Posts filed under ‘television’

Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 3

On Story and Screenwriting:

It is said that there’s only a handful of stories that can be told, and all stories told are variants of these.  While I don’t know if that’s 100% true, it is very difficult to find variety these days in movies, books, games, etc.  What keeps us going back to the theatre is how the stories are told.  If it’s a romantic comedy, it’s usually something along the lines of Boy Meets Girl, Boy Embarrasses Himself Trying To Get Girl, or something like that.  However, each person telling this story has their own unique way of telling it.  Annie Hall is different from, say, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, but on paper they might seem like similar movies.  Don’t focus on creating a unique story, focus on telling your story well. Remember, whatever idea you have, most likely its already been done.

Screenwriting is different from other types of writing in that the style and format are always in flux, and there’s not really room for detail.  Before you sit down at your computer to write a screenplay, you must learn the format. A screenwriting book that teaches format is a good place to start, and there are tons of websites that have screenplays available to read.  Be warned, however, that many ‘published’ screenplays on the Net could be shooting scripts, which have their own format and are not to be used as ‘spec’ scripts, which is what you write when you want to sell your story.  Another good step is to invest in screenwriting software, or plugins for Word (or your word processor of choice) that will format for you.  Keep in mind that not every program is perfect and you must pay attention to make sure the formatting is correct. Screenplay format is so important, many agents, executives, producers, etc. will not even bother reading the rest of the story (no matter how good it is) if the format is bad.

This book by David Trottier is a great place to learn format

This book by David Trottier is a great place to learn format

As I mentioned before, you don’t have room for lyrical, Nobel Prize-winning prose in a screenplay. Be concise, get to the point.  If there’s a fight scene in your story, don’t explain exactly how one character fights, and the movement they make.  That’s boring.  Honestly, I have this problem when reading books.  For example, I was reading The Bourne Identity and Robert Ludlum has a habit of describing, in specific detail, how the characters fight.  This leg moved this way, so-and-so’s arm swung that way, blah blah blah.  That style of writing bored me so much that I couldn’t finish the book (I do mean to, one day).  In screenwriting, a simple “They fight” is all you might need.  Let the director and choreographer worry about the details.  In other places, such as descriptions of settings, details also need to be to-the-point.  If your scene takes place in a jungle, don’t go into detail about the sweat dripping down the characters’ faces, or how the midday sun beat down upon them and baked their skin.  Just set it up as, “They trek across a hot, sweaty jungle” or something to that effect.

If you’re a director, or a producer, consider going to someone else to write your screenplay.  You could have an amazing idea, but you may write poorly; in that case, having a professional (or as close to ‘professional’ as you can get) writing it will probably be your best bet.  Just like with editing, doing everything yourself may cause you to lose sight of what’s important in the story. You may get attached to certain scenes or lines, and may be wary of removing them in rewrites, even if it may seem necessary.

The Final Draft series of screenwriting software is among the best.

The Final Draft series of screenwriting software is among the best.

As for story structure, most people go with the Three Act Structure.  It’s concise, simple, and most successful movies follow this, like Star Wars and Jurassic Park.  There are some that don’t go this route, which is fine (Raiders of the Lost Ark is said to have more than four acts), but I would advise against it for first-timers.  Remember, you must learn the rules first before you can break them. Another thing to remember is that all stories must have conflict.  I’d even go so far as to say that it is impossible to tell a worthwhile story and not have conflict.  Whether it’s Good Guy vs Bad Guy, or Good Guy vs Himself, or whatever, the main character must want something and there are forces at work against him.

Recently, Christian Bale was asked how the filmmakers got him to be a part of the new Terminator Salvation movie.  He said that the script had to be so good that it could be performed without fancy visuals and still tell a compelling story.  Apparently, the script he read was good enough to meet this criteria, and he’s now the new John Connor of the franchise.  This should be true for all movies.  In the rehearsal process, a table read is usually done so that everyone involved (cast, director, producer, writer, etc) can hear the lines spoken out loud and to fix any problems before formal rehearsals get underway.  During the table read, there is not fancy CG imagery or editing, it’s just the actors and their lines.  The story must make sense when told from this point of view.  If the actors alone can’t tell the story, there’s something wrong with the script.

When you’re writing a student film or a low-budget indie flick, consider your budget beforehand. Don’t write a Hollywood action movie if your budget is $50 and you can’t get access to fancy equipment.  Locations are also something to thing about; a 15-minute short doesn’t need 30 different locations.  If possible, keep your locations to a bare minimum needed to tell the story.  Usually, that’s enough.  Also, don’t cram in a dozen different characters.  The less speaking roles, the better, since this will make casting and shooting go by much smoother, and more unnecessary speaking parts may confuse the audience.

