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Writing - The Continuity, Or Scenario

( Originally Published 1922 )



Continuity Explained.—The continuity, or scenario, is the fourth division of the photoplay script—as used by the director in the studio. In the continuity, the plot is out-lined in action, just as it appears on the screen; everything your characters do—every action they go through—is recorded in the scenario. All reading matter appearing on the screen in the finished photoplay is also given. The model photoplay in Part IV of this system is the continuity for my story, "The Great Moment"; it is the original scenario written by Monte M. Katterjohn, continuity writer for Jesse L. Lasky. Before proceeding with this chapter, turn to Part IV and glance over this model scenario.

How a Photoplay is Produced.—In the early days of the motion picture, writers labored arduously over their play, developing its plot both as a synopsis and as a detailed scenario —just as it was to appear on the screen. In other words, before one could submit a script for sale, he was compelled to write a synopsis, a cast of characters, a scene-plot, and continuity. This finally proved unsatisfactory to the producers, who decided that a writer might be exceedingly clever at plot-building, but hopeless as a continuity writer; while, on the other hand, some of -the best continuity writers might be poor plot-builders. So photoplay writing has been made a double art—one class of writers are required to build plots and write them in synopsis form, while another class of writers, who work in the studio after your idea is purchased, take your plot and adapt it to the screen in continuity form.

The two types of writing are quite different—the former creative, the latter technical.

Quite apart from the laboratory where hundreds are employed in every big studio, there is the Scenario Department, the Art Department, the Architectural Department, the Electrical Department, the Research Department, the Wardrobe Department, to mention only a few of them. Each with a head and countless underlings.

The potentialities of the cinema are colossal; it is but in its infancy. Considering the wonderful mechanical appliances and methods, the labor and thought which is lavished upon each production, it seems astonishing that such numbers of them are so silly and bad. I hold quite decided views as to why this is so, now after a close study of the matter, and feel like having the presumption to utter them.

The successful producer has first of all to be a good business, man. Then he has to have the instincts of a good showman—one who feels the public pulse and knows what to give it--or rather understands the psychology of the public taste. There are only quite a few of them in. the whole industry--the rest have purely commercial aspirations and so they turn out trash year after year which the public has swallowled because it was hungry—but now, when hunger is appeased and the novelty of the entertainment has worn off, something more interesting to look at, is what is wanted.

This is the history of the average picture! A story is written by an author—it may be great nonsense or it may be good, but it must contain some ideas, or some situations, which the scenario department feels it can use. It is accepted and paid for—often very liberally, and then the author moves off the scene. It is then worried over and torn to pieces by two' or three people—reconstructed and sent to the continuity writer, who then puts it into numbered or "continuity" scenes, a "scene" being about a hundred feet of film or so of continued action before the director calls out "cut," and a fresh grinding of the camera begins. The continuity writer also puts in whether it is to be "long-shot" or "close-up" or at what angle.

As an example, this is what a "scene" would be if you were reading a continuity script. "Of John crossing the room and lifting with his right hand the curls of Mary's hair—discovering the bullet wound behind her right ear—raising his head to show horror and calling out for help, his face gradually changing to amazement as Henry enters the room and comes toward him with a knife pointing at his heart, the left hand holding a bunch of roses"—!!

The continuity writer also adds to the scenario numbers of his own ideas. The script, when finished, is then passed by the board of the scenario department, temporary titles are put in, and it is handed to the director who is going to direct the picture. He is given no time to study seriously, because he goes on from picture to picture without intermission, as a rule. He then selects his cast, which he has got the Casting Director's department to furnish him. The two stars are generally selected by the Producers Department, but the di-rector has a say in all the others. The cast got together, and the production manager and the director having given their orders to the Architectural Department (the sets for all the incidents of the story are built in the studio,) and the "locations" for out door parts are decided upon. A "Location Department" takes care of this. The two principals—the hero and heroine—are given copies of the script—the Ward-robe Department also, where all the dresses are prepared.

