Archive for the ‘Christopher Vogler’ Category

How I wrote the screenplay for One Hundred and One Dalmatians

August 22, 2014

I am known as a story analyst and consultant but I am also a produced screenwriter. True, my screenwriting output has been modest. I can claim a “screenplay by” credit on only one produced feature film, the 1996 animated feature JESTER TILL, or as it was known in Germany, TILL EULENSPIEGEL. And I have a credit of “additional story material by” on THE LION KING, shared with about twenty other people.

Till English poster

But that’s not quite the whole picture. I have another writing achievement in the world of feature animation.
I wrote the screenplay for Disney’s 1961 classic ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS.

One_Hundred_and_One_Dalmatians_movie_poster

Hold on a minute there, buster, you animation buffs are saying. The record shows that veteran Disney animator Bill Peet gets sole “story” credit for adapting the novel by Dodie Smith.

BillPeetcrop

 

Chris Vogler’s name appears nowhere in the credits.  How is it possible that I could have written the screenplay for a Disney cartoon feature released in 1961, at which time I was a 12-year-old living in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri? Was I a child prodigy? Or did the modern-day Vogler get into the WABAC machine with Mr. Peabody and time-travel to 1961 to deliver the script?

It was neither childhood precocity nor time travel and yet, I must insist, I wrote the screenplay for 101 Dalmatians, even though my name does not appear on the movie or in the record books.

This is how it came about. In 1994 I was employed by Disney as a story analyst and researcher. I had worked my way over ten years into a dream job, where I was paid to research subjects of great interest to me, topics like current trends in comic books and children’s literature or the movie potential of fairy tales and legends from world culture. I had won the reputation of being able to respond quickly to densely detailed assignments and was often tapped for the inevitable emergencies that arise in the story department.

One day I got an urgent memo from a Disney executive saying the studio was undertaking a new effort to make live action feature films from some of Disney’s classic animated features. They had decided to start with One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

According to the corporate brainstorm, it should be relatively easy to develop live action versions of the animated features, using the script of the animated film as a first draft. Just stroll over to the animation department file room, make a copy of the screenplay, and hand it to the live action screenwriters as their first draft. Much of the heavy lifting of plotting, characterization and dialogue was already done. It could save months or years of costly development.
Good idea, but there was bad news from the animation archivists. They reported that there were no screenplays in existence for the classic animated features, because in those days, they didn’t write screenplays.

The technique of creating full screenplays for animated features didn’t come into vogue until the 1990s when Jeffrey Katzenberg took an interest in running Disney Feature Animation. Until then, the animated features had been created from short outlines and storyboards, using hand-drawn images to lay out the sequences and actions of the proposed film. In Walt Disney’s time, and in the decades since his death, no one ever bothered to write down all the visuals and dialogue in screenplay form. The story existed in the form of the story boards, but mainly it lived in the collective minds of the animation team.

storybd1

Writing credits for animated features in Walt Disney’s day were rarely if ever expressed in terms of “screenplay by”. Typically credit was given for creating the story with terms such as “story adaptation” (Snow White, Pinocchio), “screen story by” and “story development” (Dumbo), or just “Story” (Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone). Credit was usually shared among eight or ten animators, except in a few cases such as One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone, where Bill Peet got the high honor of sole writing credit in the form of “Story by”.

In the case of 101 Dalmatians, the closest thing in the archives to a screenplay was a highly technical document called a “continuity” which was simply a list of the lines of dialogue along with precise notes on timing and movement for the animation camera department. There was also Bill Peet’s original outline adapting the novel, something that we would call today a “treatment”. But there was no screenplay, with shot-by-shot descriptions of characters and their actions interspersed with dialogue.

So the studio turned to me. Create a screenplay, they said. Here is a videotape copy of the animated film, here is the continuity with all the dialogue, here is Bill Peet’s outline. From these materials, we would like you to create a document in screenplay format, accurately reflecting the finished film.

And we’d like you to do it in three days.

So I put myself in a small room with a VCR and a typewriter and reverse-engineered a screenplay, describing the movie shot-by-shot and inserting the appropriate dialogue.

