Sunday, April 30, 2006

More on "Real" Drama

As relates to my last post on "real" drama, it's worth pointing out that drama and conflict don't have to be "real" or "logical" to work. In fact I think the opposite is true.

Take "North by Northwest" for example. The central conflict is that Roger Thornhill is mistaken for someone else and pursued by secret agents, right? Well, that story line doesn't even follow a logical thread. I mean, for example - first these guys want information from him. When he doesn't give it to them they decide to kill him. When he foils their plan to kill him, he goes to the police and leads them to where the bad guys threatened his life. The bad guys see him bring the police to the mansion where they threatened him, and yet they still think he's a secret agent. If they think he works for the FBI or CIA or something, why do they think he brings local cops into it? What's a secret agent going to gain by bringing small-town police into his encounters with other powerful secret agents? How are they going to help? Shouldn't he use his resources as a CIA agent to battle them? And their first stated objective was to get information from him and then kill him, right? But they follow him as he seeks out the owner of the mansion where he was confronted by these secret agents. And when he catches up with this guy (Townsend) these bad guys murder Townsend and frame Thornhill for the murder. Okay, seriously, why do these bad guys think Thornhill is seeking out Townsend? Townsend is just a patsy. What kind of genius CIA agent would Thornhill be if he hadn't figured that out already? What do they think he's up to? And why haven't they figured out that Thornhill is a regular guy at this point? And why, if they wanted to kill him, do they murder Townsend instead? How does it help them to make Thornhill look like a murderer? If he really is an FBI or CIA agent, can't he explain that the bad guys did it and have the FBI or CIA believe him? It would have been just as easy to murder Thornhill as Townsend. Why didn't they just do that, if that's what they want to do?

And I like how, at the beginning of the movie, they went out of their way to make his murder look less suspicious by making it look like a drunken car accident. Later in the movie, they attempt to kill him by machine-gunning him from a crop duster. Yeah, that won't arouse any suspicion!

I'm not saying these are flaws in the movie. Quite the opposite! The movie works really well because you ALWAYS know exactly what Roger's immediate goal is at any point (i.e. find Kaplan, find Townsend, etc.). The movie is very clear about saying: this is what Roger is attempting to do. Once you are clear about what he's trying to do it creates great drama as you see what unfolds instead! And the stakes are very clear and emotional. He's an innocent guy who, all of a sudden is running for his life. And he can't go to the police. So he has to elude the police while proving his innocence. And then the girl he loves betrays him. And on and on - great twists and turns, and his life is at stake. Everybody gets that, so it's easy to get on board and relate to it and be scared for Roger. If the stakes are clear and emotional and really visceral, the events themselves don't have to track in a logical way. Emotion always trumps logic. The audience WANTS to suspend their disbelief and be scared, sad, frightened, etc. So if you disregard logic in a way that doesn't talk down to them, and make the emotional component work, you can play a little fast and loose with the logic. As a matter of fact, I think you have to. I think every great film has at least one plot hole somewhere. It may be impossible to tell a great story without one.

And this is something I think that has been a problem at Disney in the past. It's always easy to pick on logic. Anybody can do it and it makes you look smart to poke logic holes in a story. So people used to give a lot of logic notes. It can really take a lot of the entertainment out of a story without really addressing what makes a story work. Instead, you should focus on making the emotion strong enough and make the emotion feel REAL enough that the audience overlooks minor logic flaws. Like I said with "Ice Age", it's a preposteous concept - A Wooly Mammoth, a Sabre-tooth tiger and a sloth work together to return a baby to it's parents. What?!? But I bought it and believed in the characters because it worked. The emotion overrode what might sound like a ridiculous concept to someone with limited imagination. And the stakes were real and gettable and visceral, so I could follow it and invest in it emotionally.

There are two things I have found myself saying at Disney over the last ten years. Number one: a movie doesn't have to make total logical sense. A totally logical movie isn't a movie, it's a documentary. So that's what I say when people are trying to iron out all the logic bumps in a story.

Number two is about a situation we had at Disney as well. People were always trying to make the characters in our story go through some sort of logical psychological journey through the film. They were completely obsessed with tracking where the character was in every stage of their psychological transformation. What is Tarzan thinking in this sequence? Where is he on his journey to self-realization? How does this reralization lead to his next realization? And things like that. Which can be really important, don't get me wrong. You need to be in the character's head and "get" what they're thinking, for sure. But obsessing over that at the expense of the entertainment is a big mistake. Nobody wants to watch a logical psychological transformation, unless it's entertaining too! So I always compare this way of approaching the process to making a watch. You're making sure every (psychological) gear is in it's perfect place and functioning properly and engaging with every other (psychological) gear. And the end result "works" perfectly. Only it's about as entertaining as watching a watch work. Pretty dull, in other words.


J said...

Hey Mark. These are really blockbuster posts.
I agree with you here. I find there's always a delicate alchemy that exsists with things and everything needs to be in balance.
I do however think that some logical violations are pretty much film killers for me. Any logical discrepancy that pulls me out of the film and ruins the believability of the film, the characters, or the world has to go. I've been finding more and more that in animation, where anything is possible that that is often disregarded.
Thanks again for all the great, and very informative posts.

chickennuggets said...

I'm tired of reading!

David Lewis said...

Hey Mark,

I've been reading your blog from the start; I think it's full of great stuff. My first time commenting.

I think it's useful to point out that there are two logical systems at work here: our logical system (reality), and the logical system of the film (theatrical reality).

An audience that has bought in to the theatrical reality and is emotionally invested, won't notice things that don't make sense in our reality as long as they make sense in the theatrical reality.

Love theses meaty posts.

Jim M. said...

