Wolfblood Season Four BAFTA Event

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Excellent day at BAFTA London today, showing the first two episodes of Wolfblood season four to a very excited audience! You can see a lot of the event, including the Q&A, on the BAFTA training site, baftaguru.org, which is full of great information about working in the creative industries.

On Tuesday 8th March, CBBC will be showing the red carpet interviews and the Q&A from the Newcastle event, interspersed with the first two episodes. From the following week, Wolfblood shows two episodes a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Hope you enjoy!

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Things I Learned From… Hannibal

I’m a late arrival to Team Murder Husbands. Trust me to get into a show just as it’s cancelled! In fairness, I did watch half of season one, before getting bored with the detective procedural stuff and giving up. It’s only thanks to persistent fans on Twitter that I went back to the show, and I’m very glad I did. It’s a whole different animal from season two onwards. So there’s a lesson there…

But the aspect of Hannibal that I really want to talk about is how it sustains such a theatrical, exaggerated story world, and makes it not only believable, but actually normal.

Operatically-pitched story worlds are quite the thing in American television at the moment. The final season of Sons Of Anarchy definitely tipped over into grand guignol, but the best example is probably True Detective. Massively exaggerating the tropes of Southern Gothic, it creates a fantastical world where men are monsters, but literal monsters also wouldn’t seem out of the question.

But the thing is, I didn’t believe a word of True Detective. In fact, I found a lot of the supposedly deep and meaningful moments laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Whereas I believe absolutely in the world that Hannibal creates.

So, why is that? I have a few thoughts…

Narrow focus. Hannibal takes place in a very streamlined, narrow-focused world. Apart from some scenes with Jack’s wife, which have a darkness of their own, we rarely see a domestic situation or a glimpse of ‘everyday’ life. Our characters live entirely within this theatrical, heightened world. The music we hear, the way characters dress and live and eat (!), even the places that crimes take place, are all carefully selected to reinforce this elaborate and claustrophobic story world. And since reality never intrudes, this becomes our reality.

The fresher your premise, the more exaggeration it will take. True Detective is essentially yet another treatise on the pressures society exerts on ‘traditional’ masculinity. But we’ve seen this a thousand times – and familiarity is what causes a story to tip over from stereotype to parody.

The twisted polysexuality and intellectual mind-games of Hannibal, however, are something we’ve seen far less of on television. We don’t have the afterimages in our head from all the million other times we’ve seen this situation – and that helps keep parody at bay.

Everyone has a goal. The characters of True Detective may be investigating a crime, but from scene to scene, they frequently seem to be drifting around in a haze of self-obsession and indolence. The characters in Hannibal are probably equally self-obsessed, but they all have clear, quantifiable goals.

Hannibal initially wants to frame Will for his own crimes, but his goal shifts into an elaborate scheme to release Will’s ‘true potential’. Will’s goal remains remarkably solid across three seasons: bring down the Chesapeake Ripper, whoever it is, and somehow retain his sanity. Jack Crawford’s goal shifts from Will to Hannibal and back, but he essentially wants to save whichever of them is sane and take down whichever of them is not…

And everything everyone does, however elaborate, twisted and bizarre, is clearly designed to take them another step closer to their goal. There’s no moustache-twirling evil for evil’s sake. This gives a solidity, a believability to their actions that grounds them emotionally.

Of course, we all have our own breaking point. Undoubtedly there are viewers who have the exact opposite reaction – who think True Detective thoroughly believable and Hannibal too far-fetched. But for us as writers, the lesson remains: if you’re writing a heightened version of reality, you can ground it using focus, a fresh emotional premise, and strong character goals…

How Many Is Too Many?

So I saw The Avengers: Age Of Ultron yesterday. Detailed thoughts on that will have to wait until the film has opened worldwide, but one thing it did get me thinking was – how many main characters is too many?

