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Tag: movies

Chicken Little, Cassandra and Modern Horror

Chicken Little (mostly America) is also known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny (mostly Britain).

I hope the current generation of children don’t grow up thinking the 2005 animated movie version of Chicken Little has much to do with earlier versions of this story. The movie logline sounds okay on paper: “After ruining his reputation with the town, a courageous chicken must come to the rescue of his fellow citizens when aliens start an invasion”, but tonally, this Disney production is loud, bright and frenetic. The natural ‘opponent’ of the acorn has been turned into the more interesting and formidable aliens in order to sustain a movie length story. Against that tone, the frenzy of Chicken Little himself is absorbed rather than emphasised. Further than that I can’t comment, as I find the movie entirely unwatchable.

chicken little little golden book

Then again, am I really advocating for the continued teaching of the moral of Chicken Little? What does this fable teach us, really?

STORY STRUCTURE OF CHICKEN LITTLE

This is a cumulative tale — you know, the kind you get sick of reading to your kid unless the wordplay is excellent. The ending is tragic, depending on how kind you feel towards foxes. In any cases, we’re not really encouraged to empathise with the birds, so when they die it kind of feels like just desserts for them. I’m sure the characterisation of this tale has something to do with the fact that humans have a long history of eating birds but not foxes. Continue reading

Thelma And Louise Story Structure

“While I was writing Thelma and Louise, it was the most fun I had ever had in my life, bar none,” she says. “It was such a pure experience. There was no self-censorship there, there was no second guessing. From a creative standpoint, it was the freest I had ever been in my life. I loved every moment I got to spend time with those characters. Nothing came close to it, including winning all the awards and everything else. As much fun as all that was, it wasn’t as much fun as sitting alone in a crummy office on Vine at 2 in the morning writing that screenplay.”

— Callie Khouri, who has more recently written Nashville (2012) and the film Mad Money (2008)

Why Thelma And Louise Strikes A Nerve

Time Magazine asked why this film struck a nerve with the wider culture.Above all else, Thelma and Louise is a perfect example of story structure. Some people think of stories — especially films — in terms of three act structure.  I prefer John Truby’s more detailed 22 Step Structure, and this film is a perfect example of that. Whatever else can be said about the feminist zeitgeist of 1991, the story structure definitely has a large part to play in the box office success of this film and its enduring appeal.

Genre Blend of Thelma and Louise

Myth, Drama, Crime >> Road Movie

Story Structure of Thelma and Louise

Continue reading

Million Dollar Baby Film Study

Today is Curmudgeon’s Day, according to Twitter. (Un)happy Curmudgeon’s Day! In that spirit I will take a close look at a film in which a curmudgeonly old man learns to soften up with the help of an earnest and humble young woman. I first saw this film around the time Million Dollar Baby come out and in my memory it was a pro-woman film, but watching it again now I can see that although Hilary Swank becomes the boxing champion in the story, this is nevertheless a narrative about the Clint Eastwood character, who does curmudgeonly very well. (In certain fonts his name looks very much like ‘Cunt Eastwood’, just by the by.)

Million Dollar Baby

The film Million Dollar Baby is directed and produced by Paul Haggis, who also gave us Crash. The script is based on a short story by boxing trainer Jerry Boyd, who wrote under the pen name F.X. Toole.

It strikes me given recent Hollywood political news that perhaps the reason female actors are getting paid far less than male actors in Hollywood can be justified within the industry by the fact that women only have to read a few lines. (This even applies in films for children.) Swank’s character gets comparatively little to say throughout, with the vast majority of dialogue happening between the two old men, or via Morgan Freeman’s voiceover narration.

If in doubt about who is the hero of a story, ask which character changes the most. At first glance this would be Hilary Swank’s character, who goes from ‘trailer trash’ to ‘boxing champ’, but this is deceptive; a ‘change of circumstance’ does not equal a ‘character arc’: a fundamental shift in worldview. The character arc belongs firmly to Clint Eastwood’s character, Frankie, who ‘learns to love again’ after past rejection from his own daughter.

None of this is to say that this particular story should have been written differently, simply to say that this is no ‘Female Rocky’, as Warner Brothers tried to market the film as.

Designing Principle: An ageing boxing trainer learns to love (and lose) again after a brief paternal relationship with a young woman who becomes his stand in for an estranged daughter.

Theme Line: When you truly love somebody, your actions speak louder than words.

