Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Monday's lesson: Composition

Pressing deadlines prevented me from going for a walk on Monday, but they didn't stop me having a bit of school. (In retrospect, maybe they should... I was running a bit late on those ol' deadlines!)

Also, I took notes for this entire lesson in red, which is why this entry is in red. Take it as read.

Okay, simple but very powerful lesson today: Composition. It's just like musical composition, you can do anything you like, but over time structures have evolved to make it easier to start. With story composition, those structures are referred to (by McKee anyway) as the canons of composition.

They are:
  • unity & variety
  • pacing
  • rhythm & tempo
  • social & personal progression
  • symbolic & ironic ascension
  • principle of transition
Unity & Variety

"A story, even when expressing chaos, must be unified." Viewers of your film should be able to say, because of [inciting incident], [climax] had to happen.

Because of the brainwashing, an assassination or finding the truth had to happen - the Manchurian candidate.

Because Imperial stormtroopers destroyed Luke's home, he had to go and fight the empire, eventually destroying the Death Star - Star Wars: A new hope

The inciting incident is the most profound cause in your story, and the climax is the ultimate effect of that cause. The spine that holds it together is the protagonist's desire to restore balance.

Within unity we must induce as much variety as possible, for instance in Casablanca, the main story is a love story, but you'll also experience political drama, comedy and even aspects of the musical.

"The key to varying a repetitious cadence is research.


That's the alternation between tension and relaxation. Some films, like Face/Off, just ratchet the tension up all through the movie, leaving you exhausted at the end. The best films give you a slight breather from the tension, usually through humour, before propelling you into more peril.

Even though this is 'pacing' and not 'rhythm', McKee talks about the 'rhythm of life' a lot in this section.

Rhythm & Tempo

The rhythm is set by the length of scenes. In an average two-hour film, each scene should average 2.5 minutes, right? But really you've got some which are 30 seconds, and others which are six minutes.

The point is, avoid long scenes because they risk being boring, even if the dialogue is fantastic. It's the scenery that people get bored with. If it's the same for too long the eyes start thinking about doing something else.

However, there are exceptions. TWELVE ANGRY MEN is a film based on a stage play, set in a courthouse, and taking place in real time. This is based on French neoclassical theatre, where they strictly obeyed the unities, a set of conventions that restricted a play's performance to one basic action or plot, taking place in one location in real time.

Even though that theoretically makes for one long scene, the effect of a scene change is when characters enter and exit. The energy changes, the story moves.

In the example of TWELVE ANGRY MEN, the characters were all there all the time, but the camera chooses to focus on smaller groups of people. Sets within the set.

In the film MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, two characters share dinner in a restaurant, in real time. Their scene changes are created through word pictures. Got to see that film.

Tempo is "the level of activity within a scene via dialogue, action or a combination of the two."

As we head towards the climax, scenes tend to get shorter. (I'm nodding in agreement here, the Manchurian Candidate certainly did) When the climax arrives, we can put the brakes on, stretch the playing time, and the tension holds.

If we lengthen and slow scenes prior to a major reversal, we cripple our climax.

Now to the different types of Progression, the first being:

Social progression where we widen the impact of character actions into society. It starts intimate, then gradually spreads outwards. Classic example - a farmer finds an alien in his field. Then the aliens take over earth. Or similar.

Personal progression, on the other hand, is where you drive actions deeply into the intimate relationships and inner lives of the characters.

Symbolic ascension is when you build the symbolic charge of the story's imagery from the particular to the universal, the specific to the archetypal. So characters become symbolic of a larger principle, for instance, or a symbol within the story identifies with a value.

Ironic ascension is kind of cool. It makes the audience think, "yep, life is just like that!"

  1. He gets what he always wanted, but too late
  2. He gets pushed further and further from his goal, only to find he's been led to it
  3. He throws away what he later finds is indispensable to his happiness
  4. To reach a goal he unwittingly walks in precisely the other direction
  5. The action he takes to destroy something becomes exactly what are needed to be destroyed by it(I still don't get that, I'm sure it's a misprint... basically, it doesn't destroy it)
  6. He gets something he's sure will make him miserable, does everything to get rid of it - only to discover it's the gift of happiness.
(NB: He is just a generic term here, it could've been 'she')

What encompasses all the ironic ascensions is this: when someone is sure this is how life is, and life shows them it's waay different.

Lastly, the principle of transition is the third element between two scenes (the other two elements being the end of scene one and the beginning of scene two). It's something in common for the two scenes, or something that contrasts the two scenes.

For instance, a comparison, in Manchurian Candidate (2004) you've got Marco eating noodles while watching TV. Cut to Raymond, also eating noodles while watching the same program on TV.

Contrast: An episode of Star Trek: Enterprise I saw recently. Hoshi says the crew are probably meditating while they're at a Vulcan monastery. Cut to Captain Archer being fiercely beaten by an Andorian.

Other examples:
  1. Characterisation trait
  2. An action
  3. an object
  4. a word
  5. a quality of light
  6. a sound - eg. The Beatles' Good Morning ends on a chicken clucking, which morphs into a guitar note at the beginning of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)
  7. An idea.
Nuff said. Catch up with you next lesson!


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