Writing To A Budget

It always seems like the number one complaint in the British film industry is money. There’s never enough, we cry. If we only had the money that Hollywood has, things would be very different…
Perhaps there’s some truth in that. Certainly the kinds of movies that we make in the UK are restricted by a combination of budget and audience – horror has a steady audience and low budgets, so we make it, whereas sci-fi has higher budgets and the audience is less reliable, so we don’t.
But to be honest, the money that really matters is the money spent on advertising, securing distribution, and establishing a brand – and that’s outside my experience, so I won’t be looking at that.
Our subject today, another of the questions I’ve been asked on Twitter, is how to write to a budget – or perhaps it’s more helpful to think of it as ‘how to make the best use of the budget that you have’.
The first thing you need to do is be aware of what’s expensive and what isn’t. Special effects are costly, but not anywhere near as expensive as they used to be. Extras are expensive, so crowd scenes might need to be minimised. Any kind of specific weather is problematic: if it absolutely has to be sunny for this scene, shooting may have to be delayed, while artificial rain or fog are expensive.
Exterior scenes are more expensive than interiors. Recognisable locations are horrifically difficult: shooting in Piccadilly Circus or Times Square will cost you in permits, security personnel, and probably overtime if you shoot early or late in the day to minimize problems with bystanders.
So think of ways to get round this. Can you use stock footage of Times Square, then a close-up of your actor standing in a doorway that’s actually somewhere else? Can you show the rainy day by having an actor look out of a rain-streaked window (that you actually hosed down on an otherwise dry day)? What about using existing crowds? It will be cheaper to film at the real County Fair than to stage your own…
Bear in mind that the real cost of multiple locations isn’t the number of locations, but the moves between them. So shooting in five different rooms in the same house is significantly cheaper than shooting in five different houses. Make inventive use of the locations you have – shoot with different angles, different lighting conditions – and ensure that you never go to a location for just one scene.
Reducing the number of minor characters also cuts your budget. Instead of the characters meeting a waitress, a barman and a hotel clerk, can all three of those scenes involve the waitress? That’s one wage to pay instead of three – and a more interesting character that might attract a better actor!
Of course, the problem with all this is that all low-budget films end up looking the same – three people in a room arguing about something. How can you avoid your movie looking obviously ‘cheap’?
Think imaginatively about interior locations. Instead of your three criminals hiding out in a bland hotel room, what if they were in an empty fifteenth-floor office? Or a barn full of hay and farm tools? Or they’d broken into a library by night? With a good location manager and some luck, none of those locations need be more expensive than the hotel room, and they’re a lot more interesting.
Exteriors are more expensive, but they can also be more variable and flexible. The same patch of woodland might give you a dark copse, green leafy trees, a sunny clearing, and a clear view down the hill. That’s four very different scenes in the same location. And judicious use of exteriors will immediately make your movie feel higher-budget (nothing feels cheaper than a movie that never steps outside).
Pick your moments, and make them count. Three minutes of a really good CGI monster is far more effective than twenty minutes of a badly-rendered one. One battle scene with a hundred extras may work better for your story than five scenes with twenty extras each.
Never repeat anything. Not a plot beat, not a line of dialogue or the subject of a conversation, not a motivation or an action. Never repeating yourself is a good habit to form anyway, but it’s particularly important in low-budget work, where we’re seeing the same faces and locations on the screen for the whole story. The last thing you want is to make the audience feel they’ve seen this scene before.
And the best advice of all? Good writing is free. Make your characters compelling and your plot interesting and unpredictable, and no one will even notice they’re watching a low-budget movie…

Wolfblood Season Three: Endings And Beginnings!

So Wolfblood season three has come to its dramatic conclusion! We really tried to do something different this season – to widen the Wolfblood world and to bring some resolution to a lot of long-running storylines and character relationships – and I hoped you enjoyed watching it as much as we enjoyed writing and making it.
After three seasons, we’ve reached that inevitable point where the original cast begin to think about going off to work on new projects. Indeed, that’s already happened. As you will have noticed, Aimee Kelly, who plays Maddy, decided to leave the show at the end of season two to return to college.
Without Maddy to lead the pack, the show has changed dramatically – and you know what? That’s exactly what should happen. Change is the lifeblood of drama. All of our favourite moments in TV series, if we really think about them, are driven by change. Any show that churns out the same plots and the same character arcs season after season will stagnate and die.
If we are recommissioned for a fourth season – and as yet, there’s no word about that – I dare say that some other cast members will decide to move on as well. (And no, there’s no point in bombarding me with questions about who’s going and who’s staying! I don’t know at this stage, and I wouldn’t be releasing that information yet even if I did…)
So if the fourth season does happen, it will introduce new characters – and some familiar ones, of course! – and new situations and new facets of the Wolfblood world.
I look at this as being an exciting new adventure – and if we get the chance to set off on it, I hope that you’ll come along!

UPDATE –  all the latest news on season 4 is here https://debbiemoon.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/wolfblood-season-four-casting-news/

Wolfblood BAFTA Nominations

Wolfblood season two has been nominated for two awards at this year’s Children’s BAFTAs – best drama, and I’m nominated for best writer! The awards will be announced at a ceremony in London on Sunday 23rd November.

