The film in its beginning. A scenario writer with British and A merican experience describes his craft.
by J. P. Carstairs
HE scenario of a film is the actual film, written out in terms of the
screen. It is the director’s guide book. It is, in fact, the book of the picture about to be translated on to celluloid ; the finished product on paper. But how is a scenario built ? It starts in this manner.
An original screen story, or a novel, or a play, is about to be filmed. It is, primarily, condensed into synopsis form. That is, it is shorn of all its trimmings and only the barest outline remains. Then the adaptation work begins. The book or play or story is altered until it is suitable for the screen. Many people wonder why it is that the filmed version of a book or a play never appears on the screen in the same way as the original subject. There are usually many reasons for this.
Often a subject has many facets that are not suitable for translation on to the screen. There are scenes which would be dull or uninteresting ; chapters that help a novel, though they have little to do with the development of the plot. The film cannot admit such elaborations, owing to the fact that there are only seventy minutes in which the drama can be told. Moreover, quite a lot of book or play material does not “ register ” in a picture.
Again, additional characters are sometimes added, in order to get more humour or drama into a subject, or scenes are required with more punch, or maybe a story, in which the man’s part was originally designed to be the chief role, has to be altered to suit the charms of Miss Apple Pye, because she is the company’s new star and must be starred.
Again, the cost of a certain episode may make it impossible for filming. Imagine an important chapter in a story, or in an original screen play, describing the Derby. It may, on the screen, be presented as a description through a loud-speaker. The reason is probably that Mr. Benjamin Tornoff, the eminent producer, refused to spend the money to go out and film the-whole of the Derby, and all the atmosphere that goes with it. He has used,, instead, the cheaper “ talkie ” device of “ hearing it on the wireless.” Indeed, there are a host of reasons for alterations in plays and stories for the. films.
When the adaptation is complete in short story form, still shorn of any sort of trimming and fancy writing, it is turned over to a writer, or group of writers, to'deliver screen Treatments of it. The Treatment is a fuller adaptation written more in terms of the screen. For example, whereas in the adaptation of the story the writer would say a love scene is played in the garden,” in the Treatment he would elaborate this and visualize it
on the screen. It would become " a romantic love scene, with some good, modern dialogue is played in the garden. The sound of the orchestra is heard off-screen and other couples are seen passing across the background.”
Meanwhile the director, camera-man, and art director have been in close consultation with the writers. When all the Treatments are completed they are pooled and the best from each is taken and blended into one final script. Thus the cream from all the writers’ material is taken for the Final Treatment. This method is very much used at the Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in Hollywood, and at the Gaumont studio at Shepherd’s Bush. Some studios have as many as seven writers working on the story of one picture ; at other times they may employ only one or two. It depends on the nature of the story and the writer^’ ability. When Paramount were preparing Horse Feathers for the Four Marx Brothers, there were as many as fourteen writers, including the best “ gag men ” in Hollywood. A gag man, incidentally, is one who thinks up comedy “ business ” ; he prefers to be called a " comedy constructionalist.”
The Final Treatment is written and delivered to the director, who in turn gets an “ O.K.” on it from the producer or production supervisor. Then, when official approval has been given, work goes ahead and the Sequences are added. The Sequences are the natural time lapses or separate parts of the story. They are very much like chapters in a book or acts in a play. Each Sequence ends with a screen curtain—called a Fade Out.
The scenario writer has to be careful that his script does not contain too many Sequences, as this tends to make his Treatment episodic—like too many scenes in a play. Every Sequence has to end with a climax ; it has to build up to something and should have a “ punch ” before the Fade Out. This is often called, in film jargon, a High Spot. Take, for example, a comedy in which all sorts of things have gone wrong for the poor little husband. Imagine that he has got into severe trouble at home by dropping the favourite vase and putting his elbow through the drawing-room window. The climax or High Spot is probably reached when he throws a brick at a cat that wanders in, but instead he hits his mother-in-law as she enters on an unexpected visit. This would be the place for the end of the Sequence, the Fade Out.
After the Treatment follows the Continuity. The Continuity is the “ breaking down ” of the Final Treatment into actual Shots, expressing the movement of the camera and describing the various devices to deliver the action before the camera’s eye. In addition, the job of continuity-writing includes the necessity of holding the story to the right track, keeping the threads together, and the tempo swift and smooth. This, in addition to writing the latest in camera tricks and technical methods of “ splicing ” the story, makes continuity-writing a very specialized form of screen writing, and an important branch of Scenario work.
' There are specialists in this, just as there are in Adaptations, Dialogue, Screen Plays, Gags, and Treatments. Bess Meredyth is the highest-paid continuity-writer in the world ; just as famous are Frances Marion, who writes original screen stories such as Emma and The Champ, and Harry
Hervery, who was responsible lor Devil and Ike Deep and Shanghai Express.
Nearly all scenario writers ol to-day have been in the film world for years. Some of the most famous are S. J. Perelman, Howard Estabrook, Grover Jones, Ernest Vadja, Richard Schayer, Tim Whelan, George Marion Junior, and Sam Mintz. Watch for their names on the credit titles next time }Tou go to a cinema.
When the Continuity-writer has finished his share of making the script, the work is completed and the finished product is called a Scenario. The average scenario has about five hundred separate Shots—that is, five hundred separate scenes that are all filmed from different angles. 'Watching the screen, one is’not conscious of all these changes, but they are occurring all the time. Just when a Shot should be changed or a certain angle used, is a matter of common sense and knowledge of film technique, acquired only by long experience.
