TV Drama Script Writing: the technology of the sound-image

5 Jan

My previous blog posts for the TV drama script writing workshop in Ethiopia [syllabus] have focused on character and plot, but now I want to focus on the technology of story telling. All media has its own specific form of technology. This is obvious enough, but what is less obvious is the effect of that technology on the character and plot of a story. The technology of theater is the stage, which amplifies the voices of the main characters, so the primary way the story is told is through dialogue between those characters. The technology of a novel is the printed page, and so the main character of any novel is the authorial voice of story-teller. This voice can be the actual voice of the author or the fictional voice of a persona, but either way, it is this authorial voice that is on every page, not the voice of any of the characters. In that sense, the sort of story and way of representing characters in a novel is clearly different from a stage play. In contrast to novels and plays, the technology for movies and television is the motion picture camera. Only the camera is in every single scene, insisting on its point of view for each and every image. Therefore, when one begins to write for television of film, one must consider that the most important character is the camera itself.

The idea that the camera is the most important character might bother some people who believe in the humanity of fictional characters, but it is the camera-as-character that gives television and movies not only its power but also its greater humanity. In terms of power, the director of plays controls the movement of the actors on the stage — where they stand, where and when they enter and exit, which direction they are facing, how they relate to each other, etc., but the audience is motionless. The director has no control over the audience. However, for television and movies, the director also controls the camera, and the viewpoint of the camera is also the viewpoint of the audience. Therefore, if one considers that the most important character in film or television is the camera itself, then one must conclude that the character of the camera is in a very visceral sense the audience. Because the directors of a motion picture control the point of view of the audience, they are almost like a gods, and that is the magical power of the motion picture. But the machine of the camera has the potential to possess even more humanity than the make-believe characters of a novel or stage play, because it represents the audience.

video of police beating Rodney King

So, let me explain how important the camera is to effective story telling in TV and film by analyzing some scenes from the penultimate episode of NYPD Blue‘s first season, which we watched for our script writing workshop. The theme for this episode is a very controversial issue: police violence. The context is the many cases when police have shot or beat unarmed black men by accident. One of the most famous cases is the beating of Rodney King in 1991. The police officers were acquitted in court, and this sparked riots in Los Angeles from April 30 to May 4 in 1992. This episode of NYPD Blue entitled “Guns ‘N Rosaries” aired May 10, 1994, just two years after those riots, and it is clearly responding to the issue of police violence and racism, and in my view it also very deliberately takes the side of the police. Personally, I find the ideology of the television show troubling, and I don’t agree with it. But in this blog, I want to focus attention on how the camera functions as a character to tell a story about police violence and to control the perspective of the audience.

Let’s look at the opening scene of the episode — the “story event” or “inciting incident” as Robert McKee calls it. After Detective Greg Medavoy tells the receptionist Donna that he is upset because he caught his wife in bed with another man, he and Detective James Martinez go to interview a witness. They are sitting in their car stuck in traffic. There is a lot of background noise because of the traffic, but the audience does not see the street because the camera focuses close up on the faces of Medavoy and Martinez. We only know there is traffic because of the noise and because the detectives say so during their conversation. In the car beside them, there is an angry black man. The black man starts an argument with Medavoy; the argument escalates, and then he raises a gun. Martinez sees this happening, pushes Medavoy out of the way, and quickly shoots the man. Later in the episode, Martinez is upset as he wonders whether or not he did the wrong thing and killed an innocent man. This is the central plot of this episode that communicates the theme of police violence, a theme that is also communicated in the longer plot arc of the entire season about Officer Licalsi’s guilt over killing the mafia boss Marino. In the end, we learn that the gun had no bullets in it, but that the man had been abusing cocaine.