Story World: The battlefield of a boxing gymnasium and its surrounding underworld. (This is a story set in an ambiguous decade — it’s unambiguously American, but could be set in any number of decades of the past 70 odd years. There are few technological clues. In other words, this story takes place over Frankie’s whole lifetime — it’s a purely psychological story.)

Symbol Line: The boxing ring as a metaphor for inner turmoil

Arc phrase:”Always protect yourself” >> “I shouldn’t have dropped my hand “, in which hands held up to protect the head in boxing are a symbol of Frankie’s tendency to not get hurt by others in relationships.

 

INTERESTING STORYTELLING TOOLS USED IN MILLION DOLLAR BABY

REFLECTION CHARACTER

frankie and scrap reflection characters

Truby calls them allies and breaks allies down into true allies and fake-opponent allies. Within the first group, Michael Hauge writes specifically of ‘reflection characters’.

This is my term for the character who is most closely aligned with your hero – the best friend, partner, mentor or spouse whose primary function is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation and to urge the hero toward transformation. […] 

The reflection character’s primary goal is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation.

— David Hauge

Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupree is of course the reflection character for Frankie Dunn. The reflection character is often a teacher, though in this case Scrap is lower in status due to being financially reliant upon Frankie. He nevertheless demonstrates the qualities that Frankie himself needs to learn. He sees the champion quality in Maggie before Frankie does and is in fact instrumental in the pairing.

Frankie and Scrap

CONTRAST CHARACTER

Danger

Why does the character of Danger exist? Why is he needed in the story? While all of the other characters are acted in mimetic fashion, the character of Danger is hammed up, played for laughs in a comic fashion which seems almost wrong for the film. But Danger, and his over-the-top presentation, are necessary for building the storyworld. The audience needs to know that all the odds are stacked against Maggie’s succeeding in this male-dominated fighting world. As a welter weight who has never actually had a fight, this guy is at the bottom of the pecking order in the gym, but is still more accepted than Maggie is because at least he’s not a girl. He’s as close as it’s possible to get to a girl, however, symbolised by his tights and the way the bigger guys hassle him for them. This demonstrates (as if it’s not already obvious) the machismo of the world of boxing.

danger in tights

There is another reason for the character of Danger: Frankie is exasperated by him. He’s a bumbling fool. This elevates Maggie in Frankie’s eyes. She may be clueless, but it’s not because she has delusions of grandeur — she is clueless only because she hasn’t had the privilege of coaching.

USE OF CHARACTER NICKNAMES

In the case of ‘Danger’, there is a pleasing ironic juxtaposition between the character and his nickname which serves to highlight how very non-dangerous he is as a boxer. The character of ‘Scrap’ has obviously been formidable in his younger years. The world of boxing is a natural story arena in which to make the most of nick names, and other boxers are referred to briefly by theirs. The nick names function as a shorthand for their backstory.

The most significant use of a nick name is that which Frankie gives to Maggie: Mo Chuisle. We don’t learn until the end of the film that this means ‘my blood’, and that when Frankie gave her this name it meant he had accepted her as his own daughter.

In YA fiction, John Green also makes much use of nicknames as a way to say a lot about a character without saying anything at all. (The Colonel, Eagle, Pudge etc.)

USE OF A STORYTELLER

the cleaner

Scrap is also the storyteller, in a film which makes heavy use of his voice over narration. As Robert McKee says:

There’s only one good reason for voice over narration: counterpoint. Woody Allen is the master of counterpoint narration.

Incidentally, this aspect of film shares a lot with picture books — in a picture book, if the words simply explain the pictures, it’s not working as a picture book. Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott use the phrase ‘ironic counterpoint’ in their excellent text How Picturebooks Work. Likewise in film, if the voice over narration simply describes the scenes it is talking down to the audience. 

Morgan Freeman is well-established as a certain type of narrator. In The Shawshank Redemption, too, he plays a character/storyteller who has already been through his own version of character arc before the story of the (white) hero begins. In his narration he has generally these characters have had much time to reflect and to therefore offer insight the characters themselves don’t yet have.

Have we ever seen a white man narrating the character arc of a black man come out of Hollywood? Sometimes the insight of a black storyteller character is so deep that he almost tips over into Magical Negro territory — a familiar trope in American stories. However, compared to Freeman’s characters in The Shawshank Redemption, Bruce Almighty, Azeem and Batman Begins, the holey-socked, down-and-out Scrap doesn’t exactly subvert this trope, but perhaps narrowly side-steps it.

