This Is US… I mean, RESEARCH

This Is Us Research…

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I have always loved to watch TV, and read books. Yet both of these activities tend to be tinged with guilt. Probably because, for most of my childhood, whenever I was doing these things, I was avoiding other things I was supposed to be doing, practicing piano, doing my homework, sleeping.  As time passed, and I became my own internal mother, it was easy to insert just about anything into the supposed to be slot.  Cleaning, arranging my sock drawer, doing my taxes, spending extra time at work.

And when I became a writer, it got even better. Because it’s super easy to counter almost ANY activity with “should be writing,” and get a nice little guilt buzz from it. (At this very moment,  as I’m blogging, I’m feeling guilty because I should be writing.) So, even though watching and reading are necessary components to what I do — I’m pretty much hard-wired to feel guilt.

There is, however, a (partial) guilt-loophole. This is, if I go to a meeting, and the producer or executive references a book or a show, then it’s like homework.  It’s research. Watching or reading it becomes the thing I should do, which is awesome. I get to read comic-books, young-adult novels and books on eclectic subjects, all without my guilt-alarm ringing!

A couple of weeks ago, in a meeting, someone mentioned that a show I’ve been pitching has structural similarities to This is UsI’d seen a few episodes early in the season, and — in the context of the conversation, felt like a slacker because I hadn’t kept up. So now, with permission, I launched vigorously into watching the rest… and fell in love.  I binged-watched the rest of the season over about three evenings and cried so much I had to go buy a new box of Kleenex to get through the last night.

Part of what makes the show so effective is how it often parcels out emotional bombshells and surprising reveals very lightly in terms of its story-telling.  No big set-up or announcement, just a passing reference to something the characters already know but the audience doesn’t. So there’s this tone of, Oh, by the way, did we not mention that… “These people you’ve been watching are siblings.” “This happened in the past, not the present.” “This person is dead.””This person was married.”

These reveals immediately prompt questions that don’t get answered right away — as they discuss in this Variety article.

It’s a really neat trick, and I’m planning to go back and study it when the season ends next week.

I like this quote from the article, where they talk about how the creator pitched the show:

He did say that over the course of time, he would always have those big moments and those big hooks and surprises and reveals, but that they wouldn’t have to be every week because once you’re invested in these characters, a smaller moment could feel as big as those huge moments once you’re totally engrossed in the stories of these characters’ lives and the decisions that they make.

Once you’re invested in the characters, and engrossed in their stories, a smaller moment feels bigger…


Aspect Ratios and Conquering My Lazy Brain

My brain is lazy.

When it comes to screenwriting, there are those who say you don’t need guys in front of classrooms to teach you to tell a story. “Just read scripts,” they say, “and you will learn all you need to learn.”

What they mean by that (I hope, at least), is not really just read.  Even though you aren’t in school, I think the statement assumes you will make a study of the scripts you are reading and notice things—from sentence structure to how scenes are set up to the shape of the dramatic action.

I think this works if, by nature or discipline, you are a person who tends to break things down, analyze, determine their essence. My husband, Paul, is such a person. He’s inclined to look at things—including narrative—in terms of its mechanics. Me? Not so much!  I love to get lost in a story, and before writing school I read hundreds of stories without worrying how they “worked.”  One of the things that school did for me was give me a kind of checklist of things to notice, on paper and up on the screen, and made my brain less lazy.

But now that we’re preparing to produce Lovers in Their Right Mind, (and I still want to direct that short film!) I want to think less like “just a screenwriter” and more like a “filmmaker.” And guess what? I’m finding out my brain is still lazy–about all the things that weren’t on the checklist! For example, I’ve watched hundreds of hours of media without really thinking about the PICTURE.  Not even the most basic part: the shape of the frame. Of course, I noticed when movies on DVD started to offer the option to “letterbox,” on my television, and I knew it was supposed to be better. I noticed when we bought a wide screen TV. But I didn’t notice that there were still variations in how wide. And I didn’t think about the choices behind why the film was originally shot in any specific way.

