Monday 1 October 2012

Show Don't Tell

            One thing many writers struggle with is too much exposition. I can be guilty of doing so, especially while writing a screenplay where, in order to get subtext or background details out, it easily translates to too much tedious dialogue.

            Many years ago (in the early 90's) when I took a screenwriting course at the University of Toronto, I was given an interesting exercise to address this issue. Our teacher challenged us to write several scenes or a short film without using any dialogue. None. Zero words spoken.  Everything had to been 'seen' not 'said'.

            Surprisingly, I enjoyed this challenge. So for my assignment I wrote a vampire love story that took place over the course of 900 years. It was a lot of fun to write and I was able to weave my love for historical settings throughout. I received an excellent mark for it and my instructor wrote, "I can visualize the whole thing as you wrote it. Hope you get to put it on screen some day." That comment inspired me to make it into a short film. The problem was that it would be a costly film to make, with all the exterior locations and the various time periods. So I tried applying for grants and getting some funding for it, but anyone reading the script said the same thing: "Great script but it's too expensive to shoot. It can't be made."

            I then gave up any hope of making my short film, until a couple of years later when I purchased my first digital still camera (Kodak DC290). Digital photography was still in its infancy but I loved the joys of not having to be limited to 36 pictures per roll and previewing and deleting right away. One fine day I was at a Renaissance festival, taking many pictures, when a talented singer named Heather Dale appeared on a nearby stage singing olde fashioned songs.  The combination of her music with the images I had just taken hit me with inspiration. I would make my short film with just stills and music. It had been done in the 60's with a French film called "Le Jette" but I wouldn't be limited by cost of photo development and could do a 20 minute film without repeating a picture. This camera had great manual exposure control for night time shoots and I could use Photoshop to recreate the past.

            So over the next two years I shot over 3000 still photos throughout the streets of downtown Toronto and various other locations. My friend Kirk Teeple composed the music for it to help tell the story and brought in a colleague to do vocals (still no words) and add medieval instruments. Ironically, that colleague was Heather Dale, who, unbeknownst to her, two years earlier helped to inspire the idea.

            When completed it was entitled "First Light" and it screened in festivals all over the world. Won some awards, too.

            Not too bad for a film that I was told couldn't be made.

            It is exactly 10 years since I completed "First Light" and since it's no longer doing the festival circuit I've posted it on YouTube for everyone to enjoy. 

            Here it is: a 900-year-old love story told entirely with still photos and no dialogue or narration.

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