More Questions About Media Convergence

I’ve nearly finished writing that novella, Grace Notes, and it’s taking me places I never thought I’d go. I imagined 1000 words a day would be no problem, but it’s 500 or so on a good day. And whenever I reach 500 words I get this enormous desire to clean, like the hormonal nesting zoom I used to experience before giving birth. Exercise, often walking or gardening, always helps me work out what I'll write next, and I planned to paint the verandah as well this summer (haven’t got far with that, because of the wind and the care necessary when cleaning off lead paint). But this cleaning urge is something else. The windows and the pantry and the kitchen cupboards sparkle as never before. I’ve emptied, cleaned and refilled the earthquake water bottles. The hall ceiling is next. I think what I'm doing is somehow related to this Lisa Gornick drawing, but am not sure.

lisa gornick storyboard for work in progress

As I clean, my mind whirls about like a little coloured windmill on a stick. Today, trying to make sense of categories, and what they mean in relation to media convergence, where the boundaries between different categories of media are disappearing. This post, my 100th, is a continuation of my last one.

1. Differences between the ‘novella’ category and the ‘screenplay’ category.

The writing technology still challenges me. I miss Final Draft’s efficient movements between action and dialogue, every single day. I also miss a feeling of relationship to the future film I want the reader to imagine, as their eye runs down the page. When I write, I run the ‘film’ through my mind, and I struggle to communicate solely for the page, and for readers who will watch the story “behind human eyes, not in front of them” (Keri Hulme). I miss lots of white space, and play with ways to create it in a novella, asking myself “Is this a text that will be extended as a graphic novel, or a very long children’s-picture-book-for-adults? Or will I adapt it into a script so it will become a movie? Or will it become an animation?” Who knows? Lots of questions on this trudge. (I’ve been checking out comic books including Kelly Thompson’s great list of her favourite female comics creators of 2010, what they did to get onto her list, and what’s in store for them in 2011, part one and part two.)


2. Differences between writers’ relationships with characters in ‘television’ and ‘film’ and 'novella' categories?

And then I was reading a post on Gemma Gracewood’s blog, Too Much Personality, about a Media 7 interview I’ve been unable to find, where Rachel Lang, a hugely successful writer for television series like Outrageous Fortune, talked about why she prefers writing for television rather than for film. She said, as reported in the post, that it’s all to do with characters, and the way they take on a life of their own in a television series, tell you where they want to go, end up writing you rather than the other way around.

And that twirled my windmill so fast that it blurred. I’ve never written for television, though I can imagine how exciting it must be when characters in a series get to take you on a longer trip. But I don’t think that a television series is the only place where characters end up writing you. In each of the five screenplays I’ve written, the characters have told me where they want to go (and sometimes I haven’t listened well enough). And as the characters in Grace Notes take on lives of their own, I’m struggling to convey what they want. A couple of them sulk a bit as I try to wrench them into paragraphs for a page that may always be just a page of text. They’re fighting over who will die. I can’t believe that the difference Rachel describes is a valid difference between writing for a big or small screen, or for the page, though I’m sure there’s a difference of extent, because of the longer story.


3. Some differences between writing a ‘tele-feature’ and a ‘feature film’?

I’ve written before about the women in New Zealand who write both tele-feature and feature film scripts, crossing over in a way that hasn’t happened before. If women ever write and direct half of all New Zealand’s feature films, I think that these ‘crossover’ women will be the ones to make it happen. Because women writers are so much more strongly represented in television than in film, the crossover women come to feature film writing so skilled and experienced as writers whose scripts have been realised, often many times. My guess is that these women will also create single long-form works for cross-platform entertainment: on television, in cinemas, and online. One of them, Fiona Samuel, also a director, has two features in development with the NZFC. And now, here’s Nights in the Garden of Spain (Nights), which appears to be evidence that television and cinema are already converging.

Nights is Kate McDermott’s adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s coming out novel, with Katie Wolfe as director, and funding from New Zealand On Air, and the third project Katie and Kate have worked on together.



The other day, New Zealand On Screen—the place to go if you want to check out New Zealand film and television information—released an interview with Katie Wolfe. In the interview, Katie says that she and the Nights DOP, Fred Renata, agreed when they were shooting that they’re ‘actually making a film film, but don’t tell anyone’. Katie explains that Nights has a lot of cinematic attributes, and there were even two sound mixes, one for TV and one for cinema. Fascinating. The film version of Nights premiered at the Hawaii International Film Festival and the television version was on television the other night (missed it because it was my birthday, alas).

I love an OnFilm interview, where Witi Ihimaera and Kate McDermott talk about the adaptation process.

