It was only a matter of time before we got here– to the land of things you can not script out but are important for any good film. Much like Moses and the Promised Land, this is a place I can only view from far away on top of a mountain, never allowed to actually go there.
I want to talk about one far off building that seems to have gotten a lot of traction these days– visual storytelling. The idea that we can tell large parts of a story not through dialogue, or even action, but in how things look. Often, we use what’s on screen to augment parts of the plot or highlight particular aspects of characterization. Sometimes its super subtle.
For example, Carl Up starts the movie with more rounded facial features and after his wife dies, regresses into a bitter old man who also looks more square-ish. He’s the square peg that refuses to conform to the round hole his life has become– he’s all stuck in his ways and unable to give up the past. It’s not until that boy scout comes along– who is also more roundish– helps Carl learn and smooth out the edges.
Pacific Rim is the poster child for this as large parts of that film are only told visually, but I only ever saw Pacific Rim drunk at a New Years party, so i can’t actually reference it (or remember large chunks of it, outside of GIANT ROBOT SMASH MONSTER THROUGH BUILDING, HELLS YEAH). But I can give you an example– Tarzan, and Jane’s attire through the movie.
Jane starts out the movie on the run from stealing Belle’s dancing dress in Beauty and the Beast:
As the movie progresses, Jane starts realizing that a ball gown is not exactly strong jungle attire, and decides to switch over to the outfit she stole from The Wild Thornberrys:
Then, while Phil Colin’s croons, Jane realizes that actually, sleeves are horribly restricting and really hurting her ability to get her lady boner on for Tarzan:
Yet, when it’s time for her to go back to England, the ball gown comes back on:
However, after Jane finally makes her choice to stay in the jungle, fuck clothes:
To put it very succinctly: when Jane makes the correct decision according to the movie, she shows more skin. We can chart her entire character progression based on that. As she falls in love with Tarzan, and in doing so realizes her place is the jungle, she goes away from formal attire and more towards her mini-skirt/sports-bra combo. When she decides to go back to England, it’s back to Belle’s clothes with her.
Her trend is far more gradual than Tarzan’s– who goes directly from loincloth to suit and back to loincloth, because this movie isn’t paced super well. At any rate, you can look at this in a few ways:
1) we are shown Jane’s gradual acclimation to the jungle. She can pass from England to the jungle because she slowly becomes part of the jungle– she sheds off the layers of high society to become more like Tarzan.
2) we are shown a visual aid to how Jane and Tarzan feel about each other. As they fall in love, they start to dress more like the other– Jane gradually, and Tarzan all at once. By the end of the film, they’re in love because they dress the same.
It’s probably the first idea over the second– after all, the movie hardly needs any visual help to show it’s love plot, and Jane comes about three degrees too close to molesting a blackboard sketch of Tarzan long before she drops the sleeves on her shirt.
However, that still leaves us with the thematic problem of Tarzan being unable to leave his place (the jungle) and Jane being allowed to leave hers (England) for reasons that are never shown. I never said the thematic elements were good, just that the visuals support them.
There is more to dig into here as well– the fact that Jane stole her dress from Belle is on purpose. The movie is playing at undertones– the story of Tarzan has similar themes to Beauty and the Beast. Tarzan is a wild gorilla man… sure, he starts higher on the screw-ability curve (unless you’re into that, and from comments I’ve heard about Robin Hood, there are more people into that than you might expect), but there is a theme of Jane bringing civilization, manners and, well, gentleing (ooh, I made up a word) out the wild Tarzan.
Unlike Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan doesn’t want to focus on how this process brings out other sides of Tarzan’s personality for Jane to fall in love with, because Tarzan decided to use it’s runtime for an extraneous music number about gorillas trashing a camp.
These are probably considerations that’ll get pushed to the back burner in favor of more pressing matters (Guys, how do I write a romance scene for a Disney film that isn’t the most cliched thing ever? This is really hard), but it is cool to pick up on.
Although we’re not done with the rough draft yet, its pretty obvious that there are some things we’ll need to patch up in editing. One of the most profuse problems (and probably due to the fact that we’re two separate people which highly similar although slightly desperate visions) is a Deus Ex Machina sheen that sorta permeates the entire thing.
As of the current rough draft, we have a lot of important characters and plot elements that appear the moment they’re needed by the plot, then get abandoned like a red-headed stepchild the moment they’ve served their usefulness. This is mostly due to focus during the rough draft. Premature optimization is a dangerous thing, in both Computer Science and writing. Focus on the details too soon, and you’ll miss the forest for the trees.
What I’d like to do (as we edit and polish and all that good jazz) is reference plot elements before they’re actually used, and then bring them back up again when they’re needed. Elements can also be referenced later on for a joke or a bit of world building or whatever. I’d like to push us away from looking like a bunch of lazy ancient Greeks and closer to Checkov’s Emporium.
