My dad brought the book over from the States when he and Mum came over to visit in 2007. The copy is a brown-paged paperback, now with a torn cover and shot binding, the pages no longer hanging together.
It’s one of the best books to and for artists I’ve read. For example:
“If you have the idea that an artist is not a decidedly practical person, get over it.”
Robert Henri (pronounced HEN-RYE) was a prominent voice in New York’s “Ashcan” School of realist painting in the 1920’s and a teacher at the legendary Art Students League of New York. He died in 1929, leaving a legacy of dedication to craft and honesty that saturated American painting in the 20th century. You can view the complete collection of his paintings here.
The Art Spirit addresses itself primarily to painters. Painters have much to teach writers. Just as writers have much to teach dancers. And dancers much to teach cartoonists. And cartoonists gardeners. And gardeners mathematicians, etc.
Henri’s “Betalo, The Dancer”, 1910
Artists, no matter what their gang affiliation, are all in the same classroom. The separation of disciplines is just window dressing. The essentials of making art – the underlying spiritual principles – whether in a bonsai or a ballet, are universal and mature artists borrow methods from other disciplines as easily as enlightened masters borrow from each other’s spiritual practices. It’s only fundamentalists who see a division between music and filmmaking, writing and painting, fencing and calligraphy. I’m not against fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are great for copywriting and branding – and some fundamentalists get rich, you know. But the artist is the one who, when he hears Robert Feynman talk about physics, suddenly understands how to solve that problem with his protagonist in the second act.
I’ve tended to be a screenwriter. I’m stained to the bone in movie-thinking. When Henri talks about “pictures”, I think “moving pictures” and I find his words apply effortlessly well to movies as to canvas. But they are also pointers toward the artistic life, an artist-way of thinking and working with the world. The canvas becomes the world, the world becomes the canvas.
If you’re a painter, illustrator, draftsman, sculptress, The Art Spirit will be of obvious help.
But if you’re an actor, a singer, an editor, a therapist, a matador, it may speak to your process just as directly. If it does, then maybe you and I are friends.
If you’re the Amazon type, you can buy the book here.
Robert Henri, 1897
“When a drawing is tiresome. It may be that the motive is not worth the effort.”
“Art is certainly not a pursuit for anyone who wants to make money. There are ever so many other better ways.”
“It is not easy to know what you like. Most people fool themselves their entire lives through about this.”
“Don’t worry about your originality. You couldn’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.”
“Technique must be solid, positive, but elastic, must not fall into formula, must adapt itself to the idea. And for each new idea there must be new invention special to the expression of that idea and no other.”
“You can’t know too much about composition. That is; the areas you have to fill, their possibilities. But you must, above all, preserve your intense interest in life.”
“When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are still more pages possible.”
The London Screenwriters Festival may well be the biggest and best conference for screenwriters on Earth right now. There used to be a plethora of L.A.-based writerfests – I’ve been to a lot of them – with William Goldman and Syd Field dropping in for a chat, with pitch fests and panels, with lawyers and agents trying to get you damn kids to wise up and patchoulied practitioners of The Artists Way imploring you not to quit five minutes before the miracle. Last month’s Story Expo in Los Angeles is one of the remainders of that legacy and had some great guests (like Syd Field). But the 21st century home of the screenwriter convocations seems to be London.
Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I?
And not just because I’m a screenwriter living in London.
Or because I’m going to be speaking at the London Screenwriters Festival.
I’ll be doing a talk called “8 Sequence Structure: The Screenwriter’s Ultimate Weapon”. I know, I know. It’s a bit flashy, but people are always more likely to attend a talk if they feel like they’re going to get a weapon out of it. You just can’t have too many weapons nowadays.
I’ll be going over the importance of the sequence is story structure – and the 8 sequence paradigm specifically – as taught by Frank Daniel, one of the great screenwriting teachers of the 20th century. Using sequences in screenwriting will get you a lot farther then trying to put together a story with 3 Acts. Relying on a 3 Act Structure to get you through writing a movie is a bit like relying on your knowledge of the alphabet to get you through the writing a novel, or relying on your knowledge of swimming to get you safely back to shore when your boat has capsized in a hurricane, or relying on your knowledge of the Force to hit an exhaust port only two meters wide with your dad trying to kill you. I guess “inadequate” is the word I’m looking for.
I’ll be going into depth – or as much depth as one hour allows – into what a sequence is, how it functions in the story, and the competing theories on why feature films have eight of them. And I’ll try to pass on some of Frank Daniel’s nuggets of wisdom too, as well as some of my own experience using sequence structure to in the Hollywood trenches.
I wanted to put down a few thoughts on this week’s shooting spree in Colorado at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises. I’ll try to put them down freely, without my usual self-obsessed care. But I’ll fail at that. I’m a self-obsessed man from a self-obsessed culture.
In the wake of this tragedy – ha, we know the drill, don’t we? We reflexively use the requisite sound bites: “in the wake of this tragedy”. The cliches come pouring out. Even the accounts of the victims become cliches: “I heard a popping sound”, “He just started shooting”, “I tried to get behind — “, “I saw someone lying on the ground”. It all paints the same spine-tingling picture, a kind of sentimental poetry of violence. But in the wake of this tragedy, the search for answers begins, the national debate begins, and we’ve heard it all before and done it all before. It’s as if the entire country is on autopilot, moving step by step by step through a predetermined media pseudo-grief drill. Attractive people on television will moderate discussions on gun control, on media violence. They will be moving through the same hypnotized routine, repeating scripts, emphasizing talking points. And each player in this mass, nationwide psychodrama will be using the mass murder to further his or her own agenda. There will be talk of “Why?”, “How did it happen?” But that will all be secondary to the pushing of agendas. Silence would be most appropriate, I guess – not a minute of silence, but days of it, a month of silence – a month of contemplation and grief.
We do this, we Americans. We go on sprees. We go on shopping sprees. We go on dieting sprees. We go on exercise sprees. One of the great inaugural American sprees was the mass murder by Charles Whitman, a student at University Of Texas at Austin, not terribly far from my birthplace. In 1966, Whitman killed 16 and wounded 32 more, with a rifle from the top of the university’s bell tower. “Ladybird” Johnson, wife of Lyndon Johnson, President at the time, graduated from the university, as did former First Lady Laura Bush and Mostafa Chamran, a Defense Minister of Iran.
I like violent stories. I write violent stories. I like Macbeth and Clive Barker and the history of medieval torture. I like Lawrence Of Arabia and The Wild Bunch and Dawn Of The Dead and Tom And Jerry. Being immersed in the violent action, then somehow surviving it, surmounting it, analyzing it, seems to give my animal brain a sense of power. And power, or the illusion of power, is what that animal brain craves most of all. To the animal brain, power means all the food, all the sex, and all the years that ever were or could be. The animal brain doesn’t know that these things are impossible to have. The animal brain believes it’s possible to have everything and an infinite supply of everything. The animal brain has faith.
