Wednesday, June 6, 2012

ON-THE-SCRIPT TRAINING: What a Long Strange Trip It's Been, Part 4

I wound up in a movie theatre tonight, seeing “The Avengers” for the fourth time, and I think I’ve now decided that I really, truly like that film. It’s not perfect by any means, and I found myself wondering why they didn’t just knock Stark Tower out from under the tesseract (it would have been at least worth a shot), but I enjoyed it. Mark Ruffalo and the Hulk totally steal the whole picture.

But that doesn’t have anything to do with the Karloff movie poster up there.

I don’t remember the exact conversation I had with Dan Thorsland at Dark Horse that resulted in me writing an adaptation of “The Mummy.” Tony Harris may have told Dan that he wanted to work on it with me, or Dan may have brought it up independently of Tony. (It was a really long time ago, and I never bothered keeping a journal.) But however it happened, in either late 1990 or early 1991, I landed this job, and I do know that one of my first questions to Dan T. was, “Is there any particular way you want me to approach this?” And that his answer was, “Yeah - watch the movie a bunch of times and then write the script.”

I didn’t find that directive overly helpful.

What became clear was that Dan Thorsland did not consider it his job to teach me how to write an adaptation. He wanted me either to figure it out for myself, or get educated somewhere else. Well, at that point, everyone I knew in comics was either a) an artist, or b) Dan Thorsland, so I settled on figuring it out for myself.

Welcome to On-The-Job Training!

Now, please understand, I bore Dan no ill will for this approach. It actually pleased me - I felt as though HE felt that I was perfectly capable of doing this, so I took it as a sign of respect. It reminded me strongly of my first term in college, when one of my classmates asked our Sociology professor if he was going to tell us which topics would be covered on the first exam. The professor’s response was, “Of course not! That’s your job!” And I thought, Wow, I’m in college! Cool!

Anyway. Dan did send me a copy of the movie (on pristine VHS, still in the plastic). So I spent a couple of days staring at the box, trying to decide how to go about writing the actual script.

Comic book scripts are their own creatures. There are fundamental differences between scripts for comics and scripts for TV, movies, stage plays, and video games. First and foremost, the images are static. There can be no, “John takes the gun out of the drawer, spins the cylinder, and slips it into his pocket.” If you want to convey that information, you need three images:

  1. 1.John stands in front of the drawer, which he’s pulled open. He’s holding the gun in his right hand, eyeballing it critically.
  2. 2.New angle on John, closer in on the gun, as he spins the cylinder with his left hand.
  3. 3.Turning away from the drawer, John drops the gun into his pocket.

There are quite a few great big awesome books on the subject of creating comics, and I’m not going to try to explain everything about how comics work here, because those books do it better. (Seriously, pick up “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud. It’ll blow your mind.) But I’ll touch on a few essentials, and the static nature of the images is one of them. For “The Mummy,” I knew I had to isolate the most important images, the crucial visual bits that advanced the story and established the characters.

And eventually I settled on probably the most obvious method possible: I put the tape in the VCR, hit PLAY, and every time the movie cut to a new significant image, I hit PAUSE and scribbled down a description of that image in my notebook. It looked sort of like this:

  1. 1.Long shot of Ardeth Bey in silhouette, riding a horse that’s being led by a servant, approaching the house
  2. 2.Girl in the house hears a knock at the door
  3. 3.Ardeth Bey at the door as the girl opens it
  4. 4.Zoom in on Ardeth Bey’s eyes as he starts to hypnotize her

Each of those images became one panel in the script. (I would go back later and copy down all the dialogue. I had no Internet to look up the screenplay, and none of my local libraries carried it.)

Then it actually became something of a math problem - a formula that, with slight modifications, I would end up using on every single comic book project I ever worked on after that. Basically I took the number of panels I had jotted down (around 170) and divided it by the number of pages the project was allotted (48). That gave me 3.5, which was the average number of panels I could have on a page and still tell the story in a coherent way.

Of course you can’t have half a panel on a page, but all that meant was that some pages could have four panels and others might only have one or two. Mix and match.

So I mapped out how the panels would fall on the pages, and kept as much of the movie’s dialogue intact as I could, and eventually turned in my script. To my recollection, Dan Thorsland didn’t change a single word of it.


(Also, please follow me on Twitter! I’m @JolleySezStuff !)

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