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How I Wrote the Screenplay for “Arrival” and What I Learned Doing It (thetalkhouse.com)
351 points by espeed on Dec 4, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 118 comments



This is a really great analysis of how hard it is to write a really good screenplay. As an occasional screenwriter myself, it's always frustrating when producers and directors repeatedly want to dumb down a script or "make it more exciting" to keep ADD audiences engaged. It's understandable, of course - traditional genre movies for the masses make more money, and entertainment is a business. But the fact that Eric Heisserer was able to keep everything in his screenplay at the intellectual and emotional level that he did really says something about the passion he had for the source material.

Also, the note about the limitations of screenwriting software is spot on. The fact that Final Draft costs $250 and can't even support image embedding is ridiculous.


From the outside, movie scripts just looks like mono-spaced text with dialogue indented.

Can you explain why one would need special software for this? What does Final Draft give the writer, that word or open office doesn't?


From a spec writer perspective, the short answer is that it has hotkeys, formatting based on element type, and autocomplete.

Beyond that, there are versioning tools (screenplay versioning can get a bit esoteric), alternate dialogue capabilities, scene numbering and reporting tools, and a lot more. It also has a lot of capabilities related to production, such as omit functionality, watermarking, script locking, etc.

Final Draft gets bagged on a lot for being expensive and ugly, but it really does have a ton of specialized tools that are incredibly powerful if used correctly.


> screenplay versioning can get a bit esoteric

I'm curious. What features to writers need that git couldn't provide?


It's not versioning like you would find in software development. Google will provide you with details (first link for me): http://www.scriptchick.net/Info/Revisions.html

The gist of it is that each version gets distributed to various channels of pre-production and production. Once locked, each page has its number and if the page changes, it stays in (!), but new one is added according to certain rules. In a way it's like a commit history printed out, but isn't. It's weird, but it works.


Looks like screenplays are heavily afflicted by a cult of doing it the hard way. Computer programmers have moved beyond punched cards and manual line numbering, but Hollywood is still pointlessly (proudly?) stuck in the typewriter era.

Nothing in that article supports the assertion that screenplays have a different concept of versioning than software developers. Screenwriters just have a different preferred format for displaying diffs, a different convention for version numbering (but that's completely irrelevant to a tool like git), and a paper-saving way of handling insertions and removals, when printing out on paper (again, irrelevant to git).

Advice like "If it's only one or two words that are different, consider just whiting out the existing script and writing it in, rather than reinventing the wheel and generating a new color." makes it very clear that this industry hasn't even tried to use technology to make these problems go away.

I wonder how long until this whole system gets replaced by tablets that always automatically show the latest revision, without requiring the use of esoteric paper colors.


I agree that it's stuck in ye 100 old way of doing things. New things are tried out constantly though. Scripties are on tablets these days with fancy tools and everything. DIT, new cutting-edge cameras and tools are first introduced here. Trouble is with screenplays still.

Screenplay is a tool, a blueprint that serves various departments throughout pre-production, production and post-production. That blueprint is also in flux as others are using it. I guess, well I believe one could modernise the whole screenplay pipeline. Trouble is you would have to make a significant advance in order for people to start using it. Every dept. except acting/blocking could start using new system(s) right away. Acting and blocking would still prefer paper.

Take into consideration that it's easy to criticise a system as an outsider. You would have to witness first-hand an organised chaos that film and/or TV production is in order to appreciate every single idiosyncrasy (at a first glance) that makes it all work.

Prime example are cameras. Usually people (who are for the first time on a set) ask about camera. Why this camera, why not that, etc. It works and doesn't stop the production train. If you can avoid slowing down anything on set (or before or after) and THEN introduce significant benefits, people will listen and welcome you immediately. This is an industry that takes in new technologies all the time, no hesitation. Provided they bring significant boost to productivity.


> Take into consideration that it's easy to criticise a system as an outsider. You would have to witness first-hand an organised chaos that film and/or TV production is in order to appreciate every single idiosyncrasy (at a first glance) that makes it all work.

I think this can't be overemphasized. I got into the movie business from software and was astounded by all of the quirks in the process that seemed to me to be fundamental inefficiencies. I was fairly certain that I could quite easily reinvent the process to make it smooth, efficient, and pleasurable.

Now, having been in the business for 14 years or so, almost all of it makes sense, and my arrogance in regard to their process is embarrassing at best. There are still a handful of quirks that don't make a ton of sense (even the property department will acknowledge that the only reason they handle cast chairs is because it's tradition), but generally speaking there is a good reason for everything being done the way it's done and it was a tough lesson that made it that way.

I also think it's important to remember that this is a 100 year old industry, and it's not an engineered process, it's an emergent process.

Just as an aside, the first time you have a week worth of wet work scheduled on a movie that's shooting so far out in the sticks that you have to have a satphone for set to communicate with basecamp, a lot of the reticence to adopt technologies that aren't completely bulletproof makes a lot more sense.


One really has to witness the production. Pre and post are different beasts.

I just came off a shoot last week where we had an extremely tight schedule and I was directing and DP-ing (small shoot of 5 days, but with full everything - gear, people, sets..). I had a great plan to shoot some things on RED and most on Alexa cameras. I had both at hand. I did that, but during the one of the setups where I wanted to use the RED, camera was starting to weird out on me. I had to play tetris and get past level three on its small screen in order to get to the menu I wanted in order to set something up, and then it was showing one thing while idling and other while shooting. Not even my ACs knew what's up and I ditched the camera in favour of Alexa right then and there. People started to wait on me on set. That's a big no-no, since overtimes and everything stands still. Otherwise a fine camera, but set was being held up. I did a few setups with it that were great and all, but from now on I will avoid RED just because of that experience. Maybe on more lax productions I will consider it again. That's how these practices are forged. When 30+ expensive people are waiting for you, while you're tight on time. That's how everything in this business evolved.