America was founded on this idea that there was an infinite amount of everything and it could all be yours. European settlers arrived in a completely uninhabited land – not a human soul on the whole continent – no, not a single one. The only thing that stood in your way was Mother Nature. And through the power of your own will, vision, courage, faith, you could have anything and everything you wanted. It was all there in front of you in raw form. If you had the talent to shape it, there was nothing that you couldn’t have.
“I can make the world in my own image” is the American Dream. This is the American Tragedy too – the certainty that I am separate from the world. This belief is the prime motivator behind all American civilization. It’s the thing that got Charles Whitman to kill his wife and mother, then head up to the top of the belltower.
This separation of self from the world – the separation of me from nature, separation of me from the spirit, separation of me from my fellow human, separation of me from my self – is what has made America great. You can’t have a world empire without believing that you are separate from the world – superior, or worse maybe, than others. Or that your God is different from other Gods. The American success story is built on two ideas: Glorification of self and objectification of the other.
If I can objectify you, then I can conquer you, I can buy and sell you, I can blow second hand smoke in your face or believe that Likeing your Facebook status is meaningful contact, I can kill, I can ignore science and reason, I can disbelieve my eyes, I can destroy the future of my children, and more with no sense of any consequences. I can believe there is an infinite amount of what I want and that I can have all of it. Any crime becomes possible. And history has shown over and over that objectification of the other goes hand in hand with atrocity whether you’re shooting American Bison from a train, drawing up plans for gas ovens, drone warfare and human enslavemet. Or firing bullets into human-shaped targets in a movie theater.
Japan has for years had a far more violent media culture than the US. Japan brought us “Battle Royale”. In “Battle Royale”, school kids fight to the death on a remote island while the world watches, yet there have been no “Battle Royale” copycat killings. We know that violence in media is not the cause of random acts of senseless violence. We know it’s not the availability of guns either. Truye, Americans own more guns per capita than any other country, but Switzerland and Finland also have a high gun ownership. What Japan, Switzerland and Finland lack is a 300 year old culture celebrating the triumph of the self over its environment. Although this culture, the culture of narcissism, is America’s biggest export and it has begun to deform other cultures, reshaping them in its image.
I do not own a gun and do not ever plan to. But it just doesn’t stack up that the source of American violence is the number of firearms available. I think it’s rather the other way around. The obsession with the inviolable “Me” and dread of “The Other” stokes the desire for guns – and for money, for food, for entertainment, for guarantees of absolute safety, for immortality, for super-heroes who will kill and die in your name – and the more you cling to security and protection, the more insecure and vulnerable you feel.
Already, various special interests are using this latest Colorado shooting to promote their own agendas – as I am probably doing here. It’s unnerving – the stampede to again find enemies, to again and again point to a problem outside the self, the elimination of which will solve everything. As Einstein famously said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.”
But there is no desire to solve the problem. The media conversation that will judder on over the coming weeks will resemble that of a confronted narcissist – heavy on self-justification and blame and really slick sounding. Seeking personal humility and self-honesty and striving for the unity of ourselves with our fellow creatures, our world, our own futures would mean an assault on the fabric of American Civilization – of Western Civilization. And this civilization is well-armed and obsessed and will not be stopped.
Orwell, as usual, describes our situation with pinpoint accuracy. From 1984:
“A world of fear and treachery in torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy, everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. “
In 2001, I wrote the below piece, “X-Women and Hollow Men”, for The Hollywood Reporter, about the explosion of female action heroes at the turn of the 21st century. I post it again here because it’s not available elsewhere online and to add to the discussion of the future of the female action hero. See Social Creature’s post, for example: The Next 21st Centry Superhero Will Be A Chick.
When the article was written, I was convinced we were on the verge of seeing a new generation of female heroes. The first decade of the 21st century, of course, marked a radical shift to a revolutionary conservatism that embraced hierarchy, violence, and a dismantling of law that has always shoved women into the background as property or, at best, as a type of technology for keeping the social structure intact.
I write female heroes, so this issue is important to me. And I have a four year old girl. I want to write a hero for my daughter to be inspired by that’s not just a boy put into a girl’s body. We can be deceived into thinking we’re seeing female heroes – onscreen and in print – and in real life too – when in fact we’re just seeing women playing the parts of men, and receiving great rewards for it. Kathryn Bigelow winning the Best Director Academy Award for “The Hurt Locker”, a movie just as easily made by Ridley Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer, is as clear an indicator of where we are as anything. Jane Campion or Julie Taymor are just not going to win Best Director. Not in this decade anyway. It is a man’s world. The game of success, whether in the entertainment industry or international poltics, is played according to masculine rules and there doesn’t seem to be too much getting around that for the time being. That global cultural truth affects then what stories we will hear. And it seems now to be resulting in that old chestnut of the female action hero who when you get to the heart of it, really is teenage boy’s transgender fantasy.
So here’s the Reporter piece, in full. Have things changed since 2001?
“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” So said John Wayne, epitome of the tough, indomitable Hollywood hero, over fifty years ago. It might have been the rallying cry of the action hero of this past year. The difference being that the new icons of unapologetic toughness are not cowboys or cavalry captains, they are women.
Past decades have given us female action stars, but only sporadically, and when women in movies have had physical prowess equal to a man’s, they have always had to sacrifice something for it. The Bond films have for 35 years featured dangerous female characters–Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), May Day (Grace Jones), all the way back to spike-toed Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). Each one gave the tuxedoed spy a run for his money, and each one was required to die before fade out–usually while suffering a wry Bond quip. Bond kept the power, the women were only borrowing it. Likewise, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Linda Hunt’s Sarah Connor were icons of level-headedness and determination, but at the price of being outcasts, the only sane figures in disintegrating worlds. Female actors have always been prepared and equipped to bring the formidable roles to the screen, but either the audience or the industry–or both–have not.
But in 1999, a leather-clad Carrie Ann Moss, as Trinity, leapt into the air and defied gravity in the opening sequence of “The Matrix”. When she finally landed, kicking the asses of several men in the process, there was nothing in the movies that a guy could do that a girl could not. Trinity was a character equal in all respects to the male hero. More importantly, the film felt no need to explain why she was so or to apologize for it. Neither did the audience. The floodgates opened and the year 2000 has brought a plethora of films featuring physically powerful and unapologetically dangerous women.
