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Cyberscribes: The Power of Digital Screenwriting

Cyberscribes: The Power of Digital Screenwriting

Articles - Directing

Its pioneering moments are forever stamped
on the psyches of audiences everywhere: the water tentacle
shaping itself into Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s face
in The Abyss; Arnold Schwarzenegger turning
bad cop Robert Patrick’s body into a liquid-metal pretzel
in Terminator 2; and, of course, a roadside
Jeff Goldblumbeing stalked by a Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic
Park
. Computer Generated Imagery, or CGI as it’s
known in film circles, has allowed moviemakersthe ability
to create, quite literally, anything, anywhere, and
gradually, anyone that their imaginations can conjure.
But the advent of digital technology has also unleashed
an exciting new arsenal for the first person in the
moviemaking process-the screenwriter. With CGI, screenwriters
now have groundbreaking storytelling devices at their
fingertips. In addition to writing more dynamic visual
sequences, they can place digitallydeveloped characters
in real environments, enhance those environments to
unlimited degrees, and allow themselves the luxury
of creating entirely unreal worlds in which their stories
can be set. Aside from the obvious production limitations
of budgets and schedules, screenwriters more than ever
before have a palette at their disposal that will only
keep expanding as CGI tools are refined.

Tarzan

For screenwriter Duncan Kennedy, a first
produced screenplay has provided new insight into the
process of using visual technology to tell a story.
Kennedy studied industrial design in his native Australia
and was inspired to go to USC School of Cinema-Television
after reading George Lucas’ autobiography, Skywalking.
While directing a student feature, Kennedy interned
at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) where he worked
in the art department, designing prop and set elements
for Terminator 2. After several spec scripts
gained major studio attention but failed to reach the
screen, Kennedy sold Deep Blue Sea to Warner
Bros. in 1995.

With its tale of intelligent sharks who
attack an oceanic genetic research facility, Deep
Blue Sea
promises to present its share of dazzling
visuals. “I gave thought to how some of the stuff would
look on screen,” Kennedy explained. “The fact that
the script called for Mako sharks, which are extremely
quick and agile, lends itself to computer effects.” Principal
photography took place at Rosarito Beach, Mexico, primarily
in an outdoor tank facility built for James Cameron’s
full-scale Titanic ship set. Director Renny Harlin
and visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun are realizing
Kennedy’s vision with a unique combination of the live-action
elements, CGI, and traditional miniature photography.

Godzilla

When he conceived the story, Kennedy
realized his script had to allow the filmmakers the
ability to create a realistic scenario for the action. “For
pragmatic reasons, the script had to read as something
that would be possible to film:’ he noted. “Digital
effects, which make whatever’s in your head a reality
on screen, free you up as a writer. The great thing
about CGI is that there’s a mystique to it that says
`you can do anything.”

In contrast to Kennedy’s concern and
anticipation of his film’s craft, according to David
Koepp, the writer’s last priority is understanding
the technology and how it will be used to execute his
or her ideas. Many will find that an ironic proposition,
considering that among Koepp’s long list of 1990s screenwriting
credits he has the distinction of having written both Jurassic
Park
, and its sequel The Lost World for
director Steven Spielberg. “As a writer, you just write
what you think will be incredible and let them figure
it out,” he said. “You get into bad effects writing
if you start limiting it in terms of what you think
is practical, or expanding it, thinking `digital effects
are so great, I’m going to go crazy.’ The writer should
have zero concern with how the effects people are going
to do their jobs."

Koepp notes that, at the forefront of
CG characters with Jurassic Park, he met immediate
stumbling blocks as the screenwriter. “The problem
with some effects-driven stuff is that the filmmakers
have great ideas for their set pieces, but that stuff
is often thought up first and given the most attention,” he
commented. “Then the writer has to string it together.
Any time you approach it backwards like that, when
you’re coming up with connective tissue last, it makes
the characters become somewhat unimpressive. It’s certainly
the hardest writing I’ve ever done.”