To quote the man himself: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” —Anton Chekhov
We need to talk about our rifles more, rather than just having characters pull them out of their butts when required. So, clearly, need to look at a master of the plant– a true master of setting things up, a work of fiction so full of references that they’ll plant a plot element only to use it a minute later, something like…
Oh. Um. Avert ye eyes, children! Tis a dark and dangerous black magik at work here!
Actually, I swear pretty regularly in my posts and have already brought up other not really safe for children material (unless you think graphic ritual sacrifice is family friendly), so… well, time to scar some poor kid for life.
Despite being very, very adult, and very irreverent, Rick and Morty is a master of plants. Just watch the first minute and a half on an episode (which isn’t actively racist or sexist, so it’s pretty tame):
That’s a throw-away line that comes in full circle for a joke (and to advance the plot) before we even see the title card. Clearly, the show’s writers are teaching a master class on what I want to learn. The big problem is to stop laughing so I can actually pay attention.
My taste in humor is crass. I’m not proud.
So far, I’ve only seen three episodes, and again, I struggle to turn on the analysis part of my brain when I’m having so much fun, but there is something of a pattern here. Rick and Morty will drop a line or event that seems almost out of context or just blabble-y. Sometimes its so random its giggle-worthy just for being so unexpected (I’m pretty sure that’s why Superjail is going on it’s 4th season). However, that one line will come back as a plot element (usually coupled with some sort of punchline, because this is TV to make you laugh).
However, I really don’t think this is a thing I can template out and plug-and-chug my way through. I’m sure that there are tons of way to bring up plot elements before the fact, and gracefully slip them in and out when needed.
Meanwhile, i’m gonna go grab a beer and laugh some more.
Another week, another time I don’t write a post for the blog. I’m a slacker.
However, we did watch more Disney movies two weekends ago, and that went really well. We’ve finally watched The Hunchback of NotreDame (and the less popular Treasure Planet). Now, Hunchback is tricky to talk about, at least for me.
According to this poorly designed website, Hunchback did not exactly do well in theaters. Part of the idea behind this project is to write Disney’s next masterpiece, which sorta kinda implies commercial success.
Despite that, I really like Hunchback. The movie has a lot going for it– all the characters seem decently fleshed out, the music (for the most part) is fantastic, and the film has quite a few beautiful moments in the art department.
But, I want to talk about something a little more subtle. Hunchback does a great job of guiding the viewer through it’s story, so that you can get all the subtext as long as you’re paying attention. One of the more potent threads woven in is the theme of light. The explicit theme statement comes with the Heaven’s Light/Hellfire sequence.
Anyway, take a listen. It didn’t hit me until we rewatched it for the project that I realized A) How different both these songs are
B) How brillant it is that they go back to back
Heaven’s Light is very explicit with its imagery, because there is no reason to hide it– like all Disney protagonists, Quasimodo is looking for love, and despite knowing better, can’t help but have feelings for Esmeralda. In fact, Esmeralda is the subject of both songs, however, Hellfire puts an entirely different spin on things. Esmeralda is the subject of Quasimodo’s love, however, she is also the subject of Frollo’s lust.
And Frollo doesn’t fuck around (ha! I made a pun). Either Esmeralda will sleep with him, or she will burn alive. Also, lets set fire to Paris because why not? So, lets talk light.
When Quasimodo sings about it, he talks about people emitting light, being wrapped up in it. The light here is gentle, it’s good, it illuminates his dark tower. Quasimodo calls the light he sings about as a “warm and loving glow”.
To counter this idea, Frollo brings an entire new twist to light– fire. Literally burning with light, light that scorches, light that destroys. Light that drives him insane. Both these characters are using light as a metaphor for how they feel about Esmeralda, both of them identify her as the source of light.
Both of them also want Esmeralda to feel for them how they feel for her. In movie thematic terms, both characters sing about how they want Esmeralda to feel the light they feel: Quasimodo by association– pairs of people feel the light he feels, Frollo is more explicit about wanting Esmeralda to burn with hellfire.
Pretty brilliant, eh? Considering that Esmeralda will dump both of them and hook up with someone who’s name means ‘Sun God’, I think I’m on to something. However, this isn’t the only time light is used as imagery for love. It’s actually more general.
Think back on the festival of fools sequence, or go rewatch it. When do both men fall in love with Esmeralda? For Frollo, it’s when she’s dancing on the podium, getting her sex appeal on. For Quasimodo, however, I’d argue that it’s when she rescues him– she is surrounded by light, while the soundtrack plays that really catchy choral line that I can’t find on the Internet because “catchy choral line from Hunchback that plays as the introduction to the thematic element of light as love” doesn’t give any hits from Google.