One of the first, and most unlikely, films to bring us a new breed of female action star was “Chicken Run” with a cast that was virtually all-female–as well as all-chicken and all-clay. The stop-motion action-adventure of barnyard hens trying to escape becoming chicken pot pies was a feminist remake of that most masculine of WWII classics, “The Great Escape”. Julia Sawahla, Jane Horrocks, and Miranda Richardson, who lent their voices to the film’s principle characters, are all alumnae of the British comedy hit “Absolutely Fabulous”, which set its own feminist standard by celebrating female disfunction as enthusiastically as “Chicken Run” did female adroitness.
Unlike “The Great Escape”, “Chicken Run” allowed some sexual equity by providing three male characters–Mrs. Tweedy’s ineffectual husband, subservient to her that we assume he’s Mrs. Tweedy’s farm hand for the first half of the movie. The second is an old war hero Rooster, lost in memories–or delusions–of past glory. The third–token male romantic lead and token American–is Rocky Rhodes who is a coward and scam artist, played by Mel Gibson at his irresponsible, mercurial best. With feminine support, these men are dragged kicking and screaming into mature action and manage not to disgrace themselves too thoroughly.
“Charlie’s Angels”, an action film about women, by women, and for everybody, has a knockout opening tracking shot that sums up the new place of women in the movies. Moving through a crowded airliner, we are shown the gamut of female roles–a mother, a nun, a little girl, a woman leading a boyfriend into the lavoratory for an encounter, etc. We finally come to rest on a bad-ass L.L. Cool J, who, we learn, is also a woman–the Angel Dylan (Drew Barrymore) in disguise. “Charlie’s Angels” says 1. “A woman can be anything she wants,” and 2. “If you aren’t a girl, you can’t play this game.”
One of the masterstrokes of “Charlie’s Angels” is the casting of its men, which further underscores the power of the three female leads. The male leads are devoid of any macho mythology. Tim Curry is, after all, the world’s most famous transvestite, and Bill Murray played gay performer Bunny Breckinridge in “Ed Wood”. Crispin Glover gave the world Marty McFly’s ineffectual pop in “Back to the Future” and Andy Warhol in “The Doors”. Tom Green is irrepressible in his determination to look like an idiot at all costs. It was precisely this type of casting that let audiences be a part of the game of “Charlie’s Angels”, making it one of the highest grossers of the year. Men enjoyed the joke as much as women. The audience is not just willing to see a world where women take power, they will not settle for less.
In “X-Men”, the dark sister-film of “Charlie’s Angels”, women match the men super-power for super-power and then some. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the terrifying embodiment of masculine rage is presented with a partner in Rogue (Anna Paquin) who, though a mere girl, is equally, perhaps even more dangerous. As in “Charlie’s Angels”, the men are crippled, their power unstable. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) may be the mastermind, but he is also bound to a wheelchair, and his nemesis Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) is brilliant, but twisted by hate. Cyclops (James Marsden), in ruby-quartz glasses day or night, gives the impression of a blind man, and Wolverine is an alcoholic, and bad guy Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) is a pre-verbal barbarian. The X-Women have no such handicaps. Jane Gray (Famke Janssen) has intelligence and the power to move matter, Storm (Halle Berry) is the power of nature, and Rogue steals power from those who would lay a hand on her–which in terms of the story, are men. Shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijin-Stamos) not only refuses to behave like a nice girl, she can, literally, be whoever she wants to be. With it’s most powerful male in a wheelchair, and it’s most powerful female still a teen, the “X-Men” paints a world of men on the way down, while their female counterparts are just getting started.
While the woman-warrior is new to Hollywood movies, in Asia she has been a staple for decades. Since the 1960s Chinese martial arts films have allowed women to retain grace and beauty and while giving them the ability to vanquish scores of foes, male or female, single-handedly. Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” reveals a new world of female action characters by revisiting something very old. “Crouching Tiger” is an entirely female action movie, an epic adventure about a brilliant young woman fighter who seeks greater power by stealing a magical sword. This young genius, Jen (Ziyi Zhang), is caught between the friendship of master swordswoman Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and the evil influence of the witch Jade Fox (played by Chinese action diva Pei-pei Cheng). The two males in the story are essentially supporting characters. One is the love interest, a young warrior who falls for Jen because of her martial prowess. The other is the martial arts master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) whose new dedication to a spiritual life keeps him remote from the central action. The women in “Crouching Tiger” are center the story, and the battles they fight are among the most thrilling ever filmed.
Even a year ago, the prevaling wisdom was that it was difficult for women to carry an entire picture. This year, they seem to have carried most of them single-handedly. In Rod Lurie’s political drama, “The Contender”, Senator Laine (Joan Allen) will not dignify with a response the accusations of the men trying to destroy her reputation. She refuses to play by any rules but her own. Women may not yet feel so empowered in the real world, but perhaps the new brand of movie hero will give them a start.
Occupy Wall Street is almost certainly the most important democratic movement of the 21st century. It has inspired everyone across the political spectrum (Oh, come on. Yes, it has. Don’t be shy, you conservatives. Come on out. You can hate corporate corruption too).
Movies entertain, sure – and entertainment is very important, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – but movies also encourage, spark debate, instruct, inform, and invite us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. You might not have know this. It’s a carefully guarded secret.
Here’s a proposed film festival for Occupy Wall Street protestors around the world and for those inspired by them and even for those not sure yet what side of the fence they’re on – maybe especially for them. Just a few suggestions for your rental queue or your local indy cinema from my list of favorites.
What films would you add? What films help you to envision the world you want to live in? Or warn you away from the one you don’t?
Next month, London will host two key media industry conferences – the venerable London Book Fair and the second outing of Transmedia Next. Storytelling professionals happy to stay in the world of business-as-usual will be attending the London Book Fair. But those who have discovered that business-as-usual doesn’t cut it in the 21st century – who want to stay at the cutting edge of media production – those people will be hitting Transmedia Next.
Transmedia Next is a three-day series of seminars, workshops and exercises aimed at training storytelling professionals in the theory and practice of transmedia storytelling. It is hosted by Seize The Media, with the support of the EU MEDIA Programme. Lance Weiler, Seize The Media’s creative director and chief story architect, unnerved attendees of the Sundance Film Festival with the short film his short film “Pandemic 41.410806, -75.654259”. The film played in conjunction with a transmedia experience accessible to people on the streets of Park City too, and the Sundance crowd got a peek into Weiler’s compelling and intricate storyworld, “Pandemic 1.0” (www.hopeismissing.com).
Lance Weiler’s Pandemic 1.0 short film, shown at Sundance
I spoke with Anita Ondine, transmedia producer and CEO of Seize The Media about transmedia and Transmedia Next. Anita is passionate about educating creatives and producers in the method and vocabulary of transmedia production. She grew up in Australia surrounded by artists and creatives. Her later years took her to law school and then to a series of positions tackling legal issues of technology and intellectual property for major firms. She was a Senior VP at Lehman Brothers in London until 2006 when she decided to pursue filmmaking full time. For her, the transition from finance to film was perfectly natural. She has always been a storyteller, a communicator, and her practical experience in the no-nonsense arena of The City gave her the perfect toolkit to becoming a 21st century producer.