In the interview, Witi Ihimaera says
And then, of course, Kate had to do it within the confines of a commercial one-and-a-half hours on television with ad breaks. The ability I saw in the script to sustain a story that was going to be interrupted throughout its broadcast was, to me, quite an achievement on Kate’s part.

And Kate responded
I like ad breaks; I’m used to them.
I wondered what effect, if any, it had on Nights as a ‘film film’ that it’s written with ad breaks in mind? As a structural element do they make any difference to its categorisation as a film film or a telemovie? Or to the viewer? So I asked Kate McDermott some questions:

I think you're the only two New Zealand women who've written and directed more than one project together: the first series of Go Girls, the acclaimed short film This Is Her and now Nights. Has each experience been very different, and if so, how?

Actually, we first met while working on Shortland Street together (me as a script editor, Katie as a director, and then producer). That was fast turnaround TV, so was kind of crazy and fun, and is different to any other series made here because of the large number of minutes which go to air each week, and the fact that it never stops!

Next, Katie and I did This Is Her together. I got on well with Katie and liked the theatre she directed, so when I wrote the short script, I showed it to her. She thought it was funny, and was keen to give short film directing a go, so we found some producers (Felicity Letcher and Rachel Lorimer) and applied for NZFC funding. So, different from television because it’s way more DIY, and all started with a script and a writer wondering what to do with it.

This Is Her in production
Then came Go Girls, which I have to say is one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had. Again, it starts with three writers sitting in a room laughing and sweating and crying and stressing. On that show, the writers stay quite heavily involved through the shoot and in post-production, thanks to creators Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan, and the precedent that Rachel and James Griffin set with Outrageous Fortune. (Here's a blog post that Kate wrote about Go Girls.)

I was lucky enough to have the position of show-runner on series 2 of Go Girls. Gavin Strawhan was show-running This Is Not My Life and Rachel Lang Outrageous Fortune, so I got to take care of their other baby. We’ve only recently started using the term ‘show-runner’ here, it is an American term I think. When I would tell people here I was show-runner, I think they thought I was fetching coffee. The job is basically that of a script producer, I suppose. It covers everything from editing scripts, last minute changes, talking with heads of departments, actors, directors, watching rushes (with the producer) every day to make sure everything is as it should be. It’s the most hands-on position a writer can have.

Nights was a different experience from what I’ve become used to in television, mainly because I was completely detached from the making of it. I’m not complaining about this—series 2 of Go Girls was shooting at the same time so I was incredibly busy. Nights was a project that was always going to be led by Katie and the producers, as it is closer to a feature film than a series, and also because of the Maori content, I think. After I had finished with the script, it was handed over to a Maori advisor/script editor to check for protocol and te reo, and so on.

Did you know that Katie planned to shoot Nights as a 'film film', and if so, how did that change how you wrote it?

The short answer is no, I didn't know Katie was planning to shoot a 'film film', although I was aware that she was wanting to move into features and that this presented an opportunity for her.

However, as a 'hired gun' on this project, I never thought of it as my first feature film script. I am yet to write a feature film script, though I am edging closer. I enjoyed the challenge and experience of writing Nights, and I'm really pleased and grateful that Christina Milligan and Nicole Hoey wanted me for the job, and that Witi trusted me to adapt his story. But I was hired to write a tele-feature, and that's what I did. And it was a challenge not only in the material, but also in getting the structure right for a feature length drama (and yes, those commercial breaks did come in handy!) because I'd never written ninety minutes for TV One before (or for any other network). It was a learning curve enough writing a different structure for a medium which I was very familiar with, let alone one for which I'd only ever written a twelve minute short film.

As well as structure and character development and so on, this tele-feature also differed from the television writing I usually do, in terms of process. It was more like the film-making process in that once the final draft of the script was in, it was handed over to Katie completely, which is the way it goes in film, which is traditionally a director-led medium. This was different to working on Go Girls.

But I think it's great that Katie chose to direct Nights in the way she wanted to. She's a feisty, passionate and ambitious director and it's great that she brought her cinematic vision to a script which was written for a much smaller screen. Nights is very much Katie's film (more so I personally think, than This Is Her which I feel we share ownership of, but that could be because it is something I wrote and approached Katie with, rather than us both being hired to work together).

If Katie's decision came after you'd finished the script, did you then make some changes, and if so what were they?

I ended up doing an edit on the final draft of the script after Katie was on board, but I don't think I made any drastic changes. There was a large amount of material dropped in the first cut, and then more in the second—all of which I agreed whole-heartedly with.

In retrospect, I think those dropped scenes were only there in the script because I had kind of needed to write them as part of the process of finding the characters and relationships, and structure. I thought I'd learned over the years to be ruthless when cutting, but I could have and should have been even more ruthless with this script. Luckily the director and producers did that for me.

