lost

Explosions, tiny vodka bottles, and sand: What Lost’s pilot shows us about structure and timing, part 1

 

(photo credit: NY Observer)

With the news that Hulu acquired Lost, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs, I thought it would be interesting to crack open one of their pilots to see what we can find about story development and craft. I chose Lost because it’s a really meaty two-parter, and it’s got more moving parts narratively. Also, it’s easier to breakdown than a cartoon, because I can’t always translate sight gags or cartoon physics into text in a better way than just showing you the clip.

Let’s start with what Lost means to me. The first season in particular holds a very strange but unique place in my mind, as it was one of 4 shows (Rubicon, Rome, and Cosmos being the others) my father and I watched together. This didn’t happen very often, as we seldom agreed on entertainment and just about any discussion of a show devolved into an argument about how I was somehow wrong or a disappointment.

For whatever reason, Lost was different. I think it was the early commercials for it, but something made us both say, “Yeah, let’s give that a try” so we scheduled ourselves a weekly appointment to be civil to each other and watch the show. I have to tell you – I liked that. My dad is a lot of things, and some of those things I don’t agree with, but I did like the fact that we had this show. And the show’s first season was good for us too. It didn’t have all the later drama or time travel or weirdness, and it told a pretty interesting story about people in a strange place all sort of bound together. It was Robinson Crusoe with just enough “Oh that’s interesting” to keep us paying attention.

Later seasons didn’t hold us though. My dad checked out I think at the end of season 2, and I stopped just before the final season, reading about the ending and feeling like bailing out early was the right move if I wanted to preserve the memory of the first season with my dad.

So what I’m asking you to do is put aside all the stuff we know about the later seasons. Let’s just look at this like we’ve put the television on for the premiere, and we’re gonna cover both parts here. If you want to watch along with this post (which you totally should), I’ve timestamped paragraphs as we go.

NOTE: Given the sheer amount of narrative stuff there is to talk about here, I’m stopping this post at about the [05:00] mark of the show. And then we’ll do the next few blogposts to cover the rest of the two-part pilot.

[00:03] Yeah, I’m starting with the title. The title of any story is either going to convey information (Old Man and the Sea is about an old guy and the water), context (Star Wars is about a war among stars), or as in this case theme. Lost is about people who are, well, lost.

[00:15] Eye opening. Like we literally open the show on an eye opening. I’ve talked before about how the first character introduced in a story is who the audience is going to associate with and attach to until given someone else, and the intimacy here (I mean we’re all up in this dude’s face) gives us very little doubt as to who this character is to us – he’s our protagonist. With television being a visual medium, we don’t need to write paragraphs describing the state of him in any way greater than just what the camera means to show us – the eye – and if you want to keep up the idea that “the sentences and paragraphs are your camera“, then you’d probably want to avoid eating up that first page by talking about the weather or the trees if you want to prioritize the connection the audience has to our protagonist. We’re zoomed in, we connect, and we follow along.

[00:20] A quick word here that the second shot we see we an establishing shot of the bamboo and flora of wherever we are. It’s shot from the eye’s perspective – we’re seeing what the eye sees, we’re the eye – so we’re reinforcing that relationship between the character and the audience. This is deliberate, and it’s going to reinforce the emotional, the what-are-we-supposed-to-feelness of the moment. In paragraph form, here’s where you get to go all hogwild about what’s around the character. Do up the weather, and the immediate visuals, all that. BUT no, you don’t get to move the focus away from answering the question: “If (the reader) was laying there in place of the character and didn’t move their head, what would they see or experience?” Not moving the head is the biggie here in what would be the writing of this. If we want to preserve the closeness of audience to character, we can’t move until the character does, and the camera’s only going to follow the character’s lead, not the other way around. That’s an important lesson, so let’s repeat it – you’re developing what the camera sees, so it’s important to figure out if the camera follows the character’s lead or if the character follows the camera.

Let’s go sidebar on this:

You’ll want some examples. The camera follows the character’s lead when a sentence contains an idea of what the character is doing, and then the next sentence continues to develop what the character is doing. Like this: Darryl walked across the cold floor. He tried not to step on any of the toys his daughter left out last night. (We get the picture of where and how Darryl is walking)

The character follows the camera when a subsequent sentence creates an opportunity rather than describe what the character is doing. Like this: Darryl was very proud of his acrobatics and was ready to silently cheer his good fortune with a fresh cup of whatever garbage coffee his girlfriend left in the apartment. The ringing phone stopped the celebration. (Here we develop Darryl’s feelings and even given him a little personal history, only to cut away from Darryl to draw focus to a ringing phone. With it ringing, it’s taking our attention and creating an opportunity for Darryl to do something – answer it.)

