I guess it was a good day. Something-something-something AK.
About half of the Post-it wall was replaced this morning -- pulled out some flabby bits, tightened up the intro. I also got rid of a cheesy subplot involving kidnapping and figured some things out about the conditioning process (hereafter to be referred to as "Training"). Jiyoung has been a willing sounding board, and after chatting with her for a while last night, a lot of things started falling into place. She's being really, really patient with me. This movie is just about all I ever talk about: in the shower, at breakfast, when we go for walks. I should probably be paying her as a consultant. Wait, no.
The afternoon was spent rewriting the second half of the story document in Google Docs. My first-pass dialogue is always horrible. I guess there's a similarity there with drawing -- first you sketch, then you make your final drawing. I hadn't understood that sketching was something you could do with words, too. Things are pretty sketchy right now.
I'm looking into getting a copy of Final Draft, a word-processing program designed specifically for screenwriting. Yes, I've finally recognized that I have to write a script, in traditional script-format. Go ahead. Laugh. I thought I could just skip straight to storyboarding. Like I said, this is supposed to be a learning experience. Anyway, if anybody out there in netland has used Final Draft, or wants to recommend another application, your input would be appreciated!
I'm now reading a chapter in Story about genre. This is one useful book. So many times, I've been vaguely alienated by a film without understanding why. It turns out that viewers bring a catalogue of genre conventions with them, and they won't settle into your story until they know what kind of story you intend to tell. Bending and mixing the conventions is all good, but ignoring them will hurt your story. McKee points out that Shakespeare went out of his way to spell out genres for his audiences, even in the titles of his plays: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well. It was important to him that his audience be able to get itself into the proper frame of mind even before the actors hit the stage.
As for Gordon and the Stareater, it appears to be a combination of a love story, adventure story, coming-of-age story, and fantasy story. Not necessarily in that order. According to Story, hybrid genre treatments are totally in-bounds. Thank God.
I saw Tron last night, and was immediately stricken by how bad the writing was. The pacing was double plus bad. Still, it's totally rad-looking. Especially the vehicle design. The Light Cycles, the tanks, the Sailship ... for some reason, whenever I look back on that film I only remember how cool it looked. I forget about the thirty-minute story desert you have to endure at the beginning. I've probably rented that movie every four years for the last sixteen years, and I keep forgetting how bad it is. I guess that's a testament to the power of good production design! Also, it proves the coolness of Jeff Bridges.
Tron's girlfriend is a total floozy. She thinks he's dead and she's macking on Flynn in less than a minute. And then when Tron comes back, she's all over him again.
This morning I completed my first-pass treatment for the film. It's just a high-level description of the story, with some light dialogue included. It needs work. Off the top of my head, it's got the following issues:
Lots of plot holes. It's not clear how people know what they know, or when they learned it. Events that involve small, underequipped groups defeating well-armed groups are not justified.
Characters are flat. There isn't an appreciable difference between the two protagonists. They talk the same way, they react the same way to events, and they're generic to the point that I can't, as a writer, anticipate their actions.
In an effort to avoid too much exposition (the thing that annoys me most about both anime and Wachowski films), I may have left too much unexplained. There are a few concepts that are kind of complicated, and it'll take some work to fit explanations into an all-action framework. Also, I'm not sure how long a viewer will be willing to watch inexplicable things happen without some background. It may be that I have to explain quite a bit about this universe in the first five minutes, which is going to bog things down. Perhaps I should resort to the highly unorthodox yellow-text-crawling-into-the-distance method.
Cliches galore. Almost every scene is uncomfortably similar to something I've seen before. Hopefully, a lot of this can be ironed out with revisions.
Action for action's sake. There are at least two action sequences that are debatably dispensable. Especially a Star-Wars-style space battle at the end that may actually hurt the pacing of the final sequence. For now, it stays in, but it's going to have to justify itself real soon.
Implausible love story. This is probably related to the flatness of the characters, but I've got a girl who hates a boy at the beginning of the story, but who is willing to die for him by the end, and it's not at all clear what he's done to change her way of thinking about him. Big, big revisions necessary.
I don't completely understand "conditioning," one of the story's key concepts.
One of the major elements of the backstory is that the government has bred a pliable, inherently obedient populace by subjecting children to something called "conditioning." Conditioning involves immersing a child in a virtual world where experience is delivered directly to the brain in an accelerated way. Over a five-year span of conditioning, a child will have experienced several thousand years of subjective life. This span contains hundreds of discrete individual lifetimes, seen through the eyes of different people -- after a lifetime ends in death, a mind-wipe drug removes the conscious memory of the experience, leaving only a subconscious residue containing whatever lessons the government wanted to impart.
