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.
Guy Fawkes, 1605, plotted to blow up
his reasons were religious or something –
he was Catholic – or Protestant –
malcontent – psychopath –
(in truth, his grievances are lost to history
or even if they’re not, they’re quite irrelevant to this case) –
and he was guilty found.
How in hell did Fawkes haul two tonnes of gunpowder
into the basement of Parliament without anyone knowing??
I suspect a conspiracy.
King James I, who gave us The Bible,
but had the power to bend the rule ad hoc in extremis,
and he did.
James recommended the “gentler tortours” be applied first,
and then, well, you know, after that do what you have to do.
Fawkes signed his confession dutifully
with a line like a child’s drawing of waves.
The trial dragged on for a couple days.
Fawkes’ co-conspirators – a bunch of
stupid fucks with no names –
cried out their innocence,
even up to the commencement of hanging, drawing, and quartering.
A mighty throng – throng so mighty! –
assailed Parliament to behold the swelling scene!
So many young men and women of England,
so strong in body, so wise in their simplicity,
so generous with their goods,
so fearful of god,
so devoted to their king,
grown men wept to behold the assembled
pure stock vouchsafing England’s future. Amen.
They cheered as each conspirator was hoisted,
and, kicking, opened like a hog,
their sausages removed in bulk,
the craftsman-torturer heaving on the guts
like a man trying to pull a boy out of a well,
clipping a strip of white connective veil,
here and there, to make the whole thing
come out neat.
Sure, some stayed living for quite some minutes
and all that jazz you know.
Later they would cut the cocks off and toy
with them, stick them in each others faces
and say, “Oh, you make me so horny, give sucky sucky please?”
Obviously, they daren’t do such a thing
in front of Parliament. Or ladies.
But back at barracks, they could unwind a bit.
The arms and legs were separated publicly.
This was part of the ritual.
People expected it,
and they cheered like hell as each limb came loose.
When one executioner clowned with the right leg
of Robert Keyes conspirator,
the groundlings laughed.
But a conservative MP fumed
and said a mockery was being made of justice,
and he would make the saucy fellow pay for it
and maybe he would think twice next time.
Fawkes was left till last.
They wanted him first to watch it,
then after he watched it, he would mount
the scaffold it was going to be so great!
He ascended slowly,
like a grandmother afeared of a fall, hips
and shoulders barely holding true after weeks on the rack.
The rope –
limp, sleeping, and really thick too –
was looped over his neck,
and the crowd giggling glee,
to see it all
(Some ladies later reported to their maids that, well…
“A queer feeling, as like I would nurse a babe or – or – ”),
and Guy Fawkes, finally at the top, was heard to say,
So he took the plunge, a big jump forward, and out –
the hangman slapping his ass as he went,
saying “You go, girl!!” –
a jump enough to snap Fawkes’ neck and kill him. Ha!
The crowd had been robbed of the pleasure
of seeing the live body writhe
under the torturer-craftsman’s tools.
But they cheered anyway.
And then cheered when Fawkes steaming dead man’s guts
And then cheered as each limb
And the head too,
gray-faced and gray-bearded,
looking like the face of a man in prayer or on the verge of orgasm,
they cheered at that, when the head came off.
And when it was displayed to all
like the next item up for auction,
Eyewitnesses wrote the crowd felt “joy”.
And we watched the whole thing on tv, didn’t we?
We were there.
And there too.
And we were in there,
and in there.
Every part of that meat was ours.
And we cheered too to know it was accomplished.
We squeezed each other so tightly round the neck,
we came in our pants.
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.
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.
I’ve been all antsy to tell you, but I was advised to wait for just the right time – April Fool’s Day.
Blake Friedmann Literary, TV & Film Agency Ltd., located “in the heart of London’s Fashionable Camden Town etc.” already represents some superb writing and directing talent, and some stunning fiction authors too. Agency cofounder Julian Friedmann (Twitter: @julianfriedmann ) also manages Twelvepoint.com, formerly Scriptwriter Magazine, one of the world’s premiere screenwriting resources. Co-cofounder Carole Blake (Twitter: @caroleagent ) reps too many great book authors to list. Okay, here’s a list. I’m very proud, and humbled, to be brought onboard.
Conrad is the first agent I’ve had on this side of the pond, and I’m looking forward to finally taking meetings with all you self-important philistines who haven’t been returning my phone calls. Ha ha. Just kidding. I wouldn’t meet with you if you were the last producers on Earth – or, you know, depending on what we can negotiate. Seriously, can I have a job?
