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Katie Morag fans should note that Stuart Hepburn, Martin McCardie Sergio Casci and Lindy Cameron of Move On Up TV have been nominated for Best Children’s Screenplay in the British Screenwriter’s Awards as part of the London Screenwriter’s Festival . We all owe a great debt to Mairi Hedderwick for her fantastic books, and to Director Don Coutts and his Cast and Crew. If you are fans of the CBeebies and BBC Childrens series about the adventures of the wee girl from Struay, you can vote by clicking here. VOTE FOR KATIE MORAG
I have wrtitten previously about the setting up of our UWS collaboration project “Studio Lab” at our new Television Studios at University Of The West Of Scotland in Ayr . We have now reached Week 3 of the project and it is developing at a breathtaking pace.
Ten 4th year (level 10 ) Contemporary Screen Acting Students have worked on creating the scenario, characters and script of a live recorded studio production of approximately 30-60 mins in length. Readers will, I hope, appreciate that this is a substantial piece of work.It will be recorded “as live” at UWS Ayr Studios on December 5th. It will be directed by professional TV Director Michael Hines , who as well as being one of Scotland’s leading directors, also lectures on our Camera Acting Techniques and Screen Drama modules. All the improvisational materials and exercises are being been recorded , edited and disseminated online to the performance team by volunteer Film Making & Screenwriting students as part of this crossover collaboration. The volunteer recording team have put in literally hours of work to ensure that the acting team have the material in an edited form in order to reflect, and then deepen the characterisations which will be eventually reflected in an improvised shooting script to prepare for the live recording.
As the project progresses closer towards shooting, Broadcast Production students will become more involved, so that by the time we record, I expect a team of about 20 strong production team to be part of the behind the scenes efforts to capture the live recording of this experimental drama. Thus around 30 UWS Creative Industries students will have had the chance to take part in an authentic hands on experience which we hope will arm them for the challenges of the Professional Creative Industries.
We have now reached week 3 of the project. So far students have worked on Object, Situation and Interactive improvisations. This has produced approximately 3 hours of edited material. The first part of each session is taken up by watching, discussing and reflecting upon last weeks material. All the edited material has been previously posted on a closed Facebook Group where all the participating students, both voluntary and assessed, take part in creative online discussions through the week.Screen Acting students are tasked with creating three dimensional authentic characters with a backstory, personna, and psychological underpinning which will propel them into the creation of a fully integrated live drama.
Having now gathered a wealth of material, students are engaged in the process of “locating” the precinct within which the final production will be based. Will it be an airport? An institution? A city street? A Spaceship? Inside John Malkovich’s head? The decision of what, where and how the precinct will be will evolve over the next two weeks, so that by week 6, students have a firm grasp of the creative parameters of the project. By weeks 7 and 8, the now located script will be further improvised, developed and honed. At this point, UWS Screenwriting students will distill all the material into a developing script, so that by the time we get to the Technical Rehearsal in Week 10 on Nov 28th, we will have an agreed shooting script which fully reflects the creative input of all participants. We are then planning a final screening in our Campus HD 7:1 Movie Theatre in Week 12.
Next trimester, all the Contemporary Screen Acting students are tasked with writing a 4-6,000 word Ethnographic survey of the lived experience of the entire process. This part of the process is has been devised and delivered by my colleague Dr John Quinn at UWS.
The combination of the two processes, Recorded Artefact and Ethnographic Survey will combine in a 40 Credit Module to complete the Contemporary Screen Acting Research Project. We plan to have all student work submitted in a digital form and be deliverable online in the first ever truly paperless I will update progress with the StudioLab project as it develops.
The description of the location of a scene and the way in which the movement of the camera is described on paper is one of the most vital parts of a screenplay. Yet for all it’s importance, it seems to be one the poor relations of the practical screenwriting world. Why this should be I don’t know. Description is the first part of a script a reader sees, and if a script, especially a spec script, is a selling document, then the way that you invite your reader into the world of your drama through describing the scenes is a vital part of that marketing process. If you get the description and the scene setting wrong, you risk writing a boring script that won’t get past the reject pile on the first readers desk.
