Sunday, January 20, 2008

Non-Acting Characters

Yes, we're back after a long hiatus. Today's topic is strangely enough, characters in your movie with no lines.

You may say, how can you have non-acting characters in a movie. Well, these characters don't say anything because they don't need to. They are light breaking through shadow, the object of everyone's desire, the wind that threatens the town, etc.

The camera itself is also a character in that its placement can determine the effectiveness of a conversation, argument or even a love scene. Props can also be used as characters - or sometimes the extension of character.

Indy's whip, or Neo's sunglasses speak volumes about their characters. Even something as simple as lip gloss can be an effective character if it's used during times of stress or even times of happiness. You would just merely change the character's expression and hand movements.

Light and shadow are also great characters as they can set the tome for a scene or relate danger.

For example, you can have several different meetings in the same bar, but slight changes in lighting or camera placement make a totally different location.

Ex.1 - Man is meeting his girlfriend for dinner where he plans to pop the question.

INT. DOWNTOWN BAR - NIGHT

Pat strolls into the dimly lit establishment, his eyes squint to adjust. The bar has booths around the perimeter lit by candles while a pool table occupies the center area. A smiling bartender dries glasses as a scantily-clad waitress saunters up with menus in hand.

WAITRESS
Good evening sir. Table for one?

PAT
I'm meeting someone. There she is.

Pat moves excitedly towards a booth in the middle of the wall. His girlfriend's face shimmers in the candlelight.

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Ex. 2 - Man meeting a drug dealer

INT. DOWNTOWN BAR - NIGHT

Pat strolls into the dimly lit establishment, his eyes squint to adjust. The bar has booths around the perimeter lit by candles while a pool table occupies the center area. A smiling bartender dries glasses as a scantily-clad waitress saunters up with menus in hand.

WAITRESS
Good evening sir. Table for one?

PAT
I'm meeting someone. There he is.

Pat moves cautiously towards a booth in the back corner, his eyes squint in tension. A leather-jacketed ruffian sits in the corner of the booth, his face obscured by shadow.

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That's a rather rudimentary example but shows how light and shadow can change the tone of a scene. Camera angle can also be a character as it can change the tone of the scene in different ways. For example, a person's tear can say a lot about the scene or character.

Ex. 1 - Man trying not to hurt a woman's feelings.

EXT. BEACH HOTEL PATIO - NIGHT

On Pat, as he paces back and forth, trying to find the words. Sheila sits apprehensively, her eyes follow Pat with anxiety. She stands, abruptly.

SHEILA
Just say it.

PAT
Well, I...I mean we...

SHEILA
It's OK.

Pat and Sheila stand facing each other. Sheila raises her hands to his supportively. A tear streams down the right side of his face.


Ex. 2

EXT. BEACH HOTEL PATIO - NIGHT

On Pat, as he paces back and forth, trying to find the words. Sheila sits apprehensively, her eyes follow Pat with anxiety. She stands, abruptly.

SHEILA
Just say it.

PAT
Well, I...I mean we...

SHEILA
It's OK.

Pat turns and faces her. His face a mask of pain as tears cover his cheeks.

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With these two examples we can see that in the first scene, it's a minor issue that hurts him, while the second one shows a man tormented with a horrible secret. In both we can see the love in the relationship.


Other non-acting characters include the sun:

Ex. 1 - Man dying in the desert


EXT - DEATH VALLEY - DAY

The sun blazes brightly in the sky as Hank lies face down in the sand. His breathing slight, his lips chapped and burned. He struggles to rise, the fierceness of the heat saps his every energy.
He finally drags himself to his feet, his sand-scuffed arms meekly attempt to block sunlight as he sees his goal shimmer before him, shade cast down onto the sand by the welcome SUV.


Ex. 2 - Man waking from a hangover on the beach


EXT. CABO BEACH - DAY

The early-morning sun shines warmly against a beautiful blue sky as Hank lies face down at the edge o the tide. He snores heavily, his lips and face covered with cheap lipstick. The tide awakens him with a shove and he struggles to rise, his hangover making the task difficult.
He finally rises unsteadily, his tanned arms hide his face from the brightening day. He makes his way toward a barely visible goal, a row of small cottages with similarly overcome college students laying next to bottles on the patio.


In these cases the sun goes from being a deadly phenomenon to being a backdrop for a vacation. But in both cases, it is merely the use of a visual non-acting character. This technique can be used for weather, time of day, exact location in a city, etc.

Non-acting characters are also scene transitions as they can link two disparate scenes with a common thread such as an action, an emotion, an object or a sound. As writers we need to think about these non-acting characters as they provide a more interesting read.

Another way of thinking about is the simplistic, "good action lines." That is so generic a term as to make it nearly inconceivable. Again, the key becomes study or doing. Something I've found good practice is writing the first ten off a "sequence map" for different genres and heroes (I quit saying antag\protag as I interchange them too much), which is to say "end result" and "personality-type."

The aforementioned can perhaps be the most powerful non-acting character and is simply "a dissemination of concepts such that you can define them in your terms." Every filmmaker has their own starting point for the cinematic journey. Some begin with story, some with concept, some with character. Some start at the end, and some at the beginning. None are right or wrong, just more efficient for each individual.

But the constant is the toolset at your disposal; the eye, the word, the sound, the emotion, but it all starts with the eye. Directing the eye is the basis of the art, controlling the other elements is the defining of genre.

It's a circular dependency though as emotion can control sound (speaking vs. yelling) and sound can control emotion( startling vs. involving), just as the word can control the emotion and vice-versa. Your acting characters MUST interact effectively with your non-acting characters to create the most effective story.

An excellent example of this use is the poster (tear sheet) for The Exorcist. Though only one character has a speaking part the streetlight effectively describes the tone of the movie: a light shining in the darkness. A solitary figure surrounded by darkness. The use of rose petals in American Beauty also lend a hand in describing mental state and perception. In the "bathtub scene" there was an interesting use of POV as when at Lester's POV, a song is playing, but not when at Angela's.

Another excellent example is the Jaws theme (score), as it defines the way the shark attacks, tension building and the strike. Or the "stabbing violins" of Psycho. Or the theme to Shaft, which represents a character and a description.

Of course the most obvious non-acting character appears in every horror movie and that's sounds. Sounds can take a scene from being just "a dark room" to being "an eerie darkness, drips and clanks echo in the background, a dragging sound seems to come from everywhere."
Of course, sounds can be used effectively in any genre, such as; "soft cries are heard from the other side of the door," or "the click of the hammer stops him in his tracks, inches from his ear," or "the sound of crashing cabinets is heard as Jack glides into the cupboard on his skateboard."

This NAC can represent nearly every emotion; "The sounds of props and bombs cause screams of relief from the small band of beleaguered troops."
"They can hear each other heart beats as they embrace tightly."
"His shouts are heard from the rooftops."
"The roar of the creature signals its presence, just yards away."
"The clank of the metal door is a somber sound, defining the truth of your captivity."

Those are examples from actual successful films:
Saving Private Ryan
The Matrix Reloaded
Network
The Edge
Shawshank

Well, that's all for this episode of "Somewhat Untitled Musings." Our next topic will either "Theme vs. Story" or "Hitchcock to Mamet."

See ya then and,

Keep Writing as Writing is the Revealing of the Soul.

3 comments:

Matt Hader said...

Welcome back, CMH!

Christian M. Howell said...

Thanks, Matt.

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