Although, in Hollywood, screenwriters are treated as second-class-citizens, that doesn’t mean your story must be treated this way.  As a director, this is your version of someone else’s story.  Even if you wrote the story yourself, consider what looks best on screen.  Remember, filmmaking is, above all, a visual medium for telling tales.  If it looks good on paper, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t work on screen, it must be changed or it must be removed.  There’s an old saying in Hollywood, “You can make a bad movie from a good script, but you can’t make a good movie from a bad script.” This is 100% true.  Even the most ridiculous premise for a story may have just the visual punch needed to make a good movie.

(images from

Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 2 – On Crew

May 24, 2009 at 9:13 am 3 comments

Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 2

On Crew:

Assemble your crew early, and do it carefully.  As a director, you should understand that you can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything by yourself.  Your primary resonsibility on the set is to the actors.  Everyone else on the crew has another boss, the actors have you. So, in order to make sure your vision comes across clearly in the movie, you have to make sure your crew knows what they’re doing since you won’t be able to micromanage every aspect of the process.  Just like with actors, passion comes first; a less-skilled cameraman that is enthusiastic about the project might be more beneficial than an experienced cameraman who may not give a damn about your vision.

On the set, the director is like the American president.  Just like with any commander-in-chief, they have a cabinet of officials to help them out.  The first person you should look to hire is an assistant director.  The AD is like your Chief of Staff, they’ll help you set your agenda for the day, manage your resources, boss around the production assistants, and keep you on schedule.  You worry about telling the story, they worry about the time it takes to tell it.  I’ve worked with one AD who took my watch from me so I wouldn’t constantly be looking at it.  To my surprise, it was very helpful, as I was more focused on talking to the actors and the other crew, while he would let me know what our time looked like.  The title “assistant director” is a bit misleading, as generally the AD doesn’t do any directing; it should be more like “director’s assistant”.

On the set of the Academy of Art short "Chop Chop Silly Billy"

On the set of the Academy of Art short "Chop Chop Silly Billy"

In order to make your movie look good visually, you’ll need a strong cinematographer.  The Director of Photography is responsible for the look of the movie, and everything visual within the frame, minus the acting, should be approved of by the DP.  To continue with the Presidential Cabinet analogy, your DP is like your Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The Chairman works closely with the other Joint Chiefs from different branches of the military; on the set, the DP is in charge of the grips, gaffers, electricians, cameramen etc., plus they work closely with the set designers, costumers, make-up artists, etc.  If the AD is spending his or her time yelling at PA’s and chasing after runners, the DP will generally be by the director’s side during filming, making sure everything the lens sees is exactly what the DP and the director wants.  Because of the responsibility given to the DP, the director must trust them completely; in a perfect world, the director should never touch a camera (save for looking through the viewfinder or something), let the cameraman handle the the movement, and the DP is their boss.

The producer is, in the current Hollywood studio system, the head honcho of the production.  They have a hand in assembling the creative team (which includes the director), managing the budget, overseeing the marketing campaign, and finally the home video release.  It is said that the producer is the main driving force behind a project, which is true in many cases, as the producer is the one that finds the project and gathers the talent needed to make it.  In Hollywood, projects are started when producers buy scripts, then finds the director needed to make it happen.  In indie and student-level film-making, the producer is like the blocker to the director’s running back.  If there’s an issue, the producer’s job is to intercept it before it becomes a problem for the director. On the set, directors have enough food on their plate, and any more would potentially have a negative impact on the director’s performance, akin to a stomach problem.  Producers must also be good in talking to people, as they are the ones who will have to deal with getting locations, permits, free stuff (like food), etc.

Shooting the Academy of Art short "It Isn't Working", Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Diane Baker co-instructing

Shooting the Academy of Art short "It Isn't Working", Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Diane Baker co-instructing

In post-production, you’re going to spend lots of time with your editor.  In general, I’d say it’s unwise to edit your own movie, as you may be too attached to certain shots or scenes that aren’t needed (a lot of student filmmakers make the mistake of writing, directing, and editing their movie.  Not that it’s always a problem, but very few are actually good at doing all three, especially writing).  As with your DP, you must make sure you let the editor know what you want, but don’t be hovering over their shoulder all the time.  You do not want to be that guy.  The art of editing motion pictures has its own set of rules, and while it benefits the project overall if the director knew those rules, it’s the job of the editor to enact them.  Let them do a cut the way they see it, then work from there.  Make sure you give them plenty of time before a final cut is due, in order to experiment and to see what works best for the story.