Part of the reason the voiceover narration works in this film is because there is a reason for it within the world of the story: At the end of the film it is revealed that the narration is a letter Scrap is writing to Frankie’s estranged daughter, explaining the true nature of his character and hoping the two of them will make amends.

FAIRYTALE/FANTASY SYMBOLISM

In fairytales, a character often bears a curse and comes up trumps despite this curse. Although in fairytales curses might come about due to a witch who wasn’t invited to a party, in modern stories the curse has morphed into some lack of privilege. In Maggie’s case she bears the curse of being female. She also happens to bear the curse of being 32-33 years old in a sport best suited to the young.

The boxing robe given to Maggie by Frankie is symbolic and marks a turning point in Frankie Dunn’s character arc. In fantasy, robes often mean ‘invisibility’, or ‘blending in’, but here it signifies ‘initiation’, and is therefore more akin to the fantasy ‘crown’. (It’s a hooded cloak, after all.)

maggie's cloak

 

GHOSTS

This is Truby’s term for ‘backstory’ because it’s a specific kind of backstory — it’s the bad thing that’s happened to the main character that makes them the way they are and explains the way they act in the story. The ghost is generally hinted at and then revealed in full sometime in the middle part of a film.

We learn in a very brief scene outside church that Frankie has a daughter. We don’t know if she’s still alive or anything about her. This explains why Frankie is uncomfortable getting involved with a young woman as a fatherly figure — he’s scared of being hurt again.

Frankie also has another ghost in relation to Scrap, which explains why he’s reluctant to promote Maggie up through the ranks even though she seems more than ready. Scrap explains this to Maggie on her 33rd birthday at the diner: Frankie feels responsible for the game in which Scrap lost his eye.

we learn of eastwood's ghost

The other characters have their own ghosts — we see what a horrible background Maggie’s come from when she buys her mother and sister a house only to have them complain about it.

FORESHADOWING

“I should’ve kept my hands up,” Maggie says from her hospital bed. This has been an ongoing issue, with Frankie refusing to progress her through the ranks until she can learn this properly. Ironically, since it was an illegal punch that lead to Maggie’s injury in the first place, the advice wouldn’t have helped her anyhow.

“Fly there, drive back,” Maggie requests, when Frankie asks how she’d like to travel to and from the championship round. ‘The storytelling device that seems most incompatible with the realities of actual life is foreshadowing,’ reads an article in The Atlantic, comparing it to a device such as metaphor, which exists in the real world as well as in fiction. Why does this kind of foreshadowing exist so regularly in stories?

“We try to predict the future all the time,” Pasupathi says. She speculates that the reason there’s foreshadowing in fiction in the first place is because of this human tendency. The uncertainty of the future makes people uncomfortable, and stories are a way to deal with that.

“The future is never a direct replica of the past,” Adler says. “So we need to be able to take pieces of things that have happened to us and reconfigure them into possible futures.” For example, through experience, one learns that “We need to talk” rarely foreshadows anything good. (Life has its own clichés.)

The Atlantic

 

SIDESHADOWING

Sideshadowing happens in stories when a character or narrator posits a series of possible events which never have any consequences in the story. Sideshadowing draws attention to the possibility that other paths could have been taken.

A conversation in the hospital between Maggie and Frankie posits an alternative ending for the two of them. They discuss maybe moving to a cabin somewhere, where Frankie can read his books and look after Maggie.

Another possible ending is posed by Frankie just before Maggie asks him to finish her off; he’s been thinking he can get a wheelchair which can be operated by blowing through a straw and she could go back to school.

These two alternative endings serve to heighten the sadness of the actual ending. Those are both the happiest endings an audience could wish for, but the popularity of this film should put paid to the idea that successful Hollywood stories have happy endings.

What is required for the ending of a film is not happiness; it is justice. The bad force may not totally overcome the protagonist, but it always takes its toll. The endings of the vast majority of popular films are, in fact, Pyrrhic victories. […] Happiness has nothing to do with being a hero; in fact, happiness is something heroes learn to live without.

— Howard Suber, The Power Of Film

 

7 STEP STORY STRUCTURE IN MILLION DOLLAR BABY

frankie dunn

Note the symbolism of Frankie behind those bars ^^. The character arc will see him come out of his psychological cage. Note that this film is based on some short stories, one of which was originally titled ‘Rope Burns’. (It has since been retitled to match the film.)

WEAKNESS/NEED

Frankie Dunn, boxing coach and gym owner.

