Writing - Setting In The Photoplay
( Originally Published 1922 )
The Function of Setting Explained.—Setting in the photoplay consists of the time, place, and condition it) which the action takes place. In the setting we have what we might call "atmosphere" in terms of art, or "environment" in the terminology of science. In a way, the setting means to the plot and characters what the background of a painting means to the figures painted, with the exception that the setting frequently exerts considerable effect upon the plot of a play and upon the characters in it. For example, suppose in a particular scene the main characters are attending a dance. Surely it would make a great difference upon the characters and the plot if the setting or background of that dance were a ballroom on Fifth Avenue or a barroom on the Bowery. So the setting in a photoplay is important for this reason if for no other.
How Setting Affects Chances of Selling Your Work. —The setting in your photoplay is also important because of the bearing it may have upon the ultimate acceptance or rejection of your manuscript. Editors are partial toward stories that may be filmed without too great an expenditure of time and money. While it may be pleasing to you to write a story dealing with the South Sea Islands or the Alps, it may not be possible for the average editor to transport a company to these places and produce your play. It may indeed be a very thrilling background to the action of your plot to have a great city destroyed) by an earthquake, or an ocean liner sunk by a submarine--but a setting of this character may make it absolutely impossible for you to dispose of your work. While several photoplays with extremely elaborate settings have been produced, such as, "Intolerance," "Foolish Wives," and several others, these photoplays without exception were arranged by the directors themselves with concrete knowledge of exactly what they could and could not do, A manuscript of this character is almost never bought from an amateur.
It is not necessary for the success of your play to introduce rare or costly settings. Some of the greatest photoplays of all time have been developed in an ordinary atmosphere where the cost of production was at a minimum. Take, for example, "Tol'able David," in which Mr. Richard Barthelmess was featured. From every standpoint, this was probably one of the greatest motion pictures ever produced. The characterization was perfect, the plot was thrilling, the entire play was tense with great dramatic situations, and yet the setting' was a plain rural section of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Here was a great photoplay with the plainest setting imaginable.
So your chances of ultimately disposing of your work are greatly increased if the setting, or background, of your photo-play is one that can be supplied readily from the properties that are the possession of all studios. Every first-class motion picture studio can provide any reasonable setting—large city streets and buildings, country valleys and hills, all types of homes, and any of the average interiors, such as, living-rooms, bedrooms, offices, drawing-rooms, kitchens, and other scenes common to American life. Any scene may be put into your play, or you may use any setting you like, if it is only common to the majority of American people. But if you select as a setting for your play some out-of-the-way locality, the chances are ninety-nine to one that your work will be rejected.
In spite of the fact that many directors and producers have the reputation of being very careless with their money when it comes to producing pictures, it is a fact that the great majority are thrifty, economical business men who do not unnecessarily waste large sums of money. They are all attempting to produce the most pleasing result possible with the greatest economy of means; for the more they spend upon the setting of any photoplay, the less doubtful it becomes whether or not they will make a profit. And the profit risk is of times greater than the outsider may realize. The writer who understands this situation and attempts to cooperate with economy is the one who receives first consideration.
Beauty in the Setting.—In your effort to provide a simple setting, you should not spoil your photoplay with an uninteresting background. While it will hinder your chance of success to use a setting requiring the expenditure of too much time and money, it likewise will spoil an otherwise good photo-play to have it lack proper setting. While producers do not always care to spend many thousands of dollars upon rare settings, they nevertheless are always perfectly willing to go to any legitimate or necessary expense to provide a setting fully in keeping with the excellence of your story. So you need not hesitate to provide a setting that is at once in harmony with the story of your photoplay and at the same time a thing of artistry and beauty. In fact, it is very important that the background of your play be pleasing to the eye. The lives of many theater-goers are more or less drab, colorless, and uninteresting, Hence, they enjoy beauty in their entertainment. To see a photoplay in which the action quite largely takes place amid pleasant, bright surroundings, furnishes a happy relief to the sameness of life's events and acts as a mental tonic to movie fans. So it is true that most people do not care to see a story of tenement life, of hardships, of poverty, of deprivation—they much prefer to look at the brighter side of life. Deal with it, then, in your next photoplay. And remember that many of the most beautiful things in life are those nearest you. You need not visit Hawaii to find beautiful settings. There is hidden charm in a little side street of your own city; a little ragged child playing in the back yard can be made artistic when properly photographed and carefully handled by a competent director. In many of the D. W. Griffith productions the most poignantly beautiful and expressive scenes are not those reproductions of French villages and streets during the revolution, or the walls of Babylon before the fall, but are those scenes with simple backgrounds, the familiar American settings, scenes in which the simple country maiden is shown enjoying the company of some of the farm fowls. In many cases Mr. Griffith has taken a common setting and so photographed it and so arranged the characters featured in the scene that it looked like a reproduction of a master painting. In all things, including the photoplay setting, the simplest things are often the grandest, because the appeal is more universal and more understandable.