Yeah, tell me about it. I can recall one shoot where we started using our medic's ice packs to cool down the REDs (shooting in death valley) and another movie we shot in 3d with two REDs timecode synced with a prism system. I'll let you guess how much fun it was to keep 4 REDs working at one time and properly synced.

I hate to say it, but it's not surprising given someone like Jim Jannard came along and said "This business is backwards! I can fix this!" without completely understanding the requirements. Move fast and break shit doesn't work for every industry.


Also, what's up with those connectors on RED? Back on Red One they also had a genius idea to put the camera controls on the back of it!! So you had to dangle your battery to the side or top. It's as if they hadn't seen a movie camera before :)


I would love to read a long blog post from you about this!


That's very kind of you to say, and after this project is finished, I might even get around to it. Procrastination willing, maybe even sooner.

The takeaway at the end of the day for me is that my idea of efficiency is built around conditional repeatability. However, the fundamental drive of art is to create a unique experience. For obvious reasons, these two goals run a bit counter to each other. There are absolutely repeatable elements, otherwise we wouldn't be able to relate to media (or each other, for that matter). But by the very nature of the requirement of uniqueness, there is no one size fits all. When the syntax is the program, it tends to exclude all but the most basic and robust standardization.

At least that's my drunk peanut gallery theory.


> Screenplay is a tool, a blueprint that serves various departments throughout pre-production, production and post-production. That blueprint is also in flux as others are using it. I guess, well I believe one could modernise the whole screenplay pipeline. Trouble is you would have to make a significant advance in order for people to start using it. Every dept. except acting/blocking could start using new system(s) right away. Acting and blocking would still prefer paper.

I think the key insight that's missing is that the content of the screenplay is separate from the presentation. It sounds like there's no reason why a screenplay couldn't be edited as plain text in a font more readable than Courier with changes tracked by an off the shelf version control system. The editor shouldn't have to pay heed to concerns of pagination or paper coloring or version numbering, because all of that can be rather trivially automated by inspecting the version history and rendering a printable PDF as needed. Some actors may prefer looking at an archaic presentation of the information, but that requirement doesn't need to influence how anybody else interacts with the information.


I have to provide some more insight.

Regarding font - Courier 12pt is standard monospace used. People have (and do, but not often) use different monotypes. Using a monotype with certain margins and along with several other rules yields you a consistent overview of the script where the result of using all of that is approximately 1 minute of screen time per one page of script. That's why it's used. Non-mono font wouldn't yield same results.

Further on, people do not interact with scripts on paper anymore. You do print yourself a copy if you prefer to read it like that. Also, actors (and some people on set) do have a physical copies due to the nature of table reads (I've seen tablets on table reads), and blocking (moving around the set with script in hand, rehearsing).

In reality, no one has to even think about it. Reason is because there is one (or select few) producer and multiple consumers of the script. One persons job is to make sure everyone has the latest revision that they base their work on and that's it. It would be an issue if everyone had commit rights, but they don't. They just checkout latest commit and have the person that checks it out for them! Sounds dire, but is actually painless.


> Regarding font - Courier 12pt is standard monospace used. People have (and do, but not often) use different monotypes. Using a monotype with certain margins and along with several other rules yields you a consistent overview of the script where the result of using all of that is approximately 1 minute of screen time per one page of script. That's why it's used. Non-mono font wouldn't yield same results.

I'm certain that an automated word count could easily provide a more accurate heuristic and free up the graphical presentation to be more readable. This heuristic is exactly the kind of narrow-minded unwillingness to consider modern solutions that is so appalling. And the conventions were obviously not constructed for this purpose; they're relics of long-gone technological limitations and the 1 minute per page rule of thumb was probably not formulated based on a thorough measurement.


I would say "appalling" is a bit of a strong term for an industry that you're not involved in that doesn't perform a particularly critical function in society. To relay a saying often expressed on set, "We're not curing cancer."

I'll relay another joke from set:

A new Assistant Director comes on to help the second unit on Gone with the Wind. He finds the script supervisor.

AD: How much are we shooting today?

SS: One eighth of a page.

AD: You're kidding! We'll be home in an hour.

SS: I don't think so.

AD: What do you mean? What are we shooting?

SS: Atlanta burns.

The point is that it's an inherently fuzzy process, and heuristics work a lot of the time, but nobody cares about a system that works a lot of the time.

If you design something better, I'll be glad to use it (hell, I'll help you design it), but please don't be so quick to judge. It's a business of edge cases, and it's been built as such.

If it makes you feel any better, a lot of multicam shows and studio shows have switched over to all digital script distribution that's automatically distributed. But there is absolutely no replacement for a paper script for a lot of really compelling reasons.


> And the conventions were obviously not constructed for this purpose; they're relics of long-gone technological limitations

That's true of every single system that evolves organically, including software engineering. Or do you think all the cruft that accrues in every programming language is due to rational design?

The question isn't whether some new convention would be better, it's whether the benefit would outweigh the transition cost of either getting everyone to adopt it all at once or having crossed wires as people use different conventions at the same time.


Technical cruft usually only sticks around because cleaning it up would either be a monumental effort, or changing it would break other things that would be too much work to update. Either way, there are meaningful trade-offs that justify keeping around flawed systems.

Switching to a more readable font is a change that is trivially implemented now that nobody actually uses mechanical typewriters, and it would break nothing. Using a more readable font doesn't force you to include any more lines of text per page, so the dubious heuristic about page count and screen time wouldn't necessarily even be a casualty. There are no other substantive reasons to reject improvements to readability.

I certainly understand that there will be oddities of the film production process that are not worth fixing. But people who go out of their way to defend the pointless use of bad typography on printed documents that are meant to be read are in no position to be making credible arguments in defense of the less obvious flaws in their standard practices.


> There are no other substantive reasons to reject improvements to readability.

