How Drama and Comedy Can Enlighten Your Productions
The groom and his best man stand together at the altar before a solemn-faced minister. They glance around nervously at the packed church. The best man checks his jacket pocket, reassuring himself that the ring is still there. The room tugs at his collar and takes a deep, calming breath.
Suddenly, the organist fills the church with a series of familjar chords and the entire assembly turns.
At the back of the church, arrayed in a dazzling white gown, the bride appears, holding tightly to her proud father’s arm. The crowd sighs.
Okay, it’s not a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, but for the participants, it is truly high drama. And it’s just one place where the judicious use of dramatic elements-including tasteful applications of humor-can enhance your video productions. In this article, we will look at some of the ways you can utilize drama and humor to enhance your storytelling and create truly compelling videos.
The essence of drama is conflict. Conflict creates the dramatic situation-the basis of your story. Without conflict, you have what amounts to a debate in which both sides agree. This is, in a word, boring.
To have conflict, first and foremost, you need a protagonist and an antagonist. In most Hollywood-type theatrical productions, this boils down to the hero vs. the villain, Good vs. Evil, the Black Hats vs. the White Hats, etc. But you don’t need Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting Arab terrorists to have dramatic conflict. Your protagonist is simply the character whose story you are telling; your antagonist is the character who opposes the protagonist’s goals. The conflict between protagonist and antagonist can be obvious (Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed in the first two Rocky movies) or subtle (jazzman Dexter Gordon vs. his own self-destructive impulses in ‘Round Midnight).
While most independent videomakers aren’t producing Hollywood movies, the most interesting productions at every level manage to work in at least a little conflict Even commercials utilize this dramatic element as a way of creating interest (“Less filling!””Tastes great!”). And who is the protagonist in those classic Miller Lite ads? Bob Uker!
Conflict in the Script
If your production is a theatrical piece, a commercial, a training film or a PR effort, you have the advantage of working with a script in which you can identify your protagonist and antagonist and their conflict.
I had this opportunity last year when I scripted an employee training film for a high-tech company in California’s Silicon Valley. We wanted to turn a dull recitation of company safety procedures into a piece that would hold our audience’s attention long enough to teach them something they really needed to know. What we needed was dramatic conflict.
I began by identifying my protagonist: Betty, the Good Employee. She was the one who did things right. I then juxtaposed her with an antagonist: Bob, the Bad Employee. He was the one who did things wrong. I even wrote a little character backgrounder in which I explored Bob’s lifelong problems with authority and his possible affliction with attention deficit disorder.
Betty suffered her problems, too: though she had always been a team player, she was never going to break through that glass ceiling until she developed a truly executive taste for the jugular. This sounds goofy, I know, but to create real conflicts you have to create real characters. Writing a backgrounder is one of the best ways to nail down your characters. Include everything you know about your characters-from their favorite colors to their political affiliations.
Betty and Bob don’t represent the most dramatic conflict ever conceived, especially since the characters don’t really oppose each other; still, they gave us a place to begin building our show. Most every project will benefit from conflict, even those that appear to have no characters. In a recent PR image piece I worked on, no people appeared in the video. So we chose to think of the customers as the collective protagonist; the problems our company solved for them became the collective antagonist. Again, not a perfect solution, but one that gave us something to hang our dramatic hats on.
When You Don’t Have a Script
Videomakers who don’t have the advantage of working with a script written in advance of production often must discover their protagonists and antagonists on the fly.
Documentarians almost always face this problem. For example, Barbara Kopple shot her Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan Country U.S.A. in eastern Kentucky over an 18- month period. She and her crew lived in the homes of striking miners, recording the day-by-day progress of a bloody conflict with the Duke Power Company. They found their heroes and their villains in the editing room.
In Ken Burns’ incredible, 11-hour Civil War series, the script undoubtedly emerged during the production. President Lincoln, too, emerged as the protagonist of the piece. His antagonists were many, but his primary conflict was with the leaders of the Southern army, mainly General Lee. It is to Burns’ credit that the film presents few heroes and virtually no villains.
In the example of the wedding video, the most likely protagonists are the bride and groom. The antagonist is a little trickier. Maybe it’s the best man who misplaces the ring, or the bridesmaid who complains about her dress or even the traffic that delays the arrival of the groom.
Don’t think in terms of heroes and villains, but rather in terms of conflict, or better still, obstacles. Your clients aren’t going to be very happy if you cast the groom as protagonist and his new mother-in-law as antagonist and then highlight their conflict. But in every wedding there are obstacles to overcome; many can serve as the source of compelling drama.
