I was recently privileged to hear story guru Syd Field lecturing to a crowd of fellow filmmakers during his first trip to Sydney. He presented us with a theoretical discussion about modern technology, modern storytelling and our very modern brains.
by Margaret M. MacDonald
To sum up Syd’s point (which is not easy to do from a two and a half hour lecture) he was essentially saying that the influx of digital technology in our lives, our constant access to information, the inundation of sound and image and the literal ease with which films can now be made, has altered the way in which we tell stories through film. As our world has gone from analogue to digital, so too has our thinking.
As our world has gone from analogue to digital,
so too has our thinking.
One need only look at a news station like CNN to see this. Television news was once presented by a reporter behind a desk, occasionally supported by images, interviews and video clips. Now we are not only watching one or several reporters, but we are presented with captions to each story, sub-captions that repeat points about the story, a constant news ticker reporting other stories, and time and temperature all on the same screen at the same time. Yet we can watch these channels, take in everything we need to know and ignore the rest.
Film has changed, too
As Syd Field said, you can see this change in film as well. Storytelling is far less linear, we jump around in time, are given bits and pieces of character background in sound and imagery, and only put together the full puzzle once the story has come to its climax. But because our brains are so well adjusted to the information rich digital world, we will retain what we need to know and ignore the rest. In the end, the story will still be clear, even if it began at its middle.
Because our brains are so well adjusted
to the information rich digital world,
we will retain what we need to know and ignore the rest.
Unfortunately, I think Syd’s point was not as clear to the audience as he might have intended. I heard many people walk away from the lecture discussing advancements in filmmaking technology, digital imagery and the capabilities it has allowed for, but very few people were talking about storytelling. Flashbacks, intercut scenes, voice overs, and dreamt or remembered images are nothing new in film, even if they occur with more frequency today.
It’s true that before cameras could literally go everywhere and a set could be conjured by computer, filmmakers had little choice but to prop a tripod up in front of a table and have their characters discuss their feelings over cocktails. But that is not only how filmmakers had to tell stories, it is how an audience expected to be told that story. We were still sitting behind the fourth wall and would have been rather shaken had one of our fedora wearing heros broken through it.
Capability and consciousness
Today there is no wall. Our stories are told to us in film like the news is relayed on CNN, one big picture with a constant ticker of information around its periphery. We jump around in time, layer realities on top of each other, switch between the character’s conscious and subconscious experiences, and even interact with our stories through internet forums and DVD extras. This is not only because technology has made it possible, but also because these new possibilities have engrained themselves into our brains, our cultures and our storytelling. Our change in capability has created a change in consciousness.
So why didn’t this message resonate with a room full of filmmakers?
Perhaps because we cannot see what is ticking away in our own brains. We tell stories not only the way we are capable of telling them, but also in the way we expect to experience them as an audience. We have taken the tools of technology, absorbed the capabilities they have given us, used them to share our stories and we have probably done it all without even realizing it.
If screenwriting has changed, it’s because screenwriters have changed with their times and their cultures. So what does this mean for the future of storytelling in film? To me, it means that as we continue to grow, evolve and change with our times, so too will our storytelling.
Great. Now what?
How do we apply those evolutions to the practical process of screenwriting?
If the screenplay is a blueprint for a film, how then do we make that blueprint say “protagonist’s subconscious”, “memories” or “parallel events”? The technology with which films are made has changed, so perhaps we need to alter the blueprints of film accordingly. Only then can our films be built upon a solid structure.
As modern filmmakers continue to develop and utilize new technology, and modern audiences continue to demand stories that appeal to our wi-fi sensibilities, we the modern screenwriters need figure out how to write modern stories.
So perhaps Syd’s next lecture could suggest a new set of tools for the digital generation of screenwriters. After all, who better to write the next chapter in the history of filmmaking, than the writers themselves?
Margaret M. MacDonald is a production designer and award winning screenwriter. She has lived and worked in Los Angeles, New York and currently Sydney. She aims to use both her writing and designing to create cinematic worlds. She also loves to discuss the past, present and future and filmmaking and isn’t afraid to disagree with you.
Later this month The Story Department will feature an exlusive interview with Syd Field, in which he speaks frankly about how he became the world’s first story guru and how Robert McKee borrows freely from the ideas Syd launched.