The Art Director has got together all the furniture required—either hired from huge emporiums, who do nothing else but loan to studios, or taken from the studio store. And, finally the producer's office has decided the day the picture is to begin "shooting," that means begin photographing, and so the story starts into being! The psychology of the characters' thoughts and actions has not been bothered about much so long as they can have been hustled into exciting and improbable situations! There is no evidence of one mind in the construction as can well be imagined ! The director then gives the thing a fresh twist as he goes along, so that at the end perhaps nothing of the author's meaning is left.

When it is all finished being photographed—a picture takes from three weeks to two months to make—the film is then cut and joined up by the Cutting Department—who slice out what they think fit, the director deciding the crucial points —and then the thing goes to the supervisors who, perhaps having other ideas, cut out any part which does not happen to interest them., and finally the Titling Department rewrites the titles, which may be quite at variance with the language which the author's characters would use—and the picture is passed by the Board of Censors—and so the public gets it at last!

With a process of this sort it can quite well be seen that the average picture, turned out by the hundred, cannot be a very interesting or convincing affair, and it is mere luck if it is not too trashy for even the long-suffering Amercian public td endure.

There are, of course, special productions where more care is taken and special directors who look after everything concerning their pictures themselves, and these are often very good and interesting, such as "Way Down East," "The Miracle Man," "The Mark of Zoro," "The Four Horse-men," "Foolish Wives," and so on, but I am talking of the ordinary every-day program picture.

The scenario departments of all studios (I am told) are obsessed with the idea that there must be what is called "pep" in every story, quite regardless of whether it is suitable or reasonable, or not. It does not disturb them if the situation is one where in life two or three words of common sense would have dispelled it—if it helps along to their exciting climax that is all right! In my play, "The Great Moment," there were two instances of this which I was powerless to have altered, or brought back to my original script where the psychology was true-to-life.

But to get back to my statement that there is a reason why pictures are such nonsense as a rule—I think I have shown why—they are just a hash made of many ingredients by an indifferent cook! To remedy this, an author who can write a good story should be required to study and learn what in studio language is called "the movie angle," and should be required to deliver his script written in such a way that it can be "shot" by the director without passing through so many hands. Then what he meant would reach the public, and the magnetism of the mind would be felt. But the real trouble lies with the authors themselves, who have no idea as a rule what the "movie angle" means.

However, since practically all producers prefer only a de-tailed synopsis of your plot—and prefer to have the continuity written in their studio—the beginner need not bother much with this phase of photoplay writing. All you need do to sell your play is submit a synopsis of your plot and a cast of characters, as previously explained. And, since continuity writing is of so little importance to the beginner, the subject is here treated in a brief manner.

It is desirable for the beginner to have some knowledge of continuity writing, however, for it may help him understand better the limitations of the photoplays. More important still, he should have this knowledge for the day is coming, I feel sure, when producers will again require the author to submit not only a synopsis of his plot, but a complete working scenario as well. Prepare yourself, then, for to-morrow.

The First Step in Continuity Writing.—One of the most important phases of continuity writing is the power of visualization—the act of forming a mental picture of the thing to be presented on the screen. You must be able to picture your story in your own mind as it will appear on the screen; you must be able to see every action you put into your work. Action is the all-important requisite of the photoplay. It is what your characters do that determines the value of your work; and, in order to make your characters act properly, you must first be able to see in your own mind just what they are going to do. Unless the continuity writer has a clear idea of the action himself, he cannot make the director understand.

Let us presume that you have built a plot possessing all the requirements of a salable idea. You begin to write the continuity. But are you able to visualize your play? Can you close your eyes and see just how it will appear on the screen? If not, you will surely stumble in the writing soon after you begin. And the chances are that you will continue to the finish along the line of least resistance—the result being absolutely impossible to produce, no matter how good the basic idea.

So the successful continuity writer is the one with the picture eye. You must visualize each scene so you will know just how it will appear on the screen. You must see the play in action before you can begin to write the continuity.

Cultivate visualization. Find a quiet spot where you will not be disturbed by anyone or anything. Close your eyes and concentrate on your play. See it in your own mind. Don't dream. Visualize! You will be surprised how easily you will promptly develop the faculty to such an extent that you can visualize anywhere—even on the street—no matter how intense the activity around you.

