Lethal Weapon — How to create character depth in mainstream action movies

How screenwriter Shane Black and director Richard Donner created a landmark action movie of the 80s by injecting a bit of humanity into the story

Martin Riggs is crazy. Not just your usual kind of crazy. He’s CRAZY. “Jumping off the top of a building for fun” kind of crazy.

 

A story about a family man cop partnering up with a loose cannon ready for the mental asylum is not a unique story in itself. Mismatched partners is a movie trope as old as movies themselves, but Lethal Weapon have managed to stay relevant and watchable decades past its original premiere in 1987

One of the reasons why Lethal Weapon has captured our attention for so long is the amount of depth there is to the characters. Depth? In an action movie from the 80s? With Mel Gibson? Yes, depth.

>> Read the entire article on Medium.com

Unlock your true productivity potential by focusing on less to achieve more

Do like Warren Buffett: stop trying to do everything all at once and focus on very few key things at a time

“If I could get one more hour each day, then I could [insert dream here]”.

We all been there. Daydreaming about having more hours in the day to do the stuff you really want to but can’t seem to find the time for. Check. Been there. Many times.

We look with envy at successful people. Somehow, they have unlocked a pool of unlimited time. That serial entrepreneur with all the successful start-ups in Silicon Valley. The visionary movie director from Hollywood churning out one masterpiece after another. Or the prolific and highly respected writer. How do they do it? What is their secret trick that made them so super productive?

“Waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.” (Mason Currey)

>>> Read the entire article on Medium.com

Kickstart your creative writing — Use the proven structure of mainstream Hollywood screenwriters to outline your story

So, how do you go about writing a screenplay for a feature length movie? Or any longer story for that matter?

You do one thing: Outline. Outline. Outline…. and… outline.

I know that many big-time novelists and screenwriters don’t outline at all. The Coen brothers have said in numerous interviews that they never outline, but for the rest of us, I truly believe that outlining is the way to go.

The classic books on screenwriting by Syd FieldMichael Hauge, and Christopher Vogler all talk about the need for structure to your story. Here, I’ve tried to summarize their wisdom and mix it all together to come up with a fundamental structure for storytelling.

It has worked really well for me and has always kept my writing on track and moving forward.

Why is structure so important to a story?

Stories, like music, almost always follow some kind of rhythm or harmony. I’m no musician but I can clearly hear if a piece of music is out of tune.

Creativity — music, storytelling, paintings — need to follow some form of structure. There must be a plan to the madness. If there is no structure, everything is muddled together and becomes noise.

Stories that don’t follow a structure often feel rushed, or flat and boring or, as is most often the case, become hard to follow.


Read the entire article on Medium.

“Crash to black” — We need to talk about the ending of ‘The Mist’ from 2007

Frank Darabont changed the ending of Stephen King’s novella. King loved it. Then, why did it rub so many people the wrong way? It might even have killed Frank Darabont’s directing career.

It has been almost 10 years since the movie was released in cinemas, and the new TV series based on the same Stephen King novella is about to premiere, so it’s time to take a second look at the movie and try to make sense of it all.

The the movie can be summarized like this: After a violent storm hits a small town in Maine, the protagonist, David, his small son, Billy, and their neighbor drive into town to get supplies. While they are in town, a strange omnipresent mist descends on the small community supermarket, and everyone inside gets stranded. The movie then follows all the other townspeople caught in the supermarket and how everything starts to unravel as they lose the ability to get out or to communicate with the outside world.

Misleading marketing

When The Mist came out in 2007, it was tailgating the mainstream horror revival of the early to mid-00s. It looked on paper like a guaranteed hit. It was based on a novella by Stephen King and written for the screen and directed by Frank Darabont. Darabont had previously made movies of two other Stephen King stories, namely The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption (well, 3 movies if you include the short film The Woman in the Room). The Shawshank Redemption has since been hailed as the best movie ever made, according to the users of IMDb.com.

Everything seemed to point to another success.

But the ending is so bleak it sparked a clear polarization of the audience; either you liked the ending, or you hated it, and the vast majority of the general audience seemed to hate it. So, what happened? Two things stand out, the marketing around the movie and the structure of the movie.

