Story: draw from the well of what you know

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Work and (with) family

I love this picture of Sofia Coppola on the set of her film Somewhere (2010), holding her daughter Romy:

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There is something really wonderful about this. I don’t know anything about Ms. Coppola, her family, or her working life, except just from watching her films and reading a bit on the Internet. But I like to imagine that her kids are welcome at her work.

It seems this is not an original idea of Sofia’s.

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Much of the time, and for most of us, we cannot bring our kids to work. Although, perhaps it is a good idea to consider choosing vocations where family can more naturally be involved. I love the way Francis Coppola involved his family as much as possible in his life and work, and set an example for his children. This may be the way things should be.

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Chinatown and the Rule of Thirds

This is a re-post from 2008. Still timeless.

Many films are beautifully shot. Few, though, are as consistently well composed as Chinatown (1974)*. Shot in Panavision (anamorphic) format with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio the somewhat extreme rectangular image would seem to offer significant challenges to effective image composition. As I was pondering this challenge I was struck by how much I loved the images in Chinatown, which I just watched again the other day. That’s when I went back to basics and considered that even with widescreen images there are still fundamentals of composition at play. In this case I figured I would grab a few images (one from each major scene) from the film and apply the Rule of Thirds to each image.

The Rule of Thirds is simply as follows:

Divide the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, then put the focus of the image either one third across (from either side) or one third up or down the screen. Those lines, and the points at which they intersect, are the strongest invisible forces in an image.

In Chinatown the images are constructed around those lines and intersecting points. By doing this the aspect ratio becomes a relatively mute point as the human brain automatically takes in the whole image, mentally divides the image into thirds, and finds pleasure as key visual elements are constructed around those thirds. Of course, deviation from the power of the thirds creates visual tension, which is an additional tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox.

Chinatown was shot by John A. Alonzo. He was nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography. Here are the images from the film (I, of course, added the white lines):

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Rules of storytelling according to Pixar

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Okay, I’m totally stealing this from the On the Page FB feed:

On Twitter, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats has compiled the following 22 items of wisdom she’s received working for the animation studio over the years:

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Nice, huh?

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laconic

The screenplay for the film Lost in Translation (2003) was only 75 pages.

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Lost in Translation is one of my favorite films. Typically, feature length screenplays are 90 to 120 pages.

Many of my favorite directors use few words in their films: R. Bresson, A. Tarkovsky, E. Rohmer, T. Malick.

I love great dialogue, but sometimes I prefer films with little or no talking. Many of my favorite scenes are ones that are purely visual, relying on the moving image to tell the story. Relying on dialogue to tell the story is sometimes just laziness.

The screenplay I’m currently working on is 92 pages and will probably increase to around 95 pages. I was worried I didn’t write enough, but now I think it’s fine, even a bit long.

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The Three-Act Story Structure

Once again I am diving into the struggle to write screenplays. In the past I got all snobby and looked down on the typical Hollywood story structure. I saw it as too conventional and I wanted to be artsy. Well, that got me a long ways.

In the mean time I have learned a thing or two, and have come to understand the conventions that drive Hollywood storytelling are, in fact, ancient paradigms that fit with human nature. In other words, the basic three-act structure (and it variations) was built into the human design by God. Sure, many have exploited it, have misused it, have done bad things with it – including making just plain schlock – but that does not nullify the fundamental character of the structure and how it engages with our minds.

With that I am trying to teach myself the structure, and how to use it to my advantage. Here are some examples:

3-Act story Structure

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I know that none of us work in a vacuum. We do not create ex nihilo. We work with what is given, and it is in our manipulations of forms that we discover new nuances. Structure is one of the great givens. I have decoded to use the three-act paradigm as strictly as I can and see what happens.

A couple vids on the topic:

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Fox Hollow Hideaway

So we rode bikes today.

There was a race going on too:

We were passed by the “peleton”:

Almost to the top of the major climb, a welcome sign:

The plaque at Bill’s bench:

Maricel resting at Bill’s Bench, the top of the climb, at mile 30:

Hideaway Bakery, with devastated croissants and cappuccinos:

42 miles. A great ride.

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