I’d like to inform all past representatives and advisory staff – agents and lawyers and accountants and masseuses and centurions and those weird pale guys with the hats who are talking to the Emperor in Return Of The Jedi (1983) – that I couldn’t not have done it without both your helps. And that I’m deeply proud of the sweet music we made together in Hollywood in the back of that van. Furthermore I intend to prosecute.
I can always be contacted here on the site, but if you’re intimidated by my stunning sexiness and facility with transsmedia wordism constructitude – and many quite are – Conrad Williams is your man:
Blake Friedmann Literary, Film & TV Agency
122 Arlington Road
London NW1 7HP
Telephone: 020 7284 0408
info [at] blakefriedmann.co.uk
And so, with growing dread, I came to understand that this tedium I was experiencing was actually a booming Hollywood screenwriting career – getting your latest brilliant spec read, getting a meeting, hearing about their project, pitching them your take on their project, waiting, waiting, waiting for your agent to call – and repeat ad infinitum. Ad infinitum. And if you are very lucky, someone will accidentally pay you a great deal of money to pour your heart and soul into their project, everyone involved knowing but never saying that the project will almost certainly never be produced.
I was pitching a television series idea to the production company of a woman who has produced at least one of your favourite sci-fi movies and had an arsenal of good writing samples to show and not the worst track record, and I was no closer to actually getting a story in front of an audience than back when I was on the plane to LA at age 17. I realized my entire career – and the careers of many successful writers I know – had been a case of shaking an apple tree year after year, waiting for oranges to start dropping.
I hope I don’t seem complete ungrateful. I do like apples but I just don’t want to spend any more time eating apples, wishing they were oranges.
So I moved to London.
It wasn’t quite as simple as that but it was a complete and fairly dramatic relocation. My wife had an opportunity to work here and I was suddenly completely committed to giving up the apple tree shaking thing. We sold everything. We brought the cats with us.
By the way, I am a British subject – my mum was born in the shadow of Upton Park Football Stadium – so rest easy that I’m not just another foreigner come to steal employment from decent working folk.
After arriving, I began to have The Conversation again and again. I would say to someone, ‘I’m a screenwriter and I’ve permanently relocated to the UK.’ They would stare in baffled silence, then reply, almost with tears in their eyes, ‘Why??…’ There were no screenwriting jobs to be had here, there was no film industry here. Why was I moving away from success? I would press on, explaining that, you know, I am also eager to write comics and a wide variety of genre-based cross-media content. They would immediately call the police and inquire as to the name of my social worker.
It seems to be accepted universally – and I mean ‘throughout the known universe’ – that success as a media writer is directly proportional to one’s proximity to West Hollywood. If you crunch the numbers, you’ll probably find an element of truth in that. However, it is also universally accepted that your success in politics is directly proportional to your proximity to Washington DC. ‘Success’ has a broad spectrum of meaning and doesn’t necessarily mean ‘in your and everyone else’s best interest’. Just because McDonald’s has sold billions doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing going.
Within a year of arriving in the UK, I had more writing jobs than I’d had in the previous five years in Los Angeles. One of these was writing an historical thriller featuring swordplay, bullfighting, torture, and ‘contemporary political resonances’ – i.e. my dream project. I was paid literally peanuts for the work. Yes, literally peanuts. Okay, maybe not literally peanuts, but it was a South African based company paying the bills and I feel confident they could have paid me in peanuts if I’d asked.
Though the money was nothing like LA money, I was writing for enthusiastic indy people who were flying on a wing and a prayer and I was being paid to write. It was such a thrill to go through the whole process from beginning to end with producers who were rabid to make a movie. I wrote a short, too, that was made by the same producers and was able to practise, practise, practise the screenwriter’s real craft – making a good movie. However, I had to supplement the screenwriting income with journalism for some media trade magazines as well as temping at a firm that sold pipes and ducts.
It was encouraging – and enlightening and instructive – to see how, when I was willing to try something completely new, trusting like a fool that a solution would materialise, that something things worked out surprisingly well.