Age Of Ultron has eight, maybe nine, lead characters including the villain, significant cameos by another five, and walk-ons from another half dozen or so, familiar and unfamiliar. That’s a lot of people to get your heads round!

So is there a definite limit to how many main characters an audience can deal with? Are there particular factors that affect that? Here are a few thoughts…

Familiarity helps. Obviously a franchise has it easier in this area, because the audience will remember some of those characters from the last movie. You may want to remind people of their core characteristics, but at least you don’t have to establish who they are and how they behave from the ground up.

Can you tell them apart at a glance? Film is a visual medium, and keeping your characters visually distinct will help the audience remember who’s who. (Yet another compelling argument for more women and people of colour in movies!)

Again, comic books have an advantage here. Many of those bold, bright superhero costumes originated in a time when comics were throwaway entertainment printed on rough paper with cheap ink, and however good the original artwork, often the only way to tell the characters apart once it was printed was by their uniforms.

This suggests that setting also has a bearing on how many characters you can use. If you’re writing about the inhabitants of a town, all different ages, races and income brackets, you should be able to have more main characters that if your characters are all nuns, or soldiers, all dressed the same and possibly of similar age and background.

Can you divide your characters into groups? Not putting all your characters on screen together all the time will help the audience get to know them as individuals. The Avengers often split down into teams according to their functions: we might see Black Widow and Hawkeye being spies, or Stark and Banner being science bros in the lab.

But you’re going to want to keep all your characters busy all the time, and there’s a limit to how many plot lines you can run simultaneously. In the all-action finale, we can probably keep track of three teams doing different things to save the world, and any team that’s more than three or four members will have difficulty keeping them all busy…

Do all your characters have a different motivation? Everyone in a movie may want the same thing, but they should want it for different reasons. And while in real life a thousand people may each have fractionally different motivations for making the same decision, on screen there’s a limit to how many distinct motivations and mindsets we have time to explore.

In The Avengers, everyone wants to stop Loki, but for different reasons. Steve Rogers has seen what the Tesseract can do; Tony Stark is as much trying to work out what SHIELD is up to as what Loki’s planning. Bruce Banner doesn’t really want to be involved, but he knows they can’t do it without him. Natasha Romanov is trying to save her dearest friend. Thor wants to save his brother, though he isn’t even sure that’s possible.

So think about how many different motivations for being involved you have room to explore. If you have three characters who really want exactly the same thing, they probably need to be conflated into one character…

Things I Learned From… Daredevil

Being laid up sick, I watched Netflix’s new Daredevil TV series over the weekend. Now, a lot of extremely valid things have been said by others about the clichéd gender roles of the main characters, the lack of females in bit parts, and the nebulous nature of Hell’s Kitchen as a community. So I’ll leave those alone for the time being.

But one writing-related thing that occurred to me is – one of the hardest things to do when adapting source material is to change the time period it’s set in. Not because it’s hard to add modern technology or modern language. Nor because different presidents, wars and economic crashes will need to be referenced. There are always plenty of those to choose from.

No, the difficulty with moving a story from one decade to another is that the emotional meaning of things changes.

For example: if a character in the 1950’s buys a TV, they’re buying the future. Access to the shiny modern world of media, information, mass culture. If a character in 2015 buys a TV, it’s just another electronic box to add to the many in his house – and he’s probably only going to use it to play Xbox anyway!

The Daredevil that’s been transferred to our screens is supposedly taking place right now, but the emotional meaning of the stories is mired in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They’re full of concepts and story elements that have totally changed meaning.

Boxing, for example. Fighting your way to fame and fortune was once the only way for a working-class boy to get out of the ghetto – but now boxing is a niche sport regarded with abhorrence by some. The athletes have gone to MMA instead, and the big money’s in televised wrestlers in gold lycra.

And how about newspapers? The series pays lip service to the idea that bloggers are taking over and print journalism is struggling, but the idea that a small daily newspaper could still survive without being a loss-making part of a larger conglomerate is hard to believe. Now, newspapers are what your grandparents’ generation read (and alas, may well die with them).