The term “transmedia” is thrown around with ever-increasing frequency, but surprisingly few people, even those in the media industries, have a solid grasp of what it exactly is. “Transmedia” is often confused the old-school term, “multi-media”. Multi-media is the presentation of a story in multiple formats – often repeating the same story in a book version, then a film version, then a game version, etc. Ondine explains that transmedia is a type of storytelling in which the story exists independently of the media used to present it. The story exists before and beyond its appearance in a specific form and each media experience is a limited window onto that larger story. “There are gaps in the storytelling,” Ondine says, “where the audience – or participants as I like to call them – fill in their own experience, through their own imaginations or by supplying content themselves or by actually physically taking part in the story.”
Anita Ondine, Transmedia Producer
Lance Weiler’s “Pandemic” short, which Ondine produced, is only one viewpoint into the Pandemic storyworld. An web of online and real-world content, carefully architected, allows participants to interact with the Pandemic 1.0 storyworld in a variety of ways. It is that careful structuring of the storyworld parameters – its characters, timeline, rules, narrative style – and the orchestrating of the venues by which participants can access it that makes transmedia such a challenging and exciting storytelling arena.
Developing a transmedia storyworld requires forethought and vision. The development and production of a computer game might be a comparable endeavour, but a highly complex transmedia story might have a computer game embedded in it as only one of the numerous experiences available to the participant. And how each of these different experiences interacts with each other and with the ever-evolving participant can be unpredictable. In a transmedia experience, the participants or audience might begin contributing more to the story, changing things in real time, introducing complications and story twists of their own. The story architects must be meticulous in their preparation of the underlying narrative and technological structures supporting the storyworld. Transmedia Next emphasises the preproduction of a transmedia story is as important as the storytelling itself. Though some of the well-tested workflows of 20th century media production still apply, new ways of building a story and offering it to an audience have had to be introduced, often through an R&D process that continues beyond deployment of the story. The world of transmedia storytelling is still in its infancy, a “Wild West” where methods and techniques are still being pioneered and experimentation is the name of the game.
Transmedia Next is a gathering of professionals who already have a solid grounding in their own creative arenas – design, writing, finance, production, and this is one of its features that most excites Anita Ondine. The conversation that develops among these gathered professionals can be as enlightening as the seminars themselves. Transmedia Next participants are reminded that they are as vital a part of the learning process as Ondine and the rest of the seminar leaders. Characteristic of a transmedia experience, attendees move out of the realm of passive observer to active participant, discovering insights and methods that a single artist might have never arrived at on his or her own.
Ondine is eager to help people discover how transmedia stories can both creatively financed and produce profits. Because transmedia has such a wide reach in terms of the demographic of its participants, as well as a variety of venues in which it might be encountered, it has a potential for many different kinds of revenue streams. Typical of the digital age, revenue generated by transmedia projects tends to be non-linear with multiple types of revenue potential, from the old media model of volume and unit selling to a whole salad of options including subscriptions, sponsorship, ad sales, and franchises. Ondine says, “Transmedia is about the experience. That’s what makes it unique. You’re not restricted to moving units. The income can come from selling experiences.” And certainly, there is no limit to what can be experienced. The transmedia income model calls for as much creative vision as the transmedia story architecture.
This year’s Transmedia Next will again feature Anita Ondine and Lance Weiler. Joining them again this year will be Inga von Staden, Berlin-based media architect, educator for 21st century media creatives. She has published and lectured widely on technology-enhanced media and brings an intellectual rigor and years of experience to the seminars. New on the Transmedia Next team this year is Jonathan Marshall, who has been a lead technical strategist for the BBC’s interactive TV initiatives and is CTO of Social Television at SlipStream. His work for the BBC also won him a BAFTA.
Transmedia Next takes place 12th – 14th April, 2011 in London. For more information go to TransmediaNext.com or email sam [at] transmedianext.com.
I first saw The Valley Of Gwangi in 1973 or 1974, well after its 1969 release. I was about 5 or 6. It remained my absolute favourite film of all time until I saw Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) a year or two later.
I went on a summer afternoon. My older brother took me. Sean was my advisor in all things marvellous and adventuresome, and it’s possible that, were it not for his influence, I’d be an accountant at some fertilizer company, rather than day-in, day-out trying to build castles in the sky – or outer space – and make a living in them.
We lived in Minot, North Dakota then, Minot Air Force Base, a main base for the Strategic Air Command’s B-52 deterrent. A cold, cold place in a cold, cold war. My dad’s day job was to fly in the belly of a B-52 across the Pacific Ocean to the Soviet Union, say hi, hang a louie, and then return home – ideally without receiving orders to continue into the Asian continent toward targets whose names were conveniently located in the seatback pocket in front of him (a seatback pocket with a couple padlocks on it, of course). Yes, just like in Dr. Strangelove (1964). In those days, the USSR and the USA had both made a commitment to send the planet back to the prehistoric era, providing certain eventualities came into being.
While my dad plowed the skies in a bomber heavy with thermonuclear weapons, I was hitting the peak of dino-fever. Dino-fever is like chicken pox – almost every child catches it. If you don’t manage to catch it until you’re an adult, well, it can be quite dangerous and cause you to develop weirdness. I caught it early, but have never recovered from it. The world of the early 1970′s conspired to make my dinosaur baptism vivid and indelible. It was at this same time that National Geographic published a set of four high-quality hardback children’s books. One of them was simply called “Dinosaurs” – the others in the set were about killer whales or spiders or some stupid thing. The book featured dramatic prose descriptions of Mesozoic life, illustrated by paintings done by National Geographic veterans. It was the time of the Sinclair Oil dinosaur – ubiquitous in the American prairie states. And it seemed so marvellous to me at 5 years old that something as serious and grown-up as gasoline station should fly high a brontosaurus mascot. And it was the time – oh, most marvellously – of Aurora’s “Prehistoric Scenes” model kits. Aurora’s scarlet-plastic Pteranodon model, featuring an optional torn wing for super-realistic dino-combat, was the first of many of those kits that I longed for and collected and fussed over and played with until they were plastic shrapnel.
Comic book ad for the drool-worthy Prehistoric Scenes model kits
I suppose the screening must have been a special kids show at the base theatre. We walked there over baked brown grass under a sky cross-hatched with vapour trails and punctuated with sonic booms. I insisted on calling the movie “The Valley of THE Gwangi”. He wasn’t just any Gwangi, he was THE Gwangi. And maybe I thought it scanned better than “The Valley Of Gwangi”. Kids make music naturally, and dinosaur movie titles have always been the best playground for the poetic alchemy of childhood – “The VAL-ley OF the GWAN-gi”. Gwangi was majestic and eternal – he deserved poetry. I think I called it “The Valley Of The Gwangi” until I was confronted with seeing the original movie poster in my mid-20′s and just couldn’t for the life of me find a second article in there.