I think that the film's world can be inconsistent logically with the real world, but has to be internally consistent.

Take the Roadrunner toons.

1. Roadrunner can only run on road.
2. Physics will always work against Mr. Coyote.

And yet, like you said, they work because you always know Mr. Coyote's goals and how close he is to achieving them.

And as far as a character's actions making logical sense - any married comedian will tell you that men/women make no logical sense to each other! Yet we still have relationships! Ting-a-ling!

Jayenti Collins said...

Hi Mark! These, yet again, are great posts! You have a distinct way of breaking things down that makes sense. I lok forward to reading more!

Emma said...

Another thing is that if everything's logical, it's just going through the motions of entertaining the audience. Like - you don't surprise them, because what follows is the next logical step, which is what you'd usually expect.

floyd Norman said...

The reviewers back in 1959 called "North by Northwest" a Hitchcock and bull story. Nonsense that works. I've seen the film more than a dozen times, and it always works for me. Who needs logic?

Love reading your stuff, Mark.

OV! said...

hey man, this comment is about your previous post on ICEAGE. anyway i just wanted to say that my buddy here at Laika, shannon tindle pretty much gave the same crit of ICEAGE-2 that you did. word for word. pretty crazy, i guess great minds think alike? he said he was in your story class back when he was in school.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Great series of posts!

Back to Ice Age as well: I'm not sure if this is just a rumour or a fact, but I've read in a review that the original Ice Age actually was written as a drama, that was turned into a comedy once Fox came in. So if this is true, I bet this has a lot to do with why Ice Age did have that drama, and Robots and Ice Age 2 didn't. I think for any movie to work, it should be working on just that drama level. Whether it's an action flick, a comedy, or a real tearjerker.

Lee-Roy said...

I was going to try and look smart and describe another major plot hole, but I won't. They're all there. Think of it like an Easter-Egg hunt. You can have a nice sunny afternoon in the yard (watching and enjoying NxNW) and then you can snoop around the bushes finding those painted eggs — or maybe those plastic ones with candies inside. Double your fun.

Thanks for the post. You make an interesting point regarding logic. Good stuff to keep in mind while working on story. Hell, sometimes life doesn't make sense, so why should we make stories that always do?

Lee-Roy said...

By the way, to continue with the easter egg analogy. Hiding the eggs is the funnest part of the hunt, isn't it? And the funnest ones to find are those that are hidden in genius little places. Not the ones that are out in the open, and not the ones that are in impossible to find places either (because you never find those — unless you're really good at hiding them yourself).

mark kennedy said...

Wow, thanks for the nice words and ultra-smart comments, everyone. You never know which posts are going to draw out the comments, that's for sure! And talking about story stuff is always can be very divisive and I have gotten lucky that so many people actually agreed with my thoughts or at least didn't speak up if they disagreed! I will quit while I am ahead and go back to talking about drawing now I think.
Lee-roy...I hear you. Someone could start a blog about the illogic of Hitchcock's greatest movies. I could've kept going on NxNW but I didn' was fun to finally say all that stuff though.

RoboTaeKwon-Z said...

Right on the money as always, Mark. Executives pull at logic threads because that's all they know how to do. They push all of the "character tracking" on us because it makes something that is inherently illogical (human behavior) logical.
You are doing us all a great service with this blog.

mark walton said...

Once again, Mark, you speak the truth. All the stuff that happens to Roger may not be completely believable or consistent, but it's the worst, most horrible stuff (short of killing him and ending the story) that needs to happen to make us fear for his life and push his character to its physical and psychological limits. Most people won't notice notice some logic holes IF they believe in the character and care about what happens to them - if they have time to notice and think about medium-sized holes, the characters aren't engaing enough and there's not enough entertainment happening. The one logic rule that I don't think you can bend is to have the main character(s) behave in a way that's consistent with how you've set them up - I think you can throw almost any kind of ridiculous plot contrivance at them, so long as the main character reacts to it in a believable way - then the audience will believe in what is happening, however crazy.
I don't think it's impossible to have a movie that always stays true to it's own internal rules of logic that's still engaging or entertaining, and it's certainly worth trying for, but when logic gets in the way of making the story as dramatic or funny as possible, or doesn't push the main character to his/her limits, the choice is clear. (like when Buzz and the mutant toys do/don't come to life in front of people inconsistently, as the story demands)

Dik Pose said...

Your blog is a jem, gonna take me some time to read and absorb some of the stuff you've posted... but it'll be time well spent!

handel said...

GOOOD POST 'mr marky mark'

And while i think that i would agree with you over all, I must say that a "psychological journey'" can be enormously entertaining. You bring up disneys 'tarzan', And how so much attention was put on tracking where the character was in every stage of the psychological transformation.
Well...the whole meat of the story is ABOUT that transformation. ABOUT the hard turn from one way of living to the next. A 'culture shock' of the biggest kind! I would hope that they would spend time on that.
The problem for me is (and this includes disneys tarzan), basically that disney has somehow LOST the ability to TELL an effective story. And tell it in a clever way. A smart way. A disciplined way. If you tell a story meeting those requirements, then it cant be anything else BUT entertaining.
Another thing that has hindered disney in the story telling department, aside from insisting to stick to the formula way of doing things, is that they have for some reason never had a clear idea of WHAT type of movie they want to make! So what comes off is a mish mash sort of gobbledy gook mushy film.
For my money, you could have took out ALL the Monkey song crap (in tarzan) and spent that valuable time developing tarzan. making him and his arc--- INTENSE.
unless the monkey crap is what you would consider....the (ahem) entertaining part.
I'll approach it more on my own bloggy..just wanted to throw that at you.
Appreciate the dialogue and well thought out post on your part.

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