August 9th, 2010

writing comedic characters

Screenwriter Alan Zweibel developed an exercise when he was 21 designed to nurture different character voices/sensibilities in his writing. YouTube.

August 7th, 2010

the abyss

Hal Holbrook and Charlie Sheen in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

“Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.” — Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim in Wall Street

July 21st, 2010

something for nothing

I was curious as to how much money actors and directors make in Hollywood simply out of royalties alone. The royalty percentages are apparently quite tightly regulated by unions.

I found a rather tidy and enlightening summary of the history of royalties (or “residuals”) in American radio, tv and cinema. A snippet:

“The first broadcasting residuals were paid in 1941, and concerned the medium of radio. Radio performers would perform the show twice (once for the Eastern time zone, then again for Pacific time zone). When ways were found to record the first performance and broadcast it a second time, the union of radio performers (AFRA, American Federation of Radio Performers) insisted on the payment of residuals.”

More at Google Answers: History of Actor Royalties/Residuals.

And for some insight into what these percentages actually mean to the likes of Stephen Spielberg and Daniel Radcliffe, there follows below a list of the 40 top earners in Hollywood from last year (2009). Snip:

Stephen Spielberg
Estimated 2009 earnings: $85 million

-$50 million: Universal theme-park royalties and consulting fees (ongoing deal signed in 1987)
-$20 million: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (fee for producing and directing upcoming 2011 release)
-$10 million: Other back-end revenue, royalties from older films
-$5 million: Transformers: R.O.T.F. (back end as executive producer)

The numbers are dizzying. I imagine him forgetting entire projects that are still pumping millions into his reservoir of income! And he’s not even number 1 on the list.

Vanity Fair Top Hollywood Earners.

(Image: Tom Hanks in Catch Me if You Can [Spielberg, 2002])

July 21st, 2010

Rosemarie is for remembrance, between us daie and night

An unhinged Ophelia (Kate Winslet) recalls that rosemary is
traditionally for remembrance, in Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, 1996).

A rose by any other name:

The botanical name Rosmarinus is derived from the old Latin for ‘dew of the sea’, a reference to its pale blue dew-like flowers and the fact that it is often grown near the sea. (Garden Guides)

Rosemary for memory:

Rosemary is said to stimulate the memory; both Greek and Roman students wore garlands of Rosemary to further learning in their studies. Rosemary also has a strong association with marriage and it was traditional for brides to carry sprigs of Rosemary in wedding bouquets; this was originally for its aromatic properties. Today, Rosemary is also associated with death; some European countries carry Rosemary at funerals and throw the herb into the grave. (Suite 101: Rosemary)

To wear a wreath of rosemary into an exam would be a fun tradition to uphold, I think.

I was looking for some kind of natural mosquito repellent and I read online some claims of rosemary to that effect. So I steeped a heaped teaspoon of dry rosemary in about 3/4 a mug of hot water, for an hour or so — maybe a bit longer. I strained the solution into a small atomizer in order to spray it on my skin before bed. And, lo and behold, I haven’t gotten a bite since, except for a night when I forgot to use it. I admit that’s hardly conclusive scientific evidence, but so far so good.

Rosemary in English folklore:

Rosemary was also popular as a Christmas decoration, an all-purpose disinfectant, and even as a hair rinse. As late as the 1990s people were still calling it the ‘friendship bush’: ‘You always had to plant rosemary in your garden so that you wouldn’t be short of friends’ (Vickery, 1995: 318). Nevertheless, a parallel belief states that rosemary only thrives where the woman of the house is dominant. A much older tradition, reported by Nuttall, holds that rosemary plants never grow taller than the height of Christ when he was on earth, and that when they are 33 years old their upward growth stops. (

As for Rosmarine, I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore, to friendship; whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our buriall grounds.

— Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) (Suite101: Remembering Rosemary)

More info about rosemary’s alleged medicinal uses at suite101.

Rosemary at Wikipedia.

May 2nd, 2010

it’s like I can touch you!!

Roger Ebert’s 9 reasons he hates 3D movies:


When you look at a 2-D movie, it’s already in 3-D as far as your mind is concerned. When you see Lawrence of Arabia growing from a speck as he rides toward you across the desert, are you thinking, “Look how slowly he grows against the horizon” or “I wish this were 3D?”

Our minds use the principle of perspective to provide the third dimension. Adding one artificially can make the illusion less convincing.

He articulates the inadequacies we all sense as well as adding a few more insider nuggets.

Read the rest.

Image: Rejected (2000)

April 2nd, 2010

hollywood suffers cardiac arrest

Tom Shone argues in Slate that Hollywood blockbusters are getting colder and more cerebral.