A script which doesn’t get produced is a dead document. It’s not like a poem or a short story or even a novel. It’s a partly finished plan of a film which never got made; a telephone message never listened to; a technical drawing for a fabulous palace no maharajah ever built. It’s the saddest loneliest piece of work in the creative world. I should know. I have lots of them lurking in boxes and shelves all round my study.
But, wait. It gets worse than this, because if you never manage to get a script actually made, you will never become a better screenwriter. Trust me on this. Only by seeing your mistakes up on screen , by watching them through clenched fingers , do you ever really ever learn not to make them again. To become a better screenwriter, getting the script produced isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.
So if you want to at least get past that fearsome threshold guardian, the first reader, then you have to engage them immediately , and the way to do that is through your description. Make them want to turn the pages right to the end by writing taut spare muscular description which draws them in to your story. I can’t write it for you, but here are a few thoughts which might lead you in the right direction.
But before we start, what exactly IS description?
For me, I think of description quite simply as “what the camera sees”. No more , no less. I constantly see scripts written by inexperienced writers which spend line after line describing incidents, details and action which will never actually feature in the finished film. I don’t like laws and rules of writing normally. Any good writer breaks rules, that is what they are for. But there is one rule which I think you should always adhere to. I call it……
No see? No write!
If the camera won’t see it, then the writer shouldn’t write it. End of.
Pause for effect as your forehead furrows.
“Me no Leika !“ , I hear you cry. “ I am not a camera, I am a writer. I want to drink in and communicate the richness and depth of the humanity I see unfolding in front of me in all these wonderful locations I have researched populated with unforgettable characters I have created acting out original pulsating stories. I cannot be constrained by the arbitary needs of a mere optical instrument!”
Oh yes you can.
You are writing a plan for a film, and films are a technical exercise in creativity, so your task as a screenwriter is to describe and create only what the camera, and hence your audience, will see. Think of your script like an architect’s plan. If you need to design the cellar because under the house because that’s where we meet the bogey man , then put it in the screenplay.But if you are not going there, don’t . From the first scene to the last, you are describing what the director will shoot within the camera’s frame, because that is what the viewer is going to see, and that is what you will describe in your screenplay. That is why the frame is first dimension of screen description, so lets talk about it.
We are organic creatures . We tend to think in tones, themes, loose images, deep metaphors. How do you write about a thing as prosaic as a right angled, rectangular frame? Quite simply this, if you have decided to write a script,( and believe me, it’s not the most obvious thing to do in the world), then you have to think of telling the story within the frame. Here’s how you do it…..
Don’t be embarrassed at this bit. Go to your location,(or one like it ) and stand where you would like the initial point of view to be from , then take your thumb and forefinger of one hand at right angles and with the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, make a rectangle at arms length, and select the frame. You now have a wonderful steadycam at your fingertips. Your job as the screenwriter is to describe what the camera will see, as it moves and follows the action of your screenplay within that frame. But it’s not as simple as that, because not everything in the frame is of equal importance. This brings us to the second dimension of description, the rank.
It’s not vital that you literally know how to compose a shot. Don’t get too hung up on zooms and pans and close ups .That’s the director and DOP’s job . What IS important is that you rank what the camera will see in order of importance. In other words if the crucial content of a scene is that fact that there is a dead body lying in the middle of it, then don’t spend too much time describing the curtains. You are the writer, and you have to decide what’s important in the scene, and then describe it. The director will shoot it the way she wants to , but at least you made the initial decision about what is important in the scene.
But as well as the frame, and the rank, there is a third dimension in description. Yes, you guessed it. Time.
You may not hear it, but from the moment your screenplay opens, a clock is ticking. A timeline starts as you remorselessly tell your story in the present tense as it happens. (and yes, flashbacks are told in the present tense too!). A painting can hang in a gallery for a hundred years, frozen until the watcher looks at it, a poem sits snugly in its book waiting to be opened and read, as fresh as a daisy, but a screenplay is not frozen like that. It is a dynamic document, where each line is a second or two of very expensive screentime, and you have to be constantly aware of the constraints of this.
