There's an oft-repeated anecdote that soothes
drawing-impaired directors trying to visualize their films. Reportedly, Alien director Ridley Scott is famous
for drawing napkin sketches so rough that only he can decipher them. The story
falls apart just a bit when you actually look at one of these so-called ďRidleygramsĒ
and realize that the man is actually quite good at the whole ďartĒ game.
Indecipherable? Maybe if youíve never seen a movie, and can squint really hard.
But really, if you canít draw, why bother? Surely stick
figures and half-erased mistakes arenít going to ďvisualizeĒ anything, right?
And whatís this about having to draw hundreds, if not thousands of pictures? Questions like these ran through my head for
a few days between completing the script and the first day of filming, and a
few hours into the shoot, it really hit me exactly how important this process
Itís called storyboarding,
and as far as I can tell, itís the single most important step in getting the
whole film together. No matter how detailed the script, no matter how skilled
the cameraman or editor, without storyboards, the film will be bland.
So what are these all-important storyboards, then? How
exactly do they save a film from unorganized oblivion? And perhaps most importantly,
do I have to know how to draw? (Believe me, I donít.)
Itís so simple. A storyboard is a collection of drawings
that shows every single thing the camera does. Where it is, what itís looking
at, how itís moving, for how long, on what line of the script. Ok, that doesnít
sound so simple, but it really is. The first three (location, composition, and
movement) are all handled with a little thumbnail sketch, the next two (and
anything else you want to add) can be scribbled on the lines underneath the
sketch. Download a good template, print off enough for around ten to fifteen
pictures per page of script, and start to draw. A lot.
Actually, this brings us back to the Ridleygrams: How much
detail do you need? My script weighs in at exactly 50 pages. Thereís a lot of
cutting around, and Iím expecting around 900 storyboard frames. At first a felt
a bit guilty about using stick figures and scribbles, but then I started to
think rationally. It all depends on how much budget you have, and who youíre
working with. If my storyboards were being sent to my art department I might
worry a bit about quality. But since nobody needs to replicate a set from my
hasty drawings, why bother with the fine details?
A lack of detail does not mean, however, a lack of
storyboarding. Every shot in every scene needs to get down on paper.
Even if itís the exact same picture I drew ten pages back, itís going into the
storyboards. Hereís why:
My first shoot started with the decision to shoot from a
pretty simple scene. I grabbed my lights, my camera, my actors, scripts, props,
mics, tools, and cables and went to the location. Once there, I decided where I
wanted to put the lights, what angle Iíd set the camera, dressed up the scene,
and action! We ran through the entire
scene, about two pages, before I called ďcut.Ē I reposition the lights, figure
out a new angle for the camera, and shoot again. The entire scene. Go. Again.
Again. And again.
Here lies the problem: I just spent an hour doing one small
scene, and all I have are four or five angles that really arenít that creative.
I spend most of my time figuring out where to stick the camera and lightsÖ and
very little time actually filming. No good. I get back to the editing room and
I realize that everything looks the same.
Same situation with storyboards: The camera positions are
figured out ahead of time, and since lighting depends on camera placement, thatís
much faster too. Also, since I have every shot that I need, and for what
length, all I need to do is film that snippet of scene. I can run that shot
five or six times, get different performances, better delivery, smoother
movement, so on and so forth. And itís so
End result: A prettier film thatís better acted and better
edited, that makes more sense, and thatís easier to watch. And itís all because
of a bunch of stickmen.
have a love/hate relationship with writing. Itís very one sided, though: Like
so many relationships gone awry, I love it, it hates me.
go ahead and toot my own horn and say that I am quite good at writing,
especially when I have a deadline. Or rather, only when I have a
deadline. Whatever plans I might have had to have a script finished before the
S.U.R.F. period begins were completely washed away by a sort of laziness that
creeps up until itís far too late.
sort of happens like this: I wake up early, go through my morning routine,
planning the day ahead of me. My internal planner says, ďOk, self, youíre going
to work from 9:00 till noon, take an hour long break, then work till 5:00.
