I made a movie! Yes, it’s just an 12 minute short, and yes it’s an animated comedy. I also made it entirely on my desktop computer, on a Mac with Apple software that comes bundled with it. And I think it’s pretty great.
Here it is for your viewing pleasure:
Basically, I sent myself to my own homemade film school by watching YouTube videos from screenwriters, analyzing how jokes, puns, and visual gags work in movies, and by joining a group of other aspiring screenwriters to share and give feedback on our writing on Discord (leave a comment below if you would like to join).
Here is what I learned:
1) Joining a writing group is indispensable. You must get feedback from others, and no one outside of other screenwriters is interested in reading your movie scripts. Build a group that includes at least one other person who has the passion, the drive, and the interest in meeting regularly, about once a week, to go over each other’s writing.
Without getting feedback, you’re really setting yourself up to getting entrenched with your ideas such that you won’t be able to accept any constructive criticism or adapt any changes because in your mind everything is set in stone. The characters are what they are and they do what they do, and you can’t imagine changing even a hair. This is not good if you want to grow as a writer.
When people give you feedback, it may feel bad because they’ve found issues or problems, but this is actually very precious, valuable information that can help you become a better storyteller. When people give you feedback they are really revealing what segments of a large audience would feel, where they may get confused, what is unappealing, and what may work even better.
Unless you have a super sense of what an audience wants and you can deliver it—or you simply don’t care to have an audience, so only what you want matters—then you need someone else to give you their honest opinion about your work. And, furthermore, you need to be able to change your script to correct any issues that are brought up so that it’s more appealing to more people. Even if you don’t think the movie I made is very good, I guarantee you that without the writing group, it would be much worse.
2) Regarding the writing, there are some very clear guidelines about structuring a story and about how to layout a script. The three act hero’s journey is standard. The creators of the animated sitcom South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone offer this advice:
End Act I with some BIG news, i.e. the inciting incident, an event that sets everything into motion and eventually builds to a climax.
Act II must culminate/end in the climax. Think of the worst thing that could happen to the main character, and then find a solution to the dilemma.
Act III, the denouement, resolves/unties plot points and often ends with a cliffhanger that sets up the rest of the series, which then explores any changes to the main character.
Screenwriters Rob Hoegee and Grant Moran further advise that for an 11 minute animated show, the final script should be 15 pages long. It’s amazing how precise that turns out to be! They also suggest that the writer use the inciting incident to create a goal for the main character, the hero. And moreover, the episode should contain a series of three or so attempts by the character to achieve that goal with rising emotional or physical stakes culminating in a moment of success that then unravels, leaving the hero at the lowest point, facing disaster. But then something happens, therefore something else happens, and the protagonist makes one last attempt, gets a second wind and, in a comedy, a happy resolution ensues where the hero achieves the goal.
3) A movie is a collection of equally important parts. Before making this 11 minute animated short, I had the mistaken idea that all you really needed was a script, and by script I meant dialogue. But a script is more than just a transcript of the words spoken by the characters. A script includes action scene descriptions that visually show the environment and what the characters do. It turns out that this is equally important. The adage is “show, don’t tell,” but silent movies, which are all “show” aren’t popular anymore. The dialogue in movies is what fans remember. The dialogue is critical, but a barebones play on a black stage is not as fun as one with elaborate, colorful sets. The visuals, which includes what the characters and their environments look like, are critical. A movie script, therefore, needs in equal parts, good scene descriptions and good dialogue.
But, wait, there’s more! Another equally important part to the visuals and the dialogue is the transitions, the pauses, or beats, between scenes and within dialogue. A well timed pause can make or break a scene. It can be the difference between a funny or boring moment. It’s incredible. You have the look, the words, but if you don’t give the audience time to absorb what they are seeing by putting in a pause, they miss the joke, or the touching emotion, or the suspense. Equally important to the positive space is the negative space. What an interesting discovery! It’s like a law of nature. Isn’t this true in everything? We’re like fractals, endlessly encountering the same forces acting on us!
And there is still one more part: the sound effects and the music. Again, equally important to the visuals, the dialogue, and the transitions, is the sound. What the audience hears sets the mood, informs or accentuates the visuals, clarifies the intent of the characters. Again, a scene can be made or broken by what the audience hears in the background, even after having everything else in place.
In other words, a movie is magic. It’s simply amazing that so many great, wonderful movies exist. But of course, if you’ve ever seen the credits on anything, the list is long. Which brings us to the the next lesson learned.
4) Making a movie is hard. The level of organization you need to make an 11 minute animated movie is far beyond what is needed for many other projects. There are so many parts, or assets, that you need to create and keep track of: the images, the sound effects, the music, the dialogue, the transition cards, the text, the font, the colors, the brightness, the contrast, the length, the camera movement —and you need to edit all of these things together using different software and managing multiple large files. It’s an endeavor. And this is just for an amateur independent, or indie, production. Imagine having to do this on a full length movie of over an hour, while having executives, producers, managers, or others breathing down your neck and demanding things be done on a deadline, their way!
5) I can only extrapolate on this next point because I am not a professional filmmaker, but the 2009 documentary, Tales from the Script has some very hard lessons for aspiring screenwriters:
Your scripts will be changed.
You will have to find your own path.
There will be constant rejection.
It’s a business that responds to market pressures and your reputation as a moneymaker.
You have to pitch and sell your own script, which may take five years.
You can sell a script for a lot of money ($300,000 – $1,750,000)
You will have to start the whole process again after your first success; previous success does not guarantee future success.
You need perseverance.
You will need to build multiple personal relationships to get ahead.
If you really want your voice and your idea turned into a movie, without any compromises, you have to direct, produce and write it yourself.
You can get fired at any time.
You should not define your identity solely on your work.
Screenwriting is a full-time job.
You will likely have to write multiple drafts of the same thing, e.g. 46 for the 1984 movie “Amadeus”.
You truly have to love writing, love movies, and love storytelling. Otherwise, you will not survive.
This is a tough, competitive business, and it additionally may come with a side of treachery, e.g. studios or other writers stealing your script ideas, not to mention sexual harassment, and/or other forms of abuse or exploitation.
What a mad, mad world to want to enter, and yet how alluring. Why? Because what else can afford you the opportunity to create something in your mind’s eye and see it come to physical fruition, like a god creating worlds? Even just doing a table read, where others read your script out loud, and do some voice acting if you’re lucky, can be exhilarating. It’s something that allows you to say, “I wrote that!” “It’s alive!” “This idea that only existed in my mind came to life!” Yes—that feels good.
It is incredibly gratifying to tell a story and be able to watch it with your own eyes. You are simultaneously the storyteller and the audience. That should not be possible, but it is because of a lot of wonderful technology, which is widely available and relatively cost effective, particularly considering how difficult and expensive it was to make a move 30, 50, 80 years ago.
Now, honestly, anyone can make their own movie, on an iPhone, even!
Remember what Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Inc., once said, “you can build your own things.” So please, go tell your own story.
Visit the moviewise catalogue—a searchable database of one sentence movie summaries, movie quotes, and movie wisdom—for movie recommendations.
Also visit the moviewise store. Get a t-shirt, bag, or pillow with your favorite #LifeLesson from a movie. Reply to this or leave a comment below to make a request.
An absolute delight to read, thank you