With that screen clock ticking remorselessly, eating up your reader’s(and hopefully your audience’s) patience, you must master the third dimension of Screenwriting description as efficiently and quickly as you can.
So to sum up Screenwriting Description. Describe what the camera will see, in the order that it is important, and at the time that the narrative demands.
I had a wonderful creative afternoon in Hawick on the 30th of October with my colleagues at the Eildon Tree New Writing Festival. The festival, organised around the Borders New Writing Magazine, is a celebration of the past 11 years of new writing in the Scottish Borders. The three hour practical TV Writing Workshop I held included creating ideas, narrative structure, script formatting and how to get your script marketed in these straitened times.
The workshop was attended by amongst others, a documentary film maker embarking on his first fictional drama, a poet looking to create a short film, an actress developing her career options, three 21 year olds making a sketch show, as well as a couple of novelists and short story writers for good measure.
As usual with these events, I learned more from them than they did from me.
There is a vibrant creative writing community in Hawick and it’s surrounds, and it was a privilege to be asked to share their hospitality in the environs of the wonderful Mill Tower building. I am indebted to Tom Murray, Julian Colton and Carol Norris of the Eildon Tree for their invitation, and to the attendees for their energy and creativity.
There is an interview with me by Tom Murray in the latest copy of “The Eildon Tree”. Page 10.
The University Of The West Of Scotland’s School of Creative and Cultural Industries Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) is aimed at producing an innovative training video on discrimination at work. The project is designed as bespoke piece of training for our partners, leading Glasgow law firm, Law at Work, and is now entering a crucial phase in Week 7.
UWS graduate and KTP Associate Chris Young has delivered a 20 page research dossier on Innovative Training Videos which was discussed at our last programme meeting at our partner Law At Work’s HQ in Glasgow. This impressive body of research will provide the creative team with the theoretical underpinning for the next stage of the process. It is this critical research based approach which makes the KTP unique in terms of it’s impact on our creative educational practice and the service that we can provide for industrial partners such as Law At Work.
In the light of our discussions, Chris is now finalising the shooting script of the web-based training video. With a planned screentime of 20 minutes, and a cast of 12, this is a major undertaking for Chris as a first time professional director. Camera, lighting, sound , makeup, and catering have all been finalised for the weekend shoot, and if the script outlines are anything to go by, we are looking forward to a fantastic piece of work from Chris and his production team.
The final draft of the script will be ready by Friday 29th of October, casting will have been finalised by Wednesday 3rd November, ready for the shoot on Sat and Sun 6th and 7th of November. The KTP team are taking over the entire floor of Law At Works offices for two days in order to shoot the video.
Post production is slotted in at UWS Ayr for the two weeks after this, with a planned delivery of the final product to our clients Law at Work on 22nd of November. As luck would have it, the filming of the new video takes place at the same time as Law At Work are undertaking a complete re-branding of their website and corporate identity. It is planned to coordinate the launch of the video with the new website in the new year. The timing for all of this could not be better.
It has been a challenging process for all involved, particularly since this is the first ever KTP embarked upon by the School Of Creative And Cultural Industries.
These are exciting times for all those involved in this unique project. There’s no doubt that this will lay down a marker for the sort of creative engagement with industry which the UWS Skillset Media Academy plans to roll out in the future.
Due to the three year success of workshops at Write Camera Action, with such fantastic writing, talented cast and enthusiasm from all directors/producers and participants involved, it has sparked some amazing collaborative no/low-budget projects being made. WCA would like to encourage and support more independent productions with two new initiatives:
1. Open Script Competition
All scripts entered will be given feedback. A winning script will be voted by the panel to be produced sourcing cast and crew from WCA and affiliated groups, with equipment provided by Moniton Pictures. The finished film will be ready for festival entry and be a calling card for all parties involved, with the writer retaining copyright of all material included.
