Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Shamus Culhane

Designing the future

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Over the last half century or so, our culture has increasingly turned to film and television, rather than to the written word, as its primary reference point when we talk about the future. This is partially because more people are likely to have seen a blockbuster movie than to have read even the most successful novel, but the visual arts might also be more useful when it comes to certain kinds of speculation. As I browsed recently through the book Speculative Everything, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that dealing with physical materials can lead to insights that can’t be reached through words alone. In his classic New Yorker profile of Stanley Kubrick, the science writer Jeremy Bernstein provided a portrait of one such master at work:

In the film [2001], the astronauts will wear space suits when they are working outside their ships, and Kubrick was very anxious that they should look like the space suits of thirty-five years from now…They were studying a vast array of samples of cloth to find one that would look right and photograph well. While this was going on, people were constantly dropping into the office with drawings, models, letters, cables, and various props, such as a model of a lens for one of the telescopes in a spaceship. (Kubrick rejected it because it looked too crude.) At the end of the day, when my head was beginning to spin, someone came by with a wristwatch that the astronauts were going to use on their Jupiter voyage (which Kubrick rejected) and a plastic drinking glass for the moon hotel (which Kubrick thought looked fine).

This is a level of detail that most writers would lack the patience or ability to develop, and even if it were possible, there’s a huge difference between describing such objects at length on the page, which is rightly discouraged, and showing it to the viewer without comment. It can also lead to new ideas or discoveries that can feed into the story itself. I never tire of quoting a piece of advice from Shamus Culhane’s Animation: From Script to Screen, in which he recommends using a list of props to generate plot points and bits of business for a short cartoon:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

In animation—or in a medium like comics or the graphic novel—this kind of brainstorming requires nothing more than a pencil and piece of paper. Kubrick’s great achievement in 2001 was to spend the same amount of time and attention, as well as considerably more money, on solving design problems in tangible form, and in the process, he set a standard for this kind of speculation that both filmmakers and other artists have done their best to meet ever since.

In Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby suggest that the function of a prop in a movie might limit the range of possibilities that it can explore, since it has “to be legible and support plot development.” But this might also be a hidden strength. I don’t think it’s an accident that Minority Report is both the most influential piece of futurology in recent memory and one of the few science fiction films that manages to construct a truly ingenious mystery. And in another masterpiece from the same period, Children of Men, you can clearly see the prop maker’s pragmatism at work. Dunne and Raby quote the director Alfonso Cuarón, who says in one of the special features on the DVD:

Rule number one in the film was recognizability. We didn’t want to do Blade Runner. Actually, we thought about being the anti-Blade Runner in the sense of how we were approaching reality, and that was kind of difficult for the art department, because I would say, “I don’t want inventiveness. I want reference. Don’t show me the great idea, show me the reference in real life. And more importantly, I would like—as much as possible—references of contemporary iconography that is already engraved in human consciousness.”

Consciously or otherwise, Cuarón is echoing one of my favorite pieces of writing advice from David Mamet, who had exactly one rule when it came to designing props: You’ve got to be able to recognize it.” And the need to emphasize clarity and readability in unfamiliar contexts can push production designers in directions that they never would have taken otherwise.

Yet there’s also a case to be made for engaging in visual or sculptural thinking for its own sake, which is what makes speculative design such an interesting avenue of exploration. Dunne and Raby focus on more recent examples, but there’s a surprisingly long history of futurology in pictures. (For instance, a series of French postcards dating from the late nineteenth century imagined life a hundred years in the future, which Isaac Asimov discusses in his book Futuredays, and the book and exhibition Yesterday’s Tomorrows collects many other vintage examples of artwork about the future of America.) Some of these efforts lack the discipline that a narrative imposes, but the physical constraints of the materials can lead to a similar kind of ingenuity, and the result is a distinct tradition that draws on a different set of skills than the ones that writers tend to use. But the best solution might be one that combines both words and images at a reasonable cost. The science fiction of the golden age can sometimes seem curiously lacking in visual description—it can be hard to figure out how anything is supposed to look in Asimov’s stories—and such magazines as Astounding leaned hard on its artists to fill in the blanks. And this might have been a reasonable division of labor. The fans don’t seem to have made any distinction between the stories and their illustrations, and both played a crucial role in defining the genre. Movies and television may be our current touchstones for the future, but the literary and visual arts have been conspiring to imagine the world of tomorrow for longer than we tend to remember. As Speculative Everything demonstrates, each medium can come up with remarkable things when allowed to work on its own. But they have even more power when they join forces.

