My Introduction to Film and Television
Whenever watching a film I always try to determine how the filmmakers have created the more imaginative or practically impossible scenes and would always be drawn back to what my Grandad would talk about. He had always been fascinated by films and often talked about how scenes were made or how storylines worked. It was him who really sparked my interest in the film industry, as he always got me thinking about the logistics of how films are made and put together. I would be in awe of Raiders of the Lost Ark, how Indiana Jones was being chased through a claustrophobic tunnel by a large boulder and how they managed not to kill Harrison Ford by making this scene. When watching films I tended to have been more concerned with the actual editing of the film or the cinematography or even the production design and had never really considered the idea of drifting towards working in sound design, which is what university has brought to light. Of course, I still have an interest in the look of a film, but my technical and theoretical knowledge has developed the most in the sound department.
I have also always had an interest in the structure of films; the storytelling aspect of it all, writing and creating the plot and forming characters was always – and is – still highly fascinating. On my laptop there are several unfinished stories that I started but did not have the heart, or patience to finish. I have never seen the thrill of writing long descriptions of fields or sunsets and where I do understand the need for these in novels, I would much prefer to write a brief summary of what the audience should see and then move immediately on to the action. This is when I started writing scripts and was very grateful for the screenwriting modules in first and second year of university.
Coming to university has encouraged me to realise a lot of my creations and has encouraged me to create products in the best way; not necessarily by following the rules of the film industry, “Once you not only know the rules but understand why they exist, it is possible to use a violation of them as a powerful tool,” (Brown, 2013, p. xiv). The prominent reason that I wanted to come to university to study film and television was to give myself an understanding of the industry and to learn the rules of making films, and then break them, should I wish to.
Throughout this paper, I will discuss my love for the film industry and what aspects interest me most about it. There will be a section concentrating on structuring stories which will include discussions of screenwriting and creating a film idea; a section on how sound is something that I have learned at university and how I have used it in previous projects; and there will be a section which will discuss my editing skills and how I have developed these across my university career.
Studying screenwriting on this course for the last two years has proved that before I came to university I was very unaware of the rules that a writer is required to adhere to. Learning that it is quite a strict skill to have has not diminished my interest in writing; if anything, it has enhanced it. A writer must first understand the audience that they are writing for; they must know what the audience wants from a film and how they want to receive it, “Whatever fate a writer envisions for his characters, [Paddy] Cheyefsky knew the writer must also walk in the shoes of the audience which has its own expectations for the characters they care about,” (Suppa, 2006, p. 144). Cheyefsky, addressed the audience’s subconscious expectations with four basic plot questions:
- Who is your main character?
- What does he want?
- What’s keeping him from getting it?
- How does he get it?
He also added a fifth question which relates to the viewers’ expectations:
- What does the audience want from him?
In order to understand what an audience might want from a character, it is important to walk in the character’s shoes whilst asking these five questions. Before university when writing my own scripts and stories out of a hobby rather than anything else, I was unaware of specific question and theories that should influence how a writer structures their story. When writing for an audience, whether it is to be published onto paper or just into an online forum, it should not be something that you want to write only for your own personal pleasure; there has to be significant thought behind it all because, essentially, you are sending it to strangers to be judged, people who are not afraid of telling you what they truly think and it is them who you are ultimately writing for. The rules are primarily in place to help an audience understand the story as viewers have become accustomed to certain styles of storytelling, some which can be likened to Vladimir Propp’s narrative theory which concerns the thirty-one functions, or plot developments, that he identified within Russian folk tales. He also noted the seven broad character archetypes – including the hero, the dispatcher and the villain – that can be identified across various stories. These theories can be applied to many films and screenplays today, most notably George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise, evidencing that this is a very common style of storytelling that audiences have grown fond of.
In order to create something that an audience can enjoy, a writer must first understand the rules, which determine how characters are to respond to certain situations and how a film works in terms of its narrative. However, the fact that there are strict rules in place also means that some writers are going to be inclined to break them: “she will be empowered to employ them [rules] in more interesting ways than are possible than when seeking to adhere to ‘rules’ or a formula above all else,” (Gulino, 2013, p. 11).