The Wild
Wild West

If Jurassic Park‘s menacingly
realistic dinosaurs were a breakthrough, the effectsoriented
films that have followed in its huge footprints, The
Lost World among them, have certainly given audiences
increasingly more astounding visual effects. That this
wave of films has brought spectacle at the expense
of good writing may indicate a limited perspective
on the overall state of the industry. “People have
decried the lack of ideas in the last few years,” said
Koepp, “but whenever anew piece of technology comes
along, there’s a fascination with it. Eventually, the
public who flocks to see the new tool will get tired
of it.You have to come up with another new tool or
give us story and characters as well.”

Following his directorial feature film
debut with The Trigger Effect, Koepp’s Stir
of Echoes
, based on a ghost-story novel by Richard
Matheson, will be released in 1999. His basic advice
to aspiring and working screenwriters is simple, even
in the wake of the digital movie universe. “You’re
doomed to failure if you try to anticipate the market,” he
related. “Just write what you like; if your story calls
for effects, great. If it doesn’t, big deal.”

The Thirteenth
Floor

Screenwriter Ed Neumeier has also under
gone the transition from seeing his work realized with
traditional-or practical-visual effects to the digital
realm. Neumeier collabo rated with director Paul Verhoeven,
producer Jon Davison, and visual effects artist Phil
Tippett for both of his produced screenplays: first,
on kobocop, which he co-wrote with Michael Miner, and
most recently on Starship Troopers. “In the Robocop era,
you were confined to one animated fantasy character,” he
observed, “whereas in the post Jurassic Park era, it’s
more like, `what could we do that’s cool?”‘ Robocop featured
Peter Weller in a combination of makeup and costume
courtesy of Rob Bottin with convincing stop-motion
effects by Tippett, and was punctuated by Neumeier’s
satirical vision of the near future.

After Robocop, Neumeier and Davison
discussed a movie version of Robert Heinlein’s novel, Starship
Troopers
, sensing that Steven Spielberg and Amblin
were working on the groundbreaking technology ofJurassic
Park.” It was like this brave new world where you could
do anything,” Neumeier recalled. “The nice thing about
the digital age, and this is just going to continue,
is that it takes the shackles off: What we didn’t know
then is how expensive it could be, but it’s getting
so that you can do anything if you have enough money”

The Lost
World

Largely created with the CG bugs fiiom
Tippett’s studio, Starship Troopers features
a dizzying array of Neumeier creations. “I feel that
I have a certain operational knowledge of special effects,
but in the end it’s not very important,” he noted. “It’s
fun to know your visual effects tools, but it’s not
something that enters into my process much. I think
the technology has sent me more back to basics than
ever.

“After Jurassic Park,” he continued, “I
felt that the good thing about digital effects was
that we can do anything, and bad thing about was the
audience very quickly expects that we could do anything.Thus,
the actual craft of storytelling becomes more important
than ever. That’s our challenge now”

Accomplished screenwriter Ed Solomon
discovered that the experience of writing an effects-driven
film for a major studio can present unexpected dilemmas.
After a rewarding series of produced spec scripts,
Solomon wrote Men In Black on assignment. “I
came in to Men In Black at the beginning and
the producers told me, “Let your mind go crazydon’t
reign in your imagination. Go as far as you can go,” he
recollects. “When I turned the script in, they said “Are
you nuts? Didn’t you reign in your imagination at all?
We can’t possibly shoot this movie.” With creature
effects supervised by Rick Baker and CGI overseen by
Eric Brevig and ILM, the Barry Sonnenfeld comic-fantasy
became one of the biggest hits in the summer of 1997.

My Phil Tippett
animates a stop motion puppet from Robocop,
the realizatin of one of Ed Neumeier’s concepts.

Solomon wrote 30 to 40 internal drafts
of the Men In Black script and a dozen officially
submitted drafts, then actively worked with Sonnenfeld
during principal photography. To varying degrees, the
descriptions in Solomon’s script were incorporated
by his collaborators. “The only phone call I’ve ever
made from an airplane was to Barry when I had the idea
to have the jeweler’s head open at the morgue to reveal
the tiny guy inside, running everything from a little
chair,” he recalls. “The guy next to me on the plane
heard the conversation and switched his seat! You describe
things like that in the script, and they ask you, `How
little? How green?’ In the case of Men In Black,
a lot of the stuff looked way better than I had originally
conceived."

