Fan Film Writer's Primer

Discussion in 'Fan Productions' started by Maurice, May 2, 2011.

  1. Maurice

    Maurice Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Re The PROBLEM With THE Problem, I got a PM from someone here about a story treatment they are working on, and I encouraged them to take a step back and address the Problem, Complications and Decision I discussed upthread. As an example, I applied the questions I was asking to one of my short films (Stagecoach in the Sky) to illustrate how simply you can sum up the key elements of a proposed script:
     
  2. Solarbaby

    Solarbaby Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    It was I who contacted Maurice,

    That advice was very helpful. I am looking forward to rewriting the script. I think I have got my head round it more now. Thanks!
     
  3. Ryan Thomas Riddle

    Ryan Thomas Riddle Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    A little late to the game here. One of the things that I've taught my creative writing students, ranging from ages 6 to 18, is that stories are about problems that a protagonist must overcome against fierce opposition. The strife of opposing desires, worldviews and agendas are what help create drama and conflict in a story.

    As Maurice has said it's easy to get this one wrong, as a great deal of fan productions have. Further, as Maurice has pointed out, most fan scripts have characters that are reactive not active (I'm looking at you "Enemy: Starfleet!" and "Blood and Fire").

    And it's a mistake that I made in my own novel, which I wrote as my MFA thesis. Since the novel has been shelved, I don't mind sharing here (although I may go back to the basic idea one day). So using Maurice's above structure:

    Notice also that the issue about his brother's disappearance is never resolved. Now had I done a better job, I could've made that something that gets us into the story, where the story becomes something else entirely. But I admit I screwed the pooch.

    From my example above, hopefully, you can see the missteps that can turn a potentially engaging protagonist into a rather tame character. In fact, there are some interesting elements in the novel (some I'm quite proud of) but those elements are not enough to make a story. They are elements, honestly, in search of a story.
     
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2012
  4. CorporalCaptain

    CorporalCaptain Admiral Admiral

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    Yeah, I was I was driving off to the holiday gathering, I realized that this was the problem with my so-to-speak suggestions. Fact is, I really like how Hunter is not the best in every situation. The chess game scene with Shelby is one of my favorite fan film scenes, period. I like it because it's extremely unpretentious.
     
  5. USS Intrepid

    USS Intrepid Commodore Commodore

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    Thanks, I'm glad you liked it. I had fun writing and playing it. Never really been satisfied with my performance in it, though that's nothing new. :)
     
  6. Ryan Thomas Riddle

    Ryan Thomas Riddle Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Missed Opportunities

    I just posted the following in the STAR TREK PHASE II "Kitumba" sneak peek thread, and thought it would be the perfect illustration of looking for missed opportunities in scripts, and how a strong Story Editor can help ferret out these things in scripts.

    One thing that I've noticed in fan films is that a lot of the scripts could be made better with another script pass, looking for missed opportunities. This is just one example.

    A strong Story Editor should be able to spot these opportunities and better shape the nuances of dramatic storytelling in a script. Watching some fan films, I get the sense that there's a rush to get something out that not enough time, as has been discussed in this thread before, has been spent on fine tuning the stories being told.

    PHASE II has worked with some amazing writer — David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, Jon Povill — but there's a sense from their episodes that the production isn't challenging these writers to better obvious flaws in their scripts, where characters are more reactive than active, or opportunities to create more dynamic and energetic scenes instead of characters standing around talking to one another or merely watching something unfold on the viewscreen (looking at you "Blood and Fire").

    Now I don't mean to pick solely on PHASE II, which does provide a somewhat entertaining simulacrum. This is something I've seen in other fan films, such as STARSHIP FARRAGUT and HIDDEN FRONTIER. Those series have also had stories where there was plenty of opportunity to up the the dramatic ante, giving more dynamic and energetic scenes.

    Thinking through scenes, asking questions, such as "what is needed here?" and "what information does the audience need or doesn't need?", can further help spot these missed opportunities. But it's always good to have a Story Editor whose job isn't necessarily to write scripts, but to either rewrite them and challenge the writers to better them.
     
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2012
  7. Maurice

    Maurice Vice Admiral Admiral

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    [LEFT]That's a great analysis, Middy.
    [/LEFT]

    Frankly, there's a tendency amongst creators to fall in love with their work and it's difficult to get and maintain the necessary critical distance from it.