None of this would have happened without our fantastic team – production staff, crew, cast and writers – and I’m hugely grateful for all the hard work they’ve put into the show.

However, we’re also nominated for another award – and that’s where you can help! The BAFTA Kids Vote is a separate series of awards that are voted on electronically by kids aged 7 – 14. And you can vote for Wolfblood in the TV category! Go to http://www.baftakidsvote.org/vote/ to cast your vote for Wolfblood, and all the other categories too…

Keeping Things Fresh

Another subject that people on Twitter have asked me to cover in the blog is how to keep a long-running show “fresh”. After three seasons of Wolfblood, I suppose I should know a few things about that…

One of the things that CBBC have always pushed us to do is never repeat the same theme or story engine from season to season. The first season of Wolfblood was driven by the jeopardy of discovery: “Will the people around us find out our secret?” It would have been easy to repeat that threat in the second season – after all, it’s the obvious jeopardy in this kind of story, and there were still plenty more people to discover the secret! But it would have locked us into telling the same stories with different characters. So we moved away from that, exploring the wider Wolfblood world instead – and in season three, drawing our characters into a conspiracy on a scale they’d never faced before.

Another key to keeping the show fresh is to develop the minor characters. While the K’s as a unit function as fantastic comic relief, when we get one of them on their own, we can tell terrific character stories with them. The same applies to Jimi, Liam and Sam. The whole ‘werewolf hunter’ plot in season two began as a subplot to develop Liam’s character, and evolved into a key story element for the whole season.

Finding ways to use the adult world in a story without diminishing the child characters also gave us new stories and new emotions to explore. Tying the new characters strongly to the child characters – Rhydian’s mum, Jana’s father and pack – made them part of the regular characters’ stories, but great performances have made them popular characters in their own right.

It’s also easy to get stuck using a character in the same way all the time. Alric, Jana’s father, worked fantastically for us as a threat throughout season two – but the last time we brought him back, we decided to reverse all that and show him as a broken man who’s lost everything. Immediately everyone’s relationship with him changes and there are new stories to play. So look for logical, compelling ways to use characters in different ways.

Finally, don’t be afraid to break the format now and then. The season two episode “The Mottled Poppy” was essentially a haunted house story, completely different to anything we’d done before, and I think it helped show aspects of the characters and elements of our world that we wouldn’t have been able to show in a ‘normal’ episode. We couldn’t tell those kinds of stories every week, but once in while, they help keep the show interesting and dynamic.

Anyone else have any tips? What great techniques have you seen your favourite shows use to stay fresh and exciting?

All Aboard The Story Engine

A while ago, I asked Twitter for suggestions for blog posts, and one of the subjects that came up was the story engine.

As you might imagine, the story engine is the thing that’s pulling your narrative train up the hill, the reason why things are happening in the first place. It can take many forms – a specific goal, a threat to the protagonist or those he loves, a ticking clock. It can be extremely obvious – there’s no doubting what the story engine of Die Hard or Pacific Rim is – or, in a mumblecore or slice of life movie, it can be remarkably nebulous. But in any good story, it’s there, moving events along.

So, particularly if you’re one of those writers who starts off with character first, how do you find a story engine that will keep your narrative on the tracks? (Note to self: enough with the train metaphors!)

The best story engines are derived from the core of who your protagonist is. The story engine for Aliens is ‘stay alive and destroy the alien infestation’. But it arises out of the core of who Ellen Ripley is: a mother who has lost her child. That drives Ripley to protect the orphaned girl Newt, and it’s reflected back at her in the form of the Alien Queen, also a mother trying blindly to protect her offspring. The desire to stay alive, to protect your family (the company, the ‘family’ of marines, Newt) and wipe out whatever threatens it, is a powerful, primal story engine.

Which brings us to another property of the good story engine: it’s a primal desire. The screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder said that the best goals are the ones a caveman would understand. Survival, protecting family and tribe, physical security (money, property, job), love/sex, and the desire for some kind of personal fulfillment or artistic expression – these are the basic needs any human would recognize, and if they drive your story, you’re off to a good start.

For example, the fictional Mark Zuckerberg depicted in The Social Network might be a difficult character for us to empathize with, because his goal in founding Facebook is obscure. So Aaron Sorkin imposes a story engine that we’ll all understand by opening the movie with Zuckerberg being dumped by his girlfriend. That encourages us to filter everything he does through that rejection, to see it as a desire to win her back, or at least convince her she was wrong about him. With sex as our story engine, suddenly the rather dry story of how a smart guy founded a big company becomes primal, and accessible.

And the best story engines are broad enough to be flexible. Your story is going to go through a lot of twists and turns, victories and defeats, and hopefully a few unpredictable surprises. So your story engine needs to be broad enough to encompass changes of short-term goal, and the inevitable, necessary transformations your protagonist will undergo.

Unless we can feel the same story engine pulling us down the tracks, all the way through the narrative, the story will feel fragmented and confusing. The easiest way to avoid this is to ensure you have a smooth transition from want to need to goal to story engine. Take Die Hard: McClane’s ‘want’ is to spend Christmas persuading his wife to give up her job and come back to New York with him. His need is to realise her desires are as important as his. His goal is to save her: and the story engine, the fact that he’s the only person in any position to do so, is a mechanism for him to both realise his goal and move from want to need.

So, get that story engine working for you!