For Solomon, the screenwriting process
for any type of film becomes one based on central elements
of storytelling. “It doesn’t matter how you describe
something in a script unless you are creating in concert
with the director,” he noted. “Then, what ends up on
screen is very much going to reflect your description.
What you really need to know and focus on as a writer
is how you tell a good story.”

Solomon has written a draft of X-Men for
director Bryan Singer and formed his own production
company, Infinite Monkeys, which is creating a TV show, “The
Unbelievables,” about a bunch of over-the-hill superheros.
Ironically Solomon had first written it in 1987 as
a feature film, but it was deemed not makeable since
it was considered too expensive at the time. With current
available technologies, “The Unbelievables” is now
possible, though Solomon warns of the potential abuses
of the digital landscape. “For a short amount of time,
digital effects could change the way directors approach
the material because they may get fascinated with the
technology, but ultimately you still have to write
reality-something that feels grounded in some kind
of human truth-even if it’s fantastic subject matter:”

Starship
Troppers

In another branch of moviemaking, traveling
between the worlds of live action and animation, screenwriter
Tab Murphy, on the strength of his script for Disney’s Hunchback
of Notre Dame
, was assigned to adapt Edgar Rice
Burroughs’ classic story, Tarzan, for an animated
feature. Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck, the
project is trailblazing in its integration of traditional
animation and CGI.

“I knew that they wanted to do a wide
screen version of the story with an epic feel to it,” Murphy
said. “You keep that in the back of your mind while
you’re writing. There was an opportunity to really
explore an aspect of the story that hadn’t been previously
duplicated on film.” At Disney, art director Dan St.
Pierre and CGI artistic supervisor Eric Daniels developed
revolutionary CG innovation labeled “deep canvas,” which
allow twodimensional Tarzan to move through a background
jungle environment of unprecedented depth and detail.

Based on a detailed 15-page treatment
that often undergoes rigorous re-writing, an animated
feature is typically turned over to artists who generate
visual concepts and additional story ideas before a
first draft of the screenplay is written. The necessarily
collaborative nature of animation found Murphy integrating
the technological achievements into his writing. “If
the artists have an idea, they are absolutely encouraged
to run with it,” related Murphy. “These people are
so brilliant at design and visual storytelling, it
is magical when it happens.”

The Wild
Wild West

On the brink of the new digital cinema,
Murphy, who is working on a CG-based project for producer
Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich (Godzilla,Independence
Day
), cautions writers of the pitfalls of computer-generated
scenarios, whether in liveaction, animation, or a combination
thereof. “We are at a time now where we may start to
rely too much on that technology,” he said. “I firmly
believe that CGI will only prove to be long-lasting
if it is integrated with traditional storytelling.
For the project with Dean and Roland, we’re spending
every waking moment working on the story, not trying
to shoehorn it into the technology.”

Writer-director Stephen Sommers insists
that “writing is the fun part” of making a movie-understandable
when considering that movies of the size and complexity
he has undertaken require a year and a half of 16-18hour
days to complete, including a minimum of nine months
in post-production. After writing and directing Deep
Rising, Sommers pitched a new live-action version of
the 1932 horror classic, The Mummy, a May 1999
release, to Universal Studios. “Everyone had an idea
of what the mummy looked like,” explained Sommers, “but
I said, `we can’t do that-we’ve got to surprise people.
We must surpass their expectations.”

Taking the basic concepts from the original
film, Sommers conceived a new story and characters
for his version, a “re-do” instead of a remake.” I
didn’t want to have a guy wrapped in bandages, so he
is dramatically CGenhanced,” Sommers described. “Part
of my pitch to the studio before I even started writing
was that you couldn’t unwrap the mummy, and you can’t
outrun him, so I knew that we would be working with
Industrial Light and Magic from moment one.” Using
motion-capture techniques, Mummy actor Arnold
Vosloo’s basic movements were recorded and his likeness,
fashioned by prosthetics expert Nick Dudman, was reconstructed
for animators at ILM. “I came up with stuff in my script
that I was not even sure ILM could do,” Sommers confessed. “But
I knew that John Berton, the visual effects supervisor,
would take it to the next level and really flesh my
ideas out.”

