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March 26, 2009

writing 10-minute plays for stopmo

by sven at 11:27 am

[An essay I wrote to some friends on 3/11.]

Most people agree that the most important aspect of a film is the story. If the story doesn't work, the film doesn't work. So for the past 15 months I've been studying the construction of story.

Before I go any farther… I'd just like to emphasize that dramatic stories are not the only legitimate type of film. For example, some films provide an experience that is primarily aesthetic… If there are characters at all, they're often anonymous, enigmatic, silent; there may be no discernible conflict or climax; but at the end of the film you wind up feeling like you glimpsed something beautiful, nonetheless. Traditional stories with understandable characters, dramatic conflicts, beginnings, middles, and ends, tend to be most popular -- and not without cause… But even though I neglect to discuss other species of filmic experience here, please don't think I'm putting them down!

Back to topic… My research on story has encompassed three art forms: film, literature, and theater. Research tends to start broad; then, as you clarify exactly what it is that you want to know, your scope narrows. So it has been for me…


Film, literature, and theater each have strong internal divisions between long-form and short-form works. In film, there are "feature length" films and "shorts." In literature there are "novels" and "short stories." In theater there are full-length "plays" and there are "one-acts."

The construction of a long-form work in any medium is significantly different from that of a short-form work. Yet, I find it very interesting that how-to books about how to write short films, short stories, and one acts are quite rare. The vast majority of how-to books deal only with long-form works. Some books -- much to my irritation -- even promise to deal with short-form, but then just rehash long-form principles. [E.g. "Writing The Short Story" by Jack M. Bickham.]

At this point in time, I've narrowed my research to focus only on short-form fiction. For literature, I'm reading the monthly magazine, "Fantasy & Science Fiction." For animation, I've been studying Mike Judge & Don Hertzfeldt's The Animation Show anthologies and Acme Filmworks' "The Animation Show of Shows" series (Animation World Network store ). For plays, I've been reading the annual The Best Ten-Minute Plays series, edited by Lawrence Harbison.

A word of caution, though. It seems that the people who care most about the underlying principles of story are those who work in long-form. My sense is that it's just a lot harder to successfully produce long-form work without a strong understanding of structure -- so long-form folks have been forced to develop better theory.

Top picks for long-form how-to books… Screenplays: Story by Robert McKee. Literature: Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain -- runner up The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Playwriting: The Playwright's Process by Buzz McLaughlin -- runner up The Dramatist's Toolkit by Jeffrey Sweet.

Note: In my experience so far, screenwriters have the weakest understanding of story. It feels to me like the field is infected with a number of gimick-based methodologies that may in fact help you to doctor an existing script -- but that are rotten foundations on which to build your basic understanding of story. Beware!


I've become convinced that the most useful medium for stopmoes to study is theater. Why?

The biggest reason: limited number of sets. With films, you can easily have the story take place in 80-150 locations. It's no big deal, because typically existing locations can be used. You don't have to build everything from scratch, as with plays and with stopmo. Plays tend to have just 1-3 major sets… Or perhaps merely imply their sets by using "black box" technique. Given the time entailed in building miniature props and sets, stopmoes have to be conservative.

Another reason: only concrete actions are allowed. With literature, you can do amazing things with adjectives and metaphors: e.g. "the wounded leaf somersaulted down to the ground like a football player who's just been shot in the ankle." There's no easy way to translate this poetry to the screen.

Similarly, you can get away with a good deal more inner monologue in literature… Granted, with film and theater you can do voice-overs or break the fourth-wall (having actors talk directly to the audience)… But generally it is ill-advised to do so, because you're violating the principle of "show, don't tell."

Now, theater is not a perfect model for stopmoes. There's a heavy emphasis on dialogue in theater… Remember that most audience members are going to be 50+ feet away from the actors and only get to see the action from one vantage point. Stopmoes would be well-advised to exploit our ability to provide cinematic close-ups and different camera angles. We should also try to convey information through purely visual means wherever possible -- both because we're working in a more visual medium, and because of how laborious it is to do lipsync.

