Monday, August 20, 2007

That Frankenstein feeling

Today my creative partner and I had our first brainstorming session at the animation studio with whom we’re in serious discussions about a co-production. We’ve met a few times already. Firstly to present our idea for an animated feature and subsequently to discuss various business options. But today was something different altogether. Today we, just the creatives, met with the specific intention of hammering out the technical, visual specifications of the first couple of characters.

We started off with the usual small talk about developments in the industry, the price of tea in China and so on. The sizzling subtext of this pleasant chit-chat was unmistakably our shared vision and ambition for this hugely exciting project. The banter continued for a minute or two until we realized the guys we were bantering to were staring at something and grinning stupidly.

There it was in the middle of the table. Unexpectedly small but unmistakably accurate: An initial Plasticine “sketch” of our main character’s head. We both had to do a double take and the room went silent for a little while. Wow!

It might help to explain that this project has already been two years in the making. We have endless stacks of sketches of characters and locations. We’ve written episodes and songs for various TV formats and penned numerous feature story ideas. We’ve planned a website with all kinds of interactive goodies. But only now are we finally embarking on production after endless false starts and disappointments.

And for the first time, our beloved main character has made the quantum leap from two- to three dimensions.

No longer is he merely a cute cartoon character on a page. No longer is he just a potentially great comedic character. He’s now out there, given shape and form by these wonderful, talented people who’ve taken our designs and done with them what we hoped they would: Given them life!

Some people call this activity playing God. I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly a peculiar feeling to see something you’ve held in your mind for a long time suddenly out there in the world staring back at you. It’s a bit like that creepy feeling you get whenever there’s a scene in a morgue and you can’t help but expect one of the bodies to suddenly sit up.

A monumental day for us and for our main character. Let’s hope he never turns on us.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Screenwriting is like riding a bike

I recently realized that learning the craft of screenwriting is much like learning to ride a bicycle, in two very specific ways: Firstly, it looks deceptively easy, and secondly, once you’ve got the hang of it you can never forget how to do it.

Why would you ever want to learn to ride a bike in the first place? Simple. You watch other kids gliding around, manoeuvring with great skill, having the time of their lives apparently without giving a second though to what they’re doing. And you think, “Hey, I want that too!”

Which is when your parents (hopefully) begin to tone down your expectations: “It’s not as easy as it looks. It takes a while to learn. You’ll need to start with side wheels. And a helmet.”

That’s the cue for the following inner monologue: “Not in my case. I’m special. I’m one of a kind. I know I can get up on that thing and just do it right away.” Which is admirably positive and enthusiastic, but a little unrealistic. As you discover fairly rapidly when you first mount the vehicle and suddenly feel completely vulnerable and utterly unable to move or keep your balance.

And so begins a learning process punctuated by milestones such as your first painful fall, your first encounter with a brick wall, your first head-on crash with another cyclist, and so on. All of which are experiences that teach you some important aspect of riding a bicycle which you will never again forget. Basic things like using the brakes, for example, or steering.

Then comes that wonderful day when, after having grown from hapless novice with side wheels to ambitious and eager candidate for the next Tour de France, you finally experience the exhilaration of the centrifugal force of the wheels keeping you upright and allowing you to really work up some serious speed! You’re flying! It’s real! It’s this sensation you’ve been after all along, and you’ve finally achieved it. What a victory!

This experience is soon followed by the realization that this is just the beginning. You now know how to ride a bike. Big deal. You begin to look around and see just how many different kinds and classes of bikes there are. A bike can take you to the sweetshop and back, but it can also take you up and down a mountain. Now you start dreaming all over again. Only this time you know what it takes.

Of course there is another similarity between screenwriting and riding a bicycle: Anyone can learn to ride a bicycle, but only a few cyclists have what it takes to become professionals: Talent. But that’s a whole different topic.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I’m one of those writers who has to know what the story is about before I can write it. And not in a general, abstract way, like “It’s about friendship.” No, in a nuts and bolts, specific way, like this: “It’s about the conflict between friendship and family loyalties, as a manifestation of the uniquely human conflict between biological drives and conscious thought.” No one apart from me ever needs to read that sentence. As for me, I can only get down to writing once I’ve formulated this kind of thematic spine for myself.

I know there are those who advise against thinking explicitly about theme at all until the story is finished. But there are also different opinions about outlining, knowing how your story ends before you start writing, and any other aspect of the craft of screenwriting you care to mention. Except, of course, the necessity of frequent breaks for displacement activities such as .. writing a blog. On that we all agree.

To me it makes perfect sense to know specifically what issue you want your screenplay to address, because this is what drives all the characters in one direction or another. It’s what the characters fight about, deceive each other for, challenge each other to disprove, and so on.

Of course, knowing so consciously in advance what you want to say, carries a risk with it. The risk being that your theme isn’t a theme at all, it’s a sermon.

That happens when you hit the audience so hard over the head with the moral point you’re trying to make that you make them feel as if they are being lectured to rather than entertained. Or when you make your message so explicit that you may as well hand out flyers on the street corner saying, “The conflict between friendship and family loyalties is a manifestation of the uniquely human conflict between biology and conscious thought.”

So as far as I can tell, the trick is to be clear in your mind what you want the film to be about before you start writing, so that it becomes an integral part of the story structure. You know the characters are going to be in situations where they’re torn between what their instincts dictate and what their conscious mind is advising. Once that’s in place and the characters begin to “take over,” let them have their say. To me that’s the only real way to discover whether they’re the right characters to express the theme, or whether perhaps I actually want to say something else …

A bit like writing a blog. Today I knew I wanted to communicate something about … well, that would be lecturing, wouldn’t it?

Monday, August 6, 2007

Writing partnerships

My writing partner and I have been working for six months on a script we’re both absolutely passionate about. And it shows. Yesterday we spent three hours battling over one scene. It literally almost came to fisticuffs. It was a sight to be seen: Two grown men raising their voices and gesturing wildly at each other about the importance of a beat. Does the antagonist turn this way or that? Does he shout hysterically or whisper threateningly?

Because we both have so much invested in the script already, and because we’re both such pig-headed egomaniacs, the struggle felt a bit like the fight scene in Casino Royale on the high-rise crane. In the end we came to an agreement. Hanging by our fingernails above the abyss, we both realized what would be best for the story and that it no longer mattered who had thought of it first, if either of us even had.

The experience made me realize yet again what a fascinating and wonderful thing a writing partnership is. It’s a bit like the best and worst of friendship and family relations all compressed into one task-oriented blitzkrieg. But it’s a professional relationship, so you’re constantly aware of the stakes when conflicts arise. This forces you to make choices where you might otherwise avoid them.

When you write on your own, until you’ve completed something you feel comfortable asking people to read, you only have your own creative and critical faculties to rely on and contend with. But when you work together with another writer, you’re exposed much earlier in the creative process. It’s as if right from the get-go there’s an angry mob in the room, and they’re all shouting at you. By far the most demanding task under these circumstances is to remain true to the story rather than to try and prove you’re right. You have to leave your ego in the vestibule along with your coat.

Of course, you strive to do this even if you’re writing on your own, but in a writing partnership everything is much more explicit and unavoidable. Which is an unqualified advantage, even though it can initially appear threatening. Like most writers who haven’t had this experience, I never imagined I’d be able to function creatively in a situation where I would constantly have to share my “process.” But fate put the opportunity on my path and advised me to at least take stab, and I’m glad I did.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually decide to scrap the scene we argued so heatedly about. But if we do, you can be sure it will be for the sake of the story.