Independent films are often thought of as breaking boundaries or not conforming to the style of mainstream Hollywood movies and blockbusters. Independent cinema prides itself on looking at the grittier side of human life; aspects of the world that nobody really sees or thinks to put on a big screen. They are often clever and creative, tending to choose stories that are intricate and delicate rather than boasting and obvious. Some independent productions even choose to move away from having a written script, “through a variety of alternative filmmaking strategies which include improvisation, psychodrama and visual storytelling (Murphy 2010:175-96),” (Nelmes, 2011, p. 158). However those directors of indie films that choose to work with a script tend to write their own rather than working with a screenwriter;
“One reason for this is that indie cinema, like art cinema, tends to be auteur-based, reflecting a desire on the part of the directors to maintain complete artistic control over their productions. Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Andrew Bujalski, for instance, write their own screenplays,” (Nelmes, 2011, p. 158).
Independent cinema, where there is a screenplay present, is known for resisting the kind of storytelling that is well-versed and well-practised. Independent films can be known to have relatively complex narratives due to, “the need for product differentiation, to distinguish the independent product from Hollywood and its adherence to classical norms of storytelling.” (Molloy, 2010, p. 49). One independent film that challenges the need for a story with a common structure is Richard Linklater’s ninety-seven minute Slacker which shows the audience a segment of life in Austin, Texas. This film does not have a standard narrative, or main characters which an audience can get to know; rather it presents several different characters all with different lives and most with strong views on politics and philosophy. Slacker contradicts what a traditional film narrative is and is worlds apart from Hollywood blockbusters that are there to please their audience and make millions of dollars.
Audiences can sometimes be difficult to please, suggesting that independent cinema is solely independent because a large portion of audiences either do not understand or do not find enjoyment in these types of story structure. An audience can also be difficult to impress when writing a screenplay as an adaptation of a novel as the fan base has already been created, developed and nurtured by its beloved author. In order to make the transformation from book to film, lots of significant changes have to be made, sometimes at a great cost to the audience. As screenplays and books are two entirely different mediums of writing, it is more often than not virtually impossible for a screenwriter to adhere directly to the narrative, provoking the title screen ‘This film is based on said author’s book.’ Peter Jackson, as director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy wanted to stay relatively faithful to the books without straying from the narrative or the themes; however, the films are not entirely popular with a lot of the original fans of J.R.R Tolkien’s books. As the first film was on the brink of release, one particular question floated around Tolkien forums and discussions on the Internet: “How faithful would the films be to their un-filmable source?” (Leitch, 2009, p. 145). Certainly there was a lot of interest in how the films would be presented to an audience and fans of the books eagerly awaited their arrival; however, there was a lot of controversy regarding the faithfulness to the books. It needs to be understood by an audience watching an adaptation that films are a very separate artform and in order to translate a novel into a screenplay, many significant changes must occur.
Screenwriting to me, seemed to be one of the more creative aspects of filmmaking as you are ideally kicking off the film and get to decide what happens and how it looks. However, it has become clear to me at university that a writer is under strict time constraints and often has ideas rejected, or changed in order to fit a director’s vision. It is a very difficult aspect of the industry to get into, perhaps more so than any other, because hundreds of thousands of scripts land on producers’ and agents’ desks every day and are often thrown away because they are not formatted correctly, the content is not captivating, or simply because there are too many to go through: “Young writers are always outraged by this, as if wading through stacks of thousands of random scripts is a perfectly efficient way to find your next multi-million dollar investment.” (Gervich, 2014, p.263). It is therefore paramount, that a script is intriguing and captures the reader’s attention instantly, “Screenplays are not written to be great literature. No one curls up at night with a good screenplay. But they are meant to be read […] It is, after all, the writer’s task to put the movie into the reader’s head,” (Suppa, 2006, p. 146). I have never been interested in sending a script to a producer, I feel it would be a waste of my time as well as theirs; however, I would be interested in writing the script for my own film. Already, I have started writing the script for my semester two production, in the hopes that I will be able to direct it. I wanted to convey the main character, Gwendolyn – a type of private detective inspired by Sherlock Holmes – as relatively cold towards new people and unforgiving when she is wronged. This I feel I have achieved through the script as she is harsh towards Mattlock and she immediately sets the boundaries between them, leaving no room for jokes. Below is a sample of the script in which I have addressed the start of the two main characters’ relationship:
EXT. ALLEYWAY. NIGHT
MATTLOCK and WARREN wait by a damp, mossy red-brick wall in silence. MATTLOCK is restless and paces around a few steps. After a few moments, the shadow of a tall female figure steps into the entrance of the alleyway.
