About Me

My photo

I make cartoons and voices. I've put a lot of stuff on Youtube and Newgrounds

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Run-Time Effect

In relation to the previous post about the increasing popularity of long running entertainment, I've noticed something changing in audiences when it comes to movies. One thing I've heard a handful of times is:

  • “Why don't we get to see this other characters perspective, why is it so one sided?”
  • “How come we can't just watch an intimate scene with this character alone?”
  • “Everything always has to be big and important in movies.”
  • “In Breaking Bad, we see Walter flicking matches into the pool and there is so much in that scene. Why can't we see more stuff like that in movies?”

When it works perfectly to the story of a movie, I'll welcome that but, in most cases, this is an opinion from an uninformed mind.

One thing people need to understand about writing for movies is that every scene matters. Not that it doesn't in TV shows but, just from a logical standpoint, you don't have enough time to have those kind of things happen, especially too often. Unless the story is a more intimate one and is completely about that then yes, naturally, those moments can fit. Otherwise, you just weigh out too much time on those moments and are forced to rush other more important elements of the story.

In movies, everything tends to be important because a clever writer needs to use up the time they have to communicate what is most necessary to the idea. There are strategies to weave scenes together nicely and not make it feel like a list of instructions explaining to you what is happening, but that is something I can't even begin to break down. It just depends on the story.

On the whole, the experience you get out of a TV show is very different than a movie. This is where you have to pick which medium will fit your idea most, simply by the ‘run-time’. How do you pick a medium? Well, what is the point and/or scale of your story?
caricature of Sherlock from "Sherlock"

Recently, I watched a TV show called Sherlock. It's great! It's Sherlock Holmes stories set in modern day London. I'm usually a bit iffy on these modernization stories but this one works perfectly. One strategy they used with the TV medium is genius. Each season has 3 episodes and each episode is the length of a movie. This is essentially a TV show composed of movie trilogies per season.

What I like about this idea is that a lot of movie trilogies aren't planned. Many times, a movie does well and they set up two more as a business move. While the business of movies is an art of its own, I'm not here to talk about that. I'm here to talk about the art of telling stories and express what I've noticed and learned over time.

What I learned about the technique Sherlock used was that these trilogies are perfectly written together because, from the get go, all of them are written as one. Each stand alone but the overarching story is connected. It's all meant to be. If this had been a movie, sequels would not be certain. The studios would decide to make each one at a time. Too many variables would get in the way of making a nicely woven trilogy.

A good example is that the cliffhanger endings. A normal movie trilogy leaves you hanging through an unpredictable amount of time and risks losing interest in the audience but, in this case, they stay hooked because of the release schedule of the episodes.

Additionally,  because all three of these movie length episodes are connected, and essentially one story, there is more room to also scatter more intimate moments creating a far more dense experience. Unlike the usual approach to making a movie trilogy. Like Pirates of the Caribbean, or X-Men, or Matrix trilogies.

I'm focusing on the example of 'Sherlock' because it is a perfect middle ground between single movies and longer narrative TV shows like 'Breaking Bad' or 'Lost'. The thing you have to ask yourself when developing an idea is...

"Is my idea more effective alone and concentrated or does this idea
need more room to build and explore to make these certain key points better?"

It's a hard question to answer because it's always tempting to see your idea as a lengthy and exploratory one, but it's also easy to write yourself into a void if it really wasn't meant to be told that way.

Smith giving Neo some advice.

One can't forget that just because you, the writer, can explore your idea doesn't mean that is the story to tell. In fact, when you write a story, you need to explore your characters and possibilities so that you can eventually narrow them down to what story you're going to tell. Don't get carried away with that. (Matrix 2 and 3).

In fact, there is a beauty about condensing to a shorter and more concentrated narrative. One that doesn't explore itself as much as a TV show. If you tell the right story as one piece very well, it can be so powerful that the audience will explore it further on their own. And if it's really special, they will explore themselves because of it too. (Matrix 1).

A solid short movie could sometimes be more timeless if it's well done. 'More' isn't always better. In fact, I can argue that many sucky movies have basically failed at picking the best medium to tell their stories. Trying to tell too much is bad and telling too little is bad. Some TV shows should have been movies and some movies should have been TV shows.

So know this. The run-time can make or break the development of an idea. Really think about what your idea is, what it wants to say and what it can do best, then pick the medium that will tell it best.


  1. Yes.
    Sherlock is a very interesting series, I was hooked from the first episode. I can't wait for series 3. Is it even a series? Indeed, if this great piece of cinema were shot on hollywood budgets, the appeal would wear thin. It wouldn't be a case of how or what, simply a case of when. We'd be buried to death by media coverage. Which also detracts a lot from the film experience, I find.

    As you say, the Matrix 2&3 would have been incredible if at least one of them focused more on Neo toying around with his 'powers'. I mean come on, he even drags them into the real world!! Instead we're introduced to agents and concepts we learnt very well in the 1st instalment (personally I think that is due to CGI being a pretty groundbreaking thing back then and their desire to really get some use out of those models).

    Psychological Thrillers are a great place to look as they generally spend their budgets on good actors, sound tracks and multiple cuts. Opposed to special effects, body doubles and all that [cens*red].

    Run-Time is important to pace the audiences reactions. You have to keep them guessing to keep them interested. Tarrantino films would be nowhere near as interesting if they were linear and fast paced. He is also a great place to look as his characters are developed. They all have a backstory. Even the guy who has 2 lines and 10 seconds of screen-time. Enough that he times their 'alone time' in tune to who they are. For example, one guy might calmly have a cigarette immediately after creating a massacre. Another will draw this pleasure before torturing a guy. While you know the outcome of the situation, you are kept guessing as to how the character will react to what they do and how they will proceed afterwards. In fact, in the non-linear examples you will already know the outcome so... Yeah. That lends a lot to bending the relativity of time to inspire such awe. Rather than building up to an action-packed spectacle.

    Great topic.

  2. I really like your two cents Etch. While I think you're right about the matrix doing what it did because of the new awesome CGI technology. I think it's only part of it. The parts that aren't action packed still convey cool ideas, but a cool idea isn't as powerful told to you as opposed to revealed to you through the journey of the story. I mean the architect is a cool character but he literally just sat in his chair and explained who he is. There's no element of wonder or discovery. That's just one example.

    As for your Quentin Tarantino point. I think it's more of a style to give everyone a backstory. I don't think it's an absolute essential thing for story telling. His movies tend to be more character driven anyway, which leads to more simple situations, so there's less to cover narratively. That's why he's able to give them the time to give each one a backstory and striking characteristics. Or at least make them feel that way.

    An artist can definitely play with these limitations to bring out the best in their story. Create their own style of telling a story. It's just a useful tool to know these realities when you want to develop an idea.