It's a (subjectively) very long repetition of life, erase, life, erase. In the end, the child walks away with two things: a reflexive aversion to any action or activity that has been associated with pain or punishment, and an impressively deep vocational education. The final product of this process should be a kind of savant -- confident, breathtakingly intelligent, but unable to kill, steal, lie, or rebel against authority. That person should also have no conscious memory of any part of the conditioning process.
Stareater's story turns on one question: what happens if someone with a rare genetic immunity to mind-wipe drugs undergoes this process and comes out of it with a contiguous, conscious memory of several thousand years of life? What would he do with all that time? How would he differ from other people when he came out of it? In Stareater, Gordon passes the time by writing a very, very long poem, and this poem ends up being the greatest work of art ever made -- so great, in fact, that it attracts the attention of an alien intelligence. This is all very flimsy, right? And how do I explain all that within the framework of an action film? The process itself either needs to get tossed out or streamlined somehow.
I saw Tekkonkinkreet last night and really enjoyed the making-of documentary. They poured their hearts into that project -- it's one of the most visually impressive animated films I've ever seen. The story, however, is kind of disjointed and uninvolving. I think it comes down to money -- if they had been Pixar, they would have realized the story was a clunker about half-way through and made some big revisions. As with video game development, a well-funded team doesn't always make a masterpiece, but an under-funded team will almost never make one. I hope Michael Arias gets more money for his next film -- it's hard to imagine a more promising directorial debut.
So, back to Stareater. Is there any good news? Well, there's some structure there now. I've been working both in Google Docs and on my wall of Post-its, and I can see the shape of things now (literally, in the case of the Post-its). I've been flagging problematic stuff with pink Post-its, and I'll keep replacing stuff until all the pink Post-its are gone. This process keeps reminding me of the game World of Goo. I feel like I've finally been able to bridge the canyon with my Goo bridge, but it's not the prettiest bridge ever.
Yesterday, I began fleshing out some scenes in Google Docs. I think I have a basic sense of how to tighten up the third act, after a day of freaking out.
I'm really enjoying the process of removing things that aren't structurally necessary. The story I started with was like a giant lump of clay, and mostly I've been carving chunks away from it. Occasionally, something big gets pulled off, and the whole thing won't stand anymore so I have to slap on a new wad. I feel like training as a painter may have helped me acclimate to this process, since most of what they teach you has to do with not letting any part of a work get precious.
This editing of the structure can get really tough sometimes, because a lot of my fantasies about this film were connected to specific moments: the unfolding of a space battle or the way a certain piece of music would heighten the emotion of a particular moment. That kind of stuff seems to get cut first, because it only distracts from the key movement of things. You just have to have faith that even cooler stuff will grow back in its place.
I'm still reading Story. Much of it seems to address a younger screenwriter who sees himself as an artist -- as someone who wants to rebel against the "Hollywood" system. The first few chapters are a defense of classical story structure, peppered with attacks on the European "art film" movement. I guess because I haven't been a part of this apparently-polarizing film discourse, I don't feel a strong need to choose sides. Melinda and Matt both felt like it was good that I was doing this in Seattle, and the more I think about it, the more I agree. I'm probably pretty fragile right now. It could really throw me off my little journey to have people telling me what I'm doing is shallow or commercial.
And maybe it is those things! The thing that brought me to the idea of making a film was a love of world-making. I like to escape to places that don't exist. That's probably why I totally dig Moebius' Airtight Garage, despite the completely self-indulgent lack of a real story. I can just delight in the scenery.
What I'm discovering, though, is that even though I came to this through a desire to make my own universe with its own rules, I'm getting increasingly excited about characters. Particularly the challenge of asking the characters to respond in a truthful way to situations that are completely unusual.
I mean, okay. Take as a given that a girl is going to face a duplicated version of her dead lover, as projected within the mind of a multi-billion-year-old sentient space probe, and that because that duplicate was created before she met the boy, he'll have no direct memory of her. An unusual situation. Now, how does an actual human handle that? Does she cry? Does she get angry? Does she reject the authenticity of the duplicate? Does she try to kiss it? Does she feel insulted or manipulated? Does she try to see past the duplicate to the immense consciousness beyond? And what about the duplicate? Assuming his consciousness is unmodified, is he likely to fall in love with her a second time (that's sorf of a Charlie Kaufman-esque question)? Is he partially-merged within the vast mind that contains him? Does he have access to ancient knowledge/wisdom, or is he cordoned off somehow?
