Saturday, April 25, 2009

Filling Young Minds

"So what's amazing about this thing I'm going to show you," I said to the room full of students, hanging devotedly on my every word, "is that Genndy Tartakovsky manages to tell a full story, with a proper three-act structure, which is to say with a setup, confrontation and resolution, without using any dialogue at all."

I was quite proud of remembering this bit, because it's animation (I was talking to the Year One Digital Animation students), and they're supposed to be doing a thing on storyboarding, so I could show how to do both at the same time: how you can tell a story without any dialogue whatsoever, just using a series of moving images to tell a proper story.

"Remember," I said sternly, as I pressed the button on the YouTube player, "No dialogue at all".

Oh, if only I'd thought to actually have a quick watch beforehand, because then I might have realised that the whole 'no dialogue at all thing' was in fact only in my head, and I might not have had to listen to the sound of a roomful of students sniggering at me.

'Yes," I said. "Well', as I tried to turn the thing off, only for the long speech to continue. Eventually the lecture ended as every lecture should, with the lecturer flicking V's at the screen and calling Obi-Wan Kenobi a cock.

The next day I took what was supposed to be the other half of the class, but was in fact only four people, as most of them had snuck into the previous lesson so they could skive about on a Friday afternoon, which is fair enough.

I had learned from the previous day's MILD HICCUP, so didn't show a YouTube video of the Genndy Tartakovsky version of Clone Wars.

"Right," I said, "I'm going to illustrate three-act structure, by looking at the plot of Star Wars, the first one, which might not be the deepest film ever made, but does fit really nicely into the classic three-act thing. I'm assuming everyone is familiar with Star Wars?"

Fifty per cent of the class had not seen Star Wars. It took some time to persuade me they were not making this up. They had actually never seen Star Wars. Jake explained that in his case, it was because he had seen the new ones, and they were shit, so he'd never really felt like going back and checking out the old ones. And again, this is perfectly reasonable.

George Lucas, you are a cock.

The other high point:

ME: What's the name of that film with Macauly Culkin in, where he's a kid, and he's left home on his own? Alone? Can anyone remember?
STUDENT: (with heavy irony) 'Home Alone'?

Long pause.

ME: Yes.


Lucy P said...

thank you for reminding me of the last time I did any teaching, which was just as traumatic and embarrassing and I swore it would never be repeated (17 yr old art students don't think I'm funny).
(tartakovsky's samurai jack is the best (aesthetically speaking) cartoon for years, imho, but I won't be telling any art students that, cos they don't think I'm funny)

Lucy said...

I of course am the coolest teacher in the entire universe, largely because my students don't speak much English.

Roy Nottage said...

Haha I'm gutted I missed the Clone Wars incident the day before!

I speak for a firm quarter of the class when I say I enjoyed Friday, I'm pretty sure the others did too.

james henry said...

Hurrah! And if any of the others didn't, then they were listening wrong, frankly.

Valerie said...

I'd be expressing my empathies, having taught college courses a bit and having had similar experiences, if I weren't laughing so hard. The "Home Alone" bit takes the cake. You should probably use that...

Adam said...

Note to self: never attempt anything ambitious in lessons next year. Or to put it another way: the lesson is, never try.

Newf said...

Oh, you're all TEACHERS! All this time. Crikey. I feel like I've got a wineglass to the Staff Room door. I should really leave.

Benjamin Russell said...

The "no dialogue thing at all" was not only in your head. The next chapter is the Might As well Be Silent clone squad episode that has, literally, thirteen words, and not even a Federation Droid "roger roger" to be heard. I mean, there still would have been sniggering, but it would have been two minutes in instead of at the beginning, and that would have helped your underlying point about silent storytelling.

james henry said...

Bah, that was the episode I was thinking of - if only I could have got the DVD player working, I could have just coughed loudly through the start, then I might have got away with it.

kirsten said...

If I had been in that position, I would have turned the volume down and pretended that they were just moving their mouths for fun, and not talking. Of course I would look like a total idiot, but I would stick to my guns and pretend that it was TOTALLY SUPPOSED TO BE THAT WAY.