Psychological Weakness: His relationship with his own daughter has soured and he is unable to relate to any female around his daughter’s age. His only real confidant is the pastor at his church where he is only ever in a verbal sparring match anyhow.

Moral Weakness: He discriminates against Maggie because of her gender even though she is obviously the most committed boxing student he could hope to find.

He needs to learn how to get close to people again, and in particular how to relate to women. He also needs to learn to become a true Christian rather than simply going through the motions of attending daily mass.

DESIRE

Frankie wants to take Big Willie Little, pro-level boxer who he has trained for years, right through to the big-time.

OPPONENT

Mickey Mack, big-shot manager poaches Frankie’s protégé. Big Willie goes with Mickey Mack because he feels Frankie isn’t advancing him quickly enough.

Scrap is Frankie’s sometimes opponent, functioning as his reflection ally.

PLAN

His plan doesn’t work when Big Willie Little is poached by a manager. Frankie is especially devastated at Big Willie’s parting comment that Frankie has taught him all he needs to know.

Needing a new focus, Frankie reluctantly settles upon Maggie, so he starts coaching her, meaning to palm her off at the first opportunity.

He does this, but doesn’t like that her new manager is coaching Maggie to lose so that his other fighters can win, so he takes Maggie on again. He will train her to be the best or not at all. He will also protect her from injury by refusing to advance her through the ranks quickly.

BATTLE

There are a series of actual battles — this is a storyworld which includes boxing matches, after all — culminating in a title fight with an illegal shot from the opponent which breaks Maggie’s neck. She is now a quadriplegic, dependent on a ventilator.

SELF-REVELATION

Frankie goes through the first three stages of grief: denial, then blaming Scrap in anger and later trying to bargain with God through prayer. (Note that when films have a reflection character such as Scrap they always ‘scrap’ with the hero at some point — it’s a screenwriting rule.)

Frankie has the self-revelation that he would give his own life (freedom) for his daughter (or his symbolic daughter) and he’ll do something illegal and against his own ethics to save Maggie from continuing misery.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

At the end of the film there is a small chance that Frankie and his daughter will reconcile their differences, with Scrap’s quiet intervention. Nobody knows where Frankie has gone, so we know at least that he hasn’t ended up in jail. That may be him through the window of the diner — perhaps he’s bought a diner, or maybe it’s not him at all. His face through the glass is wraithlike — having lost not one but two daughters, he has become his ‘ghost’.

 

RELATED

I hope I’ve argued that Million Dollar Baby is not ‘the female Rocky’.

Here’s an article wondering if Rocky is ‘the most successful bad film ever made’.

The article makes some interesting points:

  • The story indulges in some Cinderella-style wish fulfilment
  • It was sold to adult movie goers as a gritty urban drama but is more like a feel-good Walt Disney children’s film
  • The storyline of Adrian is horribly misogynistic — the shy girl bullied into ‘dating’ a man who ends up falling in love with him is replicated all over films of this era, including Star Wars. (Remember when Princess Leia gets her head smashed against the wall in a ‘passionate’ kiss?)
  • Creed’s laziness saps the film of tension. Rocky really actually wins because he does some exercise.
  • The terrible dialogue and problematic construction give it the feel of an indie film, which works on its favour.

 

The Problem With The ‘One Big Lie Per Story’ Advice

There’s a rule of writing fantasy which all professional writers are familiar with. (No, I’m not talking about the dangling preposition.)

Fantasy writers are allowed one big lie per story.

As Michael Hauge writes at his Story Mastery website:

The quality that gives every movie its emotional appeal: It isn’t the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic or funny. It’s the REACTION of the everyday world to that fantastic situation. Therefore you are only allowed to introduce that single incredible element into your story; everything else must be logical and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Credibility (Part 1)

Robert McKee advises the same thing in his well-known screenwriting book Story:

[O]f all the genres Fantasy is the most rigid and structurally conventional. We give the fantasy writer one great leap away from reality, then demand tight-knit probabilities and no coincidence–the strict Archplot of THE WIZARD OF OZ, for example.

– from Story, page 70, in a chapter about setting

Susan Cooper writing quote

I believe the writing advice ‘One Lie Per Story’ is generally sound. What I worry about, however, is that writing teams may be using this axiom as an excuse to avoid examination of their own biases.