Despite these caveats, it seems to me that the beginning assumptions of a playwright are most like those of someone writing for stopmo: don't use too many sets or characters, and tell the story purely through observable actions and dialogue.


There is a genre in theater called the "10-minute play." It's been around since the early 70s. There are a number of national competitions, which have subsequently resulted in several book anthologies. "One acts" can easily run a half-hour long -- so 10-minute plays are generally an even shorter form. For most purposes, one page of dialogue is equated to one minute of stage time (cold reading format, not the format you see published in books). Thus, ten minutes = ten pages.

It seems to me that 10 minutes is about as much as most independent, amateur stopmo filmmakers should shoot for in their projects. Consider the following estimates…

Aardman films expects 4 seconds of finished animation per day from their animators. If you work backwards, you can see that the way they arrived at this benchmark was by allowing animators 5 minutes per shot, shooting at 24fps, over the course of an 8-hour work day. Now, if you shoot at 12fps and are maybe a little looser with your poses, you might be able to get 10 seconds per day -- presuming you can put in 8 hours. Working full-time, then you could accomplish roughly one minute of film per week. Ten minutes of film = ten weeks. Basically a quarter year (13 weeks)… Though mind you, that's not counting puppet and set fabrication, lip sync analysis, and the actual scriptwriting.

Still, a ten-minute film in a quarter year sounds excellent. Can't work full time? If you can do 10 hours each weekend, you can still get the project done by year end. Thus, 10-minute plays are a pretty good match for stopmo animators in terms of scale.


Remember Sturgeon's Law: "ninety percent of everything is crap." I've found this to be very much true even in the annual "The Best Ten-Minute Plays" series.

But actually, this is part of what attracted me to the series. I don't want to read an anthology of the best 10-minute plays ever, with all the crap taken out… I want a sense of who the "competition" is right now. I want to know about the overall quality of contemporary playwrights working in this form -- not be bedazzled by the best of the best, whom I have little hope of ever rivaling. I want to learn from failures and triumphs in roughly equal measure.

The "Best Ten-Minute Plays" series I've been reading is also interesting because for each year (since 2004), two books are put out: one for "2 actors," one for "3 or more actors." In my opinion, the plays with 3+ actors tend to be better. Having 3+ characters seems to set up conflict more easily, and prompts more interesting scenarios. Plays with two random strangers who start spouting observations about one another out of the blue -- well, I find them pretty intolerable.

So, suppose you were to take the best of the 10-minute plays and try to do them in stopmo… Would it work?

I've been worrying about this. Part of the unique charm of stopmo is that you can do things that are unrealistic. You can use fantasy monsters, purple characters with ridiculously proportioned anatomy, cartoony physics, etc. I don't want to completely abandon such stuff.

It's not impossible to write some of these things into stage plays, though. As for character design, think about the absurd costumes that Julie Taymor used in "Fool's Fire" -- or the giant puppets she employed in "The Lion King" or "Grendel." Most 10-minute plays are written with black box sets in mind; brevity means that you're probably not going to make a big investment in sets & props. But just because it's uncommon, doesn't mean there's any reason why the 10-minute format inherently prohibits such things.

The thought experiment that finally resolved this question for me: What if I cast one of the 10-minute plays I've written with characters from "Coraline"? I have a play I've written titled "The Buried Piano." Suppose Coraline played "Gina", Coraline's Dad played "Howard", Coraline's mother played "Ellie", and Ms. Forcible played "Ursula"…

Would it work? YES! It's a particular sort of stopmo film -- one that emphasizes character acting -- but that's an aesthetic that's already been established in the world of stop-motion films.


This is a topic for a much longer essay -- but I want to at least touch on what I've been learning about playwriting through doing assignments for my "Dramatist's Toolbox" class, taught by Matt Zrebski.

