, the protagonist will find it incredibly difficult to achieve his or her goal, as the action makes up the bulk of the stakes.
Adventure (Indiana Jones, The Mummy)
War (Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan)
Disaster Film (Deep Impact, The Day after Tomorrow)
Sci-fi films need several elements to make them work, but most importantly you’ll need an advanced, authentic universe, one that is supported by technology and science combined. Science fiction will explore how this world affects the protagonists’ lives.
Science Fiction subgenres:
Fantasy (Blade Runner, The Hunger Games)
Alien (Alien, Prometheus)
Apocalyptic (The Road)
Dystopian (Brave New World)
Time-Travel (Back to the Future)
Horror depends on stimulating fear in the audience, so if you’re writing a horror script, make sure to exploit people’s fear of the unknown. The antagonist will often represent protagonists’ fears. You’ll also need to include suspense and the surprise factor. Think about horror films you’ve watched, and how the pacing is often slow before it reaches its climax for maximum impact.
Comedy (Shaun of the Dead, Gremlins)
Teen (Scream, I know what you did last summer)
Monster (Jaws, Cloverfield)
Slasher (Psycho, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre)
Supernatural (Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring)
Zombie (28 Days Later)
Thrillers aim to keep the audience on the edge of their seats by intertwining suspense and tension into the plotline. If you’re going to write a thriller, you’ll need to focus entirely on plot and your character will be proactive, working to unravel the mysteries of the thriller.
Action (The Departed)
Film-Noir (Pulp Fiction)
Psychological (Memento, Shutter Island)
Crimes are all about focussing on the antagonist and the makings of a criminal. If you’re writing a crime film, you’ll need to have a real psychological passion for understanding the inner workings of a criminal mastermind.
Mob/Gangsters (The Godfather)
Neo-Noir (Mulholland Drive)
Crime-Thriller (No Country for Old Men)
Western films portray fictional life in Western settings, and will often explore the lives of cowboys. Main elements will include horseback races, gun shootings, train robberies and sheriffs.
Contemporary (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
Revisionist (Dances with Wolves)
Spaghetti (For a few dollars more)
This doesn’t mean you need to religiously stick to one genre or the other. You can be original and start mixing genres to make your very own hybrid–like HBO’s Westworld, for example, a series that mixes contemporary science fiction within a classic Western setting, by making this setting a virtual game. Whatever you choose, however, just be aware of your genre requisites when it comes to character arcs and setting, particularly as they all form part of an effective selling tool.
Most of us remember the scene of Harry’s arrival at Hogwarts across the Great Lake with Hagrid, as the castle looms out at us from the darkness. Or have that legendary image in our minds of the Imperial Star Destroyer gliding ominously through deep space in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. But we also have most likely seen any of those commercials in which leaves of lettuce, slices of cheese and tomato and pieces of chicken fall exactly in place on top of a loaf of bread in slow motion. Funnily enough, all of these have something in common: they have been filmed using motion control.
What Is Motion Control?
The guys from Mark Roberts Motion Control, Peter Rush and Dorian Culmer, were there to tell us all about it. Motion control is a means to create difficult or “impossible” camera movements and special effects by accurately controlling the trajectory of the camera. Cameras are mounted onto robotic rigs controlled by a piece of software, and they’re able to move at very high speed with incredible precision. Therefore, the same movement can be repeated again and again, for example, to generate special and visual effects.
Although it seems like a pretty modern development, motion control actually started before digital times. Around the 80s, there was a very busy scene in London in particular, to create everything that wasn’t digital. As machines and skills improved in this area, they started filming models – which is how the previously mentioned Harry Potter and Star Wars scenes were made. Models were the main reasons for motion control; first they would film the model, and then they would integrate it with a background and other elements to create a scene.
London became the centre for commercials in the 80s and the 90s, with many big-time directors today, eventually moving on from commercials to film. A higher demand for fast machines surged, machines that could shoot a commercial in 1 or 2 days, or that could film 3 to 4 movements per day. This requirement was different of that in Hollywood, and it was Mark Roberts who started meeting this demand by creating these machines. The first one of the notably mobile machines was called “Cyclops”, which is still a company staple today, capable of filming 3 meters per second with great accuracy using high-end cameras such as the RED Dragon, flawlessly shooting in 6K.
Uses Of Motion Control
Motion control has countless uses, the main ones focussing on VFX creation and live action. Since the camera can follow exactly the same very precise path repeatedly, it is possible to get different layers (actors, background, foreground) that can be overlaid and matched together at the time of compositing. This can also be used to “clone” people, change foreground and background objects, for morphing – which is when one person transforms into another person or thing, a very popular use – or to put things together that couldn’t have possibly been filmed together.
Other uses within VFX include being capable of shooting a scene very accurately so that only one pass might be necessary in post – for example when the camera goes through a glass or an eyeball. It can also shoot forwards, backwards, change the scale (size of the movement) and the time of the movement. The latter is another very popular use, which is combined with compositing to create scaling shots – the most recent example is 2015’s Ant-Man. To create the main effect seen in the film, it is necessary to have exactly the same camera movement for the man and the background to later put them together, otherwise they wouldn’t match. Along the same lines, it is also possible to do scaling by taking footage that has been filmed without motion control, first by tracking the movement to create the initial camera path and then filming the foreground or background with the same path to put the scene together afterwards. Alongside with these, it is also widely used for VFX previsualisations.
