« PreviousContinue »
is a more complex method of saying always existed. For one thing, it is a
the same thing.
Today a smarter phraseology divides the continuity into "the treatment" a detailed synopsis in which the original story is recast for screen production with the episodes and business indicated—and "the breakdown", which splits this recast version into 360 or more individual scenes with the captions, camera angles, and locations described and numbered in most technical language. You can see why we continuity writers are indispensable, what with knowing the meaning of such words and inventing new ones each year.
The larger studios buy a story from the original author and employ a treatment writer to shape it up as a whole. The treatment writer develops the dramatic structure of the piece, absolves it of censorable scenes, and tries to translate words into picture business. Then the breakdown man rewrites it into closeups, long shots, and the like
- the sort of thing that you read about in textbooks on scenario writing. The total result is the continuity or scenario. Apparently this procedure is followed in an effort to secure the safety of numbers. You put three people on the job and get three times as fine a product, maybe.
The majority of continuity writers still doubt the efficacy of community story writing. That the original author's ideas must be subjected to translation is bad enough. But to pass such fragile stuff through two other hands, to inject three personalities into the total ah me! Results too often prove that three times one equals just nothing at all. The best continuity writers endeavor to handle all phases of the adaptation, even to editing the completed picture.
A shortage of continuity writers has
tough job. Writing a continuity is rather like crossing the British Channel, an experience no one would repeat did not a gracious nature erase the horrific memories. The sustained effort of carrying a photoplay, with all its manifold problems of story, acting, exploitation, and technical production, complete in one small scenario writer's brain — all in a nutshell so to speak for weeks at a time softens even the most leathery mentality. Your tale's psychology may be simple as the Silver Prize Story in the "St. Nicholas" magazine, but its structural problems are those of higher mathematics.
For another thing, the business is really hard to learn. Anyone with six months' experience about a studio can write the breakdown form. But facility in dramatic construction, a knack at inventing picture business, a talent for terse, witty title writing, those are other matters.
I know of no work requiring the same resourcefulness. No one would ask a novelist or playwright to face a battery of hardboiled critics, knowing little of the problems of his work, and invent instantly upon request. Yet a continuity writer does much of his work before this sort of audience, "in conference". He is regarded as a convenient mechanism which, once the penny has been inserted in the slot, delivers on the spot a suggestion. Actors and directors work to the strain of a studio orchestra, with a tonic of optimistic comment to keep their spirits up, and frequently vacations to make them fit. A continuity writer attends to the purely creative side of production under the hypercritical eye of the staff on the one hand, and the original author on the other, working as a rule for fourteen hour stretches every day in the week just before the picture goes
into production. Continuity writing may not be an art, but it is certainly a skilled and strenuous craft.
Finally, the opportunity to write that initial continuity knocks seldom and softly, and then no matter how quickly the door may be flung open is usually to be seen vanishing derisively around the corner like small boys on Hallowe'en. No business man is going to trust a green hand with a function which, within our little circle, is probably the most important phase of picture making.
Draw close while I answer the burning question. Salaries for this work range from $200 a week to $100,000 a year, depending on the standing of the company and the writer. There are staff jobs with a weekly salary; and there are free lancers who are paid piece work.
Continuities take from three weeks to two months to write. Men and women are equally successful, as otherwise, in this work. Should you then desire to sell yourself into bondage, charge at first about $300 for your body with, say, $2.50 extra for your soul- but plan to spend at least two or three years learning your job and another two years breaking into it. You will not earn while you learn. Unless, of course, you have made a name as poet, baseball player, aviator, or something of the sort.
Let us suppose that you have succeeded in persuading someone to trust you with a continuity probably one which will not be filmed this season and which you are attempting on a double or nothing basis. First, you will read the play, novel, or short story under the most favorable conditions, trying to absorb the maximum voltage, to see its best points and get the author's angle. Then go into reverse and, for a day or so, try to discover its weaknesses.
A continuity writer gets the same thrill out of punching holes in somebody else's story that the wrecking crew gets out of breaking up a De Mille setting after the film is finished. For real relaxation, give me a few hours of wholesome, health giving, destructive criticism.