    It's good to challenge every scene. Why is this scene here? Is it advancing the plot, illustrating the theme, telling us something about the character AND is it entertaining? Ideally, it should be all four of those things. That's very very hard to do, but it's a goal you have to aim for when writing for film/TV.

    Exposition has a tendency to be deadly dull, and is best accomplished in situ, rather than via characters standing around discussing it.

    The hilarious play "Urinetown: The Musical" nails it in this exchange during the opening scene, titled—appropriately—"Too Much Exposition":


    A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, "Is this information for the audience's benefit or the character's benefit?" If the former, you're not doing your job right.
     
  8. MikeH92467

    MikeH92467 Vice Admiral Admiral

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    I think it's a fair criticism that fan film scripts can fall short from not having that one hard-boiled set of eyes looking for ways to push, pull or cajole writers into improving their scripts or failing that to do a necessary re-write. It's fascinating when you look at the background of the TOS classic episode "City on the Edge of Forever". It was rewritten so many times that nobody knows for sure who deserves credit (or blame) for certain changes. However it's always at or near the top of the list of nearly everyone's "best of" lists. Contrast that with the third season where GR, Dororty Fontana, Gene Coon, et.al were gone and look how many weak stories there were compared to the first two seasons. I'm not going to say that "And the Children Shall Lead, The Way to Eden or even Spock's Brain could have beenn turned into classics, but I do think that when you connect the dots and look at the writing process for season 3 and who was overseeing it, and compare it to the first 2 seasons it's pretty easy to conclude that writing and script supervision simply wasn't up to snuff. (no knock on Fred Freiberger, who turned out some episodes that were as good as any in the first two seasons, but just didn't have the support structure IMHO that would have raised the floor on some of the clunkers.)

    ETA: I think that Phase II suffers just a bit from hero worship with these excellent writers. I felt that Blood and Fire came across as too much of a polemic and that it would have benefited enormously from one or two more re-writes. Again, that's no criticism of Phase II. What they accomplish is nothing short of amazing and any criticism has to be kept in perspective.
     
  9. Maurice

    Maurice Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Speaking of writers, here's me with one last Saturday...

    [​IMG]
     
  10. Admiral Buzzkill

    Admiral Buzzkill Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    Oh, right - that's the fan who told off the sci-fi producer who'd rebooted his favorite old space show, on that episode of CSI:

    [yt]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I876imp3R1Q[/yt]
     
  11. doubleohfive

    doubleohfive Fleet Admiral

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    :techman:

    As my dad would say, "Cool, dude!"
     
  12. Ryan Thomas Riddle

    Ryan Thomas Riddle Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Put Some Remix in My Trek

    Last time I wrote about missed opportunities and the importance of having a strong story editor to spot those opportunities. Fan films either don't employ story editors or have story editors who aren't very good at their jobs. But that hasn't been the only thing bugging me about fan films lately. No no, there's something bigger than just having a story editor that is slowly choking the longevity of these productions — the inability to leap beyond pale imitation.

    Creative types all get their start by imitating those they admire. Aspiring comic book artists (and I was once one) try to replicate exactly the pencil strokes of their favorite comic book artists — Jack Kirby, Curt Swan, whoever. Aspiring writers imitate the voice of their favorite writers. When I started taking an interest in writing, I tried to imitate Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury or whoever I was currently reading at the time. Years later, as a working writer, I hope my voice is clearly my own (although I can still easily see the influence of those writers on my work even today).

    But there comes a point when imitators must move beyond copying and transform their work. In other words, they must leap beyond imitation. If not, they risk failure and stagnation.

    Copy, Combine and Transform

    I'm a fan of Kirby Ferguson's EVERYTHING IS REMIXED. Kirby argues that everything is remixed, from music to art to movies to whatever. He's right. Even the products we use today are remixed from the past ... that's how innovation begins. Like the iPod, which was influenced by the Kodak camera of the 1920s. Kirby even gave a talk on the subject.

    For Kirby, there's three stages of remixing — copy, combine and transform.

    Copying, however, is only the baby step of the creative process, but one that fan films seem to be forever stuck in. Fan films, especially those set in TOS, are great at copying sets and costumes, exact replicas copied from the original 60s show. Copied. Replicated. But they rarely take their stories beyond mere imitation of the original show and its spin-offs.

    Let's be frank, TREK storytelling over the decades, until the Abrams' movie, had become stale, stagnant junk food. Fan films stories are often nothing more than fast food, recipes copied from a steady diet of TREK and nothing more.