It was largely a technical exercise, with only a small amount of creativity required to bring some life to the shot descriptions. I was not making up any of the actions or dialogue, I was not creating the humor and suspense. And yet I felt the pride of authorship, for where there was no screenplay before, there was now a screenplay.

I turned in the script, my script, on Monday morning. I made a case that it should be treated as a special kind of authorship, and that in addition to my story analyst time for doing the work, it should be submitted for consideration of getting me into the Writers Guild so I could secure all the good stuff that comes with it. But no dice, said my supervisors in the story department. No way would the studio ever pay a penny over the union hourly rate. I was already making a small fortune in overtime, they pointed out.

The best I could do was to insist that they put my name on the script in some form. We agreed to “Screenplay assembled by Chris Vogler” and that’s how it went into the studio archives.

But still I can say I wrote the screenplay for 101 Dalmatians. It’s a teeny tiny footnote (just a toe-note really) in animation history, but I thought you might find it interesting as an example of the oddball assignments that sometimes come along for story analysts and consultants in the movie biz. It takes nothing away from the brilliance and warm humor of Bill Peet, or the artistry of directors Clyde Geronimi, Wolfgang Reitherman and Hamilton Luske and the rest of the talented Disney team. “Assembling” a screenplay from their work, which I had so admired and enjoyed when I saw the movie in 1961, only gave me a greater appreciation of their amazing talents.

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Hero’s Journey Short Form

February 24, 2011

I just got an email from a graduate student wondering how the 12-stage outline of the Hero’s Journey I describe in “The Writer’s Journey” might be shortened for commercials or short-form Web content.  The question about a streamlined version of the narrative comes up often, in regard to short films as well as Web content and games.   I’m of the opinion that we have so many ways of communicating the stages of the human journey in short-hand images, and the audience is so quick at picking them up, that we really don’t need to omit anything, but I can see the value of stripping the experience down to its absolute essence.  So here is my most streamlined version, aimed at preserving the essential experience of the Hero’s Journey, some suspense about the outcome and a little bit of challenge and growth for the hero.

1. The Ordinary World can be communicated efficiently in a single image.  The backstory of the hero can be assumed based on what we see about his/her appearance, behavior, social status, etc.

2. The Call to Adventure, IMHO, is essential.  The audience needs to know there is something at stake, something happening that the hero must react to.

3. Refusal is useful to establish fear, suspense, and to tell you something about the hero, but it’s not strictly necessary.  So cut that from your abbreviated Hero’s Journey.  Or, acknowledge it quickly and efficiently, with a single look of doubt on the hero’s face, quickly overcome.

4. Meeting the Mentor, again, is useful but not necessary.  It can be implied by the hero’s belief system, indicated with a glance at some talisman or symbolic object that suggests the hero’s source of inspiration, or it can just be left out altogether.

5. Crossing the Threshold is fairly important, signalling that the hero is now committed to the adventure.  But in a really compressed version, you could just skip this step and the next two (Tests/Allies/Enemies and Approach), and cut directly to the Ordeal.  As with all the steps, there is a quick short-hand way to represent this movement — the hero simply crosses a bridge, goes up a flight of steps, enters a new room.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies allows the hero and audience time to marvel at the new world and to build personal connections.  In the short form, the hero may simply glance at the wonders of the new world and move on directly to the ordeal.

7. Approach is used to deepen character and relationships, create suspense and give the heroes time to bond and prepare for the Ordeal.  None of this may be necessary in the super-short form.

8. Ordeal is absolutely essential.  There’s no story without it.  Ideally this should be a difficult test that threatens the hero’s life or sense of self, and that makes the audience think the hero has died or failed.

9. Reward is also vital to our sense of a story.  There must be some consequence for the hero’s action.  THE STORY CAN END HERE.  This is acknowledged in the fairy tale theory of story construction offered by Vladimir Propp.  (I write about this in a chapter in my new book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.)  Sometimes the hero just kills the dragon and claims the princess, and that’s that.  If you take the off-ramp at this point, the Reward takes on some of the qualities of the Return with the Elixir, summing up the theme of the story and giving the audience a moral viewpoint on what happened.