Another useful dramatic element is the three-act structure. Simply put, your show should have a beginning, a middle and an end. In his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenroriting, Syd Field describes these acts. Act I is the setup, where you introduce your characters, tell us their goals and establish the conflict. Act II is the conflict, where your protagonist strives to overcome the obstacles to the goal and the antagonist thwarts those efforts. Act III is the resolution, where you wrap it all up with a climax and denouement or epilogue.
This structure gives shape to your productions while providing a solid framework on which you can build your project. Many short pieces jam these elements in so fast they barely register, but the best productions use them in some way. Even very short pieces use them. A 10-second spot for the new science fiction series Earth II, is a good example. It goes something like this: “They fled their own ravaged planet to search for a new home. From space they come to colonize this world. They are aliens here. They are us! Coming this fall. Earth 11!” Then a bunch of human refugees from earth step out of a spaceship onto a weird planet.
See how it works? The setup: a bunch of aliens leaves their ravaged planet. The conflict: they are aliens, but they want to colonize this planet. The climax: it’s us! The denouement: coming this fall!
In our wedding video example, the three-act structure could look like this:
Act I. You answer the question, who is this video about? You show the bride, the groom, the families, the surly caterer. You show the church, maybe preview the reception decorations. Maybe you get the rehearsal in here, depending on your assignment.
Act II. Everybody gets ready. The guests arrive. The groom and best man banter while waiting for their cues. The parents wait nervously. Now the groom emerges and takes his place. Now the bride appears and walks down the aisle.
Act III The vows. “I do.””I do.”They stroll down the aisle and she throws the bouquet.
Of course, many wedding assignments are much more complicated than this. You may shoot the reception as well. (More dramatic fodder for your production.)
In terms of structure, the climax is one of the most important elements you can employ in your video productions, but it cannot exist, or only exists weakly, without the others. The climax is the point of the story. The hero beats the bad guys and gets the girl. Or she beats the clock and discovers the vaccine (and gets the boy). It’s your hero’s reward (or if you like film noir, his punishment) for hanging in there through the first two acts. The problem is, your audience won’t care much if your hero hasn’t had tojump through a few hoops to get there.
A good climax is like a good joke; it’s a surprise that in retrospect appears inevitable. (Where does a thousand-pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere he wants to.)
Some video productions don’t lend themselves to this definition. We all know they’re going to say, “I do,” at the end of the wedding ceremony. No surprises here. So another definition might prove more useful here: think of a climax as the peak of the rising action of the story.
The rising action refers to the story action that becomes more and more intense, affecting or involving with each new development. In other words, you want to crank up the tension as you approach your climax.
There are a number of ways to do this. A race against the clock is a tried and true device that is inherently climactic; but you must remind your audience that time is running out, or it doesn’t work.
Upping the stakes for the hero is another way to intensify the action. In my screenplay, Sleeping Dogs Lie, the protagonist has only his job to lose in the beginning, but by the third act he could lose his hard-won sobriety, his new love and even his life. Even in teeny, tiny productions like the Earth II ad, the action rises to a climax. In this case, the producers intensified the music and increasingly shortened the duration of the shots right up to the punch line.
You can also use this technique with great success in productions where there is no obvious narrative structure. Say there is no real story, no characters, nothing at stake, but you still want to engage your audience the way only a story can. Your best solution lies in the technology. Start with shots of relatively long duration and then gradually shorten them. Vary the camera angle, focal length, lighting. Long shots are relatively peaceful; close-ups more intense. By varying the production elements, you can create tension in almost any production.
Leave Them Laughing
“The time has come,” W.C. Fields once said, “to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.” What we are talking about here is comedy. Humor can be a powerful tool for videomakers who employ it with taste and sensitivity.
You probably don’t think of it this way, but humor is an element of drama. The difference is, the audience laughs. This is not a glib statement; great comedy is not in the gags or jokes. Great comedy, like great drama, comes from character.
Comedy is often situational, that is, the humor comes from the mess your characters find themselves in. Sitcoms such as I Love Lucy, MASH and Cheers pulled their comedy from comedic situations. Yet each one also relied heavily on the characters. This is the reason these shows endure. (Please don’t ask me to explain the seeming immortality of Gilligan’s Island or the Beverly Hillbillies.) Comedy can also take the form of parody (Hot Shots, Space Balls), and satire (Saturday Night Live, In Living Color, She TV).
There is no universal definition of “funny.” It’s been said, “if the audience doesn’t laugh, it isn’t funny.” This definition is as good as any; it speaks to the importance of knowing your audience. The audience is tremendously important to successful comedy because the people watching your show hecome participants when they laugh.