Say what you like about the directors who are regularly held up as the saviors of American cinema—the Coens, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson—they all fight shy of the kind of direct strike on an audience’s emotions that is usually Hollywood’s raison d’etre. They excel at distance, dislocation, anomie, alienation, emotional cauterization, and cosmic melancholy, with a light dusting of irony covering all. Feelinks, not so much.

I agree that the balance between heart and mind is way off. And by heart I don’t mean sap and saccharine, I mean stories with truth and honesty and intimacy. A movie can’t invoke emotion if it’s not made with emotion.

Not that I’m not looking forward to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, mind. Or the next PT Anderson film, whatever it is. I appreciate a mixture, a balance. Slate magazine.

March 26th, 2010

practical aesthetics

Practical Aesthetics is an acting technique originally conceived by David Mamet and William H. Macy, based on the teachings of Stanislavsky, Sanford Meisner, and the Stoic Philosopher Epictetus. (wiki)

Mark Westbrook @ Ezine:

The actors on stage must deal with what’s in front of them in the truth of the moment. Nothing is more likely to disturb that illusion more than failing to respond truthfully if your colleague on stage accidentally drops the bottle of champagne. The audience will suspend their disbelief if they are not given a reason to react otherwise.

The actor employing Practical Aesthetics is in a constant state of improvisation. Each moment on stage is unrehearsed in the traditional sense. Instead, rehearsal writes into the muscle memory of the actor, the given circumstances of the play, including notes from the director and tools or tactics by which to pursue an essential action for each scene. In Mamet’s words ‘we prepare to improvise’.

Lines are learned by rote without meaning or feeling. This allows the individual line to serve any possible tactic without fixing a line reading.

Additionally, Practical Aesthetics employs techniques for getting the actor out of their own head. The actor places their attention on the other, and tries to achieve in the other a change whilst observing and adapting their approach to the new and changing truth of the moment. This takes the focus off the actor themself. Constant and progressive use of Repetition exercises adapted from Meisner, habitualises this practise in the actor. The truthfulness of the actors response is now only limited by what he or she can see before them and that possibility is endless and constantly shifting.

More @ “Practical Aesthetics — An Overview”

See also:

March 26th, 2010

mamet speak


[David] Mamet’s style of writing dialogue, marked by a cynical, street-smart edge, precisely crafted for effect, is so distinctive that it came to be called Mamet speak. He often uses italics and quotation marks to highlight particular words and to draw attention to his characters’ frequent manipulation and deceitful use of language. His characters frequently interrupt one another, their sentences trail off unfinished, and their dialogue overlaps. Mamet himself has criticized his (and other writers’) tendency to write “pretty” at the expense of sound, logical plots.

When asked how he developed his style for writing dialogue, Mamet said, “In my family, in the days prior to television, we liked to wile away the evenings by making ourselves miserable, based solely on our ability to speak the language viciously. That’s probably where my ability was honed.”

One classic instance of Mamet’s dialogue style can be found in Glengarry Glen Ross, in which two down-on-their-luck real estate salesmen are considering breaking into their employer’s office to steal a list of good sales leads. George Aaronow and Dave Moss finagle the meaning of “talk” and “speak,” steeped in fraudulent connivance of the language and meaning:

Moss No. What do you mean? Have I talked to him about this [Pause]
Aaronow Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just…
Moss No, we’re just…
Aaronow We’re just “talking” about it.
Moss We’re just speaking about it. [Pause] As an idea.
Aaronow As an idea.
Moss Yes.
Aaronow We’re not actually talking about it.
Moss No.
Aaronow Talking about it as a…
Moss No.
Aaronow As a robbery.
Moss As a “robbery”? No.

David Mamet (imdb) @ Wikipedia

March 16th, 2010

professional language inventors

In January, co-vocabularists were invited to pose questions to two experts in the field of invented languages: Paul Frommer (the developer of Avatar’s novel tongue, Na’vi) and Arika Okrent (author of “In the Land of Invented Languages”).

The blog Schott’s Vocab has a hail of questions devised by covocabilarists for two “expert” artificial language creators. The questions are detailed, much considered and often as interesting as the insightful answers themselves… Snip:

Q. Is it preferable for a language (invented or non) to have a relatively small vocabulary? For example, an invented language by the name of “Toki Pona” consists of only 118 words. This makes it harder to communicate with the language alone, and demands the people using the language strive to share/understand context. A language with a larger vocabulary requires less shared context, as words can be more precise/cut loose from non-verbal contextual ties.

Scott’s Vocab

March 9th, 2010

watching between the lines

A six-spoke Geneva mechanism, wikipedia.

Film projectors (as well as film cameras, processing equipment, etc.) use a special mechanism called a Geneva drive to ensure one whole frame is advanced at a time, instead of simply spooling a film continuously. Wikipedia:

The name derives from the device’s earliest application in mechanical watches, Switzerland and Geneva being an important center of watchmaking. The geneva drive is also commonly called a Maltese cross mechanism due to the visual resemblance.