When to Introduce Characters.--Producers used to print the entire cast on the screen before the play started; that is, immediately after the title of the script had been flashed before the audience. This method was unsatisfactory because it was an exceedingly difficult matter for the audience to get the different characters clearly identified in their own minds before they saw any of the action of the play, especially in the brief space of time alloted to the exhibition of the cast. The proper time to show a character's name and identify him on the screen is when he first appears in the action of the play.

Every character in your play should be introduced just as quickly as possible, and should instantly be identified in the mind of the audience. Nothing is more irritating than to see a character whose relation to other characters is not clear. The usual method of introducing and identifying characters is to insert a sub-title. Turn to sub-title five of "The Great Moment." Note how Sir Edward Pelham is introduced.

Keep your chief characters on the screen long enough when first presented to let everyone become well acquainted with them.

Begin Action Promptly.—Many writers make the mistake of wasting too much time on preliminaries. They use up many scenes without getting down to business. They bore the audience with a number of incidents having little or no connection with their plot, whereas they should strike to the very heart of the subject at once. The plot should begin in the first scene, if possible. Don't timidly wade into the action of your play. Plunge in!

Action Should Progress Smoothly.—Action should be-gin in an unaffected manner and progress easily from one scene to another. Study carefully the working scenario in part IV of this system. Note how smoothly the action flows in each scene. Every action of the characters tends to reveal their motives, their inner nature, in addition to furthering the action of the plot.

Remember there must be sequence in the action. As previously stated, the events in your plot need not follow each other in chronological order, but they must follow in logical sequence. The action of your play must progress smoothly, logically, interestingly from the first scene to the second, from the second to the third, and so on to the end. Each scene must be the logical outcome of the preceding, in a broad sense, though the continuous trend of the action may be temporarily halted to create suspense. Do not write a single scene for effect or to pad. If there is no good reason for any action promptly eject it.

In your faithful endeavor to make the action in your manUscript advance as rapidly and as evenly as possible, do not make the mistake of hurrying too fast. Do not imagine that something sensational, some startling new development of your plot, must take place every moment. Strengthen the possibilities of your plot wherever possible, but do not kill a man every two or three scenes just to enliven things. The action should not jump from one thrill to another.

Don't let your imagination run riot. Don't let the action of your play run away with the plot. Make it smooth and rapid—but not too rapid.

The SubTitle Defined.—Sub-titles are the words and sentences scattered throughout the action of a photoplay and thrown on the screen. All subtitles may be divided into two general classes: (I) spoken titles, or actual quotations; and (2) explanatory titles, or descriptive titles, as they are sometimes called. Sub-title four of "The Great Moment" is an explanatory title. Subtitle ten is a spoken title, and as such it is labeled.

The "insert" is matter, or objects, other than sub-titles, inserted in a scene, and briefly interrupting the action of the play in order to clarify its meaning. A fine example will be found in scene forty-four of "The Great Moment."

A descriptive title is generally used to introduce a character; to explain action which otherwise would take up too much film footage; to explain action not clear in itself; or to cover an elapse of time.

Why SubTitles Should Be Short and Used Sparingly. —Every sub-title introduced requires for its exhibition several feet of film, the exact amount depending on the subtitle's length. This naturally subtracts from the total number of feet remaining for the picture itself. On account of this, you should content yourself with just as few sub-titles as you can in order to save for the action of the play every possible foot of film. If possible, make your plot clear without using any subtitles; for the use of one is the frank confession that you are not able to bring out certain phases of your plot without resorting to the written word.

Keep your subtitles as short and as crisp as possible. Fifteen or twenty words at the most is plenty. Sometimes it is not possible to condense, yet you should exert every effort to do so.

One very important reason why few sub-titles should be used is the fact that the patrons of moving picture theaters consist of a motley gathering of various nationalities, many of whom are unable to read English. Therefore, if much of the action of the play is told by subtitles, the audience fails to enjoy the picture by missing the point entirely. So, if you can bring out any phase of the plot in action without wasting too much time, omit the subtitle. Try to make your script just as intelligible to the new Italian immigrant as it is to the college professor.

Do not make the mistake of telling something in a subtitle and then repeating it in action. In fact, you never should use a sub-title if it can be explained in action. It might be well to note that the use of explanatory titles in the middle of a scene is quite unusual, while a spoken title generally comes in the middle. It is customary for the explanatory title to precede the scene.

