Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Learning from other media (Disney's Frozen)

I'm always fascinated by the different processes people take to tell a story. Sometimes readers get offended by film adaptations because oh no, the filmmakers changed something. How dare they!! I think they'd be surprised to know just how many things change with any movie, not just a book-to-film adaptation. I saw Frozen recently, and since then my house has been full of kids listening to the soundtrack. We found outtake tracks on Youtube, and I've seen a few interviews with the filmmakers/voices/songwriters. Making a movie (especially an animated musical) involves SO many more people than a novel does--but to some extent, novels are still somewhat collaborative. You have an editor, an agent (maybe), you have an illustrator (maybe), and you possibly have experts who you consult for factual details. You have critique partners and/or beta readers. So...it's sort of similar, except on a smaller scale (and you play most of the parts).

Anyway. From what I watched, it looks like they had a concept, and chose some actors for the voices. They had scenes in mind, but they did a lot of playing around, doing rough sketches of scenes with the actors to develop the characters. (Instead of the actors just reading an already-finished script.) The songwriters said they had daily conversations with the director and producer for a year and a half before writing songs. That was to really settle the emotional core of the story, and to understand the characters. And even then, there are so many songs that didn't make the final cut--not just ones that would have been redundant, but ones that would have taken the story in different directions. (There were songs about a pageant when Anna and Elsa were little, and about a troll prophecy, and about a sword sacrifice--which didn't end up in the film at all, not even hinted at. And I think it was a good choice, because it gave the characters freedom of choice and a lot more ambiguity, instead of following a prophecy they couldn't escape.) Once they had music and script, the animators could go in and start drawing. And the actors said that the drawings in turn influenced their own body language as they voiced their lines. Oh, and the artists? They actually went to both Norway and to Wyoming for real-life experiences with the setting. With ice and snow and all the many ways they can look.

The last thing that stuck out to me was a little comment about comedy that the director and producer shared:
“Everyone can recognize the flaws in the characters, and that’s what makes them funny.”

So, what does a novelist get from that?

1. If you bump up your characters' flaws, you can safely laugh as an insider because you know just how that feels. And it’s a sharing moment for the audience/readers.

2. Going on location is great for sensory accuracy. I love writing about the places I've lived because all that research is as close as walking outside the front door. Not just sights, but colors, echoes, wind, culture, smells... all of that. If I were writing about North Dakota, I wouldn't have to stop at "it's cold." (It is.) I could also note the pink and blue and gold of a sunrise over snow, I could describe all the different textures of snow and ice that fall, and what they're like after a day of thawing or a hard freeze. I could tell you about the smells (either extreme dirty exhaust, or the almost old-blood smell of the sugar beet plant across the river). You can't get that from a photo of the town. On location is great.

3. Don't get tied into the one and only rendition of your book and think it can never be different. Just...let go of that idea entirely. Your story is not fixed in stone! And I don't mean changing a little word here or there, either. Be prepared to scrap and change whatever you have to to serve the overall story.

4. Look at all that time they spent developing characters and finding that core song or whatever to understand them. Maybe, just maybe, the plot springs from understanding your characters on a deep level, and then putting them in a room and setting them loose. What characters want, need, and lack create the plot.

So, what are readers going to take out of your book? What scenes will they still be "singing" a week later? What points are going to make them smile because they recognize their own shortcomings  in the characters?And what other things have you learned from studying film (or other creative productions)?

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