Of course, there’s bound to be problems.  I’ve seen more shoots deteriorate due to conflicts with other crew members than because of anything else.  You must listen to your crew, because they have a different perspective on the project than you do.  If there’s a specific shot you want, and your DP or AD is telling you it may not be wise to get it (due to time constraints, or the necessity of the shot as it relates to story), take it into consideration.  It’s similar to working with actors: try it how they want it, then try it how you want it.  If time isn’t a luxury (which it often isn’t), it’s time to make some touch decisions.  Ultimately, it’s your vision, as director, that is guiding the movie, so you have to make sure each and every crew member, no matter their position on the totem pole, understands it.  As Sun Tzu once said, “If the orders are not clear, it is the fault of the general.”

Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 1 – On Actors

Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 3 – On Story and Screenwriting

May 20, 2009 at 10:25 am 3 comments

Directing: What I’ve Learned So Far, Part 1

On Actors:

If an actor has trouble committing to an audition, they’ll probably have trouble committing to the actual shoots.  If you can’t get them to go to an audition, drop ’em (I don’t mean knock them down, just take them out of consideration for the role).  It doesn’t matter how talented they are, professionalism is the key.  When you actually begin principle photography, and the actor you begged to go to the audition, doesn’t show up on time (or ever), you’ll be kicking yourself in the butt.  Better to go with a ‘less talented’ actor that will commit; maybe you have a chance to showing off your true directing skill by actually working with the actor to get the performance you want.

Movie-making is like a relationship: it’s all about sacrifice and meeting others half way.  If you have an idea for a character, and the actor portraying that character has a totally different idea, it’s time to collaborate.  Effective collaboration means listening.  Take time to understand what the actor wants, then in detail describe what you want.  Be willing to try the scene how the actor wants to try it, and make sure you get a take the way you want it.  However, a portrayal of a character must be consistent throughout the movie, so there’s a good chance the actor might disagree with how the character should be played for the entire piece.  One of you needs to concede.  As director, it’s your vision that is the primary creative force in the project, so, unfortunately for the actor, your idea of the character must take priority.  But, don’t be a dick about it; the actor must still understand where you are coming from, regardless of whether they agree or not, so make sure your are ‘directing’ your actor appropriately.

Have the answers.  Essentially, this means knowing your script inside and out.  Everyone is going to have questions, especially actors.  You’d better have an answer.  If an actor has a question about, say, his or her motivation during a scene, you need to know why that scene is there, why the actors are saying what they’re saying, and, most importantly, what the characters want.  This can be achieved by studying your script and taking copious amount of notes.

Make sure you take time to hold auditions, and unless your friends are talented actors, try not to cast people you are close to just because you need someone to play a part.  During the audition, test the actor to see if they take direction well.  If they are reading a side, or have a monologue prepared, ask them questions.  Quiz them on the character and the decisions they’ve made.  Then, ask them to try it another way, to make a different choice.  See if their performance has changed, and ask them if they liked the new way better.  Anyone can memorize lines, good actors can play a role well and the talented actors are the ones that can adapt and take direction.

Coming up: Part 2 – On Crew

May 19, 2009 at 3:15 pm 1 comment

“Chuck” Makes Comeback, “Terminator” Terminated

I’m not surprised that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles got axed. Although I stuck with the show, not too many people did (I blame the writing, which made a good chunk of the season drag on with meandering plot lines). I’ll miss it.

As for Dollhouse. I have yet to fully watch a single episode, but I plan on catching up over the summer. I’m glad Whedon and Dushku are getting another shot.

Chuck is the biggest surprise. For a show that is so acclaimed, and is doing well with ratings, I’m shocked that NBC is treating it like some second-class show. I think the quality of the show is more consistent when compared to NBC’s other show, Heroes. It’s most likely a money thing; a great show that everyone loves that also happens to not make any money for the network. Still, I’m glad it’s back for at least one more season.

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• Fox: Sarah Connor Chronicles has been officially canceled.
clipped from
NBC has finalized a deal to bring Chuck back for a third season, multiple sources confirm.
That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: The 13-episode pickup came after Warner Bros. agreed to make significant budget concessions, including scaling back the number of episodes several members of the show’s stellar supporting cast will appear in and, per one insider, possibly eliminating one actor altogether (R.I.P. Anna Wu?). The show is also expected to cut two of its staff writers.
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May 17, 2009 at 10:20 pm Leave a comment

“Parks and Recreations” Star Rails Against IMAX

You know, I kind of agree with him. I think it’s bullshit to charge for a full-price IMAX ticket when the screen is significantly smaller than the ‘real’ IMAX screens. And, what’s recently been annoying me are these movies released in IMAX, but don’t take advantage of the big screens.