 

I’m no marketing expert, but the overemphasis on this movie being made by “the team who made the best movie of all time” seems foolhardy. This movie is different from The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, and therein lies one problem with the movie. The marketing created a clear expectation in the audience of a similar movie experience, maybe with a bit more horror elements thrown in for good measure.

Frank Darabont’s roots in the horror genre were entirely skipped in the marketing. The two other movies are not accurate pointers of his work, neither before nor after. They are the odd ones out. He was, and still is, a writer/director with long and storied roots in the horror genre.

It’s easy to understand why so many members of the audience left the theater confused and bewildered and angry about the ending. This was not what they were expecting going into the cinema.

Playing against audience’s expectancy

If The Mist should be viewed as a mainstream suspenseful movie about what happens when society as we know it breaks down, then the movie must follow a known and established structure or else it veers away from being mainstream. And this does not seem to be Frank Darabont’s intentions.

King’s short story had David and Amanda having sex in the supermarket office during their time trapped there, a plot development that Darabont did not bring over to his film. The writer/director felt that such an act between two characters — each married to someone else — would not be well-accepted by a movie-going audience and would lead to them hating both characters. ‘I’m so not getting away with that on screen,’ he joked. ‘Not even trying.’
– Source: Grant Watson’s “As a species we’re fundamentally insane.”

This is a very interesting statement by Darabont. He was aware of what the audience would accept in terms of character development but still decided on the bleak ending, even insisting on it, as the movie studio forced him to cut the movie’s budget in half if he didn’t change the ending. He opted to keep the ending and made the movie for half the original budget.

Rhythm

Mainstream stories must follow certain rules. Similar to music having rhythm. If not the listener — no matter if they are musically trained or tone-deaf — will call out the music as out of tune or playing in disharmony.

One of the best known and, perhaps, most adopted ways of constructing stories in mainstream movies is The Hero’s Journey. Almost all (western) movies follow the three-act structure, with a clearly defined start, middle and end, wherein the middle (the second act) takes up about half the entire movie, and the first and third act bookending the middle takes up a fourth each.

The 12 steps of “The Hero’s Journey” (Source: “Memo from the Story Dept. — Secrets of Structure and Character” by Christopher Vogler & David McKenna — p. 35)

 

1)Things start out in the normal world (before the mist descends on the town), and something happens, prompting the protagonist to go on a quest in the special world.

2) Here, the hero will find friends and foes, meet tasks and challenges. The 2nd act, the middle part of the movie, takes place in the special world, where nothing is as it seems, and the protagonist is constantly tested to determine his or her perseverance. It’s only when the hero has proven his or her worth they are shown the path back to the normal world.

3) The hero returns as the savior bringing back the sword to slay the dragon or the magic drink to heal the dying king.

Three well-defined acts and some markers along the way provide direction for the audience. It’s been the staple of almost all mainstream stories for centuries.

“Crash to black”

And this is where The Mist deviates from The Hero’s Journey. The protagonist David fails the final challenge. He does return to his normal world — by getting out of the supermarket — but in the process, he loses everything, his wife, his son, and everyone he cared for. He left the special world with nothing, and he doesn’t change as a person. He hasn’t learned anything or gained knowledge he didn’t have before. That’s about as bleak as it can be.

Below is the last two pages of the screenplay. And whereas the novella by Stephen King ended with an ambivalent ending with the survivors sitting in the car contemplating their options, Frank Darabont continued the story for a few minutes.

The last two pages of the screenplay for ‘The Mist’ (2007) — Written by Frank Darabont

“CRASH TO BLACK” indeed.

By adding a few more minutes to the ending and making it as bleak as this, Frank Darabont punched the audience in the gut. Hard.

“In a story, what the reader feels is driven by what the protagonist feels. Story is visceral. We climb inside the protagonist’s skin and become sensate, feeling what he feels. Otherwise we have no port of entry, no point of view through which to see, evaluate, and experience the world the author has plunked us into.”
– Lisa Cron: Wired for Story

The protagonist is our entry into the universe of the movie. For good and bad, it’s how we view the world of the story. You have — as a storyteller — a great responsibility towards the audience.