[01:25] Our unnamed protagonist has seen a dog and now stands up. This is important because now the camera moves back to establish context. We’re still invested in this character, so we no longer need to come back to his direct view (we’re not all up in his eye, seeing what he sees). We’re just about 90 seconds into the show, so if we’re saying X number of seconds is a paragraph, I figure we’re about 4-6 paragraphs in, and if we’re doing that publishing thing where the first page doesn’t start until the halfway point on the paper, then maybe we’ve turned the page in our paperback. This tracking isn’t as hard and fast like it is in screenwriting (1 page to 1 minute), but it’s worth having a clock in your head when you’re trying to figure out how long to spend on describing something before moving on.

[01:33] Hey look, a tiny vodka bottle.

[02:08] There’s a quick shot of a shoe hanging in a tree. This is an ‘establishing detail’ and we’re seeing it so that we know there’s a greater, stranger, somehow dangerous context to expect. Establishing details add or confirm context.

[02:26] Okay, there’s a weird camera move that I need to point out. The camera circles clockwise away from the protagonist, so that we keep the shot of the clear beach in frame. We juxtapose the empty beach with the woman screaming to set up some kind of incongruity between the two. The problem here is that our protagonist started on our right and is now on our left, turning left, so when the camera moved, he actually moved backwards and away from us – like circling a chair to try and chase the dog only to have the dog slip past you on the turn. This move doesn’t help us make all the incongruity more jarring, it just leads us to wonder “why did we stop seeing what the protagonist sees?”

[02:36] Oh, that’s why, the reveal of the plan crash and wreckage and people was supposed to be a big “Oooh” moment. Except let’s look at the distance between our MC and the scene, he takes maybe half a dozen steps and he’s clearly smaller than a plane crash, so the previous camera move tells us … did he not notice the plane crash because he didn’t turn left?

[03:23] Hey look, it’s that guy from Lord of the Rings standing way too close to a jet turbine.

[03:40] Big giant establishing shot of the plane crash. Also, I’m glad I paused it here because sweet Luther Vandross am I glad for the silence from Maggie Grace’s screaming. The importance of this shot is to highlight the physical hazards as well as the calamity of the scene. It’s dangerous, plane’s already a wreck, loads of people are hurt, and if that wing section comes off, people could be even more hurt. These are the stakes of the moment. We don’t really “know” any other characters and we don’t really have any framework for tying other ideas we have together, so we’re kept to this present moment where the plane crash is the biggest threat going.

[03:50] Now since the majority of writers tend to create stakes then want to create something smaller thereafter (to show that within this big deal there are a lot of little things going on, all cogs in some large danger machine), we cut to the guy pinned under part of the plane. He’s screaming for help, and before I get to the googling where I don’t think you’d be able to hear him over the sound of the turbine, but if we didn’t hear anything but the shrill whistle of a jet engine, the show would feel radically different, I need to point out the stacking stakes can work, and here’s an example.

Stacking stakes adds tension. There’s this plane crash and it’s a big deal but these localized elements of individual people and injuries help make the big thing feel even bigger without affecting the plane crash itself. They’re the effects of the crash but they’re the seeds of subsequent scenes and stories, causes that will later have their own effects. The plane crash is the first domino, even if it’s just a very big explodey domino.

[04:23] Ooh, a little blood.

[04:36] Our MC reveals some of his attitude and skills by dealing with the leg wound and then a pregnant girl, assigning her an aide, and getting her calmed down. If we’re on paper, I’m saying we’re at least 3 to 5 pages in, and we’re spending a lot of text showing context through sensory information – our MC looks overwhelmed, and were we there, we’d be overwhelmed, so we should convey overwhelmingness by taking about the sound and the sand and the screams and the blood and the whatever-else.

[05:06] The jet turbine explodes. Big huge moment, our protagonist tosses himself to shield the pregnant girl. This tells us a lot about his character.

So in the first 5 minutes what do we have? (not necessarily in this order)

  1. A male protagonist
    1. And we know he has
      1. Medical skills
      2. Courage
      3. Athleticism
  2. There’s a dog
  3. The guy from Lord of the Rings
  4. An Australian girl
    1. she’s pregnant
  5. Maggie Grace
    1. She’s screaming
  6. A plane crash
    1. A turbine
      1. It explodes!
  7. Lots of injured people
  8. Lots of people looking for other people
  9. A beach up against jungle
    1. Tropical
    2. Mountains in the distance

See you next week for more.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, structure, 1 comment