One of the first questions you should ask about your audience is, how does this apply to them? Bert and Ernie jokes might make a roomful of schoolkids laugh, but they won’t summon a chuckle from a roomful of Stanford professors. Jokes about CMOS technology and data throughput will go over in some high-tech venues, but they won’t do much for an audience of Teamsters.
Next, make sure you know what your audience knows. This sounds condescending, but you don’t want to make humorous references you need a Ph.D. in political science to understand if your audience is blue collar. (It’s just that approach that keeps Dennis Miller out of prime time.)
Why We Laugh
Humor is an extremely subjective, emotional response. One man’s funny is another man’s cruel or stupid. My dad used to practically die laughing at Benny Hill. I wanted to shoot the little man every time I saw him. Monty Python sent me to the floor with laughter, but my ex-wife thought it was juvenile and didn’t get the jokes. A guy slips on a banana peel. Do you laugh? That depends on who you are and what you think is funny.
But there are a few things that seem to be universal about humor. Psychologist Patricia Keith-Spiegel identifies the following eight major theories on why we laugh:
Surprise. This is one of the most universally accepted formulas for creating comedy. Remember our thousand-pound gorilla? One of the reasons comedy is so perishable is that once the surprise is revealed, it is no longer funny. One technique that triggers surprise is misdirection- the audience expects one thing, but gets another.
Superiority. Humans have an often unattractive need to feel superior. Physical infirmities, fat jokes, ethnic jokes, that guy slipping on the banana peel-all tap into this need. One of the reasons we laugh when the husband comes home early and his wife has to hide her lover in the closet is that we know something. he doesn’t know. We are superior.
Jokes that deflate the high and mighty also tap into this need. Jokes about the president or the rich and famous are a staple of talk shows, and they keep us laughing.
Biology. This theory assumes we’re born to laugh. A substitute for assault, it’s a way of venting hostility when physical aggression is not practical.
Incongruity. This is the unconventional pairing of acts and thoughts. The guys on Candid Camera lived on this principle. Allen Hunt in a talking mail-box had his audience rolling in the
Ambivalence. This kind of humor is the basis for much of W.C. Fields’ humor. “Go away kid, ya bother me.” His open dislike of children reappears today in the nasty comments from Roseanne to her kids.
Release. Do something stupid in public, like tripping over a bar stool and spilling your drink, and chances are you will laugh. This theory casts laughter as a planned event, a voluntary reduction of stress triggered by a conscious effort to unlock life’s tensions and inhibitions.
Configuration. This theory holds that we laugh when disjointedness falls into place. Again, the thousand-pound gorilla joke.
Psychoanalytical. As long as we’re dissecting this stuff, we can’t leave out Freud. His idea was that humor was an expression of inhibited tendencies to act out regressive infantile sexual or aggressive behavior. (I don’t buy this personally, but it would help explain Benny Hill’s appeal.)
One useful structure is the so-called “sketch comedy” (Saturday Night Live, Kids in the Hall) It includes three common elements: the setup, the payoff and the reaction. The gorilla joke works here, too-lacking only the reaction, the visual equivalent of the rim shot.
When you set up your comedic situation, you must give your audience all the information they need to see the humor in it. They must know who the characters are, the relevant details of their relationships and the potential ramifications of the situation at hand.
When Roseanne’s neighbor knocks on the door and announces that her house was robbed while she and her family were on vacation, it’s funny because we know: a) Roseanne saw a moving van hauling her neighbor’s stuff away two days earlier; b) thinking her neighbor was donating items to charity, Roseanne actually bought some-thing from the robbers; and c) that item she purchased, an umbrella stand, is sitting right next to the neighbor.
Without the setup, like a hostile rivalry between the women, the neighbor’s report that she was robbed wouldn’t be funny, because it is the payoff. Roseanne and Dan’s startled faces and attempts to hide the umbrella stand comprise the reaction.
Besides structure, all of the principles of good dramatic writing apply to comedy, including the three-act structure. You might even want to write your script first as a drama, that is, comedy.
One important caveat about comedy: it’s as perishable as Hagen-Dazs ice cream on a hot sidewalk. If you doubt this, review a movie you thought was hilarious a few years ago. Not so funny this time around, is it? You know the jokes. If you want your video to last, keep the jokes to a minimum and draw them out of your characters.
Story, Story, Story
What all this boils down to is good storytelling. As a videomaker you are more than just a recorder of images. You are, above all, a storyteller.
Some avant-garde video types may be a little more like painters, who are concerned primarily with images, but the rest of us use video to tell some kind of story.
Whether that story takes the form of a corporate training film, a commercial for a local auto dealer or a wedding attended by friends and family, it’s the videomaker’s job to tell the story well.
Freelance journalist and screenwriter John K. Waters is currently scripting a video documentary on the history of Silicon Valley.