Going To the Movies--Good Script/Bad Script
A Brief History of the Written Word
When we go to the movies, we are watching a visual presentation of a story. Storytelling began as an oral tradition to pass on important cultural lessons and history. It later evolved into song format, as songs are frequently easier to remember, and the salient points are condensed into a short story.
Still later along the timeline of mankind, the written word came into play, and the stories and songs were written down. At this point, only those in power knew how to read these manuscripts, and the knowledge they contained was doled out on a "need-to-know" basis to the masses. This early control began with the priests of that time, and later was partially shared with the government, in whatever form it took in any given country at the time. It was a form of control. In truth, nothing much has changed from that point to the present time.
Even though it later became possible for the lower classes to obtain an education, that education was still censored and controlled by the ruling class, who decided what was and was not necessary for the "common folk" to know in their daily lives.
Still later, fictitious works began to be created for entertainment purposes. The earliest forms were plays, at a time when few of the masses yet knew how to read and decipher these magical-seeming documents with strange symbols. The early stories in plays were still forms of instruction, fitting into a class we now refer to as "morality plays." They were about how to behave and how not to behave, lest some terrible fate befall.
As the population expanded, and the educated class began to grow, more plays were written, and they started to edge away from morality tales to pure entertainment. Mind you, this shift took a few centuries.
Jump ahead a few more hundred years to the early mechanical age and the advent of the printing press. By then, almost everyone at least had the opportunity to learn to read, even if they did not avail themselves of this privilege. There began to appear novels and novellas, short, pure-fiction-for-its-own-sake stories. Entertainment for the commoners had arrived at at last.
The Beginning of Film
Here we hung for another century or few, until along came George Eastman and in 1877 invented cameras and patented his glass plate photographic negative medium. A few years later in 1885, he invented a flexible transparent film which could be wound on spools, and soon after trotted out his "Kodak"® portable box camera. Back then, the camera was pre-loaded with 100 exposures worth of film, and the entire camera was sent back to the lab for processing of the film, printing of the photos, and return of the camera with a new load of film.
Next came moving pictures, in the form of the kinetoscope--pioneered by Edison laboratories--and the infant movie industry was born.
As nearly everyone knows, the early films were silent, and moviehouses employed small orchestras or bands to provide the musical accompaniment. The early films comprised story lines of chivalry, such as "The Perils of Pauline," or pure nonsense slapstick comedy, such as the "Keystone Kops."
The Early Days--Less Sophistication
In the very early days of the twentieth century, the sheer amazement of this new invention precluded any criticism of the plot. Looking back, we can easily see how hokey, campy and unsophisticated they were.
Lest you hunger for the "good-old-days" before film ratings, don't deceive yourself that all the early films were "G" rated or family-appropriate. They were not. In fact, no different than today, there were "adult" films in the form of "peep shows." Gentlemen only were admitted. (Although you'd be quite correct in asking how "gentlemanly" it was to partake of these 'naughty films.')
Even as technical progress was made, the early offerings tended to remain hokey, especially in the genre of horror or the early science fiction films. We now laugh at the very obvious model villages being trampled by the likes of Godzilla, with the audible hydraulics controlling the "monster" made only marginally less audible by the addition of 'scary music' soundtracks. Consider the first incarnation of the "Lost In Space" TV show. Even though it came years later, it retained the lack of sophistication to which we have now grown accustomed.
These early attempts have become laughable, endearing or boring, depending on your level of interest in that history.
TV and Movie Technologies Merge
Fast-forward to the present day. The technology to create either movies or TV shows, including "made for TV" movies, is pretty much identical. Many of the more fantastic special effects are now created within a computer instead of being drawn out on individual 'cels.' as the early cartoons were. (Think Disney's "Steamboat Willie," the title of the first Mickey Mouse cartoon.)
The special effects of today are created using a blue or green screen. You see this every day on the news: watch the weather forecast for the best example. The map in front of which the station's meteorologist appears to be standing is actually a blank blue or green screen. The weather images are projected onto the screen.
When he or she appears to be pointing to the map "behind," they are actually coordinating their movements with a TV monitor off stage that is showing the actual image. This lets them know where to place their hands to point. It takes a lot of practice, and if they are new on the job, you can spot it, as you can catch them looking offstage to one side or the other. The really experienced ones are able to see the monitor with their peripheral vision, and will actually be directing their apparent gaze to the screen behind them.
Insider tip: If you study really closely, you can even determine whether they are using a blue or green screen. How? They will not be wearing any article of clothing the same color as the screen, or else the images would appear projected onto themselves. Also if they have either blue or green eyes, the screen will be the other color.
But I digress...
A Matter of Timing
Almost the only difference remaining between these two modern media is the time frame. TV shows are generally produced to run either 20 minutes or 45-50 minutes, allowing for the commercial breaks, carefully timed to come out at half an hour or one hour after the insertion of ads. This gives them little time to tell the tale, and plot devices such as time compression are used extensively in TV land.
In the movies, the time frame can go all the way up to 2 hours or more with no breaks. This allows more time to delve into the backstory of the characters, but time compression still must be used.
In the old days, the passing of time in a filmed story often used a clock, shown set at various times, or calendar pages turning. Lighting also plays a huge role in helping show the passage of time through the course of a day.
