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Archive for July, 2008

 

Vigorous writing is concise.
                                                                         William Strunk Jr.
                                                                         The Elements of Style
 
“I have made this (letter) longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
                                                                          Blaise Pascal 
                                                                          

Have you heard about the six-word story?

Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway was once asked to write a six-word story and wrote: “For sale; baby shoes, never worn.”

That is indeed a short story.

This inspired Smith Magazine earlier this year to publish “Not Quite What I was Planning” which is a collection of “Six-word memoirs by writers famous and obscure.”

Now I’m not really going to encourage you to write a six-word screenplay but it’s a good jumping point to talk about brevity in screenwriting. One thing you notice if you read through a stack of produced screenplays is how condensed they are. 

In general, gone are the long monologues and thick scene descriptions that you so often see in the novices screenplays. I’ve cover some of this ground in my post “Screenwriting by Numbers” but I have found that most lines and scene descriptions in produced screenplays are limited to three sentences or less. 

When you hold a classic screenplay in your hand it looks deceptively simple. “Lots of white” as script readers are fond of saying meaning there is not a lot of black type. But there is a simplicity on the other side of complexity that I believe is the real secret of writing a great screenplay. 

“The challenge of screenwriting is to say much in little and then take half of that little out and still preserve an effect of leisure and natural movement.”
                                                                      Raymond Chandler
                                                                      
The Big Sleep

 “I think part of being a good screenwriter is being as concise as possible.”  
                                                                      Eric Roth
                                                                    
 Forrest Gump

 

 

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“Be a student so long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life.”
                                                                           Clay P. Bedford 

“There’s really no way around it. Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.”
                                                                            George Leonard
                                                                            Mastery 

 

Can you imagine being a student in Hong Kong and taking a class where you watch a live video feed online from the United States? Last year I produced a video for a client that is using that technology and I was blown away. Think of the money saved by the fellow in Hong Kong who is willing to wake up at 3AM instead of uprooting his life to attend college here in the states. 

Over a decade ago as the Internet began to make serious inroads into the mainstream some proclaimed that eventually there would be little need for college as we traditionally know it. If that day is coming it’s still a long way off. But online education is exploding and I want to tell you about one company that I think is the single best site for creatives trying to keep up with the technology.

When I moved to Iowa back in ’03 it became clear that the overall media industry was changing. What wasn’t clear was how creative professionals would adjust to the changes. In film school we were told that you didn’t want to be a “jack-of-all trades and a master-of-none.”

But today If you go to Monster or Mandy you might see a job like this: “We’re looking for a producer/director/writer/cameraman/editor who knows AVID/FCP Suite/After Effects/Photoshop/Illustrator/Pro Tools/web compression/music composition, and a basic understanding of JAVA and open heart surgery are helpful. MBA preferred. Must be able to bench press 376 pounds. I exaggerate–slightly.

Who does all of this you ask. Every other kid coming out of college, that’s who. The mindset now is you are expected to be a master-of-all trades. While not being masters I have been amazed at the versatility of some of the young people in or just out of college that I’ve worked with. (Heck, an eighth grader came by last year to show me a documentary he did on Buddy Holly.) So where does that leave all of us who have been out of college a while (or never even went to college)? 

Which brings me to reason I have become an evangelist for Lynda.com

Tom Peters says that if you want to rejuvenate yourself move to another climate or culture than you are used to–just to shake your life up a bit. Moving to Iowa from Florida fit both of those parameters for me. And one thing I found here was because the production budgets weren’t as high as the big cities that creative people here had to wear many hats.

I realized to survive and compete I had to put on a few more hats. That’s what led me to Lynda.com. First I looked a one-day workshop in Chicago and all the expenses related to it and figured it would cost me around $500. And how much would I retain in that one-day blast? That led me to a company where I bought 36 hours of Final Cut Pro DVD instructions for around $350. Saved a little money from the one day seminar and got a lot more instruction plus I could learn at my own pace. What could be better?

Then I found out about Lynda.com’s online tutorials. Very user friendly and packed with more than 29,000 video tutorials of online training in 445 courses. You can watch thousands of segments free but if you dive into a subscription (which I recommend) it’s only $25. a month or $250 a year. (If you’d like download the exercise files to work on it’s $375. a year.)  

This is an unpaid and unsolicited endorsement of a website that can change your life. I have benefited from other training places (Creative Cow, Ripple Training, LAFCPUG, DMTS DVX User) and enjoy a trip to the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport like anyone else (I once ate a table with legendary photographers Arnold Newman and Mary Ellen Mark), but I find Lynda.com the best place to learn how to use creative software. Which is why I return to it again and again.

They kind of redefine learning for creative people. The instructions are broken down into small chucks usually between 2 and 10 minutes so you don’t feel like you have to spend an hour or two straight on a tutorial. 

I’ve done lynda.com tutorials in airports and hotels, late at night and early in the morning–it’s simply a solid and convenient way to learn. If have trouble grasping some of the technology as I do you just play the segment again. 

Sometimes it will help you out of a jam. Last year I had a friend working on a DVD for a national client and he called me at night asking where that place was that did online tutorials that I was always talking about. He found what he was looking for at Lynda.com.

Once 14 year olds realize they can get this training online they can begin to redeem time spent playing video games. They won’t have time for college because they’ll already be working pros who, at least in technical knowledge, surpass most college professors with a Ph.D.

Lynda.com is also perfect for aging boomers and retirees who feel like they’ve missed the technological boat but still have the urge to create. In fact, if you’re in that category you have to check out Lynda.com’s creative inspiration segments with photographer 70-something Douglas Kirkland. (Yes, I am aware that people still create with pen and paper, typewriters, and paint–but work with me here.)