Miss Carrioncrow, or Gwen is it? It’s a pleasure to meet you.
(GWENDOLYN interrupts MATTLOCK at ‘pleasure’)
It’s Gwendolyn, Mr. Scarran, if you please.
(Cheerfully, with humour)
I’ll call you Gwen, if you don’t mind.
I do mind, and if you insist on not calling me by my proper name, you can assume that I will not help you.
Fig. 1 ‘Carrioncrow’, 2013 Brittany Holmes, p. 3
Through this script, I have depicted a strong female lead who is unwilling to submit to any man. Strong female leads are becoming more common within mainstream Hollywood films; however, this is still regarded as a relatively independent aspect. The fact that she is strong is clear within this extract as I first describe her as a “tall female figure”. As it is unconventional to have a particularly tall female and not have her identified by this trait, I thought it appropriate for this as it is a steampunk piece. Steampunk as a concept, being a twist on Victorian, is very keen on strong female characters and gender equality. Many members of the steampunk community are females and are often seen wearing top hats and trousers, similar to the men. This is where it is crucial to identify the audience as it is very niche; they are a very particular group of people who communicate mostly online and organise events where everybody can show off their costumes. As an audience, they are rather under represented and the only media that really exists of this is online stories and artwork. Therefore, I think it is very important for this story to be taken seriously and through reading stories already on the internet, I took inspiration for this one.
During my second year at university, I was part of a collaborative group to create a script that was an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As a group, we decided to bring elements of the original story into a contemporary setting and feed them through a writer. The basic principal of this script is that the main character, Edward, a struggling writer who has had one bestseller and is fearing that he is typecast as an author, has started to have dark dreams that he thinks are the perfect material for a novel. Within these dreams he stalks a woman and eventually murders her and it is not until the end of the script that he realises that these dreams are actually real life. This script was a challenge to write as, as a group, we struggled to find the reason why Edward would turn into another person when he apparently slept and it took the first few drafts to establish the type of place in which he lived and was looking for inspiration in: “It helps to be a good observer. Screenwriters often use their everyday experiences to help make their stories more authentic,” (Skog, 2011, p.10). It was clear that the character Edward would need to be absorbed by the world around him and would take ideas from it, supplying us with the idea that he would become fixated with the man in the bar who would provide a scapegoat for the stalking of Mary. Below is an extract from the draft of the script that was my responsibility:
INT. BAR. AFTERNOON
EDWARD walks into the bar and heads straight for a barstool. Surrounding him at the old, grubby tables are loud people, already drunk and wasting their last pennies on every bit of alcohol they can get. He slams his notebook down onto the bar and it slides off the other side, attracting MARY’S attention. He drops his head into his hands, sighing. She finishes serving someone their fifth pint and walks over to EDWARD, standing in front of him. He smiles a little when he sees her, perhaps even blushes ever so slightly.
And what’s up with you today? You were fine last week.
I’ve just seen the Editor. Tells me I have to take a break ‘til I come up with a decent idea. I have plenty of them, but nothing worth writing.
Maybe you’re just lacking inspiration?
There’s plenty of inspiration, can’t you see it? You just have to look around this dump, there are hundreds of stories.
Oh yeah? Like what?
