Collaborative script writing is one of the most intense creative endeavors I've ever been a part of and I'm lucky enough to do it with one of my favorite people. I've known my partner since college and we were friends long before we worked together, so when I tell Dave to shut up and he tells me I've got a bad idea it's like water off a duck’s back. I know he respects my ideas and he knows I think he's got a boat load of talent. Getting the best project is our goal and we are pretty ruthless about getting that. Lately we've been getting some attention to our process and I thought I might jot down my thoughts about that.
Being a writer is nice and safe. I can sit in my house and type all day with only minor interaction with my pregnant wife (a blog topic I'm not quite ready to tackle) and my roommates. Maybe, IF I get the piece to a place where I'm happy with it, I'll show it to an editor or a friend and get some feedback. Collaboration is rarely the name of the game and only if I'm writing poetry or a song for someone else will it become necessary to "share" the work.
This was entirely new to me when I started working on my graphic novel. I came to film from animation, where nothing you do is your own, a place of re-making and do-overs. For instance: The first thing we practiced at animation school was how to copy things perfectly, so that the line weight of our pencil was the same as whoever was drawing the master drawings.
In traditional animation you have people doing master drawings and working out the timing sheet, lead animators making key frames, assistants drawing in-betweens, inkers tracing the final drawings onto acetate, and painters who paint the back side of each frame without going over the inked edges of the acetate drawing. Then you send it all to a camera man who shoots the frames (following the timing sheet, you hope) and in the end you have a cartoon.
This process requires a lot of skill at every position, and more importantly, communication between everyone involved. I found that to be the same on film sets, advertising agencies, and large corporate art departments throughout my career as a professional artist.
This main thing this background taught me was how to work with other creative people. Most importantly, how to keep my own feelings about the work under control, and how to speak about changes in others contributions to the work. The key is to do this without making collaborators feel bad. Most creatives, especially ones who haven't' spent a lot of time in a sharing environment, are very attached to the work on a personal level. Remember; when taking criticism about the work, what creatives hear is about themselves.
The key to talking openly about making a better product is a well-documented process and there are hundreds of people making books about that and I wouldn't want them to go hungry, so buy their books if you want to. You'll probably learn something.
I have found this short, FIVE step process really helpful when dealing with other artists:
- Thank you: Your partner just spend a piece of their lifetime on this piece of work. Thank them. This is THE most important piece of advice I have ever been given and will ever give. Compliment them at the start of the process. Sometimes you'll forget, and jump straight to the criticism. See where that gets you and contrast against the compliment first method.
- Compliment what works in the piece: You're not partnered with idiots, regardless of how you feel in the moment. This partner was chosen on purpose and they made a genuine contribution to the work. What's working, even if it's off topic? Nicely done!
- Re-visit the theme and purpose of the project: Sometimes we artists get obsessed with a bit of the detail, and not the fairway of intention. When we look back at the main topic, we find ourselves lost in the weeds of detail, and have to work to get back to the green. It is often our contemporaries and partners who ask us to re-evaluate the purpose of our work. Be that guy for your team. Ask the questions that get you back on topic.
- Question the work against the purpose and theme: This is the time to voice your criticism. Don't hold back, but keep your criticisms pointed back on topic. Always use the first person: "I don't like this or this" and try to keep away from generic "that sucks" or "it's no good" type statements. "I don't like it, it sucks." is perfectly reasonable, but be prepared to back up your assessment with reasons. *note: "I just don't like it." is a totally valid reason.
- Come up with a better solution together: If the work is on topic and you just don't like the color, what color would you like it to be? How can a conversation between two characters be streamlined with less dialogue and more action? Staying on topic and focusing on the goal of the project will help move the conversation past hurt feelings. If your partner has run off into the weeds, help them get back into the green by asking leading questions that get their thoughts back on topic. Be sure to keep those notes from the weeds. You never know when that bit of detail is going to be handy later on!
Script writing as a group activity can be a real pain in the ass and at worst can lead to alienating friends and collaborators you've spent years trying to pull together. When fear of failure and self-doubt begin to creep in you may even alienate yourself. Take the time to remind everyone that we're having fun doing the thing we love, and we're not trying to hurt anyone's feelings. It sounds cheesy, but it will keep your team together. If only long enough to get the work out the door.
Remember the film you think you are making is not the film you are making. A film gets created Three times. Once on the page. Again during production. Finally in post. Because of the collaboration involved the film we write is rarely what we see on the screen.
If we’re lucky, it’s better.