Sommers the director cursed Sommers the
writer all through the production of The Mummy, though
he concedes that his writing pushed his directing into
uncharted territory. “We went way beyond what I ever
thought we could achieve,” admitted Sommers. “You see
a guy turn, half his head is missing, and you can see
through himit’s pretty spectacular. Most of the stuff
that’s in my movie couldn’t have been done five.years
ago.”

Back in the 1970s, filmmakers Brent Maddock & S.S.
Wilson worked in industrial and educational films with
minuscule budgets. Presently, after a string of produced
spec scripts, including the Short Circuit and Tremors movies,
they are writing on assignment for the most ambitious
of studio projects, among them, the summer, 1999 mega-budget
movie Wild Wild West. Even in their newfound
context of digital imagery, utilized in Wild Wild
West
to articulate a gigantic mechanical tarantula,
Maddock and Wilson turned to their roots during the
writing process. “We still find ourselves stepping
back and saying, `let’s not write a scene that can
only be done on the computer. Let’s write a scene that
can be done conventionally, and save money for the
few standout moments: Right now, CGI is still a very
high-end, expensive operation.”

Maddock and Wilson went directly from Wild
Wild West
to their most visionary project to
date, one sure to pique the curiosity of filmmakers
and audiences alike: a totally computer-generated
film. Originating at ILM in conjunction with Universal,
Frankenstein and 771e Wolf Man will feature CG characters,
sets, locations, everything. Once Maddock and Wilson’s
script was approved, Maddock got the job of codirecting
the project Dave Carson, who has worked at ILM since
the early 1980s.”We’re trying to be true to the original
Universal films and be respectful of them,” Maddock
said. Wilson added, “and yet this is not in any way
a remake of Frankenstein or The Wolf Man;
it is an entirely new story with those characters.”
For the pair, the concept of writing a fully-CG film
offered few limitations, aside from a 85-90 page maximum,
set for budgetary restrictions. “We knew we had the
freedom to come up with sets and locations that would
not have to be filmed,” Maddock remarked, “so we got
a pretty fantastic with some of the ideas.” According
to Wilson, after a screenplay draft was submitted and
ILM entered the scene, the script continued to evolve
to maximize each facet of the film. “An enormous amount
of thought and discussion went into almost every detail,” he
said. “Each scene and line of dialogue is being studied
over and over to make sure were getting the most out
of it.The storyboarding phase is causing us to revamp
the script as the story department at ILM comes up
with more ideas and possibilities.”

Whereas movies such as Antz, A Bug’s
Life
and Toy Story created fully CG worlds
utilizing non-human characters, Wilson confirmed
that Frankenstein and The Wolf Man will
not retread familiar cinematic ground. “In each line
of scene description in our screenplay,” he noted, “we
went out of our way to set a tone in the artists’
minds and achieve a look that is very different from
anything that anybody has ever done in film.”

As developing CGI technologies take the
future of movies in ever more unpredictable directions,
screenwriters will undoubtedly face the coming changes
regardless of their chosen subject matter. Whether
the project is shot on a set or becomes fabricated
on a workstation, writers will continue to remain the
point of origin for any technical marvels. Still, Duncan
Kennedy, for one, hopes that fixture projects, like
his first feature release, Deep Blue Sea, continue
to employ a variety of techniques to achieve their
desired effect. “There’s something about the way that
light falls on aminiature that makes it look real,” he
said. “CG effects miss the hard edge and human touch
of a physical creation. If George Lucas gets his wish
and all movies are done completely in a computer, I
think it will be a sad day.”

Freelance author Scott Essman has been
writing about makeup artistry and visual effects since
1995. Write to him at: sessman@ibm.mtsac.edu. MM

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