I recently saw Star Trek twice, once at an IMAX screen, another time at a traditional theatre. I probably would’ve been just as happy watching it at a non-IMAX screen. There are no IMAX-specific scenes, unlike last year’s Dark Knight and this summer’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Yes, the image is bigger, but is it really worth $15-per-ticket when you’re not really seeing anything a traditional movie theatre isn’t showing?

I don’t think so.

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The star of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and Judd Apatow’s upcoming “Funny People,” bought a ticket on Monday for “Star Trek: The IMAX Experience.” Though it cost an extra $5 over a standard admission, he thought it would be worth it at the time. What Trekkie wouldn’t want to see Kirk and Spock on a six-story screen? Instead, Aziz found himself in a theater with a screen only slightly larger than normal. He felt wronged and decided to channel his anger into a furious, obscenity-laced blog post that has spread like wildfire. He has even called for a boycott of the theater chains involved, writing, “REGAL, AMC, AND IMAX – YOU ARE LIARS!”
Apparently, IMAX rolled out a digital projection system last year that can be easily installed in a normal movieplex and doesn’t require those huge film reels of a traditional IMAX projector. The downside is that the screens of these “Fake IMAX” theaters — as Aziz calls them — can be as much as a quarter of the size of standard IMAX screen.
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May 17, 2009 at 4:28 pm Leave a comment

Revew: “Caprica”

If you were wondering, as I was, what could possibly fill the gap left by this year’s finale of Battlestar Galactica, fear not.  The creators of that successful sci-fi series have given us the prequel, Caprica, which not only gives insight into the creation of the BSG universe, but also tells one hell of a morality tale.  And, it’s got great writing, too.

Released just last week on DVD, Caprica, for those who don’t know, is the pilot for next years SciFi Network series of the same name.  It tells the stories of two families, the Graystones and the Adamas; both have lost loved ones in a terrible act of terrorism, and both are finding ways to deal with the tragedy.  The heads of the families, Daniel Graystone (Eric Stolz) and Joseph Adams (no, that’s not a name misspelling, played by Esai Morales) meet and become friends .  However, their friendship becomes strained when Daniel, a computer and inventing genius, finds a way to bring her daughter back to life.

That’s really all I want to say about the plot.  Not like there’s any major twists or anything like that, it’s just that the writing for this pilot is so good, one should experience for themselves before reading a summary of it.  What I will say is that this show appears to be carrying the torch left behind by Battlestar Galactica.  That show gave us a drama in space, and here we get a family drama set in ‘the future’.  One of the reasons I loved BSG is because it raised all sorts of interesting questions not tackled by conventional shows (‘Is there a God?’, ‘What created us?’, ‘Is there really a right and wrong?’).  Caprica, at least judging by the pilot, has raised a sole question, and it’s a big one, ‘What is a soul?’

Visually, this show shares a lot with its predecessor.  In BSG, many of the exterior scenes that take place on the planet Caprica have a golden over-saturated look to them.  Since all of Caprica takes place on the planet of the same name, the visual style carries over.  Also, there’s also a little bit of grain tossed in, as well.  I’m not sure if this show was shot digitally or not (I’m inclined to think it is), but it doesn’t have that same grittiness of BSG, and it doesn’t need it.  The reason for the grain here was probably more of an homage to BSG than anything else.  Also, you won’t find that pseudo-documentary style handheld camerawork in Caprica, the camera moves more traditionally.

The acting, as expected, is great.  Eric Stolz plays his part well, showing us a conflicted father who, more than anything, wants his family to stay together.  Esai Morales (a very under-appreciated actor), gives us a Joseph Adams who is trying to bring up his only son properly and give him the life he never had.  It’s very easy to see how William Adama (played by Edward James Olmos in BSG) became the man whom we see later.  Joseph tries to be a moral, righteous person, even though it means taking the road less traveled.

Caprica may very well be the show to watch next year, and it suckes that we have to wait so long for the series to really begin.  Galactica fans also have something else to look forward this year: Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, a TV movie directed by Olmos, which tells the BSG story from the Cylons’ point-of-view.  As a 90-minute pilot, Caprica doesn’t disappoint.


(image from

April 26, 2009 at 6:05 pm Leave a comment

Favorite ‘Battlestar Galactica’ Moments

Spoilers below!