Cowboys and dinosaurs. There could have been no better movie experience in heaven or earth. When you’re very young, you’re inclined to swallow everything you see onscreen, but Ray Harryhausen’s prehistoric beasts seemed to me – even at that young age – TRUE. I had the thought “Yes. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly the way dinosaurs are supposed to look and move and sound.” Of course, in reality, it’s not. Harryhausen’s dinosaurs don’t really even match the paleontological knowledge of the day. In fact, during production, there was even a certain amount of vagueness over whether Gwangi was a Tyrannosaurus Rex or an Allosaurus. But the dinosaurs in Gwangi seemed to correspond to what was in my imagination, and that is always the most important thing in filmmaking – reality not as it really is, but how we deeply believe it is. Ray Harryhausen’s creations weren’t lumbering, walnut-brained juggernauts. They lived, they burned. They were hungry. Even the choice of making Gwangi’s skin color a deep indigo gave him an extra edge, a uniqueness, a personality.
That The Valley Of Gwangi appears to be a remake of King Kong (1933) should be no surprise considering the film was originally a project by Ray Harryhausen’s spiritual forerunner, the special effects genius Willis O’Brien, who created all the ground-breaking effect for King Kong. Willis’s original idea had cowboys finding dinosaurs in the Grand Canyon, rather than the semi-mythical Mexican wasteland in the final film. Willis O’Brien didn’t live to see the completion of Gwangi.
The Valley Of Gwangi was filmed in Spain and a certain European flavour rubbed off on the movie. The old gypsy crone and her dwarf son are elements out of the Old World, quite bizarre in a Mexican setting and Gwangi’s appearance in a bull-ring carnival show, which also features an elephant, definitely doesn’t feel like Mexico.
The film’s conclusion, featuring Gwangi hunting down our heroes inside a cathedral – not to mention the finale of his spectacular, operatic demise by fire – is among the best endings of any monster movie ever made. And the symbolism of the church against an ancient dragon certainly comes out of Old World Catholicism.
The Valley Of Gwangi was THE dinosaur film until Spielberg’s monster-masterpiece Jurassic Park (1993). Perversely, I avoided Jurassic Park when it was released. I finally saw it projected, almost a year later, at the New Beverly Cinema in L.A. The New Beverly is beloved. It’s a beautiful old temple. But state-of-the-art viewing experience is not what comes to mind when you think about filmgoing at the New Bev. I was knocked out by Jurassic Park, even on the coke-splashed screen at the New Bev, with its inferior sound system and seats like something out of a WWII-era cargo plane. But I bought the deluxe CAV laserdisc set soon after and watched the movie relentlessly.
Spielberg directly lifts Gwangi’s introductory scene moment for moment in Jurassic Park. In The Valley Of Gwangi, the cowboy explorers are chasing an Ornitholestes – indistinguishable, in movie terms, from Jurassic Park’s Gallimimus – and suddenly the film’s eponymous carnivore pops out of nowhere and snatches the fleet-footed animal up in its jaws. Our first daylight glimpse of Jurassic Park’s Tyrannosaurus Rex mimics the moment beautifully, with the T. Rex bursting into the open and snatching up a Gallimimus.
What perverse inner quirk – like a chip on my shoulder – kept me from seeing Jurassic Park when it came out? That movie had been made for me and there was no doubt that it was going to deliver the Mesozoic goods. I can only guess that I couldn’t bring myself to let go of Gwangi, my first great love.
One last “Gwangi” confession: When I was a teen, and a rabid gamer, I ran a Boot Hill “Valley Of Gwangi” adventure. Boot Hill was TSR’s Wild West pen & paper role playing game. I firmly believe I am the only person alive to have run a Boot Hill “Valley Of The Gwangi” RPG adventure.
Spielberg's homage to The Valley Of Gwangi in Jurassic Park
(article originally appeared on screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, September 2010)
When a civilian meets a screenwriter, usually the second thing they say is, “Oh, so you write all the dialogue then?” (first thing is “Have you written anything I would’ve seen?”) .
James Goldman (who can write circles around his brother William as far as I’m concerned) notes in his introduction to the published script of Robin and Marian (1976) that most people suppose that the actors and director make the movie up as they go and that, at best, a writer offers them the occasional choice zinger. They don’t know that a movie is written, that before anything else happens, a movie must be written – even if it’s Mike Leigh improvising and devising a film from the ground up – it iswritten.
Dialogue is the poster child of screenplay writing. It is literally the first thing people look at in a screenplay. No matter how well your scenes are constructed, no matter how electrifying your transitions, no matter how artful your conflicts, hand anyone a finished screenplay and they will always, always flip through to glance at the dialogue.
If there long great chunks of dialogue they may even hand it back to you and say, “I’m sorry, Mr Tarantino. It’s too talky.”
If there’s no dialogue on the page at all, if you’ve written a masterpiece of pure cinema, their shoulders will sag and the script will fall from their hands as they lose all hope, anticipating the African Queen-style slog ahead in which they actually have to imagine what is happening, rather than being able to speed along through pages of fluffy white dialogue like some agent skiing down the slopes at Vale – or if the reader is European, wherever European agents go skiing.
Do European agents go skiing?
Dialogue in a script, on the page, is very different from dialogue onscreen. In fact, they are two distinctly different animals involving entirely different sets of brain functions both in the creation and in the reception. Just as “He blows out the match / CUT TO / The sun rises.” will never convey the visceral effect of the famous sequence transition in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), reading their exchanges on paper about foot massages and their boss’s girlfriend just isn’t going to have the same effect as seeing the whole scene play out in real time in Pulp Fiction (1994).
Dialogue is just one more co-equivalent element of scene construction. Because we are all “doing dialogue” with each other every day, using it as our principle means of communication, the importance of dialogue for the screenwriter is always in danger of being underestimated.
When we step back and look at it coolly and honestly – and in the context of actual filmmaking, not as a type of writing on a script page – it is only another sound effect onscreen.
I hear some of you clearing throats uncomfortably, others grunting suspiciously, others saying “Get stuffed” aggressively, but I say again, dialogue is only another sound effect onscreen. The words we write in screenplay dialogue formatting are only notations for trained technicians, actors, to produce the proper sound effects to convey meaning to the audience. We have to be reminded – at least I do – that dialogue is far from essential in the telling of a film story. Brando could say more with a grunt than most other actors could with a page of dialogue. In fact, in On the Waterfront (1954) Kazan obliterates the dialogue in a pivotal scene between Brando and Eva Marie Saint with a deafening steam whistle effect. We see his lips moving and her horrified reaction but hear only the shriek of the whistle – far more effective than if we had heard the dialogue, even from one of the greatest actors in the world.