    Take STAR TREK: PHASE II. It had the chance to move beyond imitation, beyond a copy of a copy in its two episodes "To Serve All My Days" and "World Enough and Time." Both episodes showed sparks that PHASE II was willing to take risks and move beyond the STAR TREK formula. However, since those two episodes, it's begun a slow decline into entertaining simulacrum, even so far as to using canned music from TOS rather than original scores.

    What's needed for fan films is to combine and transform their works. And not in the fannish, fan fic manner that PII has recently gone toward — i.e. trying to knit into the broader "canon", introducing Mary Sue characters such as Peter Kirk (and Chekov has also become a Mary Sue) and pseudo-character arcs that substitute for strong dramatic storytelling.

    Like George Lucas and the first STAR WARS or Abrams in his TREK movie, fan films should look to other shows, movies and books for inspiration. TOS fan films should study and dissect other shows from the 1960s (like THE OUTER LIMITS, I SPY, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), other movies, books and history for inspiration. Learn other literary languages that they can combine with TOS as Lucas combined Japanese films, WWII air battles and myth to create STAR WARS.

    More than that, they need to transform their works, break free of the STAR TREK format, the STAR TREK formula. STARSHIP EXTER's unfinished episode is the closest example of this. EXTER moved beyond mere imitation. Although, it doesn't quite go as far, it attempts to truly transform the format.

    In so many words, fan films need to transform themselves or risk slowly dying off. Tell stories that matter, not just film episode after episode where stuff happens, but nothing really actually happens. No longer can they rely on canned music, snazzy CGI, pretty sets and costumes to carry them. If they don't, they'll find that fewer and fewer people will want to donate their time, money and travel hundreds of miles to make these things. Nor will anyone want to watch their treks.
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2012
  13. doubleohfive

    doubleohfive Fleet Admiral

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    BRILLIANTLY said, sir. Brilliant. :techman:
     
  14. Psion

    Psion Commodore Commodore

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    Whoa ... it's like he's re-mixing James Burke!

    Alright, that's a little too snarky for the actual value of the content. Kirby goes beyond technological innovation and tackles the elements of creativity itself. That was a really neat video.

    I'm intrigued by the need to bring in new elements to fan films to keep them from stagnating. Star Trek itself took a number of standard military tropes and set them on a starship in space to create something new for television.

    On the other hand, fan films are re-mixing, but in ways that aren't immediately obvious. They're reproducing the look and feel of the original show, but they're doing so on a shoestring budget and utilizing tools and technology that would have been science fiction themselves forty years ago. What's missing is the creative influence of new ideas in story-telling.

    Isn't the ultimate accomplishment of what you're describing to take elements of Star Trek, blend them with other influences, and put out something that is no longer Star Trek?
     
  15. Admiral Buzzkill

    Admiral Buzzkill Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    As one of the creators of the unfinished Exeter episode (writer, effects, some art design, but certainly not the creative force who made the whole thing happen; that would be Jimm Johnson, obviously, and I can't speak for him) I'm flattered by the notion that we aspired to "transform" what we were recreating but I'm not convinced that it's so, much less that we were at all successful at that. So many of those decisions that were discussed among us (again, not speaking for those made by the producers among themselves) were very much of the "how closely can we hew to the technique as well as the spirit of the original?" For example, our shots of the ship don't look old-fashioned next to Phase II's simply because we didn't know how to light them more dimensionally or animate more dynamically, but because we wanted them to look as much like something you might actually have seen on Trek TOS as we could.
     
  16. Ryan Thomas Riddle

    Ryan Thomas Riddle Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    But how it combined those tropes, along with the tropes of pulp SF, was in itself transformative. Thus creating something innovative for television.

    Not so much blend them completely, but learn the languages of other material than the very material that the fan films are copying so that their approach to storytelling is much more richer. Studying other forms of storytelling than TREK. Learning how those shows construct stories, how they build character, how they resolve plot threads, etc. So that fan film writers and producers can breath fresh life into the stories they tell.

    But you're right, what I am ultimately taking about is the creative influence of new ideas into the storytelling. To find inspiration from something other than TREK itself. Take one of my favorite episodes, "Conscience of the King," its influence was HAMLET and MACBETH. That episode was very much informed by studying something other than science fiction.

    As for the Abrams example, those folks took the things that made TREK fun and adventurous and combined that with the spectacle of the movies they loved (yes, even STAR WARS) to transform TREK into something that was once again exciting and interesting.