Central Spectacle
Like Jose Rivera, "everything that I write comes from some kind of image." (The Art & Craft of Playwriting, by Jeffrey Hatcher, p.196) I seem to start from "spectacle" -- some image that excites my imagination. Maybe it can be shown on stage, or maybe the actors put it into my head via dialogue… The head of Orpheus kept in a box. A taxidermied whale hanging from the ceiling of a dance club. A buried piano. A nuclear bomb that's been painted with murals.

Finding my central spectacle almost needs to be an illogical process. It's a matter of juxtaposing images collage-style until I find something that really leaps out at me with poetic portent. Understanding why the image "sings" comes later.

Character Generation
You need characters for the play. Generating characters has turned out to be much easier than I expected. A very useful exercise: Go to Google Images and surf around collecting head shots of people… Male, female, young, middle-aged, old, various ethnicities. Print the photos out, one per piece of 8.5x11" paper. Pick one out at random and then spend ten minutes on a free write. Focus most on what they value and what they might desire. It took me about 2 hours to gather 40 faces, and about another 2 hours to generate 10 characters.

I'm finding that playwriting is largely a matter of "connect-the-dots." You find a central spectacle that you like… You pick a couple of characters that you're attracted to… Now you play the "what if?" game, brainstorming, trying to find scenarios that bring your elements into play with one another.

For me, a really useful tool has been to look for three different interpretations of the central spectacle. For instance: maybe a buried piano is an archeological artifact to put on display; maybe it's a seed that will grow into a piano tree one day; maybe it's the manifestation of a song that's rotting in the ground.

It doesn't matter to me if the interpretations are literally impossible. I find I'm working more or less in the genre of "magic realism". What's most important to me is that my plays convey a sense of poetry and examine how to transform the ugly or banal into the transcendent. [Kinda sounds like an artist's statement, eh?]

Figure out what your climax is before you leave the pre-work phase and start writing the actual play. The climax probably has a strong relationship with your core spectacle. If you don't have a powerful moment to end on, don't even begin!

Refining Characters
Each of the characters in the play must be substantially different from the others. Each should be at least a little eccentric -- including the main character (oddly the person that writers often characterize last).

Each character has to have a literal function in the story world… But, for me, the play really gels when I discover how each character maps onto a different aspect of the theme. For instance, one character sees the buried piano as something to put in the museum, another wants to play it… And so on.

You can create backstory for your characters ad nauseam. However, in practice, you draw on most of that material only infrequently. Story people tend to boil down to just a few key traits. As an exercise, pick just three adjectives that best describe each character.

Figure out who your main character is. When you're juggling 3 or 4 characters, it's easy to forget about this. You don't necessarily have to shout at the audience "this is my main character!" -- but you absolutely need to pick one person. Why? Because what their core need is will determine the "story question" -- and you're going to have to check yourself to make sure that the ending of the story actually answers the question raised at the beginning.

Discovering the Conflicts
Know what each character wants. This is how you develop conflict. Look for ways to make each character's desires incompatible. It can be useful to identify your main antagonist -- but there's no reason why they have to be a "villain," and you may well wind up having several characters who are at odds with the main character. Ex: the piano can't be played right now because there's a party going on, and the state governor's present.

Conflict need not be about personality. Each of your characters can be a nice person, essentially -- it's just that they have a different vision than the protagonist. Wage conflict over possessions. Who possesses the car? Who's in charge of the party? Who has control of the romantic interest? If your main character starts the play in possession of the thing they want, you've got a problem. Either find a way to put the mcguffin in the possession of another character, or choose someone else from your cast to be the main character.

Story is really only made out of a few elements: the core poetic image/spectacle/theme, characters, conflicting desires, and a good climax. Make sure you have one main character who wants possession of an object/place/tool/person; find reasons why your other characters have a different vision for this mcguffin. Make sure the resolution of the play answers the same question posed at the beginning of the play.

That's about it. Now… Go!

Give me one 10-page script each week for 8-13 weeks. And then pick one of them for your stopmo film. (See where I'm going with all this?)

posted by sven | March 26, 2009 11:27 AM | categories: stopmo, writing