The prop master

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Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal

When we break down the stories we love into their constituent parts, we’re likely to remember the characters first. Yet the inanimate objects—or what a theater professional would call the props—are what feather that imaginary nest, providing a backdrop for the narrative and necessary focal points for the action. A prop can be so striking that it practically deserves costar status, like the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, or a modest but unforgettable grace note, like the cake of soap that Leopold Bloom carries in his pocket for much of Ulysses. It can be the MacGuffin that drives the entire plot or the lever that enables a single crucial moment, like the necklace that tips off Scotty at the end of Vertigo. Thrillers and other genre novels often use props to help us tell flat characters apart, so that an eyepatch or a pocket square is all that distinguishes a minor player, but this kind of cheap shorthand can also shade into the highest level of all, in which accessories like Sherlock Holmes’s pipe or summon up an entire world of romance and emotion. And even if the props merely serve utilitarian ends, they’re still an aspect of fiction that writers could do well to study, since they can provide a path into a story or a solution to a problem that resists all other approaches.

They can also be useful at multiple stages. I’ve known for a long time that a list of props, like lists of any kind, can be an invaluable starting point for planning a story. The most eloquent expression of this I’ve ever found appears, unexpectedly, in Shamus Culhane’s nifty book Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

A list of props can be particularly useful when a story takes place within a closed universe with a finite number of possible combinations. Any good bottle episode invests much of its energy into figuring out surprising ways to utilize the set of props at hand, and I used an existing catalog of props—in the form of the items available for purchase from the commissary at Belmarsh Prison—to figure out a tricky plot point in Eternal Empire.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

What I’ve discovered more recently is that a list of props also has its uses toward the end of the creative process, when a short story or novel is nearly complete. If I have a decent draft that somehow lacks overall cohesiveness, I’ll go through and systematically make a list of all the props or objects that appear over the course of the story. Whenever I find a place where a prop that appears in one chapter can be reused down the line, it binds events together that much more tightly. When we’re writing a first draft, we have so much else on our minds that we tend to forget about object permanence: a prop is introduced when necessary and discarded at once. Giving some thought to how those objects can persist makes the physical space of the narrative more credible, and there’s often something almost musically satisfying when a prop unexpectedly reappears. (One of my favorite examples occurs in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. During the sequence in which Faye Wong breaks into Tony Leung’s apartment to surreptitiously rearrange and replace some of his possessions, she gives him a new pair of sandals, throwing the old pair behind the couch. Much later, after she floods his living room by mistake, one of the old sandals comes floating out from its hiding place. It only appears onscreen for a moment, and nobody even mentions it, but it’s an image I’ve always treasured.)

And in many cases, the props themselves aren’t even the point. I’ve said before that one of the hardest things in writing isn’t inventing new material but fully utilizing what you already have. Nine times out of ten, when you’re stuck on a story problem, you’ll find that the solution is already there, buried between the lines on a page you wrote months before. The hard part is seeing past your memories of it. A list of props, assembled as drily as if you were a claims adjuster examining a property, can provide a lens through which the overfamiliar can become new. (This may be why histories of the world in a hundred objects, or whatever, are so popular: they give us a fresh angle on old events by presenting them through props, not personalities.) When you look at it more closely, a list of props is really a list of actions, or moments in which a character expresses himself by performing a specific physical activity. Unless you’re just giving us an inventory of a room’s contents, as Donna Tartt loves to do, a prop usually appears only when it’s being used for something. Props thus represent the point in space where intention becomes action, expressed in visual or tactile terms—which is exactly what a writer should always be striving to accomplish. And a list of props is nothing less than a list of the times which the story is working more or less as it should.

Making a list, checking it twice

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Let’s make a list of things we like.
—Nicholas Meyer

With these eight words, director Nicholas Meyer saved Star Trek. The story of how he cobbled together elements of five different screenplay drafts to come up with the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in twelve days is one of my favorite Hollywood stories, and I’ve already told it here, so I won’t repeat it again. What strikes me about this story today, though, is the fact that it began in the simplest way possible: with a list. In particular, it was a list of story elements and plot devices—Khan, the Genesis project, a certain character’s death scene—that were already there, but hadn’t been combined into a coherent shape. And the fact that the result paid off so handsomely is a lesson for all writers about the power of lists.