What do you think of Rachel Lang's statement re characters, having written Nights, short films and for TV series? And do you have a preference?

Hmm. Writing characters for TV series is what I know best, and I agree with Rachel about the enjoyment of spending more time with the characters. Obviously that is going to be satisfying as you are developing them for 13 hours, and then (hopefully) another 13, and (again hopefully) another and another, whereas you only get around 90 minutes with a feature film character. Having said that, we usually meet a feature film character at the most important, significant time of his/her life, so it's a very different write. And a short film is another challenge altogether as you've only got a matter of minutes to get the audience to engage with or invest in your character.

A big thank you to Kate for answering these questions in a way that helped me understand the process. Now, I'm wondering what will happen to television series writing as some advertising becomes integrated with content in new ways.

4. Will advertising changes eliminate the need to write for ad breaks and contribute to convergence?

The other week, I wrote about brand exposure in The Social Network, wondering whether the powerful brand presences The Social Network provides evidence of a new level of media convergence.

And then I read about Peugeot’s ads, and realised that changes to ad technology may also contribute to convergence of tele-dramas and features. Peugeot is about to introduce an interactive TV red button, as a permanent presence during the films it sponsors on television. This will allow viewers to dip out of the film and learn about the manufacturer's new model, the Peugeot 1007. Maybe, in future, on the big screen I want, and wrote about in my last post, and on lots of other platforms, this is how our advertising will be delivered. So writing to take account of ad breaks may become unnecessary.

(Peugeot is also into ‘feature placement'. For instance, it joined forces with Disney Pixar for the third phase in the adventures of Woody and Buzz Lightyear, and these characters feature in Peugeot’s advertising campaign for its range of family cars. So there’s another kind of convergence.)

But web series require breaks for a different reason, because each webisode is short. So where do they fit?

5. So what about web series?

My favorite webisodes continue the story of The Return of Navajo Boy, about uranium contamination on native lands. The Return of the Navajo Boy was released ten years ago, and the webisodes update the story. Why are these my favorites? I love the continuity of the story, its longterm-ness. This project conveys a wonderful sense of community, a community that engages me and inspires me to think about the long-term consequences of what I do in the world. It inspires me to care about the world around me a little more, and to take action.

But The Return of the Navajo Boy and its associated webisodes is not typical. A ‘webisode’ is usually an episode of a web series which is unconnected with an earlier long-form work, is usually fiction and usually geared to entertainment. And web series often have underlying commercial aims that are very different from the aims of those who make the Navajo Boy series. Sometimes, but not always, web series are more interactive than other mediums.

My favourite tweeter and blogger about media convergence and transmedia, Luci Temple, tweeted the details of one useful overview of web series the other day. And last week, Alexis Niki, the creator of the web series My Bitchy Witchy Paris Vacation (also referred to as a 'film' on its website), led a whole session of #scriptchat devoted to web series. The transcript looks messy, maybe you had to be there, but I found it useful for hearing about web series issues and having some of them clarified. And there's now at least one web series festival, the Los Angeles Web Fest (LAWebfest). LAWebfest recently announced its first twenty selections, and in an associated interview, its director, Michael Ajakwe, explains that he sees the ‘web series’ genre as ‘cybervision’, made to be viewed on laptops and cell phones; according to him, web series have their own rules, some of which are still being written, distinct from those that govern theater, film and television. But there's an overlap, because web series, like novellas, tele-features, feature films, plays, television series and ads, tell stories.

I love web series, because women create many of them, and use them to tell stories about women. As I understand it, many of these women see 'cybervision' as an opportunity to tell their stories, and the kinds of screens they will be seen on are almost incidental. I've referred before to Anne Flournoy,who describes herself as a ‘reformed Sundance filmmaker’, who has said that after many drafts of a feature script
...it occurred to me that the Internet could save me from my life plan. To get a potential audience of millions, all I'd need is broadband, a consumer video camera, and some $3 tapes.
But are there reasons beyond economics and audience reach that explain why women have engaged so enthusiastically in making web series? Are web series a significant contemporary expression of the ways many women live and tell our stories? And is this as important as the platform they are shown on?

A while back, a film development executive told me that women write multi-protagonist scripts because writers write according to what we watch, and women watch a lot of television. (I was surprised, because I rarely watch television and have always written multi-protagonist scripts. And Grace Notes is about three women, too.) But, whatever the reason, do web series—like television series—provide us with a new opportunity to develop multi-protagonist stories, about groups of characters who take on lives of their own, over a longer period of time than the one Kate McDermott describes as "the most important, significant time of [their lives]"?