Watch the entirety of the last 8 minutes of The Mist below.

Tricked

Christopher Vogler writes in his seminal work on The Hero’s Journey and screenwriting “The Writer’s Journey”:

“The Hero’s Journey is a skeletal framework that should be fleshed out with the details and surprises of the individual story. The structure should not call attention to itself, nor should it be followed precisely. The order of the stages given here is one of many possible variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically shuffled without losing any of their power.” (Vogler, p. 19)

The problem — story structure wise — with The Mist is it calls attention to itself. If you, as a storyteller, rip out the audience’s hearts during the movie, you have to give it back to them at the end. If you don’t follow the structure, to some extent, you give the audience a bad taste in their mouth.

The movie could also have ended with the massive monster they meet on the highway simply crushing the car underfoot, killing everyone inside. SPLAT! End of story. And that would have left the audience just as bewildered because the story skips of elements of The Hero’s Journey.

When you, as a filmmaker play on the expectations of the audience, you have to deliver in a certain way. Failing to do so will leave the audience disliking the story. The audience feels tricked.

In The Mist, there is no resolution to the story. This is why, at the premiere, so many people reported watching the audience leave the theater in complete silence. They were in shock; they just watching a father shoot his own son only to be rescued minutes later. But they were also silent because they were trying to figure out why the movie felt so wrong. There was something missing from the story, or something felt off kilter.

I perfectly understand — and respect — why many liked the ending, precisely for its hard bleakness. It was very different. But, if you are trying to create a universally understandable narrative for the general audience, you have to play along with some expectations from the audience. Expectations which are rooted in a long storytelling tradition.

If not, you run the chance of undoing the entire narrative and making your story a one-trick pony. Once you’ve seen the movie, there is little point in seeing it again, because the trick it plays on the audience only works the first time around.


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“Hell or High Water” — Pissed of and looking for someone to blame

Looking into the dualistic structure of the narrative

“Hell or High Water” (2016) is at face value a classical tale of cops and robbers, or perhaps even a modern western as it has been hailed by many. It’s a story about what is right and what is wrong. Lawmen and outlaws. You don’t have to watch the movie for long before you notice that everything in the movie is 2-sided. There is two of everything. There is a counterpart for everything. Two brothers- one the criminal, one the law-abiding citizen. Two Texas Rangers- one white and one Native American.

All the main elements are opposites and are pulling in different directions. By doing so, the scenes in the movie have an inbuilt dynamic that creates a very interesting and well-paced narrative.

Word of warning: the rest of this article pretty much spoils the entire movie — so if you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you stop reading right here and return when you have watched it.

Cross-posted from Medium: https://medium.com/@simonlundlarsen/hell-or-high-water-always-two-there-are-b8f31c548004

“Carlito’s Way” — The One That Got Away

Looking into how one cleverly constructed long take perfectly illustrates Brian De Palma’s extraordinary craftsmanship and his mastery of the visual language.

Your body instinctually moves around when playing a video racing game. You can’t help it. You are leaning left and right, moving with the virtual car in the game.

And almost everyone has tried to lean forward in their cars to get a better look at a road sign, while speeding past on the highway. It makes little sense to the rational mind to lean forward a few inches to get a better glance at a sign, while moving forward a high speed. But we do it anyway.

Why? Because certain visual stimuli make us do it. It’s ingrained in us, as humans. The individual senses are tricked into overruling each other; even though we know we are sitting on our couch playing a racing game, the body leans, because our eyes tell us the car is moving. It’s pure muscle memory.

Director Brian De Palma is a masterful visual storyteller. He knows all the tricks in the book of visual medium, and his gangster opus “Carlito’s Way” from 1993 is a perfect example of this.

The Visual Language

One aspect where “Carlito’s Way” and Brian De Palma’s work excels is in the visual language. From fade in, he is telling us what kind of movie this will be.

He is inviting us into the realm of the story. The entire story you are about to watch is told directly by Carlito (brilliantly played by Al Pacino), laying on the stretcher being rushed to the hospital.