There wasn’t any logical connection between moving house and the surge in work but I’d like to think that on some metaphysical level or other, I’d suddenly become open to possibilities outside my previous, ultra-narrow assumptions. Having a dream, a vision, is vital to success, yes, but clinging desperately to a single narrow idea – at least this was the case with me – makes one’s whole life look like the view down a toilet roll. Many, many possibilities, things that might have leap-frogged you into another dimension, pass under your nose unnoticed. When I’m clinging so tightly to an idea of myself and my future, white-knuckled, the odds are good that somewhere deep down, I don’t have much real faith in the idea. When I’m absolutely clear about what I want or, more importantly, about who I am, then it’s easier to loosen my grip a bit and look around and be open to all the myriad possibilities, idiotic things like moving to London and expecting to be able to write movies.
There have been a few surprises in the relocation. One was hearing it would take a London-based company several months to read a writing sample. I felt like I was living in the 19th century. Kind of quaint actually, if it weren’t so irritating. The biggest surprise has been the stunning amount of talent I see in the UK. If I may be very American for a moment: This country has talent and ability coming out its ass (also “arse”). Unfortunately all this talent seems too often paired with a not-at-all-amusing self-deprecation and abdication of responsibility. Over and over again I see people looking to the US as the source of all the best ideas, as the only place to be taken seriously, certainly as the only place a vision could ever become reality. I want to shake them – hard.
There has been a great deal of moaning and groaning about the economy and the decline of this or that vital industry. But when I hear news of yet another formerly unshakeable media enterprise tottering, I feel encouraged and grateful that I left the US at the right time – perhaps not a moment too soon. 20th century business models are collapsing and although we try to shore them up and repair them in the same way a doctor tries to prolong the life of a heart patient who refuses to give up smoking and eating bacon, they are not going to last. If they do, it will be in some kind of zombie-fied, tax-payer subsidised condition far removed from a dynamic, real world economy.
A producer I know got the green light on a Friday for a movie directed by Steven Soderbergh starring Brad Pitt. On Monday, the studio head called back to say that the deal was off. It was too great a commercial risk in this climate. Newspapers and book publishers are merging or closing everywhere and LA-centric media production is going down with them.
This is all good news. For me. For you, too.
Where some people see collapse and destruction, many of us see exciting change and the promise of real renewal. Something entirely new is going to rise from the ashes of the 20th century media industries, something marvelous and global. In fact, it’s already here and a many of us are jumping on at the ground floor.
Of course, LA will continue to be a hub of media production; just not the hub. I love LA very much but it is isolated in a distinctly American way from most of the world. Cities that are truly interconnected – sometimes to their own chagrin – with the rest of the world have a head start on cities and countries that are protectionist and attached to 20th century, pre-global thinking.
I do wish the best of luck to all my friends still playing the studio screenplay game in Hollywood but I am very grateful to have jumped into the lifeboat when I did. While they are still shaking apple trees, hoping for oranges, I plan to be making and writing pictures of all descriptions and formats, and sharing them with my audience and my partners all around the globe.
‘(Los Angeles) is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade, and there’s gonna be a lot of refugees. They’ll be goin’ round this town shoutin’, ‘Bring out your dead.'”
– “Withnail & I” (1987), Bruce Robinson
(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, Jan. 2010)
I knew – everyone knew – that if you wanted to make movies, you had to go to LA. You also had to have a degree from a top-rate film school. A writerly alcohol and drug habit was a good idea too.
I know today – having learned through experience – that I was starting my life’s journey based on a complete pack of lies. But I was 17 years old and it was the 1980s. When you’re 17, starting a life’s journey based on a pack of lies is…well, it’s what you do, isn’t it?
I graduated from film school with a host of brilliant classmates. Some went to Portland and Seattle and actually made movies; some went back home to Texas or Connecticut. The rest of us went out into LA to seek our fortunes. Post-film school life in LA was exactly halfway between “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and “The Big Picture” (1989), a fantasy veering crazily from cynical gloom to sweet comedy and back.
95% of my USC classmates began their course determined to win at least one Best Directing Oscar but the attrition rate of Cherished Film School Dreams looks a bit like a casualty roster of WWI pilots. By the time of our graduation, many of my friends had traded in their ideal visions for something more bite-sized and realistic. Why? A good film school’s job should be to impress upon its students that filmmaking is a bizarre and tedious process that sane people ought to avoid. And USC has one of the best film schools in the world. Also, students began to learn that there was a massive array of supporting crafts that go into a film production and discovered that one of these fired their hearts and imaginations in a way the vague, grandiose vision of ‘Oscar-Winning Director’ could not.
There were a few emotionally-immature, mental defectives – I among them – who refused to surrender the dream (while increasingly suspecting that they were utterly unemployable in any normal work). We graduated and began to write spec screenplays – lots of them – and gave them to anyone and everyone who pretended to want to read them.