My first day of work is finished. I took a two-hour lunch and went for a long walk in the sun with Jiyoung. A guy could really get used to this.
I spent today covering my bedroom wall with Post-it notes, trying to lay out the basic story arc. Things started off quite well -- I blew through the first half of the story before lunch. Things started to bog down a bit through the afternoon. That's at least partly attributable to my getting physically worn out, since I pace in a circle when I'm thinking. I must have logged at least five tiny, circular miles today.
Jiyoung and I had dinner with our friends Matt and Melinda, both of whom went to USC film school. I asked them about story structure, and Matt explained how all Western stories since Aristotle have had a four-act structure (or, more precisely, a first act, two middle acts, and a final act), that in films these acts are usually each thirty minutes long, and that the third act is where most screenwriters drop the ball.
That sounds strangely familiar. Returning home and looking at my wall, I saw that I'd charged through two gangbuster acts and fizzled out on act three. So it looks like some actual work is going to have to happen now.
I also began reading Story, which is a little blowhardy, but probably still useful. Perhaps it's so florid because it's trying to be inspirational. I'm ready for all the frilly stuff to wrap up and for the real under-the-hood explanations to begin. I have gotten two useful nuggets from it so far:
A story becomes flat when characters are never revealed to be more than they seem.
What the novice mistakes for craft is simply his unconscious absorption of story elements from every novel, film, or play he's ever encountered... the haphazard groping toward or revolt against the sum of unconsciously ingrained repetitions in not, in any sense, technique, and leads to screenplays clogged with cliches...
That second bullet is a bitter pill. I hope that the story I'm starting off with isn't just a Frankenstein monster made from all the stories I've admired in the past -- parts of it sure do look familiar (I mean, is there any sci-fi plot development that DOESN'T somehow resemble Star Wars?).
Hey, that's why I've given myself a year. Tomorrow, it's back up the mountain.
I'm taking a year off to make a feature-length video storyboard for a film called Gordon and the Stareater. This blog has been set up so that friends can track my progress over the coming year.
In 1998, while attending art school, I began to fantasize about writing a graphic novel. It was called "Gordon and the Stareater," and it followed the adventures of a gigantic sentient alien space probe and its only friend, a lowly employee of the Pan Galactic Postal Service. Over the next ten years, I made sporadic attempts to write a book, but it never really took shape. I began to realize that as long as I had a full-time job, I wouldn't be able to muster the energy or time to make serious headway on such a big project.
A few months ago, I began to feel the tug of something new. My wife, Jiyoung, got me a book of storyboards for Spirited Away. Flipping through the pages, I saw that Miyazaki's drawings contained everything that was great about the finished film. The key creative act had taken place in the mind of one person! Until that moment, I had thought of movies as big-team enterprises, not as something that could grow from such a small-scale, organic process. Spirited Away came from a guy, some pencils, and a whole lot of paper. That made my head spin.
After talking a little bit with my friend Steve Thompson (the cinematics director at Gas Powered Games), it became more and more difficult to think of reasons why I shouldn't try to storyboard Gordon and the Stareater. Even better, I could collect and edit those storyboards into a sequential animatic, supplying my own voice-overs and sound effects. I got so excited about the idea, I could barely sit still.
All I needed was a decent span of undistracted working time. After talking it over with Jiyoung and agreeing that we had enough savings to stay afloat for awhile, I resigned from my job. Yesterday was my last day.
I feel both exhilirated and terrified. I know almost nothing about filmmaking or screenwriting. I have little in the way of a plan for what to do when the animatic is complete. I have jumped from the plane, and I've got a year to figure out how to make a parachute.
I'll have to learn by doing, however, because I've promised Steve a rough-draft feature-length animatic by April 1. We did some back-of-the-envelope math on that one, and it translates to a pace of about 6 minutes per drawing. I'm really glad I've got Steve as a spotter -- without someone breathing down my neck, I'd be tempted to turn this year into one long summer vacation.
I'll be using the following tools: the storyboards will be made in Adobe Photoshop CS3. I'll be using a Wacom Cintiq tablet monitor, which makes the drawing process much faster and more manageable than if I were drawing on paper. The drawings will be strung together in video form using Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum. Jiyoung and I (and anybody else who wants to participate) will be doing the temp voice over -- we'll probably just record it into the headphone mic that she uses for Skype video chatting.
I'll be posting as much material as I can to this blog, in the hope that interested readers will be willing to provide comments, critique, and advice. I feel like a student again. My eyes and ears are wide open.