In your efforts to make your sub-titles short and crisp, do not make them vague and indefinite. Confusing sub-titles will ruin the best photoplay ever written. The audience must understand everything. Aim to write your sub-title so clearly that it must be understood. Also, it is possible to use too few inserts, to omit making a certain action clear, or to fail to indicate the passage of time. This must be watched carefully.

If you can use a sub-title to advantage, do not hesitate one moment in writing it. An artistic subtitle often increases the value of a play.

Use Variety.—Try to avoid such monotonous expressions as, "The next day," "Two years later," "The following day," and "Six months later." This type of subtitle is like the speech labels of some of the past writers, who always ended a piece of dialogue with, "said she," or "said he." Try to get variety in the wording of your titles.

Why the SubTitle Is Important.—It has often been said that the subtitle has no place in the photoplay; that it is a "child without a parent." This is probably an exaggeration. A photoplay without a subtitle would be somewhat like a stage play without conversation—who would care to see one? To use the words of a writer in the New York Tribune. " `Sumurun' was all very well, but it was as good entertainment as `Tea for Three' or `Sleeping Partner'?

"Some titles jump out and hit you. They never could seem a part of the story. They are the so-called decorative titles, done by misguided persons in their best Spencerian style. They have large curlicue capitals and sometimes wreaths of daisies or doves holding olive branches in their beaks. Titles should be so unobstrusive that one does not realize he is reading printed words.

"The trouble is that not enough attention is paid to the titles in a picture. What heroine could ever live this down, for instance? `Brother, will you speak to my fiance and try to ascertain the cause of his coldness? Things have not been going smoothly of late between he and I.' And yet we read that very title, supposedly spoken by one of the stars, and the picture was made by a well-known film corporation.

"And why do so many title writers yearn for the past tense? All of their remarks take the reminiscent form—they embrace restrospection, and refuse to relinquish it. `Mary Brown was a beautiful young teacher.' `The cabin stood on the edge of the desert.' `Robert loved his mother's maid, who was a pure and lovely girl.'

"Of course there are cases where we admit that titles are superfluous. It isn't necessary to say anything about it. All too frequently Mary isn't beautiful or young, but if she is, people like to discover such little things for themselves. Let the pictures also speak for themselves."

The Close-Up and the Semi-Close-Up.—A Close-up is a scene photographed with the camera near the object or action. The Semi-close-up is a scene in which the camera is not close enough to the object, or action, to be a Close-up, yet is not distant enough to be a long-shot. The Semi-close-up, then, is "in between" a Long-shot and a Close-up; it is a long Close-up or a short Long-shot.

The Close-up is nothing more than a close view of an object or an action. Formerly it was called a "bust," and was used to obtain a near view of the head and shoulders of a character. But to-day a close view of anything—head or hand, face or shoulders, foot or any part of the body, or any-thing in action—is called a Close-up. As previously explained, a still object—a newspaper, book, or telegram—is called an insert.

The Semi-close-up is generally used to show a close view of two or more people—when a close-up would not be necessary or would not show them sufficiently to advantage. It is also used to bring out details of action—a thing the Long-shot often does not do.

A few years ago it was thought necessary to show the full figures of all the characters in every scene. D. W. Griffith thought a play would be more interesting if detailed action were brought out. He conceived the idea of the Close-up. Now, if a director is in doubt, he always brings the camera as close to the object as possible.

There are many examples of the Close-up in "The Great Moment." See scenes six and seven.

The Fade-In and Fade-Out.—The first scene of most photoplays often begins with the screen dark; gradually the scene appears, constantly becoming larger until the full scene has unfolded, somewhat as though we were viewing it through eyes slowly opening. This is called the "Fade-In."

At the end of a play, the final scene often disappears slowly into darkness. This is termed "Fade-Out." Scene one in "The Great Moment" illustrates the Fade-In; scene five hundred thirty the Fade-Out.

The Fade-In and Fade-Out are also used to show an elapse of time. Generally the Fade-In is used in a scene if the Fade-Out was used in the preceding scene. If, however, a sub-title follows the Fade-Out, it is not absolutely necessary to use the Fade-In.