Or, even if he isn’t aware, Quasimodo has felt heaven’s light. Sure, it isn’t love how he hopes it is, but Esmeralda does care for him. That’s the light Quasimodo is chasing after, the light he’s dreaming about– the light of care from a good person.
And it’s obvious who are two good people are– Esmeralda and Phoebus spend a large chunk of the movie dressed in white, which if you haven’t ever looked at a single bit of art ever, is a color of purity. Also, I think they might be the only two people in the movie that don’t attempt to murder Quasimodo. They’re both wearing white during the Heaven’s Light reprise, during the climax of the movie, and during the last scene when Quasimodo goes back outside during the day.
To keep pounding this horse into the dust (it isn’t part of the theme unless it’s beaten into your skull), the last scene has Quasimodo coming out of the shadows of the cathedral into the blistering sunlight of the square. He winces from the light, but as he walks all the way into it… he is embraced by the crowd. Quasimodo has brought light to the people of Paris, and they accept him rather than throwing perfectly good fruit and vegetables at him.
I could go on, but I think I’ll stop here for now. There is a ton more to dig into– we could go deeper into the use of fire, or exactly why Guy Like You is bad (because they wrote themselves into a hole), or how the soundtrack is goddamn brilliant and helps enforce these themes, but I gotta save posts for dry weeks.
So, Disney’s Hercules is a bit of a weird movie. Even weirder for a Disney animated feature. I mostly added it to our watch list because it’s streaming on Netflix. But, I’m actually really glad that I did. It kinda tanked at the box office, but honestly, it’s not that bad. So what went wrong and what went right?
Technical Breakdown of Hercules
Act 1: The story opens with the Muses, filling in a narrator role, and singing to the audience that this will be the story of Hercules (very similar to the opening of Beauty and the Beast, but more like Aladdin). The “Gospel Truth” is an homage to the classical Greek chours modernized with a gospel spin and attempts to set the tone, a modernized classic. Then we flashback to Hercules birth. Hades attempts to kill the son of Zues as a baby by turning him mortal because Hercules will thwart his plan to overthrow Olympus in 18 years (such a specific number). This establishes the central conflict – Hercules vs Hades. The assassination doesn’t quite work, unbeknownst to Hades. Hercules is cast out of Olympus and raised by mortals. As an awkward teen, Hercules discovers that he is the son of Gods, and to become a God himself, the subplot, or B-Story*, he must become a True Hero. Act 1 ends with the number “Go the Distance” and the establishment of the Hero Theme. Act 1 is almost entirely exposition and characterization of both Hercules and Hades. I also suspect a secondary theme of Place in Society.
Act 2: Hercules meets Phil (who desires to be a Hero by association), and together they prep Herc for becoming a Hero through a musical montage “One Last Hope.” Now, properly trained, and just a bit older, Phil and Herc head to Thebes to prove himself a hero. On the way, he saves a damsel who wasn’t really in distress. Meg is unimpressed by Herc, but finds his naivety charming, creating a romantic subplot. After Herc leaves, it is revealed that Meg is an agent of Hades, putting her in direct conflict with Herc. Herc and Phil make it to Thebes, where Herc battles the Hyrdra. Upon success, Herc is catapulted into fame and wealth in the “Zero to Hero” musical montage, though, he has not become a True Hero. Interestingly, Herc has a new Place in Society, polar opposite to what he was before. Herc has found his place, but it does not fulfill him. Meanwhile, Meg is sent by Hades to uncover weaknesses, where she “Won’t say [she’s] in Love.” Hades, realizing that their love is actually Herc’s weakness leverages it against Herc. If Herc gives up his strenght, than Hades will release Meg. Herc agrees, though, feels betrayed upon learning Meg worked for Hades all along, combining the romantic subplot and main plot together.
Act 3: Hades releases the titans, and powerless, Herc goes off to face them. He is all but defeated, when Meg sacrifices herself to save him from a falling pillar. Her sacrifice undoes Hades’ deal, and Herc then proceeds to stop the titans, preventing Hades’ take-over, and resolving the main plot. Hades, seeing his shot at revenge, takes Meg’s soul, and once again leverages it over Herc. Herc can save her if he can reach her in the River Stix. Of course, it’s a death trap. Herc agrees, and it’s his sacrifice that ascends him into godliness, resolving the True Hero theme. Leaving Hades utterly defeated, Hercules and Meg ascend to Olympus where Herc learns that he cannot be a god and be with Meg. He chooses her, resolving the romantic subplot and redefining his role and its theme.
In terms of structure, Hercules is really complex. Several plotlines are expertly woven together. A story of being a hero. A story of finding one’s place. A story of love. It deals with a fascinating take on the definition of a Hero.
The Heroic Theme: What’s Amazing about Hercules
In fact, thematically, Hercules may be one of Disney’s greatest films.