Ratatouille Characters

Take a film like Ratatouille. That’s a story starring a talking rat. Yet when feminists point out the dearth of female characters, apologists rebut with the fact that ‘in real life, professional kitchens are staffed mainly by men.’ But Ratatouille is a story about a talking rat. The writers could have written that story any which way they liked. Except the one ‘lie’ is the talking rat. Everything else, in their justification, would have to ‘ring true’ in order for audiences to accept that talking rat, including the typical gender breakdown of a professional kitchen.

But McKee also has this to say about verisimilitude, as he describes a common feature of failed screenplays:

The “personal story” [one kind of failed screenplay] is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t’. Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life.

– Story, by Robert McKee

A truly masterful storyteller is indeed able to tell a story which casts females in traditionally male roles, yet it still feels believable.

Some storytellers are even able to write futuristic worlds in which women have equality, and they still manage to tell a truth; not only truth, but Truth. That’s because they are masterful storytellers.

Storytelling Is A Metaphor For Life

McKee continues:

[F]acts are neutral. The weakest possible excuse to include something in a story is: “But it actually happened.” Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we *think about* what happens.

– Story, Robert McKee

From a master storyteller himself: Everything happens. Sexism happens. And there is absolutely no excuse at all for the reproduction of outdated, anti-female and outright nasty portrayals of girls or white people in any work of fiction, especially for children.

Consider also the following concepts of storytelling:

‘THE WORLD OF THE WORK’

In talking about what Paul Ricoeur calls “the world of the work”, we assume, of course, that the work offers up a world of its own. Literary works summon such a world through their arrangement and adherence to formal rules; through their use of tradition and genre; through their intent and use of language. We might say that it is through style that literary works become more than the sum of their sentences. Literary works create new worlds by replacing the world itself and it is the metaphorical statement that reveals this operation. “Metaphor’s power of reorganizing our perception of things,’ Ricoeur writes, “develops from transposition of an entire ‘realm'”. Ricoeur calls this realm a “new referential design”, which I specify as the work’s metaphorical design.

– from Goth: Undead Subculture

In other words, a writer can invent any kind of world they want to. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Imagining only worlds full of white boys with a token girl and a token black child is simply a failure of imagination on the part of the storyteller.

THE ‘REAL-FICTIONAL DICHOTOMY’

…literary scholars tend to divide characters in terms of what I will call the real-fictional dichotomy.  According to this notion, fictional characters, by definition, are “unreal” and human beings “real.” … we “construct an image of a person” by “fabricating [the image] in consciousness.”

Believable FictionsOn the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters  by Howard Sklar

Sklar argues that: ‘We bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people.  With this in mind, I attempt to show that our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.’ This argument makes it all the more important that we’re exposing children to a diverse range of characters, if children are indeed reacting to fictional characters in the same way they would react to a person in real life.

CARNIVALIZATION

I came across the term carnivalesque when reading Maria Nikolajeva*, who finds this concept very relevant to children’s literature.

  • Children’s book are often criticised for being not true to life.
  • In fact, verisimilitude (the appearance of being real) should not be confused with reality.
  • ‘Carnivalization’ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.
  • An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but  say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)
  • An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books.
  • The Wikipedia entry on the genre of Carnivalesque
*who quotes Bahktin, initially describing the work of Dostoyevsky and Gogol

IN SUM

There is no possible narrative excuse for failing to include more female characters and characters of colour in children’s films.

Storytellers must do away with the idea that in a work of fantasy (e.g. one with talking planes), that no other deviation from reality is possible. Verisimilitude is a robust beast.

‘truth’ is not ‘Truth’, and the slavish duplication of human reality in film indicates a failure to make use of story as metaphor for life.

An audience is able to cope with ‘unreal’ situations in fiction because we understand intuitively the ‘real-fictional dichotomy’. Audiences understand that ‘the world of the work’ is different from ‘the real world’. We get it. We can cope.

The reason these concepts are ‘intuitive’ to an audience is due to a long history of storytelling which makes use of devices such as carnivalization (and metaphor and other figures of speech…)

There is no reason, other than unchallenged sexism/racism, why established storytelling techniques cannot be utilised in big-budget children’s films to reimagine an inequal world.

Credibility

INTERESTING LINKS ON VERISIMILITUDE IN STORYTELLING

Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies Oxford University Press blog points out that ‘our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real.’  In other words, we expect different things from a story that is based on reality, even though such stories are a blend of fact and fiction. Scientists have measured things like palm sweat and found that viewers are even more affected by, say, a disaster movie, when they know the story is based on true events. The Coen Brothers utilise this when they tell viewers at the beginning of the film Fargo that the story is based on true events (even though it is completely fabricated).

