Let's say your screenplay has a scene where your main character is wonderfully, happily drunk -- maybe it's tequila, maybe it's power ... maybe it's love. They're proud of something they've accomplished. They stagger into the street, raise fists triumphant, and declare in a full-throated scream: "I DID IT MYYYY WAAAAAAAYYYY!"
Let's say it's a great scene, one that really nails what your character's feeling.
Didja know it'll cost you 50 grand to film it? Pay up or the estate of Frank Sinatra will see yo' ass in court!
Bound by Law is a great resource exploring the various facets of copyright law and how it applies to artists -- specifically documentary filmmakers, but all artists should take a look.
Told in comic-book format, it's the story of Akiko, a documentary filmmaker who wants to cover everyday New York street life. She faces the daunting task of clearing the copyright use of everything from ring-tones to billboards to Bart Simpson's face flashing on a background TV.
You need to read this to understand just how royally screwed up copyright has become. Read it online or download it for later viewing. And yes, it's free of charge.
Don't get me wrong: copyright's important. But this book does a great job showing how corporate interests have stretched the legal limits, particularly when it comes to the "fair use" clause. The sad and frustrating result? Big corporations reap easy profits by narrowing what's available in the public domain, and this hinders freedom of expression. And that ain't exactly American.
These materials, which the Church of Scientology has long struggled to keep secret, were published online by a former member in 1995 and have been widely circulated in the mainstream media, ranging from The New York Times to last year's South Park episode. They assert that 75 million years ago, an evil galactic warlord named Xenu controlled seventy-six planets in this corner of the galaxy, each of which was severely overpopulated. To solve this problem, Xenu rounded up 13.5 trillion beings and then flew them to Earth, where they were dumped into volcanoes around the globe and vaporized with bombs. This scattered their radioactive souls, or thetans, until they were caught in electronic traps set up around the atmosphere and "implanted" with a number of false ideas -- including the concepts of God, Christ and organized religion. Scientologists later learn that many of these entities attached themselves to human beings, where they remain to this day, creating not just the root of all of our emotional and physical problems but the root of all problems of the modern world.
I was blessed enough to attend Clarion back in the 1980s. To say it changed my life would be an understatement. Spending a summer reading and writing and learning with Algis Budrys, Harlan Ellison, Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, and everyone else is something I'm still processing two decades later. I've had lots of writing classes since, many of them worthy and helpful. But none can compare to the immersive bootcamp that is Clarion.
If you're serious about writing, genre or mainstream, you need to apply.
Despite Karl Rove's push to rehabilitate the worst presidency of all time, the majority of Americans have lost confidence in King George. In fact, a recent poll shows the word most associated with this presidency is not Heroic, Brave, or Patriotic.
Those of us who felt this way since Day One ... we're glad so many of you finally came to your senses. We were honestly worried you were gonna round us all up and put us in prison camps for treason. You should be feeling better, now that you're no longer basing your life on blind fear and hatred.
"Now you are fleeing him, but it's only because he's got the earmarks of a loser. Your problem is that you don't know why he's losing. You think he's made mistakes. But no. He's losing because the ideas that you taught him and demonstrated for him are bad ideas, self-destructive ideas, and even suicidal ideas. And they are immoral ideas. You should be ashamed of yourselves because not only have your ideas not worked to make the world a better place, they were inhumane and cruel to begin with, and they have served to cultivate and excuse the inhumane and cruel character traits of those who profess them."
Open wide, there's plenty where that came from.
And don't you worry, we won't let ya choke. Why, that'd be torture.
As a die-hard Hellboy fan, I'm jazzed whenever anything new comes down the pike, be it a new comic from creator Mike Mignola, an absolutely killer HB novel by a good buddy o'mine, news of Guillermo del Toro's planned movie sequel ... and now two full-length animated movies that just might lead to a regular TV series.
This is wicked cool. The movie actors will voice the characters (except for Abe Sapien, who'll be voiced by the actor who physically portrayed him, and not David Hyde Pierce), and judging from the production sketches and cels posted here, the look of this world is very smart and stylized. I also love that Peri Gilpin will voice Kate Corrigan, a great character from the comics who didn't make the first movie.
On his Hellboy Animated blog, producer/director Tad Stones is breaking down what it's like to work in animation, and it's a much-appreciated, fascinating look into a rapidly growing segment of the entertainment industry. In a recent post, Tad talks about a wicked-ass-cool visual storytelling trick every writer should add to their arsenal: charting the color of your story.
Here's what's called a "color script" for a segment of the second Hellboy animated film project: key frames from sequences assembled into one file, showing the artists and writers the overall color scheme of their narrative (click for larger version):
Here's what Tad says about it:
"The purpose is to get an overall look at the movie and how color matches story. The above is missing about a third of the movie and we're still changing it but even so you can see certain color schemes repeating. That's not because we ran out of colors, it's because we're emphasizing running themes, characters or connecting certain locations to certain characters. So the above is just an early work in progress (and I purposely degraded the image)."