Hercules’s journey from “Zero to Hero” is quite complex. He starts as an good-meaning but awkward youth. His unnatural strenght makes him an outcast, and eventually he learns that he is an outcast because he has a greater purpose. Initially, it’s his desire to fit in, become part of something, is what propels his good deeds. After growing, he learns to control his awkwardness, then proceeds to do good deed to please his father, Zues. Herc is seeking a traditional sense of being a hero: saving others from great evils. His drive to be a hero comes from his desire to find his place in the world.
Slaying the monsters and completing his own trials aren’t enough to make him a God/True Hero, and he finds it unsatisfying. The standard expectation of heroic actions do not fulfill the True Hero requirement. This could be because he is doing heroism for someone else, for apporval. His motive for his actions are selfish. This is also paralleled in Phil’s desire to create a hero. Phil drives Herc on because PHIL desires fame.
Finally, Herc is put on the line when he loses what defines him as a hero – his strength. In what is his most heroic action thus far, Hercules enters a no-win situation against the Titans. There is another interesting phenomenon going on too. The people of Thebes have come to rely on Hercules, meaning they no longer flee during danger. They view him as a savior, and they nearly are destroy because of their reliance on him.
His strenght isn’t restored until Meg commits an her own act of Heroism, saving Herc from death, and resulting in hers. Herc will later parallel this action. His sense of duty to his Godly family and his destiny compel him to defeat the titans before attending to Meg (and ultimately missing her last moments). Yet, defeating the Titans isn’t what makes him a Hero. At this point, defeating monsters is really more of a job. Heroism is not defined by career.
Herc only achieves his True Hero status by facing impossible odds to save the person who matters most to him. His sacrifice for Meg, when no one is watching, when there’s no expectations are what makes him a hero. The movie defines his sacrifice by saying that it’s not grandiose gestures, or physical strength, that make someone a hero, but rather the small ones. The strength of one’s own will. The gestures no one sees, and done without reward. A True Hero doesn’t need super strength.
Then he gives his new found godliness up because he learns that being a hero isn’t what he wanted anyway. He just wanted his own place, which he’s now found, and it’s not on Olympus.
This theme is deep and thought provoking. Almost every scene in the movie works towards this theme. Heroism is questioned and criticized throughout, until it makes it final statement at the climax. Then it continues through the resolution because what it’s not the rewards of being a hero that ultimately makes Herc happy. The theme is so integral that it cannot be separate from the story.
So why did it fail?
Because it does fail. Hercules is not considered on of Disney’s great films. It wasn’t a runaway box office success. It didn’t spawn numerous sequels or successful TV series. I believe I know why.
It’s the source material that causes everything to fall apart. By choosing to adapt an ancient Greek myth, it’s pigeon-holed into a setting that doesn’t really fit it. The Gospel musical style and Greek Urn artistic style are at odds.The Greek design doesn’t really come across either. I’ve been to Greece, and nothing in that movie makes me think of it or its aesthetics.
Look at Herc’s character design. What he hell is he wearing? No matter how you spin it, it looks like he’s wearing a gold dress. And his red hair and superman curl? Um, not feeling very Greek at all to me.
The movie continues to struggle to fit its Greek mold by giving us iconic Greek monsters. Then bastardizing the mythology. At the time of this film, Hercules: The Legendary Journey was quite successful. And while that show may not have stayed true to the myths, it didn’t butcher them like Disney did. It also meant that Geek myth was at the top of everyone’s mind in the mid-90s.
Hercules is at it’s heart a superhero movie. If you changed the setting, and set it someplace like, I don’t know, New York? Got rid of the mythological trappings, and gave it a radioactive burst, and you’d have Superman. If it had just changed its setting, relinquished the Greek inspiration and accepted that it’s a superhero movie, I think Hercules could have been one of Disney’s best. But it didn’t, so we have an odd mix of awkward animation and excellent storytelling.
Johnathan posted The First Few Minutes, and he brought up some excellent points. I was going to expand in the comments section, but my comment quickly spiraled out of control. So I made it my own post.
In cinema and screenwriting theory, there is a term for this: the First Ten Pages(or First Ten Minutes). This refers to the importance of the first pages/minutes of any movie. Producers use this rule as a way to quickly decide if a movie is producable/marketable. If the first ten pages/minutes attract their attention, then they read the whole script. Otherwise, it gets passed on. In advanced stages, marketers have noticed that the audience gives the filmmaker around 10 minutes before they decided if they’re going to change the channel/walk out on the movie or not.
And for reference, youtube audiences give videos 30 seconds to a minute.
Additionally, Blake Synder refers to this as “The Opening Image.” He says that the opening scene is the first “beat” of the movie. It establishes tone, mood, and scope. These are the moments that typically decide if your audience will watch or not.