More obvious and intrusive devices are also used and I don't like them, for they totally "take you out of the moment" in the plot. The most common of these is the sudden cut to a black screen with a title noting, "2 weeks earlier," or "4 hours later" or similar phrase. It is quite jarring. Rarely, such a device is simply superimposed over the existing scene which is then dissolved into the next.
How to Make a Story Good or Bad
Ah, the plot! The forte of excellent writers; the nemesis of bad writers through the ages.
As most of us have no doubt experienced, there is only so much that good acting can do to overcome a poor storyline; conversely, an excellent story will survive even if poorly acted--it is then the actors--not the story that will suffer the critics' wrath.
There are timeless classics, great stories well-acted that have stood the test of time, and which each generation at least hears about, and often get school assignments to watch or read. "Gone With The Wind" comes to mind. It was one of the very earliest shot in color, spared no expense on set construction, and the characters were portrayed by the greatest actors of the time.
"A Willing Suspension of Disbelief"
That is the term used in the industry for devices and effects in the storyline to ensure the audience leaves their skepticism parked outside and becomes fully engaged in the tale.
The Harry Potter series has done a good job of this; as have several of the Star Trek series and their subsequent movies, although the latter were not all created equal in this respect.
It all breaks down when you have multiple faults in the story and the action. These breakdowns usually result in a film or TV show being regarded as a "turkey," and failing at the box office or being cancelled before their full TV season run.
Some of the things that contribute to this breakdown--more often seen in the "hurry up" production of weekly TV shows--are failure of continuity checks. Certain actions must follow certain other actions in a logical way. When they do not, the viewers are left scratching their heads or changing channels in disgust.
- A crime drama involving a shoot-and-chase scene. The chasers (often the "good guys," but could just as well be the baddies), get cold-cocked and the escapee has an apparent 5-minute lead, down the street, around corners, and so forth. All of a sudden, the chasers are right on his heels. Umm..yeah...right...they woke up from being knocked out, collected themselves, automatically knew which direction the guy ran, which corners he turned, and ran fast enough to overcome the fellow's lead! FAIL!
- Similarly, the chasers are shooting at the runners, and oh, my goodness--their handguns seem to have 900 rounds! They never run out of bullets, never have to stop and put in new ammo, and they are terrible shots. In these scenarios, they would have us believe that the guys running away in a car can get off a single shot that hits the mark, while the chasers couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from 3 feet away. FAIL!
- The person being chased runs out of land, and jumps into a river, lake, or other body of water. Without scuba gear, they somehow manage to stay submerged for 5 minutes until the chasers run out of ammo or get bored. In the next scene, the "chasee" emerges from the water, and is apparently completely dry again in 2 minutes' time! Two 'FAILS' for the price of one!
- In the movie, "Bullit" with Steve McQueen, there was a major FAIL in which the chase hop-scotches all over San Francisco streets that do not connect with each other, proceeding at one point down the Hyde Street hill heading north toward Aquatic Park. The next thing you know , the cars are careening down the southeastern end of Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in Brisbane--about 2 miles south of the San Francisco City Limits! This is where they crash into the gas station--which does not exist--it was a set piece built for the movie.
I was born and raised in San Francisco, and my girlfriend and I happened upon the crew shooting the Brisbane end of the chase--that is how I happen to know this tidbit. I suppose they were trying to use this as a 'time compression' device, but failed to take into account there wouldl be locals watching the movie who would immediately spot such inconsistencies.
Someone Not Doing Thier Job
Each movie or show is supposed to have a properties manager whose job it is to make careful note of each prop and where it is supposed to be in any given scene. It is often possible to spot errors here, as well, as someone sets something down on a table, and then picks it up from somewhere else. Unless the show is dealing with the supernatural, this almost always indicates a re-take of that scene, and the transition from the prior scene becomes flawed.
Likewise, pay attention to someone leaving and entering a room. Unless it has previously been made clear that there is more than one entrance to that room, an entrance from the opposite side of the character's exit is a clear "ooops!"
If you have been presented with an excellent storyline and great actors, such slip-ups can go unnoticed or be forgiven. But if your mind is wandering because the plot or the action is lacking, it is very easy to spot such things.
So, What Do I Know About All This?
Well, friends, for 3 years, I hosted a monthly hour-long live interview show on public access cable TV, talking to people about their hobbies. (There are a lot of hobbies!) My motto was, "Andy Warhol promised you just 15 minutes of fame: I'll give you a whole hour!" And it was a solid hour: no commercials on public-access cable!
During this same time, I was enrolled in the General TV broadcasting certificate program at College of San Mateo. We covered TV history, movie history, and everything from kinetoscopes to digital cameras. .
We were also each required to script, produce, cast and direct both a short drama, a PSA (Public Service Announcement--mine was an anti-litter spot), and to act in a re-make of some historical bit of TV drama footage.
This was in addition to learning how to operate the TV cameras, how they worked to produce the picture and also take turns at all the production jobs from stage manager to director.
The course also included a mandatory rotation through radio production including a stint interning at the college's radio station, KCSM.
It was great fun, and I learned a lot--and neither have I watched a movie or TV program with the same mindset since. :-D
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