Screenwriting is hard, thankless work. Though not like digging ditches or mining coal, obviously. Digging ditches is something useful and beneficial to society. 1000 hours spent fretting over an urban melodrama about vampires hasn’t been on the Nobel Committee’s application form for some years. But because it is hard work, rather than churning out new material, a few of the devoted dreamers became obsessed with rewriting the same screenplay over and over again – infusing it with a Great New Idea with each pass – until the thing read like a transcript for the blind of a David Lynch movie written by a teenage girl on ecstasy. Thankfully, most of them gave it all up before they went mad.
In a very few years there were only a handful of us left, writing one spec screenplay after another, each waiting for his or her particular stars to align.
My stars aligned early on. One of my first sci-fi screenplays was optioned by Mario Kassar – the Old Hollywood-style movie gangster who brought us “Rambo”, “Total Recall”, “LA Story”, “Basic Instinct”, “Terminator” and “Stargate”. It was in the twilight years of the era of script mega-sales, those days when coke-addled producers would shell out $3 million for an idea written by Joe Eszterhas on the back of a McDonald’s napkin.
I had the obligatory ‘tyro screenwriter’s mega-deal’ article in “Daily Variety” and every major director whose career started in British television advertising was on the verge of saying ‘Yes’ to the film. Then, just as quickly, it all petered out and I was left in the tragic position of living in a big house in the Hollywood Hills, with a view of Catalina on a clear day, transported into the world of an A-List screenwriter.
I pitched ideas to every company of note in LA. I joined the long queues of writers brought in to give a fresh perspective on whatever proposed sci-fi/action/fantasy property Company X was developing. A few of those projects, after years in development purgatory, finally did escape and audiences seemed to like them. They usually ended up with a single writer’s name on them but I’m sure all of us who sat there saying to execs “The villain in Blade must under no circumstances be Count Dracula” feel a certain attachment to those projects, like when you receive news that someone you had a fling with has become married to a jerk not nearly as attractive and talented as you.
With growing dread, I came to understand that the tedium I was experiencing is the bulk of the work in a booming Hollywood career. Get your latest brilliant spec read, get a meeting, hear about their project, pitch them your take on their project, wait by the phone for your agent to call, repeat ad infinitum. Ad infinitum. If you are very lucky, someone will accidentally pay you a great deal of money to pour your heart and soul into their project when everyone involved knows but never mentions that the project will almost certainly never be produced.
I was pitching a television series idea to the production company of a woman who has made at least one of your favourite sci-fi movies, had an arsenal of good writing samples to show and not the worst track record, and I felt like I was no closer to making movies than when I was on the plane to LA at age 17.
Then it occurred to me that movies are made by people who are making movies. You know what I mean? Marathons are run by people who are running marathons, cakes are baked by people who are baking cakes. Am I making sense? It’s the simple and obvious that has always eluded me. The Hollywood studio system is about not losing money first and making movies second. That is how many successful businesses operate. It’s how NASA operates. NASA’s primary purpose is not to send stuff into space, it’s to allocate resources and personnel in such a way that everyone at NASA still has a job next year. Imagine my surprise when I realised my entire career – and the careers of many successful writers I know – had been a case of shaking an apple tree year after year, waiting for oranges to start dropping.
I hope I don’t seem a complete ingrate – I do like apples – but I just didn’t want to spend any more time eating apples, wishing they were oranges.
(originally printed in Videography magazine, Feb. 2010)
London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, generally acknowledged as the world’s largest institution of decorative arts and design, was founded by Queen Victoria in 1852. You might think that digital video technology was the last thing the grand monarch had in mind, but the V&A was originally conceived as a “Museum Of Manufactures”. From its very beginning, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, it sought to be a place for the study of the point of art and technology.
“Decode: Digital Design Sensations” is a new exhibition the V&A is putting on in partnership with contemporary arts & design organization, onedotzero. “Decode” runs from Dec. 8, 2009 to April 11, 2010, and strives in every way to break the boundaries of the typical museum experience. The Victoria & Albert Museum has been collecting digital art since the 1960’s. An exhibition called “Digital Pioneers” showcases this material concurrently with the “Decode” exhibition.
Today’s interconnected world of social and digital information, becoming familiar to even the most luddite household, has broken down traditional structures of space, and time too, in media. People are increasingly used to the idea of watching a movie when and where and how they want to, for example, and the 20th century notion that it is an experience restricted to a brick and mortar theater with predetermined show times is moving toward becoming a novelty of the entertainment.