When developing the story, it’s crucial to focus in on this beginning. Characters, tone, conflict, setting, all must be defined quickly. All great movies do this. All great books too.
In the world of publishing, it quite typical for agents or publishers to request the first 10-30 pages of a manuscript. They use it as a measure of the story as a whole. If it doesn’t start off good, chances are it won’t magically become good. Many books, readers know they’re going to like it from the first line.
Johnathan couldn’t remember the first line of several of his favorite books. I remember several of mine:
“There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.” – The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” – To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (ok, this is actually my mom’s favorite.)
“Our story begins where countless stories have ended in the last 26 years: with an idiot … deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick.” – Feed by Mira Grant
Each of these lines set the tone, and adds intrigue to the book. The Graveyard Book is accompanied with a illustration of a two page black spread with a single hand holding a knife. It’s dark, scary, and full of potential. Is this a murderous knife? Is this a defensive knife? Is this a knife that’s going to make a sandwich? After reading that line, you immeadately have to turn the page. Of course, you learn that it’s a murderous knife, who’s killed a family. Yet, it’s target, a baby, has escaped.
Harper Lee’s classic, holds just as much intrigue, yet, has a completely different tone. You can instantly feel the Southern, youthful, feel of the book. This is a book documenting the events leading up to something moderately awful. The summer Jem broke his arm. Well, how does Jem (an unusual name) break his arm? We have to read the entire book to find out.
Feed opens with a bit of humor. This is a beginning that starts where most stories end. It’s narrator’s voice is quickly established, and we instantly know two things: it’s about zombies, and zombies have been around a generation. The tone and scope are instantly set, and damn, I need to know what happens when her brother pokes the zombie.
I totally gauge a book on how it opens, and I use that as my basis for choosing a book to read. Often, I read the first chapter to see if I’m interested, and only give a book about 50 pages before I decide if it’s for me or not.
I’m a little more lax on movies, because I’m more willing to commit to two hours than twelve. Though, I form my opinion of a movie in the first ten minutes. Much like a book, movies need a good opening too. There are several movies that spend way to long setting up. This is the End (which I watched this weekend) is one.
I only vaguely remember the opening image. I think it’s Seth Rogan meeting Jay Baruchel at an airport? I also remember thinking, what the hell is Seth Rogan doing just chilling at the baggage claim at LAX? I spent more time wondering about celebrity normal life than I did wondering what the hell was going on in the movie.
In fact, the entire first act,of the movie is nothing but set up. It doesn’t establish scope, or mood, or even what the hell the movie is about. It establishes the comedy tone and Seth Rogan and crew as characters. Though, like most Fanfiction, we the audience are already familiar with them, and therefore do not need huge amounts of backstory. The world doesn’t start ending until the end of Act 1. And for me, I’ve already lost interest. If I didn’t know this was an apocalypse movie, that would have surprise would have come out of nowhere. (Maybe, it’s because our inciting incident doesn’t have to be what closes Act 1.)
In contrast, Shoot ‘Em Up has one of the best opening scenes I’ve ever seen. In fact, spend the next minute in a half watching it:
In 1.5 minutes everything about this movie has been set. We know the tone from the opening two shoots (satirical and gritty). That intense CU followed by a sharp cut, then completely undermined by the carrot. Because, what bad ass eats veggies? We know our main character is a bit grungy, lives on the wrong side of town, takes the bus, is reluctant, but has a good heart. We know that he’s not involved with the conflict, but chooses to make himself involved because its the right thing to do. We see conflict: Pregnant lady is in trouble. Kinda a universal sign of good – pregnant women. We see our villains: truly evil, I mean, they’re gonna threaten a pregnant lady with a gun. The movie unabashedly sets itself up and carries itself throughout. In the first ten minutes, we have our inciting incident, a birthing scene, and an epic gun fight. The scope and tone are set. The mood is set. Our hero is defined, and he has a dilemma. Even with all this intense action and conflict, Act 1 clearly doesn’t end until the Hero fully dedicates himself to the baby about 30 minutes in.
First Impression Failures: Pocahontas
Why does the movie’s opening not linger? We start in England (scope fail) with our romantic interest (not our hero) followed by a boat ride establishing our secondary characters (John Smith saves Thomas, was there a point?). The tone is actually set rather darkly (someone almost dies), which is sorta indicative of the tone. However, the scope is totally absent. The romantic tone that perpetrates the majority of the movie is absent. Our Main Character is absent. So yeah, no wonder no one remembers it, because well, it really doesn’t set the story correctly.
Getting it Right: The Little Mermaid Does What Pocahontas Tried to Do.