“[..] the first job of any good story is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality.”
— “Wired for Story” by Lisa Cron

 

Lost but not forgotten

“I can’t make a better picture than this”
— Brian De Palma (from the “De Palma” documentary)

Carlito’s Way works perfectly on so many levels. If you want to study the medium of film and see why it is so different from other mediums, this is a perfect example to do so. Every scene is crafted with such care and precision. Nothing is left to chance, and it all works in unison, the action and acting on the screen, the dialogue, the cinematography, the music, the sound, and the editing. When so much care is put into each element, they are all capable of standing on their own but combined, it creates an experience like no other medium can provide.

Brian De Palma is not credited enough for his skill as a filmmaker. No matter if you regard him as one of the most significant auteurs of the 1970s to 1990s or you see him as a master craftsman capable of surrounding himself with top talent, you have to respect the work that carries his name.

>>> Read the entire article on Medium

Scaling geometry difficulty in Level Design

The last few days I’ve been playing a lot of God of War II and thoroughly enjoying every last moment of it. That is, up until now. I’ve just gotten to some of the last levels I presume as the story arc is nearing its end (the Phoenix Champers) and the difficulty have just risen so steeply in the last few levels that the game is becoming more frustrating than fun to play.

Let me explain. In the last few years I’ve steadily gone from being a hard-core gamer to a somewhat ex-core gamer due to high level of time consuming elements of my life (such as university studies, wife and son). And that has some clear effects on my timing and aiming skills. These skills only stay good if honed continuously, and I simply don’t have the time for that.

And in the case of God of War II many of the later sequences of the game requires just these skills. As I’ve become an ex-core gamer I tend to play on the easy setting just so that I have time to complete the game without using too much time on it and still see the parts of the game that everyone is talking about. The problem is just that the geometry in the level design don’t scale. The difficulty of making a jump in a 3D environment is just as hard on extreme difficulty as it is on easy.

And that’s no good.

When games moved into 3D, however, the jumping puzzle became a more difficult task. In addition to requiring the player to control their jumps in an extra dimension, the problem of viewpoint reared its ugly head. Games with fixed cameras sometimes made it quite difficult for the players to see where they were landing, while manual control added another control to juggle. #

I would really like to see that if I choose to play on easy setting that the jumping and timing puzzles gets scaled accordingly, else I’ll end up in the position I’m at with God of War II currently; I’ll just stop playing and all the hard work and godly greatness being purred into the levels to come will forever be lost on me.

Me, myself and my avatar

Discussing participatory culture and player rights in virtual worlds
By Simon Larsen

Supervisor: T. L. Taylor
Course: Computer Games Culture – F2005

IT-University of Copenhagen


Me, myself and my avatar

The currently biggest virtual worlds 1 on the market boast millions of active players 2 and have indeed become as a second home for many. More and more of our leisure time are being spent in the world of Azeroth, Paragon City and Norrath 3. At the same time, more questions arise about player created content and the ownership of that. But what rights do players have in the games? To briefly sum it up; none. The majority of players have properly never even read the End User License Agreement or the Terms of Use for their game. But because games like these have become such a participatory media, or co-creative media to use the words of Sue Morris (2004) it is important to discuss ownership and control of these game media.

What problems lies in the fact that commercial companies effectively owns content created by players of virtual worlds?

Identity extension

The common statement you hear when discussing rights of players in virtual worlds is; “it’s just a game”. Yes and no, but there is much more to it. Scott McCloud writes in his book “Understanding Comics” (1993) about the interaction with inanimate objects;

When driving, for example, we experience much more than our five senses report. The whole car ” not just the parts we can see, feel and hear “is very much on your minds at all times. The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car.” (p. 38)
This notion of inanimate objects being an extension of our identity can be translate directly to virtual worlds. We and the avatar we control in the game are one and the same. That is why people spend so much time in the games and feels very much attached to their avatar and the actions done by and to them. The avatar is another version of them.