As I wrote this section, I thought again of the experimental filmmaker, painter and poet Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003) who long ago facilitated an exhibition called A season's diaries I took part in. She wrote that "One nets a landscape in a grid of formal rhythms. In a landscape or garden one discerns messages from within. All my films, poems, paintings play more or less between inner and outer events". And when I re-read this, it seems like a fine description of my script and novella writing, too. And I like this image from her short film Napkins with its inside/outside elements, its movement and stillness and its multiple frames.

from Joanna Margaret Paul's Napkins 1975 8mm 3mins  

Joanna explained her working life as follows:
As a woman painting is not a job, not even a vocation. It is part of life, subject to the strains, and joys, of domestic life. I cannot paint unless the house is in order. Unless I paint I don't function well in my domestic roles. Each thing is important. The idea that one sacrifices other values for art is alien to me, and I think to all women whose calling it is to do and be many things. To concentrate all meaning and all energy in a work of art is to leave life dry and banal. I don't wish to separate the significant and everyday actions but to bring them as close as possible together. It is natural for women to do this; their exercise and their training and their artistry is in daily living. Painting for me as a woman is an ordinary act—about the great meaning in ordinary things. Anonymity pattern utility quietness relatedness.
As I reflect on media convergence and web series, I wonder whether some elements of web series by and about women, like some elements of some television series, reflect many women artists' desires to bring 'significant and everyday actions' as close as possible together and to explore the 'great meaning in ordinary things', as much as the attraction of web series' economics and reach. Because of this, I think that the hardware, the platform, on which we view web series is the least important issue about women's engagement with creating them. I'll never watch web series on a phone (still prefer landlines and Skype, for every conversation, so my cellphone is only a necessary and underused item). I'll enjoy web series in cinemas at film festivals. I'll also enjoy them as much as feature films or Joanna's Napkins, in the same way that I enjoy Twitter's 140 characters as much as long emails and as much as those rare letters that come in the snail mail. And many of the web series I’ve seen, and listed in the sidebar, will work just as well on my new big screen as on my laptop, for viewing when I'm in the mood for something brief, or for watching a whole series in one swoop, to enjoy and to see how the structure works. It's the stories, the storyteller, the conversation, that matter to me, not the platform.

And in the meantime, Bingo, there’s a New Zealand series selected for the LAWebfest, Chaz Harris’ 101 Dates, co-written with Sarah Harpur who also stars, and blogs. Made right here in Wellywood. Great, congratulations to all concerned. But what about the webseries women write and direct?

LAWebfest selected five altogether, 25%, a whole lot better than the consistently single figures for feature films that women write and direct, wherever films are grouped together. But I hope the representation will be higher next time, or this time, if LAWebFest is in the process of selecting more projects. Two projects from Australian women, wonderful: Joanne Rose's Vegan 101 (Melbourne) Vegan Vision Productions, distributed on YouTube and Clare Griggs & Sophie Vigors' Snow Wight & the Stripper (Sydney).

The other women's projects selected are:

Otessa Ghadar's Orange Juice in Bishop’s Garden (Washington D.C.). There's an interview with Otessa on Digital Chick TV.

Andrea Lwin's Slanted (Los Angeles). And an interview with her here.

Finally, there's Sonya Steele's Celeste Bright (Los Angeles).

The possibilities for a writer like me are now endless, and I’m thinking about them as I reach the end of Grace Notes' first draft and prepare to move on to the next draft of Development. Today, I'm thinking that Grace Notes might just be a web series in disguise. But I'm also considering Joanna's statement from all those years ago: will it help me better understand some aspects of some women's storytelling choices, and the way these are manifest right across the media spectrum? And will this help me choose how and where to deliver my stories?

(I published my first posts just over two years ago, several months after I wrote them—the first about living at the edge of the harbour, and the second about Mamma Mia and Apron Strings down the road at the Embassy Theatre. My blogging experience has changed me, though many of my current concerns are very similar to those I started with. A special-and-forever deep thanks to Lisa Gornick. And many thanks to everyone who's helped. It's been a great way to meet people and experience wonderful generosity. Almost all without leaving home. And today's discovery? Michel Reilhac. Amazing.)

Comments

  1. I love the section on nesting. My house was never as clean as when I was rough drafting my first novel.

    I found your site through SheWrites..you have a new follower. :)

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  2. Ah, thank you. So I'm not the only one! Now, as I get towards the end—the novella's become a novel—I am living in chaos. Did that happen to you, too?

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  3. Thank you for the mention :) Really enjoyed your take on 'cybervision' as an opportunity for women tell their stories! --Otessa (from the web series "Orange Juice in Bishop's Garden")

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  4. Thanks Otessa. You're really welcome. I think what you're all doing with web series is soooo exciting!

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