Because lists are incredibly useful. Most novels start as a list of some kind—of characters, of moments, of plot points—but it’s also smart to keep making lists as the project develops, especially when you’re stuck for inspiration. These can be lists of locations, of objects in a scene, of possible props, of the contents of someone’s pockets, or even of material you’ve written and discarded along the way, any one of which might solve a problem or spark an idea. Such lists are especially useful in writing comedy or action, in which the best material is organically generated by the natural aspects of a setting or situation. As Alfred Hitchcock says:

For example, Cary Grant in North by Northwest gets trapped in an auction room. He can’t get out because there are men in front of him or men behind him. The only way out is to do what you’d do in an auction room. Bid. He bid crazily and got himself thrown out. Similarly, when he was chased by a crop duster, he ran and hid in a cornfield. There was one thing that crop duster could do—dust some crops. That drove him out…I don’t believe in going into an unusual setting and not using it dramatically.

The legendary animator Shamus Culhane makes a similar point in Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

Ultimately, lists are useful because they remind you of what you already have. The process often resembles what David Mamet says about the slate piece, in bringing out the hidden information already inherent in the story. At other times, it’s more like figuring out how to use a standing set. While writing, I’m amused by how often a prop or location that I mentioned in passing early in a novel ends up playing an important role twenty chapters later. Similarly, the great silent comedians could walk onto a set and immediately start planning gags and bits of business, simply based on what was already lying around.

The trouble, of course, is that I don’t have a roomful of props to stare at. A novelist’s mind can resemble the storeroom at the end of Citizen Kane, a jumble of material acquired over a lifetime, none of which useful if we can’t remember what is there. A list is the first step toward making a catalog. It distills a mine of existing information into a form that you can process more easily, so you won’t be tempted, as many writers are, to fix plot problems with additional research. Nine times out of ten, when you have a problem to solve, the answer is probably already there, implicit in what you’ve already written or imagined. And all you need to get started is a list.

Tangled’s web

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The big news in pop culture this week, of course, is the unexpected resurgence, in the form of Tangled, of the classic Walt Disney brand. As many critics have noted, Tangled is the closest thing to the full Disney package—fairy tale setting, beautiful princess, dashing hero, amusing animal sidekicks, Alan Menken—that we’ve had in at least fifteen years.  The result, while sentimental, undeniably works. Watching Tangled, I felt something like what Pauline Kael described when reviewing a very different movie: “The pieces of the story fit together so beautifully that eventually the director has you wrapped up in the foolishness. By the end, all the large, sappy, satisfying emotions get to you.”

So what are the lessons for writers? It’s easy, and definitely accurate, to credit John Lasseter, the Pixar genius who shepherded Tangled throughout its entire production, with much of the movie’s success. But it’s also worth spotlighting the contribution of animator Glen Keane, who would have directed Tangled had he not suffered a heart attack midway through production. Den of Geek has a really fine interview with Keane, which is worth reading in its entirety, but especially for this story, which describes something to which any writer can relate:

The amazing thing was that in May, this year, we were only at 40% finished in our animation. We had to have 60% of the movie by the middle of July. And it was impossible. And it was all of the most subtle, difficult, stuff.

I remember telling [the animators], “look, we have an impossible amount of work to do, none of you will be the animators you are now by the end of the film, you will have grown. You will have animated scenes that you can’t even imagine that you did. And I can’t tell you how you will do them. But you will do them, and there’s just something that is happening right now, and I call it collective learning.”

The history of animation, in general, is something that every writer should study, because it’s by far the best documented of any of the narrative arts. Because every stage in the animation process—initial sketches, concept art, storyboards, backgrounds—is fun to look at in itself (which isn’t true, for example, of most novelists’ first drafts), the creative process is exceptionally well chronicled. A book like Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards is an inspiring read for any writer who needs a reminder of how tentative and exploratory the artistic process can be, especially in its earliest stages.

Animation is also worth studying because it tells stories simply and cleanly, as most writers should strive to do. It’s especially good at breaking stories down into their basic units, which, as I’ve noted already, is the first and most important rule of writing. Any writer, for example, would benefit from the sort of advice that Shamus Culhane gives in Animation: From Script to Screen:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

Disney can be accused of tastelessness and commercialism, to put it mildly, but it’s also better than anyone I know (except, perhaps, the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, about whom I’ll have much more to say later) at creating works of art that exemplify the most fundamental reasons we go to the movies, or seek out any kind of art at all. The success of Tangled is only the most recent reminder of how powerful those elements can be.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2010 at 11:45 am

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