Submissions open from 18th Oct. 2010. Deadline closes 14th Jan. 2011. The entry fee of £15 per script will generate the funding to produce the winning script. More than one entry is not only allowed – it’s applauded! The winning script will be announced at WCA networking night at CCA on 29th Jan. 2011. Entry criteria and more details on request from
2. WCA presents a night of Film screenings & Networking
A lot of you have embraced the ethos of WCA and have formed collaborations to get those ideas work shopped at WCA actually produced, with some currently in production, WELL DONE! Some of you are still thinking about it, WELL DON’T! Now is the time to get them made, get them finished and let’s show them! WCA announces an evening of film screenings from WCA collaborations to be held on Friday 22nd April 2011 at the CCA with networking at the CCA bar afterwards.
The evening will be open to the public with specially invited industry guests. It will be ticketed to generate two cash prizes, 1) for the winning film voted for on the night by the guest panel, and 2) the winning film of the public vote from the audience. More details and reminders next year but this early announcement will allow people to get their films finished and/or into production in time to enter.
Submissions open from 30th Nov. 2010. Deadline 31st March 2011. Collaboration can mean utilizing mailing list, casting, crew, work shopping etc. Entry criteria and more details on request from Tickets £10, limited and available from CCA Box Office.
- Dialogue is the last resort. Use anything else to tell your story before you resort to dialogue. You might often hear of actors on the set who look at a whole paragraph of carefully crafted dialogue then turn to the director and say “ I can do that with a look.” They are usually right
- Listen. Many new writers often say “ I can’t write dialogue”. What they really mean is that they have not developed an ear for naturalism. They have not honed the art of listening to what people really say. So. listen, listen, and listen some more. Every human being in the world is a master of writing the dialogue of their own narrative. It is the screenwriters job to learn how to create those characters in their head , who can literally tell them how to “write” their own lines. So listen to what the real folks say.
- Differentiate. Every character in your screenplay should have a distinctive “voice”. You would never cast clones in a screenplay, so why do inexperienced writers make all their characters sound the same? It’s because they haven’t really grasped the fact that no two people ever look or talk the same way…unless it’s a Kraftwerk biopic you’re writing, or the opening speeches at a North Korean Communist Party rally.
- What do they want? People talk for a whole variety of reasons, but a very good way of fleshing out your first draft is to ask yourself what each character’s wants are in the scene, and what are they going to say to get what they want.
- Hide the truth. Human beings rarely say exactly what they mean. Indeed, the classic moment in many screenplays comes at the second act turning point where for the first time in the entire script, they finally DO say what they mean. “The truth? You can’t handle the truth!” So…don’t write on the line…write round it, write under it…write over it…and choose very carefully the point in your screenplay where your characters finally tell it how it is. It will be a powerful moment if they’ve been hiding it for the past 4 reels.
- Information is not enough. If all your lines are about is providing information, then you might as well use graphics or a dancing dog in the background with a sign round it’s neck. Dialogue should be part of the action, part of the character, part of the forward movement of the narrative. Write dumb reportage as dialogue and the director will cast dumb reportage actors. You want your lines to be spoken by the best actors available, so give them something more than “ Excuse me sir there’s a phone call for you “.If it’s only information, think of another way of providing it rather than dialogue.
- Don’t tell us what we already know. Dialogue is not there for the good of the characters, it’s there for the audience. If you just saw the heroine pistol whipping the bad guy and tying him to a passing vehicle with a barbed wire lasoo, don’t start the next scene with her telling her boyfriend “Hey, I just kicked the Mekon’s butt and sent him down the highway on the back of a Garbage Truck”. We’ve seen it , we don’t need told it again. I was once informed by a very bad writing coach that I should “Tell them, tell them what you’ve told them, and then remind them what you told them.” Nonsense. Make the audience work. Make them listen. Tell them once in dialogue, and then use images, tone and action to underscore it, not more dialogue.
- Keep it lean. Think of words like money in a skinflint’s bank.Don’t spend a single penny more than you have to . Unless your character is a verbose chatterbox, use as few words as possible to tell the tale. No successful screenplay ever used too FEW words. But lot’s of mediocre ones have far too many.