As an animation fan, I find this kind of stuff fascinating. And even if for some bizarro reason I hated animation, I'd still be intrigued. Why?
Because all writers at some point might do well to ask themselves: What color is your story?
Imagine your screenplay as a finished film. (A former screenwriting teacher challenges writers to sit, eyes closed, and visualize their movie in real-time ... very useful in determining how much of your story you really, really know). Now, with that non-existent film running, take a snapshot of the screen every 1.5 seconds. Jam it all together like the Hellboy team did above. What does it look like? I don't mean just the color scheme (although that's valuable). Is there a rhythm to anything?
Okay, that can be tough. Thankfully, someone's actually done this for existing movies. Here's Sam Mendes' adaptation of Max Allan Collins' graphic novel, The Road to Perdition (click for larger version):
Every 1 or 2 seconds, a frame is grabbed from the movie, and here it is in one dense block (They're only like a pixel in size, so please don't strain your eyes looking for Tom Hanks for Jude Law). If you know Perdition, you can practically chart this gripping journey through a dark Mob-run underworld. Look at all that darkness ... and how incredible it is whenever light seeps into this dangerous environment. What's happening story-wise in those brighter moments?
Here's another example: John Boorman's adaptation of James Dickey's novel Deliverance:
The movie, about a rural canoe trip gone awry, takes place over a weekend. Even if you don't know the movie, you can clearly see the day and night sequences. If you were to apply standard three-act or five-act structure to this piece, where would things fall?
Visualizing your entire movie in your head this way can be tough. But you can do it easily with your script itself, a trick I learned from a playwriting professor in college. Take a highlighter -- say, yellow -- and go through your script marking one particular recurring element. It can be the appearance of food, if there's a lot of eating in your story. Maybe it's gunplay. People kissing. Whatever it is, highlight it all the way through.
Then hold the script at arm's length and riffle through the pages, looking for any pattern that might reveal itself. Maybe you were pretty consistent in the appearances of your alien slug-monster. Or maybe your creature pops up in a pattern that seems uneven ... broken ... jarring.
Is that good or bad? Depends on what you're aiming for, folks. Maybe your pattern is too consistent. Maybe it's not uneven enough.
Each story carries with it patterns and constructs and rhythms. These are structural tools storytellers use to shape audience expectation and response. The best in-depth resource I know on this topic isn't Syd Field, or Lajos Egri, or Robert McKee. It's Oscar Lee Brownstein, former chair of playwriting at Yale, who wrote Strategies of Drama: The Experience of Form. This dense and challenging examination of narrative construction blew my mind the first time I read it, and has floored me every time since. Since I can't even begin to summarize its incredible approach, I'll just provide this link at leave it at that. But I'll add it's the only book on writing so profound it made the hairs on my neck stand at attention.
Writers have to get close to their stories. We experience and inhabit them repeatedly. The late George Alec Effinger once described writing to me as "cutting a yard full of grass one blade at a time." One occupational hazard of this dedicated focus is that we can easily develop blind spots and completely lose sight of what we're doing.
Step back and see your story with eyes renewed. Using color is one excellent way to do that.
(And to think ... when I started this entry, all I wanted to talk about was Hellboy. Since I opened with a particular color, I'll close with it, using a drawing from Tad Stones' site of our hero as a young lad, probably running toward a large stack of pancakes ...)
Y'know, when you're stuck in freeway traffic, trying to chill out and focus and get a little Zen breathing thing going on, it's definitely not a good idea to listen to Dubya's press conference, where he's invoking 9/11 for the umpteenth time as justification for invading a nation that had absolutely nothing to do with those attacks.
I mean, suddenly all that peace-and-harmony crap makes you wanna shatter the windshield with feet or screams or whatever else is handy.
Instead, it's a good time to turn off the evil stupidity, and reflect on some of the positive things going on in your life.
For us Hollywood scribes, there's been some great writing advice on the pro blogs out there lately. Here's but a brief recap, and please chime in to tell me anything I'm missing:
John Rogers pitches a story to the showrunners of Sci-Fi Channel's upcoming series Eureka, and he does a great job taking us through the process.
Lost's Javier Grillo-Marxuach announces how and why he's leaving that show, and serves up his experiences on TV staffing season in a great two-part post here and here.
Screenwriter John August reveals the wind-up, pitch, and sad strike-out of Ops, a military-themed drama TV series he created with Jordan Mechner. Great inside info here, and August generously offers various drafts of the pilot script (which is light years more entertaining than The Unit, a very similar show from David Mamet).
With resources like these, it's great being a wanna-be Hollywood writer right now.
Um, but gee, I'm willing to graduate anytime now ... hello?