How the Setting Has Increased in Importance.—In the early stages of motion pictures the setting was of very little importance. If an exterior scene were photographed, almost any location not repulsive would do; and, if an interior were photographed, cheap canvas scenery was used and was considered entirely satisfactory: for the photoplay of those days was more or less a curiosity, and it was highly gratifying and satisfying to the audience merely to see characters moving back and forth before them. As pictures developed and progressed to their present stage, the setting constantly played an increasing role of importance. More and more time has been spent to beautify the background of every scene, to reproduce with fidelity both ancient and modern settings as they actually appeared. Where in the old days we saw crude canvas settings costing comparatively few dollars, we now frequently see many extremely elaborate settings costing thousands of dollars and conceived and executed by some of the greatest artists in the world. Noted artists like Joseph Urban and Hugo Ballin have devoted their time and energy to creating for the screen settings of rare artistic beauty.
The Four Uses of Setting.—But the evolution of setting in the photoplay has not stopped here. The setting may also be used (1) to help along the action of your plot, (2) to contrast the character of your players, (3) to emphasize the emotion of your plot, and (4) to develop traits of your characters.
1. Effect of Setting on Plot.—To show one way in which the setting may influence the action of your photoplay, sup-pose, for example, that a young girl of very ordinary education and of poor circumstances falls in love with and is married to a young man about her own age. It is quite obvious that the future events of this young girl's life might vary greatly depending upon whether or not this young man's home, to which she is taken, is an environment to which she is accustomed, or whether it is an environment entirely above and beyond her. If this young girl is familiar with and accustomed to the -environment, or setting, to which she is transported, events, as far as the setting is concerned, will proceed in an orderly manner. But, if she is transported to an environment with which she is entirely out of harmony, where the customs and practices are foreign to her, it is plain that the setting in which she is placed may have a great effect upon the future events of her life.
2. How Setting Contrasts Character.—If the heroine of your play is a wealthy young lady accustomed to all the luxuries of life, and the hero is a poor young man who had always been accustomed to depend upon his own resources, the great contrast in their characters could be brought out better by means of setting—that is, by placing the young lady in an atmosphere of luxury and refinement and the young man in a home of the poor in an undesirable section—than it could be by any explanation you might make. In other words, contrast or harmony of character may be emphasized by setting.
3. How Setting Emphasizes Emotion.—Emotion in your play may be greatly emphasized by the setting. A tragic scene may be emphasized by gloomy surroundings, or it may be made the more tragic if it takes place in a wretched tenement room. On the other hand, great grief sometimes may be made the more poignant if it occurs amid gay and brilliant surroundings, for the contrast is then greater. A love scene may be made more romantic if it occurs in a moonlit garden rather than on a crowded subway. In other words, there is a fitness in events and places. The sunrise calls for optimism; twilight is more suited to reverie. The old, dismal house with the green shutters and decayed garden fairly emanates mystery or tragic events.
4. Effect of Setting on Character.—What a man is depends largely upon the interaction of two forces---namely, the tendencies of his nature and the ultimate effect upon him of his environment. Your characters may have certain characteristics due to heredity, but their environment will deter-mine to a considerable degree the development of those characteristics. The fate of your heroine will depend, to some ex-tent, upon the character of the environment in which you place her; and the success or failure of your hero likewise will be determined partly by his surroundings.
All About the Historical Setting.—No matter how tempting it may be, do not write plays requiring castles of old, ancient costumes, or antique customs. Occasionally plays of this type are produced, but only when they are so strong and vital that the difficulties of production are overbalanced by many good qualities. And, even in such cases, the stories are generally written by staff-writers, not purchased from outsiders. The photoplay with the historical setting has more or less of a limited appeal. Of course, you may say that "The Three Musketeers" was very successful. But you must remember that this story was written by Dumas years ago ; he was writing of the life that he knew, with the very buildings and streets about which he wrote before him, in most cases. Being a Frenchman, he was writing about his own race and was able to inject a wealth of observation and racial feeling, not to mention historical knowledge. You would not be personally acquainted with a historical setting, and you cannot give out something you have not first taken in. In the words of D. W. Griffith: "Your own street is full of romances, tragedies, comedies. The human comedy is a never-ending one. You know about your street. You do not know about the streets of Madrid or the streets of Philadelphia in 1776. You do not know about the streets of Belgium in 1914, nor Fifth Avenue in 183o. You do know Main Street today. Write about it !"
While it is not advisable to write a photoplay in which all the scenes are of a historical nature, yet it is frequently advantageous and desirable to introduce a few historical scenes of a more or less allegorical nature. In many of the best photoplays produced, the director frequently fades out of modern events and shows a few scenes of long ago, in costume, to heighten the effect and bring out a certain point of the story.
Why Exterior Settings Are Important.—In every photoplay you write, part of the action, if not most of it, should take place out of doors. A picture is more successful when nature is used as a background—when the air, clouds, falling snow, rain, and moving trees are made part of the story. There is psychology in this. One's spirits are always higher when out in the sun and fresh air. And so it is with theatergoers—they will enjoy far more the action of your play if most of it takes place in the open—around beautiful lakes, peaceful valleys, quiet gardens, open roads, flower fields, velvety lawns, on the bridle path, the tennis court, in the swimming pool.