Kevin Hopps, screenwriter of Hellboy: Blood and Iron, once worked for a story editor who had taken over a series under trying circumstances. Although he might not have agreed with the change, he approached his new boss with a positive attitude, "I enjoy working for a variety a editors because I learn their different ways of writing. Now I can learn your way of writing."
"You mean 'the right way' of writing," replied the editor with no hint of humor.
I've got no use for people like that. When it comes to creativity, there are a million ways to approach a task. That's why Kevin will still buy "How to Write" type books even though he's had a very successful career writing for television - he's always looking to learn something new or get a fresh insight on a technique he already knows. Kevin is currently working with Greg Weisman on the new Spider-man series. I bring up his story to underline my attitude in writing this blog.
This blog is about my way of doing things, seasoned with info on Mike Mignola's way of doing things or Guillermo del Toro's or maybe someone on my crew. Even more specifically, it's my way of approaching and dealing with the creative and pragmatic issues of, Hellboy: The Phantom Claw.
I'm heading into the action climax of the script. Because animation requires the writer to direct on the page, I can't simply say, "they fight." That's possible in a feature film where the writer is a guy with a story sketch pad and 4 x 8 foot bulletin boards to fill, but in anything like television production you have to give the overworked storyboard artist something to start with. And you can't write, "Hellboy hits the monster. The monster hits him back." You have to break the action down into detail.
"Hellboy hits the monster with his big right hand which ripples the octopus-like mass of its body. Hellboy smiles. "How did that fee--" BAM! A tentacle smacks him out of the shot. Hellboy smacks up against the wall, chipping the granite. He lands in a heap at the bottom. "Crap."
That's about a sentence of description for every "shot", which is every time the camera is put in a different position... even though there's no set and we're just pretending there's a camera moving around. Then you have to describe how you want the camera to view the action - CLOSE, WIDE, OTS HELLBOY ON MONSTER (over Hellboy's shoulder, looking at the monster). My scripts are VERY detailed but that's because I'm usually the producer or director too. The script are my specific notes to the storyboard artist but every writer has to suggest basics. But the overall fight should tell a story with suspense, a build, a surprise, maybe some humor, and an end. That's the ebb and flow of the title of this post.
Oh, and I suppose there are minor spoilers here unless Mike throws the whole sequence out and assuming we get to produce this movie. Did you buy your copy of Hellboy: Sword of Storms yet?
I start with deciding the basic action - Kate and a little boy are being swarmed with zombie-like creatures, animated cadavers that are Frankenstein-like creations of dead flesh and robot parts. (For brevity's sake, I call them zombies.) Kate keeps them at bay with a wrench but there are too many of them. They are saved by the sudden appearance of Lobster Johnson. That much Mike and I worked out when we wrote the story, even down to the detail of the wrench which is an important prop in a later scene.
I don't have a copy of my next step which is when I think about the overall flow and brainstorm specific details and gags. Sometimes it's not even on lined paper. It's just half sentence descriptions or lines of dialogue like, "We have to find Hellboy," which is more specific to the moment and to what Kate is thinking than the more generic, and obvious, "We have to get out of here." It's like written doodling. I'm seeing bits of the movie in my head. I liked the visual of Kate swinging one of those huge wrenches that are the size of baseball bats, the sort of thing that can do serious zombie damage. Finally I decide I'm just procrastinating and I put down the thoughts in a more orderly way like you see above.
I could go right to the computer at this point but I'm still keeping it loose. You can see I might doodle something to clarify it in my head. It aids in my describing it. It occurred to me at this stage to make the reveal of the big wrench more of a moment. Kate is using a small wrench, spots something OS. She tosses the wrench at the closest zombie, hard enough to knock its head around and piss it off. It turns back and sees she has the huge wrench ready. Note I've already noted the camera angle -- if she swings it right at camera then it's from the zombie's POV. The doodle is more detailed than usual which means I was thinking about details of the moment -- or procrastinating. I added a little color here to help show what's going on.
I don't always do it but sometimes I take it one more step before switching to computer especially if I'm going to be distracted as I work. In this case I have a production to run during the day so the script is always on my screen but I rarely have a long run on it. Anyway, one of the most important things in writing action is to make it unique to that sequence. This will get harder and harder in future scripts as we struggle to keep Hellboy's monster bashing fresh. So in this case, I kept coming back to the wrench. It's Kate's only weapon but it's damn heavy. She can't wield it for too long. Her exhaustion is great for building the feeling of hopelessness before the save by Lobster Johnson. Wrenches are metal - great conductors of electricity - so I thought she could throw the wrench at a zombie, it catches it, which distracts it while she's arranging for its electrocution. Free associating, I realized the zombie could use the wrench against her. I let the electrocuted zombie get in one last swing. Should he be dead? What's logical or realistic is always juggled with what is cool and thrilling. Go watch the desert chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And speaking of Indiana Jones, remember the opening cave sequence in Raiders where the stone door is coming down and Indy reaches back to get his hat? I remembered that I needed Kate to have the wrench in a later scene which led to a slight gag - Lobster rescues them, they run out then Kate risks danger again to grab the wrench.
Now I type. This shows you the format and the detail. I have to add description for both the storyboard artist AND the actor. The actors work off a full script so Peri Gilpin will be able to read that Kate is dumbfounded when she sees Lobster Johnson. Is he alive? Is he a replacement? Am I hallucinating? The poor girl is confused which is dangerous when zombies are after you.
Whoa. That was a long one. But it's a glimpse into my working process. I might skip the legal pad steps completely if the treatment is detailed and there's less action, but it's a crutch to get me focused. Next time, who knows? Watch Hellboy: Blood and Iron this weekend! Check the listings of Cartoon Network.