If you don’t believe me, try this simple test. Without thinking about it at all, acting on instinct and what you’ve seen on TV – what year did Matt Murdoch’s father die?

I would have guessed 1965. 1970 at the most. From the flashback scenes, from the idea of crooked bets and boxers taking a dive for the mob… The Sixties, right?

But Matt was what, eight to ten years old in those flashbacks? And as a newly qualified attorney, he surely can’t be aged over thirty now…

Which means his father died in approximately 1995.

Did any of those flashbacks feel like 1995 to you? The year of the Oklahoma truck bombing, Toy Story and Batman Forever at the cinema, the first DVDs, and Windows 95? I’m thinking not…

Well, you may say, does any of this matter?

I think it does. Because when you aren’t carefully examining what assumptions and emotional meanings you’re bringing with you from the source material, then you’re likely to bring assumptions you never meant to.

Does Matt have no significant female figures in his childhood because the writers have unthinkingly imported the dated idea that only men can be mentors? Do the women in his present fulfill highly gendered roles – secretary, researcher, nurse (not even a doctor?) – because those were imported, unexamined and un-translated into modern equivalents, from the source material?

Comic book heroes are like Robin Hood or King Arthur: they need to be re-moulded to address the needs of each new generation. Daredevil the television series was under no obligation to stick with any of the comics. Exactly as with Robin Hood and King Arthur, all previous versions remain intact, and there’ll be another version along eventually anyway. They could have addressed the dissonance these details create, but they chose to stick with what was familiar.

So if you ever find yourself adapting source material into a different decade, don’t make the same mistake…

Things I Learned from… Agents Of SHIELD

If ever there was a show that seemed destined to succeed, it was Agents Of SHIELD. (Yes, I know it’s S.H.I.E.L.D, but honestly, life is too short for that amount of punctuation…) Great creative minds behind the concept, great writers, great cast, and the publicity boost provided by the cinematic Marvel Universe and Marvel Comics. And we haven’t even mentioned the enduring popularity of Clark Gregg’s performance as Agent Phil Coulson…

So why is it a bit… uninspiring? Well, I think there may be a problem that goes to the heart of SHIELD itself.

Superhero stories are empowerment fantasies. They allow us to imagine what we’d do if we had the powers of the X-Men, the money and physical strength of Bruce Wayne, the intellect and technical skills of Tony Stark. They’re about self-actualisation, about everyone taking charge of their life and world and making them better.

SHIELD stands for the exact opposite of that. SHIELD’s job is to tell superpowered individuals to hide their abilities. To seize radical new technologies and lock them in a vault. And in one episode, to require a scientist to spend his entire life locked in a moving truck, alone and effectively a prisoner, because of SHIELD’s fear of what he might invent.

SHIELD is a reactionary organisation dedicated to keeping technology and superpowers away from everyone, even those who might use them for good. It’s the equivalent of a nuclear superpower telling another country it’s not allowed to develop nuclear technology. “We can have nuclear power, because we’re the good guys. But you can’t be trusted with it. Why? Because we say so.”

And who wants to watch that?

I’ll tell you the show I’d like to watch – and actually, it would be a show far more in keeping with Joss Whedon’s usual ethos…

I’d like to watch the show where a band of superpowered individuals with varying – and in some cases, dubious – motives band together to take down SHIELD, destroying this sinister organisation that wants to control humanity’s access to the fruits of its ingenuity and imagination.

A Marvel Universe without SHIELD would be a far more dangerous place. But despite that, it would be a universe far more free and worth living in.

Interactive Television – It’s In Your Hands

People talk a lot about the future of interactive television, and how new platforms and technologies are changing the experience of viewing. But as always with new technologies, the most interesting uses are springing not from the companies and producers, but from the end user – the television audience.

