Film Scores Are Different

Film scoring feels a lot like swimming with shoes on. I like shoes. I need shoes. They make it easier for me to walk and run and do all sorts of fun things. Shoes are great. Swimming with shoes is not so great.

The shoes in this instance are the habits I've developed over roughly 15 years of songwriting. When writing a song, the hardest part is almost always the beginning. Once I know the chord progression and overall structure, the writing process becomes a fairly simple mathematical exercise. Writing that way helped me compose over 100 songs just during my busy days in high school. 

But film scores are different. Every time I jump into a scoring session I intuitively assume that if I can figure out the chord structure of the first few beats, then I'll be able to extrapolate the rest of the cue and still be home in time for dinner. You just can't do that with a score. For one thing, where songs are typically organized into sections like ABA and ABAB, scores don't -- and indeed can't -- have any rigidly defined structure. That's because narratives, the indulgent and rhapsodic beatniks that scores are meant to accompany, aren't structured into neatly timed units of bars, measures, and beats. Instead, a beat in a narrative is given the freedom of lasting anywhere from a second on to the end of eternity. Ultimately, whether we like it or not, the score must be subservient to the timing and rhythm of the narrative. 

The principle holds the same for radio-plays which is why I'm writing this now. 

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More Than Zero Followers: Part 1

I love Twitter. And yet for the past five years, despite having an active account with plenty of clever things to say, I have had roughly the same number of active Twitter followers from the very beginning: zero. I don't want to sound ungrateful, but generally one expects social media to feel less isolated and more, heaven forbid, social.

Thankfully, I have data to help me understand why my Tweets have fallen on deaf ears. Whether it's an accident on Twitter's part or not, I've been receiving engagement analytics for each of my Tweets, and now that I've been collecting this data since December I thought I'd extrapolate some patterns that might be useful in rethinking how I use Twitter. You may also find something helpful in my observations.

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The Final Stretch

Some cool developments for Elda's Song, including a rough draft and some new features for the app I've been using to write the show.

Pilot Draft

I'm producing a three minute pilot -- the sort of thing you'd expect to find in the middle of episode 12. Here's an incredibly rough draft that I threw together with temp SFX and a tiny music cue:

I'm not particularly happy with it, but that's not really the point. It's a pilot. I could waste a lot of time trying to make a perfect first episode (which I did) but it's going to be replaced once I write the rest of the season. The goal isn't perfection, it's to demonstrate the KIND of show I'm going to produce.

What I want to know: what other shows (radio-play or not) does this remind you of?

An overwritten cue for during the the narrator's monologue. I stripped down version appears during the rough draft. I like it, but I'm not sure if it's going to have the effect I want.

What I want to know: How would you describe the tone of this cue?

Writing Software

There really aren't any good software tools for writing radio plays. You can use screenwriting software, but screenwriting software is just awful and the standard screenplay format is frustratingly arcane. So I decided to make something good and use that instead.

The second screenshot shows the script for the pilot, which I wrote entirely in-app. I love using this software because it has a fully dynamic autocomplete engine, which makes writing dialogue so much nicer. I also have it set to notify me when I've met my daily word count goal* by filling in the word counter with a solid blue.

* Progress towards that goal is measured incrementally rather than by total difference. You could type 500 words, delete all 500 of them, and the word counter would still remember that you typed 500 words. I plan to add the ability to measure total difference later.

Directors' Notes On Sir Peter Jackson

Here begins a series which I hope to continue in the future, in which I take notes on an interview with a well-known director and compile them into a list of musings on film and the creative process. To start with, here are the notes I took from an interview with Sir Peter Jackson just after the DVD release of Battle of Five Armies. It's one of those laid back interviews were even the harder-hitting questions received interesting and insightful answers, so if you have an hour I definitely recommend listening in its entirety.

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A Pilot Two-Parter

After receiving initial feedback that the tone of the series was unclear in the existing pilot, the first episode is now being split into two episodes.

In the Beginning: Part 1

This is a prologue episode describing how the universe was formed, how it was all nearly consumed by Kel the Devourer (à la Fenrir in Ragnarök, but in a creation myth instead of an apocalypse), how he was split in half by the goddess of thunder, Illya, and how Earth was made to stand between those two halves, each of which live on imprisoned in the sun and the moon. 

The challenge of an episode like this is in communicating the unique cosmology of this universe -- geo-centric with star gods -- without ever getting too dense or too flighty. As you can imagine, this is the kind of storytelling that can easily get way out of hand. After reviewing a recent draft of the script in which I tried to explain how Devourers came into being, someone remarked that they sounded a rather lot like the Green Lantern Corp. Yikes! Not an association I was hoping to form. This is a fantasy epic, after all, not a sci-fi superhero serial!

