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Filmmakers, much like novelists or composers, bear their souls within their films, especially in the earliest stages of filmmaking, before the lights of Hollywood dazzle them with wealth and fame. Yet, to be successful in film/media/video production, there is a combination of inspiration and sheer grit. You have to know how to create something incredible within a deadline, with a tight budget, with that actress that can’t seem to remember her lines but can’t be fired because she contracted to the job. So we are going to work on INSPIRATION but within the tight constraints of time and parameters.
These exercises are meant to help you work past writer’s block, to truly embrace imagination, but within constraints. Sample Flashcards are provided below.
WHAT IS A LOGLINE? A very, very brief summary of your film. Typically only one sentence.
EXERCISE: Guess the Logline
Before we continue with the next exercise, let’s take a minute to see if you can guess which logline matches which film. (ANSWERS ARE BELOW) All loglines from IMDB.com.
- A highly advanced robotic boy longs to become “real” so that he can regain the love of his human mother.
- After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.
- A bounty hunter must pursue and try to terminate four replicants who stole a ship in space and have returned to Earth to find their creator.
- On another planet in the distant past, a Gelfling embarks on a quest to find the missing shard of a magical crystal, and so restore order to his world.
- The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.
- A silent film production company and cast make a difficult transition to sound.
Check your answers. See how the logline identifies the character (protagonist and antagonist), the conflict, and is also interesting enough for you to want to watch the film. And as an aside, if you haven’t seen any of these films, be sure to watch them this week.
EXERCISE: Guess the Logline
- A Wrinkle in Time
- Blade Runner
- Dark Crystal
- Singing in the Rain
EXERCISE: Emotional Logline Prompts
In this exercise, you will use emotions to write a short film synopsis.
- Create twenty flashcards based on emotions like “sadness”, “love”, “loss”, and “anger”
- Pick two cards
- Think about what elements the emotion might bring to the story (ex. Hero, quest, romance, foreign locale, war, conflict, family)
- Write a one paragraph synopsis, a logline, and a title based on the emotions
- Share with a group
Choose five cards. Create five characters, each one based on the emotion. What does each character look like? What is there back story? Where are they from? What are their dreams and desires? Write a brief character sketch for each character. Write a scene where they all meet and interact, like a coffee shop, at church, a party, or a funeral. For advanced filmmakers, give each character TWO RANDOM emotions and try to demonstrate their emotions in the dialog.
EXERCISE: Quick Scene with Cards
In this exercises you will write a short scene using random parameters on a card:
- Create 15 flashcards with pictures of different locations, people, and objects
- Add 5 flashcards with the words “romance”, “funeral”, “space”, “war”, and a random word of your choice
- Place the flashcards in a box
- Pick three card from the box
- Using these three cards, give yourself 30 minutes to write a single scene incorporating all of the elements of the cards
Repeat this exercise on a weekly basis, eventually expanding your cards to include more locations, objects, locations, and words. Be sure that the scene has a clear beginning, middle, and end, with possible conflict and/or resolution presented in a logical way.
For a Group – Have each member sit in a circle (preferably in groups no bigger than four). As the box is passed around, each student picks out a card. Together they brainstorm a scene for twenty minutes. One writer will jot down the main points of the scene for no more than fifteen minutes (lines can be improvised, so exact dictation is not necessary). Group improvises the scene.
“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.”
10 TIPS FOR SCREENWRITING:
- Be direct and concise in your writing, this is not a novel
- Dialog should be realistic, not stilted or “sounds written”
- Describe anything in the scene as factually as possible
- Try not to include detailed descriptions of what we do not see. If Kathy is angry at Sam, then she shouts “I hate you!” in dialog or maybe she slams a door. Don’t write about what she is thinking. We can’t see that.
- Avoid camera directions
- Follow logical story structure (until you don’t)
- Lots of white space
- Follow screenplay formatting guidelines, especially if you are trying to sell the screenplay or enter it into festivals
- Describe action as accurately as possible
- Stick to the facts
FORMULA AND STORY STRUCTURE
If you are hoping to write the next HOLLYWOOD BREAKOUT BLOCKBUSTER, there are very specific formulas, right down to the page for each point in the script, that you will follow. However, there are so many opportunities today for filmmakers, following this exact formula each time will not fit each project. Some books like Black Snyder’s Save the Cat and Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting are excellent resources. Michael Hauge has some excellent resources on story structure (you can check out his website (https://www.storymastery.com/story/screenplay-structure-five-key-turning-points-successful-scripts/) .