In online multiplayer games without persistence, the skill of my avatar and the skill of me, as a player, are directly linked together. If the game company Valve took the (however unlikely) decision to shut down all Counter-Strike servers worldwide, I could just take my FPS 4 skills and start playing Quake III or Unreal Tournament. With persistent game worlds that is much more difficult. The skills I have as a player only count for a part of the abilities of my avatar, the rest is gained from leveling in the game. If I was to change to another game, I had to start all over from scratch.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

The counter-argument to this statement is – again “it’s just a game”. No actions in the game have real-life consequences. Still people spend months, even years, in some of these games, building social networks and honing their reputations by their actions (Taylor, 2002).

Who Watches the Watchmen?

If we take a closer look at World of Warcraft, we clearly see that the balance of power and control is uneven to say the least. Blizzard Entertainment? who runs World of Warcraft? explicitly states in their Terms of Use that:

“All title, ownership rights and intellectual property rights in and to World of Warcraft (including but not limited to any user Accounts, titles, computer code, themes, objects, characters, character names, stories, dialogue, catch phrases, locations, concepts, [..], transcripts of the chat rooms, member profile information, [..]) are owned by Blizzard Entertainment or its licensors.” (Section §13. Ownership).

In short, everything related to the “universe” of Warcraft is owned by Blizzard. Any story that you as a player creates either in or outside of the game, through role-playing or otherwise is owned by Blizzard. It is, presumably, your labor of love, but you have to rights to it.

Furthermore, they state that: “You may not do anything that Blizzard Entertainment considers contrary to the ‘essence’ of World of Warcraft” (Section §3. World of Warcraft Code of Conduct, C.v). Even the quotation marks around “essence” are there, but the term is never defined clearer than that.

The power of many

But where is the fair use of the game? If I want to role-play a certain character in the game and create a back story around it that, goes against the ‘essence’ of World of Warcraft, what then? Will they ban my account from breaking the Terms of Use?

The value these players give to the overall game experience is higher than that of the game itself. Reed’s law 5 certainly applies to these games, where the number of participants in the network is directly connected with the value of the network. These games are nothing without the players 6.

Question left unanswered

“MUD players are people. They don’t stop being people when they log on. Therefore, they deserve to be treated like people. This means they have the rights of people.” (Koster, 2000)

Many questions still linger unanswered. This is a topic of continuously heated debate, and each side of the table has still to come up with the argument that would end the discussion.

If the balance of power over intellectual property and the player rights shifted more in the direction of the players (customers), would this unleash a barrage of legal issues that would eventually end the MMORPGs, as we know them today? Is it then best to leave the balance in its status quo?

Would this damage the game playing experience? Would it destroy the play, as in? I play a game to escape real life, why bring real life in here? Is this the Pandora’s Box of virtual Worlds?

Could the game companies gain more from loosening the grip on the rights, instead of controlling them rigorously? As Henry Jenkins writes (2002), some game companies already do and seem to be gaining from it.

 

References

All links checked as of April 2005. Not all are referenced directly in the text.

Notes

  1. Here I am referring to Virtual Worlds, MMORPGs, MUDs, MOOs (The terms are here used interchangeably) and the like, as game spaces that encompasses some form of interaction with other players (people). It is intently used very broad, so here it includes, without excluding, games such as “World of Warcraft”, “City of Heroes”, “Second Life”, “Counter-Strike”, “Quake”, “EVE-Online”, “Anarchy Online”, and so on. Even respected scholars are finding it hard to determine what constitutes as a virtual world and what does not (http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2004/06/a_virtual_world.html)
  2. According to MMOGchart.com
  3. “Azeroth” being the fictional world of “World of Warcraft”, “Paragon City” is from “City of Heroes” and “Norrath” is the world of “Everquest”
  4. FPS: First Person Shooters. An action-oriented genre of games, currently dominated by games such as Counter-Strike, Half-Life 2, DOOM III and Far Cry.
  5. Reed’s Law states that a value of a social network is directly connected with the number of participants. 2N − N − 1, where n is the number of participants in the network, e.g. a network of 5 participants would have the value of 26, while a network of 10 would have a value of 1013. The value of the network scale exponentially with more participants (Wikipedia).
  6. As of writing this players of World of Warcraft are leaving the game by the numbers and canceling their accounts because of their dislike of a new PvP system that has been implemented