Why newsworthy events do not lead to newsworthy novels from Nathan Bransford advises writers not to expect their story to be more sellable because their story aligns with what’s happening in the news.

Only fiction can be about the trivial without being trivial and more quotes along this line from Explore

The Beautiful Creatures authors give us the rules for creating a believable fantasy from io9. Beautiful Creatures is a fantasy romance based on a book. It’s a story set in a small town and includes witches and devils. Margaret Stohl explains that the co-authors were able to come up with a believable universe because they ‘came out of old school world building, we had a Bible for our universe. We knew histories of characters you’ll never meet. That was a part of it. Obeying your own rules is a huge part of it. things have to matter, laws cause and effect.’

Gravity (2013) Film Study

gravity-movie-poster

Logline: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

Tagline: (seen above) Don’t let go.

Arc word: ‘let go’. “You’ve got to learn to let go,” Matt tells Ryan. We’ve also got the visual motif of Ryan letting Matt go irretrievably into space.

Designing Principle: A middle-aged space engineer learns to appreciate life again and believe in herself after a series of narrow escapes in space.

Theme Line: When you feel all alone and about to give up, fortify yourself by finding some imaginary person to give yourself some comfort.

Story World: Floating around in space

Symbol Line: ‘Tethered’ (grounded) versus being ‘untethered’ (lost and all alone, with nothing to hold onto).

Mooshing The Science

See: Getting Science Right In Film: It’s Not The Facts, Folks

This is a good example of a SF story in which the writers hired a science advisor, then picked and chose which parts of actual science would help and which would hinder their storytelling. They ended up with a film which can really annoy scientifically literate fans of mimesis, but for viewers who are able to suspend disbelief, and who enjoy predictable plots, this is a well-crafted sci-fi thriller with a satisfying character arc.

Gravity hair

The writers of Gravity seem to be following the advice to ‘dazzle the audience with pyrotechnics’ as a way of hiding the improbabilities, which Michael Hauge offers as one screenwriting technique in his article on how to create believable stories, but as he says himself, ‘This is definitely the last resort solution to the problem of credibility.’

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The Study Of Film Equals The Study Of Picturebooks

In juxtaposing a series of pictures in order to imply the sequence of a story, picture-book artists act much as filmmakers do. Andre Bazin [film critic] suggests that montage, assumed by many to be the essence of film art, is “the creation of a sense of meaning not proper to the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition”. In films, the arrangement of a succession of shots provides the events depicted with their significance; not surprisingly, filmmakers often prepare themselves for shooting by using storyboards, sequential drawings of the various shots they intend to make of the scenes they will film that look much like picture books.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

1. Media Study – Studying Feature Films, while not particularly attractive as a website, and targeted at the GCSE syllabus (England), this website has useful links for resources which are not specific to GCSE.

2. PBS has a list of activities with the aim of better understanding a film.

3. Artemis Film Guides are classroom resources created by English and Art History teacher of many years’ experience, Judy Lewis. I have worked with Judy, used her resources and can vouch for their quality. Judy knows which films will appeal to teenagers. Schools can purchase these resources through the site, with no further worry about breaking copyright by photocopying.

4. Movie vocabulary used by directors from Wordnik

5. 30 Camera Shots Every Film Fan Should Know, and also these ‘shots’ come in handy when talking about the art of picturebooks, I might add. From Filmmaker IQ

6. Infographic shows the most common problems with 300 screenplays, from io9

7. Hayao Miyazaki (of Studio Ghibli) offers six filmmaking tips which could equally apply to the making of picture books, from Film School Rejects

8. Seven Teaching Resources on Film Literacy from Edutopia

9. Form Cuts (or Match Cuts) are a film technique quite often used in picture books, for example in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburgh (round back of old sofa, curved bridge) Nodelman notes that Pat Hutchins depicts the same tree in each picture of Goodnight, Owl, but adds a new set of birds each time. Form cuts are good for making the differences in each picture really clear — the fixed position of objects anchors changes that are significant to the story.

Pat Hutchins Goodnight Owl Tree

Pat Hutchins’ Goodnight, Owl

10. The dynamic frame is even more common in picturebooks than it is in film. Filmmakers who use dynamic frame change the size and shape of the image on the screen. It has gone out of fashion in filmmaking. You still see it in contemporary films when shooting through doorways, for example, so hat the lighted area seen by thte audience is shaped, even though the shape of the screen itself doesn’t change. For an example of this technique in a picture book see Hyman’s Sleeping Beauty, with views through the arches. In Where The Wild Things Are, the pictures gradually grow in size and then become smaller.