10.  But many stories extend the narrative and create suspense about the final outcome.  That’s the job of THE ROAD BACK, where some new development or challenge arises, or where the hero has to summon willpower to finish the job despite further resistance.  (In Propp’s sample of 103 Russian fairy tales, many of them continue at this point with episodes describing the hero’s journey to the court of the king and his efforts to claim his reward.)  The Road Back is not strictly necessary to fulfill the contract of the Hero’s Journey, but it’s amazing how it asserts itself even in the shortest versions of the narrative.  Often it’s expressed as a chase scene, with the hero fleeing from or chasing villains, and we only need one shot of the hero running to get all the benefits of this step.

11.  Even in the short form, there is room for a Resurrection, a second visit to the death-and-rebirth territory of the Ordeal.  For example, the hero might seem to fail at the Ordeal, quickly learn his lesson, and come back for a second match with the opponent, at which he may seem to die and be reborn all over again.

12.  Return with the Elixir is the audience’s takeaway, and in a highly-compressed narrative could be a freeze-frame ending or a little visual treat that sends the audience away laughing or nodding in recognition.  Or you pop in a surprise image that shocks the audience or suggests a future development.

SO…the absolute bare minimum, I would venture, is

1. an implied Ordinary World,

2. an efficient Call to Adventure,

3. a distinct Threshold Crossing,

4. a death-and-rebirth Ordeal(or Resurrection)  and

5. a Reward (or Return with the Elixir).

In reality, almost always the other pieces are either implied or present in truncated form, and the audience will labor mightily to fill in any blanks you leave.  For example, the audience will fill in a wild night of partying if you just show a teenager sneaking into the house at 4 in the morning.

Hope that clarifies.  The ancient world believed firmly that a single image, a statue or a vase painting, could convey the whole drama of a great story, so we have permission to cut this sucker to the bone.

The influence of “The Writer’s Journey”

February 21, 2011

 

It’s hard to tell how much influence “The Writer’s Journey” and my thinking have had on current cinema.  I work on a lot of projects behind the scenes but rarely get a screen credit and usually can’t talk about what I’ve done because my contracts forbid it.   It’s difficult to guess how much the book may be shaping modern storytelling.

The Writer's Journey 3rd edition cover

However, there’s a suggestion from two sources that it is part of the toolbox for at least one contemporary filmmaker, Darren Aronofsky.  Here’s a link — http://creativescreenwritingmagazine.blogspot.com/2010/12/black-swan-q.html — to a Creative Screenwriting podcast of an interview with the writers of Mr. Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN, Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz.  About halfway through the discussion they mention how Mr. Aronofsky uses the 12-stage outline from “The Writer’s Journey” as a set of reference points for designing his stories.

And here’s the man himself, in an article from TheBrowser.com — http://thebrowser.com/interviews/darren-aronofsky-on-making-movies — in which Mr. Aronofsky is asked to describe five books that have been influential in his career.  “The Writer’s Journey” is one of them, standing in good company.  The other books he cites are Sidney Lumet’s “Making Movies”, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”, Kirk Douglas’ autobiography “The Ragman’s Son” and Francois Truffaut’s excellent “Hitchcock”.  Mr. Aronofsky has kind things to say about “The Writer’s Journey” and its influence on his thinking about movie story-telling.

It’s particularly cheering to me that an avant-garde, independent-minded filmmaker like Mr. Aronofsky can find something useful in “The Writer’s Journey” which is sometimes viewed only as a template for conventional, orthodox narrative.  It shows that the Journey concepts have a lot of adaptability and that in the hands of an intelligent artist they can be used to support highly unconventional and original stories.

I’ve had some interesting conversations with Mr. Aronofsky on the patterns of myth and psychology that I was exploring in “The Writer’s Journey”.   During the production of THE WRESTLER he showed me some drafts and we talked about how to handle the complex emotional situation he created at the end of the film.  I look forward to more creative collaborations of that sort.

