Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"I've Got a Plan..."

Have you ever noticed that, in movies, when a character says, "I've got a plan", there are two things that can happen next.

One of those options is that the film cuts away at that point, and we (the audience) don't get to hear what the plan is as the character explains it to whoever he was talking to. Then, as the plan goes into action and it unfolds, we are surprised at how it twists and turns as the characters execute their plan.

Here's the scene from the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" where Jack steals the Interceptor out from under the British Navy that illustrates this first approach.

Jack never says "I've got a plan" per se, but it's pretty clear he has one and at no point do we (the audience) know what he's up to (nor does Will Turner, it seems). So as the plan unfolds, everything is a surprise to us and fun to watch...all the way to the end, where he anticipates every move his enemy will make to try and stop him. If we had heard all those details in advance, it would take all the fun out of watching it unfold.

The other way to go is that after the character says, "I've got a plan...", we do the opposite: we don't cut away. We stay with the character as he or she lays out their plan in detail. That way the plan - as the characters are expecting it to unfold - is clear in our minds. We know exactly what each character's role is in the plan, what they're supposed to do, and when, and what the characters expect to happen at each point and what they expect the final result to be.

The reason to play it this second way is so that they audience is completely clear on what's supposed to happen....and then dramatic tension (or comedy - think "I Love Lucy") is created when the plan starts to go completely wrong. Maybe the world doesn't react the way the characters thought, maybe the guards decided to change their schedule that day, maybe one of the characters falls asleep and misses the crucial step everyone was relying on him or her to perform. Doesn't matter....the point of this second way is to set up an expectation and then create drama (or comedy) by how the plan doesn't match what we were setup to expect.

The point of both ways is to surprise you - either by completely withholding information or by giving you all the information you need so that you can understand what's going wrong and how bad that is for the characters.

Think how boring it would be to hear the characters plan out their moves and then see them execute it in exactly the way they planned it out. It'd be like watching the same thing twice....once as they talked through it and then as they actually did it. It's be like watching a movie where everyone says what they're going to do before they do it: "I'm going to punch you now", "I'm going to shoot you now", "I'm going to kiss you now".

In a lot of ways, this little example holds the key to much of film making. Either withhold key information to surprise your audience with later, or setup an expectation that you subvert later by delivering something else. It's that simple. As Jerry Bruckheimer once said about film making, "Just keep throwing 'em curveballs."


"Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" falls into the latter category: that is, they have a lot of plans in the film and they definitely explain them out in advance for the audience to hear. I don't think there's any other way they could have approached it in that particular case: the plans in the movie are so complicated there's no way to explain everything that's happening to the audience as it's happening. And their plans are so reliant on getting technology to work in unison with the physical parts of the plan that I don't know how you'd ever explain that while it's unfolding. It would make no sense and would create pauses in the action that would totally destroy the rhythm of the action sequences. So they discuss their plans with each other before they put them into action, and they explain the technology-based parts of their plan to the audience in a natural way: they have one tech-savvy guy who understands all this stuff better than anyone else on the team, and so the rest of the team naturally has to ask him questions about all the technology, and he explains it to them....and to us, the audience. So as we jump into the action, we know as much as we need to know to understand what's happening and what the technology is supposed to be doing (and what it's not supposed to do, so we know when it's failing). Otherwise there'd be no dramatic tension if it started to malfunction or do the wrong thing.

There are better examples of this type of thing in the film, but here are some clips that are available online that illustrate the point.


Erik Johnson said...

TV Tropes describes the former as "The Unspoken Plan Guarantee"


The later comes up frequently in Heist movies were the plan is the bulk of the first act.

The only time I can remember a spoken plan going right is in "A Few Good Men" when they plan to coax a confession out of Jack Nicholason, and it works. Roger Ebert even said "Where's the fun in a plan that goes off without a hitch?" Mind you they had plenty of hiccups before this plan, so its not a complete cop out.

Pseudonym said...

There are movies where you get a bit of both. I'm thinking The Italian Job (the real one, not the fake one), for example.

Unknown said...

The original "Gone in 60 Seconds" had a detailed plan for stealing all the cars and it went off without a hitch, all except for that pesky 1973 Mustang Mach 1. In the end they still got away with it via a switch of the trashed Mustang for a perfect one.

The original used only one Mustang for all the stunts, and they were performed in the order seen in the film so there would be no "magic" vanishing and re-appearing damage as seen in so many other movies where stuff is filmed out of order.

Katleen said...

Very interesting!

Have you seen the first Sherlock Holmes?
It's starts at 1:35

He tells his plan completely, and it works great!
But in this case, the action done at slow speed (in his head) while explaining the plan is in fact a great way to let the viever understand an action that would have been to fast to be understand, and that woudn't be impressive at all if only seen in slow speed.

so I think that it is very interesting to see some rules movies/stories use, and to understand why, and then, to see some not completely follow thoses rules, and why it can work without spoiling everything.

In fact, in this case, I think it kind of do the same thing the rule is ment for: it built anticipation, and the viewer want to be «flabergasted» (impressed), and he is!

b.coxon said...

The Oceans movies are (I think) a good example of a cross between the two, the plan is explained as it happens and every things happens properly. the same thing happens at the beginning of The A-Team.

Salmon Leap said...


While you're right that MI:4 largely uses the technique of explaining the plans beforehand, there are notable points when they don't. Actually there's a clear transition, the first 2 plans (the jailbreak and the Kremlin) certainly don't explain to the audience beforehand. The jailbreak in particular is meant to intrigue the audience at first with just how much we don't know about the plan (why are the opening someone ELSE's cell first? Why play the Dean Martin song? etc).

What's interesting about that in particular is that it's a plan we know no details of, but at one point Ethan is subverting the plan by taking a detour and freeing someone else. This is made very clear to the audience by Simon Pegg's character refusing to cooperate with what Ethan is doing for a good 30 seconds, and then the significance of the digression is communicated in his dialogue to another agent with "As long as he's in the right place when the music stops." Once you have those 2 pieces of information (Ethan is going off of the plan, and the music is a timing cue for some final part of the scheme) then the tension is no longer in trying to figure out the brilliant plan, but will the plan succeed despite an unexpected development.

And with the Kremlin infiltration, all we're told beforehand is that he's going to be in disguise. The balloon transmitter thing, and the hallway screen and noise broadcaster are all wordlessly introduced to us as they're used.

It's cool to note that they gradually move from this approach to the explain-a-plan-that-goes-wrong approach as the film progresses.

Daan said...

I think Mission Impossible 4 is a particularly great example of telegraphing the right amount of information at the right time. I also think this is one of Brad Bird's strong points as The Incredibles and Ratatouille both also do a great job at this. I didn't think MI4 was a genius film, but Im certainly going to watch it again just to see when and how setups and exposition is paid off.

Sherlock Holmes (at least the 1st one, not going to watch the 2nd for exactly this reason) Ive found to be a good example of failure at telegraphing the right amount of info at the right time. As I watched the film push on like a steam train and sat there as Sherlock explained one fantastical thing after another of which I as an audience never was in the loop, I noticed I started to care less and less where this was going. After all, at this point anything could happen and Sherlock would have a perfect explanation for it.

The trick of a good detective is keeping the audience in the loop. Sometimes the audience knows more than the investigator, sometimes the investigator discovers something we didnt know before. Keeping up with the protagonist makes you root for him. And when he uncovers something that we already had all the pieces of the puzzle for but didnt see ourselves, we'll think he's brilliant. Rather than being told he's brilliant by showcasing random stuff we never had a chance of understanding ourselves in the first place.