We open with a chorus singing about “mermaids” on a boat with Prince Eric, which are renounced as “sailor tales.” Eric talks about how he is looking for someone, and he feels she’s just under his nose. Then very quickly (we spend like 1 minute with Eric), go below the ocean where we meet the mythical mermaids. We are introduced to 2 worlds very quickly (scope), as well as characterization of the two main characters. Eric wants something more (tone), and he isn’t stuff like Grim (character). Then we learn that Ariel is irresponsible and kinda the odd daughter out because she failed to show up for her coming out celebration. Tone is established quickly – magical adventure with a dash of romance. We know our characters, and we see their conflict. They are looking for each other, but they belong to separate worlds.
In generalization, Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid open the same way. On a boat, with our Male MC, and a reveal of our Princess who is just a little odd. However, they are weighted differently. We are given a teaser of Eric, where John Smith is introduced as our protagonist. This is implied because we spend so much time with him (and he saves someone). In Pocahontas, we even get our bad guy before we learn of our hero. Our conflict between Smith and Radcliff is established before we even get to “the New World.” We don’t even get to our setting before some crazy, irrelevant stuff happens! Stuff that feels critical (someone almost dies), but it really isn’t.
Yet, in the Little Mermaid, we get straight to the point. We are not confused that Eric is our hero. We just know he exists. The minute time frame gives us just enough foundation to recognize him, but not associate him as our MC. It also function as a set up for in about fifteen minutes, Ariel is gonna be saving him. He’s already planted on a boat.
Not Quite Right: Frozen
Since a lot of our inspiration comes from Frozen, I kinda want to point out that Frozen sorta screws up here. Our opening image is the ice workers, cutting the ice, with some weird song.
While this image sets our tone: cold, and our setting: cold, we don’t really get anything else from it. Our scope isn’t really clear. In fact, the icemen don’t really serve any purpose, except they are where Christoff hails from. And Christoff is a secondary character. This is not his story. We spend 3 minutes of irrelevant mood setting. We don’t even get an idea of scope because, well, I’m not even sure where this scene is. Then, this later poses the odd question of why was Christoff raised by the damn trolls?
Thankfully, we jump right over to Elsa and Anna where we quickly learn about the two sisters, their bond, Elsa’s secret, and we establish the conflict between them. So, it sorta redeems itself. Wish the movie would have just started here…
Johnathan is completely on to something here. (Also, he gets total props for mention my favorite sci-fi show as a pointer.) Openings are important. They are the first impressions of a story, and we all know how strong those can be. And while they aren’t the key factor in something being good or not, it’s a key factor getting audience to watch in the first place.
You know what the most common advice to aspiring writers is? I don’t actually know, it’s probably “just write and stop talking about the eventual movie deal already of your unwritten novel already”.
That makes a rough intro. Hm. Ok, fine, what’s the most important line in a story?
The first line, obviously. I’d bet fake money that every writer you asked would give you the same answer. However, it’s more than just the first line– I can’t recall the first line of any of my favorite novels, except for maybe The Gunslinger. I’m going to say that it’s really all about ‘the first few minutes’.
The first few minutes is a nebulous time. It can be anywhere from the first line of a book, to all of chapter 1, from the teaser of an episode on network TV, to the entire first episode, from the level after the tutorial, to the first thirty minutes of a particularly slow movie. (Aside: You probably should get going if it’s taking that long). It’s that tricky time when the reader/viewer/player sets up their expectations about the world that your story resides in.
I’ll use Dreamkeepers as an example. Dreamkeepers is a graphic novel series and the reason why I didn’t get a post out last week. It currently consists of three books (still ongoing), with new books getting published when the creators feel like they’re ready, and not a moment before.
Also, aside: the first two novels are on the Internet for free, and I think they are worth your time. The Prelude, a (still ongoing) webcomic that is set before the first novel, is also worth your time because it has children acting like children and they aren’t super annoying. How Dave and Liz managed that is a post for another time, I think.
Back to the first few minutes, or the first few pages, in this case. Go over to the website, real quick. Don’t click anything, just look at the first page and come back here.
Back? Great. What kind of website are you expecting to see? We got a raccoon-esque creature, who is probably a protagonist, with a big smile on his face. Lots of bright colors, seems pretty cheery. By the time you click another link, the tone has already been set. You can’t take back that bright, cheery picture. Changing the tone too drastically without cause will generate emotional whiplash, and we don’t even know his name. (Or, to be honest, his gender. But its a he. And his name is Mace.) To change tone at this point would be subverting it– something like a trick opening. You haven’t even been on the website for a minute, and already we’re talking about expectations, what you want out of the website, etc.
This makes a ton of sense– you’ll notice that the website is the primary portal to The Prelude. What does the first page of The Prelude look like?