Dialogue – or verbally-manufactured sound design (okay, okay, you get it) – is the least efficient way of conveying information in a scene but it is easy and plays on the page much more effectively than a series of shots and transitions which, at least at most writers’ skill levels, are hard to make as effective. Dialogue on a page communicates directly with the reader; they can hear it in their head without having to do any imaginative translation. So what do we do? Write for the reader or write for the movie we’re trying to make?
How we write dialogue – the pace of it, the style, the punctuation – and how we use it to get a script made or even represented, is unique to each writer’s ear and aesthetic preferences. That is one of the great delights of reading/hearing good dialogue when one can really taste the unique flavour of each writer’s voice as it manifests itself in a character.
I try to stick to, cling to, the idea that dialogue is just another sound effect. I try to tell a story only with moving images, for which the sound track is just a means of providing depth and weight. I will sometimes try to write a scene forbidding myself dialogue of any kind and am often then forced – after long descriptions of the scenery and props and costume – into moving characters into action rather than blowing it all with yet another dialogue exchange over a dinner table.
Of course, I’m very lazy and have ended up being notorious for extremely long dialogue scenes and – worse – long monologues. I have only a limited ability to practice what I preach, it would seem.
There are no unbreakable rules for writing dialogue. Playing the “less is more” card is a cop out. Some of my favourite movies are saturated with heavy dialogue. However, treating dialogue as “just one more sound effect” can help force you to ask why exactly you are putting dialogue in a scene and ‘to hear these two characters sing a beautiful duet’ is a perfectly good reason, as far as I’m concerned.
When you study the Quentin Tarantino arias, for example, you quickly realize that they are not about gangsters saying witty things. In fact, they are gorgeous polished gems of suspense in which dialogue plays only a supporting role. The most important part of the long Jules/Vincent opening conversation in Pulp Fiction is a single line of dialogue: ‘We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.’ After that ominous set up Quentin’s characters can go on and on about anything they want. Danger is clearly communicated, and so we are hooked, and we will listen to anything he throws at us until that danger is resolved. The secret to his dialogue is not contained in the dialogue tab of his screenplay. It’s in the structure of the scene, the planting and payoff. It’s so clear and threatening that a rock-solid platform is built for him to then write all the virtuoso dialogue he wants.
All the embarrassing imitations that Tarantino has inspired would do well to remember that dialogue is just another sound effect, and that it is the other elements of a scene and how they fit together that determine whether that sound will be music or just more noise.
I heard a rumor – and I always believe rumors – about the cab scene in On The Waterfront, one of the greatest dialogue scenes in movies. The original script called for Brando’s Terry to respond to his brother’s threats with a substantial chunk of dialogue. But in the end, Brando just said: “Wow.”
The term “transmedia” seems to have originated in 1991 with Marsha Kinder, the critical studies dynamo of USC’s cinema school. When I was at USC, cinema students were divided into two theoretical camps. You were either a Marsha Kinder devotee (European, experimental, theoretical cinema) or a Drew Casper devotee (classic American cinema with big movie stars). And I have to say it was Drew Casper for me at the time. But I was young and narrow-minded. Today it would be Marsha though, definitely.
MIT gave “transmedia” its seal of approval in 2003, when Henry Jenkins – also a USC media professor now – wrote his game-changing article “Transmedia Storytelling”. I’ve always thought that knowing the names of things is one of the differences between an amateur and a professional. But the terminology is still flux when it comes to 21st century media. We’re making this stuff up as we go, and it will take some time to get our toolboxes properly organised. In the present Tower Of Digi-Babel ruckus, some people say, “transmedia”, some “crossmedia”, some “media 360”. Me, I say “full spectrum media”. Richard Wagner said “Gesamtkunstwerk”. And people in 1999 said “new media”.
The key feature that distinguishes true transmedia from stories presented discretely in traditional formats is that in transmedia, the story exists before and beyond its appearance in a specific form. I’d like to think that the pen & paper role-playing games of yesteryear were one of the first truly transmedial entertainments, where characters, places, monsters and events are assumed to already exist and the stories experienced and told by players are spin-offs and riffs on the already existing world. Some of the major science fiction franchises too have offered up stories, characters and worlds that appear transmedially, as children of the original universe. But we are still in the Wild West phase of transmedial storytelling and transmedia is yet to fully stand on its own two – or three or four or twelve – feet.
Last September, I attended one of the most important conferences of the year for European media professionals – Transmedia Next. The three-day event took place in London – in a lovely Thames-side corporate building, halfway between the Tate Britain and the Houses Of Parliament – and was hosted by transmedia pioneers Seize The Media. It featured lectures, discussions and exercises facilitated by a full spectrum of transmedia expertise – Seize The Media’s CEO Anita Ondine, the company’s Chief Technical Architect David Beard, and its award-winning Story Architect Lance Weiler.
Providing intellectual backbone to the Transmedia Next conference was media expert and educator, Inga von Staden. She is director of the Interactive Media programme at Berlin’s Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg and also directs the MEDIA training program at the Media Business School, Spain. She works first-hand with visionary creatives who are in the process of inventing 21st century media. She has been a guiding force in moving them forward and has, as often, learned from them what transmedia really can do.
I had the good fortune to interview Inga von Staden about her work and the past, present and future of 21st century media:
Inga von Staden
NEAL ROMANEK: So how do you answer when someone asks you “What IS transmedia?”
INGA VON STADEN: I tell them it is one of several terms used in the converging media landscape. “Transmedia” was coined by Jenkins (and Kinder—NR) focusing on a story to take the user through different media platforms. The other terms currently in use are “crossmedia” which was coined by the advertising industry, referring to integrated, cross-platform campaigns. And there’s also “360Degrees” which refers to a theme playing out across a multitude of platforms and also includes factual content that may be less story-driven than fiction. 360Degrees is quite popular term in the European media industries.
NEAL ROMANEK: You started out as a filmmaker. How did you get to where you are now?
INGA VON STADEN: I began working in television and film productions in 1987. In 1995 I migrated into games and internet development as a conceptor and project manager. Then I worked as a consultant for the media industries from 1999 to 2008 helping with the paradigm shift from analogue to digital. My clients were print publishers, tv broadcasters, and also the film industry.
The more I worked with these companies, the more I became aware that there were too few professionals who could do the work that converging media implied. So in a lecture I gave at the Bertelsmann Association in 2000, I proposed we change our narrowly focused film education to a wide media education to create professionals who develop and produce content for all media platforms. My proposal was not particularly well-received at the time. But ten years later the director of my film school wrote in the school’s studies guide: “360Degrees is the new magic term.” I do not really think it is magic, but I do think it is a very sensible approach to the media business.
