Structure and Short films.
There are many stories to be told, and many different ways of telling them. All the same, I am a great believer in the three act structure. Stories without a beginning, middle and end rarely work. I have stated earlier that I am not going to talk about the three act structure, and I am not. There are others who can do this far better than I. There are times, however, when a three act structure is not appropriate, or not possible.
The world of animation is dominated by short film. This is because the process is labour intensive and expensive. Animation film-makers tend to work alone, or in small groups, and may take a year or more to make even a ten minute film. There is often an element of fine art in this type of filmmaking , and some films are abstract in their content.
I would argue that short films, however abstract, still need structure, though this may not involve a three act narrative. You can’t really squeeze a three act story structure into a film that is less than ten minutes long, and many short animated films, like T.O.M.
Or The Sandman
are essentially a series of setups leading to a pay-off.
When you learn about scene structure, you usually talk in terms of beats. In a romantic comedy, the beats of a scene might go..1. He knocks on the door with the flowers… 2. She yells from inside:Go away!... 3, He leans down and looks through the letter box… 4.. Her hand reaches through the letter box, grabs his tie, and pulls his head against the door… 5. Dazed , he slumps against the door.. 6. The door opens, and he falls into her arms… 6..They kiss and so on. These beats are very clear in these films. In The Sandman, at one point you might have 1.The windows fly open.. 2.. A cloud floats in front of the moon… 3…the cloud turns into a scary face… 4 the sheets on the bed flap… 5.. He looks under the bed to find a mouse… and so on. These beats do not continue at the same pace. There are continual changes in rhythm and dynamics as tension is built up and released. The words I am using beats, rhythm, dynamics, are all musical terms. All films, and short films in particular, need a structure that allows for changes in pace, agitation and tranquillity, powerful emotions and relief. These are the attributes of good musical composition. I think writers of short film can learn a lot from musical form.
In this analogy I will exclude dance music, which, of its very nature, requires a constant and regular beat. Popular songs usually last two or three minutes. They have a simple structure, that normally involves verse and chorus, but little development of ideas. Jazz solos, if done well, include a mixture of simple and virtuosic phrases, notes that are comfortably in the chord, and those that create a dissonant tension, changes in phrasing and volume. They develop the music in order to create emotion and excitement. Classical composers rely on sonata form, rondos, theme and variations, etc to achieve the same effect.
Here is another Michael Dudock De Wit film, which follows the form of a musical Theme and Variations:
A structure that allows for development is especially important in abstract films. Here is a film by Len Lye:
It is difficult to see any development in this film, and little variation. The structure is provided by the music track, which is fairly constant. I find it difficult to watch this film beyond the two minute mark. I know that this will offend Len Lye fans, but it is a bit like watching a graphic equaliser. Compare the monotonous effect of Len Lye to this film by Clive Walley:
Here there is real movement and contrasts, particularly of sound and texture. Clive Walley tends to give his films a musical title or subtitle, and with good reason. In this film there is real development, cause and effect, the building up of tension, and repetition of action before everything returns to its starting point. It has character and a strange humour.
Writers, of course, will have little opportunity to get involved in films like this. They have more to offer to more conventional, longer stories. Where would Wallace and Gromit be without Bob Baker?
Next week: The Industrial process.