The Fade-In is also used to emphasize a person or thing. In this case the iris diaphragm is closed until only a small portion of the scene is discernible.

The Lap-Dissolve.—The Dissolve-In and Dissolve-Out are the same as Fade-In, except that the scene disappears into a haze, or mist, or emerges from it. Or some scene may "dissolve into" another and "dissolve out" again into the preceding scene. But this has another name. It is termed Lap-Dissolve. This effect is obtained by lapping the end of the negative of one scene over the beginning of the next scene. 'When this is pictured on the screen, the first scene gradually becomes indistinct; but, before it has entirely dissappeared, another scene appears. And vice versa.

Double Exposure.—You have perhaps often witnessed scenes, especially in comedies, in which a character walked along the edge of a skyscraper—a hazardous, not to say impossible, procedure. Such a scene is easily made, without risk, in this manner: The camera is first taken to the top of the building and a scene is photographed. Then the camera is taken to the studio, the film is rewound, and a scene is taken on the same film showing the comedian walking as though on the building—but all the while in perfect safety. This is a useful trick ; it is called Double Exposure.

The Flash.—The Flash is a scene appearing on the screen only for a brief time. It is, then, merely a fleeting glimpse of a regular scene. Suppose you have shown a letter on the screen in,, say, scene ten. The audience is given plenty of time to read it in this scene. Suppose it must be shown again, say in scene forty—perhaps this time, in the hands of the recipient. This time it is "flashed" on the screen only long enough for the audience to recognize it as the letter in scene ten. The flash is used to save time, film footage, and to speed up the action.

The Visions—You have often witnessed scenes in which, to a character in meditation, comes a vision of some person or thing. This is properly called a Vision. The effect is obtained by making a double exposure, already explained.

Reverse Action.—Have you ever witnessed a play in which a character jumped from the ground to the top of a building, an impossible feat? If so, you doubtless wondered how it was done. The character jumps from the building to the ground, or, if it is high, is let down by invisible wires. During the process, the scene is photographed—but the camera is running backward. When the film is completed and run properly in the picture, the effect is that of the character jumping from the ground to the top of the building. This is termed Reverse Action.

How and When the Cut-Back Is Used.—The Cut-back is an arrangement of scenes whereby the action in a play is interrupted to show another scene, or set of scenes, and then returned to later. The Cut-back is invaluable for many reasons; it is constantly used in the best modern plays.

The Cut-back generally does one or more of the following three things: (1) Creates suspense, (2) covers a gap in action, or (3) eliminates the too frequent use of sub-titles.

1. To Create Suspense.—This is the most common use of the Cut-back. Remember that thrilling picture wher ein the heroine is abducted by the "villain"? He carries her to an old mill and places her, bound and gagged, on a run-way slowly conveying her to a grinding death between great, ponderous, crushing wheels. But the hero hears of her capture! He starts to the rescue—but has some distance to cover. Here the Cut-back begins to be useful. The main action of the play—the scene in the mill—is constantly interrupted to show the hero hastening to the girl's rescue—ever drawing nearer. The closer the girl draws to death in the grinding wheels, the closer her hero gets to the mill. And the action is constantly "cut-back." This creates suspense.

2. Covering a Gap in Action.—Suppose a murder is absolutely necessary to the telling of a story. The Board of Censorship will not pass a picture if the crime is actually depicted on the screen. The Cut-back saves the situation. The murder scene is shown until the assailant draws a gun, or knife; then the scene is interrupted and the action cut to an-other scene or character; then we quickly "cut-back" to the murder scene, which shows the victim dead and the murderer escaping or captured. There are many ways of covering a gap in action with the cut-back; the above is only one.

3. Eliminating Sub-Titles.—In the murder scene de-scribed above, the Cut-back not only made the picture satisfactory as far as the Censors were concerned, but also rendered it unnecessary to introduce a sub-title. Again, suppose you introduce a dinner on the screen: It would be monotonous and wasteful to show the entire meal. So you merely show the guests as they sit down to the table, then cut to another scene or set of scenes, then shortly return to the dinner, and we see the meal ended. Thus the use of a sub-title is eliminated.

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