Douglas photographed Marilyn Monroe when he was 25 and went on to shoot a who’s who list of celebrities including Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola and Orson Wells. He’s in his early seventies now and still working and reinventing himself. He was in his 50’s before he embraced digital photography thanks in part to Lynda Weinman herself. In an interview he spoke about people his age saying they were glad they were retiring before they had to learn all this digital stuff. But Douglas didn’t understand that mentality and embraced the new world and all that it offered him creatively. After all Douglas says, “You can’t live on what you did yesterday.”

I remember reading an Ansel Adams quote from later in his life where he said that the one regret that he had was that he wasn’t going to be around to see the digital changes.

If you believe in “the rise of the creative class” and that there is a “war for talent” you will embrace the changes around you. Have a passion for what you do and learn the tools that will free you to create more boldly.

I tell my editor friends to start shooting (even if it’s just their kids), I tell my cameramen friends to start editing (even if it’s just their demo reel), and I’m telling you (Mr. or Mrs. Screenwriter) that if you pick up a camera and start editing you can begin to make steps to seeing whole new possibilites for your writing.

You won’t be multi-talented Robert Rodrigez out of the gate (or perhaps ever) but remember the famous John Wooden quote, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere you from doing what you can do.” Think in terms small steps. Lynda.com can help you with many of those steps.

Will it replace college? I don’t think so. We need football teams to root for, a place where students can escape their parents who pay tens of thousands of dollars so they can party, and places where successful alumni can donate money to have buildings named after them. So, no, Lynda.com will not replace college–but it’s well on its way to replace how we learn.

You don’t have to move to Iowa to shake your life up. Just try Lynda.com for a month.

P.S. Just to prove my point here is the word by word ad for a group in St. Louis that is looking for a “writer with shooting and editing skills:” 

The duties for this position include (but are not limited to):

* Script writing
* Producing
* Directing
* Editing (rough-cutting on long form projects and complete editing on shorter videos)
* Some Graphics work
* Production work – running camera, recording audio
* Building and organizing sets
* Anything else required that goes into creating high quality productions from start to finish.

You do not need to know how to do everything, but you must have some sort of background in film or video and the ability to learn new skills extremely quickly. If you already think of yourself as a Swiss army knife, you may be the right person for this job.
 

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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Years ago, philosophers Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a serious book called How to Read a Book. In it, they mentioned that unless you’d read a book three times, you really handn’t read the book. That is, you hadn’t digested the book. I wonder how many of the estimated 1.7 billion DVDs sold last year were viewed more than once (not counting Finding Nemo).

The best way to watch a movie in order to grow as a screenwriter and filmmaker is to watch it over an over again. Writer/director Frank Darabont admits that, on his days off while making The Shawshank Redemption, “I would just watch Goodfellows again and again…just for inspiration.”

Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch George Stevens’ classic, A Place in the Sun 50 times. In fact, the single best class I had in film school was taught by a professor who showed us A Place in the Sun and afterwards asked us questions like “what sounds and visuals do you associate with the Shelly Winters’ character?” and “What music is playing whenever Elizabeth Taylors’ character appears?” It was the first time I really saw the intentionality of a filmmaker.

Film school was also the first time I was challenged to watch a film with the sound turned off and then just listening to the audio. Just out of school as VHS machines finally became affordable is when I began to break down movies scene for scene and to time the length of scenes as well.

Repeated viewing take you to a deeper understanding and appreciation of film. And now with DVDs and the like you can easily locate a single memorable scene, allowing you insights on how lighting, editing, pacing, economy of writing, direction, music sound effects and performance all come together for maximum impact.

While many DVDs come with extras, the real gold is in the commentaries. I’m not talking about the ones with film professors and critics, but the real nuggets that come from the writers and directors who made the film.

One DVD that I recommend you invest your time studying is the 15th Anniversary edition of Rain Man. The film, winner of “Best Picture” Oscar in 1988, has been out long enough to stand the test of time and be considered a modern-day classic. One aspect that separates it from the DVD pack is its three commentaries.

The director, Barry Levinson, the original writer Barry Marrow, and the rewrite writer, Ron Bass, offer more than six hours of insights that warrant repeated listening as well as the film itself.

The commentaries on Rain Man expose the collaborative process at its best. At one point, Steven Spielberg was set to direct, and had spent many months working with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise on their characters and mulling over script ideas with Bass. You learn how difficult it was to get the film made even with top talent attached.

Levinson explains how he sought to shoot in a way that would give the audience glimpses of how Hoffman’s autistic savant character saw patterns in the world. And he notes that his direction was designed to show that Cruise was as handicapped (relationaly) as his brother, making the film a journey of two broken people connecting.

Rain Man works on so many levels (psychologically, visually, emotionally, and performance-wise) that you can begin to appreciate its depth only by repeated viewings.

So don’t concern yourself with watching films just to check them off your AFI Greatest Films list. Invest in couple DVDs of your favorite movies that you’ve heard good things about the commentary and watch those–study those–repeatedly. And like Van Gogh studying a Rembrandt painting, you will be partaking in a timeless creative tradition.

Here is a short list of my favorite DVD commentaries:

The Godfather; Francis Ford Coppola commentary

Stand by Me; Directing inexperienced actors and using improvisation

Seabiscuit; On adapting a film from a best-selling book

The Shawshank Redemption (15th Anniversary Edition); Frank Darabont and “Happy Accidents”

Pieces of April: On funding falling through and finally making the low-budget movie in 16 days.

Big: Commentary with writers Gary Ross and Annie Spielberg which has original excerpts of when they were writing the original script before they had ever had a script produced. Great stuff.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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