Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Visual Art of Screenwriting

One day not so long ago, I was shopping online as you do, when an ad for Amazon Studios caught my eye. At first glance, it seemed like a very interesting idea and got me wondering exactly what it takes to write a film script. Within minutes of searching I found a veritable treasure chest of freely available scripts along with an abundance of information from industry professionals.

The first thing you notice about the screenwriting format is the way it looks. There's a lot of white space thanks to the wide margins, short paragraphs and inset dialogue blocks. In practice, all these elements combine to make an easy flowing, fast read which, as I understand it, is exactly the goal. Clean and lean. Click the image to the left and you'll see a screenshot of notes I made early on while figuring out how to interpret some basics. Should any professional screenwriters happen to read this, apologies for the errors, misinformation and plain bad writing you'll no doubt encounter. However, please do feel free to get in touch with any corrections or constructive suggestions. :D

It should be noted there are some things I'm deliberately avoiding at this stage. Sounds are not capitalised within action blocks because I don't yet fully understand why you would and when you should. In the above example scene only the word, 'WHOOSH!' is capitalised to really emphasise the sudden downturn in young Hedgehog's fortune.

I'm temporarily ignoring transitions and camera angle direction because quite frankly, it is a ridiculous notion that a beginner would dare tell professional directors how to do their job. Even if I wasn't such a newbie, my understanding is that speculative scripts from new writers aren't final shooting scripts and should therefore not yet include such specifics. That suits me for the moment as I just want to learn how to tell the story within a basic scriptwriting framework.

I read somewhere that each short paragraph within action blocks should indicate a potential change of camera angle. Whether right or wrong, I love this idea. It makes sense to me because readers stay focused on the story without being too distracted by the mechanics of film making or script formatting.

I like to learn by doing. Get stuck in, make the mistakes and file them along with little victories under 'knowledge.' I fancied a bash at this lark and after some research found many apps which automatically format screenplays. I chose the free desktop version of CeltX for mac and Scripts Pro for my iPad which exports to the CeltX file format among others.
Finding a story was the easy bit. Once again I turned to my project of choice for learning and experimentation; The Ballad of Piggotty Wood. As intellectual properties go, it is becoming a pretty well established entity, but the original point of the project was to practise 2D painting, so the story was written in the quickest format I could think of at the time, rhyming verse. Verse was fun to write, but by definition limited as a story telling tool. The detailed illustrations help, but the storyline was still more of an outline. A screenplay seemed like the perfect way to flesh out the details.

And so it proved. The first draft is finished (it's too long!) The initial verses did indeed serve as a good outline, but I had no idea how the details would pan out until they appeared. To my delight, The Ballad of Piggotty Wood has turned into something of a tolkienesque fantasy with pantomime villains and all!
Screenwriters work to keep descriptive passages to a minimum, something I found tricky, but to test the effectiveness of those six line paragraphs, I decided to choose a scene and create some concept art based on the words alone. Barely mentioned in the original tale, the evil Widow Queen's stronghold is situated in Piggotty Wood, unseen by human eyes (for now,) but all too visible to native creatures. I chose to illustrate her throne room in that stronghold; inspired, perhaps, by a recent viewing of Game of Thrones.

When clicked, the thumbnail on the left shows our scene with three rendered images alongside. The renders were made using Cinema 4D, Daz Studio and Photoshop. Hopefully, you will not completely disagree with my interpretation, but constructive feedback is always welcome!
The top image shows an empty hall from the point of entry so we can compare it to the description in those first few paragraphs. The middle image shows a view from the opposite end of a hall, now filled with soldiers. The final design of despicable bad eggs is a spare time project crying out for high resolution detail. In the meantime, this environment test is hastily occupied with a mix of quickly made characters and low res fbx models from excellent resource site, - including those superb Lord of the Rings cave trolls. The bottom image is a close up of the Widow Queen and her spider throne, which I really struggled to describe with words. It still isn't right. Looking at the image now, I'd also like to add a few silk wrapped corpses hanging from the ceiling.

We all make pictures in our minds when reading, but as someone who is more used to standard book formats, screenplays somehow make those images more vivid. I tip my hat to all screenwriters, you gifted artists who make the simplest collection of words paint a thousand pictures.