Development and redevelopment and metadevelopment

Note: I’ve started to notice in retrospect that these late night posts are not particularly sensible beasts in the cold light of day. Please pardon the occasional lapse into obscure parenthetical metaphor.

Between the last post and this one, the story kind of disintegrated. This is almost to be expected. I’m discovering my development workflow as much as I’m developing, this first time around.

Still, it’s off-putting to watch all the bits of a month’s worth of work floating as dissociated crumbs on a soup of thoughts, unable to reconstitute the whole slice of toast you swear you almost had.

I had no idea what to do next, so I watched and took notes on the 2-volume Pixar shorts set. Watching someone else’s stuff can help focus my thinking a bit.

My story didn’t feel at all like their stories – to be honest I feel like I’m being worryingly ambitious. It’d be nice to have better vocabulary to describe the twists and turns of the story as well. Like a good word for that moment where tension peaks and you’re not quite sure where the story’s going to go. High potential, low kinesis. I dunno. I wanted to call it the hang of the story, like someone on a bike or skate halfpipe hanging in the air before coming down onto the ramp again again.

The shorts.. well.. far be it from me to rag on the most successful and acclaimed CG animation company in history as someone who’s stuck in development purgatory on their first animated short film project. Suffice it to say I much preferred the student shorts at the end of Disc 2. I liked Andrew Stanton’s student films a lot; especially that second one. The utter anarchy appealed to me greatly.

Once that was all over, I felt a need to flee word processors and spreadsheets and computers in general for a while. I got out of the house in search of a nice cafe to lurk in. I did the old onion rings and burger trick, writing down ideas in exchange for allowing myself to eat food. Nothing was crossed out. Nothing was judged unworthy. I switched to a chocolateria after a quick walk and kept writing.

By the time I’d left I had six pages of ideas for what could happen. Ideas, of course, are cheap.

I could have started fleshing the idea out this way back at the beginning of the month instead of writing entire treatments first: it’s not like I’d never seen such a technique before. As part of the Double Fine Adventure! documentary series (available to DFA backers only otherwise I’d link it), Double Fine’s Tim Schafer talked about how he uses a technique called free writing as an idea generator. Basically, spew ideas, don’t make corrections, don’t cross anything out. Mark anything cool with an asterisk at some point so it’s easier to get back to.

I guess it’s a classic newbie habit of wanting to jump ahead in the process to get that sense of progression without actually having done the foundation work for the previous stage or stages. To an extent the creativity can follow a causally fuzzy timeline – I’ve been drawing preliminary character and concept art just to get visual ideas down as they come to me, even though the concept art stage doesn’t properly kick in until pre-production once I have a story to make – but the creative process follows a particular workflow for a reason.

So. Spewing ideas onto paper – just ideas, not ordered story beats – works. But it works now that I’ve reinvented the bloody thing for the third time. Would it work from square one? Probably. I’ll let you know for sure the next time I develop something.

So. In amongst the six pages of ideas I think I have everything I need to connect together for a story. I think. There’s an end – a few endings to choose from, actually. There’s a beginning. There’s a quest. Suddenly the comedy is taking on darkly absurdist tones. Some of the ideas are decidedly Gilliamesque and that feels like the right place to be.

Is it another rewrite? Well.. like I was saying to a friend this evening, it’s not rewriting from scratch. Not exactly. Every previous iteration of the story is still floating around in the mental soup in crumb form after each successive disintegration. Some crumbs keep floating up again and again. Sure, the story’s very different to what it was earlier on, but only because I’ve thought about what’ll make for an interesting story and only because it just wasn’t working before because the foundations weren’t laid. On the second iteration, the rot wasn’t obvious and I was confident that this version was the one, when in reality I just wasn’t looking hard enough for holes. Experience has thus taught me not to take it for granted that plot holes and other assorted writing problems can be neatly fixed in the advanced stages of development.

Suddenly I want to rip out another six pages of ideas before I get too attached to the ones I already have. The ideas as they are form something of a quantum maze of uncollapsed waveforms – some are mutually exclusive. I have to choose. I can’t decide right now whether it’s procrastination to want to blast out more ideas or whether there’s potentially better twists in the tale to be discovered, but then again it’s two in the morning as I’m typing this. It is not the ideal time for coherent and lucid forward planning.


– I was sitting writing at an outside table. While I was scrawling down ideas, some drunk dickheads in a second-storey apartment kicked a football (specifically an Aussie Rules football) onto the roof of the abandoned shopping pavilion across the street. They did this twice. The first time, the ball bounced off and landed on the road. After unsuccessfully petitioning passing members of the public to kick the ball back up to them with loud incoherent eyymaaaates, they sent down a female member of their party who managed to kick it back up to the apartment balcony with the wobbliest drunk girl kick of a footy I’ve ever seen. It was a thing of joy and wonder. All who saw it rejoiced. The second time, they kicked it onto the roof of the pavilion and it didn’t bounce back down. Good.

– For what it’s worth, Lifted is my favourite Pixar short and Ratatouille is still my favourite Pixar movie. (And yes I have seen Video Brinquedo’s infamous cash-in Ratatoing. Ouch.)


Rewriting. Again.

I’ve got “something viral” according to my doctor. I’ve been throwing Tex Avery cartoons, “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and lots of drugs at the symptoms. Of course, the writing must go on. 🙂

So last night I printed the treatment out and took to it with a red pen. I discovered the last half just doesn’t gel at all. The developments and turns of the story seem kind of retrofitted, artificial, untrue… they read like ideas thrown at the wall, still. I haven’t hit that killer story flow yet where everything follows character, coheres nicely, feels believable and makes sense in and of itself.