Inertia and information signalling are substantive reasons in an industry that is governed by convention and lots of networking.

Using a different font is a signal to the reader that you are ignorant of industry conventions, and hence less likely to have written a script that will follow acceptable norms--or perhaps worse, that you're a special snowflake who is willing to distract the reader from the content of the screenplay in favor of fiddling with form.

This is the same reason why most people don't make stunningly bold typographic choices when writing a resume -- they're not in a position of power, and they're either not confident enough in their own taste or the reader's taste to take any risks. Guides for aspiring scriptwriters basically suggest that you stick to the 'standard format' and not deviate from it [1].

Certainly, if you were writing and submitting scripts, feel free to implement your own suggestions.

[1] https://www.writersstore.com/how-to-write-a-screenplay-a-gui...

> Using a more readable font doesn't force you to include any more lines of text per page, so the dubious heuristic about page count and screen time wouldn't necessarily even be a casualty

So the heuristic would be a casualty, unless you jumped through hoops to make sure it still worked. Does this still sound like a cost-less switch to you?


> So the heuristic would be a casualty, unless you jumped through hoops to make sure it still worked. Does this still sound like a cost-less switch to you?

Unless somebody has actually done an analysis of how well script page count correlates to screen time with both fixed width and proportional fonts, the most you can assert is that the heuristic of unquantified accuracy might require adjustment. Conventional wisdom that hasn't been subjected to rigorous analysis shouldn't be presumed to be precise. The film industry certainly hasn't given itself much opportunity to accidentally discover it if proportional fonts turn out to yield a better estimator.

The typographic conventions for scripts were not constructed with the purpose of being used for this kind of estimation, thus it would be completely unsurprising if a study were to find it to be 30% off on average; the rule of thumb itself is the product of at least some rounding already. And there's no reason to believe that a re-calibrated heuristic based on more readable typography would need to have higher variance than one based on typewriters, either.

Computing the typewriter page count of a document is such a simple task that the feature could be added to any relevant piece of software in an afternoon. It would make sense to do so even if you're still going to print it out with typewriter formatting, because glancing at a footnote with those statistics is easier for a person to accomplish than counting physical pages.


I think we're talking past one another quite a bit.

Every organically evolved system has details in it that, in a vacuum, could be individually isolated, analyzed, and then improved. You're almost certainly right that Courier New 12-pt is not the optimal font for a screen play -- but is it worth the time and effort to 'fix' it?

> the most you can assert is that the heuristic of unquantified accuracy _might_ require adjustment.

Sure, but the onus is on the person suggesting the change. Nobody is going to make sweeping changes to long-established conventions based on little evidence that it will make a big improvement. And the industry is not going to do the study you suggested, for the simple reason that someone will guess that the cost of doing that study, plus switching to the new font, is probably less than the total benefits of having a new font. Is that an airtight 100% logical proof? No. Does that matter? No, because humans make subjective judgments when the cost of acquiring better information is perceived to be high .

I mean, what you're suggesting is pretty similar to going around and telling every team that should refactor their code base for improved readability.

Are there clear benefits to having better readability? Yes. Do they always exceed the cost of refactoring? Emphatically no. Is it easy to put a definite number on the cost or the benefit of refactoring? No. Therefore, we're left with heuristics and guesses. Sometimes it's worth it to refactor, but only when the code starts to really really smell. And neither of us are in a position to judge whether the process in the film industry has started to 'smell', because we don't work there.

'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' is an excellent meta-heuristic. Most organically evolved systems are sitting at a local fitness maximum. Finding and moving to a better local maximum is usually costly.


> But people who go out of their way to defend the pointless use of bad typography on printed documents that are meant to be read are in no position to be making credible arguments in defense of the less obvious flaws in their standard practices.

Screenplays are not meant to be read, they're meant to be understood and produced. Your argument is akin to saying that blueprints are too complicated for the average person, therefore they should be changed. They're not meant to be understood by the average person, they're meant to be understood by industry professionals. Just because you find it less than readable doesn't make it so. Those of us who know what we're doing with it think it's just fine.

I'm sorry you don't find them easily readable, but they're really not meant for you.


> Screenplays are not meant to be read, they're meant to be understood and produced.

That's nonsensical, unless you mean that they're meant to be mechanically analyzed—page counts, etc. that are obviously easier to accomplish without first printing them out. Even if they are not typically read in the manner of a novel, they're still intended solely for being read by human eyeballs, and for that purpose the typography is obviously deficient in ways that can be improved with no downside.

Repeatedly pointing out that the current system manages to work is not a refutation of the claim that it can be improved. Why are you so unwilling to admit even the most superficial of flaws in your industry's standard practices?


This. One only has to learn a bit of history of computing in the 60s and 70s to discover just how much crap we have to deal with because of tradition and popularity. We've taken lots of bad turns over the years - and that's beside the fact that today, most of the new things are simple rehashes of the old things that people don't care to read up about anymore.


>I'm certain that an automated word count could easily provide a more accurate heuristic and free up the graphical presentation to be more readable.

It would also be a recipe for misunderstandings and errors, while showing this information directly in the formatting of the output is instantly recognizable by all, even when printed out.

Clever-er isn't always smart, reminds me of the (not true, but used as a metaphor here) story of the US spending millions to make a pen that can write in space, upside down etc, whereas the russians just used a pencil.


If you have better ideas / solutions, I'm sure people will listen. I can provide you with an experience for a (any future) production from start to finish that you can observe.

Sometimes it's the companies that dictate standards. FD is notorious slow mover, yet it's 'an industry standard. I worked on one script with another writer. At that stage it was only two of us drafting the idea and I had a need to see what has changed in a script since I sent him my last version and vice versa. I mailed the dev of Fade In if he could just include a diff (yes, our beloved diff) somehow inside of Fade In. A day or two later it was in. I use it now constantly. Same ol' diff we're used to, kind of looks same as on github as well. Red and green lines and all.