In 2002 I set up Germany’s first European MEDIA programme, “The Academy of Converging Media”, training authors and designers to think transmedially. And I wrote the first national studies on digital cinema for the German Film Fund in 2002 and 2003 . Today I run a four-year diploma studies programme at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg (www.filmakademie.de) dedicated to 360Degree Media. Our students are trained to work as transmedia producers and transmedia content directors.
Now, apart from giving lectures at conferences, hosting seminars and directing the studies program mentioned above, I coach interdisciplinary teams through the transmedial development process. It is very stressful to be suddenly doing what you have always done your way with others who do it their way. We see this even when we bring together students from different departments or schools in our Content Labs. But the innovative force that is unleashed once the communication and methodology have been practiced is simply amazing.
NEAL ROMANEK: And you became involved in Transmedia Next how?
INGA VON STADEN: For the Transmedia Next conference, I was contacted by Anita Ondine, who had heard of me through European MEDIA training programs on converging media.
NEAL ROMANEK: So is there any going back to the traditional, 20th century way of doing things for you? Or do you see yourself now permanently operating in a multi-platform world?
INGA VON STADEN: Once I began seeing ideas, stories and themes through the transmedial lense, I found it very hard not to make transmedial suggestions when involved in a development process.
NEAL ROMANEK: What are the most difficult parts of the creative process in constructing transmedia material? What are the unique challenges that are not present in producing other content?
INGA VON STADEN: To go transmedial means you have to allow for a pre-development. In other words, before you develop a format – a film, a game, etc. – you must first develop the story universe that will be the foundation on which all the different media formats will be based. This concept of pre-development is not usually taken into consideration in the development process of content. Or in the budgets for the development process. Furthermore, you have to change the process to be less linear. Transmedia is much too complex to be designed by just one person. It is a team-oriented pool process. The producer needs to bring in other disciplines to participate through the entire development process – a technical director, for example, and a community manager. And the content director needs to be educated in all media formats to understand the input they’re getting from the different team members.
Transmedial projects tend to become very big and complex. The art is to allow for all the possibilities that transmedial thinking can offer to come into the brainstorming sessions at the same time, and to structure the development process along a commonly accepted methodology, ie the “content onion” by Raimo Lang (YLE). You have to consolidate the content into an operative idea – the creative kernel – and from there build the red thread through that story universe the team has designed. The art is to keep it simple.
NEAL ROMANEK: How is today’s transmedia different from past efforts at presenting a story across multiple platforms? How does it differ, say, from what Walt Disney was doing with simpler technologies 50 years ago?
INGA VON STADEN: Transmedia is more than just crossmedial distribution. Transmedia is understanding an story or theme to be more than just a film or game or an app. It is about the notation of the story universe that an author has in his head as he writes a story. By exposing that story universe, the team members and co-production partners can share in it and become part of the creative process. They can collaborate to design a media architecture that will take that idea or story or theme across different platforms. This is not about a film going onto the internet or a character being merchandised, though that could certainly be part of the design. It is about understanding what part of the idea, story or theme plays best where and how the different media formats are interlinked, via “rabbit holes”, portholes into the various spaces within the story universe. Simple examples are having the main plot of a story happen in a TV-series and different sub-plots staged on the Internet. Another example might be opening up spaces in the story universe to users who will create user-generated media to feed into the overall content.
NEAL ROMANEK: Whenever I talk to producers about transmedia, there often seems to be the same response – and said with quite a lot of confidence: “There isn’t any good way to make money from it”.
INGA VON STADEN: Transmedia is more expensive than “simply” making a film, game, app, or building a community. But each format in a transmedial architecture will be cheaper than if it had been produced on its own. You create synergies, production resources that can be reused and reconfigured. So rather than making 5 films for the sum of X, you are creating 5 different formats for the sum of X minus Synergy.
And furthermore we are seeing film producers having an increasingly hard time to come up pre-financing. So thinking transmedially, you can create content that feeds into another platform and then cross-finance your film with those revenues.
There is no one business model. There are many business models out there. Each media platform has its models for making money. They would otherwise not exist. Now you will probably not be making money by uploading your film to YouTube – a film does economically much better in a cinema, on DVD or VoD-platform. But you may make money selling elements of your story universe on a pay-per-item basis and collecting micro payments from an online community. A transmedial producer must creatively combine the financing and revenue models out there to come up with a project’s very own business model. I call it the transmedial business mash-up model.
NEAL ROMANEK: What is the biggest potential growth area for transmedia? Entertainment? Marketing? Education? And where is the best transmedia work being done today?
INGA VON STADEN: Transmedia will most likely be making its big money with entertainment as most media does. But we are currently seeing the most interesting projects come up in the factual realm born out of the necessity of documentary film companies to find new business models in order to survive. Examples are “Prison Valley” or “The Galata Bridge”. And we have seen transmedia happen for years already in children’s media. Kids find it so easy to surf a story environment on different platforms.
NEAL ROMANEK: I feel like transmedia now is in the same place as movies were in the 20th century. Movies imitated past popular media, like novels and theatre. A lot of transmedia seems to imitate movies. How do we get away from imitating movies?
INGA VON STADEN: You soon become more creative than simply emulating the movies if you bring in different disciplines into your creative team. A game designer has a very different approach to content, as does a designer of apps or a builder of communities. Take a look at the great work Dr. Randy Pausch (creator of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University) did with his “Building Virtual Worlds” class.
NEAL ROMANEK: How can transmedia creators help each other?
INGA VON STADEN: Share experience and build a body of professional knowledge! That is the only way we can all begin making interesting projects and earn a living with them.
(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, July 2010)
I stepped out of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999) onto the sidewalk in front of Mann’s Chinese, the second screening of opening day. As I stood there, arranging the debriefing session with my fellowgeeks, an awful thought kept surfacing -like a Dia Nogu’s eyeball. I thought…I thought, well…maybe I hadn’t enjoyed George Lucas’ long-awaited return as much as I should have. I had “a bad feeling”.
But you can’t just say you have “a bad feeling” if you’re serious about studying and making movies. If you don’t like something, you need to find out exactly why. We had looked forward to the return of the Star Wars saga for years, anticipating how wonderful it was going to be. It was not wonderful. Why?
The Phantom Menace is by no means entirely lousy. In fact, despite how universally the film is disparaged, it is not the worst Star Wars movie. The worst Star Wars movie is Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones (2002). Some of the film’s design is superb. Darth Maul – an exquisite cross between a predatory animal and a demonic monk – is one of the best character designs in all of Star Wars, and the final duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is one of the best action scenes of the entire saga.