In the most common arrangement, the driven wheel has four slots and thus advances for each rotation of the drive wheel by one step of 90°. If the driven wheel has n slots, it advances by 360°/n per full rotation of the drive wheel.

The device itself is beautiful in its simplicity. There are two variations on the drive (external and internal). More at wikipedia.

March 1st, 2010

the cinema as chapel

It’s easy to dismiss science fiction and other genre movies (and books, and games) as mindless entertainment. But the reason for the popularity of Star Wars, Twilight, and Lord of the Rings can’t simply be that our culture craves vapid adventure stories to while away the idle hours. I think we consume these modern epics because, for many of us, traditional institutions don’t cut it anymore. Church, family. and government once handed over fairly rigid instructions on “how to live”: how to be a good citizen, neighbor, spouse, or parent. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s changed all that. Vietnam, political assassinations, government corruption, and the rise of the corporate state left us suspicious of conventional authority and religion. We got jaded.

Is it no wonder, then, that many now seek moral guidance and spiritual example not in mosques and chapels, but huddled in darkened movie theaters or bathed in the holy glow of our Blu-rays? Our new gods and priests might be writers, movie directors, and actors. When, in The Lord of the Rings, Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf the wise intones to Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us,” it’s hard not to prick up our hobbity ears and nod our heads in agreement. Yes, that’s damned good advice. And for many of us, it’s guidance much easier to swallow than the kind shouted from the pulpit on a Sunday morning.


January 24th, 2010

it’s slinky

Here’s something new to do with a slinky: make Star Wars sound effects. (via silentlistening — great blog!)

January 2nd, 2010

the Schüfftan process


Above: A scene in Metropolis involving miniatures is composed using the process. Image: Wikipedia

Wikipedia on the schufftan process:

The process was refined and popularized by the German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan while he was working on the movie Metropolis (1927), although there is evidence that other film-makers were using similar techniques earlier than this. The movie’s director, Fritz Lang, wanted to insert the actors into shots of miniatures of skyscrapers and other buildings, so Schüfftan used a specially made mirror to create the illusion of actors interacting with huge, realistic-looking sets.

Videomaker explains the effect better than the explanation on the wikipedia page:

This special effect involves strategically scraping some of the silver off a mirror, then setting the mirror in front of the camera at an angle. While the mirror reflects a miniature off to the side, the live action takes place in front of the camera, seen through the scraped area of the mirror. This works quite well. Since the mirror itself is out of focus, the edge between the miniature and the live action is blurred.

I love the invention and resourcefulness involved in filmmaking.

Wikipedia Article, Videomaker Article.

January 2nd, 2010

solipsistic jerk-off comedy

Harold Ramis:

I don’t want to say that there’s nothing new in comedy, but having seen Andy Kaufman in the mid-70s in clubs in New York, nothing surprises me conceptually. There’s a difference between getting the joke and liking the joke. Popularity isn’t the only measure of success. Sometimes the ‘public’ is an idiot, but obscurity and perversity for it’s own sake can be a solipsistic jerk-off and real waste of time. I have no rules or expectations; I just like comedy that works.

More at Heeb

December 27th, 2009

no script, no dice

WGA rules:

There is a common misconception that a “story by” credit may be given to a person who simply has the story idea for a film or television program. This is never the case, as all writing credits are for actual writing. Often, a screenwriter produces a spec script that, after being optioned, undergoes a “page one rewrite” that produces a new draft. In many such cases, the original author receives the “story by” rather than “screenplay by” credit.

The film and tv industry in the USA is extremely unionised and as such there are many rules that screenwriters have to adhere to.

This wikipedia page has an interesting list of rules for members of the Writer’s Guild of America regarding screenwriting accreditation.

December 22nd, 2009

colour script


Making a movie completely inside a computer has its quirks. In any pixar movie, the colour palette is worked out before the animation begins. This planning takes the form of a “colour script”.

Pixar has released several images from the colour script of Toy Story 3, and they’re rather pretty. I wouldn’t mind seeing an entire animation in this impressionistic, sketchy handpainted style! Beautiful light and colour in these sketches.

Two images here, two here and two here (get a single blog, will you, pixar?).

December 18th, 2009

hollywood is greener than you would imagine

Stargate Studios Reel from RAWworks on Vimeo.

This demo reel of Stargate Studios goes to show how much compositing work we take for granted on tv! Green-screen technology has come a long way in the past decade.

December 17th, 2009

batman’s bible

A screenwriter’s bible is the book compiled by a tv show’s creator to guide screenwriters working on that show. A pdf copy has surfaced online of the screenwriter’s bible for “Batman, the animated series”.


The document is online here (via BittrScrptReadr on twitter)

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