Tim Footman said...

I was dumbfounded at the level of not-Star-Wars-watching, until I worked out that a 15-year-old not having seen Star Wars today is the rough equivalent of 15-year-old me not having seen Flight to Mars (1951).

Rob Self-Pierson said...

That was my favourite thing about teaching - looking prepared and then giving out duff info. I was once asked by a ten year old lad whether the Large Hadron Collider would bring the end of the world.

I tried to convince him it wouldn't (with scientific phrases like "Nope, it won't") but his arguments were too strong. Instead, he convinced me the world was in trouble.

Lesson learned - don't teach.

Smat said...

I've never seen Star Wars, and I'm rapidly approaching 40. But then you know my level of film-watching-ness is frankly a bit rubbish.

Newf said...

So, er, um, why do so many writers teach it? It is okay to keep "Wot Makes You Good" to yourself? Is teaching kind of expected when writers get all good and proper?

james henry said...

Good question. Dunno about other writers, but for me it's because:

1. It's flattering to be asked.
2. Writing is quite dull, so you don't get to talk to other people much, so it's nice to feel important.
3. It reminds me that I do have a rather cool job a lot of people really really want to do.
4. It's good to actually ananlyse what I do, because it's only it having to explain the process to other people that I sometimes make little breakthroughs myself (like when I was reading up on and lecturing on three act structure earlier this year and it suddenly clicked in my head and made sense properly for the first time.
5. Lots of people took the time to point me in the right direction when I was starting out, so it's nice to maybe do the same to people in the same position.
6. Always handy to set up an alternative income stream for when the day job falls through.

Boz said...

I bet at least one student has "James" and "Henry" written across their eyelids when they blink.

Newf said...

Boz - yeah, literature students, but only because they put the surname before the forename.

(Actually, I'd write "James Henry" on my eyelids if I wasn't so confused by mirror writing)

James - thanks for the answer; I was really curious, and that genuinely makes a lot of sense now. I especially like #5. But I think I might be suffering from arrogance, because I don't want to be taught. I'd love to listen to an established writer, like your good self, aqua feline, talking about how you did it, and why you did it, but I've read about a scriptwriting class with the tagline "don't make the same mistakes I did!" But I WANT to make the same mistakes they did, or at least have the chance to. If don't get anywhere 'til 30 because I never sat down and listened to advice about methods and shortcuts and the like, then cool, I got there myself - eventually.

When you started out and people pointed you in the right direction, did they do it from a classroom?

james henry said...

Yeah, you have to make all-new mistakes, and learn from those. And you also have to learn which advice to listen to, and which to ignore, and of course that only comes with experience, which you can't really teach, you just have to go out and live it.

I did a course on experience of writing at university, which was great, because it introduced me to scriptwriting, which was something I'd never considered before, but which instantly felt like the right thing for me, so I did get that from a classroom. And I read a lot about writing, like Joseph Campbell's 'The Hero's Journey', which is a really interesting deconstruction of various mythological stories.

The problem is, of course, structure aside, people can only ever teach how they got into writing, and that's always going to be a few years out of date, and probably only worked for that person anyway (in my case, I'd have to teach people to win a Channel 4 writing competition in 1999 and build up contacts and work from there). But there are some truths that can only help you become a better (and hopefully successful) writer, which are:

1. Write a lot.
2. Read a lot (and not just fiction, I mean stuff like science, history and maths, amusing and interesting works about which there are plenty).
3. Prepare to rewrite a lot.
4. There are certain underlying structures to stories, such as the whole 'three act' thing, that you don't have to follow slavishly, but are certainly useful to know about.
5. Seriously, read a lot.

kirsten said...

I get what you mean about the teaching thing. I can't count the number of writers/producers/directors I've met who, when asked how they got into the job by wide-eyed Film students eager to take notes about finally get a job, said either "luck" or "accident".

In those moments you can actually see all students (including me), deflate.

Newf said...

Thanks James!! #6 - Read writers' blogs.

Oli said...

For the first time in quite I while, I can type LOL and literally mean it. I told this story to my wife, who also lolled. Though neither of us rofled.