Bright blue, beaches, chillin’ in hammocks and a bit of slapstick humor. The Prelude is a pretty lighthearted web comic, tone wise. There is a very important distinction here– ThePrelude still deals with some serious material, even adult material. There are darker moments in the comic– the tone doesn’t always have to be bright, happy to go lucky wonderfulness. However, we expect happy endings. Definitely nothing overtly graphic. Probably not even a mention of rape, or racism, or slavery or… the list goes on. There is a limit as to how dark we are willing to let The Prelude be before questioning the ‘new direction’ of the comic, and there are topics that I never expect The Prelude to cover.
But what about the main attraction? The Dreamkeepers graphic novels themselves? Well, what does the first page look like?
Oh. That’s… different. This isn’t going to be the same type of story, is it? I mean, maybe it’ll get subverted and then we’ll establish a lighter tone–
Oh. Guess not. This is three pages in, so we’ve still got a long time before we’ve hit the first few minutes mark, and it is very, very obvious that Dreamkeepers is much, much, much darker than the Prelude. We’ve already seen graphic murder, so almost everything dark is on the table for Dreamkeepers. That being said, now, the other side of the spectrum is off limits. Silly, cartoonish solutions, (very) happy endings… Dreamkeepers can’t go to the realm of say, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny or Space Jam. There is a limit to how bright Dreamkeepers can be.
That being said, Dreamkeepers still employs a bit of slapstick humor and makes jokes. There are bright moments in the comic, it’s not oppressive. However, the first few pages set up other things as well.
What we see first is the most important, we tend to remember it better. For The Prelude, it’s very, very clear that Mace is a protagonist. We’ve got a website title page and a first page of a comic to back it up. Mace is established as important. Also, a chunk of Mace’s character is set in stone. Mace doesn’t care much for school, and is also pretty young. He’s the kind of kid that’ll play hooky, and probably pulls lighthearted pranks. Mace can grow and change over the course of the comic, but that growth and change must be explained by plot and make sense.
There is a page missing from the excerpt of The Dreamkeepers graphic novel that I’m showing here, but I think it’s obvious that the event going on, is kinda a big deal. Things are going down. By book 3, it’s rather apparent that this might be the most important event that has happened in the past three books. It’s going to stick out in your mind.
You better believe graphic novels are not the only form of entertainment to do this. I can pull examples from novels, to movies, to music, to TV…
Oh. You want examples. Bring it.
Babylon 5, a sci-fi TV series that everyone really should watch, spends its first season getting its legs under it. Season 1 of Babylon 5 is not very indicative of the rest of the show in some respects– it’s more campy than later seasons, and the lightest season overall when it comes to tone. However, you know what Midnight on the Firing Line is about? A surprise attack on a research station, which is just one action on a grander scale. We get, in the very first episode, the fact that Babylon 5 is bigger than this station. Even if that sense of scope isn’t really developed until later, the first few minutes promise it. It will come.
Game of Thrones (and, by extension, A Song of Ice and Fire) kills off more main characters than there are flavors of ice cream, and if the Internet is any indication, every time is somehow more surprising and awful than the last. Yet, what are the first few minutes about? Some poor sods getting murdered in a forest, by forces far greater than them.
That’s essentially the entire show/book series, with more murder locations.
Harry Potter opens us with wizards moving a young boy in secret, with JK Rowling showing a mastery of making up words that can only be rivaled by Steven King. This event is due to something bigger than everyone involved, there are hints and expectations of the grand scope the series will eventually embody. But, it’s quirky too– wizards are almost like us, but not quite. The vibrant magical world that Rowling has constructed is poking at the edges, a world you know young Harry will eventually be thrust into. It’s personal as well, with little bits of emotional drama sparkling through the sheer enormity of what has occurred on that night, and a lot of Harry Potter is personal drama.
A whole lot. Like, all the boring parts of book 4.
Why start the book series there? Harry doesn’t remember any of this– why not start him at age 11? Hell, the very next chapter does that fast forward anyway. Because the first few minutes are the most important. If we do start the book at chapter 2, Hagrid’s revel to Harry seems super random, and we’d probably end up siding with the Dursley’s, or something.
“How does any of this relate to Disney?” you ask. Quick check– can you hum the first song from Pocahontas? It happens in the first five minutes of the movie. No. No you can’t, because you don’t remember the first fifteen minutes.
Everything I wrote about the first chapter of Harry Potter? From memory, and I’ll goddamn bet real money that Hagrid sheds a tear at Harry’s departure, and the entire wizarding world is celebrating the death of Lord Voldamort, and McGonagall is sternly against Harry being sent to this particular family (Also, she doesn’t understand how Harry survived). I haven’t read book 1 in so long that I can’t actually remember the act reading it. I remember it contents perfectly fine.
Quick, what are the first fifteen minutes about for Home on the Range? I don’t fucking know. Famine, maybe? Can’t be right… cow snatching? First few minutes of Lion King? Circle of Life! Great song, maybe even the best song in that entire movie. First fifteen minutes of Hunchback? The jester tells his story about Frollo murdering some gypsies, right? I think the song is called The Bells of Notre Dame?
