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May 31, 1999: but at least it's my own creation


Since I wrote my commentary on the Phantom Menace, I have looked at the comments from a few other people on the web. I was pleased to read cj's journal entry on the subject and see how many of the same things seemed to bug us but we found radically different ways to express it.

CJ focused on the pod race, and verbalized a few things I think were bothering me about that but which I hadn't managed to figure out exactly.

I saw several comments from people who did enjoy the pod race, and found it tense and thrilling. This made me rethink why I didn't even find any visceral appeal in it. I started my original comments with "It's a video game", and I think that basically sums it up. Star Wars' Death Star trench scene was very simple, which I think made it more effective. It was also 1977, and those effects were simply unbelievable. The Empire Strikes Back had the snow battle sequence and the fly-through-the-asteroids sequences. Return of the Jedi had the zip-through-the-forest sequence, and to be honest, I wasn't that thrilled with that one either, although it did work viscerally at least.

Part of that is because it was still new and distinctive; there were't competitive video games. And part of it was because it was so convincing; everybody's been in a forest, and since their special effect was based around really filming a real forest, it worked.

The pod race, though, suffers from coming nearly twenty years later, in an era when computer graphics are so ubiquitous that the effect is lessened. Certainly, this factor is more extreme for me than for others; as a computer graphics programmer, I've spent far more than my fair share of time flying through synthetic outdoor environments at faster-than-normal speeds.

But I don't actually think that's the biggest deal. I think the problem is that they didn't make any effort to sell the pod race--to make it convincing. When a couple of combat droids are walking along beside a disarmed group of civilians, for a moment they show a shot angling down on them, with the sunlight low enough that each figure casts rather long shadows. The shadows of the (computer-synthesized) droids and the (real) humans intermingle perfectly, selling it.

On the other hand, the pod race is just a lot of footage of zipping through a fictional desert. I don't know whether real deserts really look like that. But with no sense of scale from familiar subjects (e.g. trees) and no explicit attempt on the part of the moviemaker to sell the shot...

It just don't work for me.

One of the things CJ had was a link to an astonishing criticism on a web forum for screenwriters. A (professional) screenwriter had gone through the movie, and rather than critiquing the way each element fails, as I did, instead he offered suggestions for how the story could have been told better by restructuring some of the plot elements. There were moments of explicit criticism: "doing X didn't work, so a better thing to have done would have been Y" and etc.

I was fairly impressed with this stuff and started hunting through all of that site, and the next thing you know I've downloaded all of the screenwriting columns and I've bought a screenwriting book and I'm trying to write a screenplay!

This makes more sense than it sounds at first glance.

I do a fair amount of writing fiction for fun, especially on talk.bizarre. One thing that I've noticed is that I love making plots--creating plot twists and reversals, or setting things up and then letting them wind together in the conclusion. I also enjoy writing dialog, even if I'm not very good at it. However, I suck at writing descriptive prose--at describing all the nitty-gritty detail necessary to give people a sense of space and place.

So while wondering through that website I suddenly realized that I was virtually writing screenplays already.

So what the heck! I might as well bite the bullet and try it "for real". I don't have any problem sticking with the explicit constraints of the form (three act structure, etc.) since, of course, I love working within constraints. I don't have some preselected story I want to tell; I'm happy to invent a story that works well within the medium.

The one thing it looks like I'll have to make an effort is to avoid writing plays as opposed to movies. The two forms are extremely different, of course. In movies one is supposed to show, not tell, and I tend to have my characters talk too much. However, I don't want to write plays, because the sorts of things I want to write are still movie-like in terms of scope, e.g. frequent scene changes. So, I have to make an effort to think visually, and to generate action, and to show not tell. But, in a sense, that's just another constraint to work within, so it's ok.

Because I've been playing with writing a script, I've been getting out my writing bug on that, so that's why this update is so late. (At least it's still Sunday on the west coast.)

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attribution dammit: Frankenstein Aimee Mann