Like that couple there, bet they met last night and now all she wants is to get away and go back home.
(he turns to look at a guy in the corner, mostly hidden by the shadows)
He’s probably the creep who lives next door, when you can hear weird noises coming from his house. Like loud thuds after someone’s screamed.
This was the first description of the bar in which the character Mary works. I tried to merge the action with subtle descriptions of how the bar should look, which may have been less beneficial than writing a few lines of description of the location, followed by the lines of action. In terms of writing, what was written in the script is similar to what would be found in a novel. Scripts are intended to be incredibly straight to the point and to be read to be translated onto the screen, not to be read out of leisure.
Beginning to Listen: Sound Design
From the start of the first year on this Film and Television course, I had an open mind as to what I wanted to work with and how I wanted to explore my creativity. Naturally, the word ‘creative’ points you towards the director, the writer, or even the editor because they contribute directly to the source of the ‘vision’ and what appears on the screen. However, in the second year I was assigned to sound design and realised that however quiet and unassuming this role is, it is also highly creative and requires a lot of intuition and knowledge of the industry. Sound is one aspect of a film that is never really picked up on or commented on positively; it is usually referred to when there is a problem with it, as evidenced by Dakić, “Sound for film is usually meant to integrate many elements together and not draw specific attention to itself,” (2009, p.1). Similarly, during the production process, sound is often overlooked and seen as a nuisance, as reiterated by Jack Solomon in an interview; “You always felt like you were the center of attention because you were holding up production. Whenever there’s a shadow, if it’s the boom man’s fault or not, everybody looks-”It’s him.”.” (LoBrutto, 1994, p.4). It is therefore suggested that the sound operator’s role is to be neither seen nor heard. As a sound operator on set, the main rule is to ensure that the microphone is as close as humanly possible to the source of sound; “With the goal being to get the mic as close to the subject as possible, the boom operator must know exactly where the top of the frame is and have the mic hover just above it.” (Mamer, 2009, p. 237). If there was not a camera there, it would be the simplest of tasks; you would be able to get the microphone as close as they do when recording for radio; however, sound operators find that they must be hidden in all sorts of places, be it under tables, in the foot well of cars or flat on the floor behind a sofa.
Of course, the roles of sound designer and sound operator are vastly different on a professional industry set with the sound designer creating the sounds by working in a studio and editing them into the production later and the sound operator on set being required to work with the sound equipment and ensure that the sound is recorded as cleanly as possible. Good quality sound is essential for the editing process as sound that is distorted, muffled or has noise pollution in it is very difficult to edit together. On my productions, as one person doing the job of a sound crew, I work with the mixer and different types of microphones, including the radio mics and the shotgun mic on the end of a boom pole. This proves to be very difficult as I am also required to mix the sound and so on the most recent project I ensured that I had a member of the crew available to man the boom for me so that my hands were free to mix. Mixing sound on set is considered to be a relatively difficult job because the equipment takes a lot of practice and getting used to. Sound is often not a popular role on the course at this university, whether it is due to the technical skill that it requires or the fact that a lot of people do not consider it to be a very creative role. Over my time at university, I have embraced the technical aspects of the course and ensured that I am competent with all of the equipment. I find that with the sound equipment, it is very logical how the equipment works and how you use it to get the best sound possible. Sound is often seen as quite intimidating as it could go horrifically wrong if one little switch is out of place. This puts a lot of pressure on the sound recordist and could be the main reason why a lot of people are not inclined to choose this role. In regards to the actual shoot, a sound recordist is able to cut the scene if the sound is bad; however, I never liked to do this on set as it disrupts the whole shoot, as supported by Solomon, “I feel the director has the same pair of ears that I have. I won’t cut. I’m going to go to him at the end of the scene and say what he can use and what he can’t.” (LoBrutto, 1994, 10). As shoots are time consuming and have highly strung schedules, it is often a hindrance to make the whole crew stop mid-take and wait for the sound of an ambulance going passed or a drill to stop. More often than not, the visuals are still useful and the sound can be added in post, dependent on the specific shot.