This is an industry with lots of resources and a keen eye on new technologies. If you come up with something that optimises anything in workflow, it will come to open hands.


If the industry is open for suggestions, then I have a question: how can one make people who design futuristic displays and hacking scenes stop including webpage source as scrolling code examples? Freeze-framing a scene to see HTML+jQuery must be well on its way to become a Hollywood trope at this point! Maybe a library of categorized, MIT-licensed (or something) code samples would be of help? E.g. these snippets look like hacking, these look like future robot AI code, etc.


This is actually a really good idea, but it will require industry to step in and provide it. The number of films and shows that get it right are almost nil, but there aren't any consequences when they screw it up. The phone companies stepped in with 555 numbers when they got complaints from customers about people dialing numbers that appeared in films. But with no consequence for showing crappy or nonsensical code, either the writers/video playback guys are going to have to get better (this will happen with increased technical literacy over time, but will be pushed by increased audience technical literacy), or (the software) industry is going to have to step in with its own solutions.

If you want to make it happen right away, make a royalty free stock footage archive in 4k of various snippets of code with metadata on what it's for. Less work=more adoption.


I'm incredibly confused at calling courier not a suitable font for reading. Screenplays are meant to be read and understood quickly and the monospace font allows for that more easily than any other font. In fact. Courier has been the staple of editors in publishing houses anywhere from short stories to epic novels. Times New Roman is getting to the levels of "acceptable" but that's mostly all that is allowed or else you're unprofessional and don't understand the industry.


I forgot, regarding editing/writing screenplays themselves in other ways. There's Fountain http://fountain.io/ but it's still not widespread.


>Looks like screenplays are heavily afflicted by a cult of doing it the hard way.

Because programmers, especially on the UNIX world, are known to be so much more forward looking and having it the "easy way"?

https://gist.github.com/cookrn/4015437

>Nothing in that article supports the assertion that screenplays have a different concept of versioning than software developers. Screenwriters just have a different preferred format for displaying diffs, a different convention for version numbering (but that's completely irrelevant to a tool like git), and a paper-saving way of handling insertions and removals, when printing out on paper (again, irrelevant to git).

So they have absolutely no use for Git, except as a lower-level versioning engine in the backend, with all the actual results and presentation layer reformatted into screenplay-specific views. So why should they care for Git specifically over any other engine that provides the latter out of the box?


> So why should they care for Git specifically over any other engine that provides the latter out of the box?

Is that question actually meant for me? I made no suggestion that git should be used to replace any existing software in the screenwriting profession. I merely used it as a canonical example of a software development version control system, to refute the statement that "It's not versioning like you would find in software development." There's nothing fundamentally different about the revision tracking done for screenplays than for software; git's inadequacies for the task aren't in the core functionality but in the window dressings, which most software developers also complain about.


> I wonder how long until this whole system gets replaced by tablets that always automatically show the latest revision, without requiring the use of esoteric paper colors.

Do they also not run out of batteries when you're filming in the middle of a desert at night?


Did I miss the part where the paper scripts are printed with radium ink?


No. But you did miss the part where paper doesn't have batteries.


But the flashlights or other light sources needed for the posited filming in the middle of a desert at night do need batteries every bit as much as a tablet would.


I'm praying you're a troll. But if you're not, your flippant dismissal of thousands of man hours of experience in an industry in which you have no experience lead me to believe that I really hope I don't depend on any systems you've ever touched.

This is the first thread I've ever commented on for HN, mostly because I'm usually out of my depth. This one, I'm actually an expert on. This will also be my last comment here, mostly because I expected more than your bristling, reactionary, unobservant level of discourse.

All the best. I hope you find the peace you're looking for, and that it's not through arguments on the internet.


They need lights for filming. That's a given. But once they have lights for filming, they have the light they need to read scripts. But light isn't enough for tablets, they all need to be independently charged, or you they do nothing. That's a huge knock against their usability.


That is an amazing link, thank you. I particularly like the very specific sequence of paper colors used to indicate the revision number, followed by a note that because everyone needs to use white paper for practical reasons, they just print the color name at the top.


There's a bunch of things like that in production! Most, if not all, were learned the hard way.

For example, camera cards and offloading them into a computer. There's a specific sequence which reveals where people got burned on each step.

This is what you do with Alexa for example. You get an unlocked card from assistant which you put into the camera. You go to either quick erase or full erase (format) on camera and then you have to press two buttons simultaneously on camera to OK the erase, like launching nukes. Then you get some red gaffer tape and write down the cards number (A016 for example) and tape it OVER the flapping gate cover of the card on the camera. Once you're done with the card, it's full or whatever, you take it out, lock the writing lock on it, put it in its plastic sleeve and tape shut that sleeve with that piece of red tape with number on it. If no sleeve, tape goes over the card. Then you give the card to your assistant or DIT or whoever is in charge of offloading on your set. He offloads the card, removes the tape, releases the lock and gives it back to you as ready to use. There are multiple cards like that in circulation at any given time.


>What features to writers need that git couldn't provide?

Ease of use, for one.


Roughly the same reason programmers tend to like IDEs. There are a lot of conventions around alignment, spacing, capitalization, and probably others that need to be respected in a screenplay. Specialized software makes it easier.


Keeps the format consistent, yes. Also, word completion for characters, scenes, and other conventions (INT./EXT., DAY/NIGHT/... for slugs). Also, probably the most important reason, it gives you consistent numbering and revision system. This is important when doing a production breakdown. think of it as a reporting tool. There's reporting as well. How many action there is vs dialogue, how many characters and which in a scene or script, which scenes, which props per scene (not every tool does that), etc. Some of these reports are done externally in apps like MMS6 or Gorilla.

You could, and people do, write screenplay in Word or whatever. Trouble arises later when you need to go through revisions and work with other people that work in those production-oriented apps. For that reason alone it's better to do it all in a specialised app.