Fault finding is easy, genuine distinctive criticism is difficult. Few stories are ideal screen material. From a continuity writer's viewpoint, they're all the same fine words and false hearts, each one imposing as a glass eye and just as impracticable. Anyone can spot foolish little errors like anachronisms, the things that fans call to the attention of movie magazines; but the fundamentals -inconsistent characterization, counter plots that take us jaunting afar, censor baiting scenes, morbid endings, and a thousand others require considerable critical analysis to perceive and remedy.
It is a curious fact that, although construction in novels, in short stories, even in plays need not attain perfection, a movie plot requires the most modern plumbing. Words make clear the inner purposes of a stage or literary author; and clarity covers a multitude of structural sins. But movies are wordless. You cannot explain. And when your characters are actually seen, silently moving through improbabilities, each illogical act, each unconvincing change of mood and character, stands forth conspicuous as a coal heaver's nails. You must make a good, serviceable, heavy duty plot that won't break down anywhere along the six thousand foot stretch ahead.
Moreover, your your continuity will doubtless be written for a star on whose favor your bare thread of existence depends since any sensible producer will settle long drawn disputes by firing
the writer rather than a million dollar box office asset. And if the home office has bought "Uncle Tom's Cabin" with a view to starring Childe Harold perhaps with a slight change of locale to Death Valley in order to profit by the success of "The Covered Wagon" - or perhaps wishes to build up Ophelia's part in "Hamlet" in order to give the ingénue star a chance, again you must take thought. For Hamlet must not run away with the story if the star is to play Ophelia. And Uncle Tom must not steal sympathy from any priceless infants. My advice is to cut him out entirely. The southern territories don't like black face parts anyway.
May I suggest in passing that diplomacy is a first requisite? You must please from two to six persons, to convince each that your script is in accordance with what he wanted. Inasmuch
as each will champion radically different ideas, the ideal continuity writer should possess the combined talents of Machiavelli, Lord Chesterfield, Zada the Hypnotist, the late Mr. Tweed, and the man who studied salesmanship by correspondence. Perhaps it were best
to take up the concert stage after all. Let us presume that you have studied the story, have hunted down each of the other fellow's mistakes and joyously crucified it. Now you must plot out a treatment.
During the war, when picture production ceased in Europe, American studios enjoyed an unprecedented boom which kept the few experienced scenario writers very busy. Since almost any sort of picture made money, unusual latitudes in script writing were permitted. With new millions pouring in and new scripts to be written each month, experimentation became possible. Such writers as John Emerson and Anita Loos, June Mathis, An
thony Paul Kelly, Jeanie MacPherson, Francis Marion, Lloyd Sheldon, and others developed, in those happy hectic hours, the complicated and highly effectual scenario form of today. To explain what it is all about, we must leave this idle chatter to become ponderously definite. A few sketchy comments on the technique will not teach you to write continuities, but may perhaps induce you to appreciate them.
There are two schools of continuity writing, the narrative method and the dramatic method. The narrative writer marches straight ahead from the start of his story, without great regard to form or final destination, always, however, making sure that the road is interesting. This division is discernible in other fields. Most novelists and short story writers use the narrative technique. It is a much more flexible
and less difficult medium than dramatic writing. Consequently, there is an ever present temptation to progress easily from situation to situation "shot to shot" in studio terminology
pictures. The dramatic script lends a greater polish, a higher emotional content, a more vital characterization, and a stronger climatic scene, as a rule, than the narrative. But there is always the danger of forcing the story into unnatural lines to conform with a formula.
Motion pictures break up naturally into sequences - episodes occurring at one time in one general locality - just as a play falls naturally into acts. The curtain of these sequences, or acts, is the fade. You fade in and fade out.
The earlier movies used many of these sequences, sometimes fifty and sixty. Today there is a distinct tendency toward condensation in this respect. Just as the Elizabethan play of many scenes and acts has been abandoned for the compact modern drama of three or four acts, so the motion picture is gradually diminishing the number of its sequences. The record is Nazimova's admirable screen version of "Salome" made in just one sequence. Numerous short episodes make the effect too choppy. There is no time to build an emotional interest in any one
Before the audience has thoroughly digested the matter in hand and definitely thrown its sympathy to one character or another, the act is over and we are "Twenty Years Later in Madrid", or what not.