In The Amazing Bone by William Stieg, there are two pictures on each page that depicts frantic activity.

In The Amazing Bone by William Stieg, there are two pictures on each page that depicts frantic activity.

But for the relaxed scenes, there is only one scene per page.

But for the relaxed scenes, there is only one scene per page.

The change in frame sizes is not annoying in picturebooks as it can be in films — instead, this is an accepted picturebook convention. It’s fairly common to place more pictures on a single page when there’s a lot going on.

11. Robert Lawson’s The Story of Ferdinand is one of the few picturebooks to use many of the very common film shots. Most picturebooks make heavy use of medium close ups.

The Story Of Ferdinand cover

 

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Ferdinand is only one of many picture books that, in its choice of vantage points, its quick cuts, its total flexibility, would have been unthinkable before motion pictures.

Barbara Bader

 

For all the similarities between motion pictures and modern picturebooks, Perry Nodelman notes one big difference:

Even when picture-book illustrators do vary from eye-level middle-distance or long shots, the effect of the variation is not cinematic. In films, we see the same scene from a variety of angles; in most picture books, indeed even in Ferdinand, every picture marks a different point in the story, in effect a different episode….almost every picture in most books represents a different scene. The whole point of film montage is that we come to understand action by means of the various ways the action has been broken down into smaller bits. But that does not happen in picture books. That, I believe, is the major difference between the depiction of action in picture-book narrative and in all other sorts of visual media; we see only a few carefully selected moments out of numerous possibilities, whereas on film we see many different ones of those possibilities, and on stage in any given scene, we see all of them. Because picture-book artists are restricted in the number of moments they can depict–usually it is fewer than fifteen, including the title page– they must choose their moments carefully and vary them more than do film-makers. If the angles remain the same, the actions depicted are always different; Max may make mischief in two different pictures, but they are two different sorts of mischief…Comic books can be located somewhere between picture books and films; they almost always show many different pictures of the same sequence of actions, and they tend to make use of every conceivable sort of shot, every possible angle…When picture books show more shots, they tend to take on the conventions of comic books and films.

– Words About Pictures

 

From Christian Metz

In a discussion of the semiology of film, Christian Metz suggests that films demand from their viewer knowledge of at least five different systems of signification, most of which can also be found in slightly different ways in picture books: culturebound patterns of visual and auditory perception (such as knowing how to understand a perspective through drawing), recognition of the objects shown on screen (labeling), knowledge of their cultural significance (such as knowing that black clothing stands for mourning), narrative structures (knowledge of types of stories and how they usually work out), and purely cinematic means of implying significance, such as music and montage. Metz suggests that each complete film, “relying on all these codes, plays them one against the other, eventually arriving at its own individual system, its ultimate (or first?) principle of unification and intelligibility.” In other words, filmmakers make use of the differences between various means of communication in the knowledge that each medium they bring into play will finally merely be part of the whole along with all the others; consequently, they deliberately (or sometimes, given the varying narrative capabilities of different media, inevitably) make each incomplete so that it can indeed be part of a whole and so that the meaning will be communicated by the whole and not any specific part of the whole. What the clothing and gesture do not reveal to us, the music or the narrative structure might; and what the clothing and the music communicate separately is different from what they communicate together. So each medium that filmmakers use always communicates different information differently, and all of them express their fullest meaning in terms of the ironies inherent in their differences from each other.

– Words About Pictures

 

 

Endings 05: Film Endings

There’s this wrong idea that Hollywood movies have to have happy endings, that audiences need happy film endings and won’t pay to see depressing or open ones. This is not borne out by the statistics:

A film where the story is entirely resolved doesn’t exist.

– BILLY WILDER

Down-ending films are often huge commercial successes….For the vast majority doesn’t care if a film ends up or down. What the audience wants is emotional satisfaction–a Climax that fulfills anticipation….Who determines which particular emotion will satisfy an audience at the end of a film? The writer. From the way he tells his story from the beginning, he whispers to the audience: “Expect an up-ending,” or “Expect a down-ending” or “Expect irony”. Having pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver. So we give the audience the experience we’ve promised, but not in the way it expects.