For example, when Mr. Stan Laurel slips up and falls into a nice big custard pie, we should use a medium long shot as he falls into the pie and then a close-up of him after he has fallen into it—to get his re-action. This would appear in the scenario as a separate shot.
Let us take a few scenes from the Radio picture, The Lost Squadron. It is an excellent example, containing much of both dialogue and action— i.e., sound and camera work. It is the story of a thrill-mad motion picture director (played by Erich Von Stroheim). The scene described in this excerpt from the script is one in which the stunt-mad director watches unmoved as one of his pilots whirls into a spin that means a real crash instead of a faked one. The director, concentrated wholly upon his desire for thrills, cold-bloodedly orders the scene to be filmed, caring nothing for the pilot's peril. Richard Dix, as Gibson, the pilot, is in the 'plane that is out of control. This is how the scenario reads :
Scene 37. Sequence E. Long Shot.
Exterior. Aerodrome Day.
Gibson is in the ‘plane. The 'plane spinning dizzily towards the ground.
Scene 38. Medium Long Shot. Exterior.
Von Furst (Erich Von Stroheim) is near the cameras in the scene. The cameramen watch the 'plane anxiously, and look at the director. Von Furst yon.
removes his coat as he watches Gibson. Keep up the action—never mind tha
Sound ot Gibson’s ’plane heard off 'plane. Let him crash!
Here in the scenario we get a shot of the aeroplane ; then the people’s reaction below, when they realize that the plane is out of control; and then the stunt-mad director giving orders for the continuation of the scene. In the Scenario, as quoted, the scenes are numbered and the Sequence given.
The word Exterior denotes that the Shot is taken in the open ; the word Day is used to denote the time the episode is taking place. If it were evening the word Night would be substituted and the lighting altered. Some American scenario-writers speli night “ nite ! ”
Later The Lost Squadron Scenario, continuing the same incident, reads
Scene 46. Exterior. Santa Monica Day.
Medium Close Shot.
Gibson in the ‘plane. The ‘plane diving towards the sea.
Scene 47. Exterior. Santa Monica Day.
Medium Long Shot.
The ‘plane crashes into the sea.
Scene 48. Exterior. Santa Monica Day.
A Car: Medium Long Shot.
The Pest (Dorothy Jordan) in the car as she sees the ‘plane crash into the water, and reacts horrified.
Scene 49. Exterior. Santa Monica Ocean Day. Medium Long Shot.
A speed boat rushing to the rescue, the camera pans right with it as it skims
along the water. Sound : Boat’s syren.
Scene 50. Exterior. Santa Monica Ocean Day. Medium Shot.
Gibson crawls from the wrecked ’plane.
Thus, in the scenario, there is quick movement and the necessary breaking-up of the scenes to get the story over. The various terms, such as medium long shot, are used to denote the distance from the camera. When a camera follows a moving object by swivelling sideways or up or down, it is called Panning. When the camera itself moves, it is known as Trucking or Tracking.
An example of the Fade Out or the end of a Sequence is given in the scenario of Mata Hart, M.G.M.’s Greta Garbo—Ramon Navarro film, ft reads :.
Shot 44. Sequence H. Interior Court Day.
Medium Close Shot.
Mata Hari (Greta Garbo) seated in the prisoner’s dock. Caron beside her, in the dock below. The Prosecuting Attorney’s voice heard off screen.
Mata Hari listens calmly to these words, but she hears their meaning as we
Thus the episode is brought to a close when the High Spot has been reached.
Most scenarios are written with the action and directions on the left, and the dialogue and the sound effects on the right, although another method is to place the dialogue in the centre of the page. Sound effects arc usually written in when there is a special meaning or significance for their being there. The ordinary sound effects are taken for granted thdse days. This point is instanced in the excerpt from The Lost Squadron above.
Now suppose you had an idea for a screen story. How should you go about it ?
Prosecuting Attorney (off) :
And you shot him in an attempt to save yourself. But it has not saved you, Mata Hari ! You stand proven an enemy of France 1
First of all study the medium. Watch the pictures at your cinema carefulty. Try to visualize your own story on the screen. Be hard on yourself and eliminate all uninteresting material. If you think you have an original plot write it simply as a short story. Do not try putting close-ups and so on into it yet. Write the story simply and straightforwardly. If you feel capable, write it in a Treatment form—that is, putting in the Sequences and indicating the method in which you think the story should be played for the films. It is usually too difficult to write the story in full scenario form at first. Besides, producers prefer to read a Synopsis or Treatment before going into the advanced stages of Continuity and scenario work. ,
Should the story be accepted, it would then go to a competent screen writer for alteration and for Continuity work. He would work with the director on this, and later the art director and the cameraman would be consulted about “ sets,” " shots,” camera angles, and other such technicalities that help to give a picture the right atmosphere and production polish. Should you yourself continue to work on the Treatment, you would endeavour to give it snap and speed, and you should remember that every shot of your scenario should mean something. There is no room for waste in film writing.
In short, the best way to learn to write for the screen is by easy stages. Write your short story first. Then practise putting it into the barest outline ; then adapt it; then give it a screen Treatment. You would be well advised not to try writing Continuity and screen angles. These are the work of experts. But, lest one day you should wish to be such an expert, always watch the pictures for the latest in tricks. Notice when they use a close-up and when they use a long shot. Try to “ think in terms of pictures,” and, who knows?—to-morrow you may be writing screen stories like The Champ or adaptations like The Calendar or Grand Hotel.
The world film encyclopedia, 1933
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