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The Academy Explores a Bold New World of Storytelling

The art of telling a good story has always been at the heart of moviemaking, but rapidly changing technology has had an increasing impact on the way filmmakers bring their ideas to the screen. The Academy dove into both the thrills and challenges of transforming the written word at “Turning the Page: Storytelling in the Digital Age” on Wednesday, May 15, 2013, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

The audience was greeted by the evening’s host, John August, an ideal guide through the terrain of typing and technology with numerous other writing credits under his belt including screenplays for “Go” (1999), “Big Fish” (2003), and “Frankenweenie” (2012) as well as the popular blog/podcast Scriptnotes,

August’s first example came from his work with director Tim Burton on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005), an adaptation of the 1964 book by Roald Dahl. In the earlier film version, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971), the filmmakers had to revise – for numerous practical reasons – an entire sequence from the book in which bratty Veruca Salt is dispatched by a roomful of nut-testing squirrels. In the 2005 remake, however, advances in technology made it possible to use real trained squirrels to perform several actions necessary for the scene, with digital duplication and enhancement bringing the scene to life. August walked the audience through his final written version of the scene and screened the finished version for comparison.

Screenwriter Mark Boal, who won an Oscar as one of the producers of “The Hurt Locker” (2009), took to the stage to discuss the creation of “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), for which he received nominations in the Best Picture and Original Screenplay categories. He discussed how the filmmakers aimed to tell “a contemporary story in a very contemporary way…letting go of some of the dramatic tropes that people normally deploy to make something seem convincing.” This meant creating a sense of reality by depicting events from the point of view of a central female character, Maya, who finds herself in a barrage of information and incidents conveyed through devices like computers and cell phones. Boal noted that audiences are far more media savvy than before, which gave the filmmakers more freedom to incorporate names and terms from such a recent event in history without having to stop and explain each one along the way.

After a clip from the film, its Oscar-nominated editors, William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor, joined Boal onstage. They focused on the large number of takes used to convey even a fleeting bit of information in some of the dense, multilayered dialogue scenes. The ultimate feel of the film was “low-tech” for the most part – instead of a reliance on supercomputers, it showed how people did their job every day for ten years, without holding the film audience’s hand along the way.

All three panelists also discussed the creation of the movie’s climactic raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, which unfolded both on film and in real life in almost total darkness. The key to keeping the action coherent for the audience was anchoring the initial entry into the compound through the perspective of a sniper, and alternating night-vision effects with rough handheld photography to retain a sense of urgency.

Goldenberg remained onstage to talk with August about the evening’s second film, “Argo” (2012), which he edited and which earned him his first Academy Award. This fact-based film posed a different set of challenges because it was a period piece set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Goldenberg and director Ben Affleck studied films of the 1970s like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971) and “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), but ultimately decided the editing of the film had to feel modern. As with many contemporary features, “Argo” was cut on an Avid, where virtually any editing idea could be explored and tested, unlike the old celluloid method in which a workprint was cut from actual film. The feature also re-created the look of newsreel footage during the opening American embassy assault scenes, which were partially shot in the San Fernando Valley. The filmmakers gave 16mm and 8mm cameras to the people playing protestors and incorporated their footage, resulting in a convincing and gritty 1970s appearance.

The final clip of the evening was the opening sequence from “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013). August prefaced the clip with a discussion with writer-producer Damon Lindelof, whose collaborations with director J.J. Abrams include the TV series “Lost” and the 2009 movie “Star Trek,” which marked Lindelof’s feature film producing debut.

Lindelof covered the methods the filmmakers used to update a 1960s TV series that was set in the future, while at the same time retaining a sense of that earlier era’s perception of the future. They found a way to embrace the bright primary color palette of the original series and make it visually appealing to a new audience. They also found inspiration in earlier James Bond films for the breakneck opening sequence, beginning the movie with a mission-in-progress with the Enterprise crew scrambling against the clock. Lindelof was then joined onstage by film editors Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon, who also worked on “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” as well as director of photography Anthony Richmond, whose credits include films ranging from “Don’t Look Now” (1973) to “Legally Blonde” (2001). From the subject of high frame rates to the importance of story, they covered the state of filmmaking today, including the advances in previsualization, a flexible digital storytelling tool.

All of the participants finally united on the stage for brief closing thoughts. They emphasized an area in which technology has perhaps ushered in the biggest changes in their approach – artistic collaboration –enabling people to work efficiently miles apart from each other and even from home. However, the basic building blocks of storytelling remain in place, with adjustments to fit the times. Lindelof summed it up with a matched pair of axioms: “Push the envelope, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

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