Your film will be full of characters. These can play a variety of roles:
- Protagonist – the hero of the story, the main character
- Antagonist – the character opposing the main character, adversary
- Love Interest
You will also have characters that are dynamic (have character development) and static characters (that do not have much development). Round characters are fully developed, complex, and integral to the story, while flat characters are essentially one-dimensional and may only serve a single purpose in a story (ex. The mail carrier that delivers an important package to the protagonist).
Developing a character sketch will help you create characters that are believable, complex, and interesting. A character sketch will help you see where you have holes in the characters backstory (or history) of a character, if the character is too stereotypical, or if the character needs more completely defined desires and needs.
There are several ways to make a character sketch. Some folks like to graph it out, some will write out a short description, and others will use a series of questions. The whole point is to get to know your character better.
GREAT TIP: Base characters on people that you know.
EXERCISE: Character Questionnaire
- What is your name? Do you have a nickname?
- What do you look like? (Ex. Hair color, eye color, skin tone, height, weight, birthmarks, etc.)
- Where were you born? How old are you?
- Tell me about your family.
- Who is your best friend?
- What is your worst fear?
Now let’s look at some examples of screenwriting just to understand some of the basic differences. This also includes samples from famous films.
DESCRIPTION: BAD EXAMPLE
In her mind, Sally knew that she hated him, hated him for all that he had ever done to her in the past. Yet, despite her anger, she felt a small part of her loved him still and longed to forgive him.
DESCRIPTION: GOOD EXAMPLE
Johnny hears angry KNOCKING at the door. He opens the door. Sally forces herself through the opening, pushing Johnny to the ground. In her hand is a butcher knife. She raises it above Johnny’s head, but hesitates.
What is the difference between the two examples? What emotions does Sally express? How are these emotions expressed in the first example? In the second example?
You can quickly see how different the two styles of writing are. Compare the examples above with this example from Thelma and Louise:
LOUISE is a waitress in a coffee shop. She is in her early-thirties, but too old to be doing this. She is very pretty and meticulously groomed, even at the end of her shift. She is slamming dirty coffee cups from the counter into a bus tray underneath the counter. It is making a lot of RACKET, which she is oblivious to. There is COUNTRY MUZAK in the b.g., which she hums along with.
Underline the ACTION in this paragraph from Thelma and Louise. How does you think Louise feels in this scene? What shows this? What descriptions help us find out more about her personality and her station in life?
Description EXERCISE: Writing a description for a screenplay based on your morning routine
Remember that when you write a screenplay you are writing with the audience in mind. What will they SEE? What will they HEAR? How can you use the description to get this across visually? With sound?
For this exercise you will write a short screenplay description based on your life.
- What is your morning routine like?
- Jot down a basic timeline of your morning routine
- Write down things like what the main character (you) wear first thing in the morning, what the bathroom or kitchen looks like, who is with you, what sounds do you hear in the morning, what actions do you do every morning, what do you say?
- Write a short three line description that both describes what you do every morning through action and sound, but also conveys your emotions.
- Put the description away in a drawer for two days
- In two days, pull out the description and rewrite it, making improvements in how it visually conveys your morning routine
- Share with a friend
Curly dark hair up in curlers, Lupita shuffles into the messy kitchen wearing a baby food stained pink bathrobe. Her car keys are on the counter. She hears a baby CRYING O.C. and rubs her eyes. The coffeemaker sitting on the cracked counter BEEPS, and she pours herself a cup. Her shaking hands drop the mug on the floor with a loud CRASH. She stares at the spilled coffee and broken mug at her feet before frantically grabbing her car keys.
Besides ACTION, dialogue is another way that you can show your character’s emotion. When writing dialogue you want to:
- Keep it authentic
- Avoid infodumps or a bunch of description/backstory
- Keep it realistic
- Imitate common speech patterns
- Move the story FORWARD
- Tell more about the characters, give them depth
- Avoid unnecessary words
- Make characters different from each other
- If you are going to use a dialect, spend time researching it properly to avoid stereotypes and banal dialogue
- Read it out loud
- Read it with friends
- Revise, revise, revise
Dialogue needs to be INTERESTING. It needs to push the story FORWARD. It needs to give us insight into your characters. It needs to serve a PURPOSE. Remind that in the movies, time is money, so you wasting five minutes having your lead character discuss whether or not she wants a large or small latte doesn’t make sense unless it is INTEGRAL TO THE PLOT or TELLS US SOMETHING ABOUT HER CHARACTER.