Now, with three weeks of a community college Cinema 1 class under my belt, my world has forever changed. I have a new item on my checklist of things to notice, and it’s called ASPECT RATIO. The “ratio” part of aspect ratio is the width of the frame divided by its height. I guess the “aspect” part is just how it looks. Here are some common aspect ratios that will probably look familiar:


Why shoot in one aspect ratio instead of another? There are lots of reasons. For a long time, televisions only could broadcast 4:3–so if you were creating for TV, that was a gimme.  And if you were shooting film and needed to save money by shooting with 16 millimeter film instead of the more expensive 35 millimeter…that also meant you were shooting 4:3.  A couple of weeks ago, I attended a screening of a movie called “Fish Tank,”  and in the Q and A session afterward, the director talked about the fact that she shot the movie in 4:3, even though she had other options. Her movie was about a single protagonist and Arnold felt that 4:3 was the best way to direct attention to one person, and to help convey her internal life  without being distracted by all the things around her.

fish-tank-movie                          (An image from Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank)

On the flip side, it seems intuitive that movies featuring vast landscapes or big space battles might opt for a wider format.

Think of your favorite movies. Can you say whether they were shot in 1.85 or 2.35, or something else? Are you curious? All the sudden I wanted to know.  Children of Men?   Strictly Ballroom? Or Brokeback Mountain*? What about the new release, Sicario that folks are talking about?

So I was thrilled to discover that there’s this whole ‘nother part of IMDb (Internet Movie Database) that (no big surprise) I had never noticed!  Once you select a movie, if you go over to Quick Links on the right and click on Explore More

Explore more

…you’ll see this menu, where you can select Technical Specs…

Technical Specs

…which will show you stuff like Aspect Ratio!

Fish Tank Tech Specs 2

So next time you’re playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you can look up St. Elmo’s Fire**, and see how wide they decided to make the screen to accommodate the whole Brat Pack… You’re welcome!

* The landscapes in Brokeback Mountain felt so sweeping and beautiful, I felt for sure it was 2:35, but I discovered it was only 1:85. Then I thought  how often it was focused on just the two people how  intimate it felt, and, and it made sense. As a romance, we want Lovers to have that tension between our two leads…so should we shoot 1:85?***

**I remember St. Elmo’s Fire feeling kind of close–with lots of apartment interiors and bars…1:85 stuff. But when it turned out to be 2:35, I thought about the size of the ensemble cast, and how some scenes had several characters reacting to what other characters are doing. Lovers is also a movie with a big families and parties and a big wedding reception. Hmmmm…should it be 2:35?***

***Don’t worry, our director, when we find her, will have an opinion!

 PS. Here’s a fun video from back in the days of pan-and-scan…

GIRLS…Reaction to Season 3 Premiere Episodes

It’s brilliant.

In other news, Paul had to leave the room halfway through the first episode because the main characters make him too upset.


Related: The TIME recap. Note the choice quotes.

Also, Full episodes for free on YouTube, and an article from Slate about that.

Coming Clean

Today, in between watching several episodes of Arrested Development, we did laundry and cleaned the house, which feels really good. For some reason, when I clean out of a depression, I often think of a scene from Men Don’t Leave, a movie which I don’t remember much as a whole, but there is a scene where Jessica Lange’s character has been depressed and in bed for days, and her son’s girlfriend comes over, cleans the whole house, and gets her out of bed. Tonight we went to see Jet Li’s Fearless at the dollar movie house, and as cheesy as it sounds, it was a really comforting movie to see, I enjoyed it a lot. In this movie as well, there is a scene, where after Jet Li’s character has hit bottom, a woman comes and washes his hair.

As a generally messy person, I am usually in a position where I have to maintain my equilibrium in spite of my external surroundings, but when things falls apart, it amazes me how cleaning a room, getting a haircut, having order in few physical things in one’s life, can help things start to make sense again.

Old English is NOT English!

So tonight one of the works I am translating is called Deor. This title alone could mean “bold” or “dear” or “animal.” My book calls this work a “poem of consolation.” Each verse recounts a miserable experience, followed by a little refrain that loosely translates as “That passed, so too shall this.” The first verse is about a guy who is famous for his metalworking, so the King captures him, and hamstrings him to keep him from escaping (That passed, so too, shall this). In the next verse the guy makes himself some wings and escapes, but on his way out, kills the king’s two sons and rapes the daughter. who then discovers she is pregnant.

The general flavor is “Wow, that person’s life sucked, but they got through it (dead or alive.)” Apparently the poet who wrote this had just been fired by his patron from his poet job, and in this way he was being philosophical about it.

I am trying also to be philosophical about the next three hours of my life spent translating. After all, those guys’ lives really sucked, but now all their misery is in the past, as mine will be too…

Okay, I know it’s shallow, but I just want to bypass the misery and watch Battlestar Galactica instead.