Playable Design – Presenting a method for Game Development

The computer game industry is currently facing problems on how to structure and manage a production due to the cause of ever-growing budgets and manpower required. Methods from other fields have been tried. However, these are not built with the purpose of developing games and do not facilitate the entire production or qualities of a game. We have during the course of the project addressed this matter by devising a method of our own which should enhance the process of creating games. A deeper analysis of current computer game developments identified the main problems to occur in the pre-production which suggests that this is where the point of insertion should happen. We have based our solution on theory from fields such as software engineering, innovation theory and game design theory and supplied these by observations made through experiments where we simulated parts of a game production. The result is the EVE method, which stands for Experimentation, Visualization and Evaluation and is based on principles of creative process control, flexible design in the form of prototypes and easily accessible feedback through early testing.

Download the entire report below and get a ready-to-use game development process with an heavy emphasis on prototyping as a design tool.

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Playable Design – Master Thesis (PDF – 2.1 MB)

Playing the game – Managing Computer Game Development

From the Introduction 

Every time a computer games is released it’s accompanied by endless reports and stories about how disorganized and chaotic the production had been. It’s a wonder to me that an industry that a yearly growth of about 15% still is plagued with bad planning. 

Even though the industry make a ton of money each year, it’s a known fact that many project end up with red numbers in the end. This is partly due to the very big economical investments that are normal in the industry. It’s common that large productions have a production budget of around 3-4 million dollars. That’s just for production. 

You don’t have to be a mathematical genius the figure out that you have to sell a lot of copies to make a return on your investment. The profit is a long way down the road when a single copy only brings in a couple of dollars in real profit.

And many games never sell over 500,000 copies worldwide in their entire lifespan.

To examine if the bad production planning really is the very root of the problem, I analyzed 43 different Postmortem articles from Gamasutra.com. The result of the analysis can be read in appendix A.

The analysis both confirmed and changed my view of the way professional game development is being carried out in the development houses around the world. Even though the analysis shows that some productions did indeed have good planning, and a solid pre-production, the majority of the projects did not. They were trouble with either bad or no planning, or bad project managers. Some even have all of the above. The articles all stated this as one of the main problems. 

One other thing that’s quite remarkable is that almost all of these games went on to receive huge critical and/or gamer acclaim. So it’s not so much a question of finding a qualified workforce. The problem lies more in the planning and management parts of the projects.

Another thing that all the productions share is that none seems willing to learn from former mistakes. The articles used in the analysis have all been printed in the period between the September 1999 and August 2002. So even though the information was there, none of the projects show any wish for change in the development form.

The lack of management, or bad management if you will, wears down all the people involved in the development and does not create the desired production level. More time than necessary is used correcting errors and not with what everyone really wants: to invent, develop and refine unique ideas for games.

Many mention the loose structure and the lack of control as a necessity for creative inspiration to thrive. In this report I will try to argument against this and many more opinions.

I will try to show that you as a game developer can save a huge amount of time in the game development process with a proper and thorough planning coupled together with a type of management that gives all the people involved time and space for creative work.

With the saved time comes saved money. Time is, as we all know, money.

Hypothesis 

Game development projects are generally badly planned and badly managed. This results in delayed productions and exceeded budgets. The process with creating computer games is not effective enough and a huge amount of time and human resources are wasted because of this. It seems that the tendency is to “re-invent the wheel” every time around. 

 

Problem 

How can the process of creating computer games be more effective without the loss of any creative force? 

This effective adaptation shall be seen through project management, planning, and organizational reflections. 

 

Audience for This Report 

The target group for this report is everyone working, or planning to start working, in the computer game development industry. That’s a rather broad statement but it’s my opinion that everyone can draw from the hopefully constructive solutions and suggestions written herein. 

Notes 

Throughout the report I use the term “computer game”, which here is meant as a technological aided game, be that either a console game, PC game, handheld game or what have you.

Secondly, all the people (gamers, programmers, producers, etc.) mention in this report are referred to by using the pronoun “he”. This is because the writer of this report is a “he” and the majority of the people working in with computer games development are male. Why that is, is a longer and much more elaborate discussion that lies beyond the aims of this report.

Some of the books referred to are only available in Danish. The ones I’ve been able to find in English have been listed in the reference list.

 

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