Catching the pattern yet? We’re still in the quick fire round. What’s the most memorable thing about Hunchback? That it has the darkest Disney villian ever. What’s the theme of the Lion King? That we all need to find our destiny and take our place. Scope of the Lion King? Pretty large, like the entire savannah large. That’s pretty much at least a small country. Scope of Circle of Life? Pretty much the same thing. Antagonist of TheHunchback? The priest that killed the family and tried to kill the boy, and locked him in a goddamn tower. Protagonist? Hazier. The misshapen boy locked in the tower? It’s a good guess, we don’t really know.
The first few minutes set up the entire world that your story will reside in.
Now, this isn’t an absolute rule. Nothing, when talking about creativity or story telling, ever is. The Little Mermaid does not, in fact, start with the downward sweeping ocean shot with Allen Menken being all Allen Menken. That where it should have started. It, in fact, starts with some bullshit where prince Eric is on a ship for some reason? Probably being chastised about not marrying anyone yet, but I don’t remember that part of the movie at all. I think there is even a song that I couldn’t whistle for you to save my life.
I still really like The Little Mermaid.
For an example on the other side, Breaking Bad has a great first few minutes. I was totally sold on Breaking Bad fifteen minutes in, the gritty drug dealing world of New Mexico seemed awesome. I spent four hours (four entire hours!) watching the first four episodes of season 1– despite the fact that I didn’t even enjoy it– based on that promise alone. By the end of those four hours I realized I hated every single character and kinda just wanted to set fire to all of New Mexico.
The first few minutes are powerful. It wasn’t until I thought about it that I realized how powerful.
First things first, hello from other other side of our first Disney livetweet! It was a blast, and spawned a 6 hour long, rambling Skype conversation between Shannon and I about Disney movies, fairy tales, structure, writing, plot, etc, which is why we never did watch The Emperror’s New Groove. Sorry about that.
There were far more differences between Mulan and Lilo and Stitch than I was expecting. Chasing the elusive “Disney magic” might be far harder than I first anticipated, and I already thought this was going to be hard. So, oh no, I guess I’ll have to watch more Disney movies. I don’t know if I can bear the strain.
However, I’ll leave the person who actually has a film degree to talk about beats and three act structure and timing, I want to focus on something that both films do have– a point.
I should probably explain.
Shannon has posted in the past that she doesn’t understand what I do with computers in California. She’s actually wrong– I’m currently taking a class analyzing the elements of narrative and story in games (primarily video games). Shannon would rock this class. However, one of the books I read right before our livetweet session, because I had to read it for class, was Invisible Ink, by Brian McDonald.
Brian has a very particular way of looking at how story works, but its rather relevant here because Brian has a background in film and cites movies for almost all of his examples. He spends chapter 1 talking about three act structure, but in chapter 2 he talks about a concept he calls “the armature”.
An armature, in sculpture, is the underlying scaffold that supports the piece. McDonald compares the reason why you’re telling a particular story to this armature, believing that if you don’t have anything to say– no theme, if you will– than your story will fall apart.
He also makes it sound like normal people can’t detect a theme, and only you can after reading his book. I never said he wasn’t a bit stuck up. I also don’t entirely buy into this concept, but you know what two movies do? Mulan and Lilo and Stitch.
Part of Mulan’s theme is all about gender roles. I can only think of one scene (the intro) that doesn’t make a reference to gender in some way, shape or form. From the first song, Mulan is shown subverting gender stereotypes. Every second joke out of Mushu’s mouth is something about men or women. The movie never lets gender go, not even for a second. When Shan-Yu is going to murder a village, what is his symbol for wholesale slaughter? A doll.
Lilo and Stitch‘s theme, like everything in Lilo and Stitch, is harder to nail down. I would say that it’s all about finding a place to belong. Stitch starts the movie with no place in the entire galaxy. He’s a genetic freak, a creature nature never intended. The movie is about Stitch’s quest to find a place to belong. Nani struggles with raising Lilo because she feels that they belong together, even if they aren’t perfect. Lilo acts out when she looses that sense of belonging, with the single minded stubborn focus only a 9 year old can muster.
Stitch eventually finds this special place, and it gives his life meaning, purpose and clarity. It’s that new found meaning that lets him redeem our villains and bring the movie to its thrilling climax.
I totally did not mean to make a sex joke, but there it is. Awkward. At any rate, according to Invisible Ink, there is a check to make sure you aren’t reading to deep into the film when looking for theme (or armature, whatever). If it seems like the theme you’ve found is a constant point that is always brought up throughout the film, than you’re probably on to something.
That’s my opinion, anyway. I gotta get back to reading everything ever written by Hans Christen Andersen.