Like the character in Moliere’s play who was delighted to learn that he’d been speaking prose all his life, I am astonished to discover that I’ve been living in 3D all this time. I only realized this because of all the 3D films I’ve seen recently, but now I find that everything looks more solid, sharper, and more defined. It’s almost as if I’m right here in the room with myself.
This is an extraordinary experience, and I’m naturally anxious to exploit it, which is what experiences are for when you’re a writer. Should I try to write a 3D film? To answer this question I have to ask other questions about the way 3D, or any other kind of visual technology, is used in film. How much should a writer concern themselves with what we may as well call special effects?
THE DIRECTOR’S JOB
Screenwriters are always being reminded that “film is a visual medium,” and it bears repeating. However, another piece of advice we often give ourselves is to refrain from trying to do the director’s job when we write a screenplay. Keep the visual directions to a minimum. Okay, but what if we’re writing a special-effects-heavy script, or one that involves 3D? What about a script for a film that’s based on – or destined to become – a comic book, graphic novel, or video game? What about interactive media?
The questions are inextricably linked because new technology is blurring the distinction between what we used to think of as film, and what we increasingly treat as participatory multimedia experiences. But no matter how fancy the technology gets, people are still going to ask the same question they’ve always asked about the product: is it any good? A turkey is a turkey, and if multimillion dollar technical wizardry can create the illusion that the turkey is leaping out of the screen and squawking in your face while its hot, corn-fed breath makes your eyes water and its wattles dangle against your nose, all that does is make it an even more realistic one. In other words, more of a turkey.
THE GILLIAM PARADOX
The more technology develops, the more opportunity it offers for bigger and better mistakes, otherwise known as Terry Gilliam. I think he’s a genius, but he really does seem to be like the kid who’s happier playing with the box than the present inside it, and he’s always best when he makes his own toys. He pretty much invented, or re-invented, the animation techniques he used for his Monty Python work.
In both Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985) he created something fresh and unique out of relatively limited resources, and told wonderful stories. The Fisher King (1991) was a rare foray into naturalism, but it was speedy and nerve-jangling, and watching it gave me an urge to scratch an itch I couldn’t reach, like having psoriasis of the brain.
The way he’s used new technology in his other films has seemed as much a curse as a blessing. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) offered many delights but every frame was crowded with manic activity, and the viewing experience was like having your eyeballs bashed in with a digital baseball bat. The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (2009), seemed to forget that it was a film at all, and looked at times like a collection of special effects waiting for someone to give them a reason to exist.
Perhaps Terry Gilliam should be locked in a room for six months with some crayons, paper, scissors, a lump of clay and an old bolex camera. He’d produce a masterpiece.
SPECTACLE AND HEART
Better technology doesn’t automatically produce better films and it never has. When spectacle is an end in itself, it can function as an elaborate barrier between the audience and any kind of meaningful experience. But surely there’s a sector of the market that isn’t interested in meaningful experience? What does the young male demographic want? Don’t answer that question if you have a teenage son, as even thinking about it may increase your risk of having a stroke. But when it comes to movies, they just want mindless spectacle, don’t they?
I don’t think so. No audience is entirely mindless (or, more importantly, heartless) and every viewer is looking for meaning, even if they don’t know it and can’t articulate it. But good film makers know it, even if Hollywood can’t quite figure out the difference between a good film that happens to use special effects and the experience of watching gigantic sacks of money exploding repeatedly.
So, the gift of limitless visual possibility comes with equally limitless ways to misuse it. Where does this leave writers? Should we ignore the whole dimension of special effects when we’re writing, and leave it up to the director and designer to risk wasting a vast budget? Far from it. In fact, we should be so aware of the way that technology can enhance the film we’re working on that it’s embedded into the way we write. That’s what we’ve always done. We’ve assimilated the technique and grammar of film, consciously or not, and we’ve always written with that knowledge in our minds.
MORE TO PLAY WITH
Twenty years ago we might have held back from writing scenes like some of those in Inception, for example, where whole layers of reality are peeled away, because we knew it would be almost impossible to actualize the vision in a convincing way. Now, however, we have more to play with and we’ll use our knowledge of the available technology when we write, and our writing is automatically shaped by it. What’s changed recently is the pace of development, and as a result perhaps we’re being forced to become aware of cinematic grammar and technical vocabulary that we haven’t learned yet, and until we do it won’t be second nature.
It may take a while for that to happen, but we shouldn’t let that stop us taking advantage of what new technology can do. We shouldn’t be afraid to offer producers and directors what we’ve always had plenty of: imagination.
SOME KIND OF ACCESSORY
Write with the knowledge that amazing new technology can achieve astonishing visual effects, use that knowledge to free your imagination, and if what you write can’t be done, they’ll tell you soon enough. You won’t get fired for being too imaginative, but you might get fired for not using craft and discipline to shape your imagination into engaging, coherent stories. That’s always been the case, regardless of how special the screen effects are.
Meanwhile, maybe we should reconsider the way we think about the whole idea of special effects. They’ve never been simply some kind of accessory that’s added to a movie to enhance it (or not). The very earliest films used special effects, and in the work of the Lumiere brothers and Georges Melies the effects were the whole point. The films were special effects; film itself was a special effect and in some ways it still is.
I’d go further, and say all representation – all visual art – is a special effect. Art uses technique and technology, paint or pixel, to create something unnatural. It’s not really Whistler’s Mother hanging on your wall, it’s a trick created by the manipulation of effects, and if you think the old dame is a real person then it’s time to have a serious talk with Mr Medication.
How do you write for the new technology? The same way as you wrote for the old technology: watch a lot of movies, read a lot of scripts, think carefully, observe meticulously, analyze rigorously, dream, and work hard. Oh, and have fun. If you’re writing a film with a lot of visual fireworks in it, make sure the special effects aren’t the only thing that people are going to remember after the film, like the audience that leaves a stage musical whistling the set.
And if you eschew all this technical jiggerypokery, and want to write an austere human drama about two people getting depressed in a darkened room, maybe throw in a dream sequence for the rest of us, or at least open a window at the end. Or blow the room up.
Create an effect.