Darth Maul, beautiful & inconsequential
So what is the key failing of The Phantom Menace? It’s not the awful dialogue, which isn’t, on the whole, much worse than in any of the other Star Wars movies, discounting the babblings of the reprehensible Jar Jar Binks. It’s not Jar Jar himself either that destroys the movie. We would like to lay all the blame on Jar Jar: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for Jar Jar, TPM would be pretty good.’ No. No, it wouldn’t. And it’s not the performances either – though, it’s true, most of them are shockingly strangled and lifeless.
The central flaw is, as usual, a script problem, and it’s such a fundamental script problem that no amount of clever, high-tech decoration can disguise it.
In trying to sleuth out exactly why a story doesn’t work, it’s good to put it up next to a story that you know does work. The original Lucas masterpiece, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) – which I always call simply “Star Wars”, and so should you – is held up as a paragon of solid script structure, and for good reason. Its simplicity and clarity makes it easy to analyse and understand and, furthermore, it’s a movie everyone has seen, which makes it easy to talk about. It’s also one of the most successful entertainments in history so there ought to be some value in studying it carefully.
When we put the script for The Phantom Menace side by side with the script from Star Wars, one feature distinguishes them from each other more than any other, an element triumphantly strong in one film, almost laughably weak in the other. The stakes. The real difference between the beloved 1977 original film and The Phantom Menace and the reason for latter’s failure is the height of the stakes for the characters.
High stakes are essential to telling a good story. “High stakes” doesn’t have to mean the threat of a bomb exploding in five minutes. A teen’s parents coming home in five minutes is more than enough to put us on the edge of our seats. It isn’t threats of physical torment that determine high stakes either – simply missing a bus can be the most devastating moment in a character’s life.
What determines the height of the stakes is how far apart the poles are of success and failure, as well as the character’s depth of commitment to achieving success. There is little middle ground in the best stories. In the movies we love, a character may strive for great success but the penalties for failure are equally great. The best stories not only have a Devil, they have a Deep Blue Sea.
In the greatest sports movies, for example, the stakes are rarely about whether or not the character will win. The character’s desire to win is usually paired with a penalty for failure that is psychologically catastrophic. In Chariots of Fire (1981), Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell certainly want to win but the tension of the story comes from their utter commitment to their calling, their commitment to their true selves. It goes beyond a desire to win a race. These men have left themselves no room to retreat; they are committed to an idea of themselves and of their futures. The genius of the Chariots of Fire script is that its climax hinges on the characters’ even greater commitment to personal honour and mutual respect, which is far greater than the desire for a medal.
It’s easy to think that death is the worst thing that could happen to a character. In the world of flesh and blood, this may or may not be true, but movies exist in the world of emotion. And an emotional catastrophe – one that is going to be communicated to the audience – can take a million forms and will almost always be more violent than any physical slaughter.
So back to our two Star Wars movies. Let’s take the five main characters from each film and examine the stakes each character faces -what action is asked of each character and what are the penalties of failure?
In Star Wars:
LUKE must deliver R2D2 safely into the hands of the rebellion. If he fails, the fully-operational Death Star will mean the end of the rebellion – and of galactic freedom.
DARTH VADER must retrieve the stolen Death Star plans and learn the location of the secret rebel base. If he fails, the rebels could destroy the Death Star and cripple the power of the Empire, and he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Emperor.
HAN SOLO must pay back Jabba The Hutt. If he fails, he will be a fugitive, fleeing bounty hunters and ruthless gangsters for the rest of his life (wonderfully, he does fail in order that the other characters may succeed).
PRINCESS LEIA must retrieve the plans for her fellow rebels. If she fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.
OBI-WAN KENOBI must get the plans safely to the rebels. If he fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.
Looking at The Phantom Menace, we see a different picture:
QUI-GON JINN must negotiate a peace between the Trade Federation and the Naboo. If he fails, the Trade Federation may take over the planet Naboo. Never really clear why this would be a terrible thing.
QUEEN AMIDALA must stop the Trade Federation from dominating her planet, it would seem. If she fails she will no longer rule – and someone else will, I guess.
DARTH SIDIOUS must make Queen Amidala sign a treaty with the Trade Federation. If he fails, the status quo will probably continue.
ANAKIN SKYWALKER must increase his understanding of The Force and return to Tatooine to free his mother and the slaves. If he fails, he will have broken his promise to his mother. (note that he does fail, with no real consequences to anyone, including himself)
JAR-JAR must do what he can to help Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. If he fails, it’s doubtful the Jedis’ mission would be negatively affected and the status quo will continue.
The lack of consistent high stakes in The Phantom Menace is the movie’s main flaw. Almost across the board, the price of a character’s failing is simply that the status quo will continue or the slack will be picked up by some other character.
In Star Wars, the few main characters are the only people in the galaxy who can pull off the necessary task to resolve the conflict. In The Phantom Menace, few characters are really essential. We might wonder, for example, if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were cut from the story altogether, if anything might have changed? I tend to doubt it. The Trade Federation probably still would have invaded and Amidala would have had to lead some kind of armed resistance in the Third Act with or without their help.
If Anakin – who will become one of the most famous characters in movies – had never appeared in the film, would there have been any alteration in the story? Not likely. Apart from the destruction of the Trade Federation command ship – a lucky accident – Anakin is superfluous to the story. And two Jedi Knights who are supposed to be expert negotiators can certainly drum up spare parts for their ship without resorting to gambling on the life of a child.
The Phantom Villain of the movie, Darth Sidious, who is manipulating the Trade Federation, makes many villainous pronouncements but for no clearly discernible purpose. We have no reason to think he would sleep any worse for not making them.
Compare that to Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin’s predicament in Star Wars, where the Emperor himself is counting on Tarkin and his armoured bulldog to solve the problem – and fast. And it is a big problem. The secret plans for the keystone of the Empire’s new military strategy are flitting around the galaxy somewhere, possibly in the hands of the very people they are trying to crush.
"I'm taking an awful risk, Vader."
It’s been said over and over that if you want to make your hero work better, give him a better villain. Star Wars, with a very few strokes, conveys a great weight of responsibility on the villains. They can’t just decide to focus their energies elsewhere or wait for it all to blow over. If they fail, it’s their careers, their lives and the lives of all their associates that are in danger, not to mention the staggering investment in money, manpower and ideological commitment that the Death Star represents.
Also note how in Star Wars all the characters – protagonists and antagonists – are bound together by the same problem. Whatever the outcome is, every character will be permanently affected. It is simply not possible for any of the principal characters – or minor characters, for that matter – to pass through the story without being changed for the worse or the better. In fact, no one in the entire galaxy will be unaffected by how the story plays out. Those are high stakes.