Additional uses of motion control include high speed shots, with rigs that can film 4 metres per second (3 metres per second on tracks), which are popular with food commercials, since it can trigger other movements – this is how the ingredients fall on top of the bread. It is also utilised in animation – it is possible to create stop motion or go motion that have complex camera movements – in sports, such as the Olympic Games or Formula 1 and for space research.
Is Motion Control Necessary?
Sometimes it may seem that motion control is unnecessary. Why not fix it in post? Since the quality required in cinema features is an expensive and slow work path, it makes post-production for high resolution sequences also very expensive. It can also be very difficult when it comes to fixing incorrectly filmed VFX shots. Thus, it is normally more efficient to shoot correctly the first time using motion control rather than fixing it in post.
The one thing that motion control requires however, is lots of planning to be done properly. Therefore, the director usually gets together with the VFX Director and the DOP or Operator, and decides if it’s necessary, and if so, how to best work out the shots they need. The disadvantage is that most people aren’t actually aware or don’t know how long it takes to use motion control, or how much money they need to get it right properly. For this reason, if deciding to use motion control, it is best to get someone on board who is properly trained, knows the equipment required, how to use it and how long it will take. This way, the shoot will be properly planned and therefore the production will end up saving more by getting it properly done the first time, instead of wasting valuable resources such as time and money due to a wrong kit decision or last-minute changes.
So, you’ve reached the end. It’s time for your protagonist to give us their last sweeping wave before the curtain falls and the lights come back on.
Hopefully you’re planning on going out with a bang, but before you dust off your hands completely, there are a few things you should know.
What goes inside the third act?
The Resolution Stage
Final Confrontation: Victory or Defeat
Based on the resolution section of the script, this act is usually the shortest (between 20 and 30 pages) it’s the final twist or metaphorical battle, and then the return to home or normality (though life for the main character will never be the same again–definition of a successful character arc).
This is what Snyder would call the Break Into Three. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Here your story will reach its final twist, the moment everyone’s been waiting for since you unleashed the inciting incident. It’s the climax of the story, the final battle. Your character has been pursuing a goal throughout the entire second act, and now they’ll either get it, or they’ll change the goal to coordinate better with the theme, i.e. the moral lesson they’ve learnt. If you ended the second act on a low point, now it’s time for your character to get back off the ground and re-group.
During the final confrontation, the main character is forced to reexamine their beliefs. They will put everything she or he has learnt over the course of the film to good use to defeat the antagonist, always incorporating and exposing the nugget of truth, the film’s overall theme. In the Hunger Games, Katniss stops obeying the game’s rules, and starts to fight back herself, using what politics she’s learnt during the first and second act. Instead of murdering Peeta, she tricks the capitol into thinking they’d rather kill themselves by eating poisonous berries, when in fact it’s a survival tactic.
Character Arc in the Third Act
Another determining factor of the third act is the character, unlike in the second act where they’re surrounded by other characters, will mostly work alone (in the absence of their mentor) against the antagonist. In the Silence of the Lambs, Clarice has to stop Buffalo Bill by herself, because the police have gone to the wrong place and Hannibal, her “mentor” didn’t hang about long to help her.
Basically, your audience has witnessed your character go through hell and back, and now they’re waiting for the reassurance that it wasn’t all for nothing, that your character has beaten the odds and grown because of it, developed in some positive way.
Normally, this character arc is represented through a mirror effect. For example, if the character’s flaw in the beginning was to lie or connive, in the third act the character will do exactly the opposite of his/her previous nature.
Denouement (the Afterward)
The resolution at the very end will give us a glimpse of the new status quo, or the state of your protagonist’s life after all has been said and done. In the Hunger Games, the ending isn’t Katniss and Peeta defying the capitol with the berries, it’s Katniss and Peeta back in District 12 as the crowning victors, hinting at the change in Katniss as she struggles to familiarize herself with her surroundings.
This–very short–section ties up any of the film’s loose ends and answers lingering questions about the plotline.
It’s Blake Snyder’s final image. It’s what he calls the opposite of the opening image, the final shot that demonstrates the absolute mirror change that has occurred. In Pride and Prejudice, the opening image has Lizzie walking through the grounds of her father’s cottage, alone with her head stuck in a book. One of the final images of this film sees her walking at dawn, still alone, but then Darcy comes striding out the mist towards her. She’s no longer alone, and more than that, she’s completely changed since the opening. She’s less proud and quick to judge.
Script to Screen
Scripts which transition into films will most certainly go through test screenings to gauge the audience reaction so that producers can decide whether or not they’ll be a box office hit. Third acts and character arcs are often changed as a result of a negative test screening.
In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott was pressured to change Ford’s Character into a more ironic, upbeat version than his original, darker self. This eventually affected the ending, in which the original dark ending was changed into a more upbeat one to reflect Ford’s character. Instead of dooming the entire human race, the ending scene touches on a hopeful ending in the sunshine.
In Pretty in Pink, according to the original script, Andie’s character arc saw her develop feelings for Duckie, whose own unrequited love for her form the emotional bulk of the film. But when tested on audiences, this romantic development wasn’t at all favoured, and so Blane and Andie end up together. Receiving mixed reviews, some thought this made Andie’s character slightly more realistic and less fickle, because she continues to like the same character she did in the beginning, and still appreciates Duckie’s relationship.
Hancock was originally a script entitled, Tonight, he comes, and Hancock’s character was much darker, dabbling between alcoholism and depression. The end result, produced nearly a decade after the script was written, became a much lighter, quirkier version than its predecessor, all for story purpose.
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