And that was in the abridged version.

I almost don't even want to include this prologue (how many times have we had to sit through a prologue that the story didn't clearly didn't need to get going), but because Elda is a star and because Devourers figure so prominently in the show, I think it's important to establish these details early on so that those revelations don't leave the audience asking "How?"

In the Beginning: Part 2

This episode follows Elda as she crash lands into the Old Wood and tries to fix her flying machine.

You can read the script here.

Software Tools for Story Development

A year ago I developed an iOS app for WYSIWYG screenwriting and storyboarding that I dubbed Fountain Pen -- by virtue of it using the Fountain markup language. Now that I'm working on a radio play, it seemed like an obvious opportunity to build on top of what was already accomplished and expand what Fountain Pen can already do.

The result is a temporarily rebranded Draugr. It uses a little TextKit magic and the updated Dropbox API to automatically format and save plain text files using a simple syntax based on the BBC style outlined here.

The stupidly flexible syntax works like this:

  1. Dialogue is marked by the name of the character in all caps followed by a colon, such as in "JOHN: This is my line of dialogue."
  2. Cues for things like effects and transitions are also marked in all caps followed by a colon, as in "AUDIO FX: Rain pours down." and "CUT TO:".
  3. Scenes are marked as "Scene #", acts are marked as "Act #", and endings are marked simply "The End".
  4. All other lines are presumed description.

Margins and tab stops are then automatically formatted based on the above syntax.

Current outstanding issues include local file storage (Draugr currently operates entirely on the cloud), keyboard management, some stray dispatch related bugs, and options for exporting to either rich text or pdf.

A Bible and a Pilot Script

Below is the first draft of the story bible. You can also find the latest draft of the pilot episode here. Key concerns as of right now include the show title and depth of characterization.

Star Child: An Epic Radio-Drama

Story Bible

A newborn star is sent to earth disguised as a little girl in order to uncover a secret plot between the trolls and the humans. The prophecies all foretell doom for the stars, but as the day of reckoning approaches, can the fledgling star child find her place in the world and bring peace to the cosmos?

Characters

Elda (the Star Child): A rambunctious little girl with a competitive spirit and a clever mind, who was raised by a community of eagles in the sky. She's also not exactly well-versed in the ways of humans and finds their ways fascinating. Think Hermione Granger raised by Box-Trolls. She's a bit awkward, even among the eagles, never really knowing how to fit in despite her best efforts to make friends. She doesn't even know where she came from, let alone how she got there! She eventually finds a kindred spirit in the cranky old owl, Charlie, and they become very close friends. That's important, because incredible danger awaits Elda and all of the other stars…

Charlie the Owl: A cranky old codger of an owl who hates people and fun and loud noises and games and just wants to be left alone, thank you very much. With time, he learns to open himself up to others and admit that deep down, he really does care. He's a big softie, once you get to know him. He becomes the anchor to Elda's wild spirit. Where Elda is adventurous, Charlie is cautious. Where Elda is likely to shoot from the hip (so to speak), Charlie is careful and cool. 

Thiestra and Diestra: Two of the last remaining witches in this world. They're terrible at magic, often getting spells horribly wrong, but doing just well enough for themselves to become the most feared witches in the land. They're not evil, per see, but they have terrible social skills that are often confused for malicious intent. They are the ones who have uncovered the prophecies spelling doom for the stars, but they don't know how or what form it will take. They serve as occasional guides and helpers to Elda on her various adventures.

Gwendelock: Apprentice to Thiestra and Diestra. Also their great-nephew. Charming and polite, he puts up with his absent minded aunts because he wants to become a wizard just like his father, even though his mother was a human and the odds are 50/50 he won't have any powers at all. He doesn't talk about his parents much. He is haunted by their death. He holds secrets no young boy should have to keep. These secrets overlap with Elda in a surprising way, leading both to realize there's more to the other than they suspected, and they may not be able to trust each other when those secrets are revealed.

Trolls: Based on the trolls of Scandinavian folklore, they hide in caves during the day to avoid the sun and travel during the night when the gentler moon can guide their way. They can be incredibly dangerous and rarely ever helpful. Many of them eat humans. A clan of them have discovered the secrets to an ancient magic long lost to the world and they have kidnapped several of the most important alchemists to help them harness its power. When one of these alchemists manages to escape, barely even alive, he takes with him this knowledge and a single message: “Revenge!”