– ROBERT MCKEE

On the ending to the Sex and the City movie, from John Truby:

Unfortunately this event left me quite ambivalent. I too wanted the fairy tale ending; boys watch Disney movies too. But emotionally it wasn’t right. It wasn’t earned. Here is a guy who has “jilted” Carrie for the entire TV show, then does it again at the altar, and she takes him back one more time. The writer justifies it through the Miranda subplot with Steve (also fake), with the statement that “You’ve got to forgive.” Well, no, you don’t. If the guy keeps blowing you off and humiliating you time and again in the process, at some point it’s the mark of a mature person to say, “Get the hell out of my life.”

Of course, Carrie’s marriage to Big does set up the inevitable sequel to this blockbuster film. Anyone want to place bets on Big being faithful?

On the ending of Pretty Woman:

The original script for that film (then called 3,000 after the amount the prostitute is paid for the week) had a much darker ender — where the couple didn’t get together. Says Gere of that original ending, “It does exist, but I’ve never seen it. It was a dark movie,” he adds. “But I think Jeff Katzenberg saw something in it and didn’t want to make that movie, but he saw this other movie in it.”

Richard Gere

black swan film endings

And on the ending of Black Swan:

The end of the dance and the film shows screenwriting as the height of dramatic art. Nina, as the White Swan, runs up the platform to commit suicide and we think she will do it for real since the real has by now melded so completely with art. She jumps. But wait, there’s the mattress. We feel release, victory; she has defeated her demons. And then we’re flipped again. She’s already done the deed, given herself the fatal wound. It’s the act she had to take to get the performance of her life. We plummet. But she knows; “it was perfect.” She’s the perfectionist taken to her logical extreme, given a self-revelation that is at once brimming with truth and utterly without understanding.

Related Links:

  1. Perfectly Happy, Even Without The Happy Endings from Go Into The Story
  2. Movies struggle to find ‘the end’ from the LA Times
  3. The Worst Movie Endings Of 2012
  4. Script Pages From The Shining Reveal Kubrick Had A Different Ending In Mind, from io9
  5. Realistic/Better Movie Endings, Oh Noa
  6. 12 Movies That Filmed Happy Endings You Never Saw from io9
  7. What happens to Disney princesses after their movies end from 22 Words
  8. The Director of Three Hunger Games Movies on Resisting a ‘Squeaky-Clean’ Ending from Time
  9. Unfinished Business: how Disney and Marvel killed happy ever afters by Nicholas Barber at The Guardian
  10. Was Star Wars Saved In Editing? from The Awesomer. There’s a rumour that Star Wars was a real mess until it got to the editing room,  but this comes largely from the idea that the stories we love tend to arrive fully formed and perfect in the mind of the creator. All movies require a lot of editing, because storytelling is hard work.

The Animation Look… no such thing

I remember asking a friend what his favourite music was. “Indie,” he replied.

He was expressing a political preference rather than a genre, because the fact of being independently produced is in itself a defiance of established norms, but at the time I was perplexed. How can anyone so broadly say “Indie” as a genre.

Then I knew someone who listened to a lot of different indie artists and sure enough, I knew what he’d meant: ‘indie music’ has a certain feel to it. My knowledge of music isn’t strong enough to encapsulate exactly what that is, but I’ll go with ‘complaining male voice almost drowned out by instrumentals’ and you might get a sense of it.

Have you seen Pixar’s short animated film The Blue Umbrella yet? I haven’t, but I’m looking forward to catching it sooner or later because unlike a lot of the most recent animated films, that sounds original and the screenshots look stunning.

Here’s what the creator says, remembering his pitch to the two guys at the head of Pixar:

 “They are the strongest proponents of ‘animation is not a specific look.’ It feels like animated movies have a certain style, but there is no reason for that. Animation nowadays can be whatever it wants to be. With the first Toy Story, you could only do plastic, metal, stone, but you couldn’t do people. It took until The Incredibles–the first time there were humans in digital animation. Now you don’t really have that barrier anymore, it’s just that everyone got used to what animation looks like. Everyone [here at Pixar] really likes the idea of pushing animation into areas no one has thought of yet, at least in mainstream animation.”

And here are a couple of animated movies which have caught my eye lately. Unfortunately, they’re not always that easy to get a hold of here, but I have these on my to-watch list simply because they look animated in a completely original kind of way:

A CAT IN PARIS

THE ILLUSIONIST

PERSEPOLIS

THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE

Related: It’s not déjà vu. Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay. It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster, from Hollywood and Blake Snyder at Slate

We could argue that all movies are ‘animation’, but yeah, let’s not do that. Life is already confusing.

 

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