One of the biggest differences I’m beginning to notice between screenwriting and novel writing is in the transitions, timing, and position of the camera. Recently, I’ve been taking time to make notes on transitions and timing in some of the shows I watch. I spent four hours watching the two hours of the first Star Wars movie. As I watched, I made note of each scene transition, the time it occurred, and the primary characters in the scene.
Through this kind of analysis I have been trying to piece together the way a movie comes together from a script perspective. I’m the kind of person who likes to deconstruct something, to pull it to pieces so that I can understand how all the parts fit together. So, by deconstructing my favourite shows I have been learning a lot and coming to see a new level of intricacy in what I watch. When you examine the artistic sense of these shows you begin to see layers you never imagine while watching the surface.
One of those incredible layers is revealed in the last few scenes of the movie in Star Wars. Luke and Han have freed the princess and returned her to the rebel forces. The rebels have analysed the Death Star plans and discovered a weakness where a single-man fighter spacecraft could get past the station’s defences. They then proceed into a beautifully structured battle scene that transitions so many times I gave up trying to document every time the point of view shifted. In the end I had to decide that the whole battle must be a single scene made up of tiny one, two, and three second shots. I can’t get my head around how that must have come together in the studio. I imagine it took a lot of work and that the editors who pieced it all together are geniuses.
After watching that scene and feeling that awe over the incredible complexity that comes together in just a few minutes of screen time and encompasses a complete Hero’s Journey in and of itself, I had to go back to the script to see how it was written. Can you believe that every single one of those camera angles was in the script? It’s not a director or editor deciding, “ok we’ll snip to this here, cut to that there, then come back to him, and then give a shot of her”. Lucas wrote all of it into the script.
I hadn’t really thought about how complicated the script must get sometimes. When you write a novel, a scene like that unfolds in a continuous stream of narrative. It might be a handful of paragraphs, snippets of dialogue, and a sense of intensity. In the script it is scene change after scene change, cut to this, cut to that, interior, exterior, space, base, pilot one, two, three, four, etc.
What’s more, the speed of these transitions feel like a deliberate tool to increase the sense of conflict. The pace is directly affected and the more the scene flips from one camera angle to another the greater the tension. A long panning shot sets its own pace while jumping between one x-wing fighter to another increases the pace and increases the tension. Does that kind of visual sense come naturally to a writer or is it something we can learn? Is it something Lucas did deliberately or did he just instinctively write that into the script without realising the impact it has on viewers?
As I think about it, it comes back to the pictures. How much of that scene did Lucas picture inside his head as he wrote it? Did it play out like that in his mind’s eye? How much of that came in the drafting and how much from careful redrafting and redrafting?
I’m still trying to get a visual sense of what I want to write. I get increasingly frustrated about my lack of pictures. I still think it’s because I don’t let go of words and give myself enough quiet time just to visualise. It’s difficult to be so obsessed with language that I can’t just be. I can see why people have to consciously choose to learn to meditate. It can be challenging to just be at peace within oneself enough to embrace that kind of silence. I need to give myself into the silence so that I can watch the movies play out in my mind.