What I’ve Been Watching: Sense8

Sense8 – A Netflix original series

Thanks to the advent of Netflix in Australia (finally), I can once again legally watch all of the television shows and movies I want. Having Netflix whilst I was living in the UK, then moving back to Australia and surviving without it for the last two years, it now makes me appreciate it even more. One of the trends developing out of the streaming model is Netflix generated content – of which more and more are popping up in the Netflix library.

Sense8 is one of these (don’t worry, there’s no spoilers). It’s got really strong credentials – it comes from the Wachowski brothers who directed a small series of films called The Matrix Trilogy, as well as J. Michael Straczynski who developed the story of Thor and World War Z. The cast – although not really high-profile yet – are incredibly strong and they work really well, considering how difficult it would’ve been to shoot a show like this (eight main cast, nine different countries – I feel for the ADs). It’s actually just been renewed for a second season, so this is a very timely blog post.

Sense8 is about eight strangers across the world, dealing with their own lives and problems, realise that there are other people in their heads that they are connected to. They can step from their own point of view (say, in London) into the ‘sensate’ they’re speaking to (say, in Chicago). They can touch and feel each other – even take over their bodies and use skills that they have that the other sensate might not.

Considering all these story elements, it would be very easy for it to get unwieldy and hard to keep track of. I mean, when I watch Game of Thrones with my mum (yeah, yeah), we have to pause the episode at the head of every scene and recap where we last saw them and who they belong to (‘This is Reek, who was Theon Greyjoy, who was best mates with Rob Stark – he’s the one who’s the eldest son of Sean Bean – you know, the one who was in Lord of the Rings?’). It’s easy for a big story with lots of elements to lose its way.

Sense8 counters this by taking advantage of the fact that 61% of Netflix users binge watch their television shows (i.e. watch five or six episodes in one sitting). A 12 episode series gives the audience more than enough time to spend with each character, learn their worlds, their friends, their enemies. If anything, it spends a little too long keeping everyone separate – half of the conceit of the show is how these eight characters learn about each other’s existences and how they’re going to come together to survive. I wanted more overlapping action between everyone earlier – using each other to explore new worlds, test new skills, figure out what this connection to each other meant.

Sense8 – Eight main characters in the ensemble cast

That being said, the characters are easily the best thing about this show. When the plot flagged a little in the middle and I got a bit restless with no massive, cheeky interaction between the characters (I would’ve loved to have seen Wolfgang causing a bit of havoc in Will’s life when he was bored), it was the strong connection between Wolfgang and Kala, Will and Riley that kept me hooked. Everyone is so completely different and there are so many different types of representation here – it’s unlike any other show on television.

Nomi is transgender, living with her black girlfriend Amanita; Lito is a gay Mexican actor; Will is a bi-curious cop from Chicago; Riley is an Icelandic DJ living in London; Wolfgang is a safe-cracker in Berlin; Capheus is the happiest bus driver you’ll meet in Nairobi; Kala is a pharmaceutical scientist in Mumbai and Sun is the brains behind her family’s big business in Seoul.

Seriously, you would never find this cast on network television.

This diversity is what helps to make the episodes that aren’t as pacy still interesting to watch. Never underestimate the power of a character exploring a completely new world for the audience. Each world is completely unique to the character and each character would respond entirely differently to each situation. As long as your audience can empathise with your character – that they make your audience feel something (love, hate, admiration, loathing – it doesn’t always have to be a positive emotion) – that’s the key. I’m not a gay Mexican movie star, but I know how it feels to have to hide your true self. I’m not a safe-cracker in Berlin, but I know what it’s like to be under enormous amounts of pressure with a ticking clock.

Find the universality in your character and then draw it out to make your audience connect with and feel something. The emotional journey will always help carry the audience through if the plot has flabby, slower moments.

That being said, don’t foresake plot for character! It’s a fine balance, but when it’s done right, it’s amazing.

AP

Writing Short Films

Hey gang, I’m currently on restricted internet access for the next week, but I promise I’ll finish off my posts about auditions and introduce you to the cast I settled on really soon!

