Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Learning Movies By Watching Movies: Watching FAST and Watching SLOW


I like to watch movies in fast-forward. Not the first time, of course. There would be little point in that. Rather, when studying a film in order to learn from it. Strange as it may sound, I recommend this as something you should try as well.

I originally started to do this as a way to save time. Whenever I am preparing a blog article or have a particular area of screencraft I wish to study, I always have to re-watch three, four, sometimes up to a dozen films for research. But frankly, I don't have that much time in my day. Movies are long. So to cut down on research time, I began to take advantage of a feature on my laptop's movie player that allows playback at 1.5x speed (50% faster than usual) without muting the soundtrack. That way, I could still watch every moment of the film in only 2/3 the time.

However, I soon noticed a surprise additional benefit to this. If I was examining these films for anything to do with plot, story structure, or character arc, I found I could see the shape and course of such things quicker and easier than I could have by watching the same film at normal speed. One difficulty that stands in the way of the developing screenwriter who attempts to learn more by watching other films is a feature film's length. To the uninitiated, feature films appear to be such wild, complicated things, but this is actually untrue. Most great films have very simple stories and clear, straightforward structure. However, this is lost on many since they cannot see the forest due to all of the trees. Feature film structure demands a certain number of story sequences, each with their own objectives that must be accomplished through a certain number of scenes (five, six, a dozen or more). In turn, every scene has its own sub-objectives there to advance the story and move the sequence forward, all requiring series of action, exchanges of dialogue, sounds, images, and the use of camera and editing. The result is that the viewer gets lost in the details and finds it hard to see the overall shape and movement of the story as a whole. Being stuck in the moment, that bit of screencraft executed only a few scenes ago becomes a fading memory. This may be good for the viewing experience (good story structure should by nature stay hidden under the surface), but difficult for those trying to use the film as a learning tool.

In short, I owe a good deal of my film education to being impatient. Watching films at 1.5x speed compressed the overall narrative, allowing me to better see and remember how one event led to the next, how one turning point related to the one before it. Zipping through scenes caused me to no longer dwell all my attention on each individual shot and line of dialogue, but instead see the scene as a whole, and thus taking away only the general movement of the scene; what was done, what was accomplished, how it was accomplished, and how its outcome changes the course of the film, leads to the next story action, and advances the sequence to its next structural turning point. You could call it a “bullet-point” method of viewing a film. Light on details, heavy on function.

This tactic will of course give you no help when it comes to learning proper pacing and scene construction (the method I describe next will do worlds of good for this). Nor do I wish to undervalue the importance of the little details of plot, theme, and character (the difference between a good story and a great film is usually found within the use of these very details). But if what you seek to understand is the broader movements of story and structure, how each scene and sequence works together to create one cohesive and functional narrative, I strongly suggest you give this a try. 150% may sound a little fast, but it is not. In fact, I was surprised to find that a lot of films (mostly poor or painfully mediocre films) actually play better at this speed. Unless the film has unusually quick-paced dialogue or dizzying-quick action sequences, you will not miss a thing – as long as you are paying attention. (If you are going to be multitasking, its wisest to play the movie at its normal speed.)

One technical problem is that most movie or video players automatically mute the soundtrack when playing at faster speeds. Watching at 1.5x speed is not much help without sound. I am no expert on audio-video products, so you will have to test this out at home or experiment with the various media players you can get online. I use Toshiba's proprietary DVD player to do this on my laptop and the Playstation 3 can do this in my living room.

I should add to this that when it comes to analyzing films you have seen multiple times, films you have watched on so many occasions that you can now recite dialogue and no longer even need the sound to follow each scene, you can watch these films EVEN FASTER. Last month, I needed to re-watch Back to the Future and got through the entire film in under twenty minutes. What does this do? It turns every scene and sequence into a tight, concise brick of action. You don't watch the scene, you instead receive the concept of the scene, the idea of the scene; basically why it exists and how that brick fits into the structural whole. It's a bit like reading a written point-by-point breakdown of the film, but far better, as you can observe how each event directly causes the next, how the flow of action to action moves the narrative forward. It is difficult, almost impossible, for one to remember every essential structural point after observing a full two-hour length film in one sitting. That is expecting a lot from your memory. But the same seen all in twenty minutes? Far easier. The whole film's structure now sits firmly inside your head.


When it comes to using films as a learning tool, it is also good to watch them slow. I mean, really slow. Not in slow-motion, mind you. I don't see any use in that (at least not at the moment). I am speaking of a technique called the “START/STOP”, something found in UCLA & USC Screenwriting instructor William Froug's book Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, Volume 2. Used correctly, this technique can teach you more from watching a single film than you might in an entire semester-long course on the craft.