And man does it have problems with tonal consistency. Ugh. It started as a sci-fi thriller and in trying to turn it into into a sci-fi comedy I ended up with a sci-fi comic drama. But I wanted a sci-fi comedy, damnit! Something piss-funny as we say in these parts. Heartwarming? Stuff heartwarming. I want funny. This halfway-there treatment will not stand.

I think I can see a path out of the story quagmire from here towards where I want to go though. It means carving away one of the sub-plots that isn’t pulling its weight, shifting the events of the story around, tweaking the characters just a leetle bit to make the sparks fly a little bit more naturally.. but that’s what it’ll take.

Now to lie down and watch all these characters in action on the back of my eyelids for a bit.


Rewriting with extreme prejudice

So after a night to think about it, and realising that I couldn’t tell my own story off the top of my head, I took the step of nuking most of what I had to take it in another simpler and funnier direction.

On Thursday I sat down at my favourite burger place, ordered my favourite burger and wrote down what I wanted to accomplish with the story on one side of my project sketchbook. I wasn’t allowed to eat the burger until I’d written the story beats I needed on the facing page.

Food – withholding it – is powerfully good motivation.

So. I’ve been rewriting things again from story beats up since the day after I posted the last thing. One of the main characters got cut. There are now rhythms and patterns. Everything is better, tighter, funnier.

After another 17 hours of writing (yes I’m counting), I now have a 5,500 word treatment about a determined and curmudgeonly alien inventor who’s forced out of his shell but finds a way to stay true to who he is and what he knows all the same. (Beforehand, it was about a timid inventor who nearly got beaten up by an escaped psycho. Not as much fun. At least, not for me.)

Much has changed. The protagonist used to be vulnerable because of his isolation and timidness; now he pretends not to be vulnerable. He doesn’t even want to admit his vulnerability until someone wiser than he is picks at a badly hidden stitch and tears his insecurity open. The protagonist is much more interesting like this, and much funnier too. I’ve done a couple of comedy and character passes on the treatment and everyone’s really coming to life.

Some bits stayed the same. The ending is much the same. One character is almost exactly the same but he was always kind of great.

I threw out more than 10,000 words of work because it wasn’t what I wanted. I’m glad I could do that and I’m glad I did: I like these characters in this world undergoing this story in a way I didn’t this time last week. I want to spend time with them. I want to bring them to life and tell their story.

And since that’s how I feel, it’s time to move this project from development (concept and writing) to pre-production (design, storyboard and planning). (EDIT: This is not what happened at all.)

There will be much research and much drawing of concept art to begin with. I’ve already got some sketches of props and characters but nothing that really excites me the way this treatment does. Not yet.


The inner game of rewriting

Yesterday I hated the draft scriptment but I kept working at it. Today I realised one of the major story threads isn’t working and it’ll need rewriting – but I’m excited. It’s going to be great. I’m actually going to like the story more because the change makes the character so much clearer. It’s more archetypal and relatable. The list of stuff to fix is short but has wide-reaching ramifications.

The treatment’s around 10,700 words so far. That’s thirty-one pages double spaced. Production-wise, there’s about six different locations, maybe ten characters to build (five major, the rest are minor), forty-three scenes in total without a number of shots determined.

Do I need all of them to tell the story? Maybe. Even in this short film there’s two story threads colliding, with interesting associated themes coming along for the ride.

It’s definitely shaping up though – the draft is blossoming into something I can definitely work with. If I can get started boarding it by next week, I’ll be pretty happy with that indeed.

I was looking up what pi is in different bases today on the way home. It’s research. Honest.

And yet.. I’m starting to have second thoughts about the change now. I know the original isn’t great but thinking about it the new idea seems.. I dunno.. too obvious. A cliche? Maybe.

That’s the inner game of rewriting in progress, right there.


The first draft of the treatment is written

The Quiet One now has a 10,000 word treatment. The second half of the movie came out in a flood of ideas today.

Naturally, bits of it suck and bits of it I’m suspicious of but it’s a first draft. First drafts are meant to be suspect and unsatisfying. It can and will be improved. I’m too tired to try to begin fixing it today, but it’s mediocre enough in places that it’s not too daunting to have to improve upon.

Now it’s time to ask what if.. why doesn’t.. isn’t it strange that.. all those fun questions. Rethinking and rewriting, and not letting go of it until it’s as wonderful and true and vital as it needs to be for me to commit the hours to bringing it into the world.

I mean there’s concept art, storyboarding, production spreadsheets with assets to build, animatics with music and scratch voices, a few artlangs of various depth to create.. and that’s just pre-production. The linguistics stuff could anchor me to pre-production for a bloody long time. Even these blog posts take their sweet time to come up with.

So. I accept that I will be at this for a while. I’d like it to be over and done with before Australia goes to its next election in 2016 or whenever.

I also accept that I’ll be flying blind and that I don’t know how to do a lot of this stuff yet. Like the character in the story, I have to dive in with a whole lot of faith that I’ll work out the technology and craft of how to do it and give it everything I’ve got no matter what’s trying to stop me. (Within reason, in my case – still need that day job to pay the bills.)

If you asked me what the movie was about, the way the guy asked me on Friday evening, I’d say: it’s the story of a guy who just wants some peace and quiet to get on with his invigoratingly difficult life’s work, but the universe has other ideas. No mention of the actual sci-fi conveyances of the story. It’s a situation many of us of a particular temperament can relate to though, if not everyone.

In other news, I spent 44 minutes watching Ratatoing on the weekend. I hope my movie looks better than that when it’s done.