For now, I decided to gather together all my posts on writing short films and short film structure in one place, so that you guys can either give yourselves a crash course or reacquaint yourselves with my brilliant suggestions and ideas for writing shorts (if I do say so myself).

Here are the links!

Short Film Structure: Story Models
Short Film Structure: The Beginning
Short Film Structure: Characters
Short Film Structure: The Ending, Part 1 – The Twist
Short Film Structure: The Ending, Part 2 – No Twist
Short Film Structure: Audience 
Short Film Structure: Pace

And last, but not least:

Short Film Structure: THE STORY

Enjoy! Throw me any questions you’ve got and we’ll see if we can work out the answers!

Short Film Structure: Pace

The unsung hero of short films is pace.

Pace does not mean that everything races along at a million miles per hour. In the instance of film, pace does not mean speed. In the instance of film, pace means the rhythm of the story.

You’re watching a horror movie. The main character is watching television. Staring blankly at the screen. Then a twig snaps. They pause, wait for another noise to happen. Nothing. They turn back to the television. A creak. They pause again. Another creak. They’re frightened now; they stand and silently move toward the fireplace. Carefully, carefully, they pick up the poker and arm themselves. They slide noiselessly across the room until they’re next to the door, ready to attack whoever is in the house. Another creak. Louder. The intruder is getting close. Our hero regrips the handle of the poker, determined to do whatever they have to to get out of there alive. A rustle of clothing. Our hero glances up and realises they can see the doorway and themselves in the reflection of the mirror on the wall opposite. A shadow moves toward them from the hallway, there’s a cocking of a gun –

Our hero leaps forward and smashes the intruder on the head with the poker. It catches him on the shoulder but it’s enough to give them a few vital seconds of breathing space. They kick the gun out of the intruder’s hand and wallop them in the stomach with the poker again. Leaping over the faceless man as he sinks to the ground, they race for the door. They slip – catch themselves on a sideboard that sprawls over the floor behind them. They cannon into the door, wrestling with the door handle.

It’s locked.

Swearing, they frantically shove their hand in their pocket, searching for their keys. Nothing. A crash from the hallway – the intruder is coming after them. They look around and notice the keys on the kitchen bench. Without a second thought, they fly across the room, snatch up the keys and shove them roughly in the keyhole. The lock clicks, the door swings open –

– and slams shut.

The hero turns. The intruder, smiling, bears down on them, closing the space between their faces, a sick sick grin on their face.

CUT TO TITLE.

Pace. Notice the rhythm in that little story (please note, that’s not correctly formatted, it’s more prose-y than script-y). It starts slow. Wary. Builds the tension. It rises up and up and up then… BAM! It kicks forward a gear, racing, racing, racing then… BAM! The door slams and the pace slows again as our hero has to face the villain.

The rhythm of the piece is clear. It has a clear crescendo to a climax and then it tapers off to rebuild itself again. That’s not to say that all short scripts have to have that same rhythm – writing is an organic process and it’s different for every story. Pace is best in peaks and troughs. When you follow characters through lows and highs, when the story slows down enough for you to breathe and figure out what’s going on, then takes you by the hand, grins and zooms away without asking if you’re ready.

The pace can be set in post production. It is usually the most obvious place for it to be constructed. But if your script is too slow, unintentionally slow, everything you shoot on the day will be as well and that will be the first problem in the editing suite – and there are enough of them as it is. More often than not short films lose their pace. It’s astonishingly easy to do, even over five minutes or so. But if your characters amble along and nothing happens (and I mean those moments when you’re staring at the screen slightly perplexed that there doesn’t seem to be a point to what these characters are doing), you need to look over the pace again. Fix it in the script and there’ll be less to fix in post.

Think about what your characters want and what they’ll do to get it. Everything they do in every second in your film should be about that journey. If it’s not, cut it. You can probably cut a couple of scenes that do relate to the journey but not strongly enough.

After all, they’re called short films for a reason.