Shane Walter, co-founded onedotzero in the mid-nineties, and has been on the cutting edge of digital media production since. He is named as the curator of the “Decode” exhibition, but thinks of himself as more of a producer, and collaborator. A couple of the pieces in the show were commissioned directly by onedotzero, with Walters taking an active interest in their production.
“Decode”, arranged more along the lines of an extended festival than a gallery show, takes for granted the 21st century decentralization of media and then tries to see into the far reaches of digital media with fluidity and change being the focal element. Not only does an audience have an array of choices regarding its relationship to the digital pieces presented in the show, but the pieces themselves are morphing and changing as a result of their relationship to the audience.
The exhibition is divided according to three themes – “Code”, “Interactivity”, and “Network” – each representing an element of the digital creative process. “Code” presents pieces that use computer code to create new works and looks at how code can be programmed to create constantly fluid and ever-changing works. It emphasizes the idea that the code itself is a kind of creative entity that makes content – and that is willing to collaborate with the audience if instructed to do so. It’s asif the original programmer had created another little artist existing in a virtual realm – The Code.
“Code nowadays is a raw material,” says Shane Walter, “A coder is as creative as someone is a sculptor, for example, or a painter or designer.”
A museum space is traditionally, almost by definition, a place where something is preserved in stasis. The Decode exhibition strives to turn that on its head. “We’re saying,” says Walter, “Yes, touch things as much as you want, take pictures, and you can download elements of the exhibition, you can upload things too. We want to make you, the visitor, a part of the exhibit.” Some of the exhibits in fact can’t exist without an audience there, and are designed to spring into motion in response to the movement of the visitors, as if the exhibit itself was an artist, interpreting its subject – the museum-goer. Golan Levin’s “Opto-Isolator II”, for example, takes the form of a human eye that stares at the viewer, and blinks and moves in direct response to the viewers blinking and movement. “A lot of these ideas and techniques have been around for some time, but I think only in the last five years have people been using them less as a novelty and more part of their digital toolbox.” ”
The “Network” portions of the exhibition focus on and utilize the digital traces left behind by everyday communications. Walters points out how the digital web that we live in is something living, connected to us in a very intimate way. “It’s almost impossible to switch off. Even when you’re asleep , your Facebook is still going, your Twitter feed. You’re leaving all these digital traces behind. So artists are trying to make sense of this area by data mining this realm, and using that data to re-represent the world.” Aaron Koblin’s “Flight Patterns” uses FAA data to create animations of flight patters that are both ghostly and dream, as well as fascinating and informative. Repeatedly in Decode, hard fact and hallucinatory visions combine to produce a revelatory experience.
DECODE also offers people the chance to actively participate with via Karsten Schmidt’s piece, “Recode”. Created as a digital identity for the exhibition, the code for the ever changing CG piece is available on an official Decode Google code page, which also has a detailed user guide and gui. New creations can then be uploaded as part of the Decode exhibits online gallery, contributions which are considered no less legitimate than the original Karsten Schmidt work.
A fascinating challenge Decode presents to the museum world is that the digital media in the exhibit is entirely fluid and in fact quite difficult to practially catalog in a museum’s inventory. If it’s constantly changing and altering, how legitimate is the description of the piece, and if viewers are an integral part of the experience, can they be said to be part of the museum’s archive?
Decode presents a fascinating array of digital wonders and fascinating experiences, types of things which might have been seen on by attendees of SIGGRAPH, but have not been offered to a wide audience. Technologies that might have languished as a mere curiosity, have now, in the hands of artists, been made to communicate – and in some cases, commune – with a new generation of media audiences.
My notes on a John Singer Sargent painting at the National Portrait Gallery, “General Officers Of the Great War”:
These men are sated,
satisfied, tried and true,
censured and cinched,
catalogued and decorated,
and are those spurs
on their jackboots too?
Botha proud like a superman,
Allenby an Arabian beauty, half-horse,
Smuts white as a ghost,
and Field Marshall Haig right at the front,
front and centaah, SAH!!
Sargent made them round about life size –
22 men, hard, stiff,
behind them a gloomy looming tomb vault
or some edifice of state.
Top brass done up in the colors of sand,
of peaches, and leather buffed bright –
the hues of WWI –
and cadmium red kept well out of sight.
General Officers Of The Great War by John Singer Sargent