A superfluity of sequences is usually the hall mark of a badly written picture but there is no rule. Griffith, notably, makes splendid pictures in multisequence form. Top notch continuity writers like Paul Sloans, Forrest Halsey, or John Russell often use this method. If the action is easily understood "The Iron Horse" for example, where the interest lies in history and in melodrama rather than in character the audience may be jumped about at will, and an enormous amount of ground covered in this way.
But for emotional character stories or delicate comedy, long sequences of unbroken action are better.
Your first problem will be one of exposition and characterization. As stated in a previous article, most effective scenarios start like a novel, characterizing the plot people in from one to three short episodes, and then build the body of the story with the structure of a play. It is sometimes possible to open the story proper - that is, the first incident where some such major interest as the meeting of the lovers or the threat of the villain is shown with the exposition, just as in a stage play. But not often, unless the writer possesses unusual skill. And a comparatively slow opening, devoted to characterization in short, genre episodes, is always preferable to a finale slowed down by insufficient characterization.
Parallel action, the movies' greatest advantage over the stage, was first discovered by D. W. Griffith, along with the closeup and most of the other fundamentals of the picture play. Parallel action requires the development of two simultaneous, related events. Negroes are attacking the shanty where the beleaguered whites have barricaded themselves; and in some distant Kavern the Klansmen are starting to the rescue. These two lines are then intercut- a flash of the fight at the shanty, a flash of the galloping Klansmen, back to the shanty, and so forth. When Griffith first exhibited this extraordinary novelty, a great cry went up from certain wiseacres - the same people who opposed his introduction of the closeup on the ground that a photograph cut off at the bust was unnatural and it was predicted that audiences would never be able to follow the story. On the contrary, this method of speeding the melodrama
nearly knocked the picturegoers out of their seats, and is today the most effective trick in the scenario writer's kit. Notwithstanding, it is most unwise to intercut parallel action in emotional - love scenes, for example except occasionally for purposes of contrast. Intercutting for contrast often heightens an emotional or comedy effect. For example, just after the handsome city chap has sworn to our little milkmaid that he never loved another woman, one might disclose a short flash of Lady Montressa in her magnificent boudoir, reading a love letter in which he has said exactly the same thing. An effect of this sort sometimes is good; and sometimes it wrecks the whole scene by breaking the emotional thread. So there you are.
A properly handled audience sympathy is the very first requisite of a good script. No audience will be in the least interested in the adventures of characters for whom it has no sympathy; nor will it be disturbed by a villain, smiling or otherwise, unless it has cause to hate and fear him. No matter how subtly these quantities are handled, the fundamental fact remains that the hero and heroine must be likable from the standpoint of the audience a movie audience, mind you and the villain despicable. You must plant these sympathies or dislikes by showing your plot people performing good or bad deeds, respectively, at the opening of your picture. And they must remain consistently in character throughout the story. Always make your point in pictures. A novelist or playwright can juggle with psychological values. His manysided personalities arouse definite sympathies or dislikes in the reader or spectator because the author is able to explain, in words, the presence of uncharacteristic qualities in this or that
individual. A movie author cannot do this. He can only hope to sound one strong note. Highly developed, involved characters confuse the screen audience; there is not a multiplicity of interests in such characters; there is just no interest at all.
Let us get back to particulars. In developing your treatment, it is well to eschew attempts at detailed writing and to keep your material in a few pages of notes for the first week or so. For some singular reason, the moment a treatment is written at length upon fifty odd pages of good white paper, it becomes, to the author thereof, gospel. Each change thereafter is like resetting a broken leg; and moreover, such changes usually necessitate other changes in many parts of the story, alterations far more easily accomplished in notes than in scripts. While your treatment is still fluid in note form, your mind will be open to new suggestions; once it is written, you are the champion of that particular treatment against all comers. So delay writing as long as possible. And then, if you can secure the services of a stenographer, dictate it. When dictating, a screen writer can concentrate upon a mental picture, a visualization of the scene as it unreels itself. When he himself writes, his visualizing powers are busy with typewriter keys or moving pen points; he has only his reason, which is not altogether sufficient for movies.
As to reason, or rather logic, let it be said that lack of it is hurtful and that too much of it is ruinous. Your event must seem logical. But if you go further to insist that, upon analysis, it be logical, your story may dry up completely. It is not life that you are trying to present. Were that the case, you could easily film without more ado the "Banker Has Love Nest, Says