Anything else is Above and Beyond.Ē Then my internal planner meets the
internet, computer games, and DVDs. 9:00 becomes 10:00, becomes noon. Guilt
piles on. Around 1:00 I start to seriously think about writing, but every time
I do I feel so tired, and itís just so easy to waste a bit more timeÖ Mmm, this
dinner tastes good, and how did it get to be half past nine?
all ok!Ē I tell myself. ďEverybody has a bad workday every now and then. Iíll
just call this a day off and start again tomorrow.Ē The problem with this statement
is that itís the same one I say to myself every night. Do no work, and then
repeat. Itís not even rinse and repeat. Just more and more guilt until it
finally gets to be so much that Iíll write a few hundred words, get really
excited because I made some really great progress, solved some big problems,
and Iíll finish up this section tomorrow!
But now, now S.U.R.F. has started! I can feel the fire of being behind
schedule, and Iím figuring out that itís entirely possible to write huge swaths
of screenplay in a single setting.
think Iíve figured out a secret to scriptwriting, one thatís helping me
immensely. Iíve hooked up my computer to an High-Def Television, unplugged the
internet, and sit back and relax. Iím doing all of my writing on my couch,
watching the words appear on the TV. And lo and behold: A screenplay!
might seem weird to write with a television acting as a computer monitor, and
believe me, it is! But thereís also a huge benefit, one that director Robert
Rodriguez came up with. He suggests that, as a director, after you have a
script, you should take the script and look at a blank television and just
ďwatchĒ your movie. Take notes, write down the shots you see, and pretty soon
youíll have a complete movie in your head.
taking it a step further. By writing on a television Iím doing the same thing,
but much more so. Iím not just building shots, Iím building characters and
plotlines, locations and action. Iím ďwatchingĒ the movie as I write it, taking
a few minutes to evaluate each scene, tweak some dialogue, and see how it fits
with the whole. That, and writing on a couch is more comfortable.
more than willing to grant that it sounds silly, but Iím amazed at how well it
works. There are benefits to scriptwriting on a television, in addition to the
enormous benefit of a location change. Next time you write a screenplay, you
should try itÖ
Iíve been struggling to find a short tag for my script. I have the outline
completely finished; I know the story. I just canít give away the coolest
The ability to see the future is truly great. But what happens when the only
future you see is your own death?
There's something romantic about the thought of scriptwriting. Sitting down in a quiet room and building up a creative and interesting world, crafting a work of art that will go from text to silver screen. It's romantic enough that scripts have been written about scriptwriting! Just look at the Barksdale's recently concluded Moonlight and Magnolias. Of course, I should have realized that, as fun as it was to watch, the hell that the Magnolias characters lived through was about to be strangely similar to my life...
In case you might be getting the wrong idea, my S.U.R.F. project is not to write a screenplay. No, that project, while enormous, taxing, and painfully time-consuming all by itself, is merely the precursor to my S.U.R.F. project. The project itself is far more difficult than merely writing a feature-length screenplay that adheres to the principles I set forward in my proposal. Oh, no. I actually have to film the entire thing and put it all together in a neat little package.
Here's your background: I am James Murray, a rising senior and a Drama/English major with a Music minor. This summer I'm working with Professor Mattys on a project titled "Causality in Storytelling and Film." My goal? To write and direct a film that explores causality when causality itself is made a key component of the story.
I've gotten some questions about what that last bit actually means (a few, at least. Most people I tell just sort of glaze over and go "urr..."). To understand what my project is doing, it's important to understand what causality actually is. I'm not going to steal from any dictionary, and I'm not going to send you to Wikipedia (or I will. Prepare to get a headache!). Causality, as I'm using it, is the principle of Cause and Effect. In storytelling, this relationship is the framework that holds everything together. Why does Dr. Jekyll create Mr. Hyde? Because he wants to rid the body of evil desires (among many other reasons).
Fiction is unique this way. Everything must have a cause, or it is rejected by the reader as being "contrived" or "convenient." Reality, on the other hand, feels a much more relaxed connection with causality. Why did Hurricane Katrina hit and cause horrible devastation? It just did. That's it.
So that's causality in storytelling. What about film? My script not only strictly adheres to the laws of causality, but the plot actually revolves around the concept. A character happens to be very good at seeing cause and effect relationships, he's just not entirely sure how, or how to put everything together. I'm not giving anything away yet. That comes later.
So here I am, sitting in a quiet room, tapping out page after page... after page... after page... after page...
My project hasn't even started! I can't go insane yet!