ITV’s excellent new drama Broadchurch seems to have spawned one of the more interesting ideas so far. Fans of the show have set up ‘parody accounts’ on Twitter in the name of the main characters, and are discussing among themselves – in character – the possible identity of the killer. Other Twitter users can ask them questions and tease them about their onscreen behavior. And there’s a good amount of humour from everyone at the expense of the characters and the premise, setting and plot of the show, of course!

So now you can watch an episode of the show, while accounts purporting to be the characters themselves comment on events and on each other’s behaviour and motivations on Twitter.

This isn’t an approach that would work for all stories, and it’s dependent on the wit and the ‘acting’ ability of the fans running the accounts – the Broadchurch accounts do a good job of staying in character and capturing the serious-but-wryly-amusing tone of the series, but it’s easy to imagine this done really badly.

That said, it’s a fascinating example of a way fans can not only engage with the show, but actually add a new layer of enjoyment and engagement for other viewers. The core of television – a story that’s told to you, like primitive man gathered at the feet of the storyteller – is preserved, and technology provides an optional enhancement for those who want it. Surely that’s the balance that will prove to be the future of interactivity?

Stand Back, I’m The Hero! or Three Rules For Television Characters

The central characters in television shows are the hardest characters to write. They’ve got to have enough depth to sustain an audience’s interest for multiple episodes, potentially for years, and yet be strong and eye-catching enough to create immediate empathy.

So here are three things to bear in mind when creating your TV hero.

–  Always keep your main character active.  They must be the ones driving the plot, making the discoveries, saving the day and learning the lessons. Just like the hero of a film, they need to lead the story, not follow orders or contribute from a desk somewhere away from the action.

This means that, if they work for someone else, they need to have a high degree of freedom to act, or be a maverick who disobeys orders and does as they please.  You’d think it would be wiser to make them top dog, so they have the freedom to take action –  but actually, that can be a really bad idea. A character who can do whatever they like without reprimand faces no significant forces of conflict – and there have to be obstacles of some kind if the audience is to stay interested.

In order to be active, your character often needs to have a dog in the race: personal stakes. If they don’t solve the case/steal the money/find out who they drunk texted last night, they will suffer in some way.

A character who’s simply waiting for something to happen, or who has nothing at stake in what’s happening around him, is passive, and we have nothing to root for.  The stronger your character’s motivation for getting involved in the action of the series, the better.

– Always keep your main character hungry for something.  It might be financial success, career progression, the perfect relationship, but there’s a hole of some kind in this character’s life and they’re taking action to fill that hole.

We suggested just now that a character waiting for something to happen is uninteresting –  but even worse is a character who knows what they want but takes no action to achieve it.  Someone waiting for a fortune to drop into their lap is a worthless dreamer – if they can’t be bothered to make any effort, why should we bother to watch?  But someone like Del Boy Trotter, who works and schemes every day to realise his doomed dream of becoming a millionaire, immediately elicits our sympathy.

– Always keep your main character slightly off-balance or slightly out of their depth.  A character totally at ease with his life and the situations he finds himself in feels no challenges, has to make no effort.  But the expert detective who’s working the one case he can’t crack, or the lothario who finds the one girl who won’t fall into his arms –  they’re characters who are going to have to make an effort, to expose their weakness and become vulnerable.  And vulnerable is always interesting. (Look at how Carrie’s vulnerability drives Homeland, for example.)

Often, the vulnerability is written into the concept of the series, confronting a confident character with the one person or situation they find most difficult.  Think about all those shows about people forced to work with their former wife or husband.  Having to work with someone who knows them so intimately exposes their inner character as no other working partner could.

Then there’s the “fish out of water” show;  Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Someone perfectly adapted to one situation or community is suddenly dumped into the exact opposite, forcing them to be resourceful and change in response to these new challenges. What these concepts are doing is keeping their central character off balance, forcing them to chase equilibrium (keeping them active) and to expose their vulnerability.

Active, Hungry, Vulnerable. Three traits for great characters.