- Sharpen your sword. Good dialogue is like a fencing match. Attack, parry, riposte, with the final stab right at the heart of the opponent. Even if they are getting along, characters should be constantly vying for supremacy in the cut and thrust of crackling dialogue. Think of Bogey and Bacall , Curtis and Lemmon, McKenzie and Patterson. Who are the last two guys? I heard them ripping the proverbial out of each other at the game the other night. Those guys could WRITE!
- Surprise yourself. Never trust the first idea. Sure, write it down in your first draft, but when you go back and read it over you will often realise that it’s pure corn fed cliché. The girl’s in love?…have her say “I hate you.” And then kiss the guy. Result.
Well, here we are at the end of the creative process in the UWS Module, Team Writing For Television. This 20 Credit module is part of the Filmmaking And Screenwriting Programme at the UWS Skillset Media Academy at the University Of The West Of Scotland in Ayr, and is delivered at Level 9. The class is made up of 60 students comprising 9 Writing Teams, creating 9 Series Bibles, and with each student responsible for writing an individual episode of their team series. Three tutors oversee all the creative elements of the students work, with 3 teams allocated to each. Thus the tutors act as defacto Showrunners.Now, after 14 weeks of intense work, the students have finally handed in their assessemnts.
What the written assessments amount to is 9 full breakdowns for a brand new long running television series . Bibles, Scripts, Character Arcs, Viral Ads, Music, Design, and even Springboards for the second series. So rather than being in the customary position , as academic assessors, of surveying 60 separate examples of students work, the tutors are more like directors or producers, sitting down to read a new, integrated creative artefact.
We start with the Pilot Episode, usually written by the student whose original idea was adopted by the team, and read on as the series unfolds week by week by week. Each team was jointly responsible for creating the Characters arcs, Series Arcs, Episode Breakdowns and Springboards for the new series. Each team MEMBER was responsible for writing their own individual episode ensuring that it fitted in with the overall plan and development grids.
Throughout the process, the teams have engaged with their tutors and one another in a whole series of ways.
1.Weekly short lectures exemplifying contemporary team writing with reference to individual Long Running Series such as True Blood, Glee and The Tudors.
2.Weekly team meetings where the students hammer out the team series grids for a couple of hours, ending with class plenary feedback sessions.
3.Daily Online Team discussions using the Virtual Learning Environment, Blackboard.
4. Nominated Scribes publishing a weekly Team Blog on the VLE evidencing their progress to their classmates.
5. Communicating with team mates creatively in live chats using the Wimba Pronto suite.
6. Publishing their collaborative team bible on their individual Team WIKI.
7. Pitching their Bible in an assessed session to top industry practitioners.
8.Creating, developing and writing their own individual episode, feeding back and forward to their individual tutor through their individual shared ePortfolio.
9. Finally writing their own reflective 1500/2,500 word essay on particular aspects of the creation of Long Running Television Series.
This has been a mountain of work, totalling over 2000(and counting) separate messages, posts, ammendments and digital artefacts. Some of it has worked better than we hoped, some of it worse than we might have expected. There have been ICT glitches, team breakdowns and team buildups, but the main thing to say is that the whole has been greater than the sum of the parts. I have been stunned at the quality and coherence of the best work.
My colleague John Quinn and I will spend the summer doing a bit of number crunching and analysing student feedback to work out exactly what worked and didn’t work, and why, and we will consolidate this work into developing the module further next academic year. You can expect a paper or two to emerge from this which we plan to publicise in the Autumn. In the meantime, I would like to thank my colleagues, John Quinn and Dr Gill Jamieson, who have supported and encouraged the entire creative experiment. My greatest thanks, however, goes most of all to the students at the UWS School of Creative and Cultural Studies, for their energy, commitment and creativity.
“Did I ever tell you the one about the zombie killers in a space hotel? It’s a kind of CSI on the Moon meets Buffy….it all starts one day when this spaceship finds a beacon with a very strange message………….”