Seems almost like you could use an IDE with a couple specialized plugins...




Yes, if for some perverse reason you wanted to adopt something that's designed for something else first and foremost (development in the case of an IDE), and are able to tolerate all the non-task-specific functionality that results from that.

Not to mention that lots of popular IDEs are written in unnecessarily wasteful/slow environments (Eclipse and Idea which use Java, etc).


I'm not sure why you seem to think script development is entirely distinct from software development. Perhaps you have some insight into this that I don't, but while there are some obvious differences, I'm willing to bet that a good IDE that's general purpose enough to work for both a lisp and static language and support refactoring and syntax highlighting and interface with external programs like source control would support quite a bit of what's needed already.

As for implementation language, I'm not sure java is significantly slower in the case of the project size we are talking about here.


I know scripts rely heavily on centering and right alignment. I'm guessing that's not the only way they depend on the assumption of being printed. There would be some impedance mismatch in using tools designd for plain text.


You could write in Fountain syntax http://fountain.io/ and have the presentation be printed as intended. I actually tried that once or twice (short commercial form) in Vim and I didn't have any issues.


Any feedback on how well Amazon's SaaS solution for screenwriting [0] works as a replacement for the ever-present Final Draft?

[0] https://storywriter.amazon.com


Follow-up question to this, why are scripts monospaced in the first place? It is just a historical convention at this point, because they used to be done on typewriters? Or is this just a simple way to handle alignment?

I find dialogue in variable width font easier to read, so I'm wondering if there's really some compelling reason why monospaced is better.


Yes. Initially, it was a relic from the typewriter days, and the tabbing and indentation was developed to allow each of the affiliated tradespeople involved in the project to do their jobs effectively. But now, it has its own reasons.

One page in a standard format screenplay translates into roughly one minute of screentime. There are exceptions to this rule, but the first thing someone in the business does when they get a new script is check the last page number.

Further, when a screenplay goes into production, the work for the day is organized into eighths of a page, which is used as a shorthand for how long each piece of work is going to take.

So while changing the tabulation and type spacing might make a screenplay more readable, it would make it much much less produceable. At the end of the day, a screenplay isn't meant to be read, and the formatting reflects that.


Technically, it's eight eights that are one minute of screen time - WHEN you keep dialogue to ~three lines per spoken part and you write only what you see.

In general though, if format isn't what it is you wouldn't be able to gauge how long a script lasts and you wouldn't be able to break it down for production easily.


True, but if we're getting really technical, the script supervisor gets to decide what an eighth is, so a decent scripty will keep it shockingly consistent. Another quirk, for sure, but when you see the breakdown and it lists 120 pages worth of scenes on a 114 page script, it actually makes sense.


Same reason that everyone is in love with LaTeX which seems needlessly overly-complicated.


I find it interesting that the author also mentioned pieces of scrap paper and that some pencil-on-paper have been chosen as illustration for this post: I regret to always conceive things on my computer, because I know that there are special things in the creative process that are easier to drop on a piece of paper than on a file.

But for the final presentation as these codified movie scripts, you better produce something very clear.


In addition to the other replies, Final Draft gives you "industry standard" formatting; and easy file interchange within the industry.


I bought Fade In, which is compatible with Final Draft, and much cheaper. Works on all platforms.

http://www.fadeinpro.com/


My first thought was /^H\documentclass{screenplay}

Edit: fixing my solidus direction.


you mean \documentclass{screenplay} :P


Oops


Replied to a sub-comment below, reposting... any feedback on how well Amazon's SaaS solution for screenwriting [0] works as a replacement for Final Draft?

[0] https://storywriter.amazon.com


I don't have time to check it out right now, as the current project is income-generating, but I'm curious to check it out. On the face of it, it looks like a decent (albeit very simple) screenwriting tool that would be perfect for the amateur or writer/director/producer. One of the things I like about FD is that, as a contract writer, I can define elements (some shows or producers like to format sounds or chyrons or character introductions or whatever) a certain way, so I can write in a manner expedient to me and change the formatting to fit the requirements. This doesn't seem to have that capability, but I could be wrong. It certainly seems like it will get you 90% of the way there, though. I'm guessing they developed this in-house to coincide with their submission system for original content so they can standardize submissions and generate heuristics like wtallis is talking about above.


Why would you need image embedding in screenwriting software? Scrivener would be for prototyping like that.

My primary problem with FD is no support for UTF at all. Real fun writing in other languages. Sometimes even impossible. Fade In saves the day.


> Why would you need image embedding in screenwriting software?

For the reason noted in TFA.


That's one special case and he mentioned he wouldn't do it again.

Will I ever use this method in another screenplay? Maybe not.

There are tools to do that differently. Often times, I need to 'decorate' a screenplay (TV) with drawings for producers and as a selling tool. It's like an illustrated screenplay. I do it in... Word. Of all things. It's not a production screenplay, so a simple copy/paste between two applications works best. Paste Courier 12pt text into Word, style it a bit and embed images. Done.

If you want to have pictures follow your text, do it in Word or Scrivener (better). Scripts have a certain layout and rules which are there for a reason(s). Reasons which are important.


I'm surprised he didn't discuss his decision to turn it into a time-travel story. That's a major alteration to the plot and meaning of the story, and I'm curious when, why, and how that was made. Did he make it right from the start when he realized that he'd never be able to explain the stuff about the least-time principle and Sapir-Whorf and whatnot, or did he try and fail, or did someone else make him or what?


I never thought "Story of Your Life" was an alien contact story. Well, I mean, it is. I definitely did not see that as the point of the story, though, but rather as a tool to tell the actual story. In that light, the change to the alien contact plotline in the movie maybe isn't such a big deal. I was happy to see that they'd preserved what I thought was the essence of story.