Queen Eva: Daughter of one of the kidnapped alchemists, she rules a kingdom that has long lived in fear of the trolls. She will do anything to protect her people. When she learns of the trolls's plan, she immediately rallies her people to beat the trolls to this incredible power. Where the trolls were motivated only by greed, she is motivated by love, which may or may not be worse.

The Stars: The gods of this universe. They created the earth long ago when they split Kel the Devourer into the sun and the moon, placing the earth between the two halve in order to keep them at bay and prevent utter destruction. The stars command the rain and the wind, the moving of the earth and the creation of all life. The most powerful of these stars, Illya the Goddess of Thunder, sacrificed herself in order to split Kel. As such only the witches remember the secrets of her lightning.

Episode Outlines

Each of the podcast episodes follow a linear story arc with a definite end in mind. Here are outlines for the first five episodes, leading up to the inciting incident.

Episode 1

Elda falls from out of the sky in a flying machine, crashing into a forest. She meets Charlie who doesn't believe that hunk-of-junk ever worked. She also meets Thiestra and Diestra who laid a trap with a hot three course meal that ensnares her. She escapes and is generally frazzled.

She finally meets Gwendelock who is kind and reveals he is the nephew of Thiestra and Diestra. She says she comes from a community of birds, but she's scared because she's not ready to live on her own, yet. Gwendelock tells her there's no shame in going back. He is also strangely touched to hear his aunts are trying to catch him with a hot meal. He decides he's no longer mad at them and they go back to meet the witches.

Gwendelock and Elda return to the witches who apologize for their insensitive behavior. They also encourage Elda to return to her home, that there's no shame in not being ready to grow up yet. They tell her The Grand Duchess can probably help her and they magic her to the back of Charlie so that he can guide her through the forest. Cue trombone whah-whah-whah.

Inside a nearby cave, trolls poke and prod at an old man in a cage. They mock him and offer him meat of unknown origin. They tell him it's time for work. He begs for no more, he's already given them enough. They laugh. Machinery is heard turning. He screams.

Episode 2

Fused together, Elda and Charlie travel through the wood to get to the home of The Grand Duchess. Neither are happy to be stuck with the other, both think the other is stuck up and whiny. Through their journey in the wood, though, they start to warm up to each other.

They reach the home of the Grand Duchess who takes pity on Elda and uses her limited magic to unstick the two and shoos Charlie off. The duchess is fascinated by Elda and invites her to her upcoming gala. Elda becomes the duchess's pygmalion project. Back in the forest, Charlie is peeved at being shooed. “What do I care? She was a stinky old human anyway. I don't care. Nope. I'm glad they sent me away like a… Like a… (frog croaks) What are you looking at?”

Dolled up and instructed in the ways of how to dance, Elda excitedly attends the gala, but has a miserable time. The people at the gala are amused by her odd behavior and terrible dancing and start laughing at her. Dejected, Elda goes outside to mope, but is surprised to discover Charlie standing near the edge of the forest. (“It's a big forest. I can stand wherever I want.”) They apologize to each other. They show each other their dance moves and jam to the music streaming outside.

Episode 3

General world building, learning about Elda's troubles fitting in with the other birds her age back with the eagles.

Episode 4

Fixing the machine, learning about how Elda came to be a valuable member of the eagle community by protecting them from other humans and helping animals escape from human traps. How she helped them as the masked spirit Cuckaroo, who the humans fear.

Back in the cave, a trolless tries to sneak some actual food to the old man. She apologizes for her family's raucous behavior. “They're not monsters,” she insists, “They're just…” And then she opens the cage and discovers the he is missing. She is terrified.

Episode 5

Elda says goodbye to her new friends and sort-of-friends. She sets out to return to the bird community. She is surprised by the sudden appearance of fog, but she is able to find the clouds where her old family lives, hovering around the peak of a mountain. She recognizes the nests and all the various mementos from the elder birds, but everyone is gone!

Scared and confused, Star child explores the mountain below and meets the old man, hiding under a rock. He is completely insane, muttering about danger and revenge. He jumps her and then runs off into the fog. Elda then meets Talya, the Trolless, who attempts to gobble her up but is too drunken to actually catch the girl, who still wears her flying machine. At a stalemate, they have a conversation. Talya says that the birds were tasty. They were all killed because the trolls thought they were hiding an escaped prisoner. “He's dangerous,” Talya says, “He must be stopped!” The other trolls are out hunting the escaped prisoner under the cover of this enchanted fog, but they could be back any minute.

Climax when the other trolls come back furious and empty handed from their hunt and Star Child has to escape before they can catch her and eat her, too. End with her returning to Charlie at the old wood. No words are exchanged. She hugs Charlie and cries into the credits.