The story ultimately vindicates Martinez, but I argue that the camera plays a very important role in this vindication. Before the man raises his gun, the camera shows us eye contact between him and Martinez. The camera cuts back and forth between close ups of Martinez’s face and the man’s face. This does two things. It helps create tension, and it also helps the audience understand what Martinez is doing when he reacts by shooting the guy. If the director had not cut back and forth from one face to another first, then the shooting would not make sense to the audience. Hence, something as simple as a few camera angles contributes significantly to the story telling and communicates a lot of information in just a few seconds. After the shooting, then the camera backs up and moves from close-ups of the main characters to a long shot of the whole street. It is only now, after the event is over, that we see the setting, and we see that Martinez and Medavoy are in a mostly black and poor neighborhood of New York City. The scene ends, and then NYPD Blue’s theme song and credits roll, and then a commercial break. What if the scene had begun with an establishing shot of the setting first? Usually film and television begins with establishing shots of the setting so the audience can get a sense of the whole situation and then cuts to close-ups of the main characters, but this scene does the opposite. I believe the decision to shoot the scene like that was made in order to emphasize the point of view, humanity, and individuality of the police officers rather than the social context of the event.  In addition, the question that upsets the police for much of the episode is that they can’t find the angry man’s gun, so Martinez doubts himself. He wonders if he imagined the gun. However, the camera clearly showed the audience the gun, and even showed us in slow motion to emphasize its presence. So, while the police are searching for the gun, the audience knows there was a gun. What if the camera had never focused on the gun but left it an open question? After all, it was an open question in Martinez’s mind, so why not leave it an open question in the audience’s mind? Ideologically, since the television show is taking the side of the police, it can’t leave this an open question because that would raise too much doubt in the audience’s mind. In my opinion, the show would be more interesting and more provocative, and also far more controversial, if it had done otherwise. Near the end of the episode, the dramatic importance of the police’s perspective is demonstrated when Detective Kelly points a gun in a journalist’s face and asks the journalist whether or not there are bullets in the gun. His excessively made point is that the lives of police are at risk and they have to make fast and hard decisions without all the facts. In my opinion, the show would be more compelling if the audience had the same doubts as Martinez and community, but in any case, my argument here is that the camera is the most important character, because it is the most important point-of-view that affects the unfolding of the story and its meaning.

Similarly, in the following scene after the commercial break, the camera cuts back and forth between close ups of the various police officers (main characters) and the crowd of angry people in the street. This back-and-forth between camera shots creates dramatic tension and antagonism between the police and the crowd which concludes in a fight between police and people. Again, close-up camera shots of the police emphasize their humanity in contrast to the long shots of the crowd. When the fight breaks out, the scene ends with ominous music and slow drums, which are a counterpoint to the fast and chaotic nature of the fight.

This reverse of this incident of police violence and guilt is the exceptional case of Officer Janis Licalsi. Both Martinez and Licalsi killed someone, and both of them express guilt and remorse for what they did. In both cases, the other officers support them. In both cases, the audience is asked to think about the rightness or wrongness of their action. However, in the case of Martinez, he is vindicated, and in the case of Licalsi, she can’t live with her guilt, and she turns herself in. In both cases, the camera plays in important role in telling the story. Let’s look at the scene when Licalsi confesses her crime to a priest.  In this scene, the camera does almost the opposite of what it does in the opening scene when Martinez shoots the angry black man.

In this scene (#5), the camera begins with an establishing shot of Licalsi and a priest walking in the park. We see the park first, and then the camera focuses on their faces. Remember that the earlier opening scene began with close-up shots of the faces and ended with a long shot of the street. Also, in contrast to the first scene of the episode with Martinez which is very chaotic and loud, this scene with Licalsi is very quiet. After Licalsi and the priest walk to a park bench, the camera gives the audience a very artistically composed image of the priest hovering over Licalsi. This image is almost like a painting. In it, Licalsi appears vulnerable because her face is below the priest’s. The arrangement of their faces in the image contributes to the meaning of the scene. Licalsi is upset and doesn’t know what to do. The priest says, “You know what you should do.” But what does the priest mean by that? The audience can’t really know, and the writers of the show wisely do not tell the audience the answer right away. The question is left open, and so the audience wonders what Licalsi’s decision will be. This is good writing. The camera contributes to the meaning by moving behind them. We see the backs of their heads as they sit in the park, looking across the river at the skyline of the city. The audience sees what they see. The camera slowly pulls back to a long shot, and music begins. The music stands in for what the characters are thinking and the difficult decision Licalsi must make. Hence, the camera angles and the “sound-image” communicate the meaning of the scene and asks the audience to think about what Licalsi is thinking. This sound-image ends the second act of the show, with the audience wondering what will happen during the commercial break. The following scene answers that question when Licalsi goes to Lieutenant Fancy’s office and confesses to him. Her former lover Detective John Kelly is wondering what she is doing. He looks anxiously at the window of Fancy’s office, through which he can see Licalsi. The camera then gives us a close up of his face and a close up of her face. This cutting back and forth between viewpoints shows the eye contact through the window between the two characters. This simple camera work communicates a lot of meaning. The relationship between the characters is highly emotional and intimate, but now the window of police bureaucracy and the legal system stands between them. All of this is communicated in just two seconds through the movement of the camera. A good script writer has to keep in mind the important role of the camera for creating meaning, character, and plot for movies and television dramas.

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