Of course Story of Your Life is not an alien contact story. I think what gwern is saying is not that the film turned an alien contact story to a time travel story, but the film turned a story with no time travel to a story with time travel.

Story is very careful that it is just a very different (alien) perspective of mundane (no time travel) happenings. I haven't seen the film yet, but by all accounts it includes events requiring time travel (or retrocausation), which is definitely not the case in the story.


I wouldn't describe the movie as involving time travel, but you could make a case that it involves retrocausation. That's definitely different than the story, and I don't really regard it as an improvement. I thought the movie was pretty good anyway, and I think it would have been hard to make a more faithful adaptation of the story. I'm happy they did as good a job as they did.


I haven't read the story, but frankly for me (just watched the movie!) the time travel aspect was the weakest point. You could assume the 'non-linear language' just enhanced her predictive capability, but the scene with the Chinese breaks that possibility; and that ability seems way unbelievable anyway, even with science fiction suspension of disbelief. I'm not a fan of time travel/ftl in general with few exceptions.

I would be much happier if she just got incredibly smarter after the interactions. I can see so many plot possibilities arising from that.

(People start distrusting her; she starts feeling more intimate with the aliens then humans; etc)

It resembles many programmer's belief that there just may be a 'holy grail programming language', where translating abstract thoughts into working code gets much easier, and your thoughts themselves are shaped by the structure of this language.

It might be arguable that Turing-complete languages in general are the holy grail, allowing expression of any algorithm into code. But indeed our productivity has risen so much with modern languages compared to the very first Turing-complete languages that one does wonder how far from optimal-human-productivity our languages really are.

The same musings naturally apply for human language of course :)


You should read the story. All those other plot possibilities would be even more serious departures.

Also, the movie didn't bother to really explain this – though it made hints with the statement about how the heptapods see time, and Hannah's name being the same forwards as backwards, etc. – but there's no time-travel aspect specifically because there's no influencing going on at all. She doesn't cause anything to happen.


While I definitely agree, I do think the essence was a little muddled by the alien contact story when compared to the short story.


I read the story. I was disappointed since it implied that the aliens knew both past, present and future, while still having a deterministic existence in our universe. Therefore making our universe a specific timeline where everything aligned to make these creatures evolve along time without breaking causality. I have an aversion to both that, and breaking causality. The movie departs from the story, however it appears to keep these elements nonetheless.


I was a little disappointed that they left variational physics out of the movie (which meant that the physicist character was basically useless in the movie). I understand that that's a lot harder to make accessible than basic linguistics, but (spoilers) when they discovered that the aliens only knew time-independent variational physics, that was one of the biggest "whoa dude" moments in the book.


It was a little weird that a physicist spent the entire film doing linguistics.


It's remarkable how much better this movie was than the story it's based on [http://robertomunizdias.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Ted-C...]. In particular, the story has the main characters encounter their alien interlocutors almost without anxiety, or fear.

The first half of the movie, on the other hand, conveys the feeling of dread wonderfully.


The story is vastly better than the movie. The movie makes no sense. She's shown being able to act in the present on future information. This rips the heart out of the story. First, she is now morally responsible for her daughter's death, which wasn't the case in the story. More importantly, the ability to act in the present on future information is basicly a superpower. She could take over the world, win every lottery and invest that money into finding a cure for her kid's disease. Instead she lives her life exactly as if she wasn't able to act in the present on future information. In the story she experienced all her life simultaneously. She was't able to affect the timeline. She experienced every moment of her life after she learned Hexapod B simultaneously, but could no more change her future than you can change your past.


I think this is something that really worked well in the movie, but takes a little more consideration after watching it because the movie doesn't really stop to explain this part:

Heptapod communication, and later on Louise, is performative. Imagine that you're playing a part in a live theater. You've read the script. You know what's going to happen next. You have lines to say, and you say them. You choose to participate in the performance.

It's a really interesting resolution to the argument between free will and determinism.

In this case, we can infer that, even though Louise knew everything that would happen, including her daughter's disease, she chose to play her role anyway. She understood that it was just a smaller part of a much larger, pre-determined script, and she was content to be an actor in it at all.

For another example of this being hinted at in the movie, Abbott knew exactly the fate that awaited him. He could have avoided it, but didn't. That was his role.

It's a metaphysical argument that's deeply unsatisfying to a lot of people. For a lot of folks, free will means being able to force change as you see fit -- the Edge of Tomorrow position. But, for a minority of others, free will and determinism can coexist if you're willing to accept that just because things can be changed doesn't mean they should be. It's the ultimate form of stoicism.

(Also not addressed in the movie is the neat question of whether the heptapods' original decision to interact with humans for the sake of their own future is part of the script, or if it was an action they took outside of the script for their own sake.)


I disagree extremely strongly.

I thought a lot of the tone, which made the short story so good, was lost, probably due to the medium and the audience. It became much more of a sci-fi alien thriller than a commentary on mortality.

I found that, having read the short story, I enjoyed the movie less than those who had not read it.


I have not read the story yet, so I can't comment on that part. I completely agree about the first half of the movie and that feeling of dread. What brilliant tension!


Why does that make it better?


The story is mostly two paper characters exchanging exposition.


Did I black out or did the circle signature not make it into the movie? I remember the line about dreams and not being fit, but I don't remember seeing that image.


It didn't make it in the movie. The scene stopped after Louise saying "That doesn't make me unfit for the job".

I actually think the circle signature shouldn't have been cut because without it, I felt that the entire scene fell a bit flat.


OK, good. I totally agree. That line would have made a lot more sense, and helped clarify that section of the movie a lot had they left the signature in.


Fuck. I was really looking forward to seeing that.


The signature scene did not make it to the film I saw, and the whole scene where she writes unaided and which is explained afterwards was a bit lacking. It should have been a pivotal moment, but was too easy to miss the significance of it.

OFC my opinion.