Mickey Rourke at full intensity

The 48-hour Sunday

September 1, 2010

Again I say, very soon (September 11 and 12) I will be in London to present a 2-day Writer’s Journey Master Class hosted by Raindance:

http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/

If you’re within reach of London, as are many of my friends and fans in Europe, please come and hear my latest thoughts about 3-D, polarity as an engine of story construction, techniques for building characters, and many other treats sampled from my upcoming book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.  I’ll also present my templates for story design and character building, drawn from the hero’s journey in myth and movies.

THE 48-HOUR SUNDAY

This weekend I had one of those impossibly long days, a forty-eight-hour Sunday, caused by flying back to L.A. after a trip to lecture in New Zealand.  We crossed the International Date Line somewhere around midnight Sunday, automatically re-setting the clock to midnight Saturday and starting Sunday all over again.  Of course I wasn’t really gaining anything — just getting back the day I’d lost when I crossed the Date Line from East to West, ten days before.

I travel quite a lot these days, or at least this is a busy season after a couple of years of not much travel because of the world recession.  I’m beginning to think that there is an element of time travel in flinging your body thousands of miles at three hundred miles per hour, five miles up in the sky.  I notice that though all air travel is damaging to the body, it   feels  a bit easier, a little less stressful, to travel from West to East as I did on the return flight, because you are traveling in the same direction as the rotation of the Earth.  You go where the Earth is going, you just get there a little faster.  That’s not too hard on the human frame, just accelerating your movement through time a bit.

But in the other direction, flying fast from East to West, you are traveling against the rotation of the earth.  In effect you are going backward in time, against the flow of the time stream, and that seems to be much more punishing on the body.  The outward-bound flight from L. A. to Auckland was noticeably harder to recover from than the homeward-bound flight.

Jet lag aside, the trip to New Zealand was great fun and very eye-opening.  First it must be said, New Zealanders are nice.  Also thoughtful, considerate, helpful, compassionate, reasonable, and responsible, but primarily nice, and all the rest seems to stem from that.  They reminded me of the people of Portugal, who were also open to human interaction in a way that I don’t see or experience very often in Los Angeles, where people are more guarded.  It was refreshing to feel this openness in both countries, and I think it has changed me and how I deal with other people.  I like it.

Kiwis are also smart people, at least the ones I met.  I had good crowds full of intelligent people at both my events.  The first weekend I was in Auckland to give a one-day workshop on Friday sponsored by the Romance Writers of New Zealand, a lively and whip-smart group made up mostly of women, as you might expect.  I have always had a romance going for the romance writers and I hope I make their hearts throb a little.  They were the first audience to really “get” me and my act, and they took the ball and ran with it, creating their own heroine’s journey templates to craft more intricate, realistic and emotional plots.  The Kiwi romance writers gave me another hour on Saturday to talk about “the power of inspiration” and I Mused about how Memory is the mother of the Muses in Greek mythology, and how writers have to cultivate and harvest from their memory banks.  I finished with a version of my “Trust the Path” story that always chokes me up.

I had an interesting discussion with one of New Zealand’s most successful romance writers, Stephanie Laurens, about how certain things we write, the best things, have the power to make us feel the same emotion every time we read them.  The same is true in the movie editing room.  Sometimes you get the right combination of music and image, the right catharsis from an actor, the right punchline for a joke, and it works on you every time, making you cry or laugh, giving you a shiver down the back, even after viewing it dozens of times.  That’s a “keeper”, a bit you know will have to be in the book or the movie.

A lot of advance work had been done for this trip by the able organizers of my events, and so there was a lot of “press”, meaning I got interviewed about seven times for various media.  The process opened my eyes a bit about how things you say in interviews and on your blog are seized upon, condensed and interpreted by future interviewers.

I noticed that anything negative or critical I had said, or anything negative an interviewer had said, was picked up and passed on by subsequent interviewers.  In a print interview for an Auckland newspaper a couple of weeks before the events, I had complained about some changes that were made in translating parts of  Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” series into the film directed by Peter Weir.  From that point on, interviewers reading up on me assumed that I hated the movie and tended to throw me questions like “You really hated “Master and Commander”, didn’t you?”