Just watched the series finale of one of the greatest television shows ever (and quite possibly the best remake ever): “Battlestar Galactica”.  I honestly don’t know how I feel about my favorite show ending, but it does give me a chance to reflect on the past 5 years and why ‘BSG’ was so frakkin’ awesome (sorry, had to put ‘frak’ in here somewhere).

So, here are some of my favorite moments of “Battlestar Galactica”:

1.  The exodus from New Caprica.  It started with a rescue mission that split the remainder of the fleet in two: one to guide the civilian ships in search of a new home, and the other to lead a strike force back to Cylon-occupied New Caprica and free those left behind.  The three-episode arc was fantastic, with one jaw-dropping moment after another.  Memorable scenes: Galactica jumping out of lightspeed into the atmosphere right above New Caprica City, launching its Vipers, and wreaking havoc on the Cylons below.

2.  Another one from the New Caprica arc: the Galactica covering the escape of the rescue ships by taking on three Cylon Basestars by itself.  The camera pulls back into infinite space, making the space battle seem small and insignificant.  It was also highlighting the valiant last stand William Adama and crew were making…until some missiles streak out from behind the camera toward the Basestars.  Then the Pegasus, the other Battlestar in their fleet, the one that was supposed to lead the civilian ships, swoops into view, sacrificing itself so that the flagship can escape.  Awesome.

3.  The opening scene of the very first episode of the series, “33”.  The crew looked tired, worn out, sleepy, ragged, etc.  For the past few days, the Cylons had been attacking every 33 minutes, slowly wearing out the fleet.  This set the tone for the entire show, letting us know that this isn’t ‘Star Trek’, with its clean walls, neat uniforms, and high-tech comforts.  This was gritty, dirty, in-the-trenches science fiction.

4.  The appearance of the Pegasus.  Just when we thought the Galactica was the last Colonial military vessel in existence, they run into its more modern sister, the Pegasus, commanded by the tough-talking Admiral Helena Cain.  At first it seemed that there would be hope for the last remnants of humanity, but a new Battlestar would prove to be a blessing and a burden.

5.  The use of suicide bombers against the Cylons on New Caprica.  Mimicking modern-day headlines, Colonel Tigh and his resistance fighters lead an insurgency against the occupying Cylons.  When things go from bad to worse, they authorize (with some hesitation) the use of volunteers to blow themselves up and take as many cylons as they can with them.

6.  Gaius Baltar trusting God for the first time.  In a more profound episode of the first season, Baltar’s Six tells him the location of a critical spot on an important Cylon facility.  The information leads to an important military victory for the humans, and opens Baltar’s eyes to the possibility of the ‘One True God’ that the Cylons believe in.

7.  Admiral Adama leading those loyal to him against the mutineers.  In an exciting end to a very exciting story arc, Adama, who was ordered executed by his former lieutenant Felix Gaeta, leads a loyalist faction against the uprising that splits the Galactica crew in half.  Which leads to…

8.  Executing the traitors.  In an incredible moment of the final season, Adm. Adama and Co. prove that justice must be carried out, even when the population of humanity sits below 40,000.  They execute the two brains of the mutiny that nearly destroyed the fleet.

9.  The murder of Cally.  One of the most depressing episodes of Season 4, it was quite a shocker for me to see fan favorite Cally, now the wife of Chief Tyrol, jettisoned into space.  On a similar note, the first episode of Season 4.5, when Dualla kills herself.  Despite the discovery of a nuked Earth, Dualla tries to keep her spirits up.  She goes out on a high note, though, because after spending a nice evening with Lee Adama, she points a gun to her head and pulls the trigger, her last memories being happy ones.

10.  Discovery of Earth.  I’m sure many minds were blown, mine included, when the fleet finally arrives at Earth.  Problem is, the planet is uninhabitable due to a nuclear war that destroyed all civilization.  And another thing: the bones and ruins found on the planet are thousands of years old.  Oh, and Starbuck discovers her body on the planet’s surface.  Woah.

11.  The assault on the Cylon ‘homeworld’.  The final mission of the Battlestar Galactica sends the series off with a bang.  The whole sequence was exciting: the Galactica jumping right in front of the Cylon colony, guns on both sides blazing, Marine strike teams enterting the colony, Vipers dogfighting with Raiders, Raptors launching nukes.  Nerdgasm.

I’m sure I’m missing dozens more incredible moments from the show.  But, those are the ones that popped into my head as of this writing.  Anyway, I’m gonna wait a day or so before posting my thoughts on the series finale.  This list of great moments, though, will replay in my head long after the finale has aired as a reminder of what incredible writing can do in any genre.  So say we all.

March 20, 2009 at 11:57 pm 1 comment

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