    Doing that won't make these films any less TREK. After all, TREK is a format, a vehicle for a multitude of stories. Action-adventure. Dramatic. Thoughtful. The original TREK was much more interesting in its early first season when it wasn't locked into a formula, when it was a pseudo-anthology that didn't limit the kind of stories it could tell.

    Hell, let's take a look at two other TREK feature films. TMP tried to combine the thoughtful, esoteric science fiction of the New Wave and 2001 to give us a story about the possible evolution of mankind with machine. TMP combined with these two elements with the TREK format to transform the source material. Whether successful is up for debate, but I admire the attempt.

    Now let's take TWOK. Meyer infused that movie with high seas adventure, shoving more of those military tropes into it. However, that movie is very much CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER in space, more than the original TREK. Even Meyer admits to lifting the dead midshipman from the Gregory Peck movie. Meyer, not quite understanding TREK, took things that he was inspired by and combine that with TREK to give us his take on the material. And TWOK remains the more popular of the original TOS movies.

    That's the beauty of TREK, it can tell any kind of story.

    That being said, fan films are like an ouroboros in remixing only TREK, eating their own tails, soon they will consume themselves. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy fan films. They are my guilty pleasure. There is a lot of potential in them, and I'd like to see them take more risks, tell stories that matter with characters who don't merely drift from moment to moment, but drive the action.


    Maybe, Dennis, I'm a bit overzealous in my enthusiasm for STARSHIP EXETER, which certainly does capture the original spirit of the original. And I love that it does try to replicate the 60s effects, which shows much more imagination to solve a creative problem than throwing up a CGI starship zipping around phasers at full blast, imo.

    That being said, I've always felt that the writing was doing something more than other fan films in this particular genre, giving us characters that were actively trying to solve a problem rather than merely reacting to the events taking place. More than that, it feels as if there was also an attempt to play on several TREK tropes, like the pretty yeoman, rather than merely replicate them.

    STARSHIP EXTER not only captured the spirit of the original, but gave us something wholly new with its characters and story. Then again, it's the high bar that all fan films aspire to reach for me. Well, that and "World Enough and Time."
     
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2012
  17. Admiral Buzzkill

    Admiral Buzzkill Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    Well, I'm certainly glad that you admire the writing on the episode, and we did have pretty specific goals in terms of professional construction, etc. - some of which were met, some perhaps not so successfully. That said, we looked a lot at particular events, types of scenes, subplots and so on from TOS as parallels to what we were doing (a delicate way of saying we copied).

    I always looked at what we were doing on that outing as largely pastiche (and I admired that about "The Savage Empire"), at least with respect to the writing. If there's one thing that does trouble me about fan films it's maybe the tendency to inflate the importance and influence of what we're doing while not consistently hitting some basic professional targets. As Brad Warner opined in another context, the world is full of folks who want to save the environment but who aren't keen on cleaning their toilets. :lol:

    P.S. - You're not wrong about our intent with regard to Ensign Richards, I guess. We did want to do a bit of a turn on that one - which we may some day see the payoff to ;) - and I was fairly insistent that she have rank beyond the generic "yeoman."
     
  18. Ryan Thomas Riddle

    Ryan Thomas Riddle Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Nothing wrong with a good pastiche when it's done well.
     
  19. Admiral Buzzkill

    Admiral Buzzkill Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    I'm a great fan of parody and pastiche - and certainly they can be "transformative" in some instances. The movie Galaxy Quest uses a pastiche of Star Trek as its jumping-off place.
     
  20. Maurice

    Maurice Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Yep. That's actually been a difficult thing to pull off. The whole "weirdspace" thing seen in Act 2 and the end of Act 3 is an example, because part of the design aesthetic of the show is to make it look like it would have if made in 1970 with the techniques available then. Jimm Johnson rejected a number of VFX for Act 4 because they looked computer generated. Act 4 has a lot of effects shots, and just about all of them are amongst the most complicated ones in the show. It's very easy to make them look too modern. In fact, for one effect, I proposed a CGI equivalent to a something Disney studios effects animation department did before WWII, and it looks great, AND it's actually something they could have done on TOS had they thought of it.

    This relates to what Middy was saying about bringing in other influences. There's plenty of things people can bring to fanfilms that aren't fanwankery (endlessly connecting the dots and filling in continuity that exists only for its own sake). Look beyond the walls imposed on the franchise and see if you can stretch the format instead of slavishly following the formula.