Step 1: Select a film to study. Make sure it is a film that is top-notch in terms of its storytelling, one you love and admire, and ideally one similar to the types of stories you wish to create. I also suggest choosing a film that remains fairly traditional in its approach to storytelling, one considered to be the “gold standard” of its genre or type, so its lessons can may be widely applied to your own narratives, rather than something like a three-hour nonlinear art film that stands out from the crowd simply by being so different. Also (this is optional) find a copy of the film's screenplay. In most cases, you can download these screenplays online in .pdf or .doc form. You can also find many published in book form in local libraries. You will want to refer to the written script from time to time.

Step 2: Watch the film in one sitting from beginning to end. Get an overall view of the shape and form of its story, but while watching also try to identify the most important elements of its storytelling from a screenwriter's point of view; where and what are the plot's major dramatic turning points, how does the protagonist's character change over the course of events and what causes this to happen, what thematic elements seem to be present, and anything else that may jump out at you as unusual or important. As soon as the film fades to black, start writing about your observations. Do this right away while the film is still fresh in your head. You can take as much time as you need and go into as much detail as you like, but one to two full pages should be enough. Include any questions you might have regarding how the storyteller accomplished one thing or another. Make note of any particularly memorable scenes. Also mention your viewing experience on an emotional level. How did the story make you feel throughout its course? Was this the storyteller's intention? Take a moment to hypothesize on how and why the storyteller managed to move your emotions this way.

Step 3: Here comes of the fun part. And by fun, I mean grueling. Go back to the first scene of the film. Watch it to the scene's conclusion. Go back to its start and watch it a second time. Watch this one scene again and again if you like. Then, on a clean page write “SCENE #1” followed by a short slug that describes the scene (ex. “JOHN WITH MORTY OUTSIDE BIKER BAR”). Then start writing a thick wad of notes on anything and everything you notice about the execution of that scene in terms of its written craft. Watch the scene over and over to observe it on its most atomic level; shot by shot, line by line. Ask, what is the purpose of this scene? Why is it here? What does it do? How does it do it? What important information is communicated in this scene? How did the storyteller communicate it? Is any of this exposition? Information that will be useful later? Is anything set up secretly that will be paid off in later scenes? How was this executed? What is the conflict in this scene? How does it start? How does it develop? How is its outcome important – or does the scene's conflict exist as a diversion to help deliver what the scene is really about? What is the scene's moment of change that moves the story forward? How does the end of this scene set up the action of the next?

This is only a small sampling of matters to consider. Some scenes give you a lot more material to chew on than others, but try to go far beyond a few simple sentences. Expand your observations into anywhere between a paragraph and a full page or more.

Step 4: Watch the next scene and repeat the process. Then the next scene. Continue on like this for EVERY SINGLE SCENE in the entire film. Every scene. One at a time. Analyzed under the microscope. Until you have reached the movie's end. By the time you have finished, you will know this film like the back of your hand and will have learned more about screencraft than you could have ever imagined.

Don't overlook the short scenes in your START/STOP. Give them the same degree of attention you give all others. Even if the scene lasts only a few seconds, that scene has been put into the film for a reason. It communicates something significant. What is it? The opening scene of Die Hard is nothing but a shot of an airplane coming in for a landing. This may not seem like much, but this simple opening still works to communicate information and set up the following action. Since we are watching this plane, it suggests someone important to the story must be on it. Someone who has just come a long way. Subconsciously, this causes the audience to ask, “Who is this person, where did they come from, and why are they here?” Then, in next scene we learn this person is our hero John McClane, gripping the plane's armrest in fear (which suggests he must be here for something important if he hates flying this much).

William Froug suggests doing a START/STOP on one film a month for an entire year (which I guess is a lot cheaper than going to film school). However, I must have been a much more hardcore START/STOPPER than Froug ever imagined. He believes an entire film can be finished in only a couple days. Yet whenever I have done this, I worked for one to two hours a day for a month or more. By the time I was finished, I was so exhausted that I didn't want to attempt another film for an entire year. But what a reward! For instance, on my third attempt, as you might tell from the example given above, I chose the film Die Hard (it's still the gold standard for the action genre for a reason – its craft's execution is shockingly pristine!). Using Froug's START/STOP, I learned more from watching this single film than I probably had my entire time attending film school. After two months of work, I had 81 pages of single-spaced type-written notes, so much of it I found so insightful that I had to include it in my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms three years later. 

You can read some of the highlights of this START/STOP in a five-part series of articles I began in 2009 titled “Things I Learned from Die Hard.”

If you want to learn to write by watching movies (and you should), you have to pull yourself outside of the headspace of the casual filmgoer. If learning the craft were that simple, everyone with a stack of DVDs or a subscription to Netflix would already be an expert. You have to watch them smart. Watch them slow. Watch them fast. Watch them repeatedly. Watch them in terms of their tiniest pieces. Watch them in terms of their absolute whole. And do your homework. Write your discoveries down. Writing about it forces to you to think about it and develop that which begins as a tiny vague notion into a fully-realized method of approach. Watch movies like a scientist. Watch movies like a writer.

That's all I got for now. scribble on