“The mastery of technical and theoretical aspects is paramount to the full realization of sound design, but what will allow you to truly soar as a professional is the level of creativity you can bring forth,” (Sonnenschein, 2001, p.53).
I believe that not many people, be it students or audiences, are aware of the creative elements to sound. Throughout my second year production, I was required to create sounds that suggested something happening off-screen, for example, someone leaving the room and going upstairs. This proved to be quite interesting and was actually quite enjoyable to do. I worked with the editor on this and we created lots of different sounds together, similarly to how Foley is created. For the most recent project that I have worked as sound designer on, I have been required to create a lot of background sounds in terms of wild tracks. For this it was fairly simple, as we had been shooting at the beach, I simply held a microphone close to the waves for a few minutes. However, editing sound is not as simple as recording a wild track and putting it over the top of a video track; you must use different elements, most of which will be originally unrelated to the visual, as emphasised by Sonnenschein, “When creating sound effects for an event, movement, or impact on screen, very often a single realistic sound will not have the full effect,” (2001, p.190). The use of various soundtracks adds depth to a scene and immerses the audience in it more completely. As this most recent project was under the module title of ‘Cinematic Fiction’, it is of paramount importance that the scenes are atmospheric and that an intriguing and suitable soundtrack is created.
As part of my role on this film, with the working title Project Venture, I have been writing and recording various radio broadcasts which will give the audience some context to the world in which the film is set as it is a relatively complicated idea. As the director did not want to give away all of the information about the world because it would simply be too much for an audience to take in, I developed the idea of radio broadcasts which would enlighten the audience to a vague, yet adequate explanation of the setting of the film. I have written these radio broadcasts myself and I am currently recording them. The intention is that they will be edited onto the beginning scene of the film as the main character is walking with determination down a back street and the desired effect is that the audience will have some understanding of what this place is and the conditions in the compound that the people live in.
Sound is indeed a key element of storytelling, and as I mentioned in the section about scriptwriting and narrative, is also crucial to helping an audience understand a story through the style of storytelling that it enhances, “When a sound element is repeated and associated with narrative themes at characters’ transformational stages, they will be escorted with an accumulation of meanings that support the dramatic evolution,” (Sonnenschein, 2001, p.199). Sound enhances a viewer’s experience and in the case of Project Venture, it is key to demonstrating information that would otherwise be difficult to relay to an audience or would be done in such a way that it would spoil the tone of the film. I believe that sound is equally important as the visuals, and I think that despite the fact it is quite an unassuming role, when done well, it is incredibly effective and without it, the visuals would be worth a lot less, unless silence is intended, and therefore sometimes ever more powerful.
Sticking it All Together: Editing
Besides writing scripts, I have always had an interest in editing because to me it was one of the fundamental aspects of creating and telling a story. When writing a script I would tend to see the film in my head and imagine how it would be edited, not by writing down what shots should be included, but just thinking how the scenes would be edited to enhance my writing experience. Editing tends to be regarded as a very individual task where the editor does not make contact with other people for a good few weeks and is locked in a dark room, taking on the duty of putting the film together so that it tells a story that an audience can understand and ultimately enjoy. During my time at secondary school and sixth form, I studied Media Studies and for all modules was required to create a short production in the way of music videos and trailers for films. For this, I wanted some software that was more than Windows Movie Maker and decided to buy Sony Vegas Pro so that I could edit more efficiently. This software works in a very different way to AVID Media Composer, but has a lot of the same tools and I developed my editing skills and knowledge of editing software through this. Below are some screenshots from my Media Studies GCSE projects that I planned, shot and edited myself, albeit on a Sony HandyCam and Sony Vegas software.
When I was appointed editor of the documentary crew in second year, I knew that I had to enhance my editing knowledge further and clarify my technical skills on AVID. At first I struggled with the AVID software, mostly because it took me a while to understand what all the different symbols were on which buttons but after lots of experimenting on rushes that I found in the computer’s system, I soon learned what they were.