In fact I loved the movie, saw it several times, and will see it again with great pleasure.  No one loves the underlying material more than I do — I have read my way through the 20 novels in the series three times over and am embarking on my fourth voyage of adventure.  Fans of a literary series like M & C or Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings are notoriously fussy and protective, and always find things to be disgruntled about in the film adaptations.  I was bemoaning the loss of some levels in the movie version — the fact that in the world of the books,  the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, is not only a doctor and a naturalist, but also a valuable intelligence agent, the fact that he is not only Irish but Catalan, the fact that a formidable American opponent was changed to a French enemy in the film.  But I know, as someone who has worked in movie development and has assisted in adapting many novels to the screen, something is always lost in translation.

In another instance of the media’s tendency to repeat itself, especially when negativity is involved, one of my radio interviewers picked up on the initial print interviewer’s dismissal of one of my keystone movie examples, “An Officer and a Gentleman”, as a not particularly good film.  I hope people didn’t think I agree with him.  I like that movie, was very moved by it at the time, and referred to it often as a structural and emotional model when writing development notes on other projects when I was working for Disney and Fox studios.

My swipe in this blog at one little part of “Julie and Julia” was also noticed and reanimated by one of the Kiwi interviewers.  There’s another movie I liked and enjoyed, and I was only noting one element that didn’t quite work for me.  To be fair, the same interviewer also picked up on my ecstatic and unaccountably tearful reaction to “Mamma Mia!” and encouraged me to talk about the positive experience I’d had.

Now that I know how the media machinery works, I will be more conscious when commenting on movies and books.  I suppose one can manipulate the press — by tossing out a few negative comments about something, you can almost guarantee it will be brought up by future interviewers and article writers.

After being treated very nicely by the Romance Writers in Auckland, I took off for a few days and drove the gentle, hilly length of New Zealand’s North Island, taking five days to reach Wellington at the island’s southern tip.  Along the way I sampled the wineries, marveled at geothermal vents, and struggled with driving on what to me is the wrong side of the road.  I made a quick stop at a fascinating replica of Stonehenge that’s been plunked down in a sheep field, a project of local astronomy buffs to create a working Southern hemisphere version of the monument, accurately predicting solstice sunrises and other cosmic events.

In Wellington, a bustling, hilly city on a bay,  reminding me of San Francisco, I did a one-day workshop for a local film initiative, Script to Screen.  The audience were a mix of seasoned professionals and students, many from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Wellington’s Victoria University.

The Saturday event for Script to Screen was held in a very special place, Sir Peter Jackson’s post-production facility known as Park Road (because it’s on a street called Park Road).  It’s housed in an impressive-looking building that could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  My lecture was delivered in a beautiful theatre in the complex, supposedly an exact copy of an old San Francisco movie palace.  It was certainly lush and fantastic, done up in romanticized Moorish style with gilded mythological figures and touches of Alhambra-esque architecture.  The ceiling twinkled with fiber-optic stars, representing the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

I had a good response from the Wellington audience and was able to explore some of the more sophisticated aspects of the hero’s journey, such as the tragic option, in which the hero fails to learn his or her lesson or slides back into unhealthy behavior after a brief victory.

I held a four-hour workshop with the students from Victoria University on Sunday, a real highlight of my trip, arranged by their professor, David Geary.  The students were very bright and seemed hopeful about the world of storytelling they are entering.

Now I’m back on the ground in LA, prepping for the next trip — to London for the Raindance seminar.

Sept. 11-12, 2010 Workshop in London

September 1, 2010

Very soon (September 11 and 12) I will be in London to present a 2-day Writer’s Journey Master Class hosted by Raindance:

http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/

If you’re within reach of London, as are many of my friends and fans in Europe, please come and hear my latest thoughts about 3-D, polarity as an engine of story construction, techniques for building characters, and many other treats sampled from my upcoming book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.  I’ll also present my templates for story design and character building, drawn from the hero’s journey in myth and movies.