Going to the Movies--Good Script/Bad Script
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. The 1939 epic story, 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.