Saw the film last night. If you blacked out, then so did I. (Or else we're already only remembering what the heptapods want us to...)

Like a lot of good sci fi I think this is one of those movies where I'd appreciate a Director's Cut or Extended Edition that includes obscure and technical and deep (read: nerdy) bits cut from wide release.


Huh, I remember reading a comment in this article, from the writer, to the effect that the circular signature didn't make it into the movie, making the blog post something of a director'a cut, but that comment isn't there now.


Stephen Wolfram worked on the language design (logograms) and wrote a lengthy post about it and making everything scientifically plausible - http://blog.stephenwolfram.com/2016/11/quick-how-might-the-a...


A side benefit of the movie was that it prompted me to read Ted Chiang's story again. The first time, I had skipped past the bit about Variational Calculus. Now, I'm intrigued by Fermat's Calculus of Variations. http://www.askamathematician.com/2011/08/q-why-does-light-ch...

I wonder: given that a Photon travels at the speed of light, then everything happens instantaneously, from its point of view. So, is choosing the path that takes the shortest time like a standing wave?


> So, is choosing the path that takes the shortest time like a standing wave?

Note that photons don't take the shortest path; they take a variationally stationary path (not necessarily the shortest one). My suspicion is that this is because all the possible photon states are coherent along and immediately nearby that path, whereas if the path is not variationally stationary then it interferes with nearby paths. I've done very little variationally physics, however, so take this with a grain of salt.


> My suspicion is that this is because all the possible photon states are coherent along and immediately nearby that path

Well, am new to the subject, so not sure what this means. Am curious if there is any relationship between Fermat's principle of least time (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermat's_principle) and Quantum FFTs (https://www.quora.com/How-does-Shors-algorithm-work-in-layma...)


My thought is that, on a variationally stationary path, all nearby paths are of the same length. So if you have a photon leaving a point along many possible paths, near the variationally stationary path the waveforms of the photon at each path will be lined up, interfering constructively. On the other hand, if the path is not variationally stationary, the waveform will drift out of phase on nearby paths (because they have different lengths) until the waves interfere with each other.

I don't know enough about quantum FFTs to know if there is an analogy. However, I'm taking Aaronson's class next semester so I'll be able to tell you in a few months ;)


I like because it gives due credit to Chiang. Painfully modest though he may be, this enterprise sprang out of his imagination.


Unlike The Martian, in case of which one likely wouldn't even know about Andy Weir if one hadn't heard of the book before.


I may get pounded for this, but I believe the implied request for image embedding in screenwriting software in this article is an example of a reasonable customer request that should not be implemented (or at least should not be implemented in the way the customer thinks they want).

Screenwriting software is ridiculously constrained. Margin sizes, line sizes, font sizes, font weights, everything, is ridiculously locked down. In the physical world, there were (are?) equally ridiculous constraints on things as minor as the binding of the scripts (which is to be done with brass "brads" [0]). It's absurd and absolutely intentional because it's what the real, ultimate customers of the screenwriting software want.

The real customers of the screenwriting software are the people who read and ultimately buy the scripts, and they want all these constraints in place. 99.99% of all screenplays never get bought, and 99.9999% of purchased screenplays never make it into theaters as a film [1]. In that sort of environment, the top goal of every screenplay buyer is to avoid wasting their time on screenplays that aren't worth reading.

If you send your genius script to people in Hollywood set in Helvetica or Gil Sans or whatever other font you favor, it will not get read. Period. That's an absolute deal killer for potential buyers. The reasons are a mix of process (constraining margins, font size, line spacing, font keening, etc. makes documents instantly comparable - look at the page count and you know the running time) and sociology (filmmaking is an incredibly complex and expensive multi-player art form with each project involving hundreds of people working together to build a product for millions or hundreds of millions of consumers, and the person considering buying your script wants to know do you understand how that works well enough for your idea to have a chance of surviving).

It's kind of like the way I put a footnote reference in my first paragraph starting with [0] instead of [1] or * the way the rest of the world would have if they wanted to put a footnote in plain text like this, it's an early visual cue that I might be a writer who gets how HN works. Ditto for the [1] footnote around the obviously made up, quantitatively inaccurate but qualitatively accurate stats on screenplays (the WGA does occasionally publish stats on the number of people who earn a "full time salary" writing screenplays and the numbers are amazingly depressingly small).

It doesn't matter how great your idea is, or how unique your personal creative vision is. If you put pictures in your screenplay, you are putting a giant HTML <blink> tag in your script that screams to every serious reader "My screenplay isn't worth your time to read, because I don't know what I'm doing." It's all well and good to be a special snowflake in your own mind, but if you want to be taken seriously in an incredibly sophisticated multi billion dollar industry where >99% of screenwriters never produce a script that gets produced, you distinguish yourself not by showing you know how to use blink tags but by showing you know how to grab people's hearts without them.

If you are a writer and you must have visuals, keep it to a single page, called a one sheet, with a single powerful evocative image on it to help the people you pitch to remember the concept for your story (and then try not to use or show it). Directors are buying your script, not your visuals.

When you're ready to produce and/or direct your own screenplay, then you can assemble your own visuals, but you still want to keep them out of the screenplay. Put them first in a mood board that conveys the feel of the story without the constraints of the script. Then put them in storyboards that convey the visual telling of the story at a high level (initially) to facilitate a deeper conversation with all the parties involved in the effort. Then produce a story reel, communicating the feel and pacing of the story. Or ditch them all and just make the film. The choice is yours if you are a producer/director but it's theirs if you are a writer. This is a big, complex, sophisticated industry you're working in. It's not always going to be optimized for you or your needs because it's optimized for the total needs of the set of all players in the industry.

All of which means please don't put images or blink tags in your screenplays and please don't put image embedding tools in your screenwriting software unless you want the people using your software to fail at their ultimate goal of having their screenplays made into actual films.

