Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Scene Transitions

When you’re writing a spec script to sell, you’re primarily worried about conveying a story and characters and scenes that will wow a reader. When you’re writing a script to be produced, however, you have some different concerns. It’s no longer just how the story will play out on the page, it’s how it will play out on screen.

I think it’s best, of course, if you concern yourself with those things even in the “selling script.” Studio execs and even producers might not notice, but directors and some actors sure will. Ultimately writing for production is a good defense against getting replaced if the script goes into development (though your odds of getting replaced are still unfortunately high).

So what does writing for production mean? A big part of it is considering how stuff will come across visually. This is obvious in some ways but there are some subtleties we as writers who work with words on a page might not think about. One of those is scene transitions – the way one scene joins to another.

You most likely have considered the use of dissolves or fades. I would caution against overusing these the same way you don’t want to overuse camera direction. But to show passage of time or a flashback, a dissolve can be a nice device. And of course you need the FADE IN and FADE OUT to start and close your script!

There’s also the use of an audio pre-lap. In essence, you’re writing an editing trick to help keep the scenes flowing. Here’s an example from Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally):

    Be very careful with Hannibal Lecter.
    Dr. Chilton at the asylum will go
    over the physical procedures used
    with him. Do not deviate from them,
    for any reason. You tell him nothing
    personal, Starling. Believe me, you
    don't want Hannibal Lecter inside
    your head... Just do your job, but
    never forget what he is.

         (a bit unnerved)
    And what is that, sir?
             CHILTON (V.O.)
    Oh, he's a monster. A pure

                                         CUT TO:


CLOSE ON an ID card held in a male hand. Clarice's photo, official-looking graphics. It calls her a "Federal Investigator."

     It's so rare to capture one alive.
     From a research point of view, Dr.
     Lecter is our most prized asset...

As I said, these are essentially editing tricks that you might indicate in a screenplay occasionally to ease the flow from scene to scene. But there’s something more to consider as a writer: The juxtaposition of image across the cut.

Unless you’re going for some kind of effect such as claustrophobia, it’s usually a good idea to vary up your interior and exterior and night and day scenes. Cutting from exterior daytime to interior nighttime helps the audience process the transition quickly. If you cut from a daylight scene at a park, for example, to a daylight scene at a reservoir, visually it may look like cutting from trees and grass to trees and grass. The audience may not realize at first that it’s a new scene, necessitating time consuming establishing shots. Plus, visual variety is usually desirable in film.

An easy way to check for this is to look at your slug lines as a list. Most screenwriting software makes that easy. If you see too many interior scenes together, or too many night scenes together, ask yourself if that’s for effect or just coincidence? Could you reorder scenes? Maybe set a dialogue scene outside? Believe me, directors think of these kinds of things.

You also may want to consider the beginning and ending images of each scene. You can gain added impact by juxtaposing two images without really having to justify them logically since they are in two different scenes. For example, you could cut from a close-up of a mobster who has just ratted on the mob to a dead bird that some children are poking with a stick in order to create a visual metaphor.

This can feel really heavy handed if you go for such meaningful cuts every scene, so again, be judicious. But it’s worth considering what the ending image is in one scene and the beginning image of the next. At the very least you want to avoid unintentional visual metaphors!

It should be fairly obvious that scene transitions are most important to worry about in the latter stages of the rewriting process. In the first few drafts you’re likely going to add, delete and reorder scenes anyway. The exception might be specific visual metaphors. Whenever you do it, writing good scene transitions demonstrates to savvy filmmakers that you are a writer of movies, not just scripts.

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