Monday, March 24, 2014

Breaking down story into script and storyboard

Previous to starting this project I'd assumed that taking an existing piece of work and adapting it into a film would be relatively easy, but I'm discovering that's not the case. The fairy tale I'm basing my story on (which can be read here) gave a lot of detailed information on character traits, character appearance, thought processes, settings, etc. - a lot to have to squeeze into a five-minute animation. I knew I had to break down the story, remove anything unnecessary, and simplify the characters so that their motives and personalities would be fully understood without any expositional dialogue or text.

I've been looking at ways filmmakers adapt books into screenplays, I've found some useful tips.

'Use montages to include important information from the book in a quick visual form. Get rid of characters that bring little to the party. Think about combining characters into one strong person who moves the story along. There is no penalty for reinventing. Never agree to rewrite a book into a screenplay verbatim; kiss of death.'

I have actually removed a number of characters and storylines from the original fairytale. In the original, Watho lures two pregnant women, Aurora and Vesper, from a nearby town to her castle, where she effectively steals their children. She raises one purely in light, the other in darkness, so the story is much more about how the environment has changed and effected these two children. There's also the characters of Fargu, who teaches Photogen how to hunt and ride a horse, and who closely watches over him to make sure he doesn't stay out until sunset. And there's Falca, who cares for Nycteris and teaches her to play music, and is ordered to make sure she never sees any light besides her lamp.

I removed the setting of a grand castle for Watho's home, and decided to have her living in a bit of a ramshackle cottage in the woods, despite the fact her design makes her look quite wealthy - a castle just seemed too grand for a crazy old witch. I thought that she might have come from a rich family, but ended up spending her inheritance on eccentric oddities and on travelling around the world in pursuit of knowledge, leaving her poor.

The main plot point I changed was having her create the two children as a magical experiment rather than them being human children she's stolen. Again, I thought this would contribute to her being a solitary, eccentric figure, and offers much more interesting visual storytelling opportunities - it opens up different methods of designing their characters, meaning I could make them more 'fantasy' looking with unnatural colours and physical traits, e.g. making Nycteris' dress a sort of moving shadow which fades into surrounding darkness.

I also removed Fargu and Falca, thinking that it'd be more interesting to have Watho act as their guardian figure as she sees herself as their 'mother'.

In the original the relationship between Photogen and Nycteris is romantic and they get married at the end. I thought this might be a little odd in my adaptation as they are essentially siblings, so I'm going to present their relationship as more familial.

Even though a lot of my ideas for the characters won't be clear in the final film, I still want to have them fully considered so that I feel like I know these characters really well. This will be invaluable when it comes to animating as it'll help me put myself in their shoes and empathise with them.


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I knew that I'd only be able to tell a short passage of the story rather than the entire plotline - this has been challenging as it needed to be enough of the story to be understandable and a self-contained piece rather than being like a snippet of a larger narrative. I've found it difficult to cut down so much of the narrative there's many aspects of the original that I find really intriguing that I'd have liked to have made clear in the film:

  • Watho is described as having a 'wolf' in her mind, which is what causes her to act cruelly - she isn't just evil for the sake of evil. I really liked this as it sets her apart from typical fairytale villains we've come to see on Disney films like the Evil Queen, Maleficent and Mother Gothel, who all are very selfish and vain without there being given any particular reason why other than because they are envious.

    Watho could actually be quite a sympathetic character representing the struggles of someone who wants to experience a family but just doesn't understand how as she's in constant battle with her mind. Over the course of the story she becomes more and more debilitated by her condition, but also more cruel, to the point where she tortures Photogen and Nycteris.

    'She was not naturally cruel, but the wolf had made her cruel ... She was straight and strong, but now and then would fall bent together, shudder, and sit for a moment with her head turned over her shoulder, as if the wolf had got out of her mind onto her back.'

    I had ideas of having some more abstract metaphorical sequences showing Watho twisting as if in pain, and a ghostly wolf-form emerging from her to appear for a few seconds before disappearing. But I've decided to pull it back and keep things simple and easy to understand, as most of the focus needs to be on Photogen and Nycteris. If I was to adapt the story into a longer piece in the future this would leave more room to add more experimental imagery and I'd put more time into showing this side of Watho.

  • In my breakdown of the story I've only really been able to focus on Photogen experiencing darkness, and Nycteris escaping, but I haven't been able to show Nycteris also experiencing light - this is a key moment in the story and the arc of their relationship, when Photogen selfishly leaves her and she's left to fend for herself. Eventually he realises his selfishness and develops more as a character.  I'm going to have to sacrifice a lot of the character development in my short film as there's just no time to show it. 

Here's the storyboards I drafted out while reading and brainstorming ways to tell the story visually.

A select few:
As an animatic:


I'd originally planned on having text/voiceover in the introduction sequence giving the details of the narrative, as without it the plot isn't clear at all. I also considered doing a typically fairytale introduction where the film opens on a book, which opens and begins with 'once upon a time...' with some detailed, Medieval-style illustrations, like in Shrek:



After sharing the animatic and discussing it with others I've realised it would be better to overhaul it so that it's understandable without any text or drawn-out backstory, as it's just too short and I think would make it unnecessarily complicated. 

Another issue with this set of storyboards is the ending and the general structure. I was intending on ending it on a cliffhanger, with a hint of how their relationship might develop after the end of the film. But I think it's just not satisfactory as it is here - we don't really sense much of a building bond between the two characters. I knew I had to change this. After talking with my tutor, he suggested I add some kind of visual indicator they both wear, perhaps some kind of jewellery, to show how the two are kindred spirits that are meant to be together. 

An important skill in making any film is being able to tell a narrative through purely visual means rather than relying on dialogue and words. Like Alfred Hitchcock said: 'If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.' I thought I'd use this film as an opportunity to stretch my filmmaking skills and use composition, lighting, mise-en-scene and of course the designs, movements and expressions of the characters themselves to tell the story instead. 

So I'm currently in the process of re-doing the animatic with this new perspective and with more of a focus on overall story structure. So far I've done the first sequence:



The main changes from the first storyboards are:
  • The addition of an amulet kept around the scroll, this will act as a symbolic prop showing how Watho has broken Photogen and Nycteris' bond. I know 'magical pendants' are a big cliche, but I thought it'd be a good visual indicator. The amulet is made of two pendants, a sun and moon, which slot together to form one bigger pendant. Watho doesn't really pay it much attention and it ends up falling underneath a table, the two pendants splitting. Later on in the film, Photogen will find and hold onto them - when he meets Nycteris it'll be a trigger for him to realise how they are somehow related.
  • Towards the end, after the shots of the two children 'growing' inside the tanks, I added a shot of Watho coming to inspect them. I want to add a rather ambiguous expression on her face, which could hint at how she's making these beings as a replacement for real children.
I added much more detail to the artwork in this animatic, as not only will it be the basis I work on for the final piece (I'll probably just refine and colour these frames instead of starting new drawings), but I need to make it clear for the composer I'm collaborating with to see timings and basic movement so that he can write the music to complement the action. I'll write more about the music in another post. 

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