Now we have a more complete understanding of the relationships between Lisa and Derrick. Clearly there is some romance, a little tension. A few actions were added to give context. Derrick has a shorter, more abrupt way of speaking. Lisa is trying to maintain some normalcy. She could have gotten her coffee elsewhere, she may have been avoiding this place for a week, but for some reason, had to have coffee where Derrick worked today. And this is where we see the tension between the characters that lends itself to a better story.
When writing dialogue, you want each character to have a distinct voice. When developing an accent or voice, many writers want to add diversity to their characters, often incorporating characters with distinct voices that are of another gender, ethnicity, age, occupation, etc. We all write characters that we don’t relate to and have no shared experiences with. I could never convincingly write about a plumber’s woes because I am not a plumber, no one in my family is a plumber, and other than using a toilet plunger, I don’t know much about fixing pipes and busted commodes.
- EXT means EXTERIOR
- INT means INTERIOR
- SLUGLINE says what time of day and location of scene. (Ex. INT. CAFÉ – DAY)
- Transitions may occur occasionally in your script. For example, “DISSOLVE:” Don’t go crazy with these.
- ACTION describes what the viewer can see
- DIALOGUE is what the actors say
- S. means OFF SCREEN, or action/character not onscreen but involved in the scene
- Ad Lib means that the actors will improvise on the lines
- g. means Background (ex. A giant dinosaur eats a man in the b.g.)
- g. means Foreground (ex. In the f.g. a cybor drops her ice cream cone)
- O. means voiceover, like a narrator
There are many aspects of film production. From sound to imagery, creating a good film is more than telling a story. It is being able to combine images and sound to tell a convincing story. It is taking advantage of psychology and vision tricks. It is convincing the brain of your audience members that something is happening before their eyes in real time, though it took place someplace, somewhere else.
Good film production means transporting your audience into your universe convincingly.
Keep your camerawork interesting. Each shot needs to have a function, whether it is establishing a location, introducing a character, showing action, telling a key part of the story, etc. Avoid long shots that have no purpose. This can be tempting, but it is important that each shot has an integral part of the storyline. There are notable exceptions, of course, but these often have to do with the director’s style, and may not always be effective until you first understand how to convincingly shoot a tight, complete, film.
Stanley Kubrick gets quite indulgent in this iconic space waltz from 2001: A Space Odyssey
How to use camera shots to tell a story:
DIFFERENT TYPES OF SHOTS
The most basic shots:
- Set up one or two cameras on tripods
- Have a class member stand against a blank wall
- Center the camera on the student in a medium shot
- Have students take turns recreating the Shot Angles and Camera and Lense Movement from the diagram below
- Time allowing, have students recreate the Shot Sizes
- Make sure every student has a chance to get behind the camera
BASIC LIGHTING SET-UPS
MORE FILM TECHNIQUES AND EXAMPLES
- Set up a 3 point lighting setup
- Practice a variety of lighting techniques
- Have one student stand in as model
- Make sure each student has a chance to set up a shot
JAWS THREE WAYS
AUDIO EDITING IN FINAL CUT X
BASIC AUDIO EDITING
READING A SOUND WAVE
A note about music licensing.
If you are working on an independent or student film project and decide to use preexisting science fiction music, be sure to secure the rights for your project. The United States has very strict copyright protections regarding the use of music in film. While student projects for classroom use only have more freedom in using preexisting music, any serious director who hopes to achieve even an iota of fame through public screenings at festivals and theaters has to secure the rights of any music they use. An indie film director can end up blowing his or her entire film budget on licensing aLady Gaga song for the opening credits.
What is your film budget?
As you consider what you plan to do for your film score, keep your budget in mind. Can you afford to hire a professional film composer? Maybe you can ask a student film composer to create a science fiction film score for a reduced rate. You might decide to create the music yourself. Many great directors have opted to come up with their own film music score. If you have a background in music, get an easy program like Garageband to start the ideas flowing for your own film. Who knows? You might come up with an unforgettable theme like director John Carpenter’s unforgettable theme for Halloween.