[0] https://www.writersstore.com/screenplay-fasteners/

[1] we'll come back to this in a moment


Impressive. You are technically correct, with respect to the current screenwriting requirements.

Unfortunately, you come across as highly antagonistic to a screenwriter (a) whose script was almost immediately made into a brilliant, popular film [73] and (b) whose story was foundationally about the way language affects our thinking.

Your main argument is that people's scripts will get rejected if they don't chain them into a box and use peculiar little brass fasteners to hold them together. This inclines me to believe that you've not yet actually seen "Arrival."

Sometimes I think a little change in the film industry would be productive, if it meant we'd get more movies like "Arrival," even if it means breaking rules, and fewer movies like "Captain America: Civil War," who follow the rules but composite dozens of mismatched absurdities and are basically mass-market children's cartoons.

[73] Common knowledge. By the way, championing your knowledge of "how HN works" WRT references just sounds self-congratulatory.


Thanks, I think, and I totally don't mean to come across as antagonistic towards the author - I loved his film, he faced huge challenges, and understood how to break the formatting norms slightly while staying within them to get a very exceptional project made. My concern was more that on a place like HN we'd have a dozen smart folks start googling screenwriting software, discover a few open source projects, and become convinced their path to success as app developers was to ship the first screenwriting software with image embedding support included. That seems like a great idea on the surface and it's only when you go deeper into the surrounding infrastructure that you discover why it might actually not be such a great idea as one edge case customer report might suggest.

The bit about the footnote styles was more to help HN readers who are not screenplay experts validate an example from their world where formatting styles communicate in-group vs out-group status, because as you point out "everyone" knows footnote counters start at 0 on HN.


Point about someone pursuing the project is fair. Worthwhile to note that discouraging people from doing things sometimes has the opposite effect :)


Which begs the question: Other countries have different paper formats which throws off the US constraints and still make movies. How does it work in the UK or continental europe?


It would have been a handy feature for this particular scriptwriter though, wouldn't it.


I enjoyed Story Of Your Life, will have to watch Arrival when it makes it onto a streaming service.


I would recommend you watch it in a theater (if it's still showing where you live), if only for the spectacular soundtrack.


I enjoyed the movie even more than the original short story "Story Of Your Life". Which is very rare. "Arrival" is not perfect, but very good.

A very good intro is also http://blog.stephenwolfram.com/2016/11/quick-how-might-the-a... by Stephen Wolfram who helped with some science parts on the movie.

My short review: https://letterboxd.com/rurban/film/arrival-2016/1/


Thanks for the link. Mentioned elsewhere that Wolfram's software was used live in filming to analyze the semagraphs. But, I missed the Wolfram blog post. Am going to see the movie again particularly for that sequence (plus the Jóhann Jóhannsson soundtrack floors me).


There was a HN discussion of that blog post, as well: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12940364

Also I'll chime in about the soundtrack; I loved it. Lucky me Google Play Music has it - it says I've listened to it about 9-10 times through so far.


It's an interesting "interpretation" of the short story, but it trades a lot of the beautiful ideas for a more generic alien contact story, though the core plot remains the same.

I said it in another comment, but I seemed to enjoy the movie less because I had read the short story.


Great article on perverance and prototying, getting feedback and knowing how to challenge conventional processes.


This was not a good movie or story, so I don't care.


You care enough to make a dismissive unsubstantive comment. Do you have specific critiques of the movie or story that might contribute to the discussion? I've heard a lot of positive comments. I'd like to hear a constructive dissenting view.


[Warning: Spoiler] The most direct criticism I have is that it's a slightly modified Contact with Interstellar's visual style and time-travel plot twist.


Thanks. Lots of stories are mash-ups or retellings. Sometimes a great production of a classic, well-known tale is a critical success. Is your criticism that it's not wholly original? Did you enjoy the film?


[Spoilers for Arrival, Contact, and Interstellar]

Forget aliens for a moment. Contact is a retelling of one of the oldest stories on record: the plight of the faithful. (Wo)man encounters awe-inspring supernatural force, tells the world but can't prove it, gets dismissed as a fraud/crazy, but goes on knowing in her heart that her experience was real. The rest is implementation details.

Putting a scientist in the role of prophet, and getting buy-in from science-y, atheist audiences by using aliens instead of God (you don't know that they're a God metaphor until you're on Jodie Foster's side), are precisely the kinds of intentional inversions that make adaptations of classic tales great. Present the message differently, using different tools, to appeal to different people in different ways.

In theater, Anais Mitchell's Hadestown takes Orpehus and Eurydice, sets it in 20s Appalachia, and expands a story about a hero into a story about the industrialized world: Orpheus and Eruydice's light, playful hearts are nature and beauty and song, while Hades is heavy industry, the coal mines, the Man, the capitalist machine. Also gives it some awesome music.

Sarah Ruhl's feminist Eurydice, from the same myth, subverts a story of a man's heroics in (trying to) rescue his damsel in distress, and transfers the agency to the damsel. These are both, in my mind, highly successful retellings.

Interstellar certainly has components that you'll find elsewhere - what story doesn't? - but none of them that I can place are a huge part of its identity. I wouldn't classify it as a retelling.

Arrival directly copies the setup of Contact: aliens make contact, we ingeniously decode their communication, the message is a blueprint/schematic for something that might be a weapon. Then it concatenates on the ending of Interstellar: time is non-linear, it can be transcended by the power of (love|language). It is neither faithful to nor a clever inversion of either story. It just takes half a plot from one movie, half a plot from another, and puts a different bridge in between them.

I had a good time in the theater, I'd probably see it again, I just don't have as much respect for the story as I did for either Contact or Interstellar individually. The linguistics were an interesting value add, just not that powerful.


Manipulative use of a dead child as backstory to build character. Lack of science in general, merely spectacle and CGI. Overly emotional melodrama instead of a real story. Is that good enough for you?




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