During the editing process of our documentary, entitled The City’s Wings and featuring the Street Angels, a Christian organisation who assist people on nights out, I was required to create a story from various shots and interviews that we had achieved. A lot of these shots were difficult to piece together and I had the task of making sense of it all; “Whereas the scriptwriter imagines a script, a documentary film editor; in contrast, has to understand and evaluate already existing sequences; their respective imaginative processes are totally different,” (Grant, 2006, p. xi). During this process, I was able to evaluate the footage and process it all whilst deciding subconsciously what order I saw fit for it to be cut into. As a documentary editor, you have to find a script from various bits of footage that might not otherwise make sense. Of course there is already some sense of an order while shooting and planning, so it is relatively easy to find a natural sequence in something that has been shot in a sometimes confusing way. In order to tell the story that the director wanted, it was essential to present a balanced opinion in regards to religion as this is often a delicate topic and one that many people can easily be offended by if done incorrectly. During the filming process, we attained interviews with some of the members of the organisation and the co-ordinator. The fact that not everybody that we interviewed followed the Christian faith was important and would have to be demonstrated in the documentary and it was paramount that everybody’s opinions were presented fairly, “The balance one should look for is more in the openness, sincerity and coherence of the arguments and opinions,” (Jolliffe, 2006, p.57). This suggests that there is no need to try to present a strictly balanced opinion because this would result in a less than enjoyable and not particularly insightful film. In regards to the ethics of editing a film, as we were filming people in vulnerable situations, it was important for us to also to guard their identities and use their situation at our discretion. This is evident in fig. 5 when I intentionally blurred the face of a young woman who thought she had been spiked and was being helped by the Street Angels. The reason for this was because we did not have her name or her explicit permission to film her and her face was very clear in this shot. When editing a documentary, as I have learned over the past two years at university, you have a lot of the power and it is your decision whether you expose somebody or you do not.
Editing can be a very difficult task and at times I struggled with how to edit particular scenes together because of technical difficulties or because the shot hadn’t quite been achieved as well as it could. The following (see fig. 6) was particularly difficult as it was interesting to the film and demonstrated the wide range of situations that the Street Angels deal with. Within it, a man has hit his head on a wall in a club and is explaining this to the Street Angels; however, as there were no microphones and the camera captured the footage from the other side of the road, there was no audio to match the shots. As the director wanted this scene in the final documentary, I decided to add subtitles over the top of the shots to explain to the audience what had happened. Although unintentional, this resulted in the scene looking slightly more professional as a lot of documentaries that shoot in noisy situations, particularly police shows, struggle with sound and use subtitles to get their point across because the participants involved are not all prepared for a camera.
Editing is a very significant part of the filmmaking process and is often regarded as very precise and intuitive. I think that my skills as an editor are sufficient enough to use in a professional environment and I would consider myself technically savvy. I learned a lot of my editing techniques through constructing my own videos on Sony Vegas Pro and developed a lot of my knowledge from my own practice. University has enhanced this and demonstrated to me that what I know about editing is not inaccurate and that sometimes just knowing that two shots cut together well is significant enough and adheres to rules and theories.
It is true that studying this course at university has provided me with a great insight into how the film industry functions. I have learned how to work effectively in a crew and how to use teamwork and technical skills to my and others’ advantage and I believe I am now well-versed in how the process of making a short film works, whether fictional or fact. I have always been interested in the more creative aspects of creating films, rather than the technical; however, university has brought to light that I am technically capable and I am efficient at working with equipment. I have developed the skill of learning how to use equipment quickly and I find it very easy to pick up the knowledge of using a piece of equipment. I feel that I have achieved my goal for coming to university which was to get a wide scope of knowledge related to each aspect of the film industry; I thought it was important that I sample everything and find what skills I am better suited to. It is through this state of mind that I discovered my skills for sound design when it had never occurred to me as a career path. I believe now that it is a